One of my third grade art students—we’ll call him Jimmy H.— once posed the question concerning his portrait of classmate, David G.
Now, this class was populated with more doubles than a pack of Topps baseball cards. Two Peters, two Laurens, two Davids—you get the idea. For convenience, every kid simply went by first name and last initial.
Jimmy H. was the opposite of his counterpart. Jimmy A. just rolled with the punches, but Jimmy H. was a tad intense. Cooperative and pleasant most of the time, but not a jokester.
If memory serves me correctly, at the time he was still mad at me for writing too much in his yearbook. Said I took up too much space. Apparently, I was expected to merely sign my name over my picture. No, “Have a nice summer.” No, “Nice work on your pottery this year!” None of that.
I took pause, then, when confronted with Picasso David G. Double noses and additional eyes—visible in an earlier draft—notwithstanding, a positive critique wasn’t the problem. Any art teacher who can’t muster up some flowery prose about the almond-shaped eyes or the texturization techniques employed on the hairline just needs to pack up the paints and turn in the brushes. It’s the name of the game.
But Jimmy wasn’t the sort that was going to be satisfied with that type of critique. Never mind that we don’t even attempt to cover portraiture in the curriculum until 6th grade. Jimmy just wanted to hear that he’d nailed it on the first try and produced a 10-minute dead-ringer for David G.
I averted his stare and swallowed hard, suppressing the urge to launch into an impromptu lesson on the Cubist movement.
“Well, Jimmy,” I said in my Serious Art voice, “I think we have some decisions to make about this piece.”
“Like what!” Jimmy was alarmed, already not liking the way this was headed.
“Is it a straight on pose or a profile?” I asked him.
“Does it matter?”
“It does if we want David to have the right amount of eyes.”
“Say it’s a profile,” he said, “which eyes do I keep?”
That day, I had to sell Jimmy on the idea of a work in progress, and that’s a tough sell in any market.
It occurred to me how often I find myself in front of the keyboard with letters scattered across the screen, modifiers dangling, ill-formed one-liners lurking around the margins thinking, “Does this look like an article?”
As a novice writer, I wanted to nail it the first time, too. I wanted editors to swoon at every sentence that rolled off my printer. I wanted to believe that inspired text just flowed from my fingers and flew across the screen—each phrase as meaningful, as witty, or as incisive as it was in my own brain.
Only recently did I realize that David G., pencil on drawing paper, was more than a metaphor for writing, but life in general, too.
We don’t always see life as work in progress, of where we are now as a starting point or a bridge. We think answers are better than questions, that there is better than here, and accolades are more valuable than exertion.
Contemplating the beginning of a new week, things look messy. There are unfinished projects lurking. There’s the cryptic email I received from my editor just before she disappeared for the weekend suggesting that she wants 5 separate cover stories from me by Friday about subjects that aren’t more than question marks as I write this. My daughter has a birthday. I need to send gifts to friends who have had special occasions.
Looking at this mess, I ask “Does this look like life?” and I have to smile and admit that it does.
Jimmy H was kind enough to let me make a copy of his portrait. I may have made a vague reference to possibly wanting to write about the picture sometime.
I don't think he cared--just as long as it wasn't in his yearbook.