Haki Madhubuti once said A poem never stopped a tank. It recalls W. H. Auden's famous remark: A poem never changed anything. Most people would agree, and the same sort of attitude prevails when we come to art. The following snippet of overheard conversation is typical: He paints... Oh, so he's not practical at all then? Poetry and art share the fate of not being seen as part of the real world, or if a part, a fairly useless part. I suppose that if asked, most of us would ruefully admit that there never was an occasion when a poem or a painting changed the course of things for us. Could either a painting or a poem, for example, change the course of a life, your life or mine? I have often agreed readily enough with the Auden dictum and with others like it, and yet there was perhaps an occasion... which is to say, there was a painting that might be up for consideration... a painting by a boy of eight or nine years, yet as I think back to it, that seems to have been little more than an accident, for I do not think of the painting as an example of child art... But I am getting ahead of myself. I will call the boy Raymond.
I was starting my second year out of college and teaching in a large Junior School. A good school, as all the staff had insisted on telling me when I had joined, by which they meant that the children all came from wealthy or comfortably-off families; professional people and small shopkeepers for the most part. I really believe that none of the existing staff had ever come into contact with an example of what we now refer to as children with learning difficulties. Not until I was starting my second year of teaching, that is, at which point a number of these rather inconvenient children came into our catchment area as the result of a slum clearance scheme in the East End of London. The (new) head decided to create a special class to contain them (although there was a wide range of ages), and asked for volunteers to take it. I was the only volunteer. So I, who was the last who should have been entrusted with the group (being the most inexperienced) was duly presented with my outrageously colourful and larger-than-life class. Even their names hinted at them being, if only very slightly, out of the ordinary: there was Roy Rogers (who was always dressed as for a day on the prairie), David Lloyd George, George Stephenson and Peter Wilson, the great media sports writer and pundit of the day - plus me, of course, Dave King, then at the height of his fame. A few of my charges, I would discover, had inherent learning difficulties, but mostly they were socially deprived, untaught or both. A couple had possibly been ill-treated (today we would say abused, but I don't remember the word ever being used back then). One thing they all had in common was poor language development.
Cut to a perfectly normal morning and a science lesson in which I am introducing the latest ideas about how the cosmos came into being, though I am pretty sure that what I was giving them then was the Steady-State Theory of continuous creation (Hoyle's theory, the one generally accepted then) and not what was at that time the new red hot, and now popular, Big Bang theory. Raymond, who was usually hyperactive, finding it difficult to settle, impossible to concentrate, was very focussed indeed. At the appointed time the bell went and they all trotted out to play. After play was assembly, and there was the head, giving them the story of The Creation from the Book of Genesis. Raymond, I could see, was becoming quite distressed, and remained so after we had regained our classroom. He asked if he could do some painting. I agreed, for I could see that I would get little else from him. And in any case, it was easy for me to agree, for I had planned a session in which small groups would be engaged in different activities - schools were like that back then. I left him alone, but noticed that he had taken several sheets of drawing paper and was busy taping them together. That done, he turned them over and began painting. Almost immediately the scene materialised: mountains appeared, clumps of trees, a river, flowers in the foreground, butterflies, and to one side, beneath a palm tree, a naked female figure at the door of a gypsy-style caravan from the crooked chimney of which, puffs of smoke were issuing. Then back mid-frame, and in the centre a deep valley between hills, and in the valley two figures, a large one bending over a smaller one. The larger of the two, wearing a halo, was holding out an open hand towards the other who was pointing towards the sky. In the sky were birds, stars, the sun and what looked like two moons. At which point he announced that it was finished. I used the recommended format and asked him to tell me about it - never ask what it's meant to be! He explained the landscape as The Garden of Eden, before coming at last to the figures. The small one, I was told, was Adam and the big one God. Adam was pointing skywards to the more insignificant of my two moons and saying So, see there, God? I put that one up! (The first Russian Sputnik had just been launched into orbit). I asked what God had to say about that. Raymond replied that God was showing Adam a tiny spider in his open hand and was saying And I've just made him. Now beat that!
It was suggested to me at the time that the narrative was something he had heard somewhere. I think that may well have been the case, but there is no doubt in my mind that he had taken whatever he had come across, from whatever source, and made it his own. The painting was nothing like any other painting I had seen him do. It was if anything more crudely executed (more quickly, I suppose) but more full of life and with more detail. More naturalistic in a way, in the way of naive art rather than child art. It reminded me in many respects of the paintings of Grandma Moses. It was certainly much larger than anything he had attempted before, but the real difference was the slow, though thorough-going change in him that occurred as he worked. It left no room for doubt so far as I was concerned.
It would be easy, but too glib and certainly too simple, to say that Raymond's painting changed the course of my life, but it certainly changed him, if only for a time, and I do believe that the combination of the narrative that lay behind the painting, and the difference that the painting had made to him, caused it to become a symbol for me, an image that came to sum up the various experiences that would occur during the course of that year, which in total would cause me to leave that school, where I was particularly happy, and to work from then on in special education with (as we now term them) children with special needs. Alas, I never again had a class as colourful as that one (neither could I have expected such a group), but my decision I never regretted.
What I have often regretted, is that I did not think to photograph or photo-copy the painting before Raymond took it home. I doubt it exists now - though on second thoughts that might be no bad thing, for if it does exist, and if I was ever to see it again, it might be that I would be vastly disappointed. I rather think it was a painting that belonged to a particular moment.
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