“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”           -Iris Murdoch

I saw a theatrical performance this fall that almost made me cry. Student actors, passionate in their craft, led the audience up and down the scale of emotion, transmuting laughter into heartbreak with a turn of the head and the subtle motion of a hand. I’ll remember the performance for a long time, in the same way I can recall singers and songs from decades ago as clearly as if they’d just walked off the stage. It’s the magic of art, an ability to change lives, alter perspectives, and touch us to our core.

That the set has been struck or the musician has long since left the building doesn’t diminish the memory of the art that was created. Much as a painting or sculpture, both less transient pieces of art, music, theater, and dance all have the potential to resonate with an observer and remain as real in that person’s mind as the Elgin Marbles …if the observer is willing and able to engage with the art.

photo 1I saw such engagement this afternoon, real, honest, and profound.

It was sparked by destruction.

The construction of a new classroom building on campus has meant that as a school we need to say goodbye to two classroom buildings, their walls decorated with student artwork. For a couple of decades, mosaics and murals on these walls have celebrated everything from theater to sea life. Square senior tiles reach to the eaves, clay faces peer out from planters, and the ceramic bones of a life sized dinosaur stretch across the back of one of the buildings.

Removing the artwork wasn’t possible; sturdy, mid century adhesive had seen to that. Justifiable sadness spread about losing the work.

I talked with students about the art, attempting the analogy of performance I used to start this post. It almost sounded plausible. Art teachers weighed in about the fact that it was really okay; the world changes, and those changes are part of growing up.

photo 4 (1)And then, today, as I walked up to a group of students chipping away at a giant seahorse, I was struck by the sheer power and unapologetic magic of art. One student used a hammer and crowbar to pry at a seahorse, doing his best to remove the work without damaging it too much. That it was an impossible task didn’t seem to matter; he was uninstalling it, just as years ago a person about his age had put it onto the wall. He was focused and serious about his work. He knew that seahorse more closely than anyone since it had been created.

Two students nearby paused to point at a small detail in the wall, appreciating the craftsmanship of a teenager (who would now be old enough to be their parent). “I never really looked at this before,” one said. “See!” She pointed. From across the decades, the detail of a simple starfish brought two teenagers into communion with an artist who they may never meet, but with whom they share the bond of art and our school. They tapped at the starfish with hammer and chisel, more successful in their scrutiny than its removal.

The sentiment echoed and was amplified when I walked across the court to where some seniors were looking at the senior tiles of students old enough to be my age. They ran fingers over the smooth white surfaces, reading the words -really pausing to read them- and laughing, commenting to each other, and making connections to their own lives.

photo 2 (1)I could almost hear Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society behind us whispering “Carpe Diem.”

I hope that these same students will bring this attention to the mass of student art that continues to fill our campus. The art lost in this courtyard is a small percentage of what we have all over San Dieguito, all of it with the same potential to inspire.

I hope they will create their own.

Our photography classes have taken some high resolution pictures of the murals and mosaics, and we’ll use these images to make posters for our new science and math building. We’re also looking to reinstall the metal Mustang from the 1980s that once held dominion over the front of the school in the expanded courtyard that will open for students in 2017. These nods to the past are meant to honor those artists who have contributed a verse to the poem that is San Dieguito High School Academy. They’re the actions of adults aware of the limits of holding on to the past.

My heart was stirred today by the youth uninhibited by such limits.

photo 5 (1)I hope that the photos will capture the spirit of the art that time and hammers are taking away. The more ephemeral magic, however, and something that I will remember forever and wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate, was today’s interaction between the art and the students.

This, I thought, is what art does when it is at its best.

The individual tiles and pieces of clay that were a part of our campus will be gone by the time I post these words, words themselves that are as temporary as a dream, but the experience our students engaged in today will last as long as they are alive. The spark that passed between the active observers and the art they interacted with is truly inspiration.

To see this artwork’s last act be to deeply connect with students, students who would have been the distant future to the artists who created the mosaics, struck me as profound.

photo 3 (1)As I walked away from the court a student called my name. Jogging up to me he smiled and said: “Mr. Paige, I’d like you to have this.” In his outstretched hand was a perfectly shaped brown vertebrae. “It’s from the dinosaur,” he said.

I have no object more precious from San Dieguito in my office.

We can’t change the flow of time, but we can change the world and ourselves. We can’t prevent the destruction of things, not always, but we can make art, and pause long enough to appreciate it.

One of my favorite authors said that “art is the light by which human things can be mended.” I saw that today, as clay crumbled, tiles chipped, and anxiety about losing something seemed to mend, at least a little. 

Today art, the backbone of our school, reached across the decades to bring people together. It did so spontaneously, genuinely, and unexpectedly. I was lucky enough to leave with a vertebra.

photo 5

11 thoughts on “Vertebrae

  1. BEAUTIFUL! We are so very fortunate (and downright lucky) to have you as principal for our developing young almost adults at SDA. Thank you for being so awesome!

    [I only wish you had been there for us, as well, in our time of need… Class of 82!]

  2. I came across your blog today via a former teacher of mine there at San Dieguito…George Stimson. He was I believe only in his second year of teaching when I took his class. (1987) Anyways, as sad as I am to see such changes happening at my beloved high school…things do change. But one thing stays constant is the love and devotion of its leaders, both students and teachers. Thank you for keeping us all informed. Warmest regards.

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