Thursday, April 15, 2021

It's The Process


There are some things that I believe exist even though I've never seen them with my own eyes. Baby pigeons, for instance. Last week, I saw my first actual graffiti artist/vandal in action. Frankly, I'd always envisioned the people who tag the vertical surface of Seattle as young males skulking about in during the wee hours, but this scofflaw was a woman who appeared to be closer to 40, brazenly going about her work at midday. She even had an assistant, a man with some gray in his beard who seemed to be responsible for keeping her cans of spray paint organized.

The wall they had chosen was not just any wall. It was a retaining wall built to prevent the land under the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation building from eroding away. This is what I'd call the back side of the property and not visible from the building itself. As I allowed my dog to sniff the shrubbery to her heart's content, I lingered to watch the artist at work, her nose right up against her illicit canvas, carefully filling in the outline of a bubble letter. I'd imagined that the people who did kind of thing must always be in a hurry, hoping to leave their mark, then escape without detection, but there was no urgency at all. In fact, as I considered her there right out in the open, I began to wonder if maybe she wasn't a commissioned artists. After all, the wall was a sort of dull, brown thing that could use some livening up.

I wondered about my role as a citizen. I suppose that I should have said something to these people who were defacing private property, or reported them, or something, but I never considered it. Maybe it's because I'm accustomed as a preschool teacher to not intervening in the artistic exploration of others. It was easy to imagine this woman as a four-year-old at an easel. It was easy to imagine that as she got older the world held fewer and fewer easels, fewer canvases, fewer opportunities to express herself as her schools pushed art to the side in favor of more math and literacy. Or maybe she is a professional artist like Banksy, someone who is making a statement. Maybe she chose this particular wall for a particular reason. I wondered if it could be a political statement of some sort. When I'd falsely assumed that graffiti was created by skulking young men, I'd also assumed that it was largely done for bragging rights. Maybe that's what was motivating this woman.

As I passed on, stopping occasionally, in sync with the dog, to observe her progress, she never turned to look at me, nor did her partner. Whatever her motivation, I got the impression that not only had she done this before, but she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish. It was going to be a word or a name, but I was going to have to come back later to decipher it.


The following day, I returned to the scene of the crime intending to admire the finished work, only to find that it had already been painted over. I felt sorry for the woman; all that work buried in dull brown. At most it had survived for 24 hours. I hope she took pictures. I hope she hadn't brought friends to witness it only to find it already obliterated. I hope her spirit wasn't crushed. Yes, I'm cognizant of the outlaw nature of her work. Yes, the property owners were within their rights. Yes, it was a risk she surly knew she was taking. But I nevertheless felt disappointment, and not just on behalf of this woman. I'd been looking forward to seeing her finished work, even though I knew, even as this woman knew, that its days were numbered. I've returned a handful of times since then, hoping, I think, to find that she had come back once more to brazenly go about her work at midday, but as of yesterday it's still a blank wall.

I feel privileged to have been one of the few to have seen this woman make art on that dull brown wall, just as I've been privileged to witness thousands of children with their noses right up to their canvases. Was it great art? Who knows? Perhaps, in the end it was a wall as magnificent as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Probably not, but that's hardly the point. In preschool we say that it's the process that matters, not the product. This woman, whatever you think about her "hobby," engaged in a meaningful process, one of rebellion, of outsider-ness, and it was certainly one of her own choosing. I hope she found answers to her questions, that she learned what she set out to learn. 

And I want to thank her because she has made this wall something else for me, something much more than a dull brown wall. It's a place to which I've now made multiple pilgrimages, seeking . . . I don't know what. I just know that this wall now has a story to tell, even if it's buried under dull brown paint.

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Mark your calendar! Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here! I'm excited about this line-up, including Akilah Richards, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Maggie Dent, and the one and only Raffi! But I'm mostly excited about all of us coming together, for children, to turn this world around.

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