Monday, April 13, 2009

The Story of Bridgette and the Long Red Stripe, as told by her mentor, Zachary Clark

Hi, my name’s Zack Clark and I’m a first-year mentor here at New Urban Arts. Technically, I’m the painting mentor, but my most recent project with students (and fellow mentors David and Caitlin) is the front window garden installation, which doesn’t really look like a painting at all. The paint’s there, though, if you look closely. So, I guess I’m fairly legitimate in my title here.

I have to be honest – I feel really aware of myself in a way that I’m not used to feeling in this space.

I walked into New Urban Arts for the first time last August with a similar anxiousness, not really knowing what to expect. Or maybe I was expecting something. I might have imagined small tables of students working quietly and diligently, guided expertly by a skilled sculptor or designer. Control and order and production. I guess that’s what I expected.

But it wasn’t what was there.

Instead, I walked in to voices and paper clippings and lights covered in tissue paper. A lot of spilled glitter and ripped cardboard. There were no small tables or well-ordered groups. There was a floor covered in scraps and a ship half-constructed, straddling two folding chairs. I remember envelopes tacked to the walls and people sprawled on the floor. Drawing, planning and talking. And I remember not immediately being able to differentiate the mentors from the students, which was disorienting. But it felt like things were happening here. That this entire place was a happening. And I instantly and sincerely wanted to belong.

I was lucky enough to be invited into this space that fall. I was awkward and thrilled and anxious each time I walked through the door during those first weeks. I didn’t exactly know how to navigate this space, or how to contribute to it in a way that would cultivate the kind of messy creativity that I had admired a few months earlier. I really just wanted to do it right – to be a good mentor, a fun mentor – to find the right projects and say the right words. I really wanted to engage in that way.

And I felt like I was hitting my stride a little after the first month. I thought, okay – I’ve got this project that we’re all pretty on-board with, painting paper bricks to make a collaborative wall installation. The students seem into it, I seem like I have some semblance of control and authority. I felt like what I had imagined a mentor should feel like – but at the same time, I couldn’t shake loose this anxiety, this distance that existed as a result of my uncertainty. I was still trying, still really overly aware, and because of that I think I felt a little far away.

One day in November a new student came to my table, which had been abandoned at this point. Bridgette wanted to paint a brick. So I happily provided a blank paper and laid out the paints.
Go for it, I said.

And a half-hour later, I was sincere in my enthusiasm. She had painted this mirror-image of a tree contained in colored boxes. Despite her claims, her many, many claims, I thought it was great. It was great. I wanted her to really understand, too. To know what made it such a successful piece.

I showed her, gesticulating and praising and being loud and happy. I raised my hands wildly to express my excitement, to demonstrate the strength of that stroke on the paper. Basically, I was all over the place in my fervor.

I don’t really know what made me forget that the brush was still in my hand. But it was, and covered – dripping – with red paint. So in my demonstrative excitement, Bridgette acquired a long crimson stripe, dashing across the sleeve of her white – what seemed like blindingly white at the time – shirt.

So in the next ten minutes of my frenzied attempt to wash out the stain at the sink, I had some time to ponder some important issues. Like, who knew the line would bleed into a large pink semicircle so quickly? Or, I wonder what New Urban Arts policies are regarding shirt reimbursement? Or, as my panic grew, where might they keep the baking soda?

But most of all, looking back, I remember feeling pretty disappointed with myself. I felt like despite all of my efforts to assert control and maintain confidence in my role as a mentor, here I was in my relentless apologetic babbling, not knowing what I should do next. I felt vulnerable, like I had made this glaring red mistake – a mark of my incompetence staring back at me from Bridgette’s sleeve. There was this moment while I was washing out the misguided brush after she left, when I felt, oh well, there goes that student.

Only, it wasn’t like that. Because Bridgette did come back. She wasn’t wearing a white shirt, maybe intentionally, but there she was, at that same table the very next week. Painting another brick, and more after that.

And I got it then – not in a moment of immediate realization, but instead over an extended period of increasing understanding – that this little mistake was exactly what New Urban Arts is all about. It wasn’t an indication of my inadequacy, but a messy, funny point of access for us to get to know each other in this space, with these materials. What I thought would invalidate my role really only made me more accessible to the individuals around me. It was an equalizer, shortening the distance that separated us.

It transformed us from mentor and student to collaborators.
And, maybe most importantly, it became a story. I don’t think New Urban Arts ever really wanted or needed me to be the type of mentor that could avoid accidentally painting on a student. Knowing all of the answers in this way won’t support what the program is all about. All this space really asks of you is to be present with one another, open to talking and learning and joking and mistaking together. And in our collective presence, a community emerges through which relationships are established, challenges are confronted and art is made. I feel really lucky to be able to contribute my presence to this kind of space.

And in case your interested, I was told the spot came out. So all’s well that ends well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story is wonderful. Thank you.

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