Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Charlie and the Girl's Basketball Team

“You know Peter, that’s really our business, helping kids build castles in the sky. Who the hell else is going to ask them to do that? " - Charlie
In my second year of teaching and my first in Charlie’s Art Department at a New York City high school, I was assigned to teach an arts and crafts class. Although I had earned a bachelor’s and Masters in painting, and never liked to do arts and crafts, I was somewhat familiar with arts and crafts things; my mother liked to wrap colorful raffia around all sorts of bottles, jam jars, and mugs and display them on the bric a brac shelves throughout our apartment. Aside from that and making a couple of balsawood model airplanes with my dad, I had no knowledge at all of how to make things that would fall into the arts and crafts category. Of course like many boys, I did make bows and arrows, stickball bats, scooters out of wooden vegetable boxes and old roller skates, the tools of boyhood in my native Brooklyn, the things you made on your own after school. Now, some twenty years later, I didn’t think that those kinds of skills or projects were the proper subject matter for a high school art class, arts and crafts or other wise.

Not knowing how to make something or like something was never a disqualification for being assigned that exact something to teach. That and the general problem of not knowing how to teach anything at all presented particular problems for me teaching an arts and crafts class to kids who also didn’t know how to make these things or want to make them either. But here again, that was seen as no reason not to assign those same kids to an arts and crafts class; after all, how many lunch periods, study hall periods, and shop periods, could you assign kids who couldn’t make it in any academic class such as reading and writing and counting.

So here we are in Arts and Crafts One with Mr. London. Right off the bat, things are not going too well. It seems these particular teenagers turn out not to be interested in wrapping raffia around jam jars and mugs. I thought that their moms if not dads would love such gifts from their kids. But this evidently was not the case. We had no balsa wood, so that was it for model airplanes. What then to do? How about some soap sculpture? That seemed nice, cheap easy and not too dangerous. We would bring in some bars of soap [unused! please] and carve them with butter knives that I got from the school cafeteria –their own much longer and sharper knives were not allowed into school. I had in mind that the students might be interested in carving their pets, or pet type animals; dogs, cats, turtles, fish, things like that. Animals, however, turned out to be a bit too advanced for these kids, and so they mostly made dice and hearts and tombstones and smaller bars of soap. Ordinarily, carving might be considered sculpture, and that would make this a fine arts course, an elective that only art majors were allowed to take. But given that we were carving laundry soap; Dove, Duz, Irish Spring, I thought it might fall under the category of arts and crafts, rather than fine arts, a distinction that now escapes me. Well, it was something easy to clean up afterwards and the room smelled nice too. A few kids did slip now and then, but that kind if thing could happen in any art class. We also did vegetable prints and things made of macaroni.

A month into the term, the class was growing restless; somehow I couldn’t get these kids interested in this, admittedly limited fare. Noticing the lack of scope, no less sequence to my teaching, Charlie suggested I might benefit from actually reading a book on arts and crafts and how to teach it. I, a painting major from a prestigious school with minors in art history and philosophy, began to learn the really terrific things you could make with aluminum foil, pipe cleaners, feathers, popsicle sticks, florist wire, and things your mom and dad don’t want any more. [I always asked the students to make sure their parents really didn’t want the things they took from home for their projects, and I am sure that many of them did.] With clearly diagramed step by step methods and supply lists, and how much time it should take, I first made at my own kitchen table, and then taught my students, how to make aluminum foil animals, pipe cleaner people, popsicle stick castles, fortresses and airplanes, and I guess you could call them Watts-like towers built with home based junk. Some of astonishing height.

Sounds a bit more engaging than Irish Spring hearts, doesn’t it? But I still had problems with some of the students who didn’t think so. Namely, the Girls Basketball Team, most of who were assigned to my arts and crafts class. They said they were allergic to Irish Spring as well as Dove and Duz, this was the only time they all were in the same class, and that the projects were stupid. So please couldn’t they practice basketball during the arts and crafts period instead. Please, oh please. I was torn by their request. On the one hand this was a ridiculous request! Playing basketball in an art room? That’s just nuts! Nobody does that kind of thing in a high school, maybe in college where athletes are treated with the respect and special care they certainly deserve, but not in a regular public high school. No. That is completely out of the question. Go back to your seats and start carving that soap; I’ll find some hypoallergenic brand.

