Once I had an art teacher who was big on having frequent sessions in which we critiqued our work– or rather in which he and our classmates critiqued our work. We were never allowed to put in our own two cents worth, be it in defense of, or ideas for altering, what we had done. If we had ideas for improvements, it was assumed we would have implemented them before the critique session and, likewise, I suppose that if the artwork couldn’t stand on its own merits, there was no defense. Now, I always assumed that we took classes to learn things, both from our teachers and from our classmates; and that studio classes were like laboratories where we learned by experimenting and finding out what worked, what didn’t, and maybe even why.
While I was earning my degree, I was so in love with oil paints that I spent very little time with any other painting medium. A few years later, I recognized this lack and rationalized that, since I was an art teacher, I should be able to teach myself watercolors. This resulted in a frustrated teacher and a disappointed student. So, I signed up for a summer watercolor class. The class included about equal numbers of men and women, though three of the women were not your typical college age. I was taking the class to keep my teaching certificate up to date, another of the women was about my age and working toward finishing a degree she’d abandoned some years previously. The third, a more grandmotherly age, was taking the class just because she’d always wanted to find out if she could learn to paint. I’ve forgotten her name, but I’ll call her Marie. She was optimistic, enthusiastic and thirsty to learn all she could about art during the short summer session.
For several years when my children were young and needed a full-time mom, I had taught private art classes in my home studio. I usually had three or four students once a week and I would have loved to have, as one of my students, that grandmotherly woman who’d always wanted to find out if she could learn to paint. She was fearless. She listened. She was determined. And she had talent. She had an eye for the details that made things unique. When she painted a pansy, for instance, it wasn’t “a pansy” it was “this pansy.” She had the instincts of a good photographer when it came to picking out a picture from a sprawling landscape. And she wasn’t timid about color. None of these wispy, barely tinted pictures for her– she slapped the watercolors on as if they were house paint.
Marie’s paintings never resembled those by any of the other members of the class, even though we all had been given the same assignment, and we all painted at the same outdoor locations or in the studio with the same still life set up on a table. We sweated together under the July sun and found out approximately how many different shades of green there are in Iowa during the summer. We matted our best paintings and exhibited them in the Eve Drewelowe Gallery in the art building on campus. It may have been her lack of knowledge of art history that gave her the freedom to paint her own way– uninhibited by knowing what others consider the defining characteristics of watercolor paintings. Sometimes I think that being too familiar with a subject limits our imagination and keeps us within those confines. Not knowing where the limits are allows us creative freedom.
When it came time for our critiques, our teacher seemed to be uncomfortable talking to Marie about her art. I’m not sure if it was the art work itself or his ability to relate to her, but he seemed to have a difficult time deciding how to phrase his criticism. At one critique, she had two small paintings, quite different, and I suspected he was trying to convey to her the idea that she should quit flailing about and settle on one style in her painting. To my dismay, he decided to talk to her in what he thought would be terms that she could understand. Unfortunately, he decided on what he thought must be understood universally by women from all walks of life. The tightly drawn, intricately detailed, meticulously painted picture, he dubbed a “doily.” The flowing, effortless, uninhibited one, he called a “quilt.”
Marie obviously knew the difference between a doily and a quilt, and she quickly decided they didn’t have anything to do with her paintings. They both had their uses, their own kind of beauty, and both could be made by the same person. She dismissed his comments with a shrug and painted a glowing picture of a patch of pink, yellow and orange day lilies. I’m not sure what Marie learned that day, but I think our teacher may have learned not to talk down to women.