Thursday, May 22, 2008

Joy of Joys

Oh joy of joys! Oh sweet delight!

It's teacher appreciation week and yesterday I came in to a lovely card and a gift certificate to the local art supply store! Red rubber blocks, here I come! (See previous post.)

This has been such a nice week. Want to hear a funny story on me? Last week I was under the impression it was teacher appreciation, so I took all our teachers their gifts. (See the fresco pictures in my last post for the gift to our fourth grade teacher. I gave him the cross fresco I made for his classroom.) But on Friday at the end of the day I still had not even had anyone tell me "Happy appreciation week." I was so bummed out. I kept telling myself that it didn't matter, but you know those two little voices? The other one kept saying things like "Well, you're so strict and mean with those 7th and 8th graders--they don't like you. Why would they appreciate you? You give TESTS in ART! I mean what kind of art teacher does that?!" Well, I do. I want to make sure they're listening and learning.

Well, by the time my poor husband came home I was checked out on the couch playing video games, trying not to cry between planets. Then it all came spewing out. It really showed me the condition of my heart and it came up wanting. I don't teach so that everyone can tell me what a great job--well good job--okay any kind of praise is nice--I do. I teach to help the school, to encourage budding artists, to expose the kids to an element of our created being in God's image (the creativity), to share what I've learned and the side benefits include growing my own skills, being around children that I enjoy and love and promoting art in as many forms as possible. But last Friday it didn't feel that way, until after I let go of all the selfishness. Heart check.

Then I went in the kitchen and as I was cleaning it up something kept niggling the edge of my brain. Something about a letter I'd received asking for help with appreciating my son's teacher. Something about the 19th of May. It didn't take long for me to dig up the letter and yes, it did say something about the 19th of May. It said that was the beginning of, yes, you guessed it--teacher appreciation week. What else could I do but laugh at my own foolishness? I am such an idiot.

So between feeling really foolish and getting a close up view of the state of my heart lately, this week has been humbling. I've received three gifts this week, each one very thoughtful, and each one has reminded me that I'm not that deserving. I don't teach to receive glory, but that is what I was wanting. I am humbled and that is how God wants me, but He loves me even when I mess up--I really like that part. Even when my heart is not where He wants it, He still sacrificed for me and He doesn't lose His sheep. If you're not one of His sheep and have questions, please send me a comment/message--I'd love to share with you. If you are one of His sheep--that's really the Joy of Joys and the Sweetest Delight--don't you think!


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Out of disaster, or, it all began with an eraser

Our fourth grade spends their year studying the Middle Ages through the Reformation for their history section. Since I try to plan my art lessons around their history when I can, fourth grade has been an awesome art year. We looked at some art history, we made some frescoes, we studied cathedral and castle architecture, we designed illuminated letters and we played with calligraphy. We learned about concepts like simultaneous narrative, and how to understand it in a painting, and how still lifes became popular. We looked at some popular subject matter and tried it for ourselves with St. George and the dragon. And when we came to Gutenberg we tried our hand at printing.

From which came one of our few art disasters this year. In third grade it was carving plaster; in fourth grade it was woodblock printing. Don't get me wrong--we learn through our less-than-perfect results. Even the masters had disasters--just look at Leondardo's The Last Supper fresco, which was already deteriorating during his own lifetime because he experimented with oil in the fresco (Bad choice there!). Not every art project is going to come out perfect, no matter how well you plan.

And I did quite a bit of planning with the woodblock printing project. My kindergartener proved that the wood blocks could be indented with a ball point, but the fourth-graders did not prove so hardy, and my own acrylics turned out to be much thicker than the school's tempera. Which equalled disastrous results. C'est la vie.

However, since the printed pages were meant to be part of our Book of Hours project, it was hard for me to let go. With so few pages already going in the book, having one more missing felt extra-discouraging. Enter the grand idea. You know about grand ideas, don't you? The ones that seem so good when they enter the brain; so right that how could anything go wrong? I would just carve my own woodblock and make prints for the kids.

Okay, have you ever carved a woodblock? They don't go real fast. The weeks--no more like months--it would take stretched out in my mind and I tried thinking of other solutions. Wait, a friend gave me a heat tool for Christmas. Surely burning would go faster. Nope! Exchanging a blade for fire was not a good thing.

Now that the year is rapidly coming to an end, it became crucial that I either find
a solution or abandon the project. But how to let go of Gutenberg when movable type changed the world?! (Don't you love hyperbole.) With only a few days left before we need to think about binding our books, I made the decision. The supple block of rubber that I've been hoarding would work just right. And in one night--from drawing to carved--it was done! Now I just have to print them.

If you've never tried carving out your own stamps, I highly recommend it. Being a person with way too many disparate supplies and far too many ideas, I had resisted the interest I felt whenever I read about people carving their own stamps. Earlier this year I gave in when I needed a small bird stamp for some inchies. Taking out an extra eraser I drew my little image and then made the first cut. My co-workers used to tease me about being the keeper of the knives (at every job one of my first requests was a box-knife--I mean have you ever tried cutting mat board with scissors?), and I guess there was more to it than I realized, because that first cut sealed the deal. My exacto blade went through the plastic so nicely. Three birds, two asterisks and one word later my eye fell on a pink pearl... I hate pink pearl erasers; they are the destroyers of too many pieces of art. Being of petroleum origin, when old the oils come to the surface and the unknowing art student puts them to paper and bam! Ruined! A nice oil stain in place of your graphite. So what better use for a pink pearl than life as a rubber stamp--depositing far more pleasant things on a piece of paper. Ha!

