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Itís very easy to let things slide. Any number of things. One day you have a legitimate excuse, the next you get distracted and the next you promise yourself youíll be able to catch up. Before you know it, youíve established a negative momentum and woops! Everything slides. Then the decision has to be made: do I allow things to keep on sliding and risk having everything slip away or do I take decisive action and turn the tide? Iíve chosen to do the latter. The irony is, thereís no drama involved. Itís simply a question of making the decision.
And acting upon it. Decisions are easy to make. As any drunk or pothead will tell you, weíre all capable of making decisions. Some of my finest were made during my youth in a smoky haze or a drunken daze. Acting upon them is altogether more demanding. More specifically, maintaining the momentum is the challenge. Take these words for instance. At the beginning of the year I made a decision to start writing again but in June that decision was seriously challenged. I kept making excuses. I let things slide. Consequently, my words for June were not written in June.
Nor were these words written on the specified date, which probably makes me a poor example of someone who supposedly writes 100 words a day. That said, Iíve had to make a decision. I could either abandon the project or resign myself to being a non-purist. Iíve chosen the latter. Purism is all very well and all very noble but it doesnít always enable a project to move forwards. If I were to choose to abandon the project on the basis of purism (is that even a word?) I would be jeopardising my original decision to keep this project going.
The issue of integrity has emerged as a pertinent one for me. I recently participated in a school advertising campaign. The theme focuses on the teaching staff and our out-of-work interests and pursuits. I nominated myself for the campaign which resulted in me being featured, along with other staff members, on a series of high profile billboards around town, each having a poster of our own. The angle theyíve chosen to focus on with me is my interest in writing, listing me as a childrenís book illustrator and author.
The former Iíve achieved.
The latter is a work in progress . . .
There have been some days recently when Iíve been flirting, if not with depression, then certainly with some of the gloomier themes of life. Iím increasingly in an age bracket where illness and/or sudden death are no longer the exception, even if theyíre still not the norm. When weíre young we have this sense of becoming bigger, better, stronger. If things havenít worked themselves out yet, just wait a little while. They will. So said I, ever the optimist despite my bouts of existential angst.
These days, what was once on the periphery is increasingly beginning to take centre stage.
Sometimes I find myself immobilised. I can have a dozen good ideas, a dozen plans, a dozen reasons why I should be doing something, and yet I find myself doing nothing.
Immobilised. Some might say lazy. Some might scoff at that.
The gap between intent and action. Here we are again Ė a recurring theme. Inspiration versus perspiration. Then thereís the need for rest. There are plenty of people who do far less than me. There are others no doubt who achieve much more. Itís not that Iím comparing myself to others. Rather, I'm being mindful of sand through the hourglass.
Itís one of those days, or should I say dates. 7/7/14. The poetry of numbers and the magic allure of the number 7.
I remember 7/7/77. I was doing my first round of practice teaching at a primary school in Adelaide. I was attached to a charismatic art teacher called Liz who had organised a Seven Party. I wasnít invited, or maybe I was, but I didnít go. Nonetheless I thought it was a great idea and the memory has stuck.
When 8/8/88 and the 9/9/99 rolled around I always remembered Liz and her party. Funny how the memory works.
I can paint. I can paint well, in fact. But am I driven? Not really. Is that a problem? Not necessarily. Itís just that I like the idea of being driven. It taps into the romance of being a painter and an artist. I remember an artist friend of mine telling me she had to paint every day. If she didnít paint she didnít feel whole. She went on to become highly successful. Mind you, she made a career out of it whereas for me itís what, a hobby? I guess unless or until I choose otherwise, it probably is.
Not that thereís anything wrong with having a hobby. Itís just that the reality doesnít match the narrative that runs through my head. The romantic narrative. The fact of the matter is, Iím not an especially driven kind of person. Sure I get things done, lots of things, but driven? I think Iím too much of a procrastinator. I also spread myself thinly. I work full time for a start and that limits the amount of time and energy left over for other things. My work involves a great deal of creative input which, in turn, means downtime is important.
And downtime is when I paint. And write. And read. And walk the dog. And socialise. And try to get out to exhibitions, go for walks, re-pot plants, clean the house, do the washing, the ironing, the shopping, phone friends, check Facebook and the myriad of other things that make up a busy life.
As things are going, by the end of December I will have completed maybe ten paintings this year. I may even do more. Paintings that I am pleased with. Paintings that wouldnít exist if I wasnít, what, driven?
