I am one of the last of a dying breed of artists who had solid training in the field of art. I am 93 years old and am faced constantly with people of all ages frustrated with today’s method of art teaching. The basics are rarely taught and even if taught the students I have met are often insecure about how to get started.
I have never done a blog. This is new for me. My reason for entering this world of blogging is because of a book I just self published called, “The Monkey Lady”. It is the story of my life as an artist and the life change that happened to me because of meeting Suck-a-toe, an abused infant De Brazza monkey at the Los Angeles Zoo.
His father tried to kill him, and his mother abandoned him. He was being raised by the nurses at the zoo and not expected to live. According to the nurses who took care of him, he thought I was his mother. Thus became an incredible experience for me. Over time I documented all that he did.
I lectured to over 40,000 elementary school children as a volunteer, while supporting myself as a free-lance illustrator for the film industry, and in 1980, with the help of Sister Mary Dorothy Stirling, published a book about him called “Suck-a-toe”. The book is in over 100 schools . It was at these lectures that I was asked by teachers to teach the children about drawing.
Over time I was asked to give workshops to teachers to teach them to draw. At the publication of the book, I was invited to enter the world of Author’s Festivals where I not only told his story, but also taught the children to draw him. I did this for almost 20 years.
At the age of 93 I am still teaching both at a local school and also privately. I want to share with this audience experiences with private students that I have been privileged to work with. Art is great therapy and when a student studies privately with a person, there is generally a real bond that is formed. I know because that is what happened to me with the teachers I studied with privately.
It was about 4 months ago that a private student who had been studying with me for over two years called me. She was to have a lesson that day and it was 2 hours before the lesson that I got this call. She was crying. Through the sobs she told me that her daughter who was 23 had just committed suicide. She had laid on the railroad tracks and was killed by a train. She had mentioned the daughter in the past and this was a real shock to me.
I told her I wanted to see her, but we were not going to have an art lesson. We were just going to talk. She did come over and during the time we spent together she told me that her daughter in her teens had begun to show very strange behavior. My student who is a school nurse recognized the odd behavior and did all she could to help her daughter, but obviously in the end, she failed.
During the next two weeks we met and each time it was just to talk. Art can be therapy, but we were only talking. Suddenly a thought came to me. Years before, when I was in my early 30’s I was studying privately with Margot Kempe, a famous sculptor from Berlin. She was a wonderful teacher and we were bonded as friends. A week before my lesson, my little dog, a miniature pincher died. It was a shock to both my husband and me. To me his loss was like that of a child. I came to the lesson and I remember crying. I could hardly concentrate on the art I was producing.
During the lesson, Margot was very quiet and then she said, “You are going to do a sculpture of your dog”. At that point I had never done animals – only people. I told her I did not know how to do it. She said I am sure you have photos of him, which I did. She said she would help me. I gathered the photos my husband had taken of him and we started. Sculpture is very time consuming. It was clay and as one works on it, the clay is drying. To do a good piece takes about six months before the piece is ready for firing. Margot also told me to pick a pose that reminded me of my dog, Meathead. Meathead named himself. It was the only name he answered to.
My husband and I had a large advertising art service in New York and often entertained clients. Before the clients arrived, we would feed Meathead knowing that he would beg the clients for food. The clients were now at the house and food was served. The minute the food arrived, Meathead stood up on one leg begging. The guests would invariably say, “Don’t you ever feed this dog?” So that is the pose I chose. The six months producing the sculpture healed me completely. I still have this piece and to this day it reminds me of him.
I suggested to my student that we do a portrait of her daughter. I told her of my experience with Meathead. She had been anxious before this happened to learn to do portraits in pastel and I felt this was a golden opportunity to teach her something she had already expressed an interest in doing. She went out and bought pastels. We started with a black and white sketch. She would go into tears as she drew the eyes of her daughter. I thought she was coming along emotionally, when suddenly she said” I can’t do it.”
As a teacher, what do you do? I then thought of another thing I was taught years ago. I was having a lot of difficulty doing creative backgrounds in the French Impressionists style. My husband, who was an incredible teacher picked out a painting of Monet from one of our books. He blocked off a small portion of the painting using 4 pieces of white paper surrounding the area he wanted me to look it. He said “I know you can copy the entire picture. What I want you to do is look at just the detail in this part of the painting and copy it. You can change it somewhat but keep in mind you are just interested in looking at the way Monet did the colors “.
I thought of that technique for my student. Doing her daughter was still too painful for her. I suggested we block off a portion of her hair and look at the colors and design. I suggested that we do that on another piece of paper and look at it as if it was an abstract. She became fascinated by the idea of looking at art this way. She had never done an abstract and told me she did not think she could do it. I am so happy to tell you that she not only did that little piece beautifully, but she then went through her art books and came to see me with fascinating abstracts she did blocking off sections of famous paintings. I let the student lead me where that student wants to go. I began to think that we would never get back to her portrait, and I really did not care. What mattered to me was that she get pleasure from her art.
Last week, about 4 months after her daughter’s suicide, she told me she was ready. Not only did she want to complete her daughter’s portrait, but she wanted to do a portrait of her son who is living and also a portrait of herself which she will frame to hang in her house.
Such is the therapy of art.