Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Eighth Grade Portrait Disaster

My eighth grade art teacher, Mr. Kinear, asked me to come up to the front of the classroom. He turned me to face the class and put the question to me in his big public voice: 

"Jim, would you be willing paint a picture up here in front of the whole class?" 


"Um. Sure," I said. My reflex was to say yes first and dig myself out later.

"Here, you can use my easel."

He dragged his easel, squeaking horribly, across the linoleum floor. He started twirling the cranks and the top went up like a guillotine. Everyone set down their pencils and stopped working on their contour drawings.

I was the entertainment.

Suddenly I wanted to rejoin my peers, blend in, and become invisible again.

There was another problem. I had no idea how to paint a portrait in oil. I had never painted anything in oil. No one in my family painted, at least not since I was born. I had seen a few tubes of my mom's old paint box, but I couldn't even get the caps off. I didn't know how to mix colors or thin the paint or how to use the brushes. I never saw anyone do an oil painting. Middle schoolers didn't paint in oil. We used charcoal or ink or poster paint.

"Don't worry, I'll get you set up," Mr. Kinear said, sensing my rising panic. He took out his personal tubes of paint and uncapped each one with a grand flourish.

"Viridian...Alizarin...Burnt Sienna," he said. I was hearing some of these names for the first time. I didn't dare admit my ignorance to him. He had chosen me as the star student. This was my chance to shine and to impress the girls, because I was way too shy to talk to them.

What was I supposed to paint? Mr. Kinear handed me a photo of a retired principal. He was a rather hard-faced old bird, not exactly a favorite with the students, and certainly not with me. I had been called into his office a couple of times on minor infractions, and he seemed to me rather short on humor or sympathy.

I brushed my long locks of hair back over my ears and tried to focus. I had been to an art museum a few times and had seen a Rembrandt. I had seen Norman Rockwell's book on illustration. Those guys used oil, didn't they? If they could do it, why couldn't I?


I had drawn some faces before. Above is a charcoal portrait that I did at home to show Mr. Kinear. My idea of a portrait was to make the face really big so that it filled most of the frame. I knew I could draw fairly accurately.

I started by drawing the face with a pencil. Then, as the class watched my every move, I squeezed out the paints and started mixing and dabbing on color. How do you mix a flesh tone? It wasn't pink exactly. I tried mixing burnt sienna with white: white to make it lighter and black to make it darker. The principal was taking on a ghoulish pallor.

I had a lot of trouble with his eyes. Everything I did made him look more and more like a turkey vulture, glaring back at me in a hungry sort of way, like he wanted to pick the flesh off the bones of my carcass.

After a couple of weeks of effort, I finished. I was surprised when Mr. Kinear declared the final painting a success. Newspaper reporters came and took photos. It was decided to hang the finished portrait in the cafeteria, high up on the wall, where the principal could cast his gaze down over everyone eating their lunches. I was proud, but also embarrassed when I stood there in front of everybody for the unveiling. I was a hero. The girls liked me, and it was all because of my art.

The next day, my pride came crashing to the ground when I came into the cafeteria, and saw that my portrait had been the target of a food fusillade. Big hunks of bologna stuck with mayonnaise to his cheek. Strings of spaghetti festooned his forehead.

I never really knew if they messed up the portrait because it was a poor painting, or because he was a poor principal, or just to pay me back for being the head student. Probably a little of all three. It was my first taste of public opinion, and I learned a very important lesson: The nail that sticks up above the rest will get hammered down first.


32 comments:

Tom Hart said...

There's so much more I could say, but one word summarizes my feelings: Amazing!!

(I hope this is only the beginning of more autobiographical posts...)

Cathyann Burgess said...

Good lesson here. Thanks for sharing with us all!

Lester Yocum said...

Hammered at but not necessarily hammered down, Jim. Your life certainly shows that. The minor hammering you took that day did not stint your lifetime of rising above the crowd and, like this story, inspiring us all.

bella said...

Was your art teacher asked to paint the principal himself but just didn't want to? ha.

Sean said...

As Lester reminded us, if that were the end of the story it'd be a pretty depressing lesson. Hammered by some, but lifted up by others -- as we all are if we allow ourselves to be. Thanks for sharing this.

bill said...

Having had four eighth graders of my own, and also having been one, they were certainly pelting the principal.

Bill Guffey said...

I still get bologna thrown at mine...

Steve said...

Great story and remarkable images to go with it.

