Thursday, July 1, 2010

Broccoli as teacher

I love clouds. They can become anything you want them to be in case the reflective and wispy beauty of them just being clouds isn't enough for you. Anyone with half an imagination can see elephants or ostriches or bunnies in clouds. I love them because almost anyway you paint them and in any color you choose, they are recognizable as clouds. You can make them long and stretchy or puffy with hard edges or soft edges and almost no one will walk by and ask what you are drawing. They are not like drawing hands or faces or if you are particularly masochistic, broccoli.

My art students, especially those rare complaining ones who don't like what I have chosen for them to draw, have heard my broccoli story countless times. I may have even told it already on this blog. My memory is often as wispy as a cloud.

Determined from a very young age to become a famous artist, I did not realize that art students would be required to draw something other than horses. I was in for some rude awakenings in college when my professor told me that we were to spend a full semester drawing a stalk of broccoli.

He was an eccentric professor even before we were assigned the broccoli project. He used to talk with a hot coffee cup at his lips, the steam rising into his face. I don't recall him ever taking a sip, just always being on the verge of it. I remember very little of what he lectured about because inside my head, my inner voice was screaming, "Would you take a drink before you burn your nostril hairs already!?" On top of the maddening near-coffee drinking, he would also mumble. He would stand in front of the classroom, clutching the coffee mug in two hands like it was a loaf of bread, and hold it against his lower lip, steam obscuring his face til it cooled, and he would mumble goggledygook that even if we could hear it, we would be unable to comprehend the words. But rumor had it that he was a great New York City artist, well known and respected in his field so I suffered through the mumbling near-coffee drinking oddball in hopes of learning how to be great.

You can imagine the shock when I finally understood one of his sentences. We were to spend the semester drawing broccoli. Not even a whole bunch or broccoli, which even I could envision spending a class or two on, but an entire semester on one floret. Now thirty years later, I don't remember how we kept our stalk fresh a whole semester....I have dim memories of wrapping it in saran wrap and labeling it for him to keep til the next class. Even so it seems unlikely the broccoli remained unchanged the whole semester. I wonder if we had to change our drawing as it decomposed. I just don't remember.

When I first looked at my broccoli, being a very fast drawer, I finished sketching it in about 3 minutes. I glanced at my watch. I only had 23 hours and 57 minutes of the semester class left to work on it. I sat back and looked at it. It was clearly a picture of broccoli, as honestly, broccoli is not a lot harder to draw than clouds. The professor shuffled by, the ever present coffee cup against his bottom lip.

He pointed at my broccoli.
His finger slid along the edge of the stalk and then pointed at my picture.
"Did my finger move in a straight line?" he asked.
(however it sounded more like "dimafingmovin stray line?")
And of course it had not and his point was well made. My broccoli stalk was fairly straight. I had missed miniscule bumps and valleys in the outline. It took me at least another 3 minutes just to correct that. Now there were only 23 hours and 54 minutes left of the semester.
The professor slunk to my side again. This time he pointed at the floret itself. He told me to pick it up and look at it closely and describe what I saw. He encouraged me to explore it deeply, to experience the soul and essence of the broccoli.... to find what was unique about that broccoli stalk and give it character, individuality, meaning.

I am sure you can imagine the response such pronouncements produced in this middle class, suburban, near normal young adult. All I really wanted to draw was another horse, and now I was being told that broccoli had a soul and I needed to ferret it out and somehow convey it pictorially. This promised to be a long semester.

The funny thing was the more I got to know that stalk of broccoli, the more I began to understand what the kook was saying. My stalk was indeed quite unique and different from my classmates stalks. The intricate little green bubbles that made up the florets were arranged in amazing patterns, and had so many variations of green in them depending on the lighting, time of day, even color shirt I wore. The tendrils of the stalk were like tree limbs branching from a trunk all engaged in a graceful dance. The more deeply and carefully and exactly I drew each molecule of my broccoli stalk, the more I saw, and the more it became precious and real and beautiful to me. The semester flew by and I had produced one stalk of broccoli. It was the most beautiful and perfected drawing I have ever done and I learned a lesson that has always stayed with me. There is beauty and worth in everything. Take the time to find it. If it is true of broccoli, imagine what must be true of my fellow humans.

Luke 12:6-8 (New International Version)

6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

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