Saturday, December 6, 2008

Get Busy

(Below: “Waiting” by Harold Zisla)
Through twelve years of public school and a couple years of college, I had exactly two good teachers, and one spectacularly bad one. I can't even remember the names of any other teachers.

One of the good teachers was a high school English teacher who ranted and paced and wore mini-skirts and just about turned herself inside-out trying to engage us. The other good teacher was a college art instructor, Harold Zisla. Over Thanksgiving, I read about an exhibit of his work that was held in October to raise money for a scholarship in his name. I was amazed, that he was still alive (I was in college 100 years ago, and he was old then); that he's “only” 83, and that this exhibit consisted of works he's painted since 2005.

Harold is one of those local legend types. To be an abstract expressionist back in the 50s and 60s -- and an unapologetic one! -- was pretty avant garde for that small, midwestern, blue collar town. And, as I recall, he was an avant garde, color-outside-the-cliché kind of instructor. He often began classes with the “You Are My Oysters” speech, that went something like this:
“You are my oysters, and I am a tiny grain of sand. You might think your job is to swim around and enjoy yourselves. But my job is to irritate you, until you make me pearls. So get busy.”
I remember once he brought a few eyepatches to class, and arbitrarily handed them out to students who then had to draw one-eyed that day. Sometimes he walked around with a roll of masking tape. He'd stop, and tape two or more of your fingers together. Or, if you were right-handed, he'd take your pencil or charcoal and make you try to draw left-handed. And quite often, he'd insist we draw without looking at our work at all.

You didn't have to draw well, you just had to try. And you had to be willing to take chances, to risk failure and disappointment, in order to achieve any kind of success. Those are pretty good lessons, no matter what the subject. And what a rare quality, to be able to develop talent and encourage young minds, and be remembered many, many years later.

Me, I've got the grain-of-sand bit down. I'm just looking for my oysters.

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