By Dennis Fehr
I was interviewed recently by a couple of authors who are writing a book on the history of art education. Okay, glad to contribute.
Then they called back, wanting to know if I would write a piece on the joy of teaching the subject. I occasionally get asked about the rewards of making art, but not teaching it. Here's the piece:
I retired from higher education seven years ago, and I quickly found that the long hours of studio solitude that I had so eagerly anticipated were a bit much. I missed teaching, and I soon found myself looking for a part-time job. I landed a great one at Fusion Academy, a middle/high school for students with various needs—cognitive, physical, and/or emotional.
We teach one student at a time here at Fusion. On the first day I ask them what they want to do in art class. No matter what they reply, I say, “Great!” An informed art teacher can take students to good places no matter where they start.
Often they want to learn to draw. I always start with the human face, because when they’re done, they can’t believe how good it looks, and they feel that they can draw anything now. And of course, they’re right.
“Okay, let’s get started,” I say. "Draw a face without my instruction. We'll call this the 'before' drawing.’" Their results often...well...would not have made Bob Ross feel threatened.
“Okay," I continue as we begin phase two, "Artistic decision number one. This piece of paper is called the picture space. Turn it this way, it’s called landscape orientation. Turn it the other way, it’s called portrait orientation. We’re going to start by making an oval. Which way fills the picture space better?”
“See, we made an artistic decision before drawing a mark. Now, make an egg. We don’t want it too small. See what I drew here? This little oval gets lost with all that white space around it. We call that negative space. But look what happens when we make it too big. Not enough negative space. It looks cramped. So make your egg, the positive space, the right size for the picture space. And make each side of the egg a mirror opposite of the other. That means, don’t press hard with your pencil because you’ll be erasing until you get both sides right.”
I sit next to them and draw right along with them. As we go through the process, their expressions often go from curiosity to frustration to blankness and back; however, at a certain point they see what’s happening on their paper.
I keep watching and waiting as we approach that moment.
Then it happens.
Their eyebrows rise. Their lips part. The corners of their mouths turn upward. They lean back and stare at the paper. They might whisper a faint, “oh.” They often turn toward me, eyes shining.
“It’s a face!”
"M-hmm." They’ve discovered the artist within. The artist almost all of us are born with. The artist many never discover.
I could quit now, and they would never forget this moment. But of course we press on. When all of the features are the right shape and in the right place and we’ve added the shading, their expressions go back and forth between amazement and disbelief.
The example I've shown is not extreme. I have countless similar pairs of drawings.Okay, I’ve made them into compet ent illustrators, Now I turn my effort toward making them into competent artists.
More a-ha moments await us both.