But on the other hand, this was the sixties, I was a young, new teacher, the girls were really polite in their request, they seemed like nice kids, and the other kids in the class thought it was a good idea and probably wouldn’t interfere too much with their own work if they kept the court on only one side of the room. And, maybe by showing the class I was not the effete out of it guy they seemed to think I was [Mr. London, do you actually make these things you’re asking us to make at home? What does your wife say?] I might just gain a bit of credibility to get me through the soap, macaroni and feathers phase of my career. So, OK, I’ll go along with it. Yes! The girls were ecstatic. The rest of the class was too, watching a basketball game might make a nice diversion from time to time while they carved, glued, and stuffed this and that together. We divided the classroom in half, they put up a hoop, taped lines on the floor, got some kid to make sure no errant balls broke a window, and…let’s play ball!

I know, this might seem ridiculous, and a complete abdication of my role as an art teacher. After all, it could lead to a domino effect; in short order first one, then another and an other academic class might be taken over by athletic teams and maybe even worse. But really, nothing bad happened at all. The rest of the class still made the stuff I asked them to, that was never more than 75% of the class anyway. The Girls’ Basketball Team was well behaved, and getting better. Nothing broke. It was much like any arts and crafts class, except there was a basket ball game going on. I decided it would be better if I didn’t inform the administration or the athletic department of this portion of my curriculum, and I asked the girls, when they dribbled, to do it as lightly as possible. They agreed, and in a while, I began to observe and enjoy the finer points of the game myself.

Being a new teacher, I had to be observed and evaluated several times a year by my chairman, Charlie. Some of the visits were scheduled in advance, others were not. One day while my arts and crafts and basketball class was in session, Mr. Beck comes in, says hello to me and the class, tells them he will be observing me during the class and not to pay any attention to him, just go on with whatever they are doing. Not having informed Charlie about the new configuration of this class, his visit was more than a surprise. The members of the Girls’ Basketball Team looked at me to see if it would be all right for them to continue practicing. With the hoop up, the tape on the floor, all the desks on one side of the room, several basketballs in play, there was not much for me to do but to give them the go ahead sign; Play Ball!

Everyone was on their best behavior; the students making arts and crafts diligently glued and carved and stuffed, and, given the low ceiling and proximity to the sink, the girls had a particularly successful practice session. Charlie sat in the art section of the class taking notes. After the class was over, Charlie thanked me and the class for letting him visit, said goodbye, and asked if I might see him for a post visit critique before the end of the day. The students looked at me as if to say; We did the best we could Mr. London, we hope you don’t get fired. I told them that I appreciated their cooperation and good wishes. On the way out a number of students shook my hand; they seemed suddenly more adult, somber, sincere, as guests would when taking their leave to the family after making a condolence call.

Classes over for the day, I gathered my notes and lesson plans and, a little shaky, went to Charlie’s office for my evaluation. A large bookcase filled with art books and student artwork backed Charlie’s office. The student work that he exhibited in this auspicious location I am sure was selected by him to give hope to even the least capable student. For if the Chairman of the Art Department thought these pieces worthy of display, then certainly their own efforts could not possibly be as inept and woe be gone as their family, their friends, their previous art teachers, and now they themselves had come to believe.

Charlie sat in front of the display, and although I knew this would be one of the most important conversations of my career, in fact very likely the end of that career, I could not help but keep looking at a headless and legless and armless satyr in Plaster of Paris on the shelf not far from Charlie’s own real head. Charlie seemed happy to see me, and began our conversation with something like, “ Well you devil, you certainly had those kids going, didn’t you?” Uh oh. “ You know, Peter, art really does have the power to lift us up out of our ordinary lives to a higher plane, isn’t that what we are about?” Taking a bar of soap, from their own home, and having them transform it into art. Bringing it home for the folks to see. The power of art to transform the ordinary. You did it kid.” Yes. “ I mean, these kids come right off the streets, crammed into busses and shipped off to this place. A terrible thing to happen to any kid. Terrible. And then we get them, scrubbed and shaking. Don’t we?” Yes. “And then we open the doors to the infinite, don’t we?” We do. “You did it guy, you had ‘em going.”

Well, Charlie, Although what you saw was the tail end of the soap sculpture lesson I was preparing the kids for a more complex 3 dimensional lesson, using popsicle sticks; Popsicle Stick Built Cathedrals. Although they will be using popsicle sticks and wire to construct their own cathedrals, or I guess it might be synagogues or even temples of some sort, it was not really all that different from what the cathedral designers were doing when they designed their edifices to their gods- at least in a way. Please realize that what you just observed was the end of the soap thing learnings and, and, (oh my god, he’s going to fire me) and although it probably was hard to see, I hoped you might have observed some general tendency, some kind of learnings, that might be applied to building catherdrals. Out of Popsicle sticks. (Oh my god, I’m finished) at least with a number of students. A few students.

