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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Thursday, 23 October 2008
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What an excellent post. I think Raymond's painting may well have changed his life. (I too remember a Raymond in a Special needs class - never learned to read but now owns a string of market stalls I understand)because what he got from it was your undivided attention and PRAISE. I used to find that children with "learning difficulties" would often surprise me with something totally unexpected. A bit of genuine praise, a place on the wall for the piece of work - it was those kind of moments that kept me happy throughout my teaching career. I am sure the same is true for you, Dave.
Weaver of Grass
You are absolutely right on all points. A bit of realistic praise and knowing that you are on their side goes a long way.
Yes, a great post, Dave. And, as one who was also teaching at a time when, by and large, there was only schooling available to those for whom education would have been a liberating force, a moving account. What of Raymond, I wonder Did he carry something of that catharsis forward with him?
What a great story, dave, and very well told.
Wystan was wrong. Well, on one level that sort of attitude, that art never amounts to anything, is right, insofar as our commercial culture has no place for or understanding of activities that do not achieve a commercial, calculable result. But on another level, art changes lives every single day. You Raymond is a good example. I've never been a teacher but I've seen art change people all the time. HOW it changes them might be a worthwhile discussion, as there are small and large changes that happen. I have never met an artist or writer or painter who could not tell me of an encounter they had with a book, or painting, or poem, that lit them on fire and gave them their direction. In my own case, I can tell you exactly what book and when gave me validation and permission to write the kind of poetry I wanted to write, which was nothing like what I saw around me at the time. It opened a lot of doors.
Everybody goes through some kind life-changing experiences, sooner or later—the death of a parent, a personal landmark achieved, a pilgrimage, love. Sometimes the artistic/aesthetic experience is part and parcel of this. It's hard to sort out cause from effect, sometimes.
I left a comment, then Blogger ate it. Sigh.
Short version...you and Raymond were lucky to have each other. Your readers are lucky you shared with us.
I think those who teach should follow the medical oath of "First, do no harm." The reason I never followed art closely was interest in it was snuffed out by an inexperienced college Art professor. She had a quota system with a pitiful goal: we had to learn the name of the paintings on her slides and the artist. No discussion on meaning, style, what have you. You know which painting I remember? Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory". That class was like having the life sucked out of us and I felt like one of those melting clocks in Dali's painting.
I figure it's never too late to learn...so here I am. :)
wonderful story about Raymond, its a very good example of how to teach, and also a very good example of how one painting can make a difference. I also think in general that art and poetry cumulatively can change things, and by their existence alone change things too
I like to thinm that he did, but the truth is I do not know. He was a bright lad, probably capable of working out his own salvation. I hope that's how it was.
Thanks Sorlil, I have always thought it a great story, but it's good to have it confirmed by others.
I cannot disagree with anything you say, I am sure that is the common experience of all who are in any way involved in the arts, and yet I can't help thinking that Wystan was also speaking truly. Maybe he and we are speaking of different contexts in which poems (and paintings et al) can and cannot work their magic.
Many thanks for the nice comments.
I can relate to what you say about your college art professor. I had a similar grounding in poetry. We learnt by rote everything that was unimportant (and to teenage boys, irrelevent) about the poems we "studied".
Crafty Green Poet
Perhaps part of the difficulty is that such changes are not measurable - and nothing seems to be of value these days (particularly in education) unless it can be quantified.
I tend to agree with Art on this one. We all have moments in our lives, epiphanies, moment of clarity, seeing the light, call them what you will. I think that for most writers one of those moments will be directly related to a book, a story or a poem. I know I go on and on about 'Mr. Bleaney' and I'm sure everyone is sick of me talking about it by now, but the fact is, it was reading that poem that switched a light on in my head, years later I wrote 'Stray' and the light got brighter and then a few weeks later I ran across William Carlos Williams' 'The Locust Tree in Flower' – the condensed version – and my eyes opened a little wider.
I get the painting; suddenly everything came together at that moment and made sense to him. It is rather sad I think that we don't have more moments like that in life.
