At the Horizon School for Gifted Children it was announced that there would be an art contest. All the students would make something. A picture, perhaps, or a sculpture from clay. I opted for the clay. I liked the feel of the soft material in my hands, squeezing it with my fingers. It reminded me of food, and I would have started eating it if I’d been only a little bit younger. It reminded me, too, of being hugged or hugging. It was tactile. Not being a lover of sports, I didn’t have a lot of tactile experiences as a young boy and teenager, other than food. I was much older before I ever fully experienced the satisfaction of catching a baseball or pushing myself hard on a bicycle or climbing a challenging hill. I was the fat, lazy kid with a book in my hand. My tactile experiences were in my imagination. I read adventure stories, but had few adventures. When I squeezed the clay, I invested a lot of myself.
Just the act of squeezing the clay was really satisfying. I didn’t feel an urge to make anything. I didn’t feel the desire to look at what I was doing. I was in the zone, feeling the clay ooze through the spaces between my fingers. Smelling it. Letting it get caught in my fingernails. I resisted the temptation to eat it, but I did bite it, surreptitiously, felt it give to my teeth and enjoyed the “snap” as I let it go. I divided the clay into two bits, then pushed them back to one. I made a series of little balls and stuck them together to look like a pile of rocks. I smashed it down on the desk.
The art teacher approached me.
“What are you making?” I was startled. I felt embarrassed. I stared at my messy hands and the bits of clay scattered around on the table. I thought to myself, “A mess. I’m making a mess.” But I felt too shy to say anything. The teacher was standing in front of me and I could see her apron and her hands beckoning and her legs under the table. But since I wouldn’t look up, I didn’t see her head or her face. I felt shame where a moment before I had been lost in the joy of making something I didn’t understand. I wasn’t making something with the clay; I was making something of myself. I didn’t have the worlds to explain this to my teacher, though. So I sat there. Like a lump of clay, you might say. She tapped her hand on the table and I sensed her impatience. I felt stubborn. I refused to look up and I refused to attempt an answer. It felt good. I wasn’t going to toss my pearls before swine. I knew damn well that she wouldn’t understand that I was making something of myself. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in life: make something of yourself? Then she walked away.
I went back to the clay, squeezing and punching. Finally, I felt satisfied. I looked at it and the shape pleased me. That was enough. The teacher, who meant well, fired it in the kiln and helped me paint it a bluish color with bits of gold.
I looked at it and felt like it was a piece of me. But it had no name. I didn’t know who I was yet (do I know even now?), but I knew that I’d done something important. I couldn’t explain the feeling then and I can’t explain it now.
After the art show (I didn’t win a prize), I went to collect my sculpture. It wasn’t there. My mother explained to me that one of the judges told her he had fallen in love with my piece. But there was a problem. He wanted to buy the piece, but if he bought it, he couldn’t give it a prize. What did my Mom think? My Mom thought that I would be thrilled for him to have the piece as a gift, and wouldn’t dream of selling it. She told me he was delighted. And that is why my piece was missing.
Sometimes I think my Mom lied, and that what really happened is my teacher threw it out because it was no good. Other times, I feel furious, thinking how Mom cheated me of a prize. Then again, I sometimes think she imagined the whole thing. Or worse, kept the piece for herself—stole something of me and held it as her own. It is a confusing memory.
Making art is a mystery. I squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and never know what is going to come of it. But it is a way of making something of myself.
Kind of like this column this morning.
I hope you like it okay. But I don’t expect any prizes.