Having spent considerable time among this age group, I feel safe saying the principal, not your painting per se, was the target. As a former teacher, I'm intrigued with Mr. Kinear's role in the story. It's obvious you were already an artist and would likely continue down that path, but I feel the challenge he gave you -- and the trust it implied, along with the public attention that followed -- both positive and negative -- combined to create one of those experiences that deepens a young person's sense of who they are.

I sense that a "reflex to say yes first and dig myself out later" is a strategy you've employed throughout life. John Burroughs again: "Leap and the net will appear."

I also wondered about the term "head student." Was that something officially conferred, as in some private schools, or just a reference to having been selected to do this portrait in front of the class?

Dan Kent said...

I love a great story - and that is a Great Story!! A tough experience, yes, but at least you were left with quite a tale to tell. :)

Leslie Hawes said...

"The girls liked me, and it was all because of my art."
Great post!

jeff jordan said...

Leap and dig pretty much defines my own approach, as well.

Whatever works, especially if it works well!

Dragon Dave said...

Think of your classmate's actions as less a comment on your work, and more as inspiring them to enhance your painting through the medium of food art.

Shaun Stipick said...

Thank your for sharing this. Absolutely inspiring and I hope those pursuing art earnestly, stumble upon this lovely but heartbreaking story when they need it most.

Thank you...

S.

Kimberly M Zamlich said...

An interesting and sort of bizarre story...it's nerve racking enough to paint a portrait and use paints and colors (fleshtones) you are not acquainted with~let alone during it infront of classmates...and being so young and impressionable..wow...you survived several obstacles on this experience..KMZ

Cynthia Nicole said...

You must have really caught the essence of the principal in your painting to inspire and enable such projection of expression toward him! :D

Definitely a rich teaching in that experience.

Connie Nobbe said...

What a story! Your teacher must have had a sadistic side, forcing an adolescent into going up and demonstrating something he had never done before, in front of the most unkind audience of all...a room full of middle-schoolers. It shows that you were brave even then.

I'm sure the kids were attacking the principals face, like an effigy. You probably gave them an opportunity to do something therapeutic for themselves.

Rich said...

"How do you mix a flesh tone? it wasn't pinkt exactly. I tried mixing..."

ha ha,...just another funny extract from a funny story.

I'm sure you found your way out of this impasse as well, achieving some real skin-tone; and the framed principal on the wall had been spared a piggy-complexion;-)

Why they still kept on throwing sauce bologna at him !? A difficult question indeed; quite hard to nail down ;->

Erik Bongers said...

No doubt a pivotal moment in your life.
There's a lot a teacher can built or break - often without knowing it.
Although in this case, you're teacher's vision for you was probably not far off.

lynnwood hage said...

WOW,James!!I was just thinking today about fear and how it still affects my growth as an artist...and I'm 62.I can't tell you how much your story meant to me!

Lester Yocum said...

"Leap and the net will appear." Great comment, Steve. Very much like Proverbs 20:27 but much more concise: "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord." If you hold up your candle and take one step into the darkness, your way will be lighted for another step. Certainly applies here. Well done.

Beth said...

You were very, very brave!

williamblomstrom said...

Thanks for sharing this.

jytte said...

Dear James

Jealousy makes us doing evil things :o)

vlad74 said...

Great story and good lesson. Thanks for sharing James!

Izak van Langevelde said...

Without knowing the principal, without having seen the actual portrait, all I can do is give you an A+ for courage.

I know a lot of art teachers, but those that stick out are the two that had the guts to do a full demo before a full class of students...

Simone said...

As they say, "What doesn't kill ya, makes ya stronger!" Looks like that experience worked in your favor!

David Webb said...

Well Jim, at least everyone knew who you were after that.
Who was it said that there's no such thing as bad publicity?
On the bright side... perhaps the throwers were expressing there displeasure with the food, not the painting.

Yoel Judowitz said...

You are lucky to have grown up in an era when excellence and skills were the goal not just expressing your feelings artistically.

Learning to Paint said...

Well, at least you can EAT bologna! Thank you for your great writing, AND your wonderful art, and observations on art, sense of humor. You are right up there with Rockwell and company. On a day spent painting a beautiful model and reducing her to ugliness, I needed to read that!

d.r. gurney said...

What a horseshit story!

arturoquimico said...

This is my favorite blog. I agree with the above comment... I put you right up there with Rockwell, Leyendecker, NC Wyeth, etc. Also, great story telling.

Keith Parker said...

Wow. I missed this one while on vacation. This story is so relate-able. Thanks for sharing James.