Thanksgiving always makes me sentimental and nostalgic and I get a little mushy around the edges, so I was already in a mood. Then this afternoon I was working in my studio and turned on my little TV set to keep me company and Oprah was having a show about thanking people for kindnesses and making a difference in one's life. It was touching and she closed by saying, " call up someone who deserves your thanks and tell them thank you. It will make both your days." There are plenty of people I could call and thank, but for some reason the first person that came to mind was my high school art teacher, Lorna Obermayr.
Look how cute she was. This photo is from my 1963 HS yearbook. She had style—a bit Bohemian. I think her hair was in a bun in this photo, but it was usually in a single braid down her back and she wore hoop earrings and peasant blouses and sandals. Most of our teachers were far more prim than that in those Mad Men, Jackie Kennedy times. Mrs. OB, as we called her, was excited and passionate about art and I couldn't wait for her class each day. She was funny and intelligent and articulate and made us all feel like artists as she pointed out the best parts of our work in a way that made me feel like she was learning as much from us as we were from her.
Once she gave us a big assignment. A painting. I don't remember the instructions, but it was the culmination of several weeks of color study. Then she sat with each student to evaluate their work. When I sat down for my evaluation she looked at me earnestly and said, "You misunderstood the assignment and you have done this all wrong, BUT—I love
what you did and that is why I didn't stop you. I wanted to see where you would go with this." Then she told me everything she liked about the piece and why, and what I probably learned in doing it. Then she explained, again, what I was supposed
to have done, gave me another week to do it and gave me extra credit for the incorrect piece. As I walked away, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, she said, "you are really a very good artist."
She left our High School before my senior year and took a job at the university where her husband was on the art faculty. She eventually became the chair of the art department. She was a gifted writer as well as artist and beloved teacher. She wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper—her observations about the university, the town, arts events, interesting people. She would have been a blogger in another time, I am certain. After I left Pocatello, my mother would clip her columns from the paper and send them to me. They were just the bit of hometown news that I craved. I heard that she and her husband divorced. A surprise to me.
This afternoon I googled her name to see if I could find her. I knew she had moved to Canada some years ago. Today I learned that she died last year. It seems she is sorely missed and her memory has been honored by an exhibit of her work and the purchase of one of her works by the British Columbia city where she made her home. In an online newspaper there was a recent article saying that her studio was for sale.
So how would I thank her if I could? Not for anything heroic or dramatic that she did—she didn't save my life, like some of the people on Oprah—but for being such an inspiring teacher. She did no more for me than she did for any other student, but she showed me, and helped me believe, that being an artist was not a silly or impractical desire. She treated her students as if we were
artists. She gave us the great gift of taking us seriously. And she found something beautiful or joyful or funny to point out every day. Once I won a statewide contest to design a poster. There was a ceremony and dinner held in Northern Idaho at a resort and part of my reward was to attend, along with my art teacher, to receive my $100 prize. Mrs.OB and I flew on the governor's plane, attended the dinner and spent the night at the resort, then flew home again the next day. She acted as if we were old pals off on a crazy adventure and we giggled together at the pomp and the fancy clothes and speculated about meeting the governor and whether we should call him Mister
Governor or just Governor, or maybe (snicker, snicker) your majesty
! I think she had as much fun as I did and I was awfully glad to have her along. She charmed everyone we met.
I spent a year as an art teacher in a Junior High school. I thought about Mrs. Obermayr a lot. I wondered how she stayed so upbeat and where she found her ease in dealing with teenagers. She loved teaching as I never could. I was lucky to have good teachers and several exceptional teachers in my school experience. Mrs. OB was the best.