Every morning, Bert drew a weather map on the blackboard with his saliva. Carefully, he sketched out the exact weather map that he had seen the previous night in the news. I can see him now, tilting his head, limping slightly as he moved, and drawing using his index finger. This act, seen by many of his teachers as a stubborn annoyance, and what his psychiatrist calls his “perseverant” activities, caused him to be part of my class at EastConn, a school in central Connecticut for challenged teenage children. These were students who could not be part of regular public school’s special education programs. They were “special” special kids that I had the privilege of teaching, soon after I graduated from college in 1983.
What I noticed immediately, though, was the detail to which he carried out his task. He had an acute visual memory, but also interpretive and expressive ability to take what he remembered very clearly and turn it into his own visual language. Even the “materials” he used had a direct connection with the content of the weather maps. “Spit evaporates, “ he muttered to himself, “and becomes part of the atmosphere,” And he stood back to watch his mark disappear on the black board. To be sure, Bert was stubborn, but I recognized something else, too. He was an artist, drawing to make a careful and diligent trace of his memory in a map, and to somehow make sense of the world around him. As I watched his act every day, his ritual of evaporating drawing began to affect me.
“Hey Bert,” I asked him one day. “Yees, Mr. Fujimura, “ he replied in his bass voice, his eyes still childlike, despite his imposing stature and heavy workman’s boots. “How about we do a bulletin board project?” My task as the afternoon instructor was to develop the students’ creative and vocational interests. “What would you want me to do?” He asked, rather skeptically.
“Well, it’s up to you, but we got this whole bulletin board to fill in the hallway with nothing very exciting. Why don’t you do a mural of a weather map to start?” He was amenable to this, although this did not mean that he would forego his drawing on the blackboard first every morning. He took the markers I gave him, though, and worked on his colorful map in the hallway very enthusiastically. “No one’s ever asked me to draw a weather map before in school,” he said snickering, “they just complained about it.” I did get him to compromise on one thing though: he was to use a glass of water, rather than his spit, to create his morning ritual on the blackboard. After I explained the possible health risks of eating chalk everyday, he consented.
Some twenty years later, I think about Bert, as I watch my paintings dry today in my studio. Recently, I started to make videos of paintings drying as part of my exhibit. I find this act, as I am sure Bert did, to be healing. Watching the subtle movement of the surface of the water, and the watermarks made, stirs my heart, and makes me realize that in the frantic pace of life, how much we need this ritual. And what makes us truly human may not be what we do to accomplish a task, but what we experience fully, carefully and quietly.
Bert ran off one day, when I took the class for a walk in the park nearby. When he caught up to us near the entrance of the trail, I told him that I was upset and worried about him. “Don’t worry, Mako,” he said, “I have a map in my head, and so I am not going to get lost. Can’t you trust me?” I wanted to yell at him as he lumbered back with me from the darkening woods, his boots laces untied as usual, covered now in spring mud, but another part of me wanted to embrace him. Yes, I did want to trust him, to see where his intricate map was to lead him, and to journey with him. There, artist to artist, we can draw and watch our worlds disappear into the night. But I also knew that the society that would make Bert “useful” by giving him menial jobs after his graduation would not be as kind. We would have to account for our disappearance, and always be required to justify our art.