“Life Drawing went exceptionally well today. Not once did the teacher berate or mock my drawings, as she is often inclined to do.” – Journal entry, Tuesday February 2, 1990
Marilyn Szalay could mock and berate, and frequently did, but she was also quick to offer praise when it was due. As one of her Life Drawing students at Cuyahoga Community College throughout 1990, my work was mocked and praised in equal measure.
The mockery was deserved. Even though I had been drawing since I was old enough to be trusted with a pencil, I had, even at age 32, a habit shared by most of my classmates. After completing a drawing, I would take my pencil and add a bold outline to every object in my composition. Szalay was not a fan of lines (“There are no straight lines on the human figure”) or line drawings ("Lines are for coloring books," she cracked), and her criticisms were rarely stated gently. Her comments broke my bad habit immediately and I never again added a silly, and unnecessary, outline to one of my drawings. “Stick with me, Brian,” she once told me, “you’ll learn a lot.” Indeed, I learned everything I know about drawing from her, and much of what I learned went beyond drawing and served me well in other areas. She taught me how to draw. More importantly, she taught me how to SEE – shapes, variations in light and dark, and to regard the human figure as something other than a series of isolated parts.
Szalay could be abrasive and rubbed some students the wrong way. I was one of them at first. “This is beautiful,” she said of a drawing I did of a female model. Then, pointing to the stool on which the model sat, “but this is awful. It’s like two different people worked on this drawing, one sensitive and the other a klutz.” As she pointed out the shortcomings in my work during the weekly homework critique, I would stand there, speechless and embarrassed. She was right, of course. She was always right, and my work improved after every such thrashing. I quickly grew to love her as much as I respected her talent. As I noted in another journal entry, this one dated April 14, 1990:
“She had things to say, good and bad, about everybody’s drawings but she said nothing to me. That may mean she thought I was doing well – I don’t know – but I do know I felt kind of hurt by the lack of attention. Earlier in the day, she said, ‘Oh yeah, Brian is getting good’ in response to another student’s remark about one of my drawings . . . Later, while I drew a second portrait, she did have a few words, most of them good. Maybe I’m too sensitive. As I made my way out of the class and passed her in the hall, she said, ‘Good going, Brian.’ That was nice. I guess I’m becoming rather fond of this woman and want her attention.”
When the attention was positive, I was euphoric. “Look at this hand!” she exclaimed to the class when holding up an ink drawing I had done as a homework assignment. “Now this has drama!”
Except for the F's I routinely received in Algebra, I was a straight A student until Szalay gave me a B in that first Life Drawing class. However, when she gave me an A the next quarter, and the quarter after that, they were the most gratifying A’s I would ever receive. She was strict about grades, and warned her students that they had to earn them. Simply showing up for class and completing assignments might guarantee a C at best, but not the A or B that more lenient Art teachers were known to give. This came as bad news to the EMS student who took Drawing in fall 1990 only to meet a college requirement in Humanities. As for my A, I earned it because I learned it – from her.
She often teased me about my quiet manner even as she enforced a rule against talking while drawing. One talks with the left side of the brain and draws with the right, she told us. To engage in left brain activity while drawing might interfere with the right brain’s ability to think creatively. It was one lesson that she never had to teach me. I recall the time that she sent the class into the hallway for a perspective assignment. She was annoyed at all the chatter she heard. After making her displeasure known, she threw a sort of compliment my way:
"I don't have to worry about Brian," she said. "He never talks. He just grunts."
Marilyn Szalay passed away on November 3, 2012. She was only 62 and spent her last decade battling scleroderma. The news makes this season of Thanksgiving a downer. However, it also reminds me to be thankful that my life was touched by her intelligence and talent.
Another journal entry, this one from Tuesday October 23, 1990:
“In Drawing III, we resumed work on the still life that we started last Tuesday. Things went much better today than they did then, although Szalay complained about a lack of drama in my drawing. ‘You could have the world if you just pushed a little harder,’ she said. ‘Do you want it?’”
The world was certainly worth having when she was in it. Its value is diminished now that she's gone.
Goodbye, Teacher, and thank you.
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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