Monday, March 26, 2018

you're going to like this one

Eight-ish years ago when I started at Lander, we had a big class of incoming freshmen.  One of these students was Colleen.  Colleen had a good sense of humor, appreciated my sarcasm and was in a wheelchair.  In a 3D Design class, the wheelchair was pretty easy to work around until it came to plaster pouring day.  I wondered how much she would be able to participate that day but I didn't want to make an issue out of something until it was an issue, so I plowed into the normal tasks and shouted the orders and the plaster started flowing.  When it was time to pour Colleen's plaster, she pushed herself out of her chair and down onto the floor where she blended in with all the other students in the mass of hardening plaster for the next hour.  I realized then that she wasn't afraid of much and that I needed to make no special plans for her in my class.  She was hellbent on doing what everyone else did.  I respected that.

A year passed before she needed my Sculpture class.  That class gets a reputation for danger and such, I'm not exactly sure why.  Colleen came and talked to me about what we would do in the class and the idea of using power tools and welding with limited mobility did not really appeal to either of us.  We sensed the absolutely terrible things that could happen in various studio situations and we both opted to allow her to substitute a sculptural ceramics class instead.  Neither of us were thrilled but we knew it was the reality we were dealing with.  

Our department is relatively small and very family-like.  I saw Colleen as much as all the other students.  We joked, laughed and made fun of people together just like I do with everyone else.  Colleen was involved in just about everything we had going on.  She was always at events, even events she couldn't really participate in.  The school would host 5K runs and fun runs and we'd get as many people from the art department as we could to show up and run.  At one of the first ones we did as a group I looked over at the starting line and there was Colleen in her chair up on the sidewalk taking photos for everyone.  I pride myself on not feeling emotions but there was a weird tingling either in my chest or my brain when I saw that.  Over and over at various goofy events I'd be doing something ridiculous and I'd look over to the side and see her there close, but not exactly participating in the physical nonsense.  

The next spring the school announced they were going to do a Color Run.  If you don't know what that is, it's usually a 5K run with volunteers stationed at various points along the route who throw colored powder at you as you pass.  At the end you're covered in colored dust or if you sweat a ton like me, you look like a paint store exploded on you.  One afternoon while I was talking up some student participation in the Color Run, Colleen was in the room and made the comment that she wanted to do it.  I encouraged her but immediately I thought about her rolling slowly through the course and it made me sad.  Without thinking I said, "Dude.  You should let me push you fast!"  Colleen didn't say no to adventures.  She jumped at the opportunity.  It was on.

Race day came.  It was late afternoon on a beautiful spring day.  The school went all out.  We had white t-shirts ready to receive the color and they gave us neon sunglasses to protect our eyes.  There was food and games and music and as we were lining up and listening to the instructions, I was treating this like any other race.  I was scanning the crowd of people looking at the competition.  The serious athletes had mostly skipped out because they were smart enough to know it's not fun to have people throw colored powder in your face while you run.  The competitive side of me sized up the competition and decided we could win.  Since I wasn't just one person, I couldn't push my way to the starting line and we were walled in by college kids.  The starting gun fired and the crowd started to move forward.  

Some of the people around us saw we were trying to go fast and they would sort of part out of our way.  We were supposed to stay on the sidewalks but there was no room to pass there so we jumped the curb and took over the bike lane in the street.  It was smooth sailing there.  We were moving up a hill and we were passing people by the dozens.  The crowd was thinning out and we were now cruising with the people who start every race at full speed and then tire out after a mile.  This was exactly where I wanted to be.  We were not going to be a cute thing that happened at this race, we were going to win it.  

Dude.  I was flying.  I had a mission.  Colleen was going to know what it felt like to pass everyone.  She was going to know what it felt like to win a freaking foot race against her entire university.  

I'm guessing most of you have never ran full speed behind a wheelchair.  It's pretty much what you imagine it would be like.  I had my hands gripping the two handles and there was just enough room between my body and the chair for my legs to fully extend as I sprinted without banging my shins on the frame.  The chair did not handle well on bumps or on curves, so I was having to slow down pretty good at corners.  But every straightaway and every downhill, I felt like we were flying.  I was talking to Colleen a little, mostly making fun of people and telling them to get out of our way.  I kept shouting "COMING THROUGH!" when we came up behind runners.  She was laughing the entire time.  I leaned forward enough to see her face a couple of times and I promise you I'll never forget the smile on her face.  

