Learning to See From Ms. B

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“When I’m old, I’m going to tool around in a diamond studded wheelchair,” Ms. Jan Bednarzyck, my high school art instructor, liked to say. I was seventeen, so getting old was not on my radar just yet, but I appreciated her quirky sense of humor, among other things.

This hardheaded lady reawakened my creative side, while others, like my guidance counselor, did not—insisting that if I took Drawing instead of Chemistry I would never get into a selective college. I proved him wrong. (I forgot the guidance counselor’s name by the way.)

Ms. B could be tough. Not everyone liked her for that very reason. She was also a bit of an odd ball in some ways. She didn’t automatically accept you just because you chose to take her class. You needed to win her over a bit. It wasn’t always about talent for her. It was also about the ability to think and be creative. Raw skill meant nothing unless you also had a story to tell and the willingness to work hard.

And at 7:40 a.m., when the bell rang, you had better be ready to come with creative ideas—even on a Monday! I recall one Monday in particular. We were starting with simple objects. We had been told to bring in a pear. The pears were mostly green, beat up in some places, with scratches and nicks. Pears are a beautiful thing, but at the time, I thought the assignment was silly.

I stared at it blankly. “Why fruit?” I thought. “Oh, G-ah-ddD, why can’t we draw something fun? Fruit is so dull!” My mind continued on with this contrary blather for awhile, until I’d fully drawn a pear.

After fifteen minutes, the students taped up their pear drawings on the wall for critique. We sat down and she slowly walked toward the board.

“Hmmm,” she said, standing back, hands on hips.

Tossing her head of wavy reddish hair back, she pouted her dramatic red lipsticked lips and sighed heavily.

Uh-oh. I glanced sideways at what I’d done.

Some people yawned. One student tapped his pencil against his chair.

She spun around and looked at him, annoyed, raised eyebrows. The tapping stopped.

“What do you see here?”

“Uh, um, pears,” were our only responses that morning.

Mind you, it was early in the morning for someone who was usually up until close to 11:30 p.m. doing homework, but still, every one of us had drawn the pear the same way.

“They’re all the same! You all drew the same thing!” she exclaimed.

We had. In fact, although they all looked somewhat different and with varying technical ability, the drawings were, well, uninspired.

She proceeded to talk about creativity. I can’t recall exactly what she said. But I do remember that on that day, and in the months following, she forced me to see, to open up in ways I hadn’t thought of before or had been afraid to broach. Technical ability could be learned, but creativity could not.

She showed disappointment but she also showed praise. She pushed us and so we respected her. I enjoyed her sense of humor, her ability to speak plainly about the state of art departments in high schools around the US. According to her, art was being cut from the budget or underfunded, even in the better public schools (like ours). To fight the backlash of sports taking precedence over the Arts, she regularly had art showings of student work. She felt it was as important to have art openings as it was to have football games. Not everyone in the school agreed.

In the next class, I decided to take a bite out of my piece of fruit. The subject instantly became more interesting. Looking back, it seems obvious to me now. But back then, as a seventeen-year-old dying to get out of town and go to college, it took me a while to “see.” Later I would relearn the same lesson in college. In fact, I’m still learning to see.

Thanks Ms. B.




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