Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth
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As Herbert Kohl approached seventy, he realized the image he had of himself (energetic man in midlife) was not in keeping with how he was viewed by others (wise grandfather figure). To counter the realization that he was growing old, Kohl, a staunch believer in lifelong learning, set out to try something new. While on a walk, he happened upon a painting studio and on a lark signed up for a beginning class. When Kohl arrived for his first lesson, he was surprised to see the students were Chinese children between the ages of four and seven.
Now, after three years of study, Kohl tells us what he learned from them. He shares the joys of trying to stay as fresh and unafraid as his young classmates and the wisdom he unexpectedly discovers in the formal tenets of Chinese landscape painting. As he advances into classes with older students, he reflects on how this experience allows him to accept and find comfort in aging. For anyone who feels stuck in the wearying repetition of everyday life, Kohl's adventures will clearly illustrate that you can never be too old to grow from new experiences.
he told me to plunge in and continue painting bamboo. I wasn’t as hesitant as I’d been before, and it looked simple to me then. Only I soon discovered that it was very difficult to breathe life into a bamboo, to have it move with wind, to have it serene on a quiet day, to have it bursting with leaves or barren or budding. Painting bamboo was considered a separate branch of painting as difficult as calligraphy and very close in style and technique to the art of writing. My fellow students came
early stages of my lessons, the idea of the unity of opposites was not much on my mind. I still struggled with the simplest lines and the most basic landscapes. I tried to make sense out of the whole and figure out how to piece it together. I was copying mechanically more than painting effortlessly, though there were moments when it all came together in a rock or the peak of a mountain or the leaves of a small tree in the corner of what to me was a crude attempt at a landscape. The children were
introducing painting, though it was difficult to master. However, he explained, it was time for me to learn more about what was traditionally called gonbi style, which is more formal, with fine, carefully controlled brushwork and close attention to details. Over the course of my lessons, Joseph had said a number of times that Janny was a more distinguished painter than him and that her training was more traditional. I had noticed that at the central table in her teaching room there were only
rock-strewn valleys. The work was all in black. He may have added colors the next semester. His work had soul and style. His angles were harsh, his renderings of the boulders and rock faces very grained and powerful. You could feel menace and danger there. And there was a hint of first-rate contemporary comic book illustration. His brush was steady and powerful, bold and true. I watched him throughout the semester and noticed how careful he was with drying the brush, mixing the inks, making sure
Foundation Network, and currently he is writing, painting, and consulting at his home in Point Arena, California. BY THE SAME AUTHOR The Age of Complexity 36 Children The Open Classroom Golden Boy as Anthony Cool: A Photo Essay on Naming and Graffiti Reading: How to— A People’s Guide to Alternative Ways of Teaching and Testing Reading Half the House On Teaching View from the Oak Growing with Your Children A Book of Puzzlements Basic Skills Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher