In recent years, I have been reunited with my high school art teacher. He’s a dashing, eloquent and pragmatic 91 year old. His name is Michael Hemming.
I took double blocks of art from him during my high school years and couldn’t get enough of his art history classes. They often included lengthy slide shows with accompanying narratives full of details about the artists’ lives that not only helped me to understand their art more fully, but had me certain that he knew each artist personally. The anecdotes and personal insights into their work were so engaging that as a teenager, even when dealing with all the teenage narcissistic obsessiveness that is teenage life at times, I could not wait for his art history lessons each week.
Listening to Mr. Hemming’s lectures I felt passion, respect, and admiration beyond words. He saw each artist as valuable to art history in some way and that’s how he presented them…..each one having shown us an idea and way of painting that would inspire those who came after. We started with the early cave paintings in Lascaux, France and ended with Abstract Expressionism, I believe. After all it was the mid-70s and Post Modernism was in full swing.
Truth is it made me want to be an artist even more deeply than I already did. I wanted to have what I did mean something and to tap into some deeper understanding and truth.
I believed then, and still do now, that artists are plugged in differently. And, through that difference comes an awareness of how much more there is to know about the world in which we live. This makes us walk through the world with an eye to see the unseen and the unnoticed. It’s like a role we must play not only because we are so surprised that others don’t always see this, but because it aligns naturally with the act of art making and creating. Observation, interpretation, absorption and re-interpretation….all this because our artistic mind wants this as its fuel….its need.
So recently I spent an evening with Mr. Hemming at a holiday gathering where he was introduced to a few other artists and an avid art collector. He was quickly recognized for his natural wit and profound understanding of art history and soon gathered a number of individuals around him to talk about art. As I observed him, as artists do, I noticed a sense of deep gratitude rising within myself. And although I had realized this before, I felt fully just how privileged I was to have this man as my art teacher in my youth. He took me, the artist, so seriously and had such a commitment to enhancing the natural talent that he saw in his students, including me, that I flourished under his tutelage and really owned my desire to be an artist.
Although I didn’t actually assume my artistic life fully until much later, I believe that Mr. Hemming’s art classes changed my life and opened a place within myself that had not yet been accessed. Because of that I knew definitively that I was an artist. I just hadn’t realized the depth of that moment until, sitting at that party, I watched my beloved teacher offering up his opinion of a young artist’s work. To the young man, who was asking Mr. Hemming to look at a recent painting he’d captured on his cell phone, Mr. Hemming simply replied “Symmetry is your enemy”.
In that one short sentence he had given a critique, a suggestion, an opportunity, a conundrum to this young artist. This is what I loved about him. He could offer his opinion, his critique, while giving you the task of having to dig further within yourself and your work to fully get it. And when you did, you knew that you had just been seen, supported and made stronger through the process. He is a teacher that knows it is most important to guide the student to their own understanding of what their work needs. That’s how they’ll actually learn. And when his guidance is peppered with an anecdotal narrative from the work of a great master, like Cezanne for example, his favourite artist, you really feel that connection to all of art history…and that you are a part of it as well.
Still makes me tingle to this day….thank you, from the depth of my being, Mr. Hemming.