The graphic designer, Milton Glaser, once said, “You teach what you are, not what you say.”
Every year about this time I start to get into a little bit of a worried state. I think about the expectations my students and their parents might have for the art classes I’m about to teach.
There are so many Youtube videos showing how to do things, step-by-step. So many classes online or in person (when that was a thing) designed to help people paint or otherwise create very specific things. I don’t do that. I mean, I try when students want me to, but it’s not the best use of my abilities.
I'm very lucky that I teach on a one-to-one basis because I can be specific. But still, I cringe at the thought of my telling students that the way to paint something is to follow whatever set of rules are there for us all to follow, as the way to go about creating. What a terrible thing to do! Especially to teenagers.
It can be uncomfortable to discover one's own way of working. It's probably a knee-jerk reaction to not trust the way our hands change up whatever vision we have in our heads when we start to do something creative because it doesn’t look or "act" like something we’ve seen or maybe even admire. It probably feels like salt in some kind of wound when you are are told by your teacher (me), “That’s great! Keep going with that process, even though you think it's bad, and let’s see what happens.”
This is a big part of why, every year, I worry that my methods will be met with resistance, or that I will make mistakes. Of course both of these things are true. As well, some people are very happy with a paint-by-numbers approach to creative projects which gets them a result that isn't really "personally activated," but more like attempts toward replicas of something someone else designed. That’s fine. It's still art made by hand. (Bob Ross tutorials, "sip and paint nights".) It's just not a part of my natural teaching approach.
This year, of course, I am adding the pandemic to my usual concerns. Teaching something that is “hands-on” and messy at its best, and doing this between laptop screens- It's a bit weird. But then again, I get to teach at home, which is nice. My students and I are fortunate.
“You teach what you are, not what you say.”
This is why I take summers off to make art and why I make art during the school year. Art first. Teaching is something that happens because of it.
If I have to have a job that isn’t making art, in order to survive (and I do), I’m thankful that my job is something sourced from my life’s work. I mine from my own research and processes and work with as much empathy as I can muster up, in order to share- not what is “correct,” but something elusive that I believe we all can reach, as magnificently unique individuals influenced and affected by our world, our instincts (and who knows what else). Whether creativity is something my student approaches in their life to create a painting or catch fish or work in finance or write code or novels or direct movies… whatever it is- there is a confidence to be brought out during the act of creating and failing and reworking and sharing and creating again. I like to work on that with people.
This is why I hate the emphasis placed on grades. Terrible things, grades. Oh, I hate them. But of course, I participate. I must fill out the required rubrics and templates and allow the great machine to calculate these percentages that will spew forth, now online, for an email to be sent to parents which will describe the day-to-day progress of their children through the demon sent from hell that I know as, grades.
With art, a grade can do so much harm to a child’s sense of confidence in something so universally useful- creativity.
I have seen it! Every semester I have students who are terrified to even put a pencil on paper because they once tried their hardest and received a grade less than an “A,” simply because the teacher graded the work around some kind of parameters that didn’t take into consideration the kind of elusive and very unique energy each of us must activate and express in order to make something that is a visual representation of themselves at that moment in time. Not that the teacher necessarily had ill intentions. We're just very busy and are a part of a structured system.
It's one thing for a student in college to be critiqued, but it's entirely something else for someone who is just starting to find out who they are, in so many ways, to be rated for their creative expression, which, in its most genuine form, is by nature linked to such vulnerability. We're talking about a very raw nerve that deserves some time to form without jabbing into it while at a pubescent stage.
That being said, even in my hatred of grades and my belief in those last two paragraphs, I know that in some ways I’ve been a disheartening force to some of my students over the years through grades given and things I've said. I must have been. I hate that.
The creative process is one that takes mood into consideration. How productive one can be depends on energy levels. What is produced can depend on so many things, and sometimes, the best art can be something that we throw away because it doesn’t hit the mark, but it is what is needed in order for the next, “better” thing to come through. The less-than-polished work done during a class semester might be what leads to something fantastic outside of that time period. Grading systems have a hard time accounting for that.
I realize my perspective may not be the case for other art teachers and teachers that focus on other areas of learning, but it’s certainly how I feel about the subject.
So, I tell each of my students at the beginning of the semester to not look toward that art grade. Listen to what I say about your progress and your work. Ask questions about your work and then listen when I answer in a strange way to your question of whether or not I think it’s “good.” Engage in meandering conversations with me about what you see in your work or in the work of other artists or things in nature or whatever it is-
I promise that I care deeply, even if it isn’t the kind of care you expect. I promise that I will be present with you and bend toward the ways you wish to learn, if I am able to.
