I dream about making furniture out of insect wings. Tiny, sheer, delicate and for whom?
Upon rising, I think about size in creative endeavor. How scale matters. I wonder: am I working too small — somehow limiting the scope of my work — or perhaps, the opposite — making life difficult by bucking a natural inclination to work small?
A large wall quilt. A goddamned novel.
And then out of nowhere, I remember something my mother said to me when I was seventeen or eighteen: “You may very well be a miniaturist.” Her tone was curious detachment as if still considering the idea, not at all one of her emphatic pronouncements.
For reasons both complicated and pragmatic, I spent my senior year at the school where my mother’d been teaching for almost a decade. For a span of nine months, then, she was both mother and art teacher to me and for nine months, I was her daughter and her student (and the ‘art teacher’s daughter’).
That year, I was perpetually embarrassed by my mother — what 17 year old isn’t? Her clothes. Her laugh. Her opinions. I still remember how cringe-worthy her repeated mispronunciation of the late Baroque period was — making it sound less like a hot beverage and more like a porn star’s screen name — Ro-COCK-oh. Again, Mom? Really?
But, overall it was good. For one thing, seeing her in her element enlarged my view of her. In particular, it lent credence to an assertion she’d been making for years about having this respected competence elsewhere (as opposed to the beleaguered and disputed competence at home). But more importantly, I was the beneficiary of her considerable skill as a teacher. Of course, she dispensed observations and enthusiasms throughout my childhood, but as her student, the feedback was sustained and structured and something a little different could unfold.
Even now, it’s hard to square my mother’s capacity to run rough shod over people with her perceptive skill in the art room. Imagine a woman walking into the teachers’ lounge of a small school where she’s disliked by a majority of her peers — a place where her chain smoking and a tendency toward dismissive, smug bombast put people off.
Now picture that same person entering her classroom and coming alive with the give and take with her students. Watch that same forceful delivery of opinion turn a shy student into an aspiring artist. Yes! That quiet student who formerly floated from class to class in ghost-like invisibility has become a person determined to make something beautiful and certain she can do it — because of my mother.
You know how teachers talk about ‘that one student’ that made their entire teaching career worthwhile? My mother sometimes had two a year.
My mother taught her students that they had something to say and that how they said it was both unique and discover-able.
Teenagers who’d convinced themselves by the ripe old age of 15 that they were ordinary or ‘just jocks’ found out otherwise in her classroom. For the wild kids (called ‘juvenile delinquents’ back then), she’d harness their misspent leadership energies without judgment, instilling no end of appreciation. “Give ’em a job,” she’d cackle.
Of course, she celebrated talent — what teacher doesn’t? For those students, her unique skill seemed to be in knowing when to gush effusively (but sincerely!) and when to step back and let them struggle. She ushered one outstanding student after another into their talent.
Is the observation as straight forward as it sounds — as in, ‘work small’? Given that my mother was right about an obnoxious number of things, I’m willing to consider this anew, but not exactly sure how to.When I removed a small section of a semi-large quilt to work on separately, I considered letting the fragment stand alone. I do this all the time.
(The fragment has been returned to the whole). Sometimes, when the prospect of finishing a first draft overwhelms, I get energized at the idea of trying to get excerpts published (and then, ironically, I can get back at it).Is scale of work as innate as our preference for certain palettes? And if it is, is it useful to step outside of that preference now and again and see what happens? What results if we don’t discover or honor our basic preference regarding scale — does it add pitch to the learning curve in a distressing manner, building in frustration that could be avoided? Or is this something else?
Before I go, I have to tell you we’ve had a string of truly beautiful summer days here. The weather was especially nice for a small birthday gathering for K yesterday — very Napa-valley with the tables in the yard and flowers cut from the garden. Of course, our new fire table was a big hit!
Insect drawing from RoyalSocietyPublishing.org.