Birds

Picture of an Educator by Uschi Jeffcoat

Robin.jpg

Six years ago, I left the classroom. A year and a half ago I returned. It is a profession which keeps me connected to people, yet also allows me the luxury of time for family.

But it is not easy work

Recently, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. In the novel, the portrait takes on the aging and sins of the man. And I thought about the strength that educators show in the midst of stress. Not only theirs but also that of the students. Does the outside depict the reality?

To me, the American Robin symbolizes spring, new beginnings, children playing and hope. This image to me captures a great unsettling I feel at the moment. School shootings are becoming normal, low pay is an insult to the profession and the hours are long. In what profession does one begin their day manning a metal detector shortly before entering a classroom to shape hearts and educate minds?

So I painted all the words I feel but cannot say. Recognizing that bleeding heart conversations are damask political curtains we hang.

Keeping up with the Joneses by Uschi Jeffcoat

I love an idiom. And the culture it can capture.

"Keeping Up With the Joneses" is spot on American. To me it describes what happens when the American Dream becomes grotesque. When the pursuit of happiness and freedom leads to a warped and twisted captivity.

 Keeping Up With the Joneses, Watercolor, 22" x 30"

Keeping Up With the Joneses, Watercolor, 22" x 30"

The idiom finds its origins in a 1913 comic strip by the same title. Arthur R. Momand was the creator and the term made its way into a few silent animations.

 Keeping Up With the Joneses, Watercolor, 22" x 30"

Keeping Up With the Joneses, Watercolor, 22" x 30"

Ranging from the accumulation of stuff that quickly loses its luster, sick social graces, self-glorifying chatter, and debt beyond measure - it is a pattern of behavior to appear on equal social-economic footing or ground.

Appearances were significant in my childhood home. I wonder if it was simply my mother's German perfectionism or her attempt to never appear "less than" our fully American counterparts?

Most recently I saw this pull within myself as my children wrestled with their college choices. Was I (or my family)  "less than" because they made one choice over another?  Did my children feel that way?

But these were essentially the accoutrements that appeal to all people who are not actually rich but who want to look rich, though all they manage to do is look like each other: damasks, ebony, plants, rugs and bronzes, anything dark and gleaming-everything that all people of a certain class affect so as to be like all other people of a certain class. And his arrangements looked so much like everyone else’s that they were unremarkable, though he saw them as something truly distinctive.
— Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

What Happens to Birds During Hurricanes? by Uschi Jeffcoat

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”
― Mikhail Lermontov

The photo of this bird was shared in a bird group I followed on Facebook. It was captured by someone after a recent hurricane hit the East Coast. And it immediately struck me. What does happen to birds in these storms? Where DO they go? How do they find shelter if caught in the midst of one? Why did this one not escape it?

I asked the photographer if I might use her image as a reference for a painting. She granted permission and since then, I have been immersed in the intricacies of this one's composition.

It captures so much to me.

That there is grace and beauty in dying. And yet confusion as to how a death can look so peaceful with a ballerina like pose. It doesn't seem polite.

It swells in me the grief cycle. Pirouettes and all.

*A sincere and special thank you to Marylee Newmann for permission to use her photograph that captured such a striking and moving moment as a reference image.

 

Moirai by Uschi Jeffcoat

Fate or the Personification of Fate. In Greek Mythology, three women plus a delicate and fragile thread.

 Moirai Watercolor on aquabord 7" x 5"

Moirai
Watercolor on aquabord
7" x 5"

Ich wandte mich und sah, wie es unter der Sonne zugeht, daß zum Laufen nicht hilft schnell zu sein, zum Streit hilft nicht stark sein, zur Nahrung hilft nicht geschickt sein, zum Reichtum hilft nicht klug sein; daß einer angenehm sei, dazu hilft nicht, daß er ein Ding wohl kann; sondern alles liegt an Zeit und Glück. - Prediger 9:11 from the Luther Bible


I find the German a much more poetic and descriptive version of the sentiment expressed in the following verse.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.  Ecclesiastes 9:11

In the German the verb help is used (almost as if it is gently correcting our thinking about all that we think we need to have help us. Ending with "everything lies within (or perhaps upon?) time and chance". A theologian might have to correct my loose translating.

But the thought, I suppose,  remains the same. And I find it is also expressed through those mythological women holding that metaphor of a fragile thread.

Bird Squares & Gradebooks by Uschi Jeffcoat

It was teaching in the classroom that taught me the importance of observation.

It's there that I learned how much the posture and mannerisms of a child can tell you about their confidence, their false sense of confidence, and how hard it can be to simply be a kid these days...especially in middle school. Since then, I've learned to spot some of these insecurities in adults now a bit too. It's masked in different ways, but some of those things from back then are still there in our older versions of ourselves.

And that's why I love watching these little birds so much. I find, they can mimic human behavior in such funny ways.

