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 Art Conservation Squad

  . . . this was an opportunity for these students to achieve notoriety, 
often for the first time in a noncriminal sort of way.

Like most public schools, our high school had many extra curricula events in the course of the school year and they all had to be advertised to the school and general communities. One way we did so, again, a common way, was to have posters for the events put up in the halls and lunchroom. The job of creating these posters and placing them throughout the school fell to the art department- again a common practice. Most art teachers hated these required tasks because we believed they took us away from the finer things the arts can provide- whatever they are- and turned us into a supply staff to advertise some other teacher’s display of their talents and their students; the English department’s theater productions, the music program, athletic events and such. But Charlie was happy to supply the entire school with all the posters they needed and he devised a course for just this purpose. He gave it an attractive title; something like, “Advertising Design,” and since it proved to be so popular with a certain class of kids who did not fare well in most of their other courses and with most of their other teachers, Charlie also offered “Advanced Advertising Design, “ and “Senior Advertising Design.” In this way Charlie created a sheltered workshop for quite a number of students who otherwise would not have been able to attend high school.

Because of who else was enrolled in these courses, no student who was in an academic course of study or who intended to go on to college or who liked art or who wasn’t truant for some infraction or another, took the course. That still left quite a bunch for Charlie to select from, and in another story I have described a number of Charlie’s recruiting techniques; making a visit to the boiler room to see if some kids were smoking or just playing cards, visiting the dean’s bench to see if any kids were about to be thrown out of school, going behind the handball courts where he could usually find some dawdlers and malcontents bullshitting each other. And of course word of mouth amongst this crew was a highly effective draw.

Charlie reassured every newly recruited student that the ability to either draw or spell would not necessarily be a handicap. Attendance was everything; he could help them with all the rest. The following is a typical assignment that Charlie would set for the class, and more or less describes Charlie’s method of introducing it. And the ebb and flow of the conversations between Charlie and his students.

Charlie: Fellows,  (the stories I am relating all took place in the early 60’s a period of time when Charlie’s recruiting techniques and these particular classes almost always attracted male students.) something just down from central headquarters- we gotta do something for the English Department’s upcoming play- “A Mid Summers Night Dream.” 

Class: Those nerds! Who the hell is interested in that crap? What is this, a play or someth’n, why don’t they just read the goddam thing to them selves? We got plenty of other stuff we are doin, Mr. Beck, we don’t have time for that. We got work to do.

Charlie took no offense to all this outpouring of contempt of one class of kids for another class. Whether it was the Math Club where kids could actually add and subtract, or the Science Club where kids put on lab coats, or the Music Department’s concerts where kids played music that these kids never listened to, this was a group of people that the rest of the school held in contempt, and the favor was returned. Charlie understood that this ugly state of American civilization was not the singular fault of either of these classes of students, but the collective fault of their parents and the society at large that held these same ugly views of one another and infected yet another generation with the same communicable diseases. 

Charlie: OK. There is so much about this school and this society that stinks to high heaven. I’ve been around this place longer than you guys and you got it just right. But, look fellers; you want to stay stuck in that crap or you want out? These kids in that play, they have been hood winked into believing all this filth about you and about me; we are better than you, you are different than us. You know what? You’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes too.  Come on, they are no worse than you.  Those guys are just trying to get it right, get through school, get a job, make a life for themselves. Just like you. Now they’re coming to us for a hand up. We can give them that hand. Come on fellers what do you say?

Class: Some: Mr. Beck, you say the same thing whenever some losers come to us for this and that. You don’t see them comen by and asken if they can do something for us, do you? No never, no one give us shit.

Some: (a couple, anyway) OK, OK Mr. Beck, waazup? What you got there?

Charlie: Anybody know about  “A Midsummer’s Night Dream?”

Class: No response

Charlie: It’s a play, it’s by Shakespeare, anybody hear of him?

Class: (a few kids raise their hands)

Charlie: Well, it’s a wacky play about…..

