Sparked by Words

A Certain Artwork

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








Comments on: "A Certain Artwork" (28)

  1. Shari, blimey! I felt stressful just reading about your art class and the sculptor wandering around each week, judging the pieces! That would have filled me with terror! Thank goodness you were okay after your final piece … I’m trying to imagine an art department with no space to produce art! Different times, eh?! Yeah, here is to writing books and studying literature! 😀 hugs xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • UCI was so small when it first opened, with just a few buildings around its circular hub. The campus today has space for every department to house its needs, and the art department is renowned. I wouldn’t say I was OK at what happened – it caused me to doubt myself so much that I changed majors, but I ended up taking art classes after my undergraduate years and built a career teaching art. Now I’m back writing books, though not yet published. Hugs back at you, Annika.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. a charming story: the early surprise successes built up a genuine sense of anticipation, would the wax project come good after all (made me recall my time at school/university – I could never make it happen the way it was supposed to happen and any successes I had came when I wasn’t really trying to make it a success so, of course, I couldn’t replicate it … come to think of it, the criteria of success in life are similarly inscrutible …); the sculptor’s comment was a priceless end to the story

    Liked by 1 person

    • His comment was also a priceless end to my pursuit of an art degree. Of course, I could have started the project a week before it was due instead of the day before. I agree with you about defining success – inscrutable.


  3. I know you didn’t intend this to be humor, but I couldn’t resist giggles. You finally are at a major I can understand!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an experience! So sorry that your attempt at studying art ended in such a disaster. During my days of teaching art to high school students, I also used geometric shapes to introduce my first year students to the art of drawing. I believe that your instructor failed in not preparing you for the assignment.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think he did the best he could to describe the foundational principles of art, but he was limited by time and space. My problem was choosing an unfamiliar media for a final project and starting it too late. It may have been expected that we would already have taken a few preliminary art and design classes before registering for this one. In fact, I never thought about this until your comment, Rosaliene. I didn’t have an advisor, (another long story) though I was supposed to. But I didn’t have the courage to ask the administration to assign me a new one.

      I also ended up teaching art to students from kinder through high school. At this level, we can be generous with the time we allot to developing curriculum so students are well prepared to undertake new and challenging assignments.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. It sounds like that teacher made assumptions about how the students would handle the last assignment. He should have had everyone hand in a report detailing what they were going to do so he could council them on how to handle their chosen medium.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As a primary and secondary art teacher decades later, it was my responsibility to see that the students were prepared to undertake each new assignment. However, this was a college class, he was a professional artist doing a stint as a guest instructor, and I think he fairly assumed that the students would be smart enough to ask for help should they have felt the need. Some of the responsibility was mine – if you read my reply to Rosaliene Bacchus, you’ll see some of the other factors in play. I really appreciate your concern that all the blanks were filled in. At this point in my life, I find it a funny episode.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Some people do well with restrictions as they help to define their focus…”
    That is definitely me. Thinking about it now, I’m relatively sure that’s why I keep using a writing software program instead of just using Word or Google Doc.

    I did a similar first art project in my senior year of high school except we had to pick one color and figure out what to do with it. I used different hues of a purplish-blue. I got a B on the project.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And I keep using Word instead of a writing program – LOL – it works for me.
      I didn’t know you were interested in art, Glynis. Do you still do any art? If so, what media do you enjoy working with?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I haven’t done any visual art for a while now. I did Native American crafts for a few years. You know, beads, animal skins, woods. I’ve done needlepoint tapestries but that’s been quite a while ago. A few years ago I did some ceramics. I tried to get back into needlepoint but I can’t find a craft store that sells the designed tapestries. Oh well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • More interesting info about you, Glynis. Just curious – do you have Native American blood? You could probably find needlepoint supplies on line. There are very few art stores anymore, I’m forced to buy my supplies on line. With some regret. There’s nothing like wandering the aisles of a shop filled with the things you love.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have a smidgen of Native American blood in me. My grandmother was half Sioux.


      • I think that makes you 1/8 th Sioux, and that might be enough for them to consider you a member of the tribe. I think that’s a very high honor.


