When I first fell in love with the arts

In the 8th grade I had an art class that was fun. I remember two exercises in particular: blind contour drawing and paper maché mask making. The first wholly engaged my mind and body. I drew my shoe and it took on an energy that was jazz. The second was something totally new. I dipped strips of newspaper in starchy water and modeled a crazy mask with bulging eyes and huge lips with big fangs. I gave it spikey hair and painted it bright blue, yellow and white with red blood-shot eyes. It was this crazy little monster I named Fred-a-Stare. My teacher, Mr. Hagen thought it was great. And that was great too. He told me when I got to the 9th grade, to take a class from Mrs. Nylen and to talk to her about the new school that was opening.

In 9th grade, I took a class from Mrs. Nylen. We did some kind of rug hooking exercise. She told me mine was one of the most creative in the class but was giving me a B instead of an A because it was a little too unusual. I thought that sucked. She told me a new arts high school was opening and that I could apply in the 10th grade. In 10th grade I dropped orchestra and took more art classes to prepare. I made representational images that were terribly awkward and only mildly interesting because I thought that was what I was supposed to do - make things that looked like things. I made a graphite drawing of a woman from a fashion magazine that was ok and I made a colored image of a train moving through a landscape inspired by an artist’s book I no longer fully remember.

The arts high school was free to apply to and in 10th grade I submitted my information. I was invited to interview. I brought my drawings of the fashion model and train to the school in a cardboard portfolio that I had bought , along with matting, to make them look professional. I think I carpooled with another applicant from my hometown. At the interview, I talked to adults seated at a long table about my drawings and why I had chosen the subjects I did. I was then put in a large art studio with a handful of other applicants. We were individually seated at our own worktable, given a plastic baggie of materials and 15 minutes to make something out of them. I thought this was kind of cool and made something I was satisfied with that included blue paper, corrugated cardboard, glue and twist ties – at least that is how I recall it. I didn’t know what my finished project was supposed to be exactly, but I liked it.

I waited with anticipation and was elated when I found out by letter that I had been accepted to the (now named) Perpich Center for Arts Education, in Golden Valley, Minnesota. It was housed in an old community college and when I started in the 11th grade, mine was the second class of students to attend; the seniors were the first. I lived in dorms, took math and German and other basic academics in the mornings and art classes in the afternoon. I was in the visual arts but there were other programs too – literary arts, media arts, dance and theater.

In the visual arts we studied foundations our first year, focusing on a new lesson each week. These culminated in an end-of-week assignment called “12s”. If the week’s lesson was ‘line’, that Friday we would present a self-directed art project that incorporated line in 12 ways. For example, one girl threw 12 strands of cooked spaghetti against the wall. Another student made a drawing of a clothesline, filled his bathtub in the dorm with paint, sat in it and made 12 impressions of his ass on the line. Those were the ones that stood out.

The first day of art class our teacher Mr. Slack told us to throw away everything we had ever learned in our art classes up to that time, to put it all in a mental garbage can and forget it ever existed; it was not welcome in his classroom. He told us not to dare draw a teddy bare, or a rainbow, or even a horse and never to use text in our art, we weren’t ready for it. Mr. Slack loomed over us at more than 6’ and was imposingly heavy set. One of the skills he taught us was intaglio printing, a complicated process. We used the studios at night to practice. One day, we came to class to find him enraged by the mess we had left after printing the night before. In the midst of reaming us from top to bottom for our lack of respect for the studio and its materials, the classroom door opened and the principle of the school poked his head in. He had important visitors  and wondered if they could enter the classroom to observe. Mr. Slack told them he wasn’t finished with us yet and slammed the door shut. That was when I knew I loved him. We came first. We always did with him.

On Wednesdays I recall interdisciplinary performances and presentations from local professional artists working in the various fields - one week, a dance performance, the next an artist’s presentation. The school utilized outcome-based education, so there were no grades. We did not have an English class, but journals were given to us to use at will, to record our thoughts and list the titles of any books we read in the back. We had communications advisors who reviewed the lists, but not our entries, and who visited our classes whenever we had papers to write. If writing a paper on the sciences, the paper was read and remarked upon by both the science teacher and the communications advisor.

I made amazing friends at arts high school. We were all misfits and eccentrics in our own right and had found nirvana. Those that weren’t didn’t like the school much, and many went home. Among those who stayed, our peculiarities were embraced, cheered on and celebrated. We were obnoxious and we were nerds, artists and teenagers. We lived together, ate together, worked together and broke rules together. We were racially, economically, spiritually and sexually diverse. Some drank, some smoked, some took drugs, and some didn’t do any of the above. After illegally tapping the school long-distance calling system until we were busted, we racked up crazy phone bills in our dorm rooms to call our girlfriends and boyfriends back home. We pulled pranks on the dorm monitors. We pulled pranks on one another. We also attended one another’s performances, readings, screenings and exhibitions. We watched art flicks and looked at art books and made out under the highway overpass. 

At the school, we worked late in the studios, and took full advantage of the materials we had access to. We took crazy ideas and made them a reality. In my senior year, I watched Maya Deren films in the library over and over again, along with films about African masks and rituals from Yoruba. I returned to paper maché, making two very different faces, one simple, elongated, white and black, the other brightly colored. I affixed them to wooden bodies with trees branches for arms and hair, and piles of rubble from the Berlin wall at their base, collected during a 10th grade trip to Germany. I made a clay fetus (about as prevalent a form as teddy bears had threatened to be), placed it in a wooden box built with the help of friends and made an umbilical cord with shiny pieces of dangling copper affixed to it that reached from the figure’s belly to blue glazed ceramic stalactites at the top of the painted black container. I drew creepy dreams with crayons and watercolor and made an oil painting of the much-used phone booth at school. I painted the nude backside of my college-aged boyfriend and named the work “Nathan’s Chicken”, a double entendre in my mind. I did two performance pieces, one solo and one in a group assignment.

There were certainly struggles in arts high school and it was not all pleasantries. But the above is what I am left with. It was and is a recognized sense that we attained true, beautiful and meaningful creative freedom. We were kids held safe within a structure that fed us, gave us a place to sleep and gave us trouble if we made trouble, or at least if we got caught. The folks in charge were not our parents. They were not the kids from our home schools. They were not our neighbors. And many of us needed that. We were not encumbered with the things that encumbered us elsewhere and I knew it. Added to that, we were encouraged to express ourselves in every way that we possibly could. It was beautiful and I am thankful. Because of it, I believe in the power of the arts and the importance of uninhibited, supported creativity. It is at my core and it still drives me today.     

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