My third grade art teacher walked around our classroom as if looking for trouble. I kept my head down and concentrated on the subject we were supposed to be drawing. This teacher was a tall man, bone-thin — like a clothed skeleton in a furry black wig, I thought. Scary. Never smiling. Always criticizing.
When he got to my desk, he stopped, bent over, wrapped one skeletal arm around my shoulder, and pressed the side of his head against mine. Then he growled:
“Not like THAT!” He yanked the pencil from my hand and imitated my short, light, feathery lines, mockingly. His breath smelled sour. “Like THIS,” he shouted. Then, with his long, bony right hand, he drew a dark arc across the top of my paper, nearly tearing it.
All of my classmates looked in my direction. I wanted to slither from my seat onto the floor. Clearly, I had made this art teacher angry. Clearly, I had failed. I knew I could never put that much anger into a drawing; I just didn’t have it in me. I suddenly felt I wasn’t any good at art after all.
I came from an artistic family, but in that moment I thought I must have missed out on the art gene. Both of my grandfathers had been artists. My mother was an excellent amateur oil painter in her spare time, my sisters were artistically gifted, one of them was to become a successful professional.
But that day in that third-grade classroom something froze in me. Ever since then my rare drawing and painting endeavors have never risen above the third-grade level.
I realized this only recently when I shared one of my sketches online with the Urban Sketchers San Miguel de Allende Facebook group I belong to. I commented: “All of my sketches look like they were done by a third-grader. Maybe that’s because the artist in me is still in third grade (and chooses to stay there)?”
One of the many pluses of aging, I feel, is that given enough time and careful thought, things begin to make sense. Like that art teacher, for instance. I can understand better now why he was always so angry. He didn’t want to be there, teaching art in a small grammar school lost in the weeds of suburban New Jersey. He wanted to be an artist. He wanted to spend his days taking his ferocious energy and splashing it over stretched canvases in fiery colors. His rage that day had nothing to do with me.
Similarly, I understand better now my father’s frequent rages. Like a large animal in a small cage, he felt trapped in suburbia, working at an uncreative nine-to-five office job for a corporation he cared nothing about to support an ever-growing family he didn’t want. He felt he was meant for better things. So he took his anger out on others — his waiflike wife and the small innocents around him under his roof — behind closed doors.
I’m guessing this was true of countless American men of their generation: They felt caged, manacled, duped. My father and that art teacher were not alone in this. Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy, Death of a Salesman, considered one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, spoke to millions. Its protagonist Willy Loman became emblematic of the many misfits in America’s merciless economic machinery.
Much later in our lives, my mother urged me to take up painting – if not oil painting, which she preferred, then watercolor, which was “softer,” she said, more suited to me.
“Sorry, Mommy,” I told her, “but I’m way too busy for that right now. I’ve got to make a living.”
“Well, then, do it when you retire,” she said. “I know you will love it and it will make you happy.”
So when I finally retired at seventy and came to live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, six years ago and later heard about the Urban Sketchers group here, I had to investigate. I learned that Urban Sketchers San Miguel de Allende is a regional chapter of Urban Sketchers International, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practice on-location drawing (www.urbansketchers.org).
Our local group, most of whom are expat retirees trying our hand at art, has, after a long COVID hiatus, resumed gathering every other week at a different designated spot, where we fan out — masked and socially distanced — to sketch and paint whatever strikes our fancy at that location. Afterward, we share our sketches on the group’s Facebook page.
Here are a few of my most recent sketching/painting efforts:
Yes, the watercolor painter in me is, and will likely remain, a third-grader. She’s a nice kid. Quiet. Shy. She has no intention of ever becoming a professional visual artist when she grows up. She doesn’t welcome judgy critiques or free advice on how she could or should improve. She just wants to sit alone in front of a pleasing outdoor scene, pick up a long, thin, tapered brush, swirl it in some soft, watery colors, and have fun freely painting what she sees.
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For more information about the Urban Sketchers group in San Miguel de Allende, contact Judy Plummer at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to: