Our art class was held in the dark basement room of the since demolished Central Middle School. I always looked forward to that 50-minute period as a reprieve from asquared + btothethirdpower = a cow jumped over the moon or running endless laps in the gymnasium. The art class was also a time where I broke away from most of the same-old-same-old students in my gifted core classes to spend time with other students in the school. It was in art class that I first met Nancy, who became one of my dearest friends.
Mr. Wood, our teacher, was a non-descript man. He was rather short with graying hair and his words seemed to slur together. He probably had a flask in his desk. No one could blame him, for being with a classroom full of teens day after day must wear on anyone. I don’t remember learning much from his jumble of words, but once he was done talking, we were released into the expansive outer room — lined with tables, workshop spaces, and cabinets. For being a space that was designated for art, it was poorly lit and would have struck any outsider as depressing. There were a couple bulletin board walls where we sometimes displayed our latest drawings, but other than that, the room was void of anything that would have indicated it was used for learning the finer things. This was not the type of classroom environment where students would hang their artwork and then offer critiques or constructive criticisms to one another. Everyone was left to their own devices and many kids skipped out after the roll had been called. I was too much of a goody-goody during my junior high years to ever contemplate skipping class.
Despite the general lack of instruction, I have completely unclouded memories of time spent in the art basement. Mr. Wood was big on lettering. One thing he did attempt to teach us was how to create block letters, which had a 3D-like characteristic. I always found the “S” to be a challenge and could never get it to look quite right. Penmanship had been my strong suit from a young age. I loved the way the calligraphy pens had to be angled just so, and when pressed, the ink would flow into a wavy “r” or a loopy “y”. Another designated project I recall was meant to be an optical illusion. The instruction was to draw a grid within a certain shape and then fill in every other space with dark pen or marker. If you stood a couple feet away from the piece, and let your eyes soften, the lines would begin to move or suck you into their depths.
At one point during my eighth grade year, we made jewelry. This was a pretty advanced effort, given how infrequently we received actual instruction in the class. There was a hot blue wax substance we used to craft rings, pendants, and other items. We had little drills that we would use to work the metal smooth once it had hardened. During a lunch hour, Nancy and our other friend Liz were in the art room messing around with jewelry and drills, likely unbeknownst to the teacher. Liz wasn’t paying attention and before she knew it, she had a little drill spun into her wavy black hair. Hearing Nancy breathlessly retelling the story in between gasps of laughter became a favorite thing, “And then, ‘zooooop’ the drill was caught in Liz’s hair!” I don’t recall exactly how the scenario ended, but I’m fairly sure it involved scissors for drill removal surgery. I cannot remember which of us first discovered that we could decorate our fingernails with wax drippings, but somehow, the three of us thought it was a genius idea. Once we each had a finished piece of jewelry for “grading” (a loosely used term in this class), we spent a significant amount of time heating wax, and dripping it onto our fingernails. Each little drop burned and stung, but we had to try and be quiet practicing our craft so we wouldn’t get caught. (I’m not sure what the consequence would have been, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t have been significant.) Once a ball of wax was resting on a fingernail, you had to hold in an “eeeeee” or an “ah-ah-ah” and then casually blow on it until it was dry. At one point, probably as a resort of our tears of stifled laughter post-wax application, Mr. Wood turned from the drill area, sauntered towards us, and asked, “What are you girls doing?” It was as if we became synced robots. All three of us had our hands under the table, quickly rubbed the then-dried wax off our nails, and casually brought our hands up to rest on the table as we chorused, “Nothing.” While we held in laughter, Mr. Wood gave us a look of skepticism, and walked back to his drill bits.
Toward the end of my eighth grade year, I brought in a 110mm camera my grandma had given me. It was a great source of amusement to us. In 1991 you rarely saw a camera at school. We took an entire roll of pictures, and despite the basement gloom, it was definitely one of the happiest times of my young teen life. A nagging pit of sadness creeps into my gut when I think that students no longer experience the slightly oblivious Mr. Wood and the dank of the art room basement.
Nancy, Liz & me
Central Middle School Mr. Wood & his pupils