Learning To Read

Entry by: Mac

1st July 2016

My mother tells the story of how we walked into a local shop, its front encased in scaffolding, and I ducked my head as we reached the doorway; the sign above it said “Mind Your Head”. I was four. People laughed at my sweet naivety while she was indignant: didn’t people realise that her four-year-old could read?!

I wanted to develop my drawing capabilities – by now I was fifteen. I used to take tracing paper with me to the public library so that I could secret copy the drawings of Leonardo, Donatello and others. Degas!

And then I enrolled in the Saturday morning art class run by a dour Scot called Mr. Lyon … or was it Lyons? Short, stocky, bald. He gave us the speech about being on time, bringing your pencils [he supplied paper] and then a different talk about discipline. Not stuff about running down corridors or making a mess. No, discipline in concentration – the discipline of art. What on earth was that?! I listened, I nodded, eager to show how keen I was and how I could be relied on to be a good student, a worthy follower – perhaps even ingratiate myself in order to get some extra lessons from him. Though by now his gruff manner was proving to be decidedly wearing and unappealing. And he smelled just a little too strongly of stale tobacco – pipe, not cigarettes.

He picked up an old fashioned spindle-back chair in one hand and placed it squarely on the table in the centre of our circle of chairs. We budding artists, poised to inflict our dubious skills on whatever task he set before us, to deliver artistry and beauty.

“Draw the chair,” he growled in his heavy Scottish accent. Those gravelly rolled “R’s” unnerved me. We groaned – there were eight of us – and wearily reached for our pencils.

“Wait!” he shouted, before we had so much as touched the paper with pencils. “Draw the spaces in between.” He pointed out the various spaces that existed between the spindles and the seat and the legs and their support struts. I quickly realized there were dozens of them … well, almost. All of them distorted according to our position in the circle and the view it afforded of the chair. Draw spaces?

He never said another word throughout the class, choosing instead to walk around from student to student, occasionally grunting or sighing. An hour and a half of drawing the spaces between the spindles of a chair! Yet slowly, the chair itself began to emerge – like looking at a negative photograph and discerning the figures in it: alien but familiar. At the end of the class, he bellowed, “Don’t put your names on your paper. Bring it to me and place it on this table.” We did and we left, complaining bitterly when we got outside; all we had learned was a new level of boredom.

I was furious at having wasted time on such a fruitless occupation, the more so as I thought about my initial purpose and how it had been thwarted by this man who was being paid to teach. And I had learned nothing! I would not be returning. He could take his stupid art class and …

I went back the following week, still grumbling. He had placed the various drawings, each at different stages of completion, randomly around the eight easels in the room. He kept us all at the door, forbidding us to sit down.

“Go and walk around the room,” - that intimidating Scottish accent - “Walk slowly. Study each drawing. Find your own. When you’re sure, stand next to it.” After several minutes we had all settled on a drawing each: some by exception. That is to say, others had been adamant that this one was his or hers and the uncertain student had moved on, unable to challenge the jealous act of possession that had usurped them.

“Are you sure?” he bellowed. “Are you absolutely sure?”
Then he picked up the chair from the corner of the room and placed it back on the table at the front.

Instinctively, we began to study the chair and our drawings, wanting to be certain, wanting to be able to say this is my chair and that is the source of my chair! A couple of boys who weren’t so sure now looked around the room uncertainly, glancing at those who had found a drawing by default as if to usurp them again.

“First, you look” He spoke slowly and deliberately. “And then you see … really see. So! Have you seen? Is it yours?”

We nodded uncertainly and he instructed us to look at the back of our drawings. He had written our names on them in pencil, very lightly and in small letters at the bottom of the paper so we wouldn’t immediately notice if we had chanced to glance at the back. I was triumphant. There was my name. It was mine. It was a declaration of my ability.

“Now!” he yelled. “Sit! Look again at the chair. Look at those spaces. Look at yours. What is going on in between those spaces?”
“Nothing,” ventured one smart Alec, “It’s empty. There’s nothing there. He was across the room from the teacher who slowly bent down, peered through the space and waved his hand at the boy. “Nothing, huh?!”
More drawing, more focusing, more frustration. I went home. Gradually, it began to dawn on me: the relationship between objects and space, something and nothing, there is no vacuum. As the Taoists said, “what is” is defined by what isn’t. Nothingness is a whole universe of activity.

“An interesting story,” said Tony. “And you remember all this from all those years ago?” I met Tony twenty years later.
“Well, I may have embellished it a little … it’s what I learned from him. The importance of the spaces in between. Look. See. Read.”

We were on our first date together, always a nerve-wracking experience for me. I talk too little or I talk too much – filling the damn spaces! Ha! Yet, haven’t I been learning all my life that it’s the spaces in between that define what is and isn’t.

“Read?” he asked?
“Read the situation, read the spaces in between … go beyond seeing everything. On the other hand, make sure you really see before you start reading.”
“So why didn’t you become an artist?” asked Tony.
“Insufficient talent! I became a psychologist instead … just as interesting. Not always as much fun. But I have spent my life seeing the spaces between people … then reading them. Trying to understand the space – its nature, its temperature … it’s consequences.”
“Surely that’s what we all do, isn’t it?”
“I guess so … I had Mr. Lyons to help me do it.”
“Mmm …. Yes, I suppose. And some people aren’t too good at reading human situations – those spaces in between,” Tony mused. “So, Daniel …. How are you reading this one? You and me?” As he spoke he eased his hand casually across the table until his fingers were almost touching mine.

After the chair in that first class, came numerous shapes: cylinders, boxes and so on. Then, towards the end of the term, Mr. Lyons brought in a plaster angel, like the kind found in cemeteries but smaller - about a metre high - and placed it on the table in the middle of the room. The figure was upright, though leaning slightly backwards to the left, knees bent. One hand in the air and held slightly behind the head as if in the middle of waving, the other outstretched in front.
“Look! Look at it. Boy or girl? Look carefully … then decide. Look. See. Read what’s in front of you. Then you can draw.” How can you tell if a plaster angel is boy or girl? And would it have any effect on the way I drew it? It looks like a girl: longish curly hair, a sweet smile that was – well, angelic; wearing a dress, or at least something long, flowing down to just above the ankles. And yet, there was something about the tilt of the head, the line of the jaw, the expression that said, it’s a boy. Why do I think that? And what’s that impish look in the eyes? It was then that I noticed: the outstretched hand was holding the fingers of another, a figure no longer there only the remains of the hand. This changed everything.