I was maybe 15 minutes late. I ran up the stairs to the 3rd floor of George Hall and popped in the classroom door. Stunned, I froze in my tracks.
This was my second semester at UH. Still in pursuit of my art degree – I knew without doubt I was on the path to a concentration in sculpture – I had enrolled in the basic drawing class I’d not taken first semester.
The professor, Dr. Haymaker, could draw like nobody’s business. A wizard with everything, pencil, charcoal, eraser, and pen, I could not fathom the depth of his talent.
We rendered, week after week, the most mundane subjects: squares, cones, an egg, our hands.
But we’d taken a quantum leap today, boy. I stood there in the doorway, staring at the naked man and woman lounging atop a table in the middle of the room. Everyone worked busily on their drawings. I took my seat atop a table in the back. Sitting on the tables gave those of us who chose to do it, a unique downward perspective on our subjects. Also, there was a view free of classmates’ heads, a full, unobstructed view of the subject. Perfect, in other words, for today.
I simply sat there staring at the naked pair, semi-entwined. After a while, since I was already behind, I realized I was falling farther behind by the second. Picking my jaw up off the ground, I began, as best I could with a shaking hand, to get these two down on paper.
Of course I’d naked folks in my time, but not quite so, so blatantly out there for show, you know? Even Korean bar entertainment in those days could not top the openness and sort of casual indifference of these two. They weren’t trying to be stripper showy. You didn’t expect and ping pong balls to come shooting your way.
I gotta say, they were both good-looking, and the woman was amply endowed. Maybe they were in their mid to late twenties. I wonder what their bodies look like now.
One of the things I respected most about Dr. Haymaker, besides his awesome skill, was the way he would draw along with us. He’d stop from time to time to show us what he’d done up to that point, he’d talk about what he was trying to accomplish, and what problems he saw with his work so far, how he intended to correct them.
This is a teaching technique I never forgot, and when I took up teaching myself, I tried my best to follow his lead. When the students wrote journals, I wrote journals. When I assigned a paper, I wrote that paper too. I’d read my drafts first, tell them what I was doing, where I was going. Then I would have students read their drafts. I wanted students to know that journal and formal writing assignments weren’t just arbitrary, whimsical, or of no significance. Not in the least. If you demonstrate that the exercise is important to you, they realize that it’s important. I would never ask students to do something I wouldn’t do too.
I carried this to extremes sometimes. When I was in charge of attendance and discipline for two years at the Lab School, there was no sitting silently at a desk for an hour after school on Friday afternoon. That’s the way it was done before I was so lucky as to be assigned the job. With me, that hour was spent washing desktops and blackboards, or outside picking up rubbish. Me? I’d be right there alongside the students doing whatever task I’d set for them that day. If I expected them to crawl under one of the buildings to retrieve rubbish that had probably sat there since I’d been a student, I’d crawl in there with them.
Yes, by the end of that two year period, not only were the classrooms and grounds looking quite spiffy, but hardly anyone served detention anymore. Seldom were students tardy to class. No more hard work on Friday afternoons for them if they could help themselves.
So not only was I staring at these two nonchalantly naked people, not to mention fantasizing about this beautiful woman, but Dr. Haymaker would stop us and show us his progress on capturing the couple on paper.
In a way it was very odd to look at his drawing. I mean it was excellent, but seeing these bodies committed to paper by someone other than myself gave the whole thing a kind of eavesdropping aura, a covert, or actually overt, surveillance sense. It was as if I were semi-secretly watching Dr. Haymaker watching naked people. It felt in some ways as if I were part of an undercover police porn bust.
I think I did not much with that drawing. The whole experience threw me off kilter. My mind did not stop racing, even after I left the classroom. I knew for certain that I would not be taking any life drawing classes after that.
If, however, that class threw me for a loop, it was nothing compared to the class one day that did.
Dr. Haymaker was late for class. This was highly unusual. Unlike Dr. Stoner from the previous semester, Dr. Haymaker was never, ever late. He was, in fact, usually the first person in the room.
