In Rome, as in Miami, talk about sex and religion, and you
are likely to get an audience’s attention. But trace these things
back to the beautiful Helen of Sparta and the Trojan War, and
your chances for success as a speaker dwindle. But this
connection is precisely what I had to make some nights ago to a
group of both Roman and international residents of Rome
attending opening night ceremonies of the R.I.S.A. Art Fair (the
Roman International School Association), an annual showcase of
drawing, painting, design, and sculpture by middle- and high-
school students. Artist Anita Guerra, a teacher from St. Stephen’
s, one of the 12 member schools that form this organization, had
given me, as visual artist and faculty member of the University
of Miami/School of Architecture, the difficult responsibility of
serving as sole juror for this event. Some 200 entries vied for
recognition in the four categories of this Roman “battle” of art.
  Shortly before the announcement of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place
prize winners, Professor Guerra had informed the audience of
my Miami origins and of my interest in classical mythology and
its use in the drawing classroom.  I could see Karl in the
audience – he was a St. Stephen’s High School student who,
moments before, had politely questioned my objectivity as a
juror in selecting the winners. How could one person, he
quipped, make such decisions without being political, in the
negative sense of the word?
So I swallowed hard, greeted the audience, and proceeded to tell
my story, Trojan or otherwise! Luckily, I suddenly recalled UM
Professor Carie Penabad’s recent reminder to me of Federico
Fellini’s maxim: “Be provincial and you will be universal!” And I
decided to weave my mythological threads with a brief account
of the way we measure excellence of craft in the Coral Gables
architecture classroom – using the double criteria of  correctness
and craftsmanship.
  In the freehand drawing classroom of the UM architecture
campus, I explained, we look at how accurately the student
responded to the assignment and how well he handled the
materials and techniques of the particular lesson. Meanwhile, I
thought to myself while I talked, how almost presumptuous of
American Me to be prescribing standards of excellence – or
Beauty – to an European audience, especially in the city of
Michelangelo and the Pantheon! And how difficult to convince
the non-winners in the audience that their participation in the R.
I.S.A. art fair was already a “victory”!
  “The fact that you have made it this far,” I consoled them, “is
already a trophy.”
  Sure, I may have been “reaching,” as a student back in the
States would say, in making these connections. But I talked next
of the consequences of our actions, and of how the way we paint
our pictures or design our sculptural spaces today can have
repercussions in our later lives which we may not imagine – and
how this makes the craft of our hands tantamount to something
political.
  “Think of the rape of Helen of Troy,” I said, bringing in the
sexual bait. “Imagine : one woman’s seductive charms bringing
about the destruction of an entire city and 10 years of war! But
the negative,” I said, relating it all – somehow – to not winning
recognition in an art fair, “allowed Homer to compose two of
the most beautiful poems in the world, the
Iliad and Odyssey.”
  “One day," I added, at the risk of sounding corny, "you may
look back at this art competition as a turning point in your life.
Even if, or perhaps precisely because, you did not receive an
award tonight!”

  So, what consequences can a middle-school or high-school art
fair have on things in Miami? Or in Rome?
  Mostly, it all goes back to making things with our hands. In
fact, I think it was Albert Einstein who predicted that the final
World War would be fought with sticks and stones! In the digital
age, when students in classrooms all across the world are made
to think that software programs other computer gadgetry can
generate the most beautiful or perfect lines or designs, the issue
of what we do with our hands and how we do it, especially in
the classroom, merits some thought. In our time, a student’s
work with math, science, and computers are said to produce
clear analytical thinking in a way that art supposedly can not,
"since it is based on feelings," some people add with a tone of
lamentation.
   Or at best, as sculptor and teacher from Rome’s St. Stephen’s
School, Marina Beuning, humorously reminded me the evening
of the awards ceremony, many students think art class is only
about “freedom.” This professor recalled how one of the
members of her sculpture class had put it in one of those first-
day-of-class questionnaires. “Art class is a time for letting us go
crazy!”

  Crazy indeed.
  
  In fact, one of the “craziest” artists in American letters, Edgar
Allen Poe, devoted some of his most intelligent thoughts to
trying to figure out what makes a work of art excellent. In his
1846 essay, “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe explains his
aesthetic theory, laying special stress on unity of effect,
narrative method, and choice of subject.

  Poe says, for example, that the death of a beautiful woman is
“unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” And
though this view may perhaps seem to us exaggerated today, in
contemporary Miami or Rome,  the very issue of choosing a
subject to depict using some medium or material is not
something a student will necessarily learn better in a science,
math, or computer classroom.  I am afraid we are really back
with Helen of Troy and with Einstein’s sticks and stones with
this one!
  In choosing R.I.S.A.’s
Roman philosopher entry as 1st Place
winner in the high-school category of drawing, I favored the
human subject, for example, well, the head of a human
philosopher, drawn probably from a marble bust in some
Roman museum. The night of the awards, I noted to the
audience’s capturing of that elusive thing called character as
well as the student’s right use of proportions and his successful
handling of the unwieldy charcoal medium. The dramatic
display of light and shadow in this head of a philosopher, and
the facial expression of anguish were stunning.









