Each and every semester that I teach beginning drawing class I think of Charles Wollowitz, my 3D art teacher from high school, sometimes even mentioning him by name to the class. It’s in the context of when we are discussing how to use graphite, and I am always reminded of his habit of hand-sharpening his pencils with his pocketknife. Over the many years that’s a habit I’ve adopted as well, and sometimes tell (tongue-in-cheek) that it was the only damn thing I ever got out of high school art classes. Mind you this was through no fault of my exasperated instructors, it was far more on account of being a rebellious teenager who wasn’t exactly ready to learn anything.
Whittling the point personalizes the pencil, it makes a custom grip of exposed wood that covers far more of the shaft than if you used the wall-mounted hand-cranked sharpener, or worse, an annoying power grinder. Incidentally, this also releases a faint scent of cedar, if it’s a quality tool and not one of these cheapo newfangled fake wood composites. At the home studio I use a big ol’ Buck 119 knife that’s almost as old as I am, and there’s a old Swiss-Army knife the omnipresent man-purse along, with another in my show & tell toolbox – both of the latter occasionally tripping me up when going through security or going onto school grounds.
Sad to say there isn’t much I remember with any clarity from high school. The place (William Nottingham in Syracuse, NY), and some of the people – a bare handful of folks I’m still in occasional contact with via social media - remains a haze of high points + low, punctuated by a series of crazy mis/adventures. What documentation I do have (aside from that sad little figurine above - I'm missing even any yearbooks) is some copies of the school's annual art & literary publication “Meadowbrook,” which in the 1983 + 1984 issues were the first appearance in print of my cartoons. But before that, in 1982, I had several pen + ink spot illustrations run in that same publication, one of which was the sketch of Wollowitz at the wheel, seen at the head of this post.
For this juvenile delinquent, the ceramics room was a sanctuary: at the end I was spending something close most of the day hanging out there, usually while skipping other classes. As long as you were working, he was cool with that. I was also in the process of flunking 2D art, and would consequently drop out during my senior year, an important turning point (ie downward trajectory) in my life - by no means the last of really dumb things I would do.
I’ve written here before in fits of nostalgia about things like the infamous Superbug, and of the artists + artwork that inspired me during that time, and many a post documenting the crude, clumsy beginnings of my own drawings and attempts at cartooning. I even mentioned Wolllowitz by name back in a 2010 post that mulled over “what makes a good art teacher.” I could just as easily write an autobiographical book on what makes a poor art student – from the perspective on both sides of the desk by now. As it turns out, the two are inextricably interwoven.
Last week Wollowitz passed away at the age of eighty-nine last, and his memory is testament to the patience and forbearance of many the teacher who recognizes talent and tries to instill a disciplined work ethic in his students, many times, as in my case, against their grain. And this meta-lesson tempers my teaching in turn to this day, whenever I see something of myself in a student who could be "so much better if they would just simply apply themselves." Oftentimes it’s the smallest gesture, of faith, of stern reprimand, or supportive encouragement, that will stay with a person, and maybe, hopefully even resurface many years later to finally make a connection at last.
Thank you Mr. Wollowitz.