Art in Public Schools

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1760, acrylic painting

Q: What about art in school, before college or art school?  How was that for you?

ReeL: Art in school? Right. I don’t remember doing much painting in school before my last year in high school, other than finger painting, and very rarely, poster paints for what I considered really stupid projects.

It was mostly crafty projects, making stuff with paper and glue, and little idiotic holiday projects, all of which I hated. Totally turned me off.

Q: I wonder if any school teachers will read this. It sounds like if you had depended on the schools getting you interested in art, they’d have flunked  on that one.

ReeL: Yes, definitely, and with music, too. What they did with music pretty much turned me off, too.

The feeling was often mutual: I once got a D in art.

Q: You got a D in art?

ReeL: Yea, ninth grade, in junior high, my freshman year.

Q: Unbelievable. Because I’ve seen some of the drawings you did before then.

ReeL: Teachers usually didn’t like my drawings, or my attitude: Too messy, never followed the examples given, never following the assignment, ignoring the assignment, colors outside the lines, wouldn’t stop drawing when the teacher was talking, or during any other part of class, using my own pencils instead of the stuff the school supplied, making a mess, complains about the assignments, doesn’t like making things, can’t glue anything right, nothing is straight, or square, doesn’t like to cut, doesn’t listen to directions, doesn’t follow directions, draws unflattering caricatures of teachers and school personnel. It went on and on. What they usually called art in school was, as far as I could tell, a total pain in the ass and a complete waste of time.

In elementary school and junior high I’d often draw my own little comic book-like drawings and get reprimanded. By seventh grade they were full-out single-panel cartoons, with balloons and all. I had my own style, with paunchy janitors and bug-eyed teachers, These I had to hide, as teachers were often the butt of the jokes.

Tthe hero in these cartoons was this janitor, modeled after a real life janitor who was popular with the students. You could skip class in the furnace room, if you were in the right circle. He’d get into fights with the bad art teacher, say things we’d all like to say to her. These encounters were often commemorated in my cartoons. This was in junior high.

I did have a good art teacher for awhile in eighth grade, but he left suddenly under troubled circumstances. Seems he didn’t “fit in” himself. By this time I was perfecting a naturalistic rendering pencil or crayon drawing style. This was my “shading” style as distinguished from my cartoon style.

Otherwise I was so fed up with art in school that I didn’t take for a couple of years until my last year in high school. This was a mistake. The high school I went to had a fantastic program run by two marvelous women, one, Ms Brown, who had studied archeology at the University of Chicago–clay was her thing–and the other, Ms Wendell who had studied painting at the University of Washington in Seattle. I would have loved to have hung out in their classes a couple more years.

Fortunately I discovered them before I graduated and realized my mistake. I found out about them because you could hang out in their rooms sometimes when you were skipping a class. I skipped a lot of class or found ways to get out of class. So in my junior year I was skipping class and ended up down in their rooms.  I finally realized my mistake and took art the next term, my senior year and had a wonderful time, eventually getting two periods for art, something that was not usually allowed. Ms Wendell introduced me to Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, Paul Klee, gave me Sir Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting to read the first week of school. I devoured it.

It was a fun and exhilarating time for me. There is a special place in art heaven reserved for Ms. Wendell and Ms Brown.  They impacted the lives of a lot of kids in a very profound and good way.



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