Another week has almost passed us by and I haven’t had a chance to write anything down. Time seems to be speeding up somehow. Sadly I found out this week that one of my tutors from my old art college, John White, has passed away. He taught me how to weld and was one of two people at Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork who gave me a good understanding of how to work with metals, which has ultimately led me to study at Metallo Nobile in Florence.
Large scale metalwork generally seems to be the preserve of men, and about ten years ago when I was learning welding for sculpture, the equipment and safety gear were all designed with the masculine build in mind. So my boiler suit was massive, my welders mask used to fly off when I’d attempt to flick the shield down, and the welding gauntlets…well… I have tiny hands, even for a woman, so my fingers couldn’t fit comfortably into the fingers of the giant man gauntlets. I had to do the Vulcan hand salute and place my index and middle finger together into the first leather gauntlet finger, and my ring and little finger into the middle leather gauntlet finger, leaving the last two gauntlet fingers dangling empty. John didn’t really approve of this, for health and safety reasons, as he said that my manual dexterity was impaired. But I couldn’t hold the welding torch at all otherwise, so it was Vulcan hand salute welding or nothing. My oversized boiler suit with its gaping neck at the back often allowed a few stray hot metal sparks to find a home at the small of my back – so I also performed a bit of interpretive dance in the process, much to John’s amusement. Thanks to him I was actually a pretty good welder, despite working in a space not designed to accommodate a small female frame. I think he knew I was a bit outside my comfort zone and tried to ensure I wouldn’t give up in frustration. He was always helpful and welcoming – never dismissive – and I appreciated that.
John’s death brings to mind my other metalwork tutor, Roger Hannam who ran the foundry at Crawford and introduced me to bronze casting for sculpture around the same time. Roger died some years ago and I was completely unaware of it until long afterwards. He was the first person who suggested that I should make jewellery, because I had a knack for working on tiny details and the patience to pore over one piece for hours on end.
His words stayed with me, and after I learned of his death I found myself considering his advice anew, although it took me years to act on it. I actually dreamt about Roger this week. I met him between the carriages of a train travelling between Bologna and Florence. I apologised to him that I didn’t know he was dead back when it happened, and I had meant to call back to visit, and he was fine about it. I told him about the new things I’m learning and he spoke about how working in metal links us back to our early ancestors in a way few things can. It was just like a conversation we would have had back when I was his student. When I woke up it occurred to me that teachers have a degree of immortality by their transmission of knowledge. They can transcend time, distance and death by passing the torch onto a student. And it doesn’t have to be in a purpose built educational environment. Any of us can be teachers and students, and we are often given the opportunity on a regular basis to impact another person’s path in life.
I remember vividly the first time I used watercolour paints. I was about five years old and had pestered my parents to buy me a little tin box with ten colours in it and a mini paintbrush, which had a red wooden handle and real bristles. When I opened it the paints were dry and I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do with them. I tried to hide my disappointment, but luckily my grand-aunt Jane Thornton was on hand and twigged my consternation. She got a glass of water, wet the brush and with a single movement painted a small red circle. She cleaned the brush, swept it across another paint pan and with a couple of swift brush-strokes a little brown and white dog appeared, running beside the red ball. I can see it as clearly as if it happened this morning. It was magical and I was enthralled. Then she showed me how to mix colours and make washes, and to this day I have a soft spot for watercolours, and always associate them with Jane.
I don’t think Jane realised how big an impact that afternoon had on me, and how she may have nurtured my lifelong interest in art. I don’t think John or Roger considered what they were teaching me to be life-changing subjects. I don’t know if any of my teachers (the good ones!), living or dead, ever dwelled at great length on the positive impact they have had on me or any other student. I’ve been especially lucky to benefit from the tutelage of a few gifted teachers throughout my life, especially as an adult, and consider some to be my friends. I believe we should never stop learning new things and would quite happily be a perpetual student (some would say I already am). I know how fortunate I am to be in my current situation and I’m so thankful for every day I’m here to enjoy it.
Until the next time – live long and prosper!