We often speak of an artist's finest work as their masterpiece when in reality their greatest creation might be a life they've touched. I know from personal experience that an artists's finest handiwork might be the result of an ordinary conversation on an ordinary day. I took Introduction to Drawing from a graduate student in the early seventies at Brigham Young University. I do not remember his name. He was not well-known, rich or tenured, yet because of two conversations we shared, the trajectory of my life changed forever. His ability to see into my soul enabled me to contemplate new possibilities and take flight.
I was wearing multiple layers of worn thrift-store clothing, working three jobs and taking a full load of classes when I stepped into my first drawing class. I’d always longed to be an artist but believed my mother’s opinion about my lack of talent. To my dismay all the other students in class were excellent artists. When asked to display our work, I was embarrassed by how my creations compared to the others. Still, an eager student, I relished the learning process and quiet awakening of every drawing assignment.
A few weeks into the semester, my teacher asked me to stay after class.
“Would you consider becoming a model for the art department?” he asked me.
“Why would you ask me?” I replied.
“Because I’ve noticed you have a perfectly proportioned body.”
I told him I’d have to think about it. After class I walked home alone deep in thought. I’d never heard a positive comment about my body before. After opening the front door to my apartment, I headed straight for the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Then I looked in the full-length mirror. Slowly, one piece at a time, I removed layer after layer of thrift store clothing. Someone appeared in the glass that I’d never seen before. I dropped to my knees and sobbed as past comments from those who might have loved me filled my mind.
“You’re fat and ugly. No boy will ever want to marry you.”
For the first time I wondered if those words were a lie, if I might be something more. Though I did not have the courage to be a model that semester, I would never be the same. On the last day of class, my teacher had each student bring their portfolio and present our drawings in the hallway outside our classroom. One by one I placed each piece of work on the cold floor and waited. My teacher carefully studied each piece, then looked up at me and smiled.
“You are the only person in this class who earned an A.”
I dropped my jaw.
“But I’m the only person in this class who doesn't know how to draw.”
“You are the only student in this class who is a true artist,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You are the only one who did more than I asked and tried new techniques that might not work out. You were the only one who searched for truth deep inside yourself and wanted to share. I don’t know what art form you will pursue after my class, but I do know that you have the soul of an artist.”
I walked down the steps of the Harris Fine Arts Center that summer evening with a new image of my future. Something deep inside knew this man spoke the truth.
Sometime later, when I tried to locate this teacher to thank him for what he had done for me and present him with the gift of my first published book, I was told that he had passed away. I was too late to thank him that day. I hope I am not too late to thank him now, and to express my deepest gratitude to all who lay aside personal ambition to do God’s work. Are we not all artists? Is not the highest of all art the ennobling of the human soul?
Now when I’m painting pictures with words or looking into the lives of my ten children or twenty-five grandchildren, I think about my art teacher. Perhaps it is fitting that this gentle giant of a man will remain anonymous. For the greatest creator, the finest artist in the universe tells us that we are His best work and glory – His masterpiece.


Katherine said...

Thank you for sharing that experience, that was beautiful. :)

Ashley Baadsgaard Worthen said...

I love this story. We never know what kind of impact we can have on someone with the simplest things we can say.