Charlie continued to look gravely at me. “You know Peter, that’s really our business, helping kids build castles in the sky. Who the hell else is going to ask them to do that? This is probably as close as any of these poor kids are ever going to build a castle, no less a cathedral. Come on, we know that. But that’s our little secret, and we have to keep that from them. But we got to keep them dreaming, and continue to dream. See that’s what us artist’s do. Everyone else is shouting to the kids, Stop dreaming! Stop thinking you can change the world! Settle down! Grow up! And we, Peter, we whisper in their ear, no kid, dreaming is good, dreaming will keep you alive, keep dreaming kid, it could save your life. See? But you already know all that crap, good job Peter, nice work.”

Thank you Charlie, Thank you.
But Charlie?
Charlie, what about the basketball practice? The Girl’s Basket Ball team was playing basketball in my art room.

Charlie continued to look at me gravely. “Well, Peter, I’m not much of a basketball player myself, but when the girls were shooting from the foul line, I noticed they were shooting with one hand. See, kids that age, especially girls, they don’t have the hands for that. Have them try a two handed release.”

That’s it?

As far as I could see, that’s it. Two hands.”


In art to win is nothing (excerpt from Drawing Closer to Nature)

In Art, to Win is Nothing

One of the most ferocious constraining forces that weaken and distort
artistic expression is the one of fearing to make a mistake. No one
enjoys making a mistake, some mistakes lead to real jeopardy. But in
the arts, more often the fear is one of seeming inept, unprepared, an
amateur, a fool. This harm to our psyche is no less real and damaging
than is bodily injury. As a consequence, uncertain of our actual level
of competence, we stay far from exercising the full range of what we
currently are capable fearing being found out as less than competent.
Thus we attempt less than our potential promises. I propose a
reframing of the notion of mistakes and what I believe is a more
enabling appreciation of effort gone astray.

In the creative frontiers of the arts, the growing tip of ideas and
performance, the map of the domain is always yet to be drawn, there is
only the possible. Far back from this frontier, towards the center of
things, effort that aims for compliance with the accepted canon and
fails to achieve is taken to task. In these circumstances, one has
indeed made a mistake, the error of ones ways is to be pointed out-
gently but clearly, corrections made, the canon is upheld, and the
circle is drawn tight once again with the prodigal one now safely

On the frontier, such comforts as the true, and the good, and forever,
are harder to come by. Something else must steer effort. Here, people
are having firsthand encounters with the world as it is and bringing
back the news as best as they can, whatever it turns out to be. Here,
people are at work peering over the ramparts of memory and knowledge,
trying to discern the outlines of emerging possibilities.

In the frontiers of art there really are no mistakes, there is only
being brave enough to see what’s out there, what we allow to penetrate
what’s in here, and then telling the rest of us what happened as clear
and full as we can. Sometimes we are beaten back by the strangeness of
what we are given to witness. Science too is full of examples of the
brightest, most careful, and daring, and imaginative of researchers,
Niels Bohr, Max Plank, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, who at first
refused to accept the credibility of their own findings, so far did
they depart from the accepted and probable. Sometimes the words to say
it are beyond our reach. Sometimes the news we bring risks the all too
ready condemnation of our peers. Sometimes it is less glorious than
this, sometimes it is just fumbling around in the dark for something
that has no name and face but ought to, even might be, out there. This
probing and groping about, ever alert to detect a pattern that might
emerge from the soup often characterizes important phases of the
artistic-creative process. The fortitude to stay in this phase for
prolonged periods of time, to come up with endless ways to probe and
to grope, to coalesce and to disassemble, to test its worth in one
fashion and then in another, to push it towards the brink, to lose
battle after battle until you “win” the war, these are the hallmarks
of the artist of their discipline. The ones who fear to make mistakes,
to lose a battle, they don’t get to swim in deep water where the big
stuff is.

To “win”. It will come as no surprise that the notion of winning in
art is much the same thing as it is in Nature, and as unlike winning
is in other such human endeavors as sports and business and war.

In art to win is nothing.

And to say what is known and what is not known clear and full.

This is why art that is most successful is also and equally
heartbreaking. Because what artists set themselves to accomplish is so
difficult to achieve. It strikes us that the very heart of the
meanings we seek, the things we want to come closest to, the
impermanence of the things we love, the brevity of our chance to see
and to get it right, are here laid out before us in the art form by
one who sought these same things and came this close to grasping them.
 It is there in the last self portraits of Rembrandt, in Bach’s
partitas for solo cello, Monet’s final Waterlilly series, Maya Lin’s
Viet Nam War memorial, Louis Kahn’s Salk Center, Giacometti’s
portraits of his brother, is there in every work that leaves you with
nothing left to say, nothing to do.

