I never considered myself an artist. I had dabbled all my life in drawing and painting because, rather than an Easy Bake Oven and Barbie's Dream House, the children in my family were often given art supplies as gifts and my mother supplied an endless stack of drawing paper, even if it was just the backs of photocopied documents from her work. At school I favoured band and jazz choir over art class - somehow one had always to choose between the two - but by Grade 12 I had decided that I would make room in my schedule for art class. That class became an oasis for me and stands out as a memorable time full of colour and the meditative, expansive work of making art.
I did not go on to become a visual artist, but I did learn a great deal from my teacher, Ms. Konkin. She was a pretty, round-faced blonde woman with striking blue eyes. She was calm and honest about our work. I only remember being enthusiastically congratulated on one piece, which was a drawing of a glass of water with a spoon in it. I suppose I had captured the visual effect fairly well. I no longer have that drawing, but I do have a painting I did as my major project. I was studying dance at the time and was completely in love with that particular art form. I had a poster on my bedroom wall of a female dancer in a black dress leaning back and kicking one leg out. Her strong pose created a beautiful line. I decided to paint her balancing on the moon with a backdrop of a city scape, while kicking her foot into a blazing sun. The end result of the painting was certainly not technically brilliant. Against Ms. Konkin's advice I chose it from all my work to enter into a district student show down at the mall. The work was being judged by a famous local watercolour painter, Les Weisbrech. He didn't think very much of my painting, and when I looked at my painting through his eyes its faults glared painfully at me. Some time later I brought my painting home and showed it to my mom. She happened to love it, which took me by surprise, so I gave it to her. It hung in her bedroom for at least twenty years. She gave it to me and it now hangs in my bedroom. For all its faults I love it now. It seems to contain all the wonderful naive optimism that youth holds about the future. I truly thought the world was my oyster back then, and I was ready to take it on like my 'Stepping Out' dancer. Now, she reminds me of the beauty of innocence and to embrace life.
As part of our study that year in Art 12 we worked with clay. I particularly enjoyed working with the delicate porcelain clay, making pieces of jewelery and a teacup, if I remember correctly. We learned to throw pottery on the wheel and to my surprise all the skills I had learned making bowls with our old family friend Carol when I was little had vanished. One assignment was to make a free form sculpture with clay. We could not use the wheel, but we could use as much or as little clay as we liked. As I played with the lump of clay in front of me and listened to Ms. Konkin's guiding words about the options before us, a figure seemed to speak to me out of the clay in my hands. I had worked hard in high school to defy labels. If one day I spiked my hair and wore a man's suit and tie, the next day I wore a trendy Benetton rugby shirt and jeans, but by Grade 12 I had given up the fight. I was starting to mature and to relax into myself. If people wanted to label me I no longer cared so much. I took one lump of clay and formed it into a cross about eight inches tall and four inches across. I took another lump of clay and formed it into the figure of Jesus with his arms extended and his head falling slightly to one side. I placed him on the cross and added a crown of thorns and tiny nail heads in his hands and feet. Ms. Konkin came around to check on our progress. I believe she was stumped when she arrived at my place at the secular high school table, and out of the corner of my eye I saw one of her eyebrows rise. But, to her credit she said nothing critical at all about my choice of subject, and I offered no explanation. All our pieces were fired in the kiln and mine survived the oven despite its delicacy. I carefully wrapped it in paper and put it on the top shelf of my locker.
A few weeks later It was the end of the school year and I was cleaning out my locker. Somehow the clay crucifix fell to the floor and broke into six pieces. I gathered them up and was looking at them sadly when my friend Rachel with whom I had gone to school since we were in Grade One at St. Joseph's offered to fix it if she could keep it. I said yes. Years later I went to visit her, and there was my little mended sculpture hanging on her kitchen wall. "I love it," she said.
Yesterday I found out from a friend that Ms. Konkin who had also been my Home Economics teacher in, I think, Grades 10 and 11 is retiring. My friend posted the news on Facebook and as I read through the thread of comments my year with Luba Konkin as my art teacher came flooding back. Like so many rooms where the arts are taught in schools, Ms. Konkin had provided a space where creative and often sensitive souls could relax and feel appreciated and encouraged to do what came naturally to them. Teachers around the world who do the same are worth their weight in gold.