My high school art teacher was famous for smelling of marijuana after returning from lunch. Less known, was that as a young man he appeared in a Western Classic. I don’t remember the title of the movie. In the story I heard, he was cast as an extra but they liked him so much they gave him a speaking line. I don’t know what he supposedly said. But it was rumored he ably played the role of drunken gunslinger in a bar fight scene. However my favorite thing about Mr. Wes, which I came to appreciate in college, was that he was never distracted in his quest to teach artistic technique.
My guidance counselor said he was one of the “good old boys.” She figured him for a fool who roamed the halls overcompensating with machismo and bullshit. She was after all, the co-architect of the Senior Women’s Studies class. She’d informed me Mr. Wes went to college on a rodeo scholarship “–if you can believe such a thing exists.” But my recalcitrant counselor never went near the art room. If she did she would’ve been forced to reconsider her preconceived notions about good old boys.
Robot comics and Calvin & Hobbs knockoffs hung in various states of development throughout the art room. Mineral spirits tainted our nostrils as we labored behind paint-splattered easels. Just like pasty mounds of clay, we were works in progress. We hadn’t found our group yet. Some of us never would. Cigarette smokers, stutterers and late bloomers worked side-by-side. Mr. Wes moved freely, dispensing technical expertise and complements.
He left the art studio open at lunchtime for acne-riddled outcasts who preferred to eat in safety. I was all bones and hard angles. My time in the hall was mired by paranoia. A few guys who lurked behind locker doors were bent on the ruination of my day. So I brown-bagged it to the Art Room until I started to grow vertically and socially my sophomore year.
Among the regulars was Cynthia who had one iris that was both brown and blue. She controlled the radio. The Cure was a staple but sometimes she played the Pixies. Her not-exactly-boyfriend Brandon wore a buckled leather jacket that filled the room with clove cigarette stench. His fingernails were often black, sometimes pink. He was the polar opposite of Mr. Wes. Like my guidance counselor, Brandon labeled him a narrow-minded good old boy. And to prove his point he decided to enrage the Wrangler-wearing art teacher.
“I going to paint Jesus on the cross,” he decided “–with tits.”
His not-exactly-girlfriend barely looked from her watercolors. “Okay, whatever,” she dismissed. Cynthia had a rapport with our teacher. “Do you think Mr. Wes will mind if I burn some incense?”
“I hope so,” Brandon laughed.
A few days later Mr. Wes was guiding Cynthia through the intricacies of creating a believable interplay of light and shadow on a complex subject. “I want the elf princess to glow atop her Pegasus,” she implored with mismatched orbs. “I also want her axe to glimmer in the moonlight.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I suggest a subtle shade of blue fading into yellow.”
That’s when the budding John Bender unsheathed his mammary-laden deity. Brandon had kept it carefully hidden in a leather portfolio full of ideas for future tattoos. It struck me that this was the first work he’d presented in class.
“What’s that?” Mr. Wes pointed.
“Jesus,” snickered Brandon.
“With breasts,” added almost-girlfriend Cynthia.
The young man waited.
Mr. Wes carefully took up the panel, “Do you mind?”
“By all means,” Brandon gestured.
I saw it from the side. The image was lurid. It was startling. I felt somehow guilty but didn’t know why. The juxtaposed genitalia seemed moist. The feminine Christ-figure was as much harpooned as nailed to an Egyptian ankh cross. His/her face was anguished yet somehow playful. It was the perfect storm of taboos to derail a public school teacher’s tenure in 1992 –a religious, sexually ambiguous and tortured cacophony of civil suits.
It was also, according to Mr. Wes, “as well done as any figure painting I’ve seen from a high school student.”
What Brandon failed to realize was that Mr. Wes didn’t teach expression. He left that up to his students. What he facilitated was the technical. And if you could do that, than the rest was up to you. “I want to submit this to the district show if that’s okay,” he said. The crestfallen Goth suddenly looked as happy as I’d ever seen him. Meaning that Brandon was still smirking, but a little less so.
“Really,” he gushed. “But what about the subject matter?”
“I’ll support you on it all the way,” Mr. Wes replied.
In college I was unable to find solace beneath the corrugated roofs of the old redbrick art buildings. Large factory-style windows cast my peers in their true light. Unlike myself, whose upper lip was shaded by splotches of black wisps, they were beautiful urbane people. For the first time I found myself surrounded by those considered cool. The type of people I imagined Brandon evolved into after fleeing the confines of suburbia. Now he is probably a conceptual ribbon-artist referred to at cocktail parties as “so interesting.”
And like Brandon, it seemed my new peers had genitals on the mind.
At the first sign of snow unseen art students assembled in the night to roll up a snow dick in the quad. The following morning I watched a sleepy collegiate procession pass the phallus in route to Chem. 140. I decided that it wasn’t so much artistic expression as it was a humorous offering to the future engineers of America. But soon it was apparent this wasn’t a prank. The same mysterious unit appeared after every snow. Once giggling passersby seemed to adopt the mantra, “once you’ve seen one half-melted snow dong, you’ve seen them all.”
