Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Unexpected Lesson


“Shh!” somebody said, looking back at them with a glower, which promptly turned into a wide-eyed recognition. There was much tapping of shoulders, before long, the entire group had done an about-face.

“I painted that for you!” he said, pointing.

“And I choose to add my painting to your exhibit,” Beth retorted, her voice just as sharp as his.

They stared at each other, Beth with her hands on her hips, her eyes fixed intently on Jack’s. As the impasse stretched between them, they realized that the crowd, too, had gone silent.

Jack broke eye contact first, and made to skirt the crowd and move on to the next block of work.

“You’re the artist?”

Jack looked up, and saw that one of the teachers, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and goatee. He nodded.

“Remarkable work,” the teacher said, extending a hand, which Jack shook somewhat numbly. “Tell me, how did you come up with it? The lighting, the shadows… they are…” The man’s voice trailed off.

“Well, I can’t take full credit — it’s based off a picture my sister took of Beth. But… It’s nothing special, is it? I mean, I just painted what I saw.”

“Young man,” said another woman, who’d been peering closer at the painting. She turned to face Jack, head and shoulders taller than he, her gray hair short, almost a military cut. “While the lighting effects are all well and good, I find it a bit too… fanciful. You’d be much better off sticking to regular, normal still life and portraits without such… embellishments.”

Jack blinked, then looked over at Beth.

“Is she related to your Gran?” Beth asked.

“I’ve seen the picture, Helen, and I can assure you, there is no 'embellishing' going on,” came Mrs. Chase’s voice, as she stood from where she’d been sitting on the far side of the crowd. “But Jack, come now, you should know that there’s more to this painting than just ‘what you saw.’”

Jack stared at his teacher, then flicked his gaze to the painting and back.

“But… I mean, I— I did! It’s not like I made it up!”

“That’s not what I said, Jack,” the teacher said. “I’m talking about what you put into the painting yourself, in making the art. What did I tell you, on the first day of class?”

Jack thought a moment. “That… what we do should mean something? Technique is something that can be learned… but…”

The students in the crowd seemed to be leaning forward.

“…If you don’t feel anything for the work, then it may as well be for nothing,” Beth finished.

The older, gray-haired teacher scoffed. “Are you still teaching that drivel?”

“You look at those pictures Jack drew and you tell me that he didn’t feel anything while he made them,” Beth said. “Go on, look.”


But she was tearing her copy of the exhibit pamphlet into strips.

“What are you—”

She started handing them out to the students. “Here,” she said. “Now you write down what you think Jack was feeling when he did his work. Pick a picture, any one, and write the emotion.” She handed the last strip to the tall art teacher.

The students looked at one another, at the pieces of paper Beth had pressed into their hands.

“Well, if you’re scared, or nervous, then pass it to someone else. When you’re done, you hand them to Mrs. Chase, the lady with the bright red hair there.”

A murmur swept through the crowd, and one of the students must have provided a pen or pencil. The murmur grew as it made its way through the assembled students. There was a sound of more paper tearing.

Jack stood, unsure if he should throttle Beth, or not take the time for it, and just turn and flee.

Mrs Chase ran out of room in her cupped palms for the slips of paper, and had to hold her sweater out to collect them, thanking the students as they handed in their impressions.

The other teacher, the man with the salt-and-pepper hair, clapped Beth on the shoulder. “Marvelous idea, young lady. I’ll have a talk with the exhibit curators, and we’ll have scratch paper and pencils put up for each students’ work.” He tore a strip from his own program, and jotted something down, folded it, and handed it to Jack with a smile.

“Powerful work, Jack. Please keep at it.”

Then he turned, and part of the crowd drifted off with him further down the exhibit.

Beth held out her hand to the older art teacher.

The woman quriked a smile as she wrote something carefully on the slip, folded it, and handed it to the girl.

“You keep teaching them your drivel, Miranda. And I’ll keep teaching my technique.”

She drifted off, and the remaining students broke off, alone or in pairs, some of them giving Jack a thumbs-up, or a smile as they passed, leaving Jack and Beth, and Mrs. Chase, with a sweater full of strips of folded paper.

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