Every student of Marla Connelly's was different, they all had different styles and interpretations and it was always interesting to see how each new class was so different from the class before. However, after nearly 15 years of studio art instruction, Marla had determined most of the time her students fit in three broad categories.
The first and most common category were the students taking the class as an elective; they dabbled in art in high school and liked it enough to seek more instruction but not enough to seriously pursue it. They were also the most likely to drop out after the first critique when they discover Marla wanted the critiques and discussion to go beyond “That looks good” and “I like this and that”.
“This class was supposed to be fun and relaxing.” Marla had seen that comment or something close to it on many end-of-term evaluations. She knew she was a little tougher than her colleagues, that relatively few students took art classes at Scranton Community College with the intention of transferring to a four-year school to get a bachelors degree in Fine Art.
That was the second category; the students who wanted to seriously pursue art, but finances or poor grades were getting in the way. In theory Marla knew she should enjoy those students the most, most of them were very naturally talented and displayed a grasp of composition that the elective students struggled to achieve even by the end of the term. But Marla was frequently put off by the general arrogance of these students. They accepted criticism from her just fine, but when their classmates said something, they all too often adopted a snide, better-than attitude.
The third category was composed of Marla’s favorite students. They were the people that the college dubbed “non-traditional students” and as an evening-time instructor, Marla had several of them every term. They were parents and career people, people in their late-twenties, thirties, and beyond. She even would have a retiree in about every other class. They weren’t taking the class as an elective or to bide their time until they could get into a better school; they genuinely wanted to be there and wanted to improve their art.
Yes, Marla greatly enjoyed her older students, and last fall in her introductory drawing class, Marla was instantly drawn to a quiet woman with curly hair tied half-back who stood and introduced herself as Pam Beesly. As a way to get familiar with her students, Marla always started off the term asking them to fill out a survey about themselves and their goals with the class. There wasn’t much on Pam’s paper; a few neatly written words that she worked as a receptionist, hadn’t taken art classes since high school, and liked watercolors best.
Marla would walk around the studio as her students worked and she couldn’t help but go by Pam often, lingering behind her and studying her method until Pam would glance back nervously. Marla noticed Pam worked slowly and precisely, preferring pencils and sharpened charcoal and thin marks to larger tools and broader marks. She excelled at still life, replicating the displays Marla constructed for the class with great detail and accuracy. But she seemed lost when she drew live models, spending all her time perfecting complicated features like faces and hands and rarely producing a complete drawing by the end of the class. Marla gently urged Pam to draw an outline of the whole figure before focusing in on any features. Pam did improve in that area throughout the term, but still lagged behind her classmates in figure drawing.
When Marla received her class roster for the spring term, she was thrilled to see Pam’s name. February was when the department had an art show and she was eager to see how Pam would respond to the challenge. Pam's art had improved steadily through the fall term, and she was finally using a looser, broader and more expressive stroke. But something happened the first week of February, and Pam once again started to use a thin, precise stroke and worked exclusively on pencil and watercolor still-lifes. Marla encouraged Pam to display some of her sketches from the end of the fall term for the show, but Pam said she was most comfortable showing some watercolors.
The evening of the show, Marla felt herself keeping one eye on Pam’s wall, watching Pam waiting for someone to stop and glance at her work while nervously playing with the overlong sleeves of her purple turtleneck. Few people took more than a couple seconds to study Pam’s art; an old woman, a tall bearded man who Marla figured Pam was involved with, and a short tan man with a thin, balding man. As the show wound down and Marla was called over by the other instructors to help take apart the reception tables, she took one last look at Pam, who stood alone with her gaze on the hall for any last-minute visitors.
* * * * *
The next class, Marla took a couple moments with each student as they worked, asking them what they thought of the art show. She purposely kept Pam for last, timing it so that she reached Pam just as the other students were leaving.
“Hey Pam,” Marla said brightly, pulling a stool up next to her.
“Hi Marla,” Pam said nervously as she packed away her supplies.
“So, I was just asking everyone how their show experience was.”
Pam put on a smile that Marla could sense was fake and nodded, “It was good, very good experience.”
“What would you say was the general response to your work?”
