Art Projects

The Artless Dodger
A dearth of art skills plagued me through my school years from kindergarten through 9th grade – the last year that art was a required course. When it came to making a jewelry case out of a cigar box, I could paint it gold and glue various types of macaroni to it like a pro. When it came to drawing a landscape, or an image of the first Thanksgiving, I folded like a cheap lawn chair.

After a few years of basic art projects initiated by the teacher of the class, advancing into the 4th grade meant that we would now have more complex art projects, taught to us by a real art teacher who visited the school each week. Our first project of a higher level of art form was to create a Thanksgiving image on a 6” x 6” square of copper, using a variety of tools. When we were finished with the image, we would “antique” it by brushing on a liquid, bronze colored stain, then dab the excess liquid off with some old newspaper. The art teacher pointed to a stack of newspapers on the classroom teachers desk and said “use these”. Being the terrible sketch artist I am, I chose a very simple design of a log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. A pilgrim hat hanging from a hook outside the cabin designated my image as having achieved the Thanksgiving theme. In my finished work, the cabin was not very symmetrical, the smoke looked as though someone stuck a head of broccoli in the chimney. The pilgrim hat resembled a flower pot. I applied the magic “antique” stain, took a few pages of newspaper and dabbed up the excess. While raising my my tooled copper piece of art to admire it in the fluorescent light of the classroom, I heard the art teacher screech, “My New York Times is missing a section! Who took my New York Times?” The paper I used to dab up my antique liquid was still balled up on my desk, the evidence was overwhelming, I was guilty as charged! The art teacher was livid. I was asked to go get the milk for our morning break, even though it wasn’t my turn to get the milk that day. When I returned with the milk, the art teacher had packed up and left. Events would play out in 5th grade that would lead me to believe she held a grudge against me for defiling her newspaper.

I had high hopes for my 5th grade art project. We were going to work with clay! We could make anything within reason. After creating our clay piece and applying the glaze, the art teacher would take the works of art and bake them in a kiln. At this point in my life, I was really interested in whales and the history of whaling. I had read Moby Dick and saw the movie version with Gregory Peck on TV. I was going to make a clay Moby Dick! I took my ball of clay and separated it into two pieces, one larger than the other. I took one piece and rolled the soft clay back and forth to make a cylindrical body shape. The other piece of clay I formed into Moby’s tail, somewhat crude looking, but a passable tail. All the time I was wetting the clay to keep it from hardening. On the cylindrical piece, I cut a mouth and made two divots for eye sockets. I then formed small humps on the back of the whale. I joined the tail to the cylinder, with difficulty, it fell off several times. Wetting the two pieces a bit more, I finally achieved the successful fusion of tail to body.

It was now time to apply the glaze. Because Moby Dick was white, I asked the infamous New York Times art teacher for white glaze. “Oh, I don’t have any more white glaze left,” she replied. Well, I would have to settle for a black whale, so I asked for black glaze. She was out of that too. She had pink, red, yellow…. Not typical whale colors, no blue either.

“How about brown?” She offered.

Brown it had to be, I guess. So, being mindful of the delicate tail piece, I carefully applied the brown glaze and gently carried my whale the art teacher to be packed up with the ash trays and pencil holders the other kids made. I saw several white and black glazed pieces. The art teacher announced she was leaving and asked two students to help carry our clay masterpieces to her car. She would return with the finished pieces the following week.

I was very excited and couldn’t wait for the week to pass. This was to be a Christmas gift for my Mom. The day of art class arrived, the New York Times art teacher breezed into class and selected two students to bring the boxes of ceramic artwork from her car. Once the boxes were in place, the art teacher removed the items one by one, calling the name of each student to come and claim their piece. She called my name and as I arrived at her desk, in an insincere tone said, “I’m so sorry, the tail fell off your piece and was not usable.” She handed me something that now looked like a glazed turd – with a mouth and eyes. I looked at her and asked if the tail could be glued on. She replied that it couldn’t, it had shattered in several pieces. I dejectedly returned to my seat. I don’t exactly remember what happened for the rest of the class, I may have become unruly, I vaguely recall a stint in the cloak room.

I wasn’t going to wait for Christmas, I had to show my Mom what happened to my whale. I believe we both began to giggle after it was revealed. It did look so much like a glazed turd. When I visited my Mom this past March, I was startled to see the brown, tailless Moby Dick on the bookshelf in her living room, next to the ceramic elephant I had given to her – a prize I won at Palisades Amusement Park.

My 5th Grade Art Project – Moby Dick, or a Glazed Turd….

Ernie Stricsek
Chatham Memoir Group
April 28, 2022

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