My first two art classes (drawing and painting) began with the same ubiquitous question asked by every intrepid grad-student instructor.
“What is art?”
This question is asked dramatically. As if this was somehow the penultimate philosophical conundrum of our time. After two decades I know it is simply a boilerplate example of a who-gives-a-shit question. It is something people are asked at formal introductions. Almost as irrelevant to future work as, “where do you see yourself in five years?” And so it was as an art major that I began to ask myself the question “why am I studying art?”
My drawing teacher was in fact an installation artist. He filled white-walled rooms with sand, river rocks, and occasionally shrubs. This differed from a Japanese garden because it was “indoors, obviously.” His personal style managed to find the rare middle ground between white-person-with-dreadlocks and turtleneck coffeehouse raconteur. “I’ll ask that you truly ponder this question,” he gesticulated “WHAT is art?”
Beautifully tattooed skaters and long-haired girls with longer leather boots spoke in turn.
“The product of one’s expression in artistic form.”
“A thing created that expresses one’s desire to express-–in artistic form.”
And lastly, “To have expressed from self.”
I was nervous in the presence of my confident peers. It was pushing October and these people were still tan. Their perfect complexions mulled over the question of the day with obvious care. It seemed they had an ability to mine their souls for profound answers. So when the instructor’s nod indicted it was time that I express my insights, I dredged my soul and came up empty.
“I’m waiting for you to tell us.”
Our teacher adjusted the dark paisley headscarf containing his auburn sprigs. Each tangle seemed to glare down on me like Medusa’s snakes hissing, smart-ass.
“The answer,” he scoffed “is free self expression.”
My painting teacher was also an installation artist. He was a pioneer in the barbed-wire medium. Not only did he have his biceps inked, he used actual barbed wire to spider-web darkened rooms wherein stood black tin shapes of vaguely human proportions. These intricate masterworks had names like “Redaction” “Vapid Banter” or “Blue Monday.” However on our first day of class, after asking the fated question, he decided to answer it for us.
“Art is something” his forefinger coiled against his chin, “an expression if you will” then he pointed it at us “–that you, and you, or even you can express freely.”
I never went back.
The next summer I enrolled in one last art class. I had promised myself no matter what occurred; I would express myself in a manner to improve my dwindling GPA. Summer Sculpture Studio held the promise of three credits in two months. And our teacher Sandra, to my delight and surprise, didn’t give a shit if we knew what art was. Instead of asking the question she raised a hastily bandaged hand. Oval-shaped copper stains soiled the gauze.
“If I can offer you guys any advice it is this,” she commented. “When your dog gets in a fight, break it up with kicks.”
A growl rumbled down a wrought iron staircase in the corner.
“Sage,” our instructor continued, “is half collie, yes like fucking Lassie, and half timber wolf. If somehow she gets out of my office, and she will, don’t make any loud noises. If you run she will catch you. If you hide she won’t trust you and she will smell you out and attack. But if you stand at your table and continue working like she isn’t in the room, she probably won’t hurt you.”
Raising her injured hand again Sandra laughed, “but you never know.”
Sandra was also an instillation artist. Her graduate project was a bare room featuring a large photo of a window looking out over a city skyline. Dozens of birds were suspended in the air, flying into the perceived glass like lemmings. Lifeless clumps of bloodied plumage were suspended mid-fall after their fatal collisions.
The piece was entitled “Genocide.”
That semester we worked on simple assignments. “Find any three items in this room and make a complete object,” Sandra ordered. Random junk was everywhere. I made a mushroom out of an empty slide canister, a bending vacuum hose, and a section of egg-crate bed cushioning. It didn’t stand on its own like a real mushroom and was therefore deemed “incomplete.” A senior accounting major, whose glasses never stayed put, formed his name “Arnold” using an old extension cord, staples and a backboard. He earned the criticism “prosaic.”
I was glad to have Arnold in class.
“What is that?” Sandra pointed.
“It’s a bifurcated –you know what,” a young woman with black-framed glasses replied. Candace had ripped a foam pool-tube in half and arranged a pair of Sage’s old tennis balls purposely at one end. It looked like somebody dropped his or her weekend bag on a dirty table. “Now that” Sandra declared, “says something.” The other eight or so students took note. Meanwhile I was beginning to lose sight of what had brought me into the art world in the first place.
I came from Mr. Wes’ school.
Therefore I felt that if you were taught technique, you could elicit an emotional response intentionally. By applying craft to any genre a trained artist could take a gallery-goer back to a solemn rainy night. When wandering outside the hotel after a failed business meeting led to getting lost in the crooked little streets of the East Village. Then, after stopping in a hideaway café, they found themselves sipping cappuccino next to that actress with black hair –she was in that one movie, remember?
“It’s a tube and tennis balls on a table,” I couldn’t prevent myself from blubbering of Candace’s efforts.
“In art class,” Arnold suggested, “we should try to use our imaginations.”
