“A Good Question”

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Paul Robeson as Othello

Each year I taught a different Shakespeare play. The year I was in graduate school, I was teaching Othello to my first year students. One of them asked me what it meant that Othello was a Moor. I gave the standard answer I had learned in school, that he was a North African, but not black.

However, the question nagged at me and, since I was enrolled in a Shakespeare course myself, I decided to research the answer. This was 1978, years before internet searches existed. Research involved long hours in the library, reading academic journals and their referenced articles. I found myself fascinated as I realized that earlier critics of the play had unable to believe that Shakespeare meant that Othello was black. They wrote that would have been unthinkable. But as I studied both the specific language of the play and read about Queen Elizabeth’s edict to rid England of the “black-a-moors” I came to believe that, Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal aside, Othello was meant to be black.

I wrote my essay on my conclusions and actually won the Clark Prize for the best graduate essay of the University for that year. With the $100 prize–a large amount for me in those days–I bought my daughter a Big Wheel and took a friend out for a seven course Italian meal.

In a final ironic twist, at my Master’s oral exam, one of the examiners challenged my reading of Othello. He maintained that everyone knew Shakespeare never meant he was black. I tried to respond that the point of my essay had been to refute that. He refused to listen to me, crossing his arms over his chest, and frowning. Fortunately, I passed anyway.

“A True Gentleman”

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Harry Widman, a painter and an intellectual, taught at the college the entire time I worked there. He had come from the East after the War and was one of a group of artists who established an art community in Portland in the 1950’s. For some years, including the one when Mt. St. Helens erupted, he served as Dean, although he much preferred making art to administration.

Some colleagues are especially gracious to new faculty members. Such was Harry. Early on I needed my job and didn’t want to risk missing any days. But after I had appeared in divorce court, I was too shaken up to teach. Harry reassured me that it would be fine to go home for the rest of the day. Perhaps that sounds like a small gesture, but it meant everything to me that day. I understood that I had the support of a senior faculty member and that my job wasn’t constantly in jeopardy.

One of the most helpful things I learned from Harry was that it was not easy to spot which students would be most successful in art school from their admissions portfolios. He shared that some of the most promising looking students lacked discipline while some of the weaker ones stuck to it and succeeded. He stressed that work habits trump talent on a regular basis.

That’s a lesson that is applicable far outside of art!

“We Interrupt This Meeting”

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Throughout my life, I had seen Mt. St. Helens in the distance. We called it the “ice cream cone” mountain to distinguish it from Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams which we could also see on clear days. On May 18, 1980, the mountain, which turned out to be an active volcano, blew its top. Ash fell all over Portland, clogging air filters, filling gutters with heavy grit, and startling everyone.

We had a faculty planning meeting several days after that eruption. No one knew what the future held for the mountain. Was it done exploding? It was still steaming and rumbling, so scientists couldn’t get too near yet. Did the explosion of St. Helens foretell the eruption of Mt. Hood, so far dormant? What about other “dormant” sites around us.

We planned for the following school year, but only after the then dean of the college had said, “If we are even here next year.” That was not deep pessimism, but rather an accurate response to the eruption. We felt for some time that if a mountain could change so dramatically in one morning, who knew what else could happen.

The mountain did quiet down. Mt. Hood didn’t explode. And I taught there for another 22 years.

“There, Their and They’re”

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After a few years of part time teaching at the college, I was made full time. I took a more active role in curriculum planning, such as writing the grant Bob and I utilized. I also recognized that we needed to divide the incoming students into groups according to their strength as writers. Some were up to college level work while others needed more help. While everyone had graduated from high school, their main strengths were artistic, not always academic. We hired a part time teacher to begin a class we called “English Composition,” and renamed my course,”Approaches to Literature.”

While students had written an essay as part of their admittance portfolio, we had no way of knowing how much help, if any, they had received in their compositions. Rather than using those writings to assess their strengths, we began giving every first year student a writing test the first week of school. Then the other teacher and I would quickly read them all and sort the students into thirds, with one section going into English Composition.

