"Artists trying to see, trying to say it, nothing less and nothing more." ~ Peter LondonPART ONE.
There is an ancient story that appears in many literatures that tells of a few certain people hidden amongst us- in plain sight, known as Just Beings. Each generation is provided a few such Beings for whom, the stories tell, the master of the universe refrains from deleting the rest of the human fragment of creation because of our well known bothersome ways; always bumping into things and others, knocking down and everyone and never saying “I’m sorry.” Finding it all but impossible to rejoin on more amicable terms, the rest of the universe.
So hidden, so ordinary looking are these Just Beings, that they are unknown not only to their closest circle, but also to themselves. Who are these people? What are they like? Nothing more, but also nothing less than the Baal Shem Tov, Hafiz, Lao Tse, Fra Angelica, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Day, Buckminster Fuller, Marianne Moore, Thomas Berry, Nelson Mandela; and mostly those whose names remain unknown. No need to mention biblical sorts, there are most likely some such there as well.
|Mr. Charlie Beck|
Well, I believe Charlie was one of these Just Beings. The stories about Charlie that I share with you I hope will bring you to a similar point of view. You will find no particularly bright light emanating from Charlie's biography. He was an artist and a much loved art teacher in New York City. He had a large and devoted circle of friends and colleagues. He was a knowledgeable and good fly fisherman. He founded a number of art societies, art museums, art departments and programs. Decent enough, but not all that remarkable. But it was precisely because his outer self was unremarkable, unlike many whose talents come clothed in unapproachable, inimitable conditions, that Charlie was accessible to everyone. Immediately that one was fortunate to intersect his life, things took an abrupt turn- upward. For example, walking to our classrooms together at the start of the school day, (Charlie was the chairman of the art department, I was his new hire) I might offer the pleasantry, “How’s it going Charlie?” A simple enough and common opening gambit. Right away, however, things would take a sudden and unexpected turn. Charlie would pause, look at me, pleased that I had asked after his well being, and lift- but never ostentatiously, the level of the exchange by responding, “Thank you for asking, Peter. I was just thinking about Cezanne again, and, you know, how was it possible for him to give so many years of his life to the problems of light falling on pears and apples? What do you make of that? Now this guy could paint all sorts of things; villages, forests, mountain ranges, groups of women and men, true, only a few sorts of fruits, and come to think of it, no vegetables- but we’ll get back to that a bit later, but all his life he struggled over the simplest of things; how light creates color that in turn creates form that in turn creates space. What do you make of that? And you know something else? I think it was really his dogged persistence to stay with that same problem, year after year, that he ended up changing fruit into something more and different. Is that the sort of thing you are after in your work? Isn’t that a bit like you and me? ”
After you walked away from such an exchange, Charlie gave you the impression that you had just helped him out of a hell of a bind, shed some light on an issue with which he couldn’t have made headway without your particular help. And as he went his way and you yours, you were left with the impression; well, I just might not be the dolt everyone else –and I myself – has taken me for.
About This Blog
The blog will consist of a number of encounters that I had with Charlie over a period of twelve years, the last years of his life, that capture, I believe, the perspectives by which he practiced his art, taught and lived his life. Twenty such stories will be interspersed with my own personal and professional reflections, some based upon these stories. Excerpts from Charlie’s notebooks on teaching, philosophical reflections and samples of his art work, in addition will, it is hoped, bring the visitor to become an of a Just Being, and over the course of time with Charlie, and myself, illuminate the profounder powers of art: as the exploration and celebration of the Self, as enchantment, as healing.
In these times when our society at large seems to have lost its collective decencies, its moral compass, trust in one another, confidence that truth telling will bring about commensurate results, when we are clearly misspending and misappropriating our commonwealth, and finding it so difficult to achieve meaningful and rewarding contact with one another and the rest of the natural universe, it is the hope of these visits with Charlie and myself, will provide distinct and newly rewarding alternatives views and ways.
Charlie’s perspectives are as subtle and large scaled as any. His poetic use of language is mature as it is refreshing. His ideas reflect a well prepared mind, the way he conducted his life offers an expansive framework to those seeking more rewarding and accessible views of the world and of their Selves.
What perspectives might you gain from visits with Charlie, a Just man?
