The Art Room by Philip Stead
A few weeks ago Erin and I were visited by an old friend. Our friend is a big bear of a man with a fluffy white beard. He is the kind of person, both in looks and in demeanor, who must spend much of his December every year convincing children that he is not, in fact, Santa Claus. This friend has been in both of our lives since we were teenagers, and is one of the only people who can say they knew us each individually before we knew each other. He is Mike Foye, our high school art teacher.
Erin and I met in high school art class. Or, more specifically, we met in Erin’s high school art class. Erin had third period independent drawing class and I had a free hour. All of my free time was spent in the art room back then. My entire life would be different today if that had not been the case.
The art room was my home. It was the place that I felt the most myself. The smell was my favorite part—a mixture of oil paints and solvents and photo chemicals and graphite dust and wet clay. I loved being there so much that I would come back after school in the evenings to work, and to draw, and to just hang out. I was not alone. Dozens of kids did this. It seemed perfectly normal at the time. But imagine, dozens of kids returning to school every day by choice—it’s not normal!
I have never been a good learner. That is not to say that I do not like to learn. It’s just that I do not like to be taught. When someone makes an effort to instruct me, I close them out. I am someone who learns better sitting in the back of the room, than by sitting up front with my hand raised high. I am more comfortable—and even happy—trying, and experimenting, and learning from my failures.
The reason Mike Foye is the most important teacher I ever had is not because he taught me any one specific thing, but rather that he allowed me to teach myself. He watched me from a distance and made sure that opportunities were presented at the right time. He gave me my first oil paints. He steered me towards my first film camera. During one class he gave me a pamphlet, offered without any explanation. The pamphlet showed Maurice Sendak’s step-by-step process from the making of Where the Wild Things Are. It was from that exact moment on that I knew I would be a children’s book illustrator. Foye had recognized that path for me before I even had. One evening in the art room Foye emerged from the supply closet with a set of 35 crayons. These were not the Crayola crayons of my childhood, but something far more mysterious. They were Swiss-made watercolor crayons. They glided across the page. “With the way you draw,” Foye said, “you will like these very much.” That was the full extent of his instruction. I did like those crayons. But I had no idea what to do with them, or how to use them to make anything sophisticated. Few art supplies are as clumsy (or as honest) as the crayon. For the next two years of high school I never touched those crayons. For the next four years of college I never touched those crayons. It wasn’t until years later, as I began work on my third illustrated book, A Home for Bird, that I finally got to use those crayons. Foye was right, for the way I like to draw—quick and spontaneous—those crayons are perfect. Drawing with a crayon is not like drawing with a pencil. You cannot erase. You cannot move backwards. You have to live with your mistakes. Or better yet, you have to find some way to embrace them. Crayons are the physical embodiment of my own clumsy learning style.
In art school, when you are studying illustration, you are often told to find your style and hone it. This is good advice. You are more likely to get hired and to make a living if you are very good at one particular thing. But I shy away from good advice. And besides, I’ve never really been able to narrow down my interests to one specific medium or style of work. The feeling of possibility and experimentation that hooked me and brought me back late hours to my high school art room is the same feeling that propels me as a professional artist. I like to try new materials. Nearly every book that I’ve made has been done in a new style, often with materials that I’ve never used before. This can be frustrating. It can be difficult to feel like I’m always learning on the job. Still I’m always moving on, trying the next thing. This is either bravery or stupidity. But let’s go ahead and call it bravery. And let’s credit that bravery to a teacher who knew just what to do, and more importantly what not to do, to keep my curiosity humming for years and years and years.
PHILIP C. STEAD is the author of the Caldecott Medal winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, also named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2010 and a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of 2010, illustrated by his wife, Erin E. Stead (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, 2010). Philip, also an artist, both wrote and illustrated his debut Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast (Roaring Brook Press, 2009), which was applauded by School Library Journal for “its wry humor and illustrations worthy of a Roald Dahl creation.” Philip lives with Erin in Ann Arbor, Michigan.