Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Today, I treated myself to a visit to the High Museum here in Atlanta to take in the new exhibit titled Picasso to Warhol: 14 Modern Masters. Like all the exhibits on the special second floor space, this one didn’t disappoint. I didn’t like it as well as the Dali exhibit they put on last year; however, I think that was due to the different depth of each. Trying to cram fourteen artists into a space that served previously to feature one made the current exhibit feel a bit rapid—like a stone skipping across the lake rather than plunging in, which is what I prefer.

However, it was nice to see these fourteen men and women near one another; it was easy to see how one influenced the other or how one used his or her predecessor as a springboard into a new creative sphere. It was also a nice exhibit because it included multiple mediums–painting, photography, film, sculpture, collage, and many others. It was arranged chronologically by the artists’ ages, and it flowed beautifully from one mini collection to the next. Many of the sculptures were stationed on slightly raised platforms in the middle of their respective spaces, and that meant patrons could walk around them and take each in from multiple angles and perspectives. It was crowded but never felt that way due to the exceedingly well-designed layout and spacing between pieces.

The audio tour, which can be purchased for $6 ($4 if you’re a member!), is well worth the cost as it allows you to gain greater insight about several key paintings in the collection and enriches the experience as a whole. The High also created a pretty excellent app called ArtClix, which allows those who have downloaded it to snap pictures of paintings, access audio/video information about them, post those photos on social media sites, and interact with both museum staff and other patrons nearby via comments. It’s free, which is always nice, and it can also be used once you leave the museum.

I discovered several things about modern art and myself during the two and a half hours I spent touring the exhibit, first with my audio tour and then again with my iPhone as my guide.

1. With the exception of Nude Descending a Staircase, I really do not care for the work of Marcel Duchamp. Say “Shame on you!” if you want, but I toured the space featuring his work twice–very slowly–looking for something that spoke to me. I got bupkis.

2. I did discover that I have an affinity for Giorgio de Chirico, an artist about whom I knew very little about before today. The dream-like quality of each of his works is utterly compelling, and while he only painted everyday objects, the manner in which each is presented makes them seem totally foreign.

Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Enigma of a Day”

3. I have underrated the work of Jackson Pollock. Granted, it is not as technically masterful as Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt van Rijn, but there’s something more to it than squiggly lines and splashes of paint. Today, I learned that he didn’t paint on a canvas that had been stretched on and stapled to a frame. Instead, he laid it flat on the floor and walked around it do to his work using a method called Drip Painting. (As a result, he became known as Jack the Dripper in certain circles.) He said it made him feel more connected to the work because he could approach it from all sides, be on the same level as it so to speak. He would paint using sticks and other objects rather than simply paintbrushes and perform a sort of choreographed dance around the canvas, slinging paint according to his mood, and then repeating the process again with another color to create a multi-layered work that seems simple but becomes more interesting once you start looking at it and trying to trace the origin, source, and rhythm of that movement. In a way, the canvas is a map of that dance he did to create it. The creation (and creator) of it is still “alive” inside of it in a manner of speaking. You can even see his hand prints in the upper right hand corner.

Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A”

4. Museums might just be okay for kids…some of them at least. For this piece, there was an Artclix info page, a track on the adult audio tour, and a track on the family/kids audio tour. I listened to mine, stood there contemplating, and then noticed this cute little girl staring at Number 1A the same way I was. She was moving her arms, imitating Pollock’s movement as best I could tell, and she was really into it!

I’m not normally a fan of kids at museums. Often, they’re bored by the second painting, and the remainder of the time they’re there, they’re whining or trying to touch the art. Most curtain climbers who I’ve come into contact with don’t have a volume control on their voice boxes either. Museum rules be damned! They see no problem telling everyone around them, especially when they have to go to the bathroom (including which “number” they have to do of course) or what they think when they see a naked person. Generally, they ruin the artistic buzz of everyone else in the gallery until either their parents give up and take them home or they fall asleep in a sweaty heap on someone’s shoulder.