For those who visit with Charles who are novice and veteran artists and teachers, these stories and notes additionally provide:
- From the perspective of a person interested in bending their talents as an artist and teacher to empowering others to transform the life they have inherited to the life they would choose, these stories and essays provide examples of master teachers who have done exactly that with their talents and careers.
- For the teacher, feeling their efforts to conduct a career with dignity and maintain their own high hopes and original mission to enhance the world, now fading under the mounting burdens of testing, evaluating and conforming to imposed and often alien standards, these stories and essays are intended to renew and reaffirm the validity and do-ability of your earlier convictions, in the schools we have.
- And finally, for those entering and veterans of the teaching profession, these stories of Charlie and my own essays will affirm that it is the TEACHER’S very personhood that is the most significant element in education. Not the curriculum, not the testing, not national standards nor state frameworks; nothing and no one supersedes the importance of the teacher in all of education. Nothing effects the quality of life for students now and throughout their life, than the teacher. As you continue your visit over time with Charlie, you will come to see the effects of a Just Being in the world, how things quickly become different; how things take a step forward and upward.
Charlie and the Failing Grade
On Charlie's Side
There was a young man in my art class who did no artwork. He was pleasant enough, and respectful of the other people in the class including me, but whatever the assignment, even when I proposed that he do whatever he wanted to do, any media, and theme, any size, anything, he said, inoffensively; I’m not an artist, I don’t do art. There were a number of other students who also saw themselves as having absolutely no talent, or skills, or interest in making or looking at art, but if I was polite and helpful and supportive, they usually came around and tried their hand at this and that. Not this fellow. I’ll call him Melvin.
Although I told everyone, that their grade was dependent upon the sincerity and persistence of their efforts rather than their craftsmanship of execution and the overall aesthetic quality of their art work, and kept my word, Melvin was unmoved by this appeal for his cooperation and so his paper remained blank, his ball of clay undented, his paints unopened. He used the art class to good effect however, diddling at his homework for other classes, quietly chatting with some of the other students, even running errands for me from time to time.
What to do when it comes to assigning him a grade? I brought the case of the pleasant but non-art making lad to the attention of Charlie. Remember, at the time, I was only in my second year of teaching, recently graduated with an M.F.A. in painting from a highly regarded university, an exhibiting artist; and of course, I did not know how to teach. I presented my case to Charlie. Here was this pleasant lad in my class who did no art work whatsoever. I described the art projects I offered the class- Charlie saw no particular problems there. I described the options I offered to the lad and offered to all the students; everyone always had the option of choosing an art project of their own if the one I offered did not catch their fancy. Again, Charlie remained attentive and offered no corrections with some fault that I may have inadvertently committed. I described my interactions with the student and here again there seemed to be no identifiable problem. So what to do? Shall I simply fail the student after reiterating fair warning of the consequences of his lack of artwork in an art course?
Fail the student? Said Charlie in all seriousness. Why would you want to fail the student?
Well Charlie, for one thing, he has done not a stick of art in my art course. How can I give him a passing grade in an art class in which the student has done no art? Not some art, not some weak art, not even sloppy art, but NO art at all?
Charlie said, I think that this rather inoffensive kid will suffer unduly if you give him a failing grade. Why cause him harm when you don’t have to?
Charlie, I am not failing him, he is failing to fulfill the barest minimal essentials for taking the course. I want to be on his side, I want to teach him, I want to be helpful to him, I want to pass him. But he won’t meet me even one step of the way. On what basis can I give a kid who does no art work a passing grade in an art course? This kid is failing himself. I am simply registering his grade. He failed the course, I noted the fact.
Yes, said Charlie, seen from the perspective of everything you and I were ever taught about school, you are absolutely right to fail this student. The course requirements were made clear to everyone, you provided many options to them to satisfy those basic requirements, everyone should be held accountable for their behaviors, and a report card should reflect the degree of success each student had in fulfilling those requirements. You are right, the kid deserves to fail. You are a well prepared teacher. I think you are a hell of a good teacher. By the way, your students do too.
Thank you Charlie, and I got up to leave his office.
But wait another moment, Peter, sit a while longer. You came in here to speak to me about this situation because you feel terrible about your line of thinking. And I feel terrible about this for you and the kid. And I am sure that when that kid gets the failing grade, he will feel terrible about this and so will his parents. I guess too, if you ask around the school of the other teachers, and administrators, they would not be happy with this either. You know something, I bet the rest of the kids in the class would feel bad about this too; a nice, friendly kid, their pal, getting a failing grade.
