Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Saturday night I got a second wind and lifted off from the sloggy mental state I'd been in for two months. Rather than go to bed, I had a cup of tea at eleven PM and started thinking about books I could turn my students onto on those forgotten Fridays, or on any days that needed enriching. Of course, being the slightly overly exuberant wacko that I can sometimes be, I had to resist e-mailing the principal and vice principal of the school at two AM with my ever-growing list of inspirational art and books, and ideas for collaborative English-Art courses.

I want to expose the kids to both art and writing that I love. I know they will get the basic art and literature from their teachers, but as artist-in-residence I get to turn them onto the wild stuff that fills my bookshelves. Have they ever seen Antonio Gaudi's mosaics? Have they seen the naive artists who wrap trees with tin foil or pave their walkways with cement and wine bottle bottoms? Do they know about Ivan Generalic, who painted in reverse on glass? Have they read the essays of E.B. White, the poems of Jane Shore, Jimmy Santiago Baca's memoir, the diaries of Anais Nin and May Sarton, the letters of Georgia O'Keefe and Vincent van Gogh, the episodes of Pierre Delattre, the graphic novels of Franz Masereel? The kids might have read the children's book Goodnight Moon, but I want them to read about the author, Margaret Wise Brown. I want them to know that she lived and wrote in a tiny house with miniature furniture and furry walls, and swam nude in the icy Maine waters as the lobstermen teased her.

As you can see my curriculum would be best described as Cool Stuff That Emily Loves. I'm not much for historical overviews and sweeping timelines. For me, Duchamp, Botticelli, and the dinosaurs all share the same moment. I'm sure most of these kids have a better sense of linear time than I do! I just have a passion for the true voice that has spoken to me from books and art, and which has changed my life, repeatedly.

All this art has nourished my world - maybe half of the educational process is just getting exposed to cool inspiring stuff. The whole examining and measuring and testing process sometimes bypasses the crucial life-changing nourishment. But I'm the artist-in-residence, so I can read them a poem or show them an art book for the sake of sheer joy! Maybe loving teaching is really about loving learning. And an inspired receiver can be an inspired transmitter.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Art Food

My class Friday was the last class of the last day before the holiday break, and I didn't want it to be a wasted session. I knew for some kids it would be impossible to focus, but I also knew there would be kids ready to draw and I wanted to be there for them. I brought my Dover book of Reginald Marsh's art, and I went around the room having one-to-one meetings with the students, showing them his work. I am so glad I did because even a few kids who were chatting and not working stopped to let me show them every picture! I had a hunch that my enthusiasm might rub off on them. The fact that Reginald Marsh was an urban artist who drew people on subways, beaches, and in bread lines during the Depression was also a plus. I showed them that Marsh was an amazing photographer, too, and his photos that he took for reference are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. We laughed about the 1930's bathing suits in the beach photos. I told them, "You never know where your inspiration might come from. Look at this guy, he carried a sketchbook everywhere, and here he is drawing bums passed out on the street." The students were fascinated and I was pleased to have reached the sometimes-hard-to-reach kids. Maybe I should introduce a favorite artist each Friday.

One girl told me she was too exhausted to work, but I asked her to let me show her this cool artist who I thought she'd appreciate. When I showed her Marsh's engraving of a dance marathon, she told me she had been in a dance marathon once, dancing for eighteen hours with her mother to raise money for a homeless shelter when they lived in Maine. I told her I'd never met anyone who had danced in a marathon, but that I had always wanted to do it. She said she hated it, it was torture!

Another girl who knew about New York City recognized Times Square and the subways in Marsh's drawings. She told me her mother and sister had both worked at a hotel in the city. Her 27-year-old sister had the job of walking the famous rich hotel owner's poodle. The poodle wore a diamond-studded collar, and when the sister took the dog out she had to be accompanied by two bodyguards. Her sister hated the job and quit after three weeks. I told her I didn't blame her sister for quitting and that sometimes dignity and fulfillment are more important than the paycheck.

Like the Salvation Army

The compassionate army - that's what I am calling teachers. There's a huge number of kids in any school, and their heads are all in different places. They do want to learn, but what works for one kid won't work for another. With the proper mix of understanding, compassion, and skill maybe we can make a difference for them.