We were getting doused with color the whole time.  Poor Colleen caught the brunt of it as she acted as a shield for the lower half of my body.  People were high-fiving her while they showered her in colored powder.  Right after we blew through one of the color stations we passed the last person in front of us.  We were winning.  All I had to do was maintain our lead and I figured that was going to be easy.  I kept my pace.  We were going so fast.  

It's funny now to think back on this and to remember things that didn't even register with me at the time.  Like when Colleen told me she was going to have her mom bring her seat belt so she wouldn't fall out of the chair during the race.  I barely heard her say this.  I laughed and moved on.  

Did I mention how fast we were going?  We were flying.  Still in the lead, we headed up through the old plaza.  I knew we were getting close to the end.  A couple of turns ahead and we'd have a downhill sprint across the bridge and over the finish line.  There was a big group of people there preparing dinner and waiting to greet the finishers.  They were going to freak out when they saw Colleen cross the finish line first.

The old plaza was made of brick.  Over time the bricks had become pretty unlevel and unfriendly to wheelchairs.  I had not tried to roll a wheelchair across the plaza before.  I certainly had never tried to push one across it at a high rate of speed.  And yet, here we were, bumping up against the sound barrier very close to the end of the plaza.  The chair bounced violently over the bricks.  We were almost back to the sidewalk.  Almost.

The front wheels of a wheelchair are much, much smaller than the back wheels.  I had never paid attention to this fun fact before.  Not until those little wheels rammed up against the concrete slab designed to keep the bricks in place.  Suddenly physics became very important to me.  I think I mentioned we were moving very fast in a forward direction.  Well, not anymore.  We stopped pretty abruptly when the wheel jammed against the concrete.  I guess because of physics I should say, the chair stopped.  We didn't necessarily stop.  In fact, I kept going at pretty much the same rate of speed, tethered to the Earth only by the death grip I had on those handles.  My body made a perfect arc up and over the wheelchair.  The chair pivoted on the tiny front wheel and Colleen made the same perfect arc, tethered to her chair by the seat belt her mom brought.  This arc brought her face in direct contact with one of those unlevel bricks on the ground.  

I jerked the chair back upright in a panic and expected to see a lifeless Colleen covered in blood.  There was some blood but I was startled by the laughter coming from the chair.  Colleen was laughing hard.  I thought, "Oh no, I've knocked her silly" but she was fully aware of the ridiculousness of the situation.  I squatted there in front of her trying to convince myself she was really OK.  I noticed she had hit her face on the brick and there was a knot starting to come up on her eyebrow.  I kept asking if she was OK while horrified runners passed us on their way to the finish line.  They were horrified but they didn't stop to see of we were OK.  Colleen noticed that people were starting to pass us and she stopped laughing and started yelling at me to go.  At first I thought she had regained her senses and was mad at me for almost killing her.  Then she said, "People are passing us, I'm fine.  We need to GO!"

I was dumbstruck.  I can't say that anything could have prepared me for this situation.  I didn't know what to do.  It seemed very insensitive to just keep going but it seemed pointless to just quit.  I mean, we still had to get back to the finish line anyway.  So I brushed her off and grabbed the handles and started to push.  Just like a good Tom & Jerry cartoon, the same wheel immediately hit the same concrete slab and I almost flipped us a second time.  She may have called me a name at that point but we recovered and we were off to the finish line again.  

I was slower now, totally freaking out and quietly realizing I was about to push an injured and bleeding Colleen into a crowd of people who were going to think I was a monster.  A couple of heartless people threw more colored powder in our faces just to add insult to injury and we crossed the finish line.  Pretty quickly people noticed the blood running down Colleen's knees.  That was the thing that drew them in close enough to notice the golf ball sized knot on her brow.  Her eye was steadily swelling shut.  And turning blue.

Y'all, I was devastated.  Not to take anything away from Colleen's injuries.  I may have had a scrape or a bruise but I felt nothing but horror.  Now I was going to have to stand there with her and let everyone see the terrible human that flipped her out of her wheelchair.  The nurse came over and wiped off her knees.  The nice police officer checked in with us.  If I could have sunk into the ground I would have.  But Colleen was still having fun.  She was laughing and telling people what happened and assuring everyone she was fine.  Her eye was almost completely swollen shut by that time.  

It took a lot of insisting to finally convince me she was fine.  When I finally believed her, I walked in a daze to find the other art majors.  They sensed that I was shell shocked over the incident and they shifted into high gear making fun of me for it.  This is when always taking shots at your students comes back to bite you in the butt.  Sean, Katertot, Danielle, Whisk and Cessquatch spent the next hour or so making jokes about me crashing Colleen.  It was unpleasant to say the least.  

