There is a famous painting by the French artist Paul Gauguin called Vision after the Sermon, also known as Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Barbara Beckwith, the art teacher at Stillwater Christian School, dims the lights so the students can see the painting more clearly projected to the front of the room.
She points out the style, telling the students how Gauguin was inspired by the bold nature of Japanese woodblock printing. She points out the Brenton women, and particularly the girl on the far left of the canvas with her hands folded in prayer. Beckwith expands on the meaning of the work before them. It is not just a matter of church women seeing a vision based on the story from Genesis; it is also the story of the artist’s own struggles.
At this point in Gauguin’s life he is a man in his forties. And the young teenage girl praying has become his personal obsession. Beckwith tells her students this painting is a representation of Gauguin’s own internal struggles.
“We’re human,” she says. “We make mistakes all the time and we are going to struggle, but we still have power, and we must hold ourselves accountable for our actions.”
Beckwith explains to her students that in the art of Gauguin they can see more than just the paint, colors and techniques of an artist who influenced a generation. They can also see that there are always battles they are going to have to fight, every day for the rest of their lives.
“So what do you do?” she asks her students. Answer: Create!
“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” she tells them. “It’s cheaper than therapy.”
“When you are angry with someone over some small thing, pick up a piece of paper and create. There are so many things we hold onto that you just have to let go,” she pointed out.
Beckwith has been teaching art at Stillwater Christian School for a decade. She started with 28 students and now she is teaching 300 kids in grades kindergarten through 12. Beckwith has been in the arts her entire life, and thinks of her time at Stillwater as her opportunity to give back and to inspire future artists.
The room where she teaches is filled to the brim with supplies, canvases, easels and every tool imaginable. The walls are covered with paintings and quotes, lessons, and things meant to inspire. The entire room smells like some exotic mix of Turkish coffee and Chai tea. And it is dim. Soft. The environment she has created is deliberately meant to soothe and calm the students, giving them a place that feels more organic and more free than the brightness of the glowing fluorescent lights.
“Her room feels like she lives there,” said student Lauren McConnell. “It feels like a home, in the best way.”
The love Beckwith has earned from her students is obvious and free-flowing. And it is fully reciprocated. She loves them. She wants to empower them.
She tells her young charges, “Don’t just take selfies. Don’t just make pretty pictures. Make something with emotion and meaning because all of you have something to say.” She encourages them to believe in the validity of their own experience and their own unique voice. And she challenges them to step out of the shadows and safety, letting themselves be seen and known.
“Art is a way of life,” said Beckwith. “I don’t want these kids thinking that artists are flaky — they are not, they are just willing to see the world differently. And that is a powerful thing.”
Beckwith creates an environment that offers comfort, but a curriculum with high demands. “My students need to be self-directed. If they fail, they suffer the consequences, and one of those consequences is feeling that they have let me down.” She gives her students the independence to create, but pairs it with ever-increasing levels of responsibility. Her goals are more than the work the students create, she is instilling a mindset.
She tells her students, “If you have confidence in drawing you can express ideas that defy language.”
The class wraps up. Students become noisy and chatty as they put their various drawings and tools away. Many find their way to hug her as they prepare to leave the sanctuary of the art department. As they get ready to go, Beckwith has one final challenge for her students. She raises her voice above the cacophony: “Should a painting tell a story on its own, or does it need some kind of description?” That’s where I am going to leave you for today.”
She doesn’t hand them easy answers. She wants them to find answers for themselves. After all, finding your own truth is the real work of an artist.
Photographer Brenda Ahearn may be reached at 758-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.