So what am I supposed to do? Pass a kid who does no work?
Sure, pass the kid.
Listen, this poor kid, like the rest of these kids, is not going to school because he wants to. He is not taking your art class because he wants to. He has to take because it is a graduation requirement. He took your art class because it fits into his schedule of classes. This kid, like most kids, wants to be out in the sun, out on the streets, playing, making eyes at one another, hanging out and getting safely through the storms of their adolescence. They have sacrificed the best, juiciest years of their lives just coming to school. Now this poor guy has swallowed a load of crap someone has told him that art is for sissies, that he has no talent in art. That art is of no use in his life. He believes that crap because he is a nice kid and believes what his elders have told him, believes some of his friends, sees the life of artists and wants no part of that. He probably wants a real job when he gets out of school, one in which he can earn some real money, raise a family, drive a nice car, live in a nice house. How the hell is he going to get a decent job being an artist in our society? Look, the kid is right, being an artist in our society is tough going. You know that, if you don’t have to do it, if you can think of some other way to earn a living, why, get a job that pays.
But Charlie, I know this art course and our whole are program is not about training kids for a career in art. We talked a lot about that. And you know my art courses are about other things like seeing and about inner reflections, and about fuller self expression and all that. I think I made that clear to him and the rest of my students, and I believe my assignments are about these broader ways of thinking about art too.
Look, Peter, sure we are in a different business than what the kids think art is about and for and what this art program is about and for. But that’s what we believe. Peter, that’s not what the kids think. They think what they have been told since early on; art is not a manly thing to do, and there is no money in it. At best it’s kid stuff. Some kids get the general picture of what you and me are doing here, but I think most do not. I’ve been in this business for almost forty years, and the truth is, Peter, few kids get the bigger picture. Sad, isn’t it? But is it all that surprising?
Charlie, Charlie, you’re right of course, but here I am stuck with this kid. You say give him a passing grade. Tell me how I am to justify giving a kid a passing grade in an art class who does no art work. None, Charlie nothing!
Peter, forget the art class. Forget the art work. Forget the school.
Think of the kid. What can you do to help this kid survive school, survive report card time, feel good about himself? An “F” will make no difference in the life of this school or this art program or your art course, or even you. No one gives a good goddam that this kid got an “F” at all. Except the kid, and his parents.
But is it fair to the other students who are working for their grade?
Fair? Fair? You think this life is about fairness? You think this kid got his fair share of fair shakes in his life? Have you? Have I? And we are the lucky ones, Peter. We made it through. We have loved ones, we have a job, we are safe, we are healthy. Somehow, we are OK. Not because we are good or because we did the right things at the right times to the right people, but because—we’ll never know. No, fairness may be something for the gods to talk about, but they never delivered it down here. Not to me, not you and not for Melvin.
So, Peter, why not be better than fair. Why not be generous? Why not bring a miracle into this kid’s life? Why not save this kid even from himself? Pass the poor bastard. Tell him he has been kind and helpful and polite, and that there are few kids like that anymore and you appreciate that in him and his contribution to the rest of the class. Tell him he did no art work himself, but that he helped create an atmosphere in the class that allowed other kids to do their art work. Tell him he did good work even though he didn’t even know it. Thank him for giving you a helping hand. And that’s why he got a passing grade.
Charlie, you’re my chairman, I am an art teacher in your department. You are telling me to pass a kid who did no work.
Peter, over where you are I am the chairman of the art department at John Bowne High School, and you are an art teacher. Over where you are everything you say about teaching is true. Give the kid a “F” and be done with the bastard. He deserves it.
Over where I am I am not a chairman, and you are not a teacher, and Melvin is not a student. Over here you somehow got to have a lot more light than you need. And, you have the opportunity to give some of that light away, free! Someone comes by and needs some light. Give it to him. OK?
Now, some fifty years after this conversation with Charlie. I do not recall the grade I did give Melvin. I believe I passed him. Charlie’s perspective on grades and all else slowly worked their way into rearranging how I thought about the primacy of the welfare of the student compared with the good of the school, and how my behaviors in the present might effect the outcome of a future preferred world rather than the maintenance of the flawed world I inherited.
Painting by Peter London