To display our work we arranged our sculptures on whiteboards affixed to exposed brick walls. All of my attempts were disappointments. My limp mushroom earned a D. Then I mistakenly interpreted “complete human organ” to mean internal organ. The “clichéd heart” earned another D –which was fair. But then I failed completely. Instead of a “complete statement on the current human condition” I turned a TV into a caped superhero with flashlight eyes.
“But what does it say?”
The answer it turned out was that I lacked imagination.
My best effort had been a set of contorted three-dimensional shapes made of six-foot mailing tubes that looked like bent pipes. It was supposed to be a complete statement of linear space. It was so dysfunctional I said it was a theoretical link between plumbing and madness.
My classmates said it was empty.
Sandra corrected, “I would go with hollow-–and incomplete.”
“Right, of course” it was agreed.
“I would give it a C,” Arnold commented.
Our final was to create a “whole body part.” I spent what little money I had at the McGuckin’s Hardware. Using cables, pulleys and metal tubes of differing circumferences I created a functional forearm and hand. It could be manipulated by pulling the cables to wave, hold a pen, or give my roommate the finger. But I knew it didn’t say anything on a deeper level. It was an attempt to represent what it was, literally. In hindsight I might have said, “it’s a circumcised masturbatory devise.”
It sat limply on my lap the last day of class during critique. My peers lofted aphorisms using artist’s names I didn’t know to express their expression.
“That’s just so, I don’t want to say it Clare…”
“What Candace? You can say anything. Express what you were going to say?”
“It’s got a feel,” Candace chuckled. “Maybe like this is a vaguely circumspect Botelo-type piece? You guys know what I mean?”
“Really?” Clare held tears.
“Thank you so much Arnold.”
“What inspired you?” Sandra pondered.
“When I started, I just felt cactus. But then I thought this really doesn’t express the work. You know?”
“So then you added nipples,” Sandra nodded. “Outstanding.”
Simone had long wavy black hair and black knee-high boots. Her real name was Sara, but she expressed herself as Simone. She molded various parts of her body in chocolate. The evening before, Arnold had drawn an outline of her naked body on the wall. She hung dried candy clumps from ribbons on the appropriate places. Her face was represented by a glob of hard candy. She taped twisted cigars on the outstretched hands for fingers then used crudely predominant nipples on fried-egg shaped areolas as breasts. Finally she tacked an oblong lump in the middle. Its surface was wavy and the heavy chocolate drooped from red yarn like a tree ornament.
“That’s my pubic region,” she said proudly.
Arnold nudged me, “I got to help make the casts.”
I hated Arnold deeply.
In critique I simply commented, “I thought were supposed to make a body part?”
“I think by now you should be thinking in complete terms,” Sandra replied.
I hated Sandra deeply.
As the day continued chocolate-Simone left brown streaks down the wall. Her vitals slumped down to the floor. Sage scratched at the doorknob in Sandra’s office upstairs. When the terrible beast came charging and claimed Simone’s pubis with a snarl, Sandra cried out “Bad dog! Don’t. You. Touch it!”
Critique was interrupted for several minutes while Sandra chased after Sage screaming,
“Its toxic to dogs!”
The last presentation was outside. Arnold carefully explained that accounting was not his passion. He had never taken chances. His future would to be spent in cubicles. Sighs of profound empathy from his classmates resounded. “Poor Arnold. He’s such good soul; why has the world doomed this poor young man so?” It was agreed. Arnold’s collegiate salvo, his summer of expression, had finally come to an end. Apparently I was alone in wondering why he was wearing nothing but his underwear.
Arnold glared over his glasses.
“Why?” I laughed.
“He’s trying to say something?” Sandra snapped.
“What?” I pled, “What does standing outside in your underwear say?”
Arnold scratched at his belly hair while my assembled peers rallied behind Sandra. I knew what they wanted to say. If anybody deserves to be an accountant it’s you. “It’s self-expression. How could you possibly understand what comes from inside Arnold?”
“So his final project is himself?”
“No,” Arnold laughed. “Behold.”
Arnold snatched a tarp from the ground I’d thought was covering exposed irrigation pipes. Instead lay a mound of hand-squeezed peach, violet, and blue colored candle wax. Flesh tubes and crevices arched in and out of each other in a way that still makes spaghetti unpleasant. There were aspects of it that reminded me of a slaughterhouse and a pornography wax museum. But the monstrosity was purposeful. I didn’t need to know tufts of hair intermittently sprouting from intimate nooks were “authentic.”
It was by far the best piece that semester.
My forearm was never formally critiqued. As we were leaving Sandra casually noted, “It has some interesting things to say about man and machine but you must be honest about the distractions of sex.” I already knew art school wasn’t for me. So I decided to ask with all sincerity, “what the hell does that even mean?”
“In art,” she sighed, “sometimes you have to figure it out on your own.”
Patrick has been published by Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Buffalo Almanac, and Praxis Magazine. His work can be found at www.ploveart.com.