“There are no purple mountains”

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

Purple mountains majesty

I may have taken "Purple mountains majesty" a bit too literally

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.

Pyramid Lake

The mountains beyond Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park take on a decidedly purplish tone

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25 comments for ““There are no purple mountains”

  1. Trish Peters
    September 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Cathryn,
    I, and no doubt countless others,can identify with your experience. I remember vividly being told as an 8 year old, over 50 years ago,that I wasn’t “nearly nice enough” to attain my then goal of becoming an air hostess. I was cut to the quick. Unlike you,I feel sure the teachers know exactly what they’re doing when they cut kids down like that. They’d probably get the sack for it these days but then,they got away with murder.
    By the way,I moved on from wanting to be a hostie!

  2. Dale Pollard
    September 3, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    I really, really liked the grade 8 painting!

  3. September 3, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    And you would have been an excellent hostie, I’m sure. I do think there are teachers who commit evil acts on children, and I’ve experienced my share of them. I’ve come to believe they are badly wounded people. Clearly, they should be stopped, as their impact reaches down through generations. But what I think they—and all of us—need most is healing. And some of that healing happens when we hear each others’ stories.

  4. September 3, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    I don’t see much latent artistry in it, but I like it well enough to carry it around with me, move after move. What I do see in it is creative joy. When I look at it, I still remember my pleasure in painting it.

  5. September 4, 2010 at 5:50 pm


    Thanks for finding and mentioning me on Twitter. I am having fun exploring your site. Have you heard of Kathy Jordan’s new book,Becoming a Life Change Artist? I met her on Twitter also, and her book includes a wonderful quote relevant to this post. One famous painter was asked what he did for work by his young daughter. “I teach people to draw,” he said. The daughter looked puzzled. “Did they forget?” she asked.

    You haven’t forgotten the art you have inside. Bravo.

  6. September 4, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    How kind you are to check out my blog. That sent me to your site, which is splendid. I’ve just started reading Kathy’s wonderful book and am loving all the stories in it. The one you site is a gem! Thank you so much.

  7. September 5, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Cathryn

    I think your painting is beautiful, and like many of the others who have commented. Teachers do have a lot to answer for when they deliberately reduce children’s aspirations. You obviously have a good eye for what you had seen as your photo shows.

    I always see purple mountains and not just heather covered ones.



  8. September 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Beautiful comment, Nanette, and I thank you for that. I suspect teachers who cut off children’s creativity and aspirations are just damaged people themselves. They can kill the spirit just as surely as a surgeon can kill a patient. In both cases there is carelessness or inattention or old some old script talking. Or sometimes the action that cuts is one that has inspired another student or cured a cancer. The best we can do is to be kind to each other, in hopes that old wounds will heal. And in hopes that some off-the-cuff carelessness of our own will not cut someone to the quick.

  9. Michelle Jarman
    September 5, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    I wonder what your teacher would have to say about our nearby “Blue Mountains” – one of Australia’s most beautiful gifts. Named for their blueish(and purplish) hue! 🙂

  10. September 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    She’d probably discount what she saw and order new glasses. 😉

  11. September 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    So glad Twitter suggested I follow you!

    As one of those who was encouraged to “mouth the words” in chorus, I related to your post. And I’ve seen plenty of “purple mountains”–literal and figurative–in my lifetime.

    Bravo for such an articulate and insightful post about the “little things” that sting us in our lives, and the ways we ultimately understand and move past them.

  12. September 5, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I just Tweeted your blog (The Letter Jar, for those reading this) and then discovered your gracious comment. I love your idea of a handwritten letter, every day for a year, to people whose names you pull out of a jar. I wrote masses of letters over the years and still have many that were sent in return. I still keep a journal with my beloved old Cross fountain pen, but I seldom use it to write a letter these days. There’s something quite beautiful about what you’re doing.

  13. September 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I hope you pick up a paint brush again if you haven’t already!

  14. September 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

    I haven’t painted again, but I do draw – and love it. Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

  15. September 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    I think Purple Mountains are the way to go…and they certainly are majestic!!!
    I remember the thrill of being able to use colors that ‘weren’t true’ to the real world: a green or amethyst sky, pink water, etc. (not in traditional school, of course.)
    Now that I think of it, I could always do that with writing (use unexpected hues or tones to create a certain ambiance).
    Anyway, I really enjoyed this post…

  16. September 9, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Ah, Karen, what a delightful comment. I love the vision of green/amethyst skies, pink water, etc. Let creativity reign!

  17. Wendy Young
    October 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    My Dear Cathryn-
    I am so happy you’ve reclaimed another part of your creativity. I love your resiliency and zest for life!!

  18. October 10, 2010 at 12:57 am

    Cathryn.. Firstly .. the painting is beautiful. Compliments on this wonderful piece of painting.. Glad to read that you found Hanna Hinchman and her book helped you discover joy in all your efforts. Ultimately that’s what life’s all about.. finding joy. And if you’ve got it, that’s all you need. Nicely recounted experience…that this post has.
    loved the pictures and the post.

  19. Laurel
    April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Checking out your sites for the first time, “purple mountain” immediately caught my eye. I’ve been awed by purple mountain majesty ever since I saw my very first mountain. And I loved that painting. Nice that you kept it! As a child and as a parent of 4 I have encountered many teachers, coaches and especially colleagues and bosses with a demon. How unfortunate for the kids, and for the demon-ridden. But I am so very glad you outfaced that teacher by living a life with joy. And also very sorry that you have had to overcome the clouds of doubt that those experiences instill. I remember telling my son who had a similar experience, “You have to respect the power that teacher has over you and your marks, but remember that you do not have to respect how he is conducting himself.” Years later that very teacher approached me in a grocery store to congratulate me, not my son, on achievements in that very field where he had discouraged a chastened Grade 6 boy. So glad I’ve found you.

  20. April 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Very perceptive, Laurel. What you said to your son likely stays with him still. Sage and comforting words for anyone who’s hurting. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your observations and wisdom.

  21. January 13, 2014 at 8:42 am

    I, too, have seen beautiful purple mountains in Scotland. Here are some lines from one of my favorite Michele Shocked songs (“Memories of East Texas”) for you – the line “their lives ran in circles so small / they thought they’d seen it all / they could not make a place for a girl who’d seen the ocean” has always resonated with me. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

  22. January 13, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Oh, Sharron, that made me catch my breath. What perfect lines. Thank you!

  23. lkwnc
    May 13, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Cathryn. My high-school mountains weren’t the right color, either, with sufficient detail in the trees. And, of course, there are purple mountains.

  24. Sweetwater
    May 24, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Cathryn, “A” For Amazing…It breaks my Heart a little that your teacher was so callous. Just so you Know, Gazing at your Painting Truly Brings me Joy and I Am In Love With Purple Mountains and The River Running Thru.

  25. June 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Oh, goodness – my apologies for being so slow to approve your kind comments. This blog is much neglected these days, as I work on a series of e-books. I so appreciate your kindness.

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