Over the next few weeks almost every member of Colleen's family told me how much they appreciated what I did.  This seemed bizarre to me.  I expected them to call me an idiot.  I mean, it must have been pretty short-sighted to think we could move that fast and not have any incidents.  But they were sincere.  Her mom wrote me a nice letter.  It made me feel a little less like a monster.  

Just a few days later we celebrated with Colleen at graduation as she crossed the stage proudly sporting her ginormous black eye.  Now I'm speculating here but I think she was proud of her black eye.  I think it was proof that she did something fearlessly and had a great time doing it.  A temporary souvenir.  To this day she still laughs about the whole experience.  

And to this day it still makes me tense.  

Friday, March 16, 2018

the one about memory

One of my favorite albums is "Green" by what is likely my all time favorite band, REM.  I played my really old CD in so many different cars, dragging it to college twice and otherwise treating it rough, giving it a few serious scars.  The scars didn't become a problem until I copied all my music to iTunes several years ago.  "Green" copied but only one song would play.  My favorite song on the album wasn't there.  I've been without it for years.  ("You Are The Everything" look it up.)

I found a few copies at used record stores and checked them.  All scratched.  A few weeks ago I found one that wasn't scratched and snatched it up.  Back home I discovered it wouldn't copy to iTunes.  Ugh.  I so wanted to have the physical copy of the album instead of a soul-less digital download but I'm at my wits end.  

I saw REM in concert in August of 1999.  I'll admit to being a bit of a concert snob.  I want to see live music in small venues.  I don't want to pay a mortgage payment to see an hour of music and when I do see the music I want to actually be able to see it.  With my eyes, not on a big screen beside the stage.  By the time I got into REM in high school, they were already a stadium band.  The concert in 1999 was a big deal though.  Bill Berry, one of the founding members of the band had recently quit the band to spend time on his farm in Georgia.  The band opted to get guest drummers to fill in and continue on.  This concert though, was going to be a hometown show.  Atlanta was just a short drive from Athens where the band first met and from Berry's farm.  Everyone assumed he would be there.  Everyone hoped he would play a couple of songs with them.  

I was thinking about this concert last week.  August of 1999 was a long time ago.  I had just started grad school and was basically going to have to stay up all night to make the concert and still be at work and school the next day.  I remember being very tired.  I also remember Bill Berry being at the concert.  There was a crazy bunch of hoodlums as the opening act.  They all wore costumes and rubber masks.  When REM started playing they kept mentioning Berry and dedicating songs to him.  They kept looking backstage which made everyone think he was there and was on the verge of coming out to play.  In my memory, he came out to a standing ovation, waved shyly and then sat in on the drums for a couple of songs.  

But what actually happened was he came out to a standing ovation, waved shyly and then ducked backstage, never to be seen again.  And I'm sure about this.  Luckily for me and my memory, there are people dedicated enough to journal these things and post them on the interwebs.

I understand that what I remember is what I want to remember.  It's what I wanted to be true.  I saw it in my mind well enough for it to register as a memory.  I can see him taking his place behind the drum kit right now.  It's just that it never happened.  

I've been thinking about this all week.  I've got a lot of stories in my head.  My dad told great stories to us when we were growing up.  I had a pretty fun childhood and some crazy friends so I've got a few stories of my own.  What's going to happen to them?  

Sometimes we'll be doing something with the kids and a story will pop into my head.  If it's appropriate, I'll tell the story to the kids.  They'll laugh and giggle and ask me to tell it again and again.  Every once in a while I get this weird feeling as we're sharing a story.  I feel it like it's my dad sharing the story with me.  I remember what that felt like as a kid and how it bound us together.  On this side of parenthood I now see it as a way of living on through your children.  When I'm no longer telling stories, my kids will be driving their kids somewhere and they'll remember the story about some midnight teenage shenanigans their dad may or may not have been involved in and they'll share that story with their family.  

And Bill Berry not playing the drums that night has me thinking that it might be a good idea to record these stories somewhere for safe keeping.  I mean, the details are important.  There's a big difference between the founding member playing a song and not playing a song.  If I had kidnapped a life sized concrete dog sculpture and painted it garnet, I wouldn't want time and hazy memory to turn that color to blue.  It would lose the whole Clemson/Carolina angle of the story, you know?  That was a hypothetical situation.  I would never steal or vandalize Kenny McDowell's Dalmatian lawn ornament.  That would be wrong.  But if I did, I'd want someone to tell it right.

