An Anecdote on Un-Stifling Creativity:
The Power of the Theoretical ‘Selfie,’ Pt 7
February 5, 2014
“Aren’t they stunning?” she asked as the gallery windowpane reflected our three images in the night. The artist’s brilliant, vibrant canvases always attracted my attention, and each time I would walk down Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, I would stop to visit them much as I would my favorite paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Pearl Street Mall, Boulder, CO
After sharing a brief, close analysis of the rain-drenched streets of New York captured on the canvas before us, she looked directly at me and asked, “You are an artist, aren’t you?”
“The School of Art Institute of Chicago seems to think so,” I laughed, adding that I was working on my Master’s degree in Art Education.
After congratulating me, she explained that she, too, was from Chicago and was an artist of sorts, a graphic designer who had attended art school years ago. One of her Boulder relatives was getting married, and like me, she and her companion always found themselves returning to the same gallery, rain or shine, to admire (and occasionally purchase) the canvases they offered.
“I can’t find paintings like this in Chicago,” she observed, adding that the pieces she encountered there were responses to theory that the artists had read rather than the other way around. “Artists should be shaping theory,” she posed, “not responding to it. It stifles their creativity.”
Admittedly, I had fallen into the same artistic rut. My admittance portfolio to the Institute had been a well-balanced nod to LGBTQ theory, a sprinkling of multiculturalism, with a cursory glance toward Bauhaus formalism: a perfect mirror of SAIC’s homepage. While there, everything I had created my first year—from pedagogical theory to art to photography—fit nicely into a niche that the professors had carved out for me. It took me 1200 miles distance from the classroom to realize I had lost my own artistic voice in my desire to incorporate SAIC’s fascination with Social Justice theory into my own work.
To be honest, it wasn’t my work at all. Somewhere along the fourteen-year path of creativity and analysis that I had travelled, I had lost my way.
The day I first met him he was so intimidating I mentally drew an imaginary rectangle on the chalkboard behind him, my way of fitting him within my own framework. I was an avid reader of anything I could grasp, ranging from classical literature to not-too trashy romance novels to mystery to action thriller. As he stood before us trying to initiate engagement in the Edith Wharton short story we had read together our first day in class, his vocabulary impressed me. I was familiar with many of the terms he brandished and was able to follow what had become a lecture rather than discussion because as freshman, we were all too afraid to speak.
Eventually, I warmed to the subject and set aside my fears, joining into what became a conversation between two friends with the jovial, humorous, easy exchange that would mark our professional and personal relationship we have nurtured over the past sixteen years.
Up to this point in my life, I had been a timid bookworm, infrequently contributing much to casual conversations for too many reasons to recount here. But he had engaged me. He had hooked me by appealing to my own personal experience, my love for books. Admittedly not all of us who shared the classroom shared my experience, but at one crucial moment, he drew us all into the fold.
We were a small class. No more than 12 of us huddled together to face “No-A-Conway.” After muddling our way through short stories (and receiving a “C” on my first exam, a personal conquest for me since I had miserably failed out of Bible College), the day we embarked into poetry, he came into class, and rather than assuming his predictable stance within my imaginary chalkboard rectangle, he bent over the desk and shook it as though testing its stability. Finding a wiggle, he tore a piece of paper from his yellow legal notepad, folded it into a small square, and slid it under the offending shorter, mal-adjusted table leg.
Rather than reaching for the lectern as he always did (a small transportable wooden box that he always had to set back upon the table since he was one of the few professors who still used one), he walked across the room and retrieved a chair instead.
I cringed inwardly, initially balking that he no longer would be contained within my chalkboard framework. As he sat, slightly hunched, slightly leaning with anticipation toward us and our collection of poetry, I followed his lead and began to relax as well, absorbing one of the most valuable pedagogical lessons I have ever learned.
Classroom management. It is one of the most difficult challenges of any educator’s job, not much different from adjusting a wobbly table. As he bent over in front of us checking the table’s stability (I can’t help but wonder if in his own mind he was alluding to Plato), he initially tried to fine-tune the screw attached to the caster, but found his adjustments didn’t provide the stability he needed. Rather than take the time to readjust all the other legs, though, he approached the task quickly and creatively adapting and adopting an old trick of the trade, one never mentioned in a user’s manual but found in diners across America: a hasty level constructed of the materials at hand. Bricolage at its very best in a classroom.
The first exam out of the way, and he had lived up to his stern reputation, assuring us that a “C” fell at the middle of the bell curve. I reminded myself that on a “C” was at the top of the hilly curve. If I pushed just a bit harder, I would be able to crest the hill and coast toward a lower point on the curve toward an “A.”
As he took his seat, stepping outside of my previously established framework, he began reading our first poem:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
His voice was deep, caressing, slightly lisping, slightly whispering the lines as though they were directed toward a lover’s ear.
We were all taken aback at the glimpse of the man behind the professor who had intimidated us for the past five weeks. His sensitive reading of St. Vincent Millay’s poetry became a prayer from which we could hear his own ghosts, real or imagined, echoing through her lines.
He waited for a response, his typical way of nurturing the effective, uncomfortable silence that prods a student to break with the sound of his or her own voice. After a protracted pause, one girl suggested, “I think she may be writing about lost lovers, but since women during that time were likely to get married young and remained devoted house wives, that can’t be what this poem is about.”
He had taught us to consider all aspects of a work; intended audience, nuances contained within a title, date of publication, literary or historical allusions. Since the poem was published in an epoch “before” our current period, the student had made the assumption that the hook-up culture enjoyed by post ‘60’s sexual revolution was a pleasure in which only our era indulged.
“No, she was a product of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ a time marked by illegal alcohol, marijuana, gambling and wonton sex. St. Vincent Millay is, indeed, writing wistfully of her long lost lovers, so many that she is unable to distinguish one from another,” I added.
He looked at us, first her, then me, and smiled. It was the first time he had graced us with his heretofore-masked mischievous grin. “You are both right,” he assured us, adding, “Never forget this: every work of art should be approached with a dirty mind. We are, after all, humans whose existence is dependent upon one thing: sex.”
Hook-up culture at its very best. He had hooked us, every last one, by appealing to all of us based upon our single shared experience.
At that moment, as he had stepped out from behind his protective academic pedestal, outside of the framing into which I had comfortingly placed him, he created the equivalent of a theoretical ‘Selfie.’ He showed me the value of inserting one’s “I” into every lesson.