Artists, teachers, and tribal elders

A couple of weeks ago I went with friends to an art opening for Judd Koehn at the Pendleton Arts Center. Judd is a retired art professor who taught for many years at Eastern Oregon University. Once, a long time ago, when we bought the building that became the Bookloft in Enterprise (and still is!), we donated all of the old heavy heating radiators to Judd and Eastern to be turned into molten metal and student art projects.

Judd’s working in wood now, small pieces of wood that started with scraps left over from a building project that Judd’s son, Toby, was on. He’s turned those bits of wood into huge vessels. Each might fill a room; a dozen of them filled the room at the Pendleton Center. They are comprised of layers and layers of small pieces of pine and fir and some walnut a half inch and inch thick and about three inches long, stacked and glued and wound round and round until the vessel is three feet across and ten feet high, or ten feet across and four foot high. Some are wall mounted, and one of the wall-mounted is a large piece of wood and cast aluminum inspired by a tornado Judd experienced while teaching in Germany.

There were other old artist friends in the room: Don Gray, who did the illustrations for a book on Eastern Oregon called Traces, and made precise pencil drawings for a book of Betty Cornwell’s poems, Moment Out of Time, that I published some 40 years ago. Once, we found Fishtrap money to have Don work with Enterprise school kids. He had them all paint small 12”x12” squares and then turned the lot of them into a mural that still shows on a wall in the Enterprise school cafeteria.

Tom Dimond, another retired EOU art prof, the one who taught the late Russell Ford the glass blowing craft, said that he’s still making glass, but seemed more startled—and proud—telling us that he’d been contacted by five former students just this week!

I told him about the current show at the Josephy Center, and about the 150 former students and colleagues of Gary and Larry Wishart who showed up on opening night to honor their old art teachers, and how these students—now in their forties and fifties—are still making art. Art that does not mimic the teachers’ art, but grows from the early direction and mentoring of master teachers.

At the Wishart reception, student after student got up to talk about the roles the Wisharts had played in their lives. Some said art is what kept them in school, and others who had not even taken art classes said that their presence—and the presence of art—in the school had been consequential. Some are still engaged directly in art—publishing graphic novels and children’s books, drawing and painting to sell or for their own pleasure. Some have become teachers themselves.

Teaching is its own art. The art of passing on knowledge while acknowledging and helping to uncover the unique gifts of individual students is almost ineffable.

This week I again get to spend time with Nez Perce elders, and it occurs to me that this way of passing knowledge on, generation to generation, which seems natural in the art world, is also natural in tribal worlds. The teacher-mentor elder shows and backs off, allowing the learner to grab what is offered and incorporate into his/her work and life.

Assimilationists worked hard to replace these ancient ways of teaching. Plows and measured allotments replaced more natural ways of farming and communal land management. Boarding schools replaced elders with nuns, priests, schoolmasters, and strict rules of dress and behavior. Breaking up families broke the lines that ancient knowledge and adaptations had followed for generations. It was crippling to many Native families and communities.

The reemergence of Native American cultures and values today brings with it this older form of education, the mentoring relationship, the relationship of elders to sons, daughters, nephews and nieces. Indian ways, it seems to me, like art ways, value the wisdom of age along with the passion and physicality of youth.

At the art opening, Judd Koehn was surrounded by children, grandchildren, brothers, and former students. He talked about his studio—40,000 square feet of woodshop metalshop foundry. A granddaughter is managing the farm on which it stands.

As for Judd, he remembered an artist he met on that last teaching gig in Germany. The German was 85 years old and exulting at his next great adventure in art. Judd declared that he is now 83, and can’t wait to see what 85 will bring.

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