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Mar '13

Prepared To Dye

By Tuesday evening, I was a happy camper.  Two days before my deadline, I got the editing done on the new book.  When you add that to the fact that we wrapped up the videos on Sunday, it makes for a big week and it is only Wednesday!

The very last thing I wrote for the book was the Acknowledgement section that actually comes at the front of the book.  While you will probably recognize many familiar names from the rug hooking community that pop up in that section, there are a few names on that list that hardly any of my readers would know unless they came from Albion, Illinois … in the middle of the last millennium.   Yet, without these people’s contribution to my artistic experience, I doubt that I would have ever been Prepared To Dye.  Although I never set foot in an art museum until well after I was married or knew anyone who spent money on original art to just hang on the wall, I still feel like I had a very rich artistic upbringing because of the experiences I had in school.  Most of my grade school teachers had an evident appreciation of and aptitude for a wide variety of art forms and it colored everything we did in all their classes.  On a practical note, the Edwards County Fair (oldest county fair west of the Allegheny Mountains if my lessons were correct AND across the road from my grade school) had a vigorous art category for grade school children every summer that gave both ribbons and cash prizes.  All entries were made on behalf of specific school classes and all cash prizes went directly back to the classroom that produced the winning art.  For that reason, I guess you would have to say that the entire community got behind artistic creativity.  The end result was that a teacher’s classroom egg money for a new year came from the previous year’s artistic efforts at the county fair.  Don’t take that to mean that all art was mercenary – it wasn’t.  But, it was a serious business to be sure.  As that coincided with my interests, I was particularly happy when I landed in a classroom with a teacher that was decidedly thrilled about art.  Four of them, in particular, made a big difference in my life.

Mildred Wheatcroft was my 5th grade teacher.  As you can probably tell by the photo, that was a while ago.  It was so long ago, in fact, that we used bottles of India ink and a metal stylus to hand letter signs and headers on projects.  If we needed a crepe paper streamer, we had to hand cut several folded flat sheets of crepe paper, with scissors, to make narrow bands, then tape them together.  (Kids have it so easy today what with colored markers and rolls of crepe paper.)  Anytime we had a poster to make or lettering for a bulletin board, we had to cut out all those letters by hand as well.  This was streamlined with an intricate system she developed using uniform rectangles of colored paper.  By making specific folds, cuts and notches, every lower case and upper case letter of the alphabet and all numbers could be cut from each rectangular piece of paper in a system that somewhat resembled making paper dolls.  Then, each letter was pasted (that is right – pasted not glued) or pinned on to its intended destination.  I got quite good at it, which opened up even more bulletin board opportunities.  In fact, she often gave me a blank slate and let me do whatever I wanted with boards in the room, which now seems particularly odd to invest a 10 year old with so much responsibility.  I still remember, after cutting out some lettering for a spring themed bulletin board, thinking to my self: “Why couldn’t I also cut out some paper flower shapes and turn them in to 3-dimensional spring flowers?”  So, with that as a goal, and all the colored construction paper that last year’s fair money could buy, I covered that board with 3-D crocuses, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, leaves, butterflies and all sorts of other 3-D things.  I knew I had a winner on my hands the next day when I came in early and found a group of 3 or 4 teachers huddled at the board picking my work apart trying to figure out how I did it.  I did not think too much about those 3-D flowers until, a few years ago, when I decided that just maybe I could also make 3-D flowers out of wool –

Something I would never have done without Mrs. Wheatcroft’s encouragement.   (By the way, every student in this class also had their own wooden portable  loom … but that is another story.)

The rumor on the playground was that Delores Hart had been a sergeant in WWII. Although I never actually saw any documentation to prove that rumor, no one I knew was willing to test her mettle.  While Mrs. Hart ran a tight ship in my 6th grade class

She was very experimental in the art department and encouraged us to be as well.  (OK … top, second from left)  What I remember most was the freedom she gave me to work with paint.  We had used a little paint before but only on a limited basis in a tightly controlled situation.  Granted, all we had was tempra paint and that in very few colors but as she often said:  “Leonardo da Vinci used tempra paint so you can too!”  Even more were the times she would say to me:  “See if you can’t mix up some paint to look like this?”  Without any instruction or formulas, I would take whatever it was she handed me and go to work mixing paint as I tried to match the color.  Truth be told, I think I must have wasted a lot of tempra paint experimenting with my concoctions.  Yet, she kept giving me jobs and assignments to do this & that while I got more and more interested in the way that colors worked together.  As it has worked out, I still mix colors almost every day in my dye kitchen and she often comes to mind as I work.   I only have a couple of art pieces that I made during my grade school years.