However, this little one made me re-evaluate my stance. She was obviously digging on what she saw, interacting with it in a way that I think Pollock would have enjoyed. She stood in front of that large canvas, braids flopping and boots thumping on the floor, and embraced it as best as her little arms and growing mind could. Simply put, she couldn’t get that same experience from simply reading about him in a textbook or from a photograph of the artwork. I’ll put up with the others who beg for juice boxes they can’t have in order to afford kids like her the opportunity to experience art as a young-un.

I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, but they really don’t do the moment justice. However, I hope you enjoy looking at them almost as much as I did taking them!

I knelt down to take this one and am glad that no one arrested me as a creeper. I’m pretty proud of how it came out considering my low tech camera and my lack of skill.
Taking it all in.
Channeling Pollock…
Yep, that’s life imitating art that’s imitating life!

Writing (No Longer) on the Wall

The last few blogs I’ve written have been about patience and trust, two things I desperately needed as I waited for word on my new job. I am happy to report that I received a call from In Touch Ministries last Thursday and that I will begin work as a copy/content editor for their company as of June 20, 2011! The timing could not have been more perfect, and I know for a fact that it is God’s will for my life that I take this position and move into the next phase of my life where I will use my talents and grow in my faith.

That is not to say that this transition has been without stress. Yes, I love the idea of never having to grade another essay or quiz ever again. I’ve been in the business of education for eleven years now, and my life has always been filled with papers, red ink, parent conferences, continuing education, lesson plans, tutoring, and all the other rigmarole that comes with that territory. I’ve worked hard to teach students not just to read and write but to think for themselves. I’ve tried to show them the value of reasoning and evaluating the world like they do the novels, poems, stories, and essays we’ve analyzed together in class. Some have come back and told me about how they sailed through college composition courses because of what we covered in high school; others have even taken the bold step and become English majors and English teachers themselves (despite my insistence that they choose something practical like engineering or business management!)

Granted, I was never the best English teacher; there were others who had been at it much longer than I and who had it down to an art form. After many years, I still struggled to find the best or most efficient way to teach a lesson, but I can honestly say that I tried each and every day to do my best and that I did grow and develop during my decade behind the big desk.

I am now moving into a new field, one that will allow me to continue using my ninja editing skills to their fullest, and I find the prospect both wildly exhilarating and utterly terrifying. After all, since graduating from Valdosta State University with my Bachelor’s Degree in English in 2001, I have been involved in the business of making someone somewhere smarter in some capacity. I’ve taught middle school, high school, and college classes in literature, language arts, theater, creative writing, music, and Bible. I’ve been a tutor, a student aide, and a manager of other teachers at a Sylvan Learning Center. I’ve been a teacher for so long that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever going to excel at anything else. It’s become so much a part of who I am that I’m afraid to let go of it.

No matter how much I want to do away with teaching MLA for the nine billionth time or grading another persuasive essay, I find myself holding on to them both. I think the reason why is because they’re “safe.” They are “known entities.” Yes, I’m tired of them, and I no longer fully enjoy the tasks themselves, but they have become the devils I know. I don’t have to worry if someone looks at me and says, “Hughes! Your task today is to teach students how to craft an introductory paragraph!” I could do that with my eyes sewn shut and my thumbs tied firmly to my big toes. No need to worry, and no stress involved.

Now, that all changes. I’ll no longer be the master chief on deck or the lieutenant colonel in the field. I’m back to private first class status with very few medals on my chest and a lot of unanswered questions in my head. No longer am I recent college graduate with a shiny framed diploma and a litany of excuses as to why I don’t know something. Instead, I’m thirty-three and making a jump into a new industry. I’m expected to know quite a bit, and I don’t know if I do just yet. I’m becoming a member of a large, well-established, and well-respected publishing house, one that has the high calling of spreading the Gospel around the world in order to create disciples. It takes some time to process to say the least.

