Friday, May 28, 2010

Dear Mrs. White

You're long dead, I'm sure, because you were already ancient when I was only nine and you were my fourth grade teacher. I remember your old lady smell and the black or navy shirtwaist dresses, the thick and wrinkly support hose, the sensible black shoes with laces, your thin white hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of your neck, and the faint smell of cheap talcum powder. Remembering those things convinces me that you were truly old and it wasn't just me thinking that all grown-ups were old. 

But what I wanted to say, Mrs. White, is that you had a big impact on my life.  If I had to describe that impact, I'd say that you were an icy wind that bore down on my self-esteem, leaving it nearly frozen to death.

You committed more than your share of little atrocities that year, including making us memorize all the patriotic songs you knew and then write them verse by verse, spelling and punctuation counted. But the most heinous act directed solely toward me occurred when you were teaching art. 

You set out cups of thick, gloppy finger-paint and stacks of butcher paper on a long table and we children were supposed to work two at a time, waiting silently without wiggling for our turn. I don't remember whether there was a still life arrangement that we were supposed to recreate with our messy fingers and vivid imaginations or not. What I do know is that I set out to paint sunflowers in a vase. 

As a starting point, I had chosen browns and golden yellow, a yellow-green for stems, and a deep cerulean or aqua for the background.(Think Van Gogh, though I'm not sure I'd been exposed to his work at that point in my life).

 Reproduction of one of Van Gogh's Sunflower paintings

I don't know why, but my painting (like my left-handed penmanship) didn't please your aesthetic sensibilities one iota. Just to show me how inadequate I was in your eyes, you grabbed my wrists and used my fingers as brushes to paint your own picture.

There, you said, when you had it just so. That's what it should look like.

And when it dried, the paper all crinkly because it was never meant to be a substrate for paint, you made me sign my name on the back and tacked up "my" picture on the bulletin board where you could admire it.

I felt small. Humiliated. Unworthy. Like a fraud. As if venturing to be creative were an invitation to emotional abuse, to ridicule, to the most primal kind of vulnerability.  As if I never wanted to risk making art again. That there was no rescue from her meanness and that all I could do to survive the school year was try to be invisible.

So it's with some amazement that I realize that my "About Time" series of seven sunflower images is divided into two parts, three pieces hanging in my doctor's office and the other four giving life to a physical therapy clinic. 

"Time in a Bottle" © 2009 Meri Arnett-Kremian

And I'm continuing to use the sunflower as a motif in art and photography. It's the best way I know to heal the wounds you inflicted, to still the inner critic who tries once in a great while to abort my work while speaking in Mrs. White's voice.

"Wallflower # 7" © 2010 Meri Arnett-Kremian.
ps. I've got a photo and poem on my other blog today.


Allegra Smith said...

I sincerely hope Mrs White rests in peace...if she can.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Time to evict Mrs. White from your head and usher in your inner master of art appreciation!! I love your work!!!

Eryl Shields said...

The Mrs Whites of this world have a lot to answer for. I had one of my own at the age of five, she terrified me so much I didn't attempt to create anything for forty years.

georgia b. said...

oh, it's sad to think there are teachers like that out there. but if pieces like these are born out of that, maybe it can be a good thing in some strange way.

i absolutely love "time in a bottle"! wow. wow. wow. beautiful work, meri.

Entre Nous said...

Oh gosh, thank goodness you persevered. I had a few like that.

NuminosityBeads said...

I'm so glad you got past that and are flourishing so wonderfully now. I think back on a few incidences from my childhood and how much affect someone can have on you at that age.
It must feel good to oust that old biddy on the blog!! (not sure if that's the right word but it will have to do)


Anonymous said...

your paintings are amazing. you suggested me doing an online photo book... and i am now intrigued. how does that work? i wanna know more :)

curious girl (lisa) said...

what an important post. i think that a wounded artist draws from a place in their soul that is left undiscovered by those who grew with only love and support. the art, the expression, means a little more. once we reckon with these moments of burden and release their power.

Elisabeth said...

The best thing you could have done to retrieve your dignity is relation to Mrs white, you've done. You've succeeded.

Your work is wonderful, Meri.

sperlygirl said...

to the healing power of art...

Vicki Lane said...

You seem to have overcome whatever damage Mrs. White caused in a most beautiful way.

Beautiful flowers; thoughtful post.

Connie said...

she must be related to my fifth grade teacher. I love Sunflowers and these are AMAZING...thank goodness you listened to your inner voice more!