Here’s to another year.
I’m often asked by the teens I teach if I’m living the life I want and if I consider my life a success, and what that word means to me. I like that they ask me these things. Maybe they’re contrasting their perception of my existence as a teacher with their own lives or the lives of their parents, family members, or wealthy celebrities they admire. Maybe they are trying to understand what “sacrifices” are made in order to feel various forms of contentment. Maybe they are smarter than I am and are trying to knock some sense into me by asking me to consider the choices I’ve made that led me to work in a field that is honorable, but basically a service industry. Obviously, I don’t know how to answer them.
In the nineties, when I was not a teacher, I had a big stucco house that was built in 1993. I guess we call those things, McMansions. It had land and a view of rolling, California countryside and then beyond that, farm fields and the ocean. It looked upon the cities of Marina (my hometown), Seaside, Monterey, Pacific Grove, even Pebble Beach. At night, the lights twinkled in the distance and I’d get a chill up my spine, standing in my kitchen, looking out of the double-paned window and thinking about my younger self inside of the trailer on the Monterey Bay that I was raised in, that my parents still live in, on that tourist-filled landscape within my purchased view.
The recent HBO miniseries, Big Little Lies, set and filmed on the Monterey Peninsula, brought back memories of standing in that kitchen, or on the five acres connected to that kitchen. Not unlike the scenes of the main female characters staring at the ocean, right outside their big, beautiful glass doors– something wasn’t right.
There was this feeling I had where I knew it was all wrong. Not mine. Not earned. Maybe it was my understanding of the cost of it all; what I thought I had to endure in order to be there. Maybe that feeling is something that limits me and maybe I’ll never be able to (or even want to) get rid of it, because of the mindset and experiences I've had, that comes with being born and raised poor and in a trailer.
Side Note: Mobile homes in a Monterey Bay trailer park seem to now go for around one to two hundred thousand dollars (or more, or less).
I get such a rise from Pulp’s song, Common People.
Every once in a while I watch concert footage of them online, performing that song and the crowd just goes nuts, and I am right there with them. It’s our song. It’s my song. I love it. I have roots in there, with those roaches climbing the walls and that means something. It’s then I know that I’m so much better off being one of many in a crowd, and not a tourist (of any kind). But you know, the song only lasts for about four minutes–
When I left the McMansion and moved to Los Angeles, I chose to live in Hollywood after talking with someone who was renting an apartment in West Hollywood. He said that I most certainly should not live in Hollywood, because it is better described as, Hollyweird. His warning had the opposite effect, as that solidified it for me. Unlike some of the identifying labels placed upon my life by others and myself: poor person, “rich” person, victim, free spirit, survivor... I am and will always be a proud, card-carrying, weirdo, so it’s where I moved to then and it’s where I live now.
Nowadays though, I complain about Hollywood and Los Angeles a lot, and I miss the landscape of the Monterey Bay (and Santa Cruz) like crazy, but in a way that feels outside of myself, in a "I know 'the grass is always greener on the other side'" sort of way.
TRAINS AND CARS, ROADS, TRACKS AND TUNNELS
I like the train. In the same way I prefer making my way through Los Angeles via the L.A. Metro system, as opposed to my car, I like that I’m here, in Hollywood. When I'm on public transportation, I am faced with the truth that we are ALL relatively crazy, sad and angry. We are good and bad. We are working hard and at the end of the day most of us are very tired. In L.A. I don’t trust my car (But I make sure to have one, and a new one, at that!). It's a shiny metal, plastic and nylon bubble that takes a third of my monthly wages and lies to me by allowing me to believe that I'm safe, comfortable and apart from everyone else.
When I sit on the bus and train, I have no buffer between myself and the people who, like me, are most often visible examples of the exhaustion and mental illness we all suffer from. It’s usually not very pleasant, but I prefer this.
After all these years, have I put myself back in that figurative “trailer?” Maybe. Did my personal experiences with "wealth" that was so directly linked to abuse and acquiescence, spoil my desire for a “better” life? Is my preference for the train, and the ecstasy I feel when I listen to that Pulp song, just twisted up, metaphorical versions of those metal, plastic and nylon bubbles that lie to us and tell us that we’re safe, comfortable and (in this case, most importantly) apart from everyone else?
