It was during a painting workshop, as I was getting more and more frustrated because all the swiping and splashing and splattering I was doing was not rendering on canvas anything close to the still life on the table, that a memory popped into my mind.
A memory that had been suppressed for 25 years.
I remembered the last thing Mr. Livingston, my Grade Nine art teacher, said to me as he handed back the sketchbook I’d been filling for the past ten months (this was before high schools went to semesters). He said, “I don’t think you should bother taking any more art classes.”
And he didn’t mean because I was so talented, there was nothing more for him to teach me.
I was 15 when I heard that but I didn’t remember it until I was forty years old and trying to understand the urge to paint that had tormented me since I moved to Nova Scotia.
An urge not fully destroyed by the words of that teacher when I was a teenager.
It’s an understatement to call Mr. Livingston a terrible teacher. The sketchbook that he handed back (which I still have) is evidence of effort and improvement; some assignments even received a mark of 10 out of 10. Mr. Livingston’s comments indicate areas of my work in which he should have been offering further instruction. My potential was clear not only in my sketches but also in the fact that I’d signed up for art in the first place. I wasn’t a bad artist and IT WAS GRADE NINE, my first year of daily art instruction at the age of 14.
A pivotal time in the life of a teenager.
Knowing what I know now, I honestly believe he altered the course of the rest of my life.
As students head back to school this week, allow me to say: Unless the activity is something that could lead to injury, addiction, disease or pregnancy, NEVER EVER discourage a young person from pursuing something that he or she shows an interest in or especially a talent for. It doesn’t matter if you think you know best, it doesn’t matter if you have your own failed dream – you will be wrong.
My friend Jane, now in her fifties, announced at the age of 15 that she wanted to be an auto mechanic.
“I liked tearing things apart and putting them back together,” she says. It’s an inclination that has never left her. “I like tearing things apart. I’ve always had the ability to look at something and know what needed to be done.”
She once fixed an 8-track player with a bobby-pin.
But when Jane said she wanted to be a mechanic, her mother responded by telling her that girls didn’t do that kind of work.
“You don’t want to come home with dirty hands every day,” Jane’s mother told her.
“That has stuck in my craw all my life,” my friend admits now. “I was 26 years old when the light bulb came on.”
I asked her why didn’t she just go ahead and become a mechanic anyway?
“I never said No to my parents,” she answered. “And I didn’t have their support.”
It’s the rare, brave and lucky person who knows herself well enough and has enough chutzpah to defy the opinions of those with the greatest influence over her in order to pursue what she truly wants to do.
Louise Cloutier is the art teacher at Pugwash District High School. Like Mr. Livingston, she’s been teaching art to high school students for a long time so I put the question to her: “Would you ever tell a student that they shouldn’t bother taking any more art classes?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” she says.
When I explained why I was asking, Louise tells me the story of Faith Ringgold, a prominent American painter, who was told by a high school art teacher that she’d better find something else to do. He’d looked at her painting of mountains and had told her they didn’t look like mountains.
“She lived in Harlem,” Louise explained to me. “She’d never seen mountains and that was her interpretation of them. His comment empowered her to prove him wrong and she did.”
Ringgold, now a university professor who paints and publishes books, is the recipient of more than 75 awards including 22 honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.
“Students at that time are so vulnerable that if they think someone doesn’t like what they’re trying to do, they shut down,” says Louise. “It’s such a mistake. It’s an easy way to squash a dream and who are we to do that?”
If you're curious: