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 Does not Hire a Fabulous Artist

                    "What we really are doing here is helping kids to find themselves . . ."

The college I attended as an art major had a noteworthy studio and art history faculty, not at all unusual for a New York City University because so many national and international artists sought to live and work in New York, then, the fifties and sixties, arguably the center of the arts in the western world. One of my fellow students was a gifted artist and he and I shared a number of classes. He seemed a bit older than the rest of us, and more focused on his studies and to an eventual career as a practicing studio artist. He was a serious fellow, and applied himself to every assignment and reading with dedication. His work was ambitious, addressed large issues, engaged difficult compositions, and in the end, achieved distinguished recognition by the faculty and his circle of friends. Plus he was a nice guy. Ready to help anyone with anything. When we graduated, each of us went off to a different graduate program majoring in Painting, and so for a number of years we lost contact with one another. Occasionally I read reviews of his shows in New York, and he seemed to be making his way through and up into the art world.
I had somewhat different ambitions and a series of unexpected life circumstances came my way, and so a few years after graduate school, I was teaching art in a New York high school with Charlie as the chairman, and a healthy if modest exhibiting record as well. A vacancy came up in our art department, and quite a number of artists and art teachers applied for the position. Charlie reviewed all the paper credentials of the candidates and their portfolios, and when he narrowed down the list to some dozen or so for interviews, he asked the art faculty to review the selection and offer their views to him. There was no faculty search and screen then, there was the recommendation of the Chair to the Principal, and that was that. I felt honored to be asked my opinion on the matter at all.
One of the candidates was this fellow I knew from art school; I’ll call him Chris. I thought he would make a fabulous addition to our department; a serious and fine artist as well as simply a great guy. I told Charlie what I thought of Chris, and Charlie interviewed Chris along with a number of other candidates. Several days later, when all the interviews ran their course, and I knew Charlie had already made his recommendation to the Principal, I asked him who he had recommended, thinking that Charlie couldn’t help be impressed by Chris and would surely have recommended him for the position. Instead, Charlie chose someone else.
What Charlie?! Could there really have been a better qualified person for the position than Chris?
Yes, said Charlie as we were walking down the hall at the end of the day, there were several other fine candidates. And what about Chris?  No, he was not our man. Charlie, are you kidding? The guy is a great painter, he loves and lives art, he is very bright, he writes and speaks well. The guy is a real pro, he would be a great addition to our department. Someone who could really paint!
Yes, he’s all of that Peter, but no, I don’t think he’s right for us. You got all
By Peter London
that right about him. He really is a great artist. He really can paint. And I personally liked him a lot. Smart. Knows art, knows the art scene. Completely dedicated artist. Terrific fellow, I can see why you like the guy.
     So Charlie, what’s wrong here? You know the department could really use a serious artist, why didn’t you hire him if, even as you just said, he is such a great artists and all that? Oh, come on Peter, you know why I didn’t. He wouldn’t work out here. He wouldn’t be happy here. What? Why not?
        Peter, you and I both know that he is truly a fine artist and he wants to be a great artist and he will be a great artist. But the job I have to fill here is for a person who wants to be a great teacher. Someone who loves to teach, who loves to teach kids about what art is all about. Chris wants a day job so he can pursue his real and first love, his own art. I don’t want to hire a fellow for one job when he wants to be working at another job. We got kids here who need a teacher who wants to teach them. I told him all this and he agreed. We shook hands, he sends his regards to you, I told him you championed his cause, and he thanks you for that.  Wants you to get in touch with him.
I don’t know Charlie, a nice guy, a smart guy, knows his art history, a really good artist; how many times do we get to hire a person like that for an art department in the New York City Public Schools?  If you brought him on, you could work your magic on him show him what we are all about, enlist his talents to our cause. Make our art department really something.
I know, I know, but listen, you and I both know that this is not really an art department.  The kids we get don’t know about or are even interested in art. They mostly aren’t interested in school either. They are interested in one thing. Finding out who the hell they are and just what the hell this world is like. That’s what they are here for- even though a lot of them don’t even know that. So sure we teach art, but that’s just a cover. What we really are doing here is helping kids to find themselves, to identify just who they are in this screwed up world. Come on Peter, that’s what you are doing with them too. Art is just our way to help the kids see themselves and see their world and see where they might fit into or even make a better world. And we get away with this kind of stuff here because we come to work looking like art teachers, and we get paid to teach classes called art classes, but we are after different things. Walter knows that. [Walter was the Principal, and Charlie’s close friend.] Helen is on to us too. [Helen was the Vice Principal and Charlie’s wife.] So is Mike. [Mike was the dean of students, also in Charlie’s circle of close friends and who often referred wayward students for Charlie’s upper level art courses as an alternative to throwing them out school.] And you know this too.
Charlie, what about art? Shouldn’t art count here for more than you are giving it? Shouldn’t a guy who really loves art and is art personified have a place here too?
See, I looked for someone just like Chris for the position who also wanted to teach. Who loved art and loved kids and loved teaching kids art, and wanted what you and I wanted for the kids; to help them find themselves through art.  Peter, I couldn’t find one. So I hired someone who is not near the artist that Chris is, but she is a good artist, a good person and a good teacher.  She may even want to become a great teacher, and she seems to want in on what you and I are doing. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope I’m right.
Charlie, I sure hope you know what you are doing with this. I do know what you are driving at, but I see so few really good artists looking for jobs in art teaching, especially in our public schools. Lots of nice people and some dedicated teachers, but so few people who know art from the inside, know what it means to actually pursue original ideas, that sort of thing. And this guy had that.
Peter you are right. It’s all too true, but listen; there is something else. You are an artist, and I am an artist, and boy the life we have had because of that good luck being born that way. Sheer luck. So now, here’s the thing. Art is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world. Art is not making pictures, or, its not making an illustration of what you already know and now simply manufacture it. Well, it’s that too, but for us it’s more a way of getting somewhere, or a way to keep moving on and up. Moving on and up with eyes as wide open as we can stand. That’s what we want for these kids too. Poor bastards, not having that way forward shown to them. Chris made great paintings. But I didn’t find anything in my conversation with him indicting that he was interested in the on and up business; maybe for himself, but not for our kids.
Come on, pal. You knew this all the time, Chris is your friend, you thought you might get him a job here. You did the right thing. Hell of a fella, I think he is really going places. Come on Peter, your friend is going to be all right. He has all the making of becoming a great artist. Just not the business we are in.
~ Peter London www.peterlondon.us

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