Hmn! Maybe Iím not so lazy after all.
My current style of painting is an exacting one. Whilst I begin with no clear idea of where Iím going, what emerges is nonetheless complex and hard edge. I often apply two or even three layers of paint for each section. If I was a messy painter, I could probably bang them out at a much faster pace. Iíve considered it. But itís not what I want to do. I enjoy the exacting nature of the way I work. With each new canvas I have a sense of achievement, a sense of creating something meaningful. Itís simply what I do.
I think I need to become more accepting of the ebb and flow of life Ė that, and to fully appreciate the need for down time. Itís all too easy to become seduced by the idea of being productive 24/7; the notion that itís possible to work full time and then come home and be madly productive on a daily basis. Itís the love child of list making. Itís the idea that to make life meaningful itís necessary to always be doing something productive, presumably in order to Ďachieve somethingí, without taking into account the natural ebb and flow of life.
Being an art teacher has been a great source of satisfaction over many years of my life. Itís not the only job Iíve ever done. I often amuse my students when I tell them I was a DJ in a nightclub back in the early 80s. They find it equally amusing to learn that I worked at Pizza Hut for five years and was a bar manager in a busy hotel. Whatever Iíve turned my hand to Iíve enjoyed, although being a professional illustrator with the ongoing need to take any and all work that came my way became tedious.
Teaching has its tedious moments too but the vitality and energy of the kids invariably saves the day. I am in constant awe of the unbridled energy and enthusiasm they bring to the table, especially at my current school. Having taught predominantly older students, working with children as young as five has been an incredible eye-opener. The opportunity to have fun while earning a living has never been more apparent to me. And while I sometimes miss the more intensive work I used to do in London with troubled and disadvantaged kids, I realise this is equally meaningful and valuable.
My official title is Head of Junior Art. That suggests I have a team of people working under me. In fact, I am a department of one. I teach every girl from Prep to Year 6 and currently one Year 7 class in the Senior School. What this means is I have to do everything; design and produce the curriculum documentation, maintain and order new art supplies, organise and fire all the clay work, photograph all the work, mount and label all the displays. I donít have an assistant. I am my own assistant. Itís sometimes challenging but never boring.
I jokingly tell the parents of my girls that I have the best job in the world. They love to hear me say this but in truth, Iím not exactly joking. I have never been as settled nor as contented in any job as I am currently. While I was passionate about what I did in London, working with deeply scarred and troubled children was both challenging and at times exhausting. I did it for ten years and wouldnít trade a day of it but towards the end of my time there my faith in childhood was becoming increasingly compromised.
Teaching art is so much fun. It allows me to indulge my inner child. It also allows me to spend my days being imaginative and creative. In London I became increasingly removed from the classroom the higher I went up the management scale. During my last two years there I barely taught at all and when I did it was usually something other than art. The greater part of my time was spent wearing my other hats; one as Special Educational Needs Coordinator, writing submissions for student funding and one as Centre Manager dealing with daily management and behavioural issues.
Thereís no question that my time in London made me a better teacher. It also provided me with the managerial skills to be able to do what I do now and, from the outside at least, make it look effortless. In truth, it takes a great deal of effort to meaningfully teach 250 plus students and make each one feel special and capable but itís a very different kind of effort to my previous roles. Put simply, Iím pretty much my own boss and Iím given free reign to innovate as I see fit. Whatís not to love about that?
When I first decided to pursue Art all those years ago back in high school the deputy head of the school took me aside and tried to talk me out of it. She was concerned that I was making a poor choice. Throughout high school I had always excelled in English, giving me a natural edge in all of the Humanities subjects. She believed I should be pursuing an Arts degree, and who knows where an Arts degree may have led me! But Iíve never regretted my choice. Thirty eight years on, I still believe I made the right one.
For all the drama and stress involved in getting this house built, one year on from moving in, life is pretty damn good. We live a stoneís throw from a multitude of cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and boutique galleries. I can walk to work through leafy streets in a little over half an hour or hop on a tram when the weather is poor. I have a painting studio that looks out over the city. Iím in a stable relationship of 20plus years and have a job that makes me want to get up in the morning. Yep! Lifeís good.
I would probably never have chosen to be an art teacher had it not been for my own art teacher at school. Education is one of those professions where your influence can be profound and far-reaching. Weíve all know someone who has spoken fondly of a special teacher who guided them or influenced them in some profound way. Iím not suggesting teachers are the only people who have this impact but Iím always mindful of the role I play in childrenís lives and the value in what I do. Itís what makes teaching an honour as much as anything else.
