The Mentor Mirror
The term “mentor” rattled around in my brain as I sat down to write my first blog. What does it mean to be a mentor? Who are my mentors? Are there folks out there to whom I am providing the mentoring mirror? Are people always mentors? Or are there other events, places, or things that provide mentoring opportunities? I wondered if mentoring was always positive, or were there painful moments or people who also provided mentoring that I hesitated to recognize?
A vivid mentor memory is the image I hold of Marylou Kuhn sitting on her porch in Tallahassee, Florida. I met Marylou soon after she retired as Chair of the Department of Art Education at Florida State University. When we met I was unaware of Marylou’s long and distinguished association with NAEA and the honors she’d received (1981 June King McFee Award and the Distinguished Fellow Class of 1986), to say nothing of her academic scholarship. I knew her from her love of art; our conversations varied but always revolved around art and its importance in our lives. This was a time when we were both in transition. After years in academia, Marylou wanted to reconnect with making art. She dropped herself into the swift waters of creating and plunged headlong into doing and having fun as a working artist. She could have rested on her laurels, taken the easy path and enjoyed the admiration of those around her, instead of challenging herself to create art. How did she mentor me?
As I sat on that porch I learned that art and the making of it is a lifelong endeavor, an unbroken way of knowing; reconnecting with the creative was possible at any age, and finding the courage to create was worth the effort. I talked about graduate school and voiced fears and worries of worthiness that she quickly dismissed. She talked about muscle memory, life experience, and finding ways to express joy and happiness in the moment. She encouraged me. We celebrated milestone events with lunches coupled with generous portions of her time. As our relationship changed, Marylou treated me less as a mentee and more as a colleague. I recognized this when she invited me to view her new art work before framing as she prepared for her retrospective show at LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts.
“I don’t like the bottom of this piece,” she complained.
I boldly suggested she crop it, saving the best part of the piece. She agreed, and when I saw the work at her show I promptly bought it. It is a constant reminder of the valuable lessons I learned from Marylou. Life is for learning, and learning happens throughout life. Art is a way of knowing; trust the connection between your heart, mind, and hand. Create with courage, look for more than one perspective, and enjoy making. Marylou’s love of art was apparent at her opening, a bittersweet moment as she had just passed and was greatly missed by everyone she had inspired. Here are three of her works from 1950 thru 1996.
First image: Early unframed work of Marylou's Mother circa 1950; Second image: "Dandelion" 1974; Third image: "My Friend from San Francisco" 1996.
When I stand in front of a class, I think about my relationship with Marylou. I remind candidates that in a short time we will be colleagues, not teacher and student or mentor and mentee. I recognize the relationship and honor the growth and challenges presented in the position. I hope that I provide the spark and desire for lifelong learning I garnered from Marylou while passing on a tradition of excellence in teaching and learning.
My influences and mentoring process has included not only people but places as well: the mountains and the seashore, where my experiences have contributed to my memory, my knowing, and my art. I have a growing realization that my mentors are those who helped me develop different perspectives; or who questioned me and challenged me to think critically when defending my position. In this atmosphere of trust, where conversations can take on an authentic level of attention and concern, I find myself opening up and sharing just like I did with Marylou. In reflection, I cherish this mentoring mirror and hope I pass it to others.