When I mentioned I planned to retire at the end of the school year, a lot of people said, “Congratulations! What are you going to do?”
“Not wake up at 5:15 in the morning,” was my usual reply. I did not understand the question. After all, I was an art teacher for thirty-six years. I just may do some art of my own for a change.
Since my last day of teaching about a month ago, I really don’t have that retirement feeling. My friends tell me that will happen when school begins in August. However, I do have the challenge of changing careers and becoming, finally, a full time (sort of) artist. Painting in my new studio space is like going to work, except I don’t have to be there at a particular time and stay a certain number of hours. I don’t even have to go every day. I get to work with great artists and learn from them. I do not have to put my supplies away at the end of the day and can wear jeans every day of my life if I choose.
But somehow, I cannot let go of the structure of my educational career. Each afternoon I write my goals for the next day. I like to schedule days for plein air painting with my friends and times for keeping up with the business side of things. I still pack a lunch to take to the studio, just as I did when I taught school. All the years in the classroom prepared me for this new phase.
Will I miss teaching? Yes and no. I will always be a teacher. I will miss many of the students and other professionals with whom I worked. I enjoy helping people reach their potential. But no, I will not miss waking up at 5:15 in the morning.
The first project in a middle school art room is usually a portfolio for the students’ artwork. In Mrs. Strong’s eighth grade class, we decorated ours with a cute little doodle made from our name written in cursive. Then we wrote our names in uppercase Roman letters. With serifs. Made with a Speedball C1 nib. Dipped in India ink. I cannot even imagine how much ink was spilled while learning the alphabet. I am pretty sure there was a lot on my fingers.
I learned Italic in high school, mastered the alphabet in college, and taught it for many years. Many of my former students tell me they still use their lettering skills. With so many fonts available on computers, hand lettering is becoming a lost art. Students no longer learn cursive, so when several of my high schoolers said they were interested in learning to write Italic, I was excited to teach the alphabet. To me, it is a bridge between printing and cursive, which many young people cannot read.
I don’t think the students realized how much practice was involved. They spent weeks mastering the letters before choosing a quotation for final pieces that had personal meaning. At one point, one of the sophomores almost gave up because she had several spelling errors, but with patience and a double edge razor blade, they were “erased.”
Today I read in the old school print newspaper, that “writing by hand is making a comeback” and “the humble notebook has become trendy again.” (I keep my old notebooks so I can look back and see what I purchased at the grocery two years ago. A little eccentric, I suppose.) I tell my students repeatedly that they will remember what is written by hand. Hopefully their beautiful Italic will be used to make notes that will not be forgotten.
A couple weeks ago I was painting with my friend. It was on a Wednesday morning, of course. When we get together we talk about many things, but mostly about making art. I’ve probably learned more about painting from my friends then I ever did a college class (maybe because I skipped a couple of classes…OK, a lot). I asked my friend what she did about working over a dried painting. She recommended using retouch varnish spray. So I said, “Well, I’ll go down to the Co-op Bookstore and get a can on the way home.” “ Oh!” she said. “Didn’t you know Co-op’s going out of business?”
I was stunned! Yet another of my “happy place” stores was shutting their doors.
Back when I first moved to Baton Rouge there were no national chain stores where one could buy art supplies. There were local stores such as Yarberry’s, Baton Rouge Blueprint, and Co-op Bookstore. When I first started going to Co-op, it was on State Street by LSU, and it was like a candy store for artists. Nearly anything an artist could possibly need was on the shelves. As any artist can tell you, it’s important to feel the texture of paper and feel the snap of a brush, something you cannot do when ordering online. I often found treasures I didn’t know I needed.
The best thing about the store was the service. Billy, whose family started the Co-op in the 1930’s on the LSU campus, was extremely knowledgeable about everything in the art department.
He personally filled my school purchase orders and gave advice on my own art materials. When I purchased paper, a gentleman wrapped it in brown paper so it would not get damaged.
The State Street store was razed for an apartment complex some time ago, and while the new store was pristine, I have to say, the art department still had a bit of the character found in the old location. Ordering of books and, yes, art supplies, online has taken a toll on Co-op. I went to shop a couple of times after learning the store was having “One ‘L’ of a Sale” (that’s what was written on the entrance) with the guilty knowledge that my purchases at Dick Blick and Jerry’s Artarama were partly to blame for the closure. The paper purchase I made was wrapped in brown paper. Billy and his core group of employees were there.
And I will always have memories of touching my paper purchases and snapping my brushes.
For the past thirty-five years I have been an art educator. Twenty-five of those years were spent at the same school in the same classroom (a converted library—lots of storage!) teaching art to the masses. I had students early in my career and later I had their children. Some of them were far better artists than I was at their age. There were students whose sole purpose in life was to aggravate me (or so it seemed). I taught special needs children who sat next to the academically gifted. Many students were in my art class because there were few electives from which to choose. Hopefully they learned a little something about the arts and will remember the experience as a positive one. My guess is that I probably taught a thousand students during that time.
I occasionally run into former students who made careers in the arts. Sometimes I see students who tell me they still use the calligraphy skills learned in my class. Another student purchased a painting I made just because it was mine. When a former student who works in acrylic contacted me about learning to work in oil, I thought, “Finally! One of my students wants to do what I do!”
She was accomplished in acrylic but wanted to get out of her comfort zone. We began a simple still life and went from the initial drawing, getting values established, a period of “the uglies,” and on to completion. She was pleased with the results and very excited about shopping for new art supplies.
I was just thrilled that a former student felt she still could learn something from me!