“Positive,” Pam said quickly. “But I mean, I think everyone there was a friend or relative of one of the students, so of course it's positive."
“Yeah, we put out cheese and crackers to try to lure in wayward visitors, but I really think next time we should try wine," Marla said with a smirk.
Pam laughed softly and kept her eyes on the final student wandering out of the classroom. Marla knew she had to be careful with her next words.
“Well, that’s all I wanted to ask, and you know I’m here if you have any questions.” Marla closed her grade book and took her time to stand up while Pam looked down to her hands.
“Actually-” Pam started. Marla sat back down and waiting as Pam took a deep breath and looked up at her. “Not all the feedback I got was positive.”
“Oh?” Marla responded softly.
“Yeah, my co-worker’s boyfriend, he didn’t know I was standing behind him, and he called my stuff ‘Motel Art’.”
Marla arched an eyebrow, “Motel Art?”
Pam’s eyes darted from Marla’s face to her easel and she took another deep breath. “I guess he didn’t think my work showed any emotion. ‘Courage and Honesty’ in particular.”
Marla nodded slowly, “And do you agree with that?”
Pam knitted her brows, “Huh?”
"Sometimes critics have a good point, sometimes they're critiquing just to critique, and trust me it can take an artist a long time to spot the difference,” Marla said with a slight smile.
Pam nodded, and glanced back down to her hands, “I do think my art is lacking ... something. I can't say what, though.”
Marla looked at the piece Pam was working on today; another delicately drawn picture of what appeared to be a desk with pens, pencils and scissors. “You gravitate towards still lifes, do you think there’s a reason for that?”
Pam glanced at her own drawing, “Because they don’t change, I guess. Like, they stay in one place.”
Marla smiled, wondering if Pam knew how honest the answer she gave was. “On Wednesday I'm going to have your class start your midterm project, and the assignment is to create a piece that includes yourself in some way.”
“Like a self portrait?”
“It could be a self portrait, or a landscape of a park with you at a bench, it could just your hand holding an object with significance to you. Just some part of you has to be included. So, start thinking about what you might make, and maybe sketch out some ideas if you find the time.”
Marla couldn’t read Pam’s expression as she looked to nothing in particular before meeting her eyes and saying that sounded good.
* * * * *
The following Monday, Pam came to class late. Marla couldn't help but notice the bags under her eyes and her slumped shoulders. As class ended, Marla called Pam over. She assumed Marla wanted to talk about her tardiness and started apologizing profusely, but Marla assured her it was no big deal and asked how her midterm project was going.
Pam nodded furiously and said it was fine, before biting her lip and admitting that she hadn’t worked on it much. “There’s been some personal stuff going on,” she said quietly and quickly.
Marla assured her that was okay, and she still had another two weeks, and noticed Pam’s eyes getting shiny. “Is it something you need to talk about?”
Pam shook her head and took an unsteady breath. “It’s just…”
Marla took a glance around the room. “We’re the only ones in here, Pam.”
A sob escaped Pam’s lips before she could cover her mouth, and Marla rested her hand on Pam’s shoulder. Pam somehow found the courage to look at her with red eyes and a trembling chin.
“I have made so many mistakes this last year,” Pam whispered. “And when I try to fix them…I just keep…” Her chin was shaking too much to continue and she looked down to her shoes.
“Oh, sweetie,” Marla said softly as she pulled a tissue from her pocket. Pam thanked her and whipped her eyes and nose.
“And I have no idea what to draw,” Pam said after she composed herself. Marla chuckled at her concern about her project, and Pam let out a soft laugh before look down to her shoes.
“Maybe a mistake can be your subject.”
Pam sniffed, her brows knitted in confusion when she looked back up.
“You said you’ve made a lot of mistakes, so maybe that should be the subject, how you felt at the time, how you feel about it now.”
Pam nodded slowly and blew her nose one last time. "And we'll have a class critique?"
"We will, and I know it can be very daunting to share personal work with others, but try your best not to think about that part of it, just focus on your work," Marla said. She smirked, "Remember that guy who said your art lacked courage and honesty?"
"Yeah," Pam said with a light scoff.
Marla reached up to squeeze Pam's shoulder. "Prove him wrong."