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 teaches a kid how to draw feathers

". . . you are right - it is one helluva thing . . . "  ~  Charlie 

Peter London
Every term a small number of students that Charlie had especially recruited the previous term, signed up to take another class with him. You would think with kids like that Charlie’s art room would be pandemonium, like mine. But no it wasn’t. When I would pass by his room and look in, I saw a quiet, ordered art room with tired and weary, yearning to be free kids hunched over their desks, rubbing and scrubbing away at work that can best be described as exotic while Charlie walked around the room talking with this kid and that. When he came by, they interrupted their work to chat with Charlie, all this done in a dignified manner, almost in slow motion. I couldn’t keep my college track, elective art class from stealing art supplies right from my own desk draw, and this guy could take a bunch of ne’er do wells who were bounced out of my own arts and crafts class and transform them into an elite group of art students. How did he do it? He didn’t seem to be doing anything and the students seemed to be doing everything.

It certainly didn’t have anything special to do with the way Charlie set up the room or displayed inspirational art work for  Charlie used my art room for all his classes. There didn’t seem to be any lesson plans on the blackboard or diagrams on how to construct things or vocabulary words or names and dates of famous artists. There were no terrific still life set ups or models posing. No inspirational sayings- except for the ones I stuck up, such as, “RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT.”

So one day I approached Charlie and asked him how he did it, how was he able to get the same kids who stole paints from my room to create paintings in his room – more than likely with the paints they had recently stolen from my room. Well, I guess it was the same room anyway.

Charlie said, It beats me, Peter, why don’t you come in and watch what’s happening and maybe you could tell me. So I did. What I saw was this. No presentations to the whole class, no song and dance motivations or demonstrations, no threats or cajoling. If they were in the midst of their art work, Charlie would approach the student, look long and carefully at their work, maybe take off his glasses and clean them or fix his belt, look the kid dead in the eye, and say to them in all seriousness something like; Y’know kid, I think you’re on to something here. “ Well, see, the student would reply, “ I’m tryen te get this here horse to look like he’s flyen, ya know, and I’m haven trouble with how wings go on horses.” Son, you just stumbled on one of the great questions that the entire world has been racking their brains out for a thousand years- how to make your everyday horse, fly. I mean how to fly. Isn’t that what we all want? To fly? Not just lug ourselves along the surface of the planet but to leap into the air! Join the gods! Fly above it all! Think of the power, flying. My god, you are right, it is one helluva thing, putting wings on horses. “Mr. Beck, I wasn’t really thinken all of that, but just where on this horse here do the wings oughta go. And also, what kind of wings should I put on? I mean, there are all kinds of birds who have all kinds of wings. Right? ” Charlie looked around the room as if to make sure no one else could overhear them, moved a little closer to the student and said, All right, now we can work this out, you asked the right question; on what sort of wings shall my horse fly? Like an eagle? A swallow? a Canada goose? Do you want to soar? Dive? Swirl? Glide? What’s it gonna be, kid? “How about like an eagle, taking off from a cliff and looking down from the clouds?” All right! Good! Ever see an eagle in flight? “No.” My gawd, you are missing one of the most thrilling things in life. An eagle lifting off the face of a cliff! I bet you have seen an eagle before, haven’t you? “Yes, but only in real small pictures and stuff.” OK, that’s all you need to start. How big were the wings? “Huge, man, I mean like from here to here.” Great! “ Mr. Beck, all I know is they are huge, I really don’t know what they look like except they got feathers and stuff.” Now listen son, I’m going to show you how artists see things that they maybe never really saw in their life. It takes a little practice, but once you get it, man! It’s like Michelangelo. Ever hear of him? “No.” OK, anyway, here’s what you have to do. “Mr. Beck, is this gonna be about art or what?” Son, this is THE secret of art. Listen, some people can do this with their eyes open, like Mr. London over there, and sometimes me too. But it’s easier if you close your eyes. “For seeing?!” I know, I know, that’s what everybody says. Everybody who doesn’t know the secret. But you want to know or not? “Sure, sure, shoot.” OK, first I want you to remember that eagle. “Fine.” See it? “Sort of.” Good. “What do you see? “Well, the head.” And? “A sharp spiky beak, yellow.” Fantastic! What else? “A round eye, and now there is a body, kind of brown or grey.” OK, OK, you’re on the trail, now close your eyes. Good. Now look at that body, see any wings? “Yes.” Look real close, see any feathers? “Yes.” Now, look at those feathers. What do they look like? “ Long, you know, like a feather.” You know what a feather looks like? “Sure.” Show me. “I gotta open my eyes for this.” OK, show. [The kid makes a feather.] Make more, like they are on a wing. “Sure, gimme a minute.” [kid makes feathers as on a wing.] Make it huge, man, huge. “Sure, but I need more paper.” Sure. [Kid makes two huge wings with feathers on opposite sides of something like a football but if it had a head and tail and legs, it could be a bird. Another kid, similarly recruited for the advanced art course comes over, looks at the three paper sized football-bird and says, Jeeze. The advanced art student looks at the art critic somewhat smugly and continues to work away at his drawing.] Mr. Beck says, Gawd, I think you got it! You Got it!! You’re on your own now kid, Good luck, you’re going to need it. But I think you’re going to make. Now look, I’m going over there to see what Louis is up to. If you get into any trouble on this thing, I’m over there.  “Sure.” [kid continues to rub and scrub away.]

After class, I join Charlie in his office, and he asks me, well, see anything? I say, well, all I saw was you walking up to a kid and talking long and seriously with them, and kids talking to you in the same way, then when you leave the kids continue to work long and seriously on their art. When the bell rings, they put their work away and leave.

Charlie says, well, I guess that’s about what I do and how it works. Damn! Peter, I think you hit the nail on the head.

~ Peter London 

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, inspiring! Deep listening to the soul's yearning to fly. Trusting the soul' knowing.


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