‘Humbleness As A learner Found’ is a short story by Lo Sin Yee, a secondary school teacher in Miri, Sarawak, who has decided to give himself a shot at writing.
Many young children between the ages of six to fifteen hunched over the tables in the sitting room, sketching and painting.
At the age of forty-five, I was by far the oldest student, overweight, too, and somewhat shabby looking.
Sitting in an inconspicuous corner, under a freezing air conditioner, I surfed the Internet on my ipad to hide my discomfort.
One by one, more kids poked their heads around the door, entered the house barefoot and took their seemingly pre-assigned positions in the sitting room.
When Vaz, the elegant art teacher in her late fifties arrived, she frowned at where I was sitting.
“This is not where you sit,” said the lecturer cum artist, while beckoning me to follow her into a little room beside her office.
She handed me a beginner kit and frowned again when I told her that I had forgotten to bring my coloured pencils to the lesson.
“Well,” she said, “you may use mine. Next time, remember to bring yours.” Vaz then took out a book from a shelf and put it on my desk.
“You like portraits, am I correct? I want you to sketch one of the portraits in this book and shade it.”
“Thank you, Madam.”
“Now stand beside me and see how I sketch and shade.”
With a flourish she swished her pencil across the pad and within seconds the silhouette of a man appeared under her pencil tip.
“When you give detailed strokes,” she said. “Hold the pencil upright. Hold it sideways when you give broader strokes in the hair, under the cheekbones and under the neck.”
“I see,” I said. “What if I…”
“Don’t interrupt,” she said, glaring at me. “Pay attention when I sketch.”
I immediately shut my mouth and watched her as she gave some finishing touches to the portrait.
When she was finished, she raised it for me to see. “Have you got that?”
“Yes,” I replied, nodding. “I will try to reproduce all that in my work.”
“Good,” she chirped. “You may start sketching now.”
“All the portraits are difficult to sketch,” I said, trying to sound humble, despite feeling I could do an equally good job as she did. “It’s impossible to achieve an exact likeness.”
“Don’t try to be a perfectionist,” chided Vaz. “It’s meaningless to come up with a photographic artwork, which falls short of creativity.”
With that, she turned and spoke to the four Filipino children who were in the same room as me. After setting them a task, the lecturer flew out of the room to attend to the other kids.
Three weeks prior to the art lesson, I had been searching for someone to teach me painting. I had not been drawing or painting for the past twenty years and the long-forgotten interest had recently resurfaced in me.
Due to the stark reality of life, I had chosen teaching over painting, and the passing of time had reduced my interest to unrecognisable bits.
One night, while browsing through Facebook, I found out that my former lecturer at the Teachers Training College, Vaz, was conducting an art class in my neighbourhood.
Famous in the local art scene, she was consistent in posting her artwork on Facebook. I liked the spontaneity and randomness of her painting styles. Right away I emailed her and told her about my interest in learning art from her. To my delight, she accepted me as her student and briefed me on what to do in her lessons.
In one of our subsequent communications, I told her that portrait painting had been my enduring passion and she said she would tailor her lessons in such a way that they catered to my interest. It was no wonder that she asked me to start with portrait-sketching in our first lesson.
Sketching a person’s face was not an easy job, but I was confident I could do it well. The face I was going to sketch had Roman features – deep set eyes and a matching high bridged nose, plus a set of tightly pursed thin lips. Since I had sketched many similar portraits before, I was sure Vaz would be impressed by my skill. The moment I started sketching, however, I realised it was not as easy as it seemed.
I drew the plane of the face, measured the distance between the eyes, but I could not achieve the likeness, so I erased the face repeatedly, only to find that it looked worse and worse.
Along the course of sketching, a few curious parents and kids drifted in and out of the room, glancing at what I was doing. They wowed and oh-ed, motioning for others to look at my sketching.
Deep in my heart I knew my sketching was nothing to shout about. It was a drab compared to what I had done many years ago. During my student days, I had won many competitions and awards. My classmates had always asked me to sketch their portraits. Due to lack of practice my skills had deteriorated a lot.
When the lecturer returned to check on my progress, she surprised me with her remark, “Not bad. You have a keen eye for small details.” I was a bit flattered, but then she said, “Your work could’ve been better if you are less decorative with the hair. You made it look fake.”
Obviously the lecturer believed I had not done a good job. She tore a new piece of paper from my drawing pad and asked me to sketch a new portrait. This time I tried to be as spontaneous with my shading and strokes, but the composition of my portrait was not balanced, and she fixed the problem by rubbing a large part of the model’s head and applied some apt shading to make it blend with the background.
“Isn’t it much better now?” asked Vaz.
“Indeed,” I said. “It has some artistic touch to it.”
Vaz clapped her hands a few times, announced that the art lesson was over and asked me to put up my work on a display board along with those of the other students.
Although my portrait easily stood out among the rest, I did not feel proud of it. The other pieces of work, though done by kids many years younger than me, were brilliant for their age. When I was that young my sketching and colouring could not hold a candle to them.
“Come, all the first-timers,” said Vaz. “Stand in two lines at the middle of the sitting room and I will take your picture.”A few kids and I arranged ourselves as instructed and she snapped our picture with her cell phone. Then we bade her good night and returned home.
Back in my room, I checked on Vaz’s latest updates on Facebook and saw the group photograph as well as my portrait. Under the latter was a comment, “Marvellous job. You have a high potential!”
I smiled and left her a thank-you message.