I decided that in order to make myself feel a little less “teacherish,” a little less like my old self, I needed to do a Publisher’s Clearing House impression. I’m talking a total, full on freebie giveaway. In case you aren’t a teacher or know someone who is, teachers tend to be savers by nature. We enjoy finding ways to keep things in files, folders, drawers, or boxes just because we might one day find ourselves in need of them. Whether it be handouts, example student essays, a well-written editorial from the local newspaper, a comic strip that happens to make a literary joke, or a poster, teachers will poke things away like squirrels preparing for an eternal winter.

I gave away a few non-literary things when I left my high school job, and I even left my lesson plan notebooks for the teacher replacing me to use and copy for herself. (Naturally, I got those back first thing.) 🙂 However, I was going to another teaching job and was loath to loosen my grip upon my precious teaching materials.

Now, the job has nothing to do with education, and so many of the things I treasured have been rendered unnecessary. I am also moving into the city and must do what every good move dictates–perform a culling. I am aware that this is at odds with the teacher’s inborn need to save everything, but what can I say? I am a multifaceted creature.

I have learned the need for organization and efficiency through a lifetime of experience. Growing up, I moved a lot, usually every two years or so. As a result, I have a very low tolerance for clutter. If I didn’t want to put it in a box, lug it to the new place, put it back out, and then repeat the same action a scant two years later, I decided someone else could use it more than I, and off to Goodwill it went.

As you can see by the photo, the items I chose to give away first are the laminated posters I brought with me. These have decorated the walls of every classroom in which I’ve ever taught. They filled space, gave the room some color, and even helped the occasional astute student who thought to look at them during a poetry terminology quiz! I packed them up and toted them over to the learning support center where a crew of wonderful and able-bodied teachers serve as student tutors and editors for a portion of our student body. Their shared space is very bland as their budget is non-existent and teachers cannot often afford to shell out their hard-earned pennies for something as trivial as posters. They were thrilled to get them, and I was pleased to see that these things I’d purchased with my own classroom in mind can now be used in another to help further educate people I might never meet.

I know that shedding posters like a snake sheds its skin will not automatically transform me into a new person. That process requires time and focus as I test the waters of my new career and see where and when I excel. However, today I feel like I took the first step towards a fruitful and fulfilling change in my life. I’m truly looking forward to the new things I’ll learn, the new friends and contacts I’ll make, and the new things I’ll use to define myself with in the future.

Because Muffins Don’t Bitch

A co-worker and I once had a lengthy discussion about how wonderful it would be to own a bakery/coffee shop in a small town square, one where patrons came each day to get a cup of well-made joe and one or more of our homemade baked goods. In our version of the story, everyone was whistling, walking or driving to their own joyful place of business, or taking it easy on a lazy Saturday morning in our establishments, reading the paper (either in print or on their laptop…using our free WIFI access provided for customers of course!), and generally enjoying life. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? What could be better than doing something you enjoyed, something that made the lives of others more pleasurable, and then being home by 3:00 PM? After all, I could use that time to write, to participate in local theater, and to volunteer at church to help others. My time would always be spent doing something useful and that would, I’m sure, make the world a better, happier, and shinier place.

This thought was only strengthened and reinforced during a recent weekend trip to Memphis, Tennessee. Wayne and I chose to splurge and have breakfast both mornings there in a little cafe/diner known as Cockadoos rather than the cheaper and more pedestrian options like Denny’s or any analogous variations of it. While there, we gorged ourselves on chocolate chip pancakes, cathead biscuits and sausage gravy, a pulled pork omelette, sweet potato hash browns, and a Memphis special known as “The Shag”–an Elvis inspired dish made with two pieces of French toast filled with peanut butter and bananas and topped with whipped cream and blueberries.

I can’t imagine what kind of dietary seppuku I committed that weekend by beginning each day with the food there, but I didn’t care. (Granted the other places we frequented–Gus’ Fried Chicken, the Rendezvous, and the Peabody Hotel bakery among others–likely didn’t help either!) It tasted great, the service was fantastic, and we were able to mingle with locals and fellow visitors before our day began.

