The Importance of Life Long Learning

I went to services today for a former art student of mine.   I first met Gladys at what became a rather far-reaching art presentation I did to a group that was simply generally interested in art.  My planned presentation quickly dissolved into a question and answer session with the audience peppering me with questions on how I paint. We discussed the whole gamut of methods, materials, considerations and technique, etc.

A few weeks later I was contacted by a relative of Gladys who wanted to buy lessons from me.  It seems that personal art lessons from “that man from the art talk” was the only thing Gladys wanted for her birthday. I don’t normally do that, but agreed to an initial course of 6 weeks – in which time I could lay out in detail what she might be interested to know.  And so we scheduled our first meeting at her residence.  There she sat ready for me, bright eyed, curious and open.  I reviewed her previous work, asked her objectives and goals, and took inventory of her materials.

She had a very definite objective - she wanted to IMPROVE!  She had started doing portrait work and was very disappointed in her results.  I learned that Gladys had studied fashion design at Washington University years before, but became an occupational therapist at the urging of her father to pursue a more practical profession.  It soon became clear to me that we were kindred spirits – what I call “practical creatives,” and I think that is why she thought I could help her.  I thought her work was quite remarkable, but she knew inside that she could do better and was willing to work at it. And so it began.

6 lessons turned into 12, and then 18, and then we started to lose count.  Quite frankly, Gladys was such a lovely, unassuming woman that I soon considered her more of a friend than a student, and given her dedication, openness to learning and interest, the structured art lessons ultimately became pretty loose.  Every time I showed up, she was sitting there waiting for me, with her assignments done and a boatload of questions.  She had been doing her portrait work alla prima, and I encouraged her to develop a layering technique used by the old masters, beginning with a monotone underpainting.  Her openness to learning this new technique was impressive, although she found it very difficult. She had a very difficult time distinguishing between the use of color and the use of value and pelted me with very insightful and thoughtful questions about my techniques.  I tried my best to illustrate an answer to each one, and she diligently sailed forward.

Each week I would review her homework which was always characterized by one overarching impression: hard work.  She worked so hard, despite some tactile limitations.  I often told her some variation of “My goodness Gladys, I know some 16 year olds that I wish had as much curiosity, dedication and enthusiasm for learning as you do!”   She would reply with a modest chuckle and continue the struggle.  And her work was good! I would show up delightfully surprised at her accomplishments and I would tell her so.  Occasionally she would hide a smile from me before going on to explain to me everything she had done wrong, and how she struggled with this or that and how we needed to work on improving her abilities here or there.  And she was right of course, there is always room for improvement, but I found her work delightful and wanted her to find it delightful as well.   To just be satisfied.

But I learned that “satisfied” is only a word Gladys would use after a good meal.  It became abundantly clear to me that Gladys approached life as a never ending horizon. To become satisfied is to stop moving toward that horizon, to become complacent, static, dull. And she was far from dull! We’d talk about our families, a little politics, our lives growing up, our travels, and art.

I was continually struck by her openness. Her openness to others, to other opinions, to other approaches. She had her opinions for sure, but always subordinated them to the more important objective of learning. Learning not just new art techniques, but learning about other people and other things by listening, observing and asking thoughtful questions.  

Daily learning, in every interaction, was everything to Gladys.  Any talk about “Gladys” she found boring, but found talk about any other person or subject fascinating.  Gladys was a truly outward-focused person.  No wonder my first impression of her was “unassuming,” as one cannot be a successful learner, unless they are both open minded and outward looking.  Gladys had mastered both of those skills rather well.

So let me tell you the rest of the story. I first met Gladys when she was 100 years old. She started painting at the age of 97, and finally reached  her “never ending horizon” a few days after her 101st birthday, surrounded by the love of friends and family.   I learned at her funeral service that one of her son’s most cherished possessions is now a “Gladys Barker” signed original.  I learned that what I recognized and admired about Gladys, she had spent a lifetime perfecting – the ability to live life outwardly – first towards her family and then to worthy organizations she would throw herself into.  One of those organizations, it turns out, was the Life Long Learning Institute at Washington University.

Rest in peace my friend, it was a pleasure.

Turns out, I was the student all along.