When I reflect on the quality of teachers I had at school I realise many of them were top shelf. Given that I attended a state school in the industrial northern suburbs of Adelaide, I was indeed fortunate. By any current measure I received a rigorous, high quality education that stretched me both academically and culturally. Iím sure there were many on whom this quality was lost but it was certainly there for the taking and I owe a great deal of my success to the high standard of education I received and especially to those who challenged me most.
I sometimes wonder whether Iíd have performed as well at school if Iíd had the internet to contend with. The level of distraction that young people have to contend with today far exceeds anything I could have imagined back then. People often talk about their brains becoming Googled (it doesnít even come up on spell-check as an incorrect word!) and I have to admit that itís something Iíve noticed in myself of late. My ability to focus on one task has definitely diminished as my access to the internet has increased. In many respect, Iím glad it wasnít around then.
This isnít to suggest I have anything against the internet. Itís an extraordinary . . . what, invention? Innovation? Itís difficult to find an adequate word to describe the phenomenon. Itís the one thing the early science fiction writers didnít predict but which in retrospect seems so obvious. The same might be said about the personal computer. For a long time we equated computers with HAL from
2001: A Space Odyssey
. They were the things that were going to acquire artificial intelligence and wrest power from us all. Then again, some would argue that that is precisely what has happened, albeit by stealth.
As an art teacher I have always found the internet to be useful but in recent years it has become so much more than that. Perhaps my greatest discovery was Pinterest. When I first heard about it I dismissed it as being little more than a place to trade recipes or collect pretty photos. When I delved a little deeper I realised its potential to become an extraordinary repository of ideas and information from which to draw inspiration for an endless array of art lessons. It is now my number one go-to site when looking for ideas and planning curriculum.
Gone are the days when I would sit in a room, gaze at a wall and wonder what I was going to teach for the coming term. By its very nature, art teaching is flexible. There are specific things one has to cover but the means by which one does so can vary endlessly. There are so many artists to refer to; so many cultures to explore; so many artworks to look at and think about. Whatís more, there are so many creative people putting their work and ideas up online and itís all there to be shared. Itís amazing!
Indeed, the difficulty these days is narrowing down the field and actually choosing what ideas to pursue. I currently have nearly 2,000 links on dozens of boards, all of which lead to a particular site which itself provides further leads to related sites which opens up a veritable labyrinth of collective ideas, experience and expression. And because of its visual nature, I only have to see a picture of something and I can immediately construct an entire unit of work around it. So itís not so much about copying ideas as triggering oneís own ideas in response to the exposure.
Ask a group of Year 2 students who amongst them is an artist and most, if not all of the hands in the class will go up. Put that same question to a group of Year 8 students and the number of hands drops significantly. Something seems to kick in around the age of 12 or 13, a crisis of confidence, which can impact greatly on their perception of themselves as creative people. Part of the problem is the issue of skills. Art is very public and many have a tendency to feel diminished when making a comparison with others.
Challenging this notion is what gives me the greatest satisfaction. The most significant gift I can ever bestow on a young person is my confidence in them personally, whilst instilling within them the belief that they have something worthwhile to communicate; that, and enabling them to acquire the confidence and skills with which to express themselves visually. Unlike some, I truly believe that being visually creative is a fundamental human right. Itís not a competition. I believe visual literacy is as important as any other type and it's this belief that has kept the passion for teaching burning for me.
Weíve all known teachers who have long passed their use by date; the ones going through the motions in order to see out their working life while accruing their superannuation. I can understand why people stay in the job but I canít help thinking itís a lose/lose situation all round. Teaching should be inspiring. It should be relevant. It should be passionate. I like to think that this is how I approach the job. Because for me, itís so much more than a job. Without wanting to sound maudlin or over the top, I can honestly say itís a calling.
Iím 55 years old today. Wow! Thatís sounds pretty old. I donít feel old, though. Sure, Iíd rather that ache in my shoulder would go away and I know Iíve got to get that carpel tunnel sorted sooner rather than later. But on balance, Iím feeling pretty damn good. When I look at guys my age, one thing I tend to pick up on is their lack of vitality. Itís like theyíre slowly surrendering. I donít have that. I donít feel as though things are slowly winding down. Quite the opposite in fact: I feel like Iím just getting started!
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