Jane Murray was my art teacher from the beginning of high school until the end of my junior year. Her educational approach was to focus on and assist the few students who had abundant natural talent, so that she would get credit for their accomplishments. Everybody else was on their own. Assignments were busywork and students left her class with little more than they came. She took the teaching job to fund her own projects.
Every class has one monster artist who towers over everyone else. The star during my sophomore year was Lazarus Mitchell. His signature works were delicate, elaborate renderings of flowers, kind of like Georgia O'Keeffe but with a postmodern flavor. His work was brilliant, so far beyond the shit the rest of us did that the idea I could match it was inconceivable.
I personally couldn't do it because I didn't have any real art supplies. My markers were cheap drugstore brands; they were all my mother could afford. Fine point pens came from my father's company. I used any student-grade material I could steal from school. I drew on copy paper and scraps of matting board. If I was making models I often used nail polish for the paint. I used model brushes for watercoloring and acrylics.
My preferred style didn't fit in with Murray's ideal. I did a lot of logo art and comic book art and scratch modeling. The low arts. 'Big Daddy' Ed Roth would have gotten the boot if he went to my school. Murray wouldn't even let a lot of my stuff into the yearly art show. I'd put it in the stacks and she'd keep tossing it. In her mind I had no useful talent. So I won nothing, until in my junior year I did a stylized, tribal-looking picture of my grandmother's cat Jinx. Since I was really into Escher by then I included a still-life with a reflective sphere. On the weight of this and another couple of Escher-related pieces I won a minor award, a $50 gift certificate for art supplies. I used it to buy my first box of Prismacolors.
Now I understood what it took to win awards. I immediately set about doing my own bastardizations of Lazarus Mitchell works. Big gaudy orchids and wrong-colored bird-of-paradise and unconsciously sexual blooms with phallic and vulval elements. I did even more Escher ripoffs this time, all original but blatantly derivative: tesselations, superrealism, optical illusions. I incorporated cartooning into some of them so that they weren't totally boring.
On the weight of her fraud, Murray got a better job offer at Bayshore, the rich kids' high school. Her replacement was Ms. Sacuzzo, who came into the position with the expectation that she would actually teach art. Suddenly we had real assignments, which was a cramp. But she understood how the former regime had worked, and once we got our work out of the way we could work on our own art. She encouraged us rather than seeing us as prizes.
When the Southeast H.S. art show came around in my senior year, I had a mountain of work to enter, and I got most of it in. I swept the show, winning thirteen awards, the highest ones generally going to my Mitchell and Escher ripoffs, the lesser awards being attached to my cartooning and scratchbuilding... I'm sure I only got the latter by association.
Later in the spring I sullenly accepted an invitation to the Manatee County art awards, expecting it to be a recap of the high school winners. What happened was that I was awarded the Wathen Trophy, the highest recognition that could be given to a secondary school student in the county. I also pulled a scholarship with the deal. I wasn't cynical enough to expect this outcome and was genuinely surprised. I was also faintly disappointed that it wasn't discretionary income again.
The art teachers from all the high schools were there, including the teacher who'd abandoned us for better pay. Of course Murray was all smiles, like she'd discovered me first, rather than blowing me off along with the rest of the proles when she was at my school. I was too off guard to be annoyed.
These judges had been around for years. They gave the award to Lazarus only two years before, and they knew what his specialty was. They should have recognized derivative work. I learned that even art teachers would rather see something familiar than to be challenged by anything original; I, a student, imitated others when my own work got no appreciation, and for doing so I received monetary reward.
I wondered later if the high school judges loaded me with awards because they needed a contender for the county competition. They had to send somebody. Perhaps if their student won they got better funding. It was like what Murray did when she groomed students for the art show, only done more covertly.
Not long ago I got a letter from my mother, telling me she'd had my biggest flower painting framed professionally. She gushed over it and called it 'unique.'