Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Never Forget To Say Thanks To A Teacher

On occasion I will be at Walmart or the mall and someone will come up to me "Hey, Mr. Rios do you remember me? I was one of your students about 1985! How are you? I want you know what a difference you made in my life." Chances are I will have to ask their name and sometimes I do recall the face. My oldest son calculated that after 33 years I have taught some 10,000 students! These encounters are a blessing for me, a confirmation that I must have done my job, earned my wages after all those years. However, most students just turned in their final exam, walked out the door, never to be seen again. I was no different, yet I can mention by name specific teachers, Isabelle Barnett and Dale Thorsted in high school and Dr. Paul Schmidt and Ralph Borge in art college, who completely changed my life. Did I thank them in person? I don't recall.

This weekend I attended a memorial gathering for one of my favorite college professors, Mr. Ralph Borge, held by his family at Pt. Reyes Station on the California coast. When I heard of the memorial, I immediately began making excuses why I couldn't attend: too far, too tired, my wife's back problems but thanks to her insistance: "I want you to go. I will go with you. You have to go", we went. As I entered the house of the master, I felt ashamed that I had never bothered to track him down, write or call him while he was still alive.

I met Mr. Borge in 1957, when I signed up for his course Beginning Drawing at California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, Ca. I was fresh out of Modesto High School, heady and determined. I had been a sort of Prima Donna, having won numerous contests, ribbons and scholarships. I was good and I knew it. One of Mr. Borge's requirements was for each student to keep up a sketchbook of drawings, done outside of class and turned in a couple of times during the semester for a grade. When the first book became due, I couldn't wait to show my teacher just how good I was. Most students had barely managed to fill half of their books with sketches but mine was filled cover to cover with intricate, delicate pencil, charcoal drawings done in pen and ink (India Ink). After all the booklets were collected, he piled them on his desk, while we all worked drawing a still life which he had set up at the front of the room. He proceeded to call on students, one at a time, for an individual consultation, then assigned each a grade. When my turn came, he thumbed through the pages of my book, pausing now and then to look closely at a sketch, then called me up. "Mr. Rios, this is very impressive work. It is obvious that you are a very talented young man. Next time, I will expect TWO sketchbooks from you." He then called up the next student. I was stunned. He had seen right through me! I was greatly humbled in his presence from that moment on.
On another day he scolded us: "You people think that just because you wear a beret, have paint under your fingernails, and carry a portfolio around that your are an artist. Well, let me tell you, you are not. Maybe you can fool your momma, but you can't fool me."

Mr. Borge was a master artist from the old school. His command of drawing and painting was stunning. To teach drawing of the human figure, he would tear off six-foot lengths of butcher paper and tape three or four to a wall of a classroom. Then, with a with a piece of compressed charcoal, he would begin to sketch and shade-in a mouth, an eye, hands or an ear: "An ear is not a dried apricot or a cauliflower", he would say with a sneer, and proceeded to show us how each part fit, overlapped and connected to one another. As he shaded the anatomical parts, he explained how shadows were cast, and how reflected light created 'turning edges' on each surface. We stared in awe as gigantic ears, mouths and hands materialized before our eyes on the wall. There was absolutely no faking it after these lessons. We all wanted to be instant artists, creative, lyrical but Mr. Borge showed us we had to learn the basics first.

When I began my graduate work, about 1961, I was awarded a Teaching Assistant grant and I asked to work with Mr. Borge. He readily accepted me and I also asked him to serve as my faculty advisor for my master's project. This time I was not so confident to work with El Maestro. "Class, this is Mr. Rios. He will by my Teaching Assistant for the semester. I want you to give him with the same courtesy and respect you would give me." The experience of working alongside the Master was memorable, an honor more valuable than the grant, and chances are it prompted me to devote my life to teaching.

One room on the second-storey of the gallery, displayed many of his earliest pieces. I recalled having seen some of them in exhibits years back. While I hadn't forgotten his technical skills, I had totally forgotten his incredible compositions and perspective. His work seems to break all convention as many of his subjects are viewed from odd, bizarre angles, a cross between Andrew Wyeth and Salvador Dali. "He's better than Andrew Wyeth", said my old high school buddy and also former student of Mr. Borge, Phil Linhares, who was in the room with me. The stark realism of some pieces reminded me of the stereotypical phrase "you can almost reach out and touch it."
As we left in the late afternoon, the neighboring hills were innundated in gold light, cows dotted the landscape and flocks of birds lifted and landed in the fields. The numerous landscapes my teacher had painted, that now graced the walls of the gallery, had perfectly captured what we were looking at.
No wonder he chose to live and to end his life there. Adios, amigo, mi maestro.

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