Just click on the link and look at the place; I dare you. From the decor to the food to the attitude, this is exactly the kind of place I’d like to own and run each day for both breakfast and lunch. Everyone there was happily working, eating, and talking, including the kitchen and wait staff!

Oh, and did I mention that the place was completely and utterly PACKED both mornings!? Really, I think they bordered on a fire hazard on Saturday because there were so many people sitting around waiting to eat or who were engaged in the act at a table or at the bar. The place is making money; it has to be. Imagine that!? They simply use their creativity and work ethic to create a pleasing place filled with quality food, and people reward them as we did–by becoming repeat customers and spreading the word to others. There’s something beautiful to that for someone in my situation. Their rewards are immediate and tangible after all. People pay them in cash and in praise for their efforts, and as long as the results are the same each time, that cycle of unmitigated awesomeness will continue to repeat itself into perpetuity.

The thought is positively intoxicating and leaves me high on a sugar and blueberry fueled endorphin rush each and every time I allow myself a moment to think about it. And that isn’t often. I liken it to a bright bird in a pet store left looking out the shop window at its fellow aviary friends happily eating birdseed under a park bench. Why think about something you can never have or torture yourself with dreams about life outside the bars that define your world? Paul Laurence Dunbar captured the impulse perfectly in his poem “Sympathy” in which he, as a black man in a white world, identifies with a creature that’s told it must deny its innermost self and be content with its restrictive lot. Granted, I am by no means oppressed. I do not live in fear of lynchings or of being barred from doing something because I’m X instead of Y. However, I do understand the concept of a gilded cage. I am relatively safe–my job makes me a solid living, I occupy an apartment in safe (albeit painfully vanilla and WASP infested) town, and I am never required to go without basic needs like food and clothing. Do I have everything I want? No. But I cannot complain, and that is why I feel truly guilty each time I do.

At the risk of sounding like Quint in the town hall meeting in Jaws, “You all know me, know what I do for a living…” Yes, I teach, and I do so in a place where I am the living embodiment of a fifth wheel. In a nutshell, I teach English in a technical college. Please know that I am a firm supporter of the technical college system; I think it is a valuable place for an ever-growing populace in America. People who come here get training for work that more Americans need to be doing if we ever want to get back to our roots as a nation, one that knows how to get things handled and make things that last. Our soul is in that which is technical.

However, ENG 1101 and 1102, the two classes I teach, are often the barrier that stands between them and that job training. Often, I am nothing more to them than a hinderance and a nuisance, something that must be checked off a required list of classes, and that, I must say, can sometimes be hard on someone who does love the subject. Yes, there are many students who enjoy my classes and who thank me in some small way for my help over the course of a quarter, but they are rare. There are a great deal more who come to me with only complaints, excuses, and threats than there are with praise and thanks. I work long hours grading, lecturing, and handling other forms of paperwork and minutiae that I don’t plan on elaborating on here. (That’s a blog for another time.) In short, I make a living, but I rarely feel alive in my chosen career. More often than not, I’m going through the motions and trying to do the best I can.

Is there any wonder then in the fact that I often fall prey to the siren song of my imaginary muffins sitting on the shelf in my equally ephemeral cafe? After all, as I’ve said to others, muffins don’t bitch. They don’t send you to pointless meetings or require you to earn continuing education credits; they don’t question your motives or your knowledge and why they need it. Muffins simply wait in their elemental form for you to mix them in the correct proportions and slip them in to rise, like gooey fruit and chocolate filled phoenixes, from their own floury ashes.

