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My Art: The Abstract Mummy

by Laura W. Haywood


I look back on my high school days and I sometimes wonder why someone didn't murder me, particularly the two members of the art department. Not that I got into any kind of real trouble. This was the 50's and I was, by and large, a good kid. I was just pigheaded. My experience in art is an example.

Art has never been my forte. When I was in first grade, the rules were — until you drew a recognizable picture of something, anything — you had to use the left-over crayons from the year before. I was the last kid in the class to get a new box of crayons. It took me forever to realize what the others knew from day one — that if you drew two vertical lines and connected the top with a big, rough circle, you had something that looked like a tree.

In my senior year in high school, somebody finally noticed that I had too many study halls. I had them because I wasn't taking gym. My mother, in an attempt to keep the family from going broke from medical bills had gotten me a doctor's note, excusing me from gym. The gym program at my school included things related to the gymnastics you see in the Olympics. Any attempt on my part to do something like that was guaranteed to produce hospital stays.

Hence the study halls. I was perfectly content with having time to daydream in the library, but the powers that be decided I had to fill some of those hours with a course. Since it was a month into the term, art proved the best possibility, and I was sent to the studios on the top floor to be creative. I was put in a room with a bunch of other girls (it was an all-girl school), given a coil of wire, and told to make something. My first thought was a coat hanger but, on reflection, I concluded that wouldn't fly. I settled on a giraffe, primarily because the neck I created was too long for a dog, which had been my original intention. After days of bending and re-bending wire, I had a creature with four legs, a head on a long neck, and a tail. Unfortunately, it also had a lumpy back — once you bend wire, it's very difficult to get it straight again.

When the poor man who taught wire sculpture came in to check on my progress — I shall omit his name to spare his family further grief; he had a heart attack the year after I was in his class — I showed him the creature I had dubbed "Herkimer."

"What is it?" he asked.

"It's a cross between a camel and a giraffe," I replied. He wanted to destroy it, but I put it behind my back and, as a matter of fact, Herkimer is in my family room to this day. I'm rather fond of it, though no one else is.

He moved me to ceramics, and gave me a lump of clay. There was only one other girl in the ceramics class. The difficulty was, she was a friend of mine and, worse, she was working on the only potters' wheel. I was fascinated by what she was doing and, of course, we got talking. And talking and talking. As we talked, I rolled a lump of clay back and forth on the table. After several weeks of this, I had a fat sausage. One day I looked at it and realized it wouldn't be long until the teacher came in to check on my progress. After a few minutes study, I narrowed the middle of the sausage and continued my conversation.

When the teacher finally arrived to check on me, he looked at the sort of stylized dumb bell I'd created and his face turned several colors. With an attempt at restraint, he spit out, "What is it?"

"It's an abstract mummy," I replied, and he lost it. His hand flew out and he flattened my masterpiece. He decided that painting might be better for me. I'm sure he reached that conclusion because Mrs. Greentree (not her name) taught painting. Mrs. Greentree welcomed me with a forced enthusiasm.

"Art," she told me, "is the only truly free medium. You can do anything you want." What I wanted was to get back to my study halls, but that clearly wasn't in the cards. It was close to the end of the semester, and she set me to drawing her potted philodendron until the new term started.

Every day, I went to the studio, set up the plant, and tried to draw it. After about a week of this, she came to check on me. I showed her the pot I'd drawn and said I was just starting on the plant.

"It took you a week to draw the flowerpot?" she asked.

"Oh, no. I did the pot today."

"Well, where's the rest of your work?"

"I threw it out," I explained. "I keep having to start over because the plant keeps growing."

"But you aren't supposed to be copying each leaf," she said. "You're supposed to use the plant as a general model and arrange the leaves with your imagination."

"Oh," I said helpfully.

Mercifully the semester ended, but I still had too many study halls, so I was back in art. This time, in a class. We started from the beginning. Mrs. Greentree explained the principles of the color wheel and we each created our own. I was able to create one by copying the one the girl next to me made, but I never really believed that mixing colors on opposite sides of the wheel would produce a warm gray.

After some work on perspective, we set out on our real project: designing wallpaper. We were given stacks of magazines and told to select a picture that would form the basis of our design. I must have been hungry, because I thought of kitchen wallpaper and settled on a picture of chickens.

Mrs. Greentree then showed us how to make a grid on the picture we'd chosen and to make a matching grid on a sheet of art paper. Once the squares were drawn, you copied the squiggle that was in each square on the magazine picture onto the art paper. Amazingly, it produced a recognizable chicken. You then repeated the process, creating a design of three chickens here, one there and so on.

When you had the basic design, you added color.

That's when I got in trouble. I studied the chickens and decided that gray chickens with red combs on the roosters and a few blades of green grass would be perfect. So I did what any sensible non-artist would do I mixed black and white paint, colored my gray chickens, added the touches of red and green and, voila! A wallpaper design. I was delighted with it. You could tell what it was and I liked the colors.

Mrs. Greentree was not delighted. She studied it and then demanded to know when I had ever seen gray chickens. I hadn't the heart to tell her the only chickens I'd ever seen were fried or roasted. (I was a city girl and, as I learned later, so was she; there is a breed of gray chickens). "And how did you get that gray?" she asked, an ominous tone in her voice.

"I mixed black and white," I said, reasonably.

"Do you remember the color wheel?" she asked sweetly. "When you mix black and white, you get a dead gray, not the warm gray you'd get by using colors opposite each other on the color wheel. This gray is dead. Dead, dead, dead."

"But I like dead gray chickens," I said. "And, besides, art is the only truly free medium. You can do whatever you want. This is what I wanted."

The powers that be decided that too many study halls wasn't such a bad thing after all.


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