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Color Me Red

August 12, 2016

When budget cuts prompted our son’s school to slash funding for its art department, I volunteered to teach an Art Literacy course. As a professional artist/illustrator, I felt well prepared to share my enthusiasm for art history and figured instructing middle school kids would be fun. This was my first time teaching and what I lacked in experience I intended to make up for with enthusiasm.


I knew from my own school days that kids enjoy looking at pictures more than studying math or history, so I figured it would be easy holding their attention. Still, I was nervous my first day as I lugged a slide tray and projector into the classroom. No projection screen was available; an empty wall would have to do.


I began by showing slides of paintings by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, explaining how he’d painted in a cramped house he occupied with his wife, mother-in-law and a dozen surviving children. Vermeer was one of my favorite painters and I went overboard praising his technique and compositional skills, pointing out the palpable stillness in what had to be a chaotic living environment, how he built up thin layers of paint like an oyster creating a pearl. Mostly, I described the magical light flowing over everyday objects, transforming the mundane into the ethereal.


I lingered over one painting in particular, Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Created around 1658, the small canvas is a miracle in paint. Light floods through a window on the left, illuminating the milk jug in the maid’s hands, along with chunks of bread about to be made into pudding.


Vermeer’s output was surprisingly small with only thirty-four paintings attributed to him, and experts have proclaimed The Milkmaid one of the artist’s most accomplished works. I waxed poetically in an attempt to do justice to this masterpiece, describing the glorious light enhancing the details with hyper realism. I rambled on and on, explaining how the unified light source conveyed an impression of reality later associated with photography, and to emphasize my point I drew the children’s attention to a small detail—a nail hammered into a wall in the right corner of the background.


“Look at the incredible skill with which the artist recreated that nail! It’s like you can reach out and touch it, hang your coat on it.”


A boy of around ten squinted at the projection. I could see something percolating in his mind and looked forward to his question. Teachers I knew often spoke of the rewards of engaging young minds and setting students on the path to knowledge. What would this young boy ask? What was it about this painting that had captivated his young imagination?



 Vermeer's The Milkmaid 1658




Rising from his desk, he approached the projection, studying it up close for a moment. Without asking a question, he pulled the nail from the wall and placed it in my hand, a real nail—not part of the painting at all.  


Had Vermeer been present to paint the scene that day, he would have needed a lot of red to capture my embarrassment.




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OMG that is funny. I'll bet you had a snappy comment, but the story is better without it!
By: cranky on August 12, 2016
Sorry, but that is HILARIOUS. Then again, you must appreciate the humor in it, too, or else you wouldn't have shared it. :)
By: Susan Swiderski on August 12, 2016
I know it's hard to believe but I am a qualified art teacher. I did my teaching practice in an all boys school. Hardest thing I ever did in my life, and why I decided to set up my own graphic design business.
By: LL Cool Joe on August 12, 2016
At least you had his attention! Heeheehee!
By: messymimi on August 12, 2016
By: fishducky on August 12, 2016
Oh, that's a classic story from the master! And you had the grace to tell it on yourself.
By: Catalyst on August 12, 2016
Kids say the darnedest things. LOL
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 12, 2016
oh hahahah what a observant kid- he will make a great detective!
By: Kathe W. on August 12, 2016
That is an all time classic story. Educators must love it.
By: Tom Cochrun on August 12, 2016
Now that's funny right there. Thanks for sharing. I'm going to have to pass this one along to the wife as it's too good not to. Take care.
By: Mr. Shife on August 12, 2016
Very funny! You have to be careful who you're talking to.
By: red Kline on August 12, 2016
Oh, this brought a chuckle to my evening! I twigged what was about to happen when you described the boy's attention and I was delighted to be proved right. Too funny!
By: Botanist on August 12, 2016
Hahahaha...too funny!
By: Pixel Peeper on August 12, 2016
Love this ! brings back several memories, especially the one where I was pontificating in front of a seventh grade class and swallowed a fly.
By: Jo on August 12, 2016
Hahahaha! You got me! I was thinking there was an exposed breast or something that you had overlooked in that painting.
By: Val on August 12, 2016
I know I shouldn't laugh but this truly is funny---and yes, embarrassing. You always tell the most entertaining stories. By the way---the painting really is lovely.
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on August 12, 2016
Oh, that's awful. You must have been so embarrassed. I hope you recovered enough to return and keep teaching the little monkeys. I took art criticism in college and loved it!
By: Lexa Cain on August 12, 2016
By: TexWisGirl on August 13, 2016
That really is an amazing painting but the nail bit was just too funny. But you have to admit the kid had a good eye and was paying attention. Hope you gave him a good grade.
By: Arkansas Patti on August 13, 2016
At least they listened to you. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 13, 2016
I am smiling with you not at you:) oh my....that would be a faux pas but it seems the kids were listening and if I had you as a teacher, I would have been riveted since I love art so much. I had the honour of seeing this painting and it was breathtaking.
By: Birgit on August 13, 2016
Uh oh, now I have to admit that I took an art history class in college. When the prof. turned off the lights and started showing pictures ... that was my cue to nod out and catch up on my shuteye. At least this kid was paying attention!
By: Tom Sightings on August 14, 2016
Lesson time take your own screen. LOL ;)
By: scott park on August 14, 2016
"instructing middle school kids would be fun" Oh, Steve, you naive man, you.
By: Al Penwasser on August 14, 2016
By: The Bug on August 20, 2016

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