  7. Great story – I majored in art at csulb thinking it would be easy — then I realized how difficult it is to pass a class where the teacher grades on their opinion, not a ‘right or wrong’ like in math…


    • I couldn’t stay at UCI – long story – and transferred to CSULB where I intended to continue my major in English with an emphasis in creative writing but also wanted to add a minor in art. Found out after I’d enrolled that the art department was already so impacted, it accepted no one who wouldn’t major in art. Decades after I graduated, I took my first art class at CSULB and discovered that the art department was riddled with political manipulation and cliques. Someone accused me of stealing – wait for it – wax. Sure, that’s what I did, I stole wax. Big profit in blocks of wax. I gave up any dreams of picking up a masters in art at that school. Excellent program if you can get beyond the ludicrous garbage. So very sorry you dealt with similar circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. we are definitely talking about the same place… many tx for your condolences – mine to you as well


  9. I’m so sorry that you burned your hands and arms doing this last assignment, Shari. Everyone who’s burned herself before like with an hot iron, knows that it’s really a horrible pain. Add this to the verdict by that instructor and I wish I could travel back in time and comfort you with a big hug. I’m glad you think of this as a funny episode now, shows that time does heal.
    Since I’m a self-taught artist I don’t have a clue what I would respond to an invitation to come up with anything I like… probably panic! 😂


    • We are so much alike, Sarah. I was very much a self-taught artist, even started teaching art before I had more than a few classes under my belt. In fact, I started taking art classes after I began to teach art, hoping to earn an art degree and the validation that goes with it. Never completed this, but I racked up a lot of courses. Still, panic was a constant companion, along with the little voice in the back of my head, whispering, “fraud.” I’m too old to care now but I tell every young person: Get the degrees now while you’re young and have few responsibilities. Be well, and stop panicking – you’re pretty amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww – thanks so much, Shari!
        And tell me about that little voice whispering “fraud”! It’s amazing how consistent it can be, no matter what you have achieved, right?
        I’ve heard from quite a few artists that they actually didn’t learn anything at art school what they wouldn’t have come across themselves later or sooner. And also many an artist who never went there and paints so much better than anyone with a degree.
        It always drives me nuts that especially here in Germany you need a degree for nearly everything, otherwise you’re not supposed to call yourself an artist, musician or whatnot. I don’t really know if that was always the case or simply has changed in the last years. I know of no gallery for example who would exhibit work by a self-taught artist, they all demand that you’ve got written proof from a university. Makes it very hard to many of us.


      • Actually, I understand their hesitation about hiring a teacher without the advanced degrees. Private schools especially must have something to wave in front of parents paying hefty tuition. I wonder what they’d say to Michelangelo were he to apply to being a teacher? Gives me the giggles to imagine. “Yes, we can see that big ceiling you painted, but you don’t have a masters in art, you aren’t qualified.”

        Don’t let it get to you, Sarah. You know how much you bring to your students.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lol! Thanks for making me laugh! What a hoot imagining Michelangelo having problems getting job! 😄


  10. What a story!! Well you did get off to a great start ~ which is often the key to success as initial impressions are so important. I was always a lousy student and because I started poorly, teachers never expected much from me! Perhaps you were “set up” for failure…. What that teacher did not know of course was the effort you put in. Ultimately though things work out and clearly it was a productive life changes/choice for you. Enjoyed this post!



    • I didn’t realize until I wrote this article that I probably made a huge mistake in taking the class. Had I had an advisor, it would have likely been suggested that I take preliminary art classes before attempting this one. But I not only didn’t have a college advisor, I’d never had a high school one either, and made a thousand mistakes. I’d only had one semester of high school art so I had the passion but not the training to handle an advanced class. But then, we learn from mistakes maybe more than from success.


  11. Gosh that was such a rollercoaster of a story- so many ups and downs- I’m sad it ended in such a disaster though! (although I wish the teacher had said that there’s no such thing as failure, only a failed experiment- we all have those art pieces that end up in the bin that don’t work out, but nothing ventured nothing gained- it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because you learn from it and do something better next time). Ah well- definitely down with the writing and reading books and majoring in English part!


    • I was devastated at the time but years later realized I was probably supposed to have taken preliminary art classes before this one. The instructor had a right to assume the students were prepared to undertake the assignments. Many years later I earned a minor equivalency in art and taught art for decades. Loved every minute of working with the kids. Even this failed art class (didn’t actually earn a fail grade) was part of the long journey of art and I’m grateful for every detour.


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