Presenting to teachers presents an unusual challenge. After all, that is their role with their students during hundreds of classes each year. Last week, during the Oklahoma A+ Schools “Not Your Average Conference” at the University of Central Oklahoma, teachers from seventy arts-integrated schools laughed at me, or rather with me, when I asked during my third session of the day,
Did we cover that already?
My train of thought had blended the hours and the audiences, and I worried that I repeated myself or, worse, omitted something critical to the story.
They laughed not to embarrass me, but because teachers understand well this mental puzzlement. They are ‘on’ every day, without the option of forgetting, or of feeling tired or troubled, or, as though immune from discomfort, tending to sore feet or an aching back. They entertain so that their formative audience re-tains, and they smile through whatever issue they left at home, now shoved aside in their minds, because they must, no matter what, focus.
Fortunately, this imperative concentration can be a blessing. It thrusts one into a moment superseding whatever else, mentally or actually, is going on in that same moment, allowing one to hone in, to speak mindfully, and to listen attentively. For me, this listening, in particular, is a form of generosity. It is a considerate gift from my audience that honors my purpose and my words. Teachers are amongst the best listeners, because they know what a rush it is for a speaker to feel this encouragement and connection.
George Rodrigue (1944-2013) grew up in a school without art. As a result, he became passionate about the arts in education, and together we visited schools worldwide for years. During these events, he painted while I told his story. The children chimed in as he covered a large canvas with quick brushstrokes and bright, thick paint; and George and I, in turn, experienced the magic of this creative phenomenon through their eyes.
Since founding Life & Legacy in 2017, I’ve continued this momentum, sharing George Rodrigue’s life and art during presentations to nearly 100 schools, some 500 classes, and more than 40,000 students, as often as possible within small groups of fifty or less. Together with my team, we’ve produced numerous exhibitions of George’s work, including ambitious museum installations, complete with gallery talks and docent trainings. I’ve shared with dozens of community organizations such as Chambers of Commerce, Literary Clubs, Associations of Broadcasters, and Continuing Education. In every case, the presentation includes original, museum-quality Rodrigue paintings and is unique, unscripted, and fluid. After all, I have George’s entire life, as reflected in his stories, wisdom, and artwork, for inspiration. In short,
I have only just begun!
Although teachers are routinely present during school visits, this experience in Oklahoma was different, and in some ways my most challenging. From the beginning, I was honored and intrigued by the invitation and sponsorship to share and interact, both in person and virtually, with teachers from seventy arts-integrated Oklahoma A+ Schools. But when I researched my fellow presenters, Crayola Director of Education Cheri Sterman and Emmy Award-Winning Composer and Recording Artist Mark Wood, both of whom have immense creative talent and esteemed credentials, my intrigue shifted to bafflement.
Sandra Kent, the Executive Director of Oklahoma A+ Schools, made this call, and silently, privately, I panicked that I would not only fail the teachers, but that I would disappoint her. My latent insecurities loomed as I chose paintings and considered my message.
And then, just days before I was to drive east from New Mexico to Oklahoma, a shocking tragedy blindsided a family I love dearly. Instantly, my focus was altered and clear. I flew west to California, shelving all thoughts of OKA+ Schools and its teachers.
My husband, Douglas Magnus, and our friend, Bill Sellon, did not hesitate. Like mine, their mission suddenly became clear. They drove George’s art-filled truck to Oklahoma, where they installed this priceless and personal collection of paintings within the large, ballroom-type space assigned to my presentations. Douglas filled in for me at the rehearsal, while reassuring Sandra Kent and her OKA+ Schools colleagues that I would come through.
Meanwhile, on the plane that evening from California to Oklahoma, I studied the agitation of thoughts and emotions within my mind.
Can I do this?
I no longer worried if I was qualified. Worrying about my friends took care of that. But I wondered,
Can I stay focused? Can I be ‘on’? Can I place on the sideline this poignant reality and bring forward a creative and engaging presentation?
The morning of the conference, I arrived early, a teacher’s hour, 7:30 a.m. I pondered the stage and rows of stadium-style seats, having little idea of what I would say during my introductory fifteen minutes. As the audience trickled in, I still searched for a direction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I focused at last by channeling the teachers. I gained strength from their strength, and enthusiasm from their enthusiasm. I shared intimately as a storyteller, while sitting, ankles crossed, on the edge of the large stage. I told them my story, beginning with how a chance encounter with a Rodrigue painting, now thirty years ago, placed me on my life’s path.
Afterwards, during the hour-long sessions throughout the day, I channeled George, through both his words and his paintings.
And I found my way.
After these many years of contemplating George’s paintings, I’m still amazed at the opportunities for learning, reflection, and creative interpretation embedded within his imaginative artworks. As I write this, now returned to Santa Fe, I’m surrounded and swept up, like a spiral.
His paintings transport me on an endless journey, connecting my imagination (or any viewer’s, if they’re open to it) to George’s, while delivering the gift of infinite possibilities and a curious exploration of change. There’s no answer, right or wrong, to the question,
What does this painting mean?
As with life, the meaning shifts and swirls while time’s momentum persists, and as this precious existence unfolds.
As I reflect on this unexpectedly healing and joyous experience in Oklahoma, my admiration and gratitude go out to Sandra Kent and her staff, as well as the dedicated teachers of the Oklahoma A+ Schools Institute. Thank you for welcoming me so graciously into your creative fold. And thank you for educating our children so intuitively and effectively with the arts.
I look forward to bringing George Rodrigue’s inspirational life and art to Oklahoma’s students during a future Life & Legacy Foundation Tour.
*For a recap of last month’s 3-day in-person “ArtsReach” at Dune Lakes Elementary School in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, in partnership with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation and sponsored by the St. Joe Community Foundation, visit here.
*I hope to see you on the road this fall during six weeks of presentations, while sharing George Rodrigue in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
*Now scheduling 2022. For info, contact my partner and sister, Heather Parker, at firstname.lastname@example.org