A Most Amicable Teacher – The Insights of Artist Robert Henri

One of the great pleasures of life is discovering and becoming friends with people who have a similar philosophy of life – especially when it comes to understanding truth, goodness, and beauty.

Some of us may have been fortunate to have had the experience of great teachers in our lives. In my junior year of high school I experienced  teachers of English and history who opened up for me the nature of those two subjects and introduced me to the idea of inquisitive scholarship. On an undergraduate level I remember three teachers in particular – one in comparative literature, the second in physical and cultural anthropology, and the third in the philosophy of education that definitely influenced my own desire to someday walk into a classroom and teach my own class.

I spent thirty years in the field of education. Two of those years were in an administrative role, and twenty-eight were in the classroom. During that time I had the opportunity to study not only the philosophy of education but implement it as well.

In the process of the great adventure of being a classroom teacher, you come across individuals and books that have a marvelous impact on your own style and understanding of the art and craft of becoming a quality teacher.  For example, Gilbert Highet, first introduced me to viewing teaching as an art, and the truth that all who desired to be great teachers must become artists of their craft. Another who molded my teaching behavior (literally like a potter molding a vase) was Haim Ginott. Listen to this beautiful and critical phrase which discusses the power that a teacher has over the lives of their students (from his book Teacher and Child):

“I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

Another teacher that influenced me was Robert Henri. As artists we may all benefit from the wisdom of Henri. He was an influential artist, art teacher, and critical force in the American art community during the early 20th century. Henri died before I was born, yet, in reading his wonderful book The Art Spirit, published in 1923, I find a kindred spirit, a brother in arms, our weapons: our brushes, our helmets: our words that inspire others to see themselves as artists.

Allow these paragraphs from his The Art Spirit  to roll around inside your mind and touch your heart:

“Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his [or her] kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he [or she] opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he [or she] opens it, shows there are still more pages possible. Art tends towards balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.”

So, Henri implores us to see ourselves as artists; to see ourselves as people who desire to create beauty, express truth as we understand it, and to always keep the book open – in a spirit of charity and goodness. Robert Henri can teach us a great deal. He continues to teach and prod me to create everyday. Maybe he will touch your mind and heart, too.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Photo of Robert Henri courtesy of the Parrish Art Museum:http://www.parrishart.org/.

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