Thanks for that, but I wonder how many epiphanies we could cope with in one lifetime? I could claim to have had a fair number of minor ones along the way, but really powerful, life-changing ones I could certainly count on the fingers of one hand - and maybe have a finger or two to spare. Raymond's painting was certainly one - as, I like to think, it was for him... but who knows?
your blog is full to overflowing with so many things to contemplate.. thank you so much..
I really appreciate it.. thank you..
I think if we're open to them, then they happen all the time. Children like Raymond are open to them, it seems to me, if he was anything like some other kids I've known. It's not "innocence," not at all, it's an active thirst to be part of the world.
Little epiphanies and big epiphanies. That's a good point. There are aspects of scale here: I don't know that lots of big epiphanies happen in a lot of lives, although I know several people who have had more than one or two big epiphanies that changed the direction of their lives more than once. Little epiphanies can happen on a daily basis; they're not life-changing, but then not every epiphany needs to be.
I can say that I have had several big epiphanies in my life. Coping with them is a matter of riding the wave rather than fighting against change. The point is that you have to be open and willing, like Raymond, to let some new knowing permeate you all the way down to your toes, and re-focus your life. I think the only reason adults don't have that experience more is that they don't think they can, or shouldn't (how can I possibly give up my accrued responsibilities???), or don't know how to reconcile conflicting worldviews, post-epiphany. Well, let me just say, in all the reading and research and exploration I've done on this topic, they consensus is that when you have a life-changing epiphany, you are left with a choice: make a change or try to avoid it. From what I've seen, suffering comes from resisting the change, never from embracing it. That openness that children have to embrace change, to become something new, to take on a new identity, to reassess who they are and start all over again: that's how you cope with it. In my own life, I've had to re-learn how to do that, because I was presented with so many changes. Sometimes it's a matter of durance. Sometimes you have to be active and start the process. But I can affirm that the only real choice is going along with the new you, or fighting against it. Fighting against it is the source of angst, going along with it, trusting it even when it seems nuts to do so, has always yielded good results. So, I've learned to trust. I do sometimes bitch about it, though.
Welcome and many thanks for stopping by and for the comments. Much appreciated.
Reading your comments I was reminded of another moment from Raymond (not sure why). I was giving a lesson on the then new Coventry Cathedral. We got to the glass screen engraved with angels through which could be seen the ruins of the old cathedral. I asked why they thought Sir Basil Spence (the architect) had made the wall of glass. Most were focussed on the angels or the ruins, but Raymond suggested: So that the Christians praying inside can look out and see the world they're praying for.
I found this post fascinating, thanks for sharing it with us.
I think Raymond was correct, and we could all change or reframe our perspectives or at least explore more merely by shifting where we stand slightly. I found your blog because you are kind enough to be a reader of mine and I'm enjoying what you have to say and the subject matter.
Thanks, the feeedback much appreciated.
Welcome, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
I agree. I think Raymond was what they call a survivor. He could work things out in his own way well enough for his purposes.
(i also greatly enjoyed your blog.)
Children have something which adults lose...they are without prejudice. They're open to everything because no one has said [yet] that they shouldn't like this or not want to be that.
Guess that's why I still enjoy my sense of curiosity...it's that one piece of childhood joy that adulthood didn't steal. Sure, life is tough but like Raymond, it's more fun to consider the possibilities of what life could be if we viewed it at face value, without prejudice.
One kid's pure joy is an adult's epiphany. :)
Well said, I really like that last sentence. I agree with the rest of what you say, but that sentence seems to sum it up. It's difficult to get back to childhood, but that's what an artist or a poet needs to be good at.
Thanks for that.
I too was a teacher. Reading your post made me miss teaching terribly.
A few of the teenagers were perfectly impossible, but so many others were unforgettable.
Have you ever thought of writing a book about your experiences and ideas?
Welcome. Funny you should say that... yes, in fact I have often been encouraged by family and friends to write a book. My feeling is, though, that for many of the stories I remember most clearly, you really need to have known the youngsters involved - or is that just procrastination?
Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Dave, what a wonderful story! A painting can make a difference; I remember my grandmother taking me to see an artist friend of hers when I was a child, and seeing the painting on his easel, just finished I knew I wnated to be an artist. The result of this drove my parents mad, but that is an other story...
Hi Dave, great story and Raymond really knew his stuff, two suns in the garden of Eden is spot on!
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