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COLUMNIST: Art education: It may take years to realize its value

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Our art room teacher wasn't far from retirement. Lord knows, she deserved a permanent break from us--7th and 8th graders, especially us boys.

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Despite our every effort to make her life miserable, Miss Rollefson continued to teach with an almost defiant passion.

For the first half of our eighth grade year, Miss Rollefson taught what was sort of an "art literature lite" class. We were taught a very general art history timeline, that progressed roughly from DiVinci's "Mona Lisa" to Rembrandt to the French impressionists to Picasso.

She taught with all her heart, even as the inane, smart alec boys were snickering at the masterpieces portraying partially nude women.

One of the artists Miss Rollefson focused on was an Iowa painter, Grant Wood, who created his best known stuff from about 1900 to 1932. His art is forever immortalized by "American Gothic," the famous portrait of a rural man and woman--he sternly brandishing a pitchfork and she in a drab, conservative dress.

Grant Wood's work was intentionally simplistic; homespun; pure American--but with a subtly wry edge. He's the guy who painted trees like a second-grader--wood sticks topped by round green balls. His landscapes of Iowa cornfields and countryside had a primitive, charming quality.

Of course, none of us guys had any intention of retaining any of this seemingly useless information about Grant Wood; or art in general.

It was the following year, I was walking down the hallway with my buddy Quiz; on the wall, Miss Rollefson displayed an assortment of prints of the classics, spanning three centuries or so.

One of the prints was a Grant Wood.

It must have been a weak moment, but I began pontificating to my buddy about Grant Wood's style--the simplistic interpretation of trees, the almost cartoon-like quality of his landscape, the quirky presentation of Iowa barns, outbuildings and people...

Dumb as I was, I neglected to look both ways down the hallway to make sure nobody else was listening. Geeez, eighth-graders aren't supposed to learn anything in art class, and even if you did, you certainly don't go public--for God's sake.

As luck would have it, Miss Rollefson actually overheard my commentary.

She approached me slowly.

Me being 13 years old and her being about 179 years old, it was difficult to interpret the expression emitted from her wrinkled face; the body language exuding from her unbalanced walk.

Her reaction seemed to be utter horror and shocking disbelief.

For a moment, I was scared stiff.

Miss Rollefson appeared on the verge of a heart attack.

"Good heavens...you...you ...remembered the class period where we talked about Grant Wood...." said Miss Rollefson, stumbling verbally; face chalky and pale--as if she had seen the ghost of Michelangelo. "You...you've made my entire career worthwhile..."

That, I believe, was my final encounter with Miss Rollefson. But I'll remember those 30 seconds for the rest of my life.

Years later, about 1980, I was among the first to obtain tickets to the famous Picasso show in Minneapolis.

I've since visited some of the finest museums of art in the big cities of Chicago, Washington D.C.; as well as modest exhibits in communities of all sizes--from San Antonio to NY Mills.

In 1984, the Minneapolis Institute of Art presented a show by one of America's most distinctive homegrown artists. It was the first major exhibit of his work in a half century.

The artist's name: Grant Wood.

It opened with much fanfare and nationwide publicity; and I was one of the tens of thousands who attended the famous Minneapolis Grant Wood show.

I only wish I had the opportunity to tell Miss Rollefson about it.

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