Students could choose from four questions, but one was our favorite since it invited the most interesting responses. This one stated that while some students took a direct route to art school, many arrived by a series of back roads and asked them what had been their experience. We loved the circuitous paths through various jobs and schooling that had finally brought them to art school. On a regular basis, however, a student would tell us the actual highways they drove on to come to the college. While this literal interpretation of the question wouldn’t necessarily place them in the English Composition course, it generally went along with weak writing skills.

We learned that neither high school transcripts nor admissions essays reliably predicted writing ability. We were glad to give struggling writers a chance to get extra help once we had seen their actual writing. Many years later when I went to a community college, I discovered they also used an on-site writing sample to place students.

“Gordon’s Couch”

Working Mother Guilt

Gordon kept a couch in our shared offices, and he took a nap in the afternoons, often snoring gently(or not so gently!) But Gordon’s metaphoric couch was the sage advice he doled out to me when I was frustrated at work.

I have chosen to highlight the great colleagues I worked with and the times things went smoothly at the college. However, as anyone knows who has ever worked with other people, everything did not run smoothly all the time. Nor did I work with only pleasant, collaborative people. Gordon was unfailingly optimistic, especially with the often present tension between the college and the museum. An art college focuses on the new, innovation, controversy. An art museum focuses on preservation, perpetuation, and tradition. Needless to say, this is a perfect set-up for disagreements. And the museum was the parent of an often unruly child, the college.

Whenever a new museum president arrived with yet another idea of how the college should or shouldn’t operate, I would get flustered. Gordon would always give me a sly grin and tell me,”Don’t worry. We will outlast the s.o.b’s.” I like to imagine that he learned this approach from World War II and used it during his long run as a college administrator himself. It was good advice.

I try to remember it now in our present political chaos!

“A Humble Hero”

I first met Dr. Gordon Gilkey when the office the art historian and I shared was no longer available to us. It was actually the “green room” for the Art Museum stage, and performers dressed and sat in it between acts. We often found bottles, food wrappers and wine glasses on our desks, so it was less than ideal as a work space anyway. Gordon had brought his enormous valuable print collection to the Museum and was going to teach History of Printmaking using the actual prints. He had been given a large office and he told us we could have half of it for our offices. This generosity was my first introduction to this wonderful man.

Completely unprepossessing, Gordon never spoke about his past accomplishments. I learned over time that he was a retired dean from the state university. More amazingly, I discovered that Gordon(center in the left picture above) had been central in retrieving and identifying stolen and stored Nazi art work. The film “Monument Men” highlights this priceless activity.

I knew him as a gentle, fairly laconic fellow faculty member. Unlike some heroes, Gordon never bragged about any of his past life. He went on daily sharing his prints and sharing his office as if these treasures were only temporarily in his keeping. Which, I suppose, they were.

More on Gordon tomorrow.

“The Snow King”

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(First off, points to anyone who can spot what’s wrong with this photo I copied from the internet.)(Points have no monetary value, but they do give you bragging rights.)

Although Bob had grown up in the East and I had spent four years there, neither of us thought about snow when I planned a mid-February trip from Portland to Boston and New York. By mid-February in Portland, the first sign of spring is just around the corner and snow is highly unlikely. But we did get hit with a blizzard when we arrived in Worcester in mid-state Massachusetts. We woke up to 18″ of snow and the radio cheerfully broadcasting that Worcester had “missed the brunt of the storm.”

We had no trouble for the first leg of our drive on the Mass Turnpike, but it began to snow heavily as we went down the New York Thruway. I had the typical Portland response to snow now—-panic at more than 1/4 inch! Bob drove on as the Thruway was closed to traffic behind us. When we got to Yonkers, I suggested we stay until the snow passed. Bob ignored me and drove straight to the West Village and slid into a parking spot. Bob had triumphed over the storm.

A day later we were due to fly out of JFK Airport. When we arrived, we encountered hundreds of passengers who had spent the night on chairs and on the floor since their flights had been cancelled. In logic only understood by United Airlines, we left on our scheduled flight. I have no idea when the stranded passengers made it out.