I tried living in Echo Park for a while, a few years ago, and I was just another comfortable human parasite, like so many people in this town; a tourist claiming ownership, like I was in that house built in 1993.
These days, I feel so strange when I make my way through the Warehouse District, downtown, watching all the people with or without ridiculous amounts of cash in their pockets who seem to feel perfectly at home in this curated landscape. Many feel safe in secured, guarded buildings with sparkly, new outdoor/indoor activity spaces that feel like theme park alleyways, lined with patches of freshly rolled, Non-GMO grass.
Many are living with several roommates, because that's what it takes. Recently built vegan tea houses that serve organic ghetto foods at prices only people earning six figures can afford to eat on a regular basis are filled with casually dressed (mostly white) people, journaling in their notebooks, texting their friends while observing the occasional skid row straggler or under-the-freeway-ramp tumble weed roll by from the other side of a double-paned, shiny, new wall-sized window.
All the refurbished brick and wood and display cases holding glossy pastries will never truly welcome me because I simply don’t have enough Instagram followers and if I ever do, and they ever do, I hope I will know better than to trust this kind of hospitality. The succulents planted on the walls must be so confused. The buildings seem to have been dropped down like Dorothy’s house, landing on an industrial version of Oz.
All that being said, I know very well that my own “weird” area is now completely overrun by thoughtless humans doing the exact same thing in their overpriced condos while wearing outlet mall active-wear and working on their “core” inside of the branded yoga studios on the first floor of their buildings, but I kind of prefer the clarity exhibited in their horribleness.
There are also the homes. The old homes in the hilly neighborhoods near my apartment. I have my fantasies about the people who live in them and have lived in them. Popular stuff I connect to as my “culture,” since I quickly imprinted myself upon anything that came out of the stereo system and television in my childhood homes, placed before me on domestically shelved altars, like metal and charcoal-tinted plastic gods covered in shiny knobs and fake-wood laminate.
I like thinking about the film and music industries rooted in Los Angeles and featured in biographies and film documentaries and its “history” that my mind associates with restaurants, hotels and the houses in and around these hills and my apartment. I know it’s silly, but I'm not the only one...
The reality is that I step out my door to witness rampant mental illness, addiction and sexist male douche-bags pretending they earn more than they do by spending more than they have and are likely to stand in line for hours in order to buy pairs of limited edition, corporation-branded sneakers, decorated by artists that are being resold at ridiculously inflated prices at boutiques on Fairfax and Melrose avenues.
The reality is witnessing the sad people. The fresh-faced and hopeful dreamers that may or may not “make it” in this town, whatever that even means anymore–
It’s also the kids who have nice clothes and good places to live but pass out on piss-filled street sofas after a night of partying that went way over their heads. It’s the tacky tourists getting taken advantage of by the hustlers on Hollywood Boulevard. The sex work. Survival. The writers, musicians, actors and artists who practice everyday and do what they do in their tiny apartments and wander around these streets, hoping to meet someone that will read their screenplay or get them the right meeting and change everything.
OKAY I'M A TOURIST
I’m not a Los Angeles native, I’m from somewhere else, just like everyone else. I’m a Nor-Cal transplant who took an academic detour in Kansas City and graduated (with a ton of debt) from art school in 2010. I should be downtown, taking advantage of the gentrification, in order to further my career. In fact, I’m very happy for my friends who are doing such a thing, and are working as hard as they can to do what they set out to do, and are selling their work or surviving as full time artists. I support them. Instead though, I take the public transit to and from The Valley to my job as a teacher of tweens and teens who, for the most part, come from families not unlike those I grew up around, worked for, and tried for a time, to be. Carmel has been replaced by Malibu and Pebble Beach might as well be Calabasas.
I’m often asked by the teens I teach if I’m living the life I want and if I consider my life a success, and what that word means to me. Obviously, I don’t know how to answer them.
Sing along with the common people.
Sing along and it might just get you through.
Laugh along with the common people.
Laugh along, even though they're laughing at you,
and the stupid things that you do
because you think that poor is cool.
"... A teacher's role is to fortify the will of a student's intelligence toward understanding, which is not about the reception of fact and explanation, but rather, the presentation of oneself to another; understanding is the desire to speak to and face the will of another with one's own will. Because there is inherently room to question and formulate the legitimacy of contemporary art, it is a prime subject for the type of learning that evades the possibility of enforced stultification."
A few years ago, a colleague, who helped me a great deal during a difficult stage in my life as a teacher, gave me the book that this page is from. It's called, Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education by New Museum.
