The high school art teacher flunked me. I could hardly believe it. All through grade school I had been a star art student. Miss Todd, the primary art instructor, had led me through the basic techniques, with no restrictions on style or subject matter. In the sixth grade, at the age of eleven, I had modeled in clay a reclining female nude, and a death mask of Mussolini. The later was subsequently cast in plaster of paris from a papier-mache mold and painted an odd shade of green, to simulate antique bronze. Miss Todd and I were both enormously proud of the finished product.
Miss Todd had great expectations for me. Failing in freshman art was more than a flesh wound. Equally unpleasant was the fact that I had to repeat the course under the same terrifying teacher.
Miss Karls, the high school art teacher, was not an inspirational type. I did not expect a teacher of art to be an object of beauty. But every other art teacher I’ve encountered, male or female, had radiated an awareness, a sensitivity that established rapport between him and his students and the wonders of the universe.
Not so Miss Karls. Her name implied a Prussian heritage; her every word and action reaffirmed the implication. She even gave the impression of wearing high starched collars on her shirtwaists. Miss Karls was not old – maybe fortyish. Her hair was a soft shade of rust and she wore it off her neck, somewhat pompadour-fashion over the forehead. She was tall and spare. Her backbone was straight and severe as the ruler she continuously carried to rap at a fumbling student’s knuckles – or head. When she spoke, her words sliced the air like a well-honed razor. There was no misunderstanding her sharply incised instructions.
To Miss Karls, progress in art was measured by a series of plaster casts which were arranged on the plain board shelving that covered the walls of the art room. These ranged from the most elementary forms of cylinder and block to complexly muscled parts of the body. First year students were required to reproduce a conventional motif in charcoal on white paper to Miss Karl’s satisfaction. Perfect perspective, chiaroscuro, and no smudges was the criterion. It took me five weeks to complete this assignment which, in my opinion, warranted an hour’s sketching. In Miss Karl’s opinion, my efforts rated a reluctant C-. During the same period, we turned out numerous pages of penciled tables, chairs, and boxes in various aspects of perspective. No erasures permitted.
The final project for the course completely crushed my failing artistic spirits. We had to mark out neatly on a sheet of paper thirty one-by-one-and-a-half-inch oblongs, and then divide each oblong by two lines. Each of the thirty had to be divided in a different, and interesting, manner. The most appealingly divided oblong would then be enlarged and completed as a full-size 16 x 24 poster, on any desired subject. As a tender freshman, I was unable to muster sufficient hypocrisy to complete the assignment. To me, message obviously came first; method of expression should be suited to the content.
Miss Karls allowed no latitude of interpretation. With her precision-cut smile, which sent more shivers down this student’s spine than her ordinarily frozen expression, she informed me that freshman art would be given at 8 A.M. the following September, instead of 2 P.M. She sarcastically implied that, in the brisk stimulation of the early morning hour, I might be better able to concentrate on composition
Like a kid taking cod live oil, I took freshman art, repeat. Steeling myself against sensitive reactions, I approached art as did Miss Karls, with compass and ruler. Through stern self-discipline, I managed to complete the course with a nice round C. This kept me off the honor roll the second consecutive semester – but free forever from the redoubtable Miss Karls.