I'm going to have to find a way to document some stories.  Maybe I'll tell more to Blue and Violet.  Maybe I'll post some here.  Maybe the sketchbook will have to catch the ones that are not age appropriate or suitable for public consumption.

But Bill Berry was there.  He didn't play but he was there.  The concert was really good, the seats were good and Michael Stipe looked just like me.  He still does.  You can Google it.

A postscript for any students reading:  In August of 1999 I was working full time and attending graduate school.  The concert was on a weeknight.  I drove 4 hours to Atlanta, saw the show, drove 4 hours back, slept an hour or so and was at work at 6am the next morning.  After work I drove 1.5 hours to school and never missed a minute of class.  That's how you concert.  Take note.

A postscript for anyone old enough to appreciate it:  There was an amateur band handing out demo cassette tapes at the exits of the concert.  That band was Train.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

museum shenanigans

Last Friday was College Art Day at the SC State Museum in Columbia.  Art Departments from colleges and universities all over the state set up tables at this event and provide information to several bus loads of high school art students from the midlands area.  The cool thing about this recruiting opportunity is that it is student led.  The museum asks that students from each department be present to talk to prospective students.  I'm the faculty volunteer and this usually means I carry the box into the building.  

 Once the box is carried inside, the students take over and set up the table to their own specifications.  This year we had Katherine (The Gazelle), Sabrina (Captain Side Eye) and Jamea (J-J-J-Jamea) as our student representatives.  

 When I first started doing these recruiting events for Lander years ago, no one had ever heard of us.  If anyone had heard of the university, they had no idea we had an art department.  This was high school students, parents and even some high school teachers.  But thanks to some creative swag and some good publicity over the years, now we get swarmed when the students arrive.

 Students and teachers alike come to see what kind of stuff we're giving away this year.  And once the swag brings them over, our student reps engage them with personality and win them over.  Some of these high school students come every year and we know them by name.  They've known for years they were going to apply to Lander.  It's great.  You may also notice in the photos the empty tables in the background.  Universities who don't bring students, don't have good swag and lack in the personality department....they don't exactly bring the kids to the yard.  

 I'm just there to have fun.  And stack cups to the ceiling.  Being fun is the key.

Don't get me wrong, this is a lot of work.  I get out easy and I still have to register everyone, organize lunch orders, convince students to go and put in a long Friday of being social.  The student reps miss a day of classes and have to make up work.  This is also the Friday before spring break for us so they have to put off leaving a day early for break and drive to Columbia before heading home.  They get up way earlier than usual for this and they have to put up with me all day!  To reward this extra work, we try to make it as fun as possible.

 After the high school students head back to their buses and we pack up our table, we get to enjoy the museum for free.  There's always a good art exhibit to coincide with College Art Day.  This year it was the 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the State Art Collection.  There was a Jim Arendt.

 And a Tom Stanley.

 And a lot of other cool stuff.  Oh, and Armir, fresh back in the country from active duty in the Air Force, joined us to hang out most of the day.

 This very small sculpture won us over.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.

 The regular museum exhibits are also pretty fun.  Especially when you're a bunch of goofballs.

 Our curiosity led us to the top floor where we could see a lady working on the big telescope.  She motioned for us to come inside and she showed us the surface of the sun on a computer monitor.  The telescope showed some cool activity on the surface.  You could see gas eruptions coming off of the surface.  It was very cool.

 We also got to see the Leo Twiggs exhibit "Requiem For Mother Emanuel".

 A couple of years ago 9 people were killed inside Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston.  The person responsible doesn't deserve any recognition but I mention this person only because this series of batik paintings follows the progression of emotions from immediate horror to complete forgiveness.  This person worked out of hatred but may have accidentally done more for racial peace in our state than any activist.  

 This piece by a different artist was just outside the exhibit.  It may have been as moving as the other 9 paintings.  My students moved through this one quickly and didn't want to discuss it.  I had some ideas about the exhibit before I saw it in person and I have some ideas now.  We could discuss over coffee sometime.

 Once we were all museum-ed out, we headed out for an early dinner in town.  I let the students pick the restaurant, but we made a quick stop at Publix to get a red velvet cake personalized for Sabrina.  She's having a birthday over spring break and she failed to come by the sculpture studio for the traditional, non-edible sculpture cake.

 So we surprised her with a personalized cake after dinner, complete with a poor rendition of "Happy Birthday".  

After dinner and cake, Armir told us we had to try "Insomnia Cookies".  None of us had heard of it so he navigated us across town and we got a dozen cookies, mostly to take home to my kids because we were all stuffed.  The cookies ended up being free which was really cool of them.  Apparently you can order them online so go to and support these nice people.  