I know what you’re thinking–Jamie, you’re not thinking of the early mornings, the customer complaints, or the other problems ranging from product delivery to paperwork and taxes. Your glass is unfairly half full. And you’d be right–I’ve worked in a restaurant, but I have little knowledge as to how to actually run one effectively. And I am certain that if I did undertake such a business now that it would be doomed to failure no matter how good my recipes were or how cheerfully I crafted them. I am a realist in this regard. However, as Jane Eyre says in the novel by Charlotte Brontë:

I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’

In this scene, Jane has been working for eight years as a teacher at Lowood School where she herself was taught, and as she looks out the window of her room to an open road, one she has never travelled, she begins to think of a new career as a governess. Like her, I’m not asking for perfection, for true freedom to be whatever I wish whenever I wish it. I only desire a change of scenery, a new world of work built on different expectations and principles that I can use to challenge myself and see just how successful I can be.

It’s the Write Thing to Do

I know times are tough and that everyone is going to have to tighten his or her financial belt a little in the coming years if our country is to remain solvent and prosperous. Therefore, as a fiscal conservative, I am normally all for the cutting of programs that are wasteful and produce nothing beneficial for the country, and I’ll be the first to admit there are arts based programs out there that are either wasteful or, in the case of PBS and NPR, are profit-making entities that no longer need our tax dollars to thrive. The National Writing Project, however, is not one of those. I attended this summer institute in 2001 when I was a first year teacher with a head full of ideas and a zen passion for writing and reading, and I later returned as a presenter, a technology liaison, and a writing group leader. Performing all those functions, I was able to put the lessons I’d learned after another year of teaching back into the program in order to help teachers both newer and younger than myself grow in the profession.

The Blackwater Writing Project, the branch I worked with, was amazingly responsible with its funding and found ways to save money and use it effectively at all points during the summer institutes. This is the kind of behavior that should be rewarded rather than slated for the chopping block like all other wasteful programs. Also, unlike so many programs funded by tax dollars, the NWP actually provided results for teachers and their students. It encouraged writing across the disciplines and allowed writing teachers the chance to directly instruct those who are experts in science, math, history, and other fields on the best methods for including writing in their classrooms. Rather than generic lessons given by a state or federal training program, teachers who wanted to do a better job in their classrooms were given specific instruction from teachers who had tried new techniques in classrooms much like theirs. The instruction was targeted and practical, and after a two-week period in the NWP, many “non-English” teachers have begun to utilize writing and enhance student learning with it.

I recently found an op-ed piece by Dana Giola at the Boston Globe regarding the importance of reading and writing and its decline in the teenage population of this country. She touches on several key benefits of literacy and writing including increased problem solving skills, increased creativity, and even increased social and civic awareness and participation. It seems obvious, therefore, that students must be told about the importance of reading and writing to their overall education, but without programs like the NWP, teachers will be ill-equipped to show students just how essential and beneficial both truly are. If we have a passion for it, it comes through in what we do. Students see it, and whether or not they admit to this truth, they respond to it. The NWP helps teachers gain that confidence and joy that is needed to motivate students in this new electronic age, and, for that reason alone, it should be given continued funding.

On a personal note, the first summer I spent in the NWP sparked a fire for creative writing in my life. Because of the support and guidance I received from amazing teachers like Dr. Donna Sewell, Dr. Chere Peguesse, and Mr. Adam Hathaway of the Blackwater Writing Project, I began to write, and I have continued to progress in that area ever since. I am now currently working on a novel of my own, I teach creative writing classes to students and adults in my area, and I participate in online writing groups such as The Herscher Project, a group of fellow scribblers from around the world who support one another in their literary and artistic endeavors. I might never have known that part of me was there had it not been for the Blackwater Writing Project at Valdosta State University.

In short, I am a firm believer in accountability, and I’ll be the first to run through the 2011 federal budget with a machete in an attempt to bring our country back to financial solvency. However, to say that all of the programs out there that relate to the arts or eduction need to be cut is not the best way to spend our money wisely. The National Writing Project, and several other programs like it, deserve continued funding and support from communities and the government in order to continue preparing teachers, those people on the front lines who have the best chance of creating productive and thoughtful citizens for the future.