Charlie explains the play, the due dates and all the particulars for the class to make posters advertising the play to be hung in the halls. The derisive chatter doesn’t subside for a while but eventually does die down as the students get what the play is about, make some sketches that they discuss with Charlie and begin to lay out the full scale of the eventual posters. Based upon friendships and personality quirks, most of the students work in teams of two or three, a few work on their own. The ambiance of the art room rather quickly settles down into one of serious work, people hunch over their tables, most everyone engaged in drawing and painting and coloring and cutting and pasting. Very little conversation. Everyone knows where all the art supplies are and they get and return the material as needed. Charlie sits with each kid or team and discusses this and that with them. It looks like a professional art studio with the art director and artists discussing and refining the work at hand. Except when you looked at the artwork that was being produced.

How to describe their artwork? Only by a leap of imagination would you gather from looking at the images what these posters were supposed to be advertising. Or even that they were posters. Rather, the students were encouraged by Charlie to catch the eye of the passerby, to stop them dead in their tracks. And in this regard, the “posters” worked. They were huge things, sprawling across several yards of the wall. The colors and shapes were dreamlike, exaggerated, highly stylized, following no recognizable cannon of taste. These objects d’art were extravaganzas that became the buzz of the school. Although the spelling was standard, the letterforms themselves were highly inventive, in fact, for the most part they were unreadable.

But who cares? As Charlie saw it, this was an opportunity for these students to achieve notoriety, often for the first time in a noncriminal sort of way. They were encouraged to sign their work conspicuously- and they did. They were encouraged to think outside the box, out side the school, outside the limits of their peers and teachers. And they did. These posters and their makers became the things to watch for in school. And students who created them achieved a kind of elite status in the school, maybe elite is not quite the word I am looking for, but you know what I mean.

Jules Chéret with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Of course, there were some students in the school who initially did not see things that way, and would deface or tear down these posters. When it first happened, Charlie and his Design class students had a meeting to discuss ways of stopping this all too typical form of school based vandalism.  After Charlie introduced the problem to the class and some modest preventative strategies considered such as making smaller posters and putting them behind glass in display cases, a couple of the students, some of the ones who were held in a certain form of high regard by the rest of the students in the school, said something like this.

Mr. Beck, We not bust’n our ass off here for some dead heads be mess’n  wit our work. That shit gotta stop. So we got a plan. During each period, a team of us take off down the hall to check on the posters; let the rest of the kids know we watch’n things. Even put a reward out for info. We find out who be shitten wit our stuff, dat is gonna be one sad sonnofabitch. See? You get the word out, and you do what you say you goin do, and dats the end of dat shit.

Well, fellas, says Charlie, I don’t know. That kind of behavior doesn’t seem quite right for a high school, does it.  Can’t we find a way to keep our posters from being damaged without damaging our students?

No, no, Mr Beck, We not goin to bust up nobody. We’re only goin to, you know, like, make a statement, a statement, like, kids see a team of us patrolling the halls, checken out the posters, they get the picture; anybody damage those things, well, the same thing just might happen to them. Might happen, Mr Beck, not do happen. No rough stuff Mr. Beck. We be just getten the word out. Dats it. Dats all you gotta do. So, Waddaya say?

Getting the word out, says Charlie, getting the word out. That’s what we are doing here in this class creating the posters that get the word out. How about designing some posters about the damage and suffering vandalism causes  to….

Mr. Beck! Mr. Beck, We not doin no posters about this here problem, We are goinna fix the problem right here and right now. No rough stuff, mind you, just advertising in a way.

Charlie said, “ Well, fellas, put that way, I guess you have a point. But no more than three on a team. And be polite. People don’t know what to expect from really polite kids, so just be polite.  Three very polite kids walking the halls, inspecting the art, that will be quite enough. OK?

Sure, sure, three it is, Mr. Beck. Three. Being polite, real polite. Not to worry Mr. Beck. Polite, like you say. Smiles all around. Just like you say, Mr. Beck, real Polite.

And so the Advanced Advertising Design class sent teams of “Inspectors” to roam the halls from time to time, and guess what? The posters stayed up just like and where they were put up. No damage to the posters, nor to the students. Did the attendance increase at the school plays? Did more kids attend the Spanish Club meetings as a consequence of people looking at the posters? Did the faculty and students of John Bowne High School gain a deeper appreciation for the art of the poster as a consequence of actually being able to see the posters that were put up? Hard to say. But something good happened at JBHS, and the “Art Conservation Squad” of the Advanced Advertising Design class -in a round about way- made its modest contribution.

~ Peter London

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