Monday, May 26, 2014

On the art of art, and thinking and feeling people...

No one liked Miss W when I was in primary school. She was our art teacher, and she was constantly shouting at the kids who ran in the passages and made noise. Miss W was also very strict in her class, and I don’t think many of us liked that. I mean, hell, who likes anyone cramping their style when you’re under 12?

The kids at school didn’t like me much either. Or, rather, not many of the cool kids did. The trolls. I hung out with the dregs, the handful of Afrikaans kids or the ones whose parents didn’t have much money. Oh, wait, and the two token coloured kids, because this was the early 1990s in South Africa, just when the schools were becoming open to other races. The rejects didn’t much like each other, but we didn’t hate each other either. We had very little in common except that the trolls ganged up on us. So we stuck together because at least this way no one bothered us. Safety in numbers and all that.

Looking back, I couldn’t handle being teased, which was kinda like a red flag for the trolls, who delighted in making my life miserable. I didn’t know how to react. (I laboured under the impression that if I was nice to people, they’d automatically be nice to me.) Sarcasm baffled me. Witty come-backs eluded me. So I got a reputation for roughing up the boys who tormented me. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself. My primary school years were seven years of misery, in which I escaped into art, books and music.

I digress.

There was something else. I loved art, and when Miss W spoke about how to make good art, I listened. Whenever I did art in Miss W’s class, I felt good about myself, because here was something that I could do well. Art classes were quiet, and we lost ourselves in the greasy texture of oil pastels or the smears of poster paint. No one bothered me in art class and often the kids admired my creations. Some were probably jealous, but hey, that didn’t stop my quiet swell of pride.

“Look at what Nerine did,” meant the world to me.

Later, they’d pull my hair, hide my things or they’d lift my skirt so everyone could see my knickers or laugh at my hairy legs. Or they’d gang up on me to say horrible things about me being a nerd, that I had to wear braces or that I was Afrikaans. (As if my culture or me doing well in tests somehow qualified me to be less than human.)

In hindsight, I think Miss W wasn’t very happy either. She’d had polio as a child and consequently walked with a terrible limp. Teaching art to a bunch of privileged, snotty middle class kids during the 1980s and 1990s probably hadn’t exactly been her dream job. Those little trolls would rather have been doing other things than learning about pattern, colour and composition.

I thrived, however. Miss W’s classes numbered among the bright sparks from my childhood that I’ll carry with me ’til the day I die.

“An artist is a thinking and feeling person,” she told us. Miss W wrote that on the blackboard and the words stayed there permanently.

She explained what it meant, but the trolls just sniggered. Someone passed comments on how the teacher was trying to be “all deep and stuff”.

Miss W’s words remain etched on my mind, though. I often think about them as an adult, when one of my mentors discussed how our lives should be a balance of passion and precision. How we change the world and ourselves is not an exact science. Inspiration and reason need to work hand in hand.

I keep coming back to art. Though I studied graphic design, majoring in illustration in photography, I ended up as a commercial features sub-editor at a newspaper publisher. I spend a large portion of my day worrying about fixing advertising copy and checking that clients send big-enough images. Any layout work I do is mostly template based. Not very exciting, but I earn a living, and I guess that counts for something. I find ways in my spare time to make words, music and art to get me by.

Art sustains me. It feeds my soul.

My education in graphic design gave me an appreciation for the visual arts and communication. I might not *like* certain artists or styles much, but I can appreciate them on their own merits. I admit a fondness for the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as the aesthetics of Bauhaus. I love letting “Less is more” roll off my tongue. (Thank you, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.) It’s become something of a mantra for me when I design my book covers. I’ve considered the ethics behind the hyperrealism in contemporary advertising, and how we manipulate consumers with clever words and pictures. I am passionate about good design. I love art in all its forms.

So, I admire professional artists. People whose entire lives are consumed by that which sets them apart from everyone else. Who make art and get paid to do so.

Because, once upon a time, there was a little girl sitting in art class who thought she’d one day make a living painting pictures. That she'd be an artist. Today she’s moving little blocks of text around on a white screen and positioning them with images of houses for sale. Or she aligns photos of botoxed faces with captions for society pages celebrating events she’ll never be invited to. She’s still not one of the cool kids, but can’t bring herself to care. Or rather, she realises that hanging out with the cool kids isn’t all that it’s cracked out to be, and she’s happy in her little world.

I might not *like* a professional artist’s work, but when I don’t like his or her art, I ask myself these questions: “Why don’t I like this art? What does this say about me? Do I hate his art because of my own subjective aesthetics? Or do I dislike his art because I feel that he fails to create something of objective worth?”

Art is a complex subject. You cannot please all of the viewers all of the time. (Like an author can't please all of the readers, all of the time.) More often than not, your dislike of a subject is a reflection of your Self. How you choose to respond to art shows to the rest of the world who you are.

In that, the artist is a magician, because he has held up a mirror.

Now the question is, dear reader are you a troll, or are you a thinking and feeling person?


  1. What a beautiful tribute to your teacher--and a lovely, thoughtful view of art. Thanks for sharing. :)

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