Have you ever heard the little story about the red flower with the green stem? It was one of those tales we learned as teachers to remind us of the uniqueness of the giftedness of each child. In Helen Buckley’s poem, a small child attending a school tries to follow his artistic vision with each medium the teacher introduces in art class. Beginning with narrowing his drawing to a red flower with a green stem, she slowly molds him into someone who is no longer in touch with his own vision. Then he moves to another school.
On the first day he went to the school the teacher said, “Today we are going to make a picture. “Good”, thought the little boy and he waited for the teacher to tell him what to do. But the teacher didn’t say anything. She just walked around the room. When she came to the boy she said, “Don’t you want to make a picture?” “Yes, “said the boy. “What are we going to make?” “Well, I don’t know until you make it, “said the teacher. “How should I make it?” said the boy. “Why, anyway you like!” “And any colour?” “Any colour” said the teacher. “If everyone made the same thing in the same colour, how would I know what and which was which?” “I don’t know”, said the boy, and he began to draw a flower. It was a red flower with a green stem. (Helen Buckley)
Until two years ago, I had never taken an official art class. At that time, after having painted for two years with books for ideas, the questions on how to improve artworks began piling up and I felt it was time to begin a journey of training. I chose to go to the art program associated with our local art gallery. I wanted to know how to mix colours, how to apply texture and even what different paint mediums could do. The prerequisite for all other adult classes, however, was a class on drawing.
It started well enough. I knew a bit about perspective and found the samples around the room gave me ideas for shading. I picked up some books on my own as well to try out ideas at home. Shapes have no emotions so holding to an idea of technique was easy. I could feel my frustration at not being able to capture what I saw but I was a beginner.
When the guitar arrangement was our drawing model for the class, things began to break down between the teacher and I. Having written many a song with guitar, this image had eomotional content. There was also a sense of imbalance in the placement of the things we were supposed to draw so I did my usual macro image thing and came in for a closeup cutting off the top of the guitar. It was my first attempt at using conte crayons on a nonwhite background and I was feeling pleased with the results. The teacher’s only real comment was that I should have had the whole guitar in the image. The red flower feelings that I had pushed down for the first weeks were growing.
Things came to a head when we were presented a female mannequin bust to draw. I had no real experience with human proportions other than what I had read in books. However, I would watch him take heavy pencil to the drawings of others and just wasn’t ready for him to mark on mine. I had been able to side step it so far but this time, his lips were set in a decidedly thin determined line when he came up to me. I offered him a practice sheet of paper so that he could help me with perspective. What he drew didn’t match the mannequins proportions but I decided it was just a guide so begin drawing, balancing his instructions with the mannequin in front of me. I even lightly marked the lines on my main paper to use as guides. I had come to learn and was willing to follow what he was showing me.
He was consistent with all of us on this one. He marked all our papers telling us where to draw the proportion of features. My stomach turned as I tried to work on the shadows of this image I was being forced to draw. It looked like a man! Nothing I could do could bring it anywhere close to what I saw. I tried to tell him and he just answered gruffly that I was there to learn and walked away. A more compliant student sighed to me as we were learning. “I guess the drawing is supposed to look like a man.”
I cleared out almost everything from my art locker that night and collected all my drawings. He had asked us to leave them for an art exhibit but after the tension of that class and the inability to talk to him about the distinction between what we were drawing and how he was guiding us to draw it, I just wasn’t willing to leave the images with him.
I had taken pictures of the mannequin so went home and tried again. And again. And again. There was a satisfaction in the effort that began to lessen the inner battering that was trying to say I was a fool to have tried taking the class. Then I looked at what I drew and I looked at what he wanted me to draw and I let go of the red flower choosing my own image instead.
I didn’t go back for the final class. I had no stomach for having his forceful intolerance cause me to paint a picture unlike the live model that would be there. Though I could see the potential in what I had done, I put my drawing portfolio away and never looked in it again until this morning when I chose to write this post.
There is an alternative ending to Helen Buckley’s poem:
When she came to the little boy she asked, “Don’t you want to make a picture?” “Yes,” said the little boy. “What are we going to make?” “I don’t know until you make it,” said the teacher. “How shall I make it?” asked the little boy. “Why, anyway you like,” said the teacher. “And any color?” asked the little boy. “Any color,” said the teacher. “If everyone made the same picture, And used the same colors, how would I know who made what, And which was which?” “I don’t know,” said the little boy. And he began to make pink and orange and blue flowers.
He liked his new school, even if it didn’t have a door right in from the outside! (Helen Buckley)
Fellow writers, I like this 500 word Challenge writing school even if I don’t get to see you all on the outside. You let me become the writer and artist that is the me inside. Your acceptance is helping me learn and grow. I think it is time to get my colours out. I sense a rainbow of flowers around the corner.