This morning over coffee, I teared up a bit reading Mike Monteiro’s most recent contribution to the Pastry Box Project, a tribute to his high school art teacher, Bernard Harmon. No doubt we all have that one teacher that altered the course of our lives. Mine was a high school art teacher as well. His name was Art Ward.
Entering into the tenth grade, I transferred to Shades Valley High School. It was a school with a reputation as a magnet for overprivileged burnouts, kids who had flunked out of private school or been busted for drugs and kicked out. Art Ward arrived there that year too.
Mr. Ward had a reputation as well. He was the city’s superstar art teacher, a teacher whose kids won countless awards. He had been hired to help transform the school’s image and give the burnouts something constructive to do. As an art student, I had known his name for years. Being one of Mr. Ward’s students carried an elite status, like playing for Phil Jackson or Bear Bryant.
Over the summer, I’d heard the news of his new job at Shades Valley and was ecstatic. As someone for whom drawing had come naturally, art class had been a mindless exercise of just showing up and being better than all the other kids. It was an easy win, but a victory with no real goals and no reward. With Mr. Ward’s reputation, I could finally get some meaningful acknowledgement for it.
I showed up expecting to meet what I’d imagined a legendary art teacher to be: an effete, sweater-wearing, Saab-driving intellectual, maybe even a vegan. But the man I met was disheveled, unfashionable, overweight, and drove a Ford F-250.
I had imagined that it was just his ego that got him all those awards, but Mr. Ward made it clear from day one that his class was about work. His assignments were all conceptual frameworks and he didn’t care what medium you completed them in. He just needed to see that every day you were busting your ass at it.
With Mr. Ward, none of my smart-kid excuses worked. He could disarm anything I threw at him in five words or less and was impervious to my bullshit. He taught me that art was hard work, and that all those awards didn’t come from ego or posturing, but from cutting through the art school bullshit and getting his kids to bust their asses for him.
A few years in, he told me that he almost hadn’t taken the job because of the school’s reputation.
“You’d try to get some work out of your students and they’d say they couldn’t because their muse hadn’t spoken to them that day. That’s all bullshit” he said. “Art is work, and you either work or you don’t. End of story.”
Mr. Ward made me work. More importantly, he made me want to work. And every year when the state art awards rolled around, it was Mr. Ward carting a vanload of kids down when schools with far greater resources could manage only one or two. Most years, I was one of those kids, and we strolled into the awards ceremonies like the Cobra Kai dojo arriving for a fight. “Oh those are Art Ward’s kids, they always win” you’d hear rumbling in the background. Yes, we win because we bust our asses at this.
A few years later, I was taking some art classes at a local college and my professor took me aside.
“You know Art Ward, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yeah, he was my art teacher. Why?”
“He told me to make you work and not let you get away with anything.”
But Mr. Ward had already taught me that. And when, a few semesters later, someone asked my graphic design professor for a promising student that might want a job in this new industry called web design, it was my name that she said without hesitation.
Once I’d gained some footing in my career and some confidence in my skills, I hoped to get the chance to grab a beer with Mr. Ward and reconnect as peers. I wanted to thank him for the work ethic he’d instilled in me, and for teaching me that creative work is about work and not waiting for some magical fit of inspiration to strike. That opportunity never came, and before I found a way to get in touch with him, I learned that he had died.
I really regret that I didn’t get the chance to thank him for all the times he called bullshit on me and to let him know that his efforts had such an incredible impact on the trajectory of my life.
Thank you, Mr. Ward. I owe you the world.