One of them is this paper mache puppet made in Mrs. Hart’s class.  It is painted, of course, with tempra paint.  Time has not been kind to this little puppet but that is not the reason that it makes me feel a bit sad to look at it today.  I no sooner had it in the final stages than Mrs. Hart asked for it so she could make it into a Pinocchio puppet for the classroom.  I have always regretted not giving it to her because, as it turns out, she gave quite a lot to me.

Although I was regularly encouraged to experiment with artistic pursuits during most of my early years in school, nothing compared to the creative environment available to me in Helen Cole’s 8th grade classroom.  As long as I kept up with my regular assignments, I pretty much got to do what ever I wanted in the art area, whenever I wanted, including coming early and staying late.

I sort of tested that theory the day I cut off the end of my finger (notice the faint oval, upper left) with the paper cutter right before the opening bell rang.  It was only a side section of finger 3/4 of an inch long so no one was afraid I would die … although after I went to the Dr., Mrs. Coles went home sick.   Back then, all the Dr. did was pop it back on, tape it up – no stitches – and say:   “Let’s hope that it grows back to that finger.”  As you can see, it did.  Actually, I am rather proud of it today as it is sort of like my artistic Red Badge of Courage.  (I am, however, a little more respectful of my paper cutter.)

Although she had me painting, carving, working with fiber, entering art competitions and doing all sorts of other related things, I think the greatest gift she gave me was a sense of empowerment.   She often said:  “You can figure it out – just do it!”  Of course, that sort of confidence boost translated into other areas of life and is with me to this day.   I rarely tackle any new artistic endeavor today without thinking about her.

During the summer, right after I graduated from 8th grade, there was  new government sponsored art program for grade school children at 2 locations in the county.  Many of my classmates signed up for it.  Mrs. Coles was asked to be the teacher.  She agreed on the stipulation that her budget be big enough to hire me as her assistant, giving me my first real paying job at 14.  I remember thinking then how wonderful it was to do something wonderful like art AND get paid to do it at the same time.  Of course, it was hard work.  The classes were big and it took a lot of effort to communicate and demonstrate the lessons that we taught. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful summer.

A year later, that summer program was offered again.

Although Mrs. Coles decided not to teach that second year, Harriet Wait Norman, my 4th grade teacher, took the job and asked me to come back again as her assistant.  By this time I was getting ready to be a sophomore and really starting to enjoy the role of communicator/demonstrator.  As it turns out, I still do.

While I had great artistic moments in the 4th grade – what could be better than bird ornaments? – I mainly credit Mrs. Wait for providing me with other artistic sensibilities. (OK … Since my dad sold Christmas trees, he donated the classroom tree each year and I (upper right) usually got to put the star on top!)

As Mrs. Wait was also a neighbor and mother of several children in my general age grouping, I was in and out of her house a lot.  From an artistic stand point I just found her very … interesting.  For example, she would cut magnolia branches and arrange them in her fireplace.  Never mind the fact that I didn’t know anyone else in town that even had a magnolia tree.  If we had one, we would have used the branches to start a fire in our trash barrel.  She also had interesting things – like civil war swords and other unique items just hanging on colored walls, draped on mantels or sitting on shelves with no purpose other than to look, to my mind, cool and artsy.  When she went on vacation with her family I sometimes had the responsibility of coming in the house on a regular basis to feed the fish.  Occasionally, I would just linger in the living room enjoying the visually stimulating things that were there.   Today, I would describe her has having style!  While I am all for making things that “go” in a given room or sticking with “my” colors, etc., the things that really motivate me are those that demand to just be made because they look wonderful and are visually stimulating!  That she wanted me to assist her was particularly meaningful and I have always been appreciative of that confidence building opportunity.

I hope you have not been bored as I have explained the reason why these four names will appear in the acknowledgement section of the new book.  All of them are gone now so, in a sense, I suppose it does not make much difference whether I list them or not.  Still, it seems like the right thing to do as they, as much as any one, have had a role in getting me Prepared To Dye.  I am happy to go on record about their efforts and happy to encourage anyone who gets the chance to spend time sharing our art form with children.  You just never know when it will change someone’s life.


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