Tuesday this week I got to visit some public schools in Hamilton, Ohio as a part of this Chamber of Commerce Leadership Training thing I'm in, and it was inspiring in a way I didn't think it would be. I'm in this class with business leaders and non-profits leaders and sometimes I feel a little out of my element, but still there's a feeling among all of us I think that we just want to see how things work, and what their worth is.
What truly touched me, though, was visiting this small elementary school out in a residential neighborhood in the middle of nowhere. The principal there was hyper-cordial and super-excited in a way that didn't feel phony, and as we walked in the little kids there sang Christmas songs and they gave us hot chocolate. It sounds corny as hell I know, but somehow it wasn't. And as I got the lowdown on what the school is about, it made me think that the principal was truly curating the school's activities and identity and mission, as opposed to just running a school. She seemed focused on making sure the kids that go to the school, and their parents, have as many opportunities as possible to explore what learning is, and also what life is. They have taken the back few acres behind the school and transformed them into an "outdoor classroom," replete with log-stools and open-air nature-viewing areas. They have a backwall of windows that the kids use for bird-watching, and have connected that ornithological exercise with some scientists via the Internet so that what they are accomplishing is more data collection that just plain old in-school activity. We visited an art class filled with first-graders who had drawn crazy-looking monsters, and those drawings had been transformed into three-dimensional ceramic monster-dolls by some local high school kids, and some fourth and fifth grader were now assisting the first graders to write stories about their monsters, all culminating in an art-show at the local arts center next year. We went into a math classroom where they were playing a gameshow based on learning percentages, a big wall-screen filled with phosphorescent gameshow graphics framing long rows of numbers. Lots of sound effects and giggling and the kids totally in it to win it. There was a sweet energy in the air, and even though it was partially because they were doing a dog-and-pony routine for the Chamber of Commerce Leadership thing I totally felt like this was just a day in the life, and that all the teachers and administrators and helpers and kids were doing what they wanted to do, only heightened because of being able to show off.
At the end, all of us were given gifts. Mine is above, a red ceramic bowl I just took some photos of. It's an object that really is a sort of icon, symbolizing something deep and simple. It's beautiful because it comes from a really good place, that little school with its backyard woods and gameshow math classes and first-grade magic-marker monsters. And I'm thinking maybe that school is more of an art gallery or art museum than most galleries and museums that try so hard to be galleries and museums. The function of that school feeds the style and form; the energy comes from the art being used to make something better happen, and that sense of hope makes that little red ceramic bowl kind of glow. It's a flower, it's a toad-stool, it's a monster's brain. It's handmade and shiny, virtually nonexistent and yet purely what it is. A lot of artists reach for that when they make their stuff, but can't find it because they want to conjure instead of produce, want to make something fine when they should just make something feasible and there. That's where my heart is, I guess, when I look at art now: I'm always trying to find that silly little red bowl in paintings and sculptures and performances and drawings... That is the center of the universe somehow, something given to a stranger without knowing where it will go, all good intentions, no secondary need for attribution or even acknowledgment. It hardly ever happens, me finding that moment, that purity, that whatever. I saw it last year at the Mike Kelley retrospective in New York City. I see it sometimes in the works we show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. and the shows at Visionaries + Voices. But it's totally best when it just comes out of nowhere, not a surprise as much as a reprieve.
Back in 1961, one of my favorite artists, Claes Oldenburg, wrote a manifesto called "I Am for an Art..." Here's part of its beginning mantra:
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human....
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.
That's a great description of what I felt at that little school on Tuesday, that sense that art happens in the most secret and mundane places and we don't have to see it for it to exist. We just have to recognize it when we have the honor and opportunity, and then move on.