A school leader’s primary function is to ensure that teachers can teach to their fullest and best. Much of the mundane naturally falls on a school leader: clearing hallways, doing lunch duty, meeting with upset parents or irate students, making sure a broken toilet is fixed or that a light bulb stops its annoying flicker.
Of course, other parts to the job are completely engaging: observing a great class and debriefing afterwards with the teacher about what made the lesson sing. Even the opposite still captivates me: observing a not-so-great lesson and discussing what could improve. The ultimate moments of my job come when I have the rare opportunity to be with my students (and teachers) when they have a transformational experience.
A few weeks ago, 20 students, three alumni and three teachers traveled from BAA to New York City to spend the morning with contemporary artist and film maker Julian Schnabel. On the bus ride down, the students watched his latest film, “Miral,” and many of them knew something about his paintings or films. But none of us were prepared for the generous and genuine interest that he showed our young artists.
He shepherded us from the lobby, in which two enormous photos from Schnabel’s film “Before Night Falls” hang. The photos are dedicated to Sir Norman and Norman, respectively. Norman is Norman Rosenthal, married to Manuela Mena, both extraordinary art critics/historians and curators, and great friends. They originally introduced me to Schnabel. I was delighted by the inscriptions!
We couldn’t all fit in the freight elevator, so two trips got us up into one of his studios. A series of large paintings greeted us. Schnabel gave us an okay to take photos or videos, but encouraged us to just absorb the experience and not get hung up on documenting it. He tried to learn everyone’s name during our 2½ hours together, and he did a superb job.
“Gary, what do you see?” he asked one student as we looked intently at a painting. I loved listening to the interchange between master painter and aspiring young artist. Schnabel explained that when people visit his galleries he sometimes likes to have just one painting on display. “If you have ten paintings then people will look at each one for one minute. If you have only one then they will look for ten minutes and really see. It’s important to really see what’s there.” My students nodded. As we toured throughout the galleries and his palazzo (his great home) Schnabel returned to the theme of seeing. Again and again he engaged the students by asking, “What do you see?” With each work he explained his own artistic process, as well as a story or fascination behind the painting. As one of my students reflected, “Thank you for sharing your work with us. Your mark-making knows no bounds.” I couldn’t agree more. Schnabel showed us how he attached a brush to a huge pole and painted. He explained how he painted with a tablecloth or another object. He captivated us with how he created each piece, especially what was purposeful and accidental. Another student said, “I love your painting methods and the space you work in. Your process is very unique and inspirational.”
While fascinated by the paintings, students were also enthralled by the entire aesthetic of the house. JJ couldn’t stop feeling the plush oriental rugs or craning her neck to look at the hand-blown chandeliers, some from Venice and dating back to the 1800s along with other replicas from that time period. Everyone stopped to stare at the stuffed bear and the bathtubs scattered in different rooms. In one room, Schnabel stopped to play a piano that had been created by the artist Tom Sachs and re-orchestrated with something that looked like a synthesizer.
He tapped out a song and sang a few notes and then asked if anyone else played. Yoselin, one of our amazing alums, sat down and played. “Tell me the chords from the song you were just singing,” she said, “and I’ll play and you sing.” The two of them did a little duet that ranked as one of the best moments in our teaching careers. To see our alum, our beautiful, talented, hard-working Yoselin, playing for Schnabel while he sang, brought us to tears. “We’ll have to practice more,” Schnabel smiled. He could not have known how special that moment was for all of us. He certainly could not have known the struggles Yoselin has endured to get where she is. She will never forget that moment, nor will any of us.
No question was off limits. “Why do you wear yellow glasses?” asked one young woman. “The world is pretty blue, don’t you think?” Schnabel queried. “It looks much better through this shade of yellow. Try them.” And Cami grinned in agreement as she donned Schnabel’s glasses.
We didn’t want to leave, and we all felt the same as Althea, who wrote, “I would be honored to be a fraction of an artist with your skill and mind. It was incredible meeting you.” And Taylor, another student, summed up the day perfectly: “I am very grateful that you put time aside from your schedule to welcome us BAA students into your home… You are the first contemporary artist I have met who works from their intuition rather than over thinking. I really like this artistic side of you because it makes your work speak for itself and leaves everyone to draw their own conclusions. I love your loose brush strokes. You have influenced me to get out of my comfort zone!”
I am appreciative of our time with Schnabel, and even more appreciative and proud of my students and alums. They get how special it is to be at BAA. I am so grateful for the opportunity they gave me to spend a morning learning alongside them witnessing their delight and awe and curiosity. We were all transformed in both small and large ways. I can return to the mundane parts of my job with renewed energy and focus. Today was amazing.