Jenna Fournel's Learning Story


When I was 17 I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for a summer pre-college program. I went there to see what it would be like to be an art student and to experience life away from my family for the first time. I was a fairly sheltered child, a do-gooder who thrived on pleasing the adults in my life. As a strong student I was unaccustomed to failure, or really, even challenge. So, understandably, there were many things that happened that summer which would qualify as powerful learning experiences. But the one that sticks with me to this day happened in the drawing class of Bo Joseph. Bo was an almost stereotypical artist-teacher, with his exclusively black wardrobe, passionate but sparse speech, and infuriatingly mysterious instructional style. He would give us incredibly enigmatic assignments like: ‘Go outside. Find something. Make a drawing with it.’ And in my quest to please my instructor I would stress over the specifics of each direction vacillating between thinking I was supposed to take them literally and searching for the higher symbolic meaning in his words. My peers did not seem so encumbered. They’d return in minutes with dog feces and popsicle sticks, creating bizarre abstract pieces that always seemed to get Bo’s nodding approval. I would sit in a corner trying to draw a bird’s nest with a broken twig and he would hardly give me the time of day. ‘That’s not quite it,’ he would frequently say of my pieces. ‘I’m not seeing your inspiration yet.’ ‘Keep looking.’ My anxiety about his class grew and grew with each assignment as I agonized over how to create what he wanted and fell flat every time. I was baffled by the ease with which it seemed my colleagues were grasping Bo’s ideas and my apparent inability to create anything that would warrant event a grunt of approval. Finally the last day of class came, and we were to work with a live model for the first time. Bo’s instructions were predictably vague: ‘Create.’ And nearly in tears, I gave up. I found my favorite corner; pulled out a large sheet of paper, a jar of gesso, and some crusty water-color paints; looked at the model for a few moments; and, started to move the paint around the paper. For the first time all summer I lost track of the students around me, lost track of time, lost track of that tall figure in black for whom I’d failed in every artistic performance. It was just me, the model, the paint, and something in my head that was telling me what to do. ‘Finally,’ said a voice out of nowhere. I awoke from my reverie to see a familiar shadow across the page. I looked up at Bo and cowered in anticipation of his critique. He lowered himself to my level and looked straight into my eyes. ‘You’ve heard your inner voice,’ he said. ‘Now don’t you ever, EVER, stop listening.’Years later, after being a teacher myself, I know that Bo took on a brave experiment with me. I like to believe he knew it would work, but I shudder to think what I would have become without the breakthrough he inspired. He saw that my desire to please was hampering my ability to create and he pushed, and pushed, and pushed until I got past the quest for outside approval and found my inner self. The picture is nothing outstanding. It’s a reclining nude made of thick gesso with green and blue watercolor paint that has fallen into various scratches and recesses along the form. But I consider it the first piece of art I ever created.