THIS I BELIEVE . . .
I believe in self-education. After all, from the moment of birth, aren’t we learning? And we continue to learn but, actually and acutely, only that which we select. It may sound radical, but we really educate ourselves all by ourselves. We each examine a leaf, a cloud in different, personal mental and sensory ways. One can be force-fed information but, like cramming for exams, it departs the mind within days if not hours. The classroom may offer wonderful, instructive and fascinating stuff, but none of it will be absorbed into our consciousness and, to the point, reside there, unless we are willing and ready to open its door. Sadly, much of the good education I received in all those years at schools and colleges never touched my mind but flew from the teachers’ lips straight out the windows.
I’m an artist, you see. I paint, sculpt, write, act, sing. It’s what I do—have to do. When I was in grade school, I almost failed art, which, I think, partly accounted for my refusing to take up painting seriously until just three years ago. ‘Art’ was offered for one period every other week, given by a local artist the school hired. As grading was an imperative, our assignments were to copy colored photographs of ships, airplanes and buildings. The more accurately one copied, the higher the grade. I received a D.
I’ve had plays on Broadway, I’ve acted on Broadway, had my work displayed in galleries, museums, my life-size bronzes of Churchill and Roosevelt are on Bond Street in London . . . all of it produced without lessons or special schools. I consciously avoided them; sadly I add, for so much craft could have been absorbed more quickly, but I feel organized instruction in such a sensitive subject can often damage or completely destroy a budding artistic career. All teaching, be the subject cool as grammar or hot as singing, becomes personal. We soon realize what to work for in class; not especially the subject but the reward of a smile or a good grade.
Not that organized education isn’t worthwhile. It’s excellent for gaining a smattering of general knowledge about nature, the planet, science, politics, religion, spelling and writing and counting. But why must it take so long? Do I need to know where Siam is, or was? And the square roots of – can’t I just look them up, if and when I desperately need to know them? Well, what else can you do with children while they’re fumbling about growing up? They could get into trouble on their own. We can’t have them discovering the world for themselves as they did before we shipped them off to school, can we? Can’t we?
If one accepts that each of us absorbs or rejects information at a critically sensitive level and, if at all, quite distinct from our neighbor in class, why can’t we select the subjects we each prefer, or, if you like, are genetically bred towards? Radical? To the establishment, perhaps, but really . . . if a child is fascinated with nature, why not support its interest with subjects only dealing with or related to the natural world? Wealthy parents do it with a musically-gifted child, why can’t we ordinary citizens do it with a poetically or mathematically or linguistically-gifted child right from age whatever? That child will sail through school and so much more happily, no?
Apart from having to cram material in which I had no imaginable interest, what I disliked about school most was being graded, labeled. I’m a C-minus person. Not joking. I don’t wear it, but it’s there, always.
Much of my self-education struck me from behind. For example, I’d never acted onstage until I saw the musical, “Stop the World, I Want to get Off” with Anthony Newley. I thought; if ever I wanted to act, there’s the role! A ‘tour-de-force.’ He never leaves the stage, he sings, dances, does mime—the star. Within days, I read that the producers were casting for a new understudy for Newley, and – long story shortened, I squeezed myself into an audition and somehow got the job. I acted in “Hello, Dolly,” also on Broadway. Years later I was in Charleston, South Carolina, doing My Fair Lady, the equity actor in an amateur company. Three months of rehearsals. I wandered into the little art school behind the Gibbes Museum and asked if I might buy some clay and sculpting tools, something to pass the time. The lady at the desk grabbed my hand and cried: “You’re a sculptor! Our sculpting teacher has gone to No’th Cah’lina and classes begin on Monday, would you teach our classes—please?” She hadn’t asked if I was a sculptor, she told me. I replied, “Why not?” I taught three classes and we created busts (it was all I knew). Instant sculptor, teacher, and, guess what? I tried something different – to help without teaching. My sole critique was “wonderful,” or, “swell,” or, “very good,” never a negative, not even a tentative one like, “Is that what you intended?” or, “I’m sure your wife will like it.” They laughed at my bald lies and soon ignored me completely; just as I’d hoped. Next year the museum gave me my first exhibition. Recently, I met this marvelous pianist on the Isle of Wight where we were living, and I began to sing with him. We were wonderful together, and we did these cabaret evenings at hotels.
Okay, maybe I’m the exception, but I believe that, despite all the schooling, we are truly self-taught. We all can do lots of things, but eventually, hopefully, we get around to doing what we’re meant to do, need to do, or what we enjoy doing. Each of us meets our destiny in our own time. While I did write songs at age 25, I didn’t begin to act until I was 37, to write plays at 40, to sculpt at 51! I began to paint just three years ago, at 77.
What’s next? Can’t wait . . .
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