Winnowing time

A visit to a virtual middle-school classroom is the perfect antidote to latent depression.

Hiking boots and toilet paper, by Carol L. Douglas. This still life could be my current self-portrait.
After a Zoom conversation that mentioned birding, my Facebook feed was filled with birding suggestions. Several people insisted that I was experiencing confirmation bias, the tendency we all have to interpret situations in a way that confirms our own beliefs, experiences, and ideas. In other words, I was just noticing ads that had been there all the time.
One area in which we all suffer confirmation bias is the area of stress and grief. A recently-bereaved person feels other, smaller shocks acutely. A depressed person is hypersensitive to the ‘heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.
Tin foil hat, by Carol L. Douglas. Or perhaps this is my current self-portrait.
Right now, western culture is in a state of heightened stress and grief. Much has been lost, even by those who have not directly experienced illness or death in the current pandemic. Our jobs, our activities, and our economic and social freedom are curtailed. We’re all keenly feeling the ‘slings and arrow of outrageous fortune.’ Is this just confirmation bias, or are there in fact a lot of things going wrong right now?
As a natural introvert, I’m not finding the isolation difficult. Instead, I’m cycling through my own problem: the as-yet-undiagnosed gastric ailment I brought home from Argentina. It incapacitates me for periods of about 48 hours and then disappears for several days. When I’m in its grip, I’m reminded of the black dog that lurks just outside my tent. My father and his mother both died of depression, and my mother attempted suicide at the end of her life. I escape depression, in part, by keeping myself frenetically busy.
This is a real self-portrait, drawn twenty years ago when I was in the midst of my cancer treatment.
That’s learned behavior. Hard work was how my parents kept depression at bay until they were too old to outrun it. However, we all get tired eventually, and I’ll be no exception. Addressing this question has been on my to-do list for a number of years, but it’s only when illness knocks me down that I remember it. The problem is, of course, that there’s no easy answer. Nor does faith provide insulation against pain and decline. As Hebrews 9:27 cheerfully notes, we’re all appointed once to die.
Meanwhile and more immediately, there’s the question of how to revitalize my current business practice. Yesterday I taught my first Zoom class. My usual practice is to move from student to student, contemplate each painting, talk with the artist about what he’s doing, and then make suggestions. This is difficult on video, because people can either look at their phones or have them pointed at their canvases, but not both.
Buffalo Grain Mills, by Carol L. Douglas. Like my home town, I’m worn.
On the other hand, in the classroom, the dialogue is mainly between me and each individual student. Because my Zoom students had to turn their work to the screen to show it to me, it made class more of a streaming critique session. That was surprisingly more helpful than a ten-minute critique at the end of each class. It gives me something to build on for next week.
I made a guest appearance in Chrissy Pahucki’s virtual middle school art class at Goshen Central School in New York. Initially, I had trouble finding my way around Google Meet, but kids are not only naturally adept at technology, they’re courteous in guiding adults.
But kids can always make me smile. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Spoor Pahucki.
Chrissy expected they would ask questions for twenty minutes. It went on for twice that long, and I’m not sure they were finished when we finally pulled the plug. Pre-teens and teenagers are among my favorite people on the planet: they’re cheerful, innocent, inquisitive—the perfect antidote to creeping nihilism.

Those darn kids

Kids usually stop drawing when they hit puberty. That might be preventable.
12-year-old Cora Pahucki and her painting from Ellicott City Plein Air.
It’s the season when plein air painters hit the road. I expect to see Chrissy Pahucki twice this summer, first at Castine Plein Airnext week, and then at Adirondack Plein Air in August.
Chrissy has three kids. Usually, she has one or more of them with her. As they’ve gotten older they’ve started painting alongside her, sometimes even entering open-to-the-public quickdraw events with her. “Ben calls dibs on Castine every year,” she told me. “Cora will be at Morristown, NY, with me. Samantha will do the Adirondacks.”
During the off-season (meaning the other ten months of the year), Chrissy teaches art at CJ Hooker Middle School in Goshen, NY. She’s an award-winning teacher as well as painter, and she must have nerves of steel, since she has been known to take her class plein air painting.
One of Chrissy Pahucki’s paintings (unfinished) from Ellicott City Plein Air
This weekend, she was at the Ellicott City (MD) Plein Air Festival. Her daughter Cora, age 12, was with her. Kids painting in these events are so unusual that Cora scored a mention in the Baltimore Sun, here.
Each time I see their work, I wonder what kind of adult artists Ben, Samantha and Cora will end up being.
Meanwhile, I have houseguests. My three nephews range in age from 17 to 11. All of them carry sketchbooks with them when they travel, but Gabriel, who’s going into the 11th grade, is a marked man. He has that book in his hand everywhere he goes, and he uses it.
People often tell us artists about kids or grandkids who love art and show great promise at it. Sadly, most of them will stop drawing when they hit adolescence. Only a few will continue to express themselves with pencil or brush.
Another painting of Cora’s from Ellicott City Plein Air.
Cartoonist Lynda Barry has speculated that paper ceases to be the same thing for adults that it was for kids: “[W]ith kids, a piece of paper is a place for something to happen. And for adults, it’s a thing.”
Very little study has been done on the question of why kids stop drawing. What we know suggests that at puberty kids suddenly realize their efforts are unsatisfactory. Young children don’t care about proportion and perspective; they are working expressively. Older school-age kids want realistic results. If they can’t solve drafting problems to their satisfaction, they give up.
Another painting by Chrissy Pahucki from Ellicott City Plein Air.
Of course, drafting skills aren’t intuitive; they must be taught. Our western tradition has by and large abandoned teaching the discipline of drawing in favor of fostering genius and self-expression. It’s the rare child who perseveres through that, or has an art teacher who understands the importance of drawing.

In every class, there are one or two kids who’ve reasoned out how to draw. The rest of their class believe that these kids are blessed with some mysterious “talent” that sets them apart, but what they really had was the opportunity to see how drawing is supposed to work. 
I’ll bring Gabriel along with me for my last regular class of this session. “Hey!” said his younger brother when I announced this. “I like to draw, too!” But I know that lad. He’ll be off collecting seashells and I’ll be thinking up ways to stop him from slipping into the ocean, rather than concentrating on my class. Unlike Chrissy Pahucki, I can’t do two things at once.

Smart kids

“The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.”
When I came across that in a recent Boston Globe pieceon educating gifted kids, I had to laugh. Having once been the smartest kid in my public school class, I was anything but a cheap problem to fix; in fact, my parents ended up sending me to a private school to finish high school. I’m a great example of high intellect swamped by low expectations.
Fast-forward a generation to my own kids’ educations. You would think it would be better, but it’s not. Gifted and talented programs—all the rage before No Child Left Behind—have (if they still exist at all) become shock troops in the military boarding school approach to education we’ve adopted. More seat work, more homework, no time for things like art and music.
Busy work is the bane of the bright child’s existence. It teaches him to blow off his homework and rely on test-taking skills to get by. Moreover, it ignores developing the synthetic, intuitive parts of his brain, which are developedby studying art and music, and, yes, by daydreaming.
I have a friend who’s a classicist, living in penury as an adjunct professor. I’ve often thought that our school district should send three kids to her and pay her the roughly $65,000 it gets for educating them for a year. After four years, they would know history, music, the arts, Greek and Latin.
And before you tell me that’s not enough, America was built by people with exactly that education.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.