Drawing the Compositional Lines in Consultations

On the floor of a dark corner of my home sits a childhood painting of mine, where for the past few years it has been easy to ignore. In it, a brown table with eaves supports a vase with red roses, a glass bowl with two goldfish, and a plant with large green leaves that spill over the table’s edge. Beside the table is a large fern in a yellow-spotted pot, and under everything is a striped, tasseled carpet. The wall is lavender with wavy orange lines, and there is a single window with mauve curtains and a view of a field. It’s a busy scene, to put it lightly.

The idea of displaying my own adolescent art feels strange and pathetic, so it collects dust in the corner. Still, I hold onto this painting—not because of my pride, but because of my mother’s. Awestruck by the artistic sensibilities of her six-year-old daughter, my mother framed the painting and displayed it for about fifteen years. I suppose I can see why. The room I painted ought to be nothing more than unrefined chaos, but thin black lines act as borders and accents throughout the image, unifying the chaos in a style vaguely reminiscent of Matisse’s interior portraits. (At this point, I’d like to stress I am fully aware that my sloppy childhood painting is no Matisse.)

I’ve been asking myself lately why I feel such a complicated attachment to this painting. Frankly, it has always made me feel like a fraud. The black lines were not my idea; they were my teacher’s. When I showed her what I thought was my finished painting, she excitedly grabbed a brush and drew some black lines to define a few of the objects. Then, she passed me the brush and encouraged me to finish what she’d started. I’ve always believed that this painting would be a worthless eyesore had a more educated eye not intervened, and I’ve never believed I deserve credit for any merit it may have. Looking at the painting all these years, all I ever see are the black lines my teacher drew.

Reflecting on this experience recently, though, I suddenly realized I’ve been ignoring an important point: that day’s art class began with me, a set of paints and brushes, and a large blank piece of paper that I filled with my vision. When my teacher saw this vision, it inspired her to help me revise it. Its colors, its composition, and its execution—almost everything about this painting is my own. The fishbowl would be borderless and unable to hold water were it not for the black outline that defines it, which suggests that the first appearance of black paint in the picture was by my own hand. Moreover, I created and employed a variety of shades of purple throughout the painting, but I used the exact same shade of mauve in the red roses, in one of the large leaves, in the curtains, and on the fern’s vase. In short, it was me, not my teacher, who first tried out the approach of tying together the room with the strategic use of one color.

When I stare closely at the painting, I can even distinguish between my teacher’s hand and mine. As one might suspect, her black lines appear fluid and well-placed, whereas mine are a bit rougher, heavier, and confused. But they are mine. After she made those first few strokes, it was entirely my call to make about how and where to apply the rest. My teacher may have helped me realize the potential in my work, but it was my first pass at the painting that helped her realize that potential, and it was my second pass that finished the work my mother celebrated so much.

I see in this experience one similar to the non-directive approach we employ in our writing center at UT and that I employ in my own pedagogy. Non-directive means, as we tell every student, that we won’t do the work for them. We might help them spot opportunities to revise or develop their writing, and we might show them what we mean with a few examples, but it is up to the student to make those moves and to develop their own throughout the piece. Serving as a writing center consultant is not a matter of taking charge of a student’s work and reworking it into the consultant’s personal vision. It is a matter of providing another perspective that, hopefully, helps students recognize the potential they might not yet see in their work—potential that first begins not with us, but with them.