          Roman philosopher (Seneca?)
          14” x 20” Charcoal drawing
           1st Place—High school



And I went on explaining another of my criteria by praising the
painting of the street corner by an 11th grader from the
American Overseas School in Rome for its choice of theme ---
the urban subject – not only redirecting the art experience to the
simple act of walking and sketching the city, but on a deeper
level, reminding us of the civic dimension of the artist. Again
here I told my Roman audience about how this is another theme
often stressed in UM’s architecture school drawing and design
studios. In this piece, I also noted the simplicity of the
perspective and of its minimal ochre and gray palette as well as
the somewhat round and personable anatomy of the buildings,
giving the overall image its solidity and elegance. In fact, the
somewhat untutored, scribbled outlines of the windows and
sunlit areas of this particular painting bespoke more the student’
s nervous unknowing and hesitance – as good things – than the
perfection of a teacher or parent’s hand.  This point allowed me,
in fact, to say some remarks about the danger of plagiarism in
such young artist competitions, plagiarism not unlike that in the
context of student writing.  How many teachers, or even so-
called stage moms, in hysterical preparation for such fairs,
“slap” their students’ hands to correct such incorrectness or
else proceed to doctor up the jaggedness in order to ensure
perfection!  

  
 But art is not only about perfection or virtuosity of technique. In
fact, sometimes art wears the mask of the lowly or the mundane .
The pencil
Cat in the R.I.S.A show brought this home to me. Our
own criterion as judges when it comes to the good or the beautiful
may be as literal or high-fluting as those of the overly anxious
teachers and parents behind some of  the students in these shows.
The almost scandalous unpretentiousness – yes --  free hand of the
sixth-grade student from St. George’s School here in Rome that had
drawn this crazy cat were truly artistic. For me, the sincerity of this
image excluded almost all possibility of teacher intervention and
spoke of the student’s courage when faced by the whiteness of the
blank page. One can even see the erasure made by the child’s hand
across the cat’s side, as though in one fell swoop. This was gutsy
gestural drawing at its finest – a movement of the hand I think
unteachable in a math or science school context.  






The Cat
14” x 20”  pencil and charcoal drawing
1st Place— Middle school

 To close my remarks the night of the R.I.S.A Art Fair ceremonies, I
recalled an essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English
language,” which students were often asked to read and write about
in the University of Miami freshman English composition classes
when I taught in that department some years ago.
 Though Orwell’s essay addresses the decadence  of writing and
verbal expression, which seem to most of us distant relatives of
drawing and painting – I thought its mention appropriate that
evening, for reasons beyond the fact that I was in an English-
language pocket of Rome in that auditorium. Orwell’s essay talks
about form and content and our responsibility to form and content,
in the way we speak and express ourselves. Language, he explains, is
an instrument of thought, and if it is dull or convoluted, not only do
we say dull or obscure things but we become duller and more
obscure ourselves.
 “An effect,” wrote the author of 1984  and Animal Farm,  “can
become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the
same effect in an intensified form. . . .A man may take to drink
because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more
completely because he drinks.”  Language, argues Orwell further,
“becomes ugly and inaccurate because or thoughts are foolish, but
the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish
thoughts.”

 Ask the sixth-grader who drew the prize-winning feline in the
R.I.S.A. show if he simply went “crazy” in order to draw his
Cat
or whether he did not have a very sane sense of focus as he aimed
his hand movements inside the span of his page!

 This past August, in fact, I asked my own University of Miami
architecture students to draw what they saw in Rome not only
mindful of proportions and spatial perspective but also in light of
something Homer says in Book Eight of
The Odyssey, which book I
had assigned for them to read as travel literature during the fall
semester. “There is no surer fame in a man’s own life-time,” wrote
the Greek poet in the 10th or 11th century before the Christian era, “
than that which he wins with his feet and with his hands.”------
(Homer,
Odyssey, Book VIII)



















     Panorama of the R.I.S.A. exhibit – auditorium of St. Stephen’s School (Rome)


  Although – or maybe because – this phrase, taken out of context,
concerns a sports competition that the hero Odysseus is hesitant to
take part in, they speak in a manner not unlike that of George
Orwell, perhaps to us in our own digital age, where we may have
forgotten how important and serious the sport of art really is, and
how much it grounds us in our humanity. In our hands and feet.
In this digital age, we should not forget that the “best” line we can
draw is not that of a computer software program but that which
comes from our own eye-and-hand coordination. For too long, too
many students in Rome, Miami, and probably Timbuktu have been
allowed to believe that the art of painting pictures has little to do
with focus, legibility, or fine craftsmanship. Or that Beauty is in the
proverbial eye of the beholder, to echo that other hackneyed phrase.
Albert Einstein, a scientist, thought differently.
Back to Roman
Writings
Street corner
14” x 20”  watercolor painting
1st Place—High school
Back to Home Page
Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
José F. Grave de Peralta
    The (Roman)Cat did it
    (
or...Pictures at an Exhibition)