Wednesday, November 2, 2011
My family moved from Gaffney, SC to Cape Canaveral, FL when I was 14 years old. We moved away two months into my first year of high school. To a 14 year old boy the cultural chasm between the two places was expansive. In Gaffney a new student entering my classes was a rarity experienced only a couple of times during my 8+ years of school there. In Florida I attended Cocoa Beach High School during the heyday of the NASA space boom. As rare as it was in Gaffney to have a new classmate, it was just as rare in my Florida high school to find a native of the area. The central Florida area was extremely cosmopolitan in its demographic make up and students moving in and out of the area was commonplace.
My first years of high school were filled with tumult and anxiety. I became withdrawn and self conscious of what I believed (at the time) to be my backwardness – that is, my southern dialect and my cultural ways. My freshman and sophomore years of high school were spent trying to cover up and suppress who I was. I didn't know what it was at the time, but have since learned that I was experiencing “culture shock”. I was somewhat reclusive at home and spent hours in my room drawing pictures from photos I found on album covers and in magazines. To this day it saddens me to think about this period of my life. Mostly regretting the missed opportunities.
Some things happened in my junior year that began to slowly lift me from my self-imposed malaise. The first semester of eleventh grade I registered for an art class. It was a waste. The teacher was uninspired, my classmates were uninspired, and the classroom setting was not at all conducive to making art. I don't remember a damned thing I did in that class. But, I could see out the door window across the commons to the OTHER art classroom that was actually designed to function as an art class. It was windowed from floor to ceiling all across the front and I could see the teacher moving from one art table to another, smiling with encouragement. The students actually appeared to be happy with what they were doing. My second semester I made a point of signing up for that class.
As I sat on a bench in the common area of the art department waiting for the first day of my new art class to begin, a thin, very animated guy walked up to me and began speaking in an excited heavy French accent. He was insisting that, if the subject should ever come up, I was to be sure to request that Liquitex paints be purchased for use in the class. I remember this because of the way he said “Leek-wee-tex” - if you can imagine the French accent. I later learned that he was French-Canadian from Montreal and both parents were French immigrants. His name was Robert and he and I became “friends-in-art” for the next year and a half of high school. Robert possessed a rare innate creative ability and desire as an artist. After knowing him for a short time, I knew with certainty that he would either be a homeless artist scratching pictures with a rock on the sidewalk, or he would be a tremendously successful artist. Over the past few years I've learned from newspaper and magazine articles that he is the latter. His commitment to his artistry was then and is now unwavering and uncompromising. To this day I am still inspired by his dogged persistence and love for art.
I came to be friends with several other students in that class and subsequent classes. A few of us were together for most of our junior and senior years of high school. We fed each other with enthusiasm and inspiration. Art became my social savior and I came to realize what it meant to be an artist.
Ms. Edgar was my mentor and teacher in those high school art classes. She entered us into community art exhibits and took us on field trips to such places as a pottery studio where an older gentleman produced pottery and his wife sculpted in clay. We spent a day at a university theater watching a production of Shakespeare's “Henry IV” which was preceded by a very avant-garde performance piece set to Beatles music. We also attended several sidewalk art shows which were very popular events in central Florida during that period of time.
One of my proudest moments in high school was winning two gold key awards at a regional scholastic art exhibit in Miami that Ms. Edgar had, unknowing to me, entered my artwork. My parents and I drove down for the awards ceremony which took place in the banquet room of the Burdine's department store in downtown Miami.
Upon my graduation from high school, Ms. Edgar continued to teach her art classes. My younger brother (six years my junior) was also her student. My friends and I went our separate ways and I bumped into just a couple of them for a few years after that. I never saw Robert again after graduation. He has since published several well received photography books and exhibited his work in highly respected galleries and museums in the US and abroad.
My acceptance as an artist in Ms. Edgar's classes pulled me through a period of anguish and insecurity. I look back at those years as being the most formative in my life as an artist. Our lives take turns – sometimes very sharp turns. You may be left dazed and bewildered, but if you keep your senses, you may right yourself and find a truer course.