I had an encouraging art teacher in high school and some other encouraging art teachers later in college. Today, however, my story involves a discouraging and unpleasant art teacher I will refer to as Professor Shmoo. I’ve written about him before, but it’s been a long time. 

Professor Shmoo was unimpressed with my painting skills. You know how I figured that out? Because he stood behind me as I painted and he said, “I am not impressed.” That took the guesswork out of it. And the reason he wasn’t impressed with my painting skills was because I had none. Growing up, I spent a ton of time drawing, but zero time painting. I really wanted to learn how, so I enrolled in this class with Professor Shmoo. I guess he thought everyone came into his class already knowing how to paint.

Throughout the semester I improved, but never nearly to Professor Shmoo’s standards. He said I needed to abandon the small brushes I had been using and use really big brushes—try to get away from painting details and go abstract. If you’ve ever seen my artwork, you know I don’t tend toward abstract. But I listened to Professor Shmoo, because after all, he was the teacher. I used big brushes. He was still not impressed. He suggested that I try painting with my feet. I did, and guess what? It worked—my paintings were suddenly fantastic! Just kidding. They were awful. They looked like they had been painted with feet. 

At the end of the semester Professor Shmoo called me in for a conference about my final project. He said, “If you choose to paint something small and detailed, I will not give you anything higher than a D.” I reminded him that I’d been following his instructions all semester, even painting with my feet, and that he hadn’t  been happy with the results so far. He said, “A good student knows when to disobey the teacher.” Doesn’t that sound like a fortune cookie? 

For my final project I painted a small detailed painting. It was the best I’d ever painted, though it still was not great. I hung my painting up on the wall along with another larger foot-painting I’d done earlier in the class (we were required to show two examples of our work for this final critique), and all my classmates hung their enormous works of abstract art on the wall too. Then Professor Shmoo stood before the class and said, “Today, we have a guest artist who will be critiquing  your final paintings.” 

The guest artist stood up and inspected the paintings, looking carefully at each one. When she came to my small, detailed painting, she stood looking a long time. “Who painted this one?” she asked. “I did,” I said, raising my hand. “This painting stands out,” she said. “There’s a lot of detail here. It looks like it needs some work in places, but it’s got a wonderful mood.” She scanned the wall trying to find my second painting. “Where is your second piece?” she asked, I pointed out the terrible foot-painting I had done earlier in the semester. She looked at it and said, “Wow. This doesn’t look like it could have come from the same artist.” “I painted it with my feet,” I explained. She pointed to the small, detailed painting. “Clearly, this is your style. You need to stick to it.”

The guest artist was a breath of fresh air. She called out my potential instead of focussing on my flaws. It’s so important to look for and call out potential in ourselves and others isn’t it? To be willing to withhold judgement and instead, look deeper for the possible emerging good, and then to say—I see you! It stirs hope and perseverance. When we focus on flaws it makes us weary. We might even be tempted to abandon our dreams and start painting desperate, half-hearted pictures with our feet.