By now I've replaced the exacto with a small carving kit and had purchased a nice piece of rubber that was destined for a bunch of smaller stamps. Oh well, I guess I have to go back to the art store now. Please, don't cry for me--I can make the sacrifice! It is teacher appreciation week at our school, maybe I'll be blessed with a gift certificate. (Yesterday I was blessed with a set of beautiful markers--I can't wait for school to get out so I can play!)

But school isn't over yet, so I'd best get back to the world of art history and Gutenberg. Now, if I can just find the table underneath all this plaster and burlap, paper, fabric, markers...

Separate note: The extra photos are our frescoes. The Madonna image was done after a Byzantine image to show the kids what we were doing. However, they all made crosses, based after the cross fresco on the table underneath the Madonna. I made it in true fresco fashion, by mixing pigments into very watery plaster and painting them onto the wet plaster. Very interesting and intriguing process. Another medium I could get very distracted by.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Power of Great Art

Many years ago I spent a day at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the highlights of my day were seeing Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (blue man with a guitar) and Monet’s haystack series. But one moment from that day was more powerful than any piece of art and, for me, illustrates the power of art to speak across time, culture and societal barriers.

As I left one of the rooms a man stopped me. He was a large, burly man, who looked like he should be on a loud motorcycle somewhere or in a logging truck back home, rather than in an art museum, and I was very surprised when he asked me if I was a Christian. Not sure what was coming next, I said yes, then asked why he wanted to know. He led me over to a painting and told me it made him want to cry. Then he asked me why. Why would he want to cry?

Because he had just come face to face with Christ’s sacrifice, depicted by an artist who had painted it almost 350 years before. At 57-3/4 x 87-1/16 inches, Guercino’s The Entombment is a imposing painting showing the placing of Christ’s body into a stone sepulchre. Baroque art is marked by strong lighting and drama, and this painting is no different: Mary stands behind Christ’s body, weeping. The strong emotions of the painting greatly affected the man talking to me, and he wanted to know why he couldn’t just walk away from the image. Why did it affect him so greatly? I know we talked about the sacrifice Jesus made for us, but I really don’t remember everything we talked about. But I do know that his visit to the museum that day probably changed the rest of his life.

Such is the power of great art. Notice that I didn’t say just “art”, or “all art”, but “great art”. Of course not even all great art is going to have such a profound effect on our lives as salvation, but great art does have the power to speak of eternal truths, including salvation. While the term masterpiece is frequently used to refer to an artist’s greatest accomplishments, it also refers to those pieces that have a voice beyond their own time. The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece because of Leonardo da Vinci’s technical skill in painting it. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is a masterpiece because it speaks to us of the desire for freedom that crosses class lines, which we can understand today as easily as the viewers who saw it during those turbulent times in France. (Indeed, they understood it so well that the painting was removed because from its original display because it was considered inflammatory.)

Art, like literature, transcends our own lives and moments in time, sometimes giving us insight that we don’t grasp in our daily tasks. For many centuries from antiquity on, art was primarily tied to the church and used to teach Bible stories and to impress the majesty of the Trinitarian God. During the Renaissance art changed, and subject matter was no longer exclusively religious, but still concerned with matters of the human condition. Unfortunately, many of us are no longer in a position to understand the stories or messages in these pieces of art because so much cultural literacy is lost; but while modern viewers may be stumped by many of the stories and symbols, contemporary viewers would have been familiar with all the references and understood the meanings. With a little understanding of these stories and of the symbols used, we can usually begin to grasp the deeper meanings of many pieces of art. For example, you can usually find Peter in paintings because he carries a key. Luke is many times accompanied by a bull and knowing why there is a bull in the middle of a painting, seemingly out of place, helps make the image less strange.

Last semester I asked my students which of the images we had looked at was their favorite and why. Two pieces stood out above the rest. One was a favorite because of the drama and high emotion of the scene (Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a historical event that several of them were familiar with), which was not a big surprise. The other favorite was a surprise to me, though. Albrecht Durer’s Knight, Death and the Devil is a complex engraving of a knight on horseback passing the figures of death and the devil. Students particularly liked how the knight did not show fear at the other two figures and pointed out that neither do we when we know Christ. They also pointed out the little dog, which represents faithfulness, trotting at the knight’s heels on his journey through life. None of this subject matter had been discussed in class; instead students had been given the tools and they understood the message on their own—a message that we encounter in many places in our spiritual walk, to be sure, but what a powerful visual put to an abstract truth. Such is the power of great art

I'm Back?

We've finally figured out the internet thing, but these last couple weeks of school are crammed. Soccer, grades, art history (from Romanticism to Modern), Renaissance day, still lifes and a Book of Hours will all keep me busy until the first week of June. C'est la vie! Once again I am expectant that life will slow down, but when I turn my scope of vision past the end of school I realize that I still have obligations to fulfill even unto the end of June. Was life always this full?

Sometime in the next few days I hope to post an article I wrote for our school newsletter a few weeks ago. I don't want to post it without the accompanying paintings or I'd just stick it up now. Stay tuned...

And yes, the snow here is finally gone! (Still some in the mountains yet.)