Very early I learned to mix colors to make my own flesh tones...
Even by Kindergarten, I knew that I loved art. I loved it because, quite simply, it was my one strength. There are two telling memories that have survived that first year of public education. And the ironies make them worth telling.
We were fifty or more, and they were two. White haired and grizzled Kindergarten teachers; nearing retirement, jaded, opinionated, perhaps a little burned out. I am being kind.
Besides the usual memories of stale graham crackers, jungle gyms, and Skip to My Lou, My Darling, the outstanding times for me were when it was coloring time. Or better yet, Clay Time. Whenever they passed out the clay, that was when I came alive. Eventually all the kids at the table learned to just hand it down to me. I would swiftly manufacture all kinds of animals and figures on demand, cranking out a whole rodeo, or Civil War battlefield, or a farm scene. Early in life I learned to use my talent to please others, and in the process find self worth.
Sometimes the teachers would catch the kids passing me the clay, and forbid sharing... What they said next sounded kind of funny. Something to the effect of “Children, I see you giving your clay to others, don’t let them take your clay, keep your clay to yourself.” They just passed it under the table, their eyes big with expectation. Everything was great until they began to fight over some super dinosaur I had just created or whatever something was new. My table always seemed to cause the most trouble.
And then there was the time we were handed Santa Claus faces to color. It was Christmas time of course, and everyone was excited about the coming holiday break, and presents and, you know, all of the intoxicating elements that come with Santa Claus. When I went to color mine, there were no flesh color crayons left. I knew already how to mix pigments to get the desired hue, so a I began to dig for the ingredients to make a flesh color. In the attitude of Christmas cheer, I allowed lesser colorers the easy route, and I eagerly entered the road less traveled.
I closed my eyes and thought of skin. I looked at the other kids. I looked at the teachers, pictures on the wall. It was obvious. To this day, as an artist, I still use the same mixture to achieve flesh tones. And much to your dismay, and certainly my teachers, you start with orange. A little sienna into a mid tone orange makes a great, rich, tanned skin tone.
I carefully outlined Santa, that was the style you know, but with brown. The girls all had to outline everything. And they decided the acceptable artistic style. I shaded in the lines, everything in its place, very neat... and colored Santa’s face a brownish orange. It was the only one like it, and compared to all of the bland flesh tone Santas, he stood out, and was decidedly different.
Little could I have known, that my Santa’s facial hue would have compared well next to the Sunblum Santa made famous at that time by Coca Cola. It occurred to me that day that the flesh tone crayon was ridiculous. Nobody is really that color, except maybe band aids and the old or infirm.
But that did not stop one of my teachers, who out of respect for teachers everywhere, shall remain nameless. She snatched up my coloring job and brandished it like a Comanche warrior would a fresh scalp...
“Children... Everyone look this way... What’s wrong with this picture? Everyone, look at this! What has this person done wrong? Everyone knows, all of you know, Santa is not ORANGE! Now, Ralph, do another one and color it correctly.”
Never, as my father always observed, was I caught without an excuse... I shrugged in embarrassment and explained there were no more flesh crayolas...
I was grateful that being so old, and confused, she called me by my father’s name, for she had taught him thirty years before. If she were alive today, I might send her some samples of my works, my accomplishments, and all of my orange people... But, she died a long time ago. Sad to say, that is about all I remember about my first school days.
It was a lonely time. The world was telling me I was different, wrong headed, counter-cultural. The next few years of school would only re-enforce this message. I shudder to think of all of the impressionable little ones that did not fare as well as me.