After that it was time to drive through Columbia's notorious rush hour traffic to officially begin our spring break.  

Monday, March 5, 2018

plaster disaster

Disaster is not the correct word, it just rhymed.  It's more like a "plaster evil master plan" or as my freshmen students call it, "project 2".  With the horrors of "project 1" building their character and with me asking ridiculous questions and engaging them in odd conversations, each of my ART 106 (3D Design) classes is developing it's own personality.  While students come into this second semester class generally knowing who their peers are, in this new class they may really only know a couple of people.  And they have no idea what to think about me.  They've heard things about me and my classes.  They've been warned about my projects.  They've received an entire semester's worth of weekly emails inviting them to slog with us.  

Studio art students need to learn to work in community and learn to take full advantage of the studio environment.  They need to learn to work together and help each other out.  That's where the plaster project comes in.  It's my favorite - mostly because of plaster pouring day and how that changes the entire group.  I wont bore you with the details but I will share the juicy photos...

 I forgot to get a "before" photo of the MWF class.  But this is what happened about 2 minutes into plaster pouring day.  The plaster leaked out of the mold faster than I could pour it in.

 The gushing plaster brought every available hand in to put pressure on the leaks.  The idea is that slowing the leak will give the plaster time to start to set up.  It's a good theory.

 I almost remembered the "before" photo for the morning TR class.  This is half of them.  The other half were frantically duct taping their forms in the other room, racing against a ticking clock and a shouting McAbee.  Notice how clean they are?

 30 seconds later....

 30 seconds later.  The puddle of plaster just kept growing.  That's why the plastic is there.  With everyone trying to apply pressure and keep the plaster on the plastic, it quickly becomes a messy game of Twister.

 I am not a fan of pink duct tape.  It annoys me in general.  But with rainbows and unicorns on it...I gave in and loved it.

 Look at the expression on Grace's face.  At this point, she had totally given up hope and started laughing pretty much non-stop.  She has a really good snort when she laughs.

 And check out Katherine's expression.  This is exactly how I feel about plaster pouring day.  I know there are students who hate it because it's messy and because their project explodes, but everyone has a good time.  It's pretty much the best class ever.

 An aerial view of the madness.

 Check out Rashad's shoe protectors.  Plastic bags tied over the Jordans.  Classic!  Also, yes, there's a naked mannequin on the sculpture studio.  It's a project.

 And this is the "after" photo.  I was a little late taking it and lost a few people to the next class but they all looked similar.  Those are the faces of survivors.  Joy, sadness, regret mixed with a healthy dose of relief.  These are changed people.

 This is as close as I got to a "before" photo of the TR afternoon class.  First pour, first leak.  That's Emily in the background.  Students from previous years always enjoy coming back on plaster day to watch the show.  At one point we had more people watching from the sidelines than we had in the actual class.

 I enjoy observing people as you may know.  I love to watch the faces of the students during the pouring.  While 6 of these students are jumping in to help the one student whose mold we are pouring, they are laughing nervously.  You can almost watch the exact moment when they process this information and realize that their own mold is going to leak like a screen door.  That's a very entertaining moment for me.  

 You also get to see how far a student is willing to go to save their project.  Cali had way too many seams and she knew hers was a time bomb.  She sacrificed herself and wrapped her entire body around her mold to hold it together.  It may have been a little awkward but it worked.

 But the teamwork is the best.  They all jump in and help each other.  They suffer together and grow closer.  They also beg the peanut gallery for help and mean people like Ricardo laugh hysterically at them and say no.

 Hannah thought hers was built to last.  There were only a couple of minor leaks on the first pour.  But then gravity raised it's ugly head.  That's what happens when you believe in gravity.  

 This is the exact moment Kelsey gave up on life.  Nah, hers filled up eventually just like all the others.  

Then the clean up began.  3 classes poured, 31 students or so.  We went through a lot of plaster and made a huge mess.  When the relief and exhaustion set in, Yessica started free styling some clean up raps.  It was hilarious and painful.  Let's just say she likes to rhyme words with the exact same word.  Here's a line from her new album dropping soon, "My name is Cali and I like to mop, I made a mess and I cleaned it up with a mop."  Poetry.

After spring break they'll turn these plaster forms into well-thought-out, very effective compositions.  They'll know how to wipe their feet effectively before exiting the studio.  They'll have a pretty good idea their professor is evil.  And they'll have a shared experience that will help them in untold ways for the next 3 years.