A beautiful teaching story

… although it doesn’t say much for the teacher training requirements in California in the late 1940s. From the New York Times’ obituary for Karl Benjamin, an abstract painter from Los Angeles:

he began teaching fifth and sixth grade in the public schools in Bloomington, Calif., where, in addition to the three R’s, state law required him to teach art. He had not thought much about the subject before.

“I bought some crayons and paper,” he said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, and the children produced many drawings of trucks, trees and mountains, he said.

“That was boring, so I said, ‘No trucks, no trees.’ And they said, ‘What should we do?’ I said the right thing, even though I didn’t have any background in art. I said, ‘Be quiet and concentrate.’ ” The work the children produced from such simple instructions awed him, he told the online art journal Geoform in 2008.

“I would give assignments — for example, ‘Make a rainbow,’ ” he was quoted as saying. “They produced wonderful color relationships — not just the standard rainbow colors — sometimes the rainbows were atonal, sometimes they recalled a cloudy day. If students asked for help, I’d simply tell them to use a color that went with what was already there — and they’d do it, not realizing how difficult that was. Only lately have I understood that what my students produced seemed very mystical to me.”

Mr. Benjamin often said that his students’ work informed his vision as an artist, which he summarized as: “Color is the subject matter of painting.” The instinctively incisive ways the children answered their own question (“What should we do?”), Mr. Benjamin said, “made me realize something about myself — that whatever this force was, I could tap into it.”

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