During the school year I am often asked to make giant birthday cards for the teachers and administrators who are my colleagues, for the purpose of having the students and staff sign them. It's a nice "officey" thing to do, you know, we sing and have cake at lunchtime... it's a task I take care of when I have a minute between classes and the Sisyphean daily charting that our school requires teachers to complete. While I appreciate the idea of the cards, it makes my already busy day extra busy.
This summer, we were asked to think of things we might do and be paid for, since we are a year-round school, but the summers are obviously very slow. Kids are mostly on vacation.
I asked if I could make the giant birthday cards during these slow months, that way I could be compensated for the task and life would be a little bit easier during the school year. The administrators thought it was a great idea.
Turns out, I'm enjoying it a lot. I'm still teaching (as I mentioned in earlier posts, we teach students on a one-to-one basis), but I now have hours designated for me to be paid specifically for this creative work; something that we all assumed I, or the other art teacher, would do for free.
My reaction to this task led me to think about an animated lecture called, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, that I sometimes play for my students when I teach a class called, Life Skills.
It's about motivation and I discovered it before I became a full-time teacher. It's about our human sense of purpose, value, and desire to contribute. I think my birthday-card-making task this summer is causing me to feel a teensy-tiny bit like I'm receiving or living inside of this sort of motivation, and it's not just because I'm being paid for a task that I enjoy...
In regard to my sense of feeling like my chosen life-path is purposeful, and that I'm contributing and feeling trusted and valued in my work environment, I think back to my own experiences in elementary, middle and high school, as a creative kid and a teen. I think about how bitter many of my art teachers were. How judgmental they were. How many insane and silly rules they had for art-making. Rules that my professors at art college taught me to forget about and ignore.
After I, myself, became a middle school/high school art teacher I began to see kids with talent far beyond my own, with resources and support systems I didn't have. Once that began to happen (and it happened quickly), I understood how my old art teachers might have, as the years went by, grown resentments. From my perspective, most of them had given up on their own creative lives, for the sake of their job security, and once I started teaching teens, and enjoying my own job security, I made a personal promise to make sure I remember to watch myself and my behavior; to keep working on my own work, and to feel sincerely joyful while witnessing the talents, progress and achievements of my students; to not limit them based on creative rules I personally decide upon. There are different creative pathways and sometimes people much younger than I am can know something I do not. The day I stop being open to that, is the day I am no longer a teacher.
It's my perception, through the lens of my own value system, my experience and my observations, that teachers of lower, middle and secondary education are mostly praised for things like "getting through to the kids" via routes that feel more parental than academic. We're rewarded for creating systems that help students more efficiently reach tangible academic goals. I get this. It's important. That being said, for those educators whose passions/deep sense of purpose are less "administrative," I believe our feeling of value within this American (the only one I know) system of lower, middle and secondary education can be diminished over time. I believe this diminishing reaches the lives of our students, and can hinder extraordinary creativity and enthusiasm. As well, I believe that young people need to be exposed to educators who feel valued and whose passions/deep sense of purpose are less "administrative." And in my experience, I've seen that it's not a problem that can be solved by schools hiring "fresh" young teachers who leave once their enthusiasm fades. Kids need consistency.
So I'm pondering my role as a teacher, as well as my role as a worker for a corporation, which I also am. What makes me a better worker for the corporation? What makes me better affect change and a love of learning into the lives of my students? What makes me feel valued and what are the rewards that matter to me?
All this being said, I'm doing more personal creative work this summer other than making giant birthday cards, and of course that small task alone is not enough to make anyone feel completely valued. It's just a little connection I made, inside my own head. Thank you for reading.
Last night I finished reading Illeana Douglas' memoir called, I Blame Dennis Hopper and boy, did I enjoy it! I'm a sucker for Hollywood stories, but I am especially interested in the stories told by people like Illeana Douglas. People who are funny, hard working, and reveal an authentic love for the craft, the roots and the history of whatever it is they do.
During our lunch break at school yesterday, I was listening to my fellow teacher, Niki, talk about her friend's daughter who had an unexpected experience lead to a sweet costuming job in Hollywood, and I had read a section in the memoir that related to Niki's friend's daughter's experience, so I shared what I had read as a way to express, "sometimes that's just the way it happens!" Another teacher, Armando, who teaches math and loves movies (especially low-budget horror films) overheard our conversation and recognized the name, Illeana Douglas, and asked me why I mentioned her. I told him that I was reading her memoir while commuting to and from work on the bus and train, and that I was really enjoying it.
