25 September 2011

Off the Color Wheel

1952, Illinois, Kankakee, kindergarten. Ah, the headiness of it all. A blue plaid dress from J.C. Penney for the first day of school, something new that didn’t come out of a bag of cast-off clothing, hung pressed in the closet. My straight baby fine white-blonde hair became curly, thanks to a smelly Toni Home Permanent with crispy endpapers, rubber curlers in three sizes, and mom’s nimble fingers. Grooming? Check. Wardrobe? Check. Eager to step over the threshold of education? Definitely, check.

The original section of Steuben School was two story, built of Illinois weathered yellow ochre limestone cut into large rectangular rough-sided blocks. It looked a lot like the town’s stately library with bronze lion statues out front. A turret projected from a corner of the school between the first and second floors where surely Rapunzel lived before the prince rescued her.

The kindergarten entrance in the new red brick one-story modern design wing, built the year before to accommodate the first post-war babies, was only a block and a half away. A crossing guard, faithfully stationed at the end of the block twice a day, made it possible to walk alone, mom waving goodby from the front porch. Grown up at last. Free of my mother’s hand.

One day during the first week of school, our class marched single file through the hallways and up a short flight of steps to the doorway of an office in the turret and was introduced to Mrs. Red, our principal who did not look like Rapunzel. Sternly she informed us, this is where students who misbehave and do not repent are sent. Everyone’s eyes grew round, but somber Mrs. Red, stationed behind her massive desk, didn’t fool me. She had to be a good person because she looked like Kate Smith singing her way onto television in the afternoons with “God Bless America.”

The kindergarten teacher, Miss Cyrier, was young and smiling. The round tables with matching chairs fit me perfectly; my feet even touched the floor. A new soft chenille throw rug served as my mat for our midmorning break. Age five was tender in those days. Still regarded as babies, it was believed we couldn’t manage to stay awake for three hours of school. At nap time, I laid my head down, but never slept, always rested my head above the elbow, on my skinny arm of a pillow, and spied through slitted eyes at what the other kids were doing.

The excitement of art class occurred the last half hour every Friday. Miss Cyrier had an endless supply of manila paper stacked in the cupboard at the back of the room. We would line up, one table group at a time, and receive in our clean hands the blessing of one brand new piece of thick, creamy, drawing paper. I always put it to my nose, trying to inhale its essence. Then, back to the table. To creativity. Art.

Armed with the basic box of eight Crayola Crayons and the fresh sheet of manila, I was on my own. The word “sketch” was not in my vocabulary. Nor “draw.” Only “color.” At home I was precise, staying within the lines of pictures in coloring books. Little Lulu was my favorite. One transforming day, a visiting friend taught me to trace heavily with red, green, blue, or purple over the black outlines of the pictures and, as they say now, “Make it my own.” Unfortunately, there were no coloring books at Stupid School. I opened the box, pulled the Crayolas partially out, plastered the sheet of manila to the table, and stared.

Each Friday afternoon I daringly turned my paper horizontal and methodically drew the same wide landscape. Two inches of blue sky created with back and forth strokes and two inches of vertical green jagged grass at the bottom set the foundation for my house. It was the classic two-story, windows drawn in black with four square little panes, inverted V roof, and red brick chimney with the required spiral of smoke rising above, but definitely well below the blue sky. If time permitted, I would add a few pitiful attempts at yellow or red flowers by the front door. One day I became brave enough to add a bare tree and got pretty good at branches and twigs. My first sketches!

Soon came the day I never expected. Hopeful teacher that she must have been, Miss Cyrier issued her challenge: we were instructed not to draw the same pictures, not to copy from our neighbor, draw a favorite thing. She believed we could do it. Battle-tested Mrs. Red would have known better.

Yes! I was ready. To warm up, prepare for the challenge, I turned my paper horizonal as usual. Drew the blue sky and green grass as usual. Next, I would draw my favorite thing, but in a bright color. Without knowing, I was heading into dangerous territory. I shut my eyes tight. I could see my favorite thing behind my eyelids. There it was in all its magnificence. Trigger. Roy Rogers’ horse. 

I chose to draw Trigger purple. Crayon tight in hand, trying to transfer the image behind my eyelids to the manila paper, I began with the pointed ears, keeping them a little below the sky. Cautiously, I headed down the paper, curving at the base of the neck and onto the back. I decided since Trigger was in the corral I wouldn’t need a saddle, but would make a little dip where it would rest. Down, over, up a little bit to the back end of the horse. Whoa! Trigger looks like he’s got a big blanket roll there. I knew all the horse-talk from the TV cowboy shows. Another creative decision awaited. Take a deep breath, draw all four legs and feet, and stop. The tail would be easy and be drawn last. Okay. Easy.

Miss Cyrier suddenly interrupted to announce time was almost up and to finish quickly. Well, any hope of salvation of that portrait of Trigger ended right then. That crayon got nervous, squiggled down to the grass, across just a mite, back up, curve the stomach down, and then two front legs and feet. This was not going well. At some places on the legs the crayon marks met, leaving the impression of a horse on stilts. The head was, well, the image of my thumb. It just stuck off the body at an odd angle. I didn’t even have time to detail his eyes, nor put a smile on his face, and not even add a glorious mane and tail. But, I did manage to grab the red crayon and stroke on a half-inch wide red frame around Trigger in His Pasture. Time was up. I was nervous. Even I couldn’t recognize Trigger.

Miss Cyrier soon stood behind me, peered over my shoulder, and gave me my first true lesson in the world of art and art critics. I can still hear her scalding words to this day. “Cathy,” she said, “that is a very nice cow.” She evidently didn’t understand folk art, nor cows either. There were not any of the hanging milky-things under the animal in my drawing. Did she think it was a cow just because it was purple?

I didn’t think of Miss Cyrier much in the following years, but often felt a twinge of apprehension when a drawing pencil or marker was in my hand. Decades passed, three to be exact. Attending an auction outside of Kankakee, just several miles from good old Steuben “Stupid” School, one evening the auctioneer held up a piece that was destined to be mine. I was nervous, trying to anticipate any bidding competition and debating my bid limit. I decided to bid every dollar and piece of change in my purse. $12.50 I would pay. That was a lot of money then, when the kids always needed shoes. Within half an hour the object of my desire was on the auction block, derided with chuckles and groans from the crowd. I bid. I won. The only bidder.

“Sold!” called the auctioneer as he banged his wooden gavel on his auction wagon counter. “Sold for $1.00 to the lady who thinks she’s got herself a real prize.” The crowd roared. I remained unscalded, thinking, “You bunch of dummies don’t even recognize folk art when you see it.” Neither did Miss Cyrier.

Charmed by my good fortune, I rolled the little three by four foot antique hand-hooked wool rug and tucked it under my arm. Featured horizontally in the center of the rug was my kindergarten drawing: bright blue sky, half circle chrome yellow sun with darting rays, one fluffy white cloud, green pasture, and a smiling purple horse. It was even framed in red.

I wish I knew the woman who made the little wool rug. But, in a way I do, for I think of my little misunderstood purple horse drawn on manila paper and the underappreciated wool rug with a purple horse as distant cousins, both made by those who create what makes them happy, no matter how naive the attempt or untraditional the result.