A few days ago I pulled a sample of my eighth-grade art efforts out of a storage box. I can’t honestly say it shows great artistic promise.
It’s a winter scene, with some pine trees dotted here and there. Puffy clouds billow in a blue sky. A stream starts in a mountain pass and cuts straight down the middle of the painting. It’s those mountains that caused me a whole lot of grief. The memory still makes me wince.
I grew up in Idaho, on the flat, sagebrush-dotted Snake River Plain. My horizons were bounded by mountains eighty miles to the north and thirty miles to the south. In a certain light the jagged lines of the distant ranges took on a purple hue.
Besides, I knew the words to “America the Beautiful”:
Oh, beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains majesty
That’s it. That’s the line. I’d seen them in the distance. When we were told to paint a landscape, I painted those majestic purple mountains.
I’m sure I painted with fervor. I loved that class. Every assignment opened my eyes a little wider, made me see the world around me a little more vividly. Besides, every assignment came back with high marks. Every assignment except the purple mountains.
Maybe the teacher was cranky the day I turned in my landscape. Maybe she’d grown weary of the banal art work she graded year after year.
All I’m sure of is that my painting was among those chosen for a display in the school hall, right by the office. Seeing it there stopped me dead in my tracks.
I don’t remember any of the other art work in that glass-covered case. All I remember is my horror and humiliation, my desire to walk out of that school and never come back.
On a paper tacked beside my painting was this note, written large enough for all to see: “There are no purple mountains.” And right beside the message, my grade: D.
I’m still around so obviously the embarrassment didn’t kill me. It did rob my pleasure in the art class. At the end of the school year, I tucked my pastels, charcoals, and watercolors into a drawer.
I left them there for 35 years, until I picked up Hannah Hinchman’s book, A Life in Hand: Creating an Illuminated Journal. She not only transformed my journal keeping into something richer and more interesting. She gave back something I’d lost standing in that school hall.
She returned the joy of creation. She gave back permission to love my crude drawings: the misshapen animals, the wonky perspective, the barely recognizable people. I look back on the journals I filled after reading Hinchman’s book and want to laugh for joy. They are whimsical, story-filled, observant.
I don’t blame that eighth-grade teacher, though what she did was wrong. Some internal demon held her hand as she wrote that note and posted it beside my painting. She could not have known the dashed-off note would have the same effect on me as “Just mouth the words” has on thousands of children who grow up not singing.
She did not ruin my life nor rob me of joy. I look back on my years on the planet and embrace it all—heartaches, disappointments, and stupidities right along with celebrations, successes and insights.
But I’m grateful to Hannah Hinchman.
And, just for the record, there are purple mountains.