That Guy

Thursday when I got to class a student told me about a portrait he had done on the city bus on the way home the day before. I said really? Can I see it? Sure, he said, and reached into his black shoulder bag to dig out his sketchbook. I could tell that he'd been hoping I'd want to look. The drawing was of a face of a burly guy with a crooked mouth and a scruffy beard, wearing a wool cap with his hair covering his ears. I said I love it, everyone has seen a guy like this. It's "That Guy!" We laughed, and I tried to imagine him sitting on the bus and drawing this total stranger. Maybe I'll bring in a book of Reginald Marsh's art and show him the drawings of people on subways and guys passed out on the street.

Still Life

On Wednesday I asked the art teacher if I could use my still-life materials (from the old YMCA class) for the kids to draw. She was OK with it, and so I set up my purple towel in the center of the table and positioned my wooden parrot, and the small, square, clear glass mason jar full of thirteen-year-old candy corn, and the blue glass jar with sugar cubes in it, and the skinny glass flask with one vanilla bean in it, and the bright orange teacup and saucer. After stealing a few sugar cubes to pop in their mouths, the kids started to draw. I was thrilled to see my objects come to life on their pages. I love everything they do. Sadly they are overly harsh critics of themselves. I try to explain why I think they have done well, and encourage them to keep going. One girl at a different table was drawing a wine glass, and she complained that it had no definite shadow. I said I know how to fix that! I got a floor lamp, plugged it in, aimed it at her glass, and turned it on. Shadow! She was happy, and got right down to work.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Surreal Fun!

We had a snowstorm late on Thursday, and the streets looked like the inside of an oreo cookie after you've scraped it once with your bottom teeth.

In my art class the impending storm was in the air. A bunch of kids were finished with their art projects, so I had them play a game. My pal Keith taught me this game: a person draws a character and writes words in a text balloon, and the next person also makes a character and writes words in a text balloon, but without seeing what the first person has done. Each person is writing in the balloon pointing to the other person's drawn character without knowing what it is. By dividing the page in half and hiding what you've written and drawn from the other person until the end, you make the final cartoon a surprise. I find it so fun and silly. My text balloon said, "I told you not to open that door in daylight." The student who was my cartooning partner had drawn a guy about to hit another guy with a huge mallet. On the other side of the page I had drawn a guy playing cello, and the text balloon that she had written said, "I love cats." The whole page when unveiled as one big scene made me laugh and laugh. I love random surrealist stuff. Maybe tomorrow the text balloons could hold tiny poems. Or the text could be a piece of what you happen to overhear in the classroom.

I also love the game Exquisite Corpse: someone draws the head of a person or creature, folds it over so it can't be seen, and passes the paper to another who draws the torso, folds it over, and then a third person does the legs and feet. Then you open it up and see what you've created. There's also the game of drawing a squiggle and passing it to someone who has to incorporate it into a drawing. As a kid I played that game for hours with my little brother on long car trips. I think it's cool to have these games that link students together, and there's absolutely no way to fail! I think they need a little of this wacky fun stuff. I know I do! These drawing games are like theater improv games except using writing and drawing. I'd like to get my adult friends to play this game with me, or perhaps the next time I am waiting in the dentist's office or at the Department of Motor Vehicles I will ask the nearest stranger if they'd like to play!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Don't Give Up

The other night we caught a TV documentary on playwrite Tony Kushner. One of his beliefs is that we have a moral obligation to not give up hope. This has stayed in my thoughts, and I've been chanting it to myself throughout the day! I also loved listening to him tell high school kids how scary and difficult it is to write because being all alone with your own mind is frightening. The honesty and power of his words inspired me. Thank you Tony Kushner!

I want to continue to connect with my community, but the agonies and joys are swirled together in equal parts like stripes on a zebra. Part of me wants to run into my room and pull the shades and hide under the covers, giving up on humans entirely, and the other part of me says "Refuse to despair, be brave, believe in every step you take in spite of resistance, and build hope."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Illumination vs. Alienation

I am reminding myself that a psychic injury or wound can be transformed into a window, a gift. My feelings and fears of tribal abandonment can be a vehicle for understanding the human condition. Helping one kid at the school can help a whole community. Today I am thinking about illumination versus alienation. I am trying to cultivate a refusal to despair, to see the sparkles of snow and ice glittering on the overflowing piles of sidewalk garbage.

I am afraid of being abandoned, yet I already have been. So there's no need now to hide, just recognize, love, and have compassion for the other floating children. Be firm and clear because I care. Because I am. I'll park my anger at the door because it just fogs up my windshield. All of the guidelines in teaching apply to everything else in my life. Education handled deeply can be a spiritual and creative act.

