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  • In the past, I only looked to pleasing myself (in art matters) and anyone who came by, saw an art work, loved it and wanted it, got it. My part in it done, finished, moving to the next, my contemplation of it complete.

    Inge and I went to an art class once, one of those that is supposed to teach you how to draw. We had to concentrate on drawing Tweety... the cartoon bird. "One long smooth line. No dithering with the pencil, please." Never went back, but often we would look up, mouth the words and roll about laughing. Inge joined with me in sculpture, what did a line matter?

    All my art teachers left me to my own devices, not one of them showing me another way or technique or anything remotely artsy. One of them said to my mother: "Tell her what you see, what you feel, she will take it from there," and still has a painting I did in Std 4 (Grade 6) of a Japanese goldfish in her entrance hall, the first thing for visitors to see. Yes, I'm glowing.

    The one to change the shape of my world came in the form of a very shy and hesitant art teacher, Miss Mac. She was barely older than us and hardly knew any of the ropes, never mind which ones she would have to pull. Not to sound immodest, she was rather in awe of me, my works as well and yet she pulled my socks up, a lot. She also used the same manner Beryl had told my mother to use but when she told me like it was, I listened, taking it to heart.

    I had floated aimlessly (in art) until she appeared on the scene. Pietermaritzburg Girls High 1978.

    Tons of girls but very few art students. As you know, we came from an assortment of classes to convene and when I think back on the effort made to schedule our classes I still bow in awe to those responsible. I have explained the machinations and how my home class was the geography class and how we were 5 to begin with and how these numbers grew as geography lost a number of its students to art. I remember the teachers decrying the fact that it was because both Lesley and I were in the geog class – like wilful advocates, and yes, it partly was but my goddess played the largest role in it. The girls were blown away by what we were doing and could do, were allowed to do and would do, they heard our admiration and adulation and they wanted in on it too.

    We had all joined up for that first art class of the new year in the basement - Miss Mac's now new locale - below ground level, a broad, long room, butted each end by windowless walls with a door in each – one to outside up a flight of stairs and the other into the stairwell, with strip windows topping both long walls. Looking out, when one did, one saw the flowers in the flowerbeds banking the building and yes, most of the future irises came from those beddings. We all trooped in, seated ourselves at flat-topped table like desks and sat waiting for further instructions, muffled giggles, chairs scrapping and the whisper of passed notes the only sounds. She had been sitting shuffling papers at her desk and eventually after what I would imagine as a monumental kick in the butt from Courage, stood up and stepped forward. Being a group of teenage girls, the critical looks could have flattened Jericho's walls in a space of seconds. I sat pointedly glaring at them all in turn, and yes, they lowered their eyes after a while, abashed.

    The desks had been placed in a large circle and this assuredly meant that she was to have stood in the middle. But she couldn't and didn't. She sidled to fill a gap between 2 desks, facing into the circle, there to hover hesitantly.

    Miss Mac had suffered a form of polio as a child and she walked with a limp. But she walked. She was blushing like a full blown rose, her hand before her mouth hiding what she thought as ugly. So she had a slight dose of buck-teeth but she also had the cutest stutter when feeling out of her depth and it must have felt like doggy-paddling above an abyss for her. Her chocolate-brown eyes were darting all over the floor and roaming the corners of the concreted ceiling above as she tried time and again to regain her courage and composure.

    Some of the girls went out of their way to distract her, just as students do when lessons loom to engulf them. She'd swing a leg from a hip around in a circle, the flat-heeled shoe swishing over the brown, cracked tiles, hiding another shy laugh behind both hands, then pause before clapping her hands sharply before drawing them back to cup each other against her breast and with a slight giggle and lick of her lips, stutter on with what she was trying to say. Being the first meeting, her motive was near transparent when, by what most social gatherers tend to deem obligatory, she said that we had to introduce ourselves, which we did not only to her but to the others in the room as well. After all, most of us were seeing each other for the first time – not impossible considering the amount of girls in the school. Unfortunately or fortunately, by just being me, they all knew of me – no intro was necessary to them, so I only smiled and said hi to Miss Mac and saw how bright her eyes were, having relaxed that little bit more and now enjoying the show.

    It took her a while to establish her place but what a place it was to become. She gave willingly of herself to all and sundry: watering the wilting, shading the over-exposed and feeding the curious, tenderly with devotion. All of us adored her. When she left a year after I matriculated to our one and only opposition girls' school in town, it caused a major ruckus and some near labelled her a traitor, their hurt at the loss of her blinding, like tears.

    Anyhow, there in the basement, while the others chose desks, I chose my board. I liked to move – in any direction away from other people. Huge pressboards, double-sided, had been rigged up between the supporting columns running down one side of the basement - starting just to the left of the door to the stairwell and ending just as the gap between 2 pillars way down towards the far wall became an archway into the consequently limited, darkened stretch of walkway, lined with all the paper drawers. The whitewashed boards sheeted down from the ceiling to end at knee height, slightly greyed by time and pockmarked by pins. My board was deep down that walkway – back of behind and the furtherest away from the archway, fetching up hard against the brick wall. And there I did my thing with my back to the high widows and the board blocking out any intrusion. Short of bending over (very unladylike) or folding down onto haunches (just as unladylike) – the only way anyone knew I was there was by walking all the way around or catching a glimpse of my shins.

    I was only in Form 4 at the time and believe it or not, whatever I had on the board over the following 3 years stayed right there, not even the matriculants (Form 6/Gr 12) were allowed to move my stuff off the board to make room for themselves and their creativity. Miss Mac made sure my paintings were never touched, she would referee any intruders. I heard tell that she patrolled the area at the beginning, during and even after every class just to make sure, even when by then everyone in the school knew not to. Introvert, near hermitic me could only notch her up to goddess and look up from below.

    I spent every moment I could at my board, stayed for hours after school each day, only making my way home on a needs-must basis. My family got used to it eventually but when I was in Form 5 Dad created a studio for me in the backyard, converting one of the outside rooms emptied of stored stuff; hopeful that I would spend more time at home. It worked in a sort of way, the room a mess of sculpting materials, new and waste, sketches duct-taped to the walls, but the lure of that dark corner, the board larger than life, the soothing strains of Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and just being near Miss Mac, was too inviting.

    Mostly on those afternoons it would just be Miss Mac and I down there, she at her desk, topped by the streaming sunlight, hair a-glint, I at my board in the gloom, and not a word spoken; totally at peace in our world. I often want to be back at that board, to have it here with me and do it like we did back then. I can still hear the scratch of her marking pen, the flip and rustle of art papers, her sometimes muted giggles... and I can't help laughing when I remember that all she could see of me were my legs.
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