Today was the last day the kids I teach could submit the paintings they had done for the Texaco Art Competition. This competition has been going for decades in Ireland: many Irish adults still bear the scars. When this year’s competition was announced back in January, a few people were talking about it on Twitter. “I was carrying mine to the post office,” said one woman, “when a gust of wind took my entry and blew it away, never to be seen again.” I told her I was most upset for her: she has had twenty-odd years to get over it, but I had to start there and then. Another said she still gets a sick feeling in her tummy when she sees the words “Texaco art competition”. Both are successful artists now, if their social media following is anything to go by.
This is my experience: my sister Fiona was older than me, and was, quite simply, better. That was the way the world was. I was at x level, and she was x+much higher level. I would gaze at her amazing entries in awe. Such confidence. Skillful drawings of children all over the page. Wow! Then I started entering, probably trying to copy my big sister somewhere in my mind. I don’t know what I painted for the first few times, but after a few unsuccessful years I started doing better. I won (1) a digital watch (2) a radio/tape recorder and (3) a Cross silver pen and pencil set. Each year, if you were placed, you could choose from a long list of cool stuff. I think you got £50 too. It was a tough call to decide what to choose. The digital watch was cool, black with huge red buttons. The tape recorder was the only way I could listen to music, and the first place I taped music, by holding down the play and record buttons. I was a total nerd and recorded classical music – Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi and Brahms. I used to push my ear against the sound bit to get the full effect of Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and oh, that one by Albinoni…I was a dreamy little girl, and we were growing up in magnificent, isolated beauty in the Wicklow Mountains. Cool I was not. I still have the silver Cross pen somewhere, which I had engraved, with my name. When you entered the Texaco Art Competition, you never got your painting back, unless you were placed in the top three.
That time came: I came third overall one year, when I was 15. I painted a still life, copied from a French master in the National Gallery in Dublin (Duchamps? Déchamps?) of a hare and some fowl hanging from a hook. I think I forgot to add the feet of something. There were grapes. My painting was gouache and very rolled up and dog-eared because I had to take the bus to the post office. I can’t even remember what the prize was, but I remember the ceremony: dinner in a hotel and speeches by dignitaries. My aunt was Minister for Education at the time, and she was allowed to choose any painting she wanted to take back to the office, or home, or somewhere. I had hoped to get my painting back, and tried to say she couldn’t have it (egged on by the kids at my table, one of whom I fancied), but the adults were all affronted by my cheek and said it was a great honour that my aunt had chosen it, and that they were ashamed of me. I never forgot about that painting though – and one day, three years ago, I discovered through a student of mine that someone still has it – ! It’s a man, who lived near where I grew up. I told the student, who knows him, that I’d like it back, but I think all the grown-ups still think I’m 15 and cheeky. Maybe I’m still making them all ashamed of me.
So much for then. Back to now. “I hear the word “competition” and I freeze,” said a little cutie today. She summed it up perfectly. I had carefully explained that if they entered something in the Texaco competition, they weren’t to be surprised if all their skill and confidence deserted them, because that’s what happens when you’re under pressure to produce your very best art. Most of the kids were OK, but some reacted badly to the pressure. One little sweetie was crying his eyes out yesterday. It transpired that he hadn’t had time to finish colouring his piece. His beautiful blue eyes dripped tears down his cheeks. I told him no one had to worry about anything to do with art in my class, that I was there, and that meant everything would be fine. I told him about the girl whose entry had been taken by a gust of wind, thinking he’d smile, but he was too upset. We managed to get it finished in time. Another lad couldn’t bear the fact that he wouldn’t get his piece back – it was magnificent, and he was super-proud. So I scanned it and sent it to his mum. Yet another was frustrated that she couldn’t depict her beautiful mother the way she looked in the photo she was copying. I got her to paint her Medieval-style, and told her it was far more artistic that way anyway (it was). She was happy. Another kid, a keen basketballer, was bereft that Kobe Bryant died, and painted a portrait of him, surrounded by ballers. His piece was called “Kobe”. I think it came as a huge shock that such a beautiful, graceful and godly man could be wiped out in such a senseless way – possibly his first experience of that, as he talked about him a lot during class. I hope drawing him was cathartic. There were many rejected paintings from the others, but I limited paper to two sheets each (I have a LOT of kids). They could submit two pieces each, but I wanted them to value the sheet, even though that would make them even more hamstrung in the inspiration.
Mostly, I wanted them to feel the difference between art just for kicks and art when someone is staring at you, metaphorically speaking.
I make nice art when I am doing it for kicks, and I make crappy art when someone is staring at me, metaphorically speaking. Is it the same for you? Remember that art is YOUR PLAYGROUND. Remember that, live it, and you won’t go too far wrong.
The children all had grey ashen crosses smeared on their foreheads today, because it’s Ash Wednesday. I talk Irish when I teach on Wednesday, because it’s an all-Irish school, a Gaelscoil. If you were Irish, I would make you laugh a lot in the recounting of how these kids, at a Gaelscoil, talk Irish sometimes. I’ll just say one thing: they translate “I’m giving up sweets” as “Tá mé ag giving-up-áil milseáin” and so on. So I still don’t know the phrase for “giving up”. Anyway – back to English – I learned today that many kids are giving up sweets and chocolate (milseáin agus seacláid). They all looked very glum when they told me this. Another is giving up sweets and jellies. Another is giving up being nice to her brother because he deserves it, he tried to trip her up the other day and all she was doing was going up the stairs (said in rapid, fluent Irish which I struggled to keep up with). Another decided just this morning to give up jam. I asked him if he ate excessive jam and he said he didn’t. Another said she was giving up sweets, and another little sweetie with the clearest blue eyes shouted across at her, “Tá tú ag giving-up-áil spilling water on my teddy!” (Very bad Irish-English for “you’re giving up spilling water on my teddy” – only the first two words of her sentence were in Irish.) It turned out the other little lady had apparently spilt water on the blue-eyed lass’s teddy…I don’t know.
I’m giving up wine. For five days a week. Not sure how that’s going to go – to paraphrase the captain in Airplane, “I picked the wrong month of unending storms, moaning wind, constant hail and severe flooding to give up alcohol.”