Right now Tuesday is my favourite day of the week. A little after nine o’clock in the morning I get on my bike (weather permitting!) and ride 6 kilometres across the city to the newly re-opened Toronto School of Art. It happens to be housed in a former public school building owned by the Toronto School Board.
The irony of this is not lost on me. It was in just such a building that my grade three teacher leaned over me and said: “No, Anne, Can’t you see that this is not what a tree looks like? Look out the window, look at that tree. Your problem is that you are too quick. You do not listen when I tell you what to do. Now clean up your mess. Our paint time is over.” My 8-year-old excitement in handling paint and brushes drained out of me. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make anything look like what I saw. Others could. As soon as I could, I dropped art. I didn’t miss it. I told myself: “I have no artistic ability.”
Approaching the age of fifty, I found myself stopping in front of watercolour paintings. An inner voice said; “I want to do this.” One day, prior to going on a retreat, I was in an art supply store. A book caught my attention:. the cover read: “Anyone can learn to paint watercolours.” I leafed through the detailed step-by-step approach. I bought the book and recommended supplies. On retreat, I carefully followed the instructions. At the end of the week I had a picture of flowers that looked like flowers
That autumn, I signed up for a watercolour course. At the end, I had one picture that looked like the vase it was meant to depict. Encouraged I went to a week-long watercolour course at the Halliburton School of the Arts. It was a soul-destroying experience. On the second last day, the teacher took us outdoors to paint. I gave up. I wanted to throw everything into the river. The teacher suggested I take a drawing course.
That is when I met Denis Cliff. It was a beginner drawing course. On the first day, Denis sent us outside to draw whatever we wanted. I picked the trunk of a tree. What was I thinking? On returning to class, he asked everyone to put his or her picture up at the front. I couldn’t. He didn’t force me. I realize now he was just trying to get a sense of people’s level of skill. He made it clear that he believed anyone could learn how to draw, and he set about to teach us.
Yes, people have different levels of natural ability, but like any skill, much can be learned through practice and instruction. The greatest gift Denis gave me was this: He took me seriously and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He was a gifted teacher. He was able to engage every student where they were and gently encouraged them to the next opportunity for learning that is present in their work. I have since learned that watercolours are the most difficult paint medium in which to work. Over years now of taking many courses I know I will be a life-long learner in the art department.
Sadly, Denis Cliff died of a brain tumour in the autumn of 2013. I wish I could show him the attached image which was one of many in my last show. Thank you Presence Journal for publishing it.