My college journey detoured a few weeks into my freshman year. (Read A Certain Word, May 30, 2019.) The day after the Marat/Sade theater fiasco, I enrolled as an art major. Majoring in art seemed a natural choice as I’d been winning art awards since I was a kid.
As the University of California at Irvine was such a new campus, only a few buildings served classroom needs, and almost none could be spared for individual departments. Art classes met in a room that in two hours would be a philosophy or Latin or trigonometry class.
Still trying to get its flag posted on the university map, the college did what most schools did: invite preeminent scholars to teach for a year. In other schools, these plum seats would be open to students in advanced programs, but Irvine only had a few dozen upper classmen. None were in art, so classes taught by master artists were open to anyone quick enough to register.
That’s how I found myself in the humanities building, ready to produce ART, along with twenty or so of my favorite strangers.
Into the room strode the visiting artist, a well known sculptor whose name I cannot remember. I do recall that he admired the work of Mark Di Suvero and David Smith, two abstract expressionist sculptors whose monumental works defied gravity and altered perceptions of what modern art should be. He wasn’t my father’s Michelangelo.
Our first assignment was to go home (all art assignments began with, “Go home and make,” because there was no studio where we could work.) I still lived with my parents, and this was the only project I created at home because it used clean supplies. All other projects were crafted on campus wherever I could find a space to spread a mess.
We were to choose a geometric shape, draw it many times to fill a sheet of paper, then color the drawing. I picked an octagon, drew about eight or ten, colored some in warm shades, alternating with others in cool tones. Each octagon exhibited a graduating range of color values within its predominant hue, the overall effect visually appealing.
At the critique for the first assignment, each of us set out our drawings so the instructor could walk around and evaluate them. He reviewed with a discerning eye, finding little merit in anything. Except somehow mine stood out. He said it was the only piece that approached art.
I had created something worthy of being called approached-art? This was a better outcome than my failed theater attempt.
The next assignment was a bit of a blow. We were to use our geometric shapes to make a sculpture of toothpicks. I sensed the wisdom of the other students who’d chosen squares and triangles.
Over the trimester, my octagon was built into increasingly complex structures of cardboard, tongue depressors, wire, aluminum foil. Fragile geometric sculptures whose parts were carefully measured, cut, balanced, and glued, then brought to class for critique.
The instructor lectured about negative and positive space, shape, form, mass, line – an entire foundational art curriculum on the elements of art and principles of composition. Somehow, lesson after lesson, my work continued to shine.
Then the final assignment. We got to jettison the geometric shapes and create a sculpture of our choice, any media, any size, any shape.
Some people do well with restrictions as they help to define their focus – I was one of those. Do anything and I was at loss, especially since I had no experience of working with classic sculpture materials. I’d never carved stone, sawn wood, turned clay, welded metal, or assembled more than paper and cardboard constructions. I was a Scotch tape and Elmer’s glue artist.
This was the late 60s, hippies were half our student population, handmade candles a popular craft. I admired their fanciful wax castles of spires, turrets, and suspended bridges in riotous colors. I figured I’d build a castle – how hard could it be? A campus Deadhead gave me verbal directions. He was a bit stoned. I was not.
First thing was to procure a place to build the castle of my dreams, my parents’ home forbidden territory. Violet volunteered her campus apartment. Next I needed supplies: blocks of paraffin, a pot to melt the wax, a pie pan to pour the hot melted wax, a giant trashcan to dip the wax, and crayons in my choice of colors.
I was able to get most of these items at a grocery. Violet dragged the apartment complex trash can into her kitchen. The time was inching towards 11:00 PM as we set to work. We yanked a garden hose through the window and filled the can. Violet begged ice cubes from every nearby student and we added them to cool the water.
Now I knew nothing about wax, like how flammable it is. Nor that you should heat it over a double boiler, not in an enamel pan directly on the burner. I guess Violet didn’t know either.
Once my paraffin melted, (lucky us we didn’t burn down the building) I tossed in my crayons of choice – two sticks of red, two of yellow. I planned to swirl them to get a marble effect. Wasn’t planning on instant blending. My red and yellow marble instantly became the single shade of a human organ – maybe a sick liver.
Remember that in the late 60s there was no such thing as an all night grocery. I couldn’t buy more supplies to start over. I was stuck with a sick color.
Next I poured the hot – and I do mean HOT – wax into the pie pan. The red metal handle of the enamel pan was nearly as hot as the wax itself. Lifting the pot without a potholder scorched my palm. I poured the wax into the pie pan, then, still without potholders, picked up the pan. Ten fingers on the edge of the pan. HOT HOT.
I plunged the hot pie pan into the trash can of cold water, hoping to witness the birth of my architectural wonder.
A significant amount of the melted wax floated to the surface, the surface being my arms. HOT HOT HOT up both my arms above my elbows. Bright red burns as good as you get after eight hours tanning on the sands of Newport Beach without the cachet of having had a really fun afternoon in a bikini. Screech-when-bending-my-elbows kind of burn.
As for my castle? No spires, no turrets, no suspended bridges. It was an amorphous clump simulating a rotting cantaloupe. A sick-liver colored blob. Violet pulled wax off my arms.
Next morning we submitted our sculptures. How those idiots who couldn’t make anything-approaching-art for the last nine weeks came up with their final projects, I have no idea. But they had. They’d carved stone, sawn wood, turned clay, welded metal, and assembled plaster.
Our visiting preeminent sculptor walked among the artworks and talked about appreciation for modernity, an eye for whimsy, an exuberance of sinuous curve, an intuition for culture. He raved, he swooned, he praised. He nearly smiled.
Then he got to mine. My sick-liver colored wax amorphous blob. He walked around, clipboard in the crook of his arm, me looking on with my burned arms. He scowled and declared, in a solemn and dignified voice:
“There is a place in art for the truly ugly.”
The next day, I dropped out of the art department. I had to write with arms so sore I could barely hold a pen.
I couldn’t act. I couldn’t create art.
I changed my major to English
At least I could read a damn book.
Sculpture Despair courtesy of Pixabay