The buzz of talking grew as the minutes passed. Everyone looked around, all our faces expressing concern. Not only was Dr. Haymaker respected, but he was, I believe, very well loved by most of the students.
Suddenly Dr. Haymaker burst through the door. He looked distressed, maybe discombobulated, a word I’ve never used in anything I’ve written before, applies here. In his arms were books, a great stack of them, and as he put them down on the table, he let out a great sigh. Then he collapsed in a chair. He sat there. Then he put his elbows on the table and sunk his head in his hands.
Eventually he managed to look up at us. Still saying nothing, he surveyed the class, looking briefly at each of us in turn. The expression on his face was somewhere between despair and pity.
Finally, after first taking a deep and decisive breath, he said, “We lost a giant of a man yesterday. Some might argue that he was the greatest artist of this century. Class, if you haven’t yet heard, Pablo Picasso died yesterday.”
Now I’m pretty sure that we all knew Picasso and some of his work, but I think maybe we didn’t react in quite the same way, with the same emotional intensity, as we knew Dr Haymaker must have when he heard the breaking news.
We were all blank stares. We were not, it seemed, as personally invested in Pablo Picasso as was Dr. Haymaker. Undaunted, he went on.
“This is a treagedy, class. An absolute tragedy.”
Again, not quite the reaction he’d hoped for. I don’t know if it was our lack of reflexive sympathy, but now Dr. Haymaker’s eyes watered, and then the tears flowed. He pulled out a handkerchief, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose.
“I’m sorry,” he said, putting the handkerchief away. “I’m just terribly upset.”
Now some of us nodded sympathetically, waiting.
Standing up, Dr. Haymaker hoisted the first book. “I’m sure you probably know this work.” He held up a two page spread of “Guernica,” Picasso’s stupendous work, possibly the most influential anti-war painting ever produced.
Dr. Haymaker proceeded to show us numerous Picasso works from his enormous book collection. Yes, he was emotionally invested, all right, but it became very clear that even further, he absolutely worshipped the ground upon which his Spanish master walked. I mean, this was intense. Between his speech and his wiping away tears and blowing his nose, I got really worked up too.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t go on.”
I think maybe everyone had grown more emotionally involved as Dr. Haymaker’s eulogy rose to fevered pitch. And when he’d drawn all of us up to join him in the full spiritual embrace of the moment, he delivered a blow that sent me reeling.
Again he produced his handkerchief. After he’d put it away he continued, “You know, folks, if you really want to be artists, I can’t understand what you’re doing in school. If you really want to be artists, you should be out in the world, traveling. I can show you a photo of ‘Guernica,’ but there’s nothing like seeing it in person. If you want a real education, you should travel the world visiting all the great art galleries. You must see the masters’ work up close. Study their techniques. The world should be your classroom.”
And with that he collapsed in his seat and buried his head in his hands again. After a bit he looked up. “That’s all for today,” he said, then laid his head back in his hands.
We all stood slowly, then shuffled out of the room. I patted him on the back on the way out. It was like I’d been to Picasso’s funeral. I’m not kidding.
On the way to the campus center, my mind would not stop spinning over this piece of advice. If you want to be an artist, the wrong place to be is in the classroom. Man oh man.
I definitely needed a beer after that experience. And you know, as I thought about it, I realized I was not having the same kind of experience here at UH that I’d had back at University High. I was not really enjoying what I was doing.
For graduation from high school, my parents had bought me a gas-firing kiln and a Robert Brent wheel. I’d built my own studio at home. All the art I wanted to do was happening at my house. And with no license to drive a car at that time, I was able to put in long hours in the studio. My production was up, I was building weirder and more twisted ceramic sculptures than ever before, and going to drawing class and listening to Professor Bu Yu lecture on Asian Art History were as far from the fun I was having on my own as could be.
Dr. Haymaker was 100 % right. That powerful oration had moved me to a new place, and that new place had no place for majoring in art. At the end of the second semester of my freshman year, I became a non-art major, and I owe it all to Dr. Haymaker.
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Aloha #WriterMonday, I hope you had a good weekend. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece on your site and link back to me, or simply leave it as a comment below. I would love to read it : )