The chattering classes

"War and intimations of war," by Carol L. Douglas, 2001

“War and intimations of war,” by Carol L. Douglas, 2001
Lack of solitude has interrupted my work over the last week. Creativity is a singular process, and too much interaction—even when you love your visitors—is hard on your work. My Mainer friends tell me this is an occupational hazard of living on the coast. After two seasons I understand. But social encroachment takes many forms. Physical contact is only one.
Auberon Waugh coined the phrase “chattering classes” to refer to the politically active, highly-educated urban middle class. While the term is peculiarly British, the concept is not.
Social media has been a very useful invention in my line of work, which one could describe as “self-appointed expert.” In the past, we had to convince an editor of our brilliance and relevance before they would let us opine in print. Now their role as arbiters has withered away. In some ways it’s a pity, since a good editor stops a person from looking like a damn fool.
Older people like me are still daily readers of news. This is an engrained habit. The newspaper was in the kitchen at breakfast and the television wasn’t. Growing up, my local paper (the Buffalo Evening News) was dignified, measured, literate and informative. It shaped my understanding of writing, certainly, but also of reading.
Concurrent with the decline of newspapering has come a rise in public cynicism.Almost nobody believes that the Fourth Estate is independent or accurate. I’m not innocent of this; I too have media sources I don’t trust. But I’m not sure where a culture goes when it can no longer rely on facts.
It was this past weekend’s horrible violence that finally tipped me into paralysis. No responsible citizen can watch a series of public executions and not be moved by them. However, the hardest part was looking at Facebook. Crisis exposes social media’s fatal flaw, as the chattering classes rush to judgment and normally-intelligent people engage in the blame game.
A number of my friends have pointed out the similarities between the Current Crisis and 1968. Let me point out a few of the differences. In 1968, we were a nation of middle-class values. These acted like a giant counterweight to extremism. In 1968, we hadn’t become as profoundly cynical about the ruling classes.
We live in perilous times. When you’re sitting on a tinderbox, it behooves you to speak peace, not war.
The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. The wheels of public opinion jump to conclusions and then warp the facts to meet their preconceived ideas. I need social media, but at times it drives me nuts.

The Sketchbook Wars

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to the sermon.

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to a sermon.
This week my student noticed that she seemed to be seeing things differently since she started to draw. That is because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it’s a power you can use for good or evil. Only you control whether you make good choices, like art, or bad ones, like using drugs.
Before the invention of the camera, people in many different fields were expected to understand how to draw. The visual image was almost as important for communication as were words. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line,” or “I’m not talented.” Drawing was too important to leave to a few anointed geniuses.
An ear of someone sitting nearby. Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.

Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.
That’s why I love this recent story in Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
As I noted Wednesday, kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Personally, I think art is how they process the amazing changes their young brains are experiencing. Why most kids quit drawing is not well-studied, but cultural factors play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Coat thrown over a chair.

Coat thrown over a chair. You get to draw this a lot in the Northeast.
I always encourage people—and especially children—to carry sketchbooks around with them. Ten minutes in the doctor’s waiting room is far more productive when you surreptitiously draw the person across from you than when you leaf through last year’s People magazine.
I sketch in church because I’m someone who processes words better when my hands are busy. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit.
But try applying that principle to ADHD kids in school and you get into major trouble. My son needed the distraction of drawing when asked to sit for hours on end. His school absolutely forbade it. Letting him draw would break down discipline in the classroom. Their answer was drugs or a special school for troubled kids. As you can imagine, his school career was one long, unpleasant skirmish.
Don't ask me what those words mean.

Don’t ask me what those words mean.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth. Now that he’s in college, where he is in charge of his own actions, he’s on the Honor Roll.
An art teacher friend of mine told me that the only time her kid ever got in trouble was for drawing in class. It was one of the issues that motivated her to move to another district. If she, a respected professional, couldn’t get the administration to understand the value of drawing, who could?
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Educators would do well to remember that.

Frog weather

I have decided to repost my BDN blog here so that my non-Maine friends who object to the survey can see it.

Class at Schoodic Point.

Class at Schoodic Point.
My pal is a righteous church-going grandmother from Allegheny County, PA. Yesterday, she was offered $50 to perform an immoral act. We were both a little confused about the economics. If that’s the going rate, prostitution really doesn’t pay well.
In reality, she’s a residential advisor at a center for adults with developmental disabilities. This is empowering and important work. I teach painting, which isn’t as immediately beneficial to society, but is probably equally important in the bigger picture.
A happy student

A happy student
I’ve been painting since many of you were in short pants, and teaching since you were angst-ridden teenagers. You could read my long and boring CV here, or you can cut to the main point: lots of people have become better artists by studying with me.
I understand from my pals that it’s hotter than blue blazes in my birth state of New York. I was dismayed to see photos from last weekend’s Battle of Fort Niagara reenactment in Youngstown, NY. The parade grounds appear as parched, brown and dusty as the ancient walls of the fort itself. It’s been hot, humid and hazy downstate, too, where there’s been an air quality advisory for metropolitan New York. In fact, that’s the way it’s been going for much of America so far this summer.

Here in Rockport, Maine, it is hitting the 70s, but there is a cool breeze. In Acadia, it might even be a few degrees cooler. That’s one reason you should consider joining me in Acadia’s Schoodic Institute for this year’s Sea & Sky workshop from August 7 to 12.
The Schoodic Institute isn’t open to the public. To stay there, you need to be part of an educational program. That makes it quiet and secluded. I’ve watched its transition from a former navy base to its current incarnation as an educational institution. Someday we will all brag about having been there.
Me, demoing.

Me, demoing.
Some of the best painting on the East Coast is there. High granite cliffs drop down to the misty green depths of Frenchmen’s Bay. Atlantic surf roars onto Schoodic point in the clear light of Maine, which is like no other light in the northeast.
If you’re a history buff, you know that this is Acadia’s centennial year. That makes our workshop part of an amazing run of history.
Our lobster bake.

Our lobster bake.
The cost for this whole shindig including instruction, meals, accommodation, and a lobster feast is just $1600. Compare that to other workshops and you’ll realize it’s a great deal.
Yes, I have a few openings left. I believe that the people who go are those who are meant to go. Perhaps that’s you. If so, email me soon so you can snag one of these last spots.