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The Grapes of Wrath

I’m teaching a still life painting course, online, this summer, and it’s a new course for me. Still life, right, not just flowers, or so I thought. I’m thinking pots, pans, shiny metal things, fabric, ceramics, logistical things, you know, like how do you paint glass and fruit, like grapes.


Designing a course is much more complicated than designing a painting. My class is, after all, for all levels of students, and to my surprise there are even some beginning painters who are quite phenomenal painters in this class with only like 10 paintings under their belts. The devil was hiding in the details, though.


What could go wrong, right? I had blocked out time to lesson plan, and even planned out my arrangement themes. I ran around and gathered up heaps of props, but I should probably say I’m a very type B personality. I mean, a lot of this stuff is going to go down by flying by the seat of my pants, regardless, and I cannot say that I was completely unprepared for my first class, although, what a total fuck story setting up paint, lights, easels, cameras and laptops can be when things like, Microsoft, ATT, and Zoom won’t behave themselves during Mercury retrograde. I yelled a lot. My poor girlfriend. It’s a wonder she didn’t run and hide. I don’t usually pop my top, but I tossed a mouse. I had even done my homework and looked up the history of still life painting and made a 20 or 30 slide PowerPoint lecture.


The problems began not a long, long time ago… in a studio much, much closer to home… but I thought this was going to be an in-person class, I’m not sure I want to do this virtually… I probably wrote a novels worth of emails back and forth before class even started… can we go in person, yes, but no the studio is already spoken for, not sure if the classroom has LAN… material lists, supplier discounts, oh well that list is like so and so’s just use theirs… the Studio director said I have a big heart, and one of my students thinks I’m a gifted instructor, well until the grape thing, anyway.


I shouldn’t talk about my students. It’s like a client attorney privilege or HIPPA or something. And, I’m not poking fun at them, either. I take this stuff very seriously, even if I make light of it. I remember a therapist friend saying they could talk about ‘a patients personality disorder’ just not about which patient, specifically. That’s a generality about generalities and not to imply anyone is crazy except maybe me for being an art teacher. After my first class, I get an email from the registrar… someone wants to change classes, it doesn’t appear my class will be challenging enough for them and they didn’t sign up for this class for me to assign reading and watching YouTube videos.


I want my students to have the best resources I can offer… beyond what I can offer, why wouldn’t I say… here go watch this video on drawing a box… this isn’t a drawing course, but you might want to be sure you can draw an ellipse if you want to paint realistically. Hello!


So, I decide, okay, I’ll change it up a little and have a paint along… I’ll do a grape, they’ll do a grape… then an orange, a brass pot, and so on, you know, practice all the elements separately and then like a calculus exam, put it all together, independently, and solve a still life painting… with paint. I have students who don’t know what a Munsell value scale is, much less a tetrad color harmony, and upon consideration I said, screw it, I’m going to keep the PowerPoint lectures to discuss composition, period, and anything else I think will help. I’ve had students tell me, yeah they mention all that stuff in these classes, but no one ever explains what X, Y, or Z is.


No good deed goes unpunished, right? We have critique, the PowerPoint lecture, we take a break, everything is good, and then I’m up to my ears in wires, cameras, easels, paint, lighting, and halfway through my ‘how to paint a grape’ demo when it occurs to me that people are missing from Zoom… plus, when they do get back on the video conference, it’s I can’t see your painting… I can’t see the grape its too small to see… I’m waving my canvas in front of the computer monitor camera when I discover, yeah, I had not explained that it was a contrived grape painting demonstration… yeah, no, there is no real grape, this is about painting the ideal imaginary grape. I mean there were grapes in my still life arrangement on another camera, tiny little grapes off in a distant Galaxy, but still, the student had dropped out of Zoom, during the demo explanation phase, and was sitting in the Zoom waiting room for God knows how long while I’m 10 feet away painting.


Did I mention the demo sound check? I don’t think I mentioned the sound bit… three sources, the desktop the laptop and the IPad (technically six when you include speakers)… the lecture went fine… then I switched to the Brio cam mic, mic, Mic, MIC, on the laptop… I killed all the sound, then brought one source back on line, same shit. I’m like WTF? I’m lowering the volume on the IPad which already had the sound off in Zoom… fiddled with all the sources, again, anyway, I finally get the echo to go away, who knows why to this day, and I discover that, yeah when I hit the little X’d out key with the speaker on it on my laptop… people were talking to themselves for like 10 minutes… but not to me. Nope, Nooo.


In all this it never occurred to me that for some concrete thinkers…. There has to actually be a grape… there on cam, big as life zoomed in, with glow… I really need to figure out the whole capture card DSLR camera video source thing… Brio ain’t got zoom, no pun intended, Zoom ain’t got no zoom, or maybe Brio has zoom and I’m not scientifically intelligent enough to have some aftermarket app open with dials and zoom levers… I mean I went with the autofocus one, after all. I had my reasons. Here let me take you on a video tour of my studio with my IPhone cam… not! Can you say ceiling, now floor, now dizzy?


I think all is well. I corresponded with my student via email and came face to face with… I was always told to paint what I see and not what I know. Oops! I hope I don’t set my students back twenty years. We are going to have a make-up grape painting demo.


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