I love to work with the broken children, the melt-down kids, and I get them to focus and find their strength. They all have strength and gifts, with a thick layer of fear on top. I know, because I do too. I like to dig for gold and then hand it to them. Maybe we all can be wounded healers.

Bit by Bit

A new girl got placed in my class yesterday. It was her first day at the school after transferring from the regular high school. I zeroed in on her immediately and didn't leave her side for the whole class. She put up the "I can't draw" fight, but that didn't stop me from asking her to start drawing. Her main issue was focusing, so I kept tapping her shoulder and bringing her back to the page when she got distracted. She knew the other girls at the table and they were trying to engage her. I fended them off, suggesting we move to another table if concentrating was tough. She got down to business and we created an intensive work bubble around us. Through close observation and small achievable steps she drew first three butterflies and then three spiders. Together we dismantled and reconstructed them, limb by limb, wing by wing. Her observation and drawing progress was immediate.

Today she sketched the spider again and then announced she was ready to launch into the big construction-paper version. She immediately stopped looking at her reference spider and instead drew from her head, but she was unhappy with how distorted it was. I suggested she start over, and this time we took it step by step, again, discussing the ratios and measurements while looking at the spider reference engraving. I suggested first she draw the circle for the head, thinking about where it is on the page, then the body, then one leg, and then another. At each step I pointed out "use your eye." I coached her gently on each part of the spider and mentioned things to look for. She made a magnificent spider! I told her I was thrilled and asked her if she was too. She nodded and smiled. I went home after class elated, ready to dance in the streets!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


There's a kid in my class who looks like he stepped out of central casting as the quintessential sidekick. He's petite with a very round head, dark thick eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and a chiseled jaw. He usually wears a white T-shirt. The teacher had asked the students to draw bugs but Sidekick had picked a boxing kangaroo out of the pile of engravings instead. I thought it was a perfect choice for him. I went over to him and said, "I love your drawing, are you going to work more on it today?" And he said "Yeah," his mouth scrunching way over to the side. He always sits nestled in between the tough kids.

Sky Hawk

Another kid in my class is shy and hides under his hooded gray sweatshirt. He speaks softly, has pristine caramel skin and a long face, and wears braces on his teeth. He said he hated bugs, so he had picked a hawk from the pile. He drew it beautifully. I told him I thought of him when I saw three hawks flying over the cemetery last Sunday. I explained I had been out walking my dog when I heard them screeching. I looked up, and saw them flying in a circle overhead. They were getting harassed by a crow. He smiled.

Heavy Metal Daughters

Yesterday a girl told me that she had taken out her various piercings the night before, and her mom had said "What happened to your face?" She was laughing as she told the story. She told me she had several piercings. She described the locations; above the eyebrow, at the bridge of her nose, through her nostrils, on her upper and lower lips. I looked at her face up close and said I couldn't see where they had been. She said they were very fine so they wouldn't scar. She was sitting with another girl and they were telling a visiting teacher that they both were very angry at their moms for abandoning them and going to heavy metal concerts, back when the girls were seven years old.

More Classroom Characters

Romeo and Juliet. They seem like they've been married for years. They sit together every day, and draw, and they both really sink in to their work. They draw beautifully. Sometimes they hold hands.

The Hip Hop Twins. On most days these boys refuse to work but when they do I am elated. They joke with me when I come over to set them up with paper and pencil, which makes me hopeful that we are making a connection. They have beautiful articulated curls.

The Arctic Wolf. She's a sassy, short, curvy girl with bleached blond hair, milk-white skin, and glasses. She wears a white coat with a fluffy fur collar over her tight low-cut shirt. Her eyes are always painted with a thick line of black eyeliner above and below each eye.

The Door Behind the Door

I'll admit I'm feeling a big nameless, faceless sadness, the agonies of the human condition. But I'm trying to console myself by sinking into my work. Sometimes the door behind the door opens. When it does, I feel so grateful and lucky to find a tranquil place to be.

Into the Moonlight

Down up, down up. Energy pouring out, energy pouring in. It seems I'm either pushing boulders uphill or flying down the hill with my feet in the air trailing behind. Currently I'm pushing a boulder uphill. The thing that is hardest to remember is that with patience and love there is a way to make a home, even in the uphill house. Meanwhile I'm trailing a line of pebbles in the form of words hoping to make my way up into the moonlight.