He was curious to know what led me to reading about her and asked me what it was that drew me to her, initially. He wanted to know about the first time I took notice of her in films. It's fun talking to Armando about movies, music and pop culture, because we have a similar sensibility, and it's nice to talk to a teacher about something other than kids or teaching. Also, I appreciated his question, because I didn't know how to answer it. I couldn't remember the first time I took note of her, but I know that I saw and liked the 1991 version of Cape Fear and I liked her in To Die For as well as Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart... It would be many years later that I found her web series, Easy To Assemble, which is hands-down one of my all-time favorite creative projects in existence. (It's so smart, warm, meta, and funny!)
Then I remembered Ghost World. "Ghost World!" I exclaimed. I asked Armando if he saw the film, and he had. He read the graphic novel before watching the film, and is a fan of Daniel Clowes' work. After he told me a bit about the author, we got back to the movie, when he remembered that Illeana Douglas played the part of the art teacher. I said, "When I first saw this character I could not believe how correctly she depicted a high school art teacher, and I vowed to never, ever, become a high school art teacher, and now of course, I am one. So yeah, I think about that character a lot but it isn't the first time I paid attention to her."
Not only am I a high school art teacher, but in college I studied performance and video art and let me tell you, I have made some real, Mirror, Father, Mirror-type stuff. While teaching, I sometimes show my own artwork to students (Yikes!) and I even sometimes catch myself moving my hands and arms the way Ms. Allsworth does in that scene when she talks to the kids about "externalizing the internal" (Double yikes!). Yesterday was a reminder that Ms. Douglas' performance of Roberta Allsworth is a kind of guide post for me. A post with a sign on it that tells me that it's okay to be good at teaching art to teens because we can help kids who draw comics in their journals get into art school, even if they choose to instead take a bus going to nowhere– but that sign also says, "never wear that outfit again" and "press delete on anything you write that can be reduced down to the words, 'mirror, father, mirror.'" Unfortunately, I don't always take heed.
Buy I Blame Dennis Hopper here: http://www.illeanadouglas.com/?page_id=14
Buy the graphic novel, Ghost World here: www.amazon.com/Ghost-World-Daniel-Clowes/dp/1560974273/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1495214902&sr=1-2
Before I was a full-time teacher I used to participate in readings around Los Angeles. Mostly involving poets. Even though I focused on fiction writing in grad school, it was the poets (and in some cases, comedians) of L.A. that welcomed me and allowed me the chance to combine my art with my writing in a public setting. I integrated dolls and costumes or outfits I designed. Readings, to me, are performance art.
When I teach, it's not as much of a performative outlet as you might think it could be, because, well, I'm there to help children and also, my school requires us to teach one-to-one. Despite the "audience-of-one" I have sitting across from me, six, seven or eight times a day, I do my best to be prepared, focused and enthusiastic. I'm sure the administration and parents of the kids I teach would be pleased to know that I do not consider this performance art. I do, however, think I've learned a whole lot about improvisation by way of this experience, over the years.
Sometimes we are encouraged to perform things with and for all of our students (who are teens and tweens) as a group, during lunchtime. When I have something prepared, I try and take advantage of this opportunity to perform. In the photo above, I was participating in a poetry-reading event. It happened about a little over a year ago. I took the opportunity to show off a puppet I made for a larger project I started but haven't had time for. I also shared a "prose poem" written from the perspective of the puppet-character I invented. I call him Mr. Nibbles. The project has to do with a cat that is simultaneously anthropomorphizing and transforming into a liminal creature.
Here is the poem:
I woke up one day
and I was a unicorn. Sort of.
Here’s another thing, I can talk.
Grumpy Cat can't talk.
I don't know what I am.
Go on the internet, they said.
I said, what’s the internet, I'm a cat.
Lil Bub thinks I'm a joke.
She mocks my fifteen views on Youtube.
I once made fun of her for drooling
and then I felt like a jerk.
I was just jealous.
What does it take to be an internet star?
Why do I care? What am I for?
I wish I was Tubbs or any one of those cats on Neko Atsume. That’s the life.
Linda says it’s “meta” for me to play that game.
She uses the term, meta, so people can tell she has a Master's degree.
I can read her mind.
I can read your mind.
Just kidding. Lol.
What does it take to be an internet star?
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher who dabbles in fashion. I'm planning for this blog to be an ongoing series of relatively abstract thoughts, videos and images related to my experiences as a person who teaches art to teenagers.