In the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was part of a group of artists from the U.S.A and Europe who were invited by a town in former East Germany to create artworks to commemorate the German reunification. There I met Jennifer, a fellow sculptor, and we became friends. For her reunification project, Jennifer created a piece that consisted of black and white photographs developed on glass that related to her Jewish family’s history, and to the Holocaust. Her sculpture was imbued with thoughtfulness and emotion and it had a historical significance as well.
A few years later, Jennifer and I wound up taking a graduate school sculpture class together. Jen was working with clay at the time, and she had created this unusual sculpture, a walking path out of handmade clay bricks. She had carved words directly into the bricks, statements inspired by her childhood memories. As you walked along the path, you read her reflections. It was an intriguing piece; after all, how often do you get to walk on a sculpture?
But for some reason, there was one statement on the path that irked me. She had carved, “I Was Never Given Tools” into the clay bricks. I read that and thought, that’s silly; why bother carving something so simple in clay?
That night, we had a class critique. As we discussed Jennifer’s sculpture, I couldn’t resist bringing up her prose. I asked Jen if she took notes or tried out different ways of writing things before she carved them into the clay bricks.
She replied, “No, I just write what comes to me.”
And then she went on to explain that carving the words in the clay brick path was her way of giving voice to her childhood feelings. As a girl growing up, she loved to make things; yet because she was female, she was never given tools to work with. That explanation should have satisfied me, but I was in one of my pedantic moods.
“But poets write notes,” I explained, (based on my scanty, mostly imaginary knowledge of poet’s writing habits). “You could write notes in your sketchbook, and try out different ways of saying things,” I informed her.
At that point, our amiable sculpture professor stepped in and interrupted me: “Tony, maybe that’s the way you would go about it, but that’s not her way.”
I sensed he was spot on, so I quieted down. But I couldn’t shake the feeling I was caught up in. Even as I tried to listen to the rest of the class’s comments, I would glance over at the brick path and read, “I Was Never Given Tools,” and shake my head.
Why the simplicity of that statement annoyed the hell out me I really can’t say. Maybe it was my notion that if you were going to go through the trouble to literally carve a sentence in stone, or as in this case clay, it should have some grandness about it.
After the critique I went home just as befuddled as when I arrived; I just don’t get it, I thought. But a work of art can work on us in mysterious ways, and that turned out to be true of the way Jennifer’s brick path sculpture worked on me. Throughout the following week those words, “I Was Never Given Tools” kept needling me and I reflected on them on and off.
That they bothered me so much should have been a clue that there was something more there. But I tend to digest new art experiences slowly, especially those of a feeling nature. So the process of understanding went subliminally.
And in their own quiet way, Jennifer’s simple words worked their magic on me.
I teach ceramics at a middle school and the kids really like to work with clay. The ceramic shop abounds with the youngster’s colorful clay pots, ceramic dragons, horses and birds of all description. To prepare for an art exhibit, I called on a group of boys and girls to make wood sculpture bases.
I assigned one group to assemble the wood, hammer it together and the other group to sand and paint the bases. I was about to return to the rest of the class when I froze; “I Was Never Given Tools,” echoed loudly in my mind. In an instant, I realized I’d just given the jobs that required tools to the boys, and the jobs with the brushes and paint to the girls!
I was shocked by my own unconscious prejudice. I quickly called to the kids, “Hold on a minute – I made a mistake.”
I reassigned the jobs and gave the tools to Brenda and Leti. Leti was an 8th grader; she picked up the hammer and looked at it closely. Then she gave it a few practice swings, to get a sense of its weight.
Once she felt confident, she started slowly hammering, carefully banging the nails into the wood. “Watch your fingers,” I said as she explored her new found power. The excited expression on her face told me I’d done the right thing.
After that, whenever I was going to give out a hammer, or any tool, I was aware of who I gave it to. It slowly dawned on me that Jennifer’s phrase had a historical aspect to it; that simple phrase contained within it a record of the pains and put-downs that women have had to endure. It is a history of dreams deferred, of struggle, and of talents, waiting to blossom and be discovered.
For me, “I Was Never Given Tools” was now etched in more than a clay brick; it became an unforgettable memorandum, etched in my inner clay, in the framework of my self. It stood there as a poignant reminder to treat my students fairly. Maya Angelou said, “The best lessons are the quick ones, the ones that unexpectedly lift the fog and allow us to see the clear light of day.”
When I recall that experience, I think its funny how this important lesson about teaching art and treating my students fairly didn’t come from attending a lecture, or from reading an educational textbook. Like the Assyrians of old who carved their wisdom and stories into clay tablets, I picked up this little nugget of teacherly wisdom from reading a clay brick.