We know certain things are impossible to achieve in part because
someone has come so breathtakingly close to actually getting a good
glimpse of what’s there. And coming back with a clear account. Through
their… their something, they carry us also so close to seeing by their
saying that we experience ourselves as almost there, we almost get to
see the meaning of how this whole thing fits together and means. And
we understand when we permit ourselves full contact with the art at
hand that this may be the closest we will get. So we are left with
that which is given to us. Presented with a slight but telling portion
of a (the?) grand pattern, we like Job have naught to say other than,

I am speechless: what can I answer?
        I put my hand on my mouth.
I have said too much already;
        Now I will speak no more.
                         (The Book of Job. Mitchell, p.84)

William James, most likely examining this same source in his Varieties
of Religious Experience, says there is a state of mind that the
spiritually motivated seeker sometimes is privileged to experience,
“in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been
displaced by a willingness to close our mouth and be as nothing in the
floods and waterspouts of God.”  When the effort of artists achieve
such an elevated level of comprehension and elegance of expression,
what ordinary perception has taken as opposites, where winners indeed
can be separated from those who have not won, there now appears only
complimentarities, each aspect manifesting a necessary but partial
truth, the whole truth emerging only when both or all partials are

In both art and Nature, winning is nothing because Nature presents us
with an advancing tide of things not one of which is “better” than the
next, no best bet for ultimate success, no perfection apart from any
other perfection. Front runners, early starters, strong finishers, all
posit a start, a direction, and a finish. In the affairs of men, this
is the common course, the one that discriminates winners from losers.
In Nature, dead ends, sports of nature rising up then falling back
into the great stew of possibilities, branching, deltas, piles,
layers, folds, floods, upwelling, accretions, epidemics, endemics,
pandemics, all things have their moments, no gain or height is

Nature employs another razor to determine viability; “if it lives”. Or
even something less severe and much more common; “as long as it
persists”. Here in the kitchen of Nature and also of art, cooking is
the thing, trying, tasting, fiddling around, groping, trying it once

Trying, tasting, fiddling around, because art is constant inquiry. As
such it has no final end in sight that once achieved ends the enquiry.
Employing a telling phrase of James Carse; art is an infinite game
inviting continuing engagement. He tells us a finite game is played
for the purpose of winning, where as an infinite game for the purpose
of continuing the play.
(Carse, Finite and Infinite Games.  Ballantine Books, 1986, p.3)

In this game we call art, the purpose of effort is to extend the
features of the map of consciousness. In this infinite game every
probe attended to brings back news for consideration. All the news is
vital because it may fill in features of the world as it is. All news
must be attended to in order to discern noise from pattern, novelty
from redundancy. A probe not made for fear of bringing back bad news
misconstrues the purpose of news. News is the only means we have to
draw up the ever expanding map of what is. Bad news is as much a
feature of the world as is any other news. A probe weakly made brings
us distorted news, corrupting information, insinuating structures into
the map of the world that are not in the world but only on the map,
making for a dangerous journey for those who consult it. A probe that
brings back news that ought to alert and alarm but is ignored, poisons
assuredly. In the infinite games of art and Nature, nothing is
incidental, there are no meaningless mistakes. Erasing effort gone
astray rather than leaving and reading them deprives us of vital
information, information that is being provided us, often incomplete
and sometimes slant.  All artistic undertaking that is motivated by
inquiry, rather than by manufacture, is awash with probes and
gropings. All the returns are scrutinized for news, the news then
assembled into a story that references antecedents and projects
consequences.  In a great story, a pattern emerges that articulates
all the particular features into an overarching insight into how all
stories satisfy and how the whole thing works.


I Had Just completed (excerpt from Drawing Closer to Nature)

I had just completed writing
an essay that concluded;
"See for your Self. See, for us all."
and, feeling pleased
folded the tablet, closed the pen
put them in a nice gray plastic binder
and began to put it down, next to me
on the grass.

A tall wild flower
a pale violet type daisy
was in the way
of my binder on its way from my lap to the earth.
Hesitating between knocking over the daisy
and spilling the contents of my binder
I knocked over the daisy
and spilled the contents of my binder.

The gray binder lay on its side on the grass.
The bent daisy and some of its companions
cast their blue silhouettes across the binder's gray rectangle.

How is it that I am the last one
to reconcile differences?

~ Pete London

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