This summer I have been plowing through a series of little bird squares, because I've been thinking through some things that actually relate to the classroom. And as I painted, it seemed a certain refrain, albeit taken a little out of context, from a song by the Clash was my prayer...

Well, come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?

Because you see, at the end of last school year, I received a few phone calls and emails asking me if I would please consider returning to the classroom due to a vacancy that had arisen. Pause.  My self imposed mini-retirement, my stay-at-home college mom life, being wife to LLC freelance design life has been delightful! I have had quiet and glorious amounts of time to assess my values and priorities. I've made swimming a habit, my house is in the kind of order only a German Hausfrau can achieve, I've been painting some interior spaces, visiting family and friends, painting and just this week began a little watercolor instruction class for adult art students.

Why in the bloody hell would I even consider returning to public education? - Where you can't just go to the bathroom whenever you might want. (It's a whole thing, to discreetly make sure a teacher can watch the kids,  so no one pokes someone's eye out with a pencil, while you tend to your business....) - Where the job pays so well, especially in South Carolina. (sarcasm) -  Where sometimes creatively and diplomatically you must prove to parents and administration, that you have taught the material upside down, sideways and back again, because some how, you the teacher are 100% responsible for the child's learning. (#studentresponsibilty please)- And where teaching trends, educational politics and philosophies can change faster than the wind, just when you mastered the latest thing...

I'm sure you can see where this wordy blog post is going, by now...

In my interview the phrase, "Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher" was mentioned. And I thought huh, wonder if that's true?

Because I have been doing German grammar exercises for fun during the past few months. Weird I know, but true... And when I was a child, my sisters and I always played school and guess who was always the teacher? And I happen to love teaching middle school. They are my favorite kind of kid. And if I am going to voice an opinion about the state of education, what am I doing to help it? Because angry words are often so very many - but action is limited. Oh, and not to mention, I do love an old-fashioned gradebook. And I can spend 4 hours over coffee discussing German teaching strategies with Lucia Huang, master jedi of all German teachers.

I also knew that when I went back to work, I wanted whatever I did to match the academic calendar Charles's work follows. We had our children very early, so we knew then, that many of the adventures we wanted to take would need to wait until our children were older.  And well, that time is here and a priority.

Because of the things society tends to value, it may seem a little backward to some going from the title of executive director to that of teacher again despite a few other opportunities. But I've given much thought to what matters to me as a person most and where my strengths lie. So the decision to go back "into the trenches of public school", if you will, feels right for this season.

So all that to say, I have spent the past few weeks preparing to return to the classroom!!! But I have also been pursuing accountability so that I will continue to paint consistently and meaningfully.

And if you happen to still be reading...I do want to point out that I do not view teaching as a calling. It is a job and quite frankly hard work. Please stop telling teachers they have such a high calling and using that type of language. It makes the fact that they work so hard, for very little pay, seem well, kosher.

Instead, perhaps let them know how much you appreciate what they are doing. Support and advocate for them!  Work to raise the pay for teachers in South Carolina and you will see professionals and educated individuals who have solid knowledge of the content enter the field and stop leaving. ( I would not be considering this line of work in this state, if I did not currently have the luxury and privilege of financial stability my husband provides our family.)  Please work to improve the physical and structural state of the schools within this region of the state. I am horrified that the images of my high school's pre-demo state, show it in a better shape than many regional schools. And I know you all know that the work in these trenches is great. I'm not trying to point fingers or anything like that...Let's simply make it better, by elevating the profession of educator to what it should be. End of soap box.

So all this to say, I am honored to be pulling out my teacher hat again, to return to work within a district and a program with others that value a globally minded education for all. 

My father always said, "Malala will be free as a bird." -Malala Yousafzai
 

 

 

Escape to Hickory Knob by Uschi Jeffcoat

Towards the end of May, I packed my watercolors, camera, a wonderful book and traveled to Hickory Knob State Park in South Carolina.

The South Carolina State Park system has an artist in residency program. This year I had the privilege of participating and it was delightful. It came at the perfect time of the year.

A time before summer schedules and projects begin. And a time when rest and respite is most welcome.

Our family world still revolves very much around an academic calendar. And the end of a semester is when we tend to catch our breaths. Our oldest had completed his first year of college and the youngest was completing his junior year. How did they get so old? So fast?

I was in the midst of some decision making. And well, Charles. He was simply t-i-r-e-d.

So this get-a-way to unplug, observe, learn, create and be inspired was soul filling.

We walked the trails during the mornings. And I took SO many pictures! Some of you may know I took an introductory class in botanical illustration in January. Paired with this book, I was reading at the time, I was on a nature and plant observation high! 

Many of our walks were not so quiet as they were laced with "informative mini lectures" based on the most recent chapter I finished.

During our stay we had a few memorable bird experiences. The pileated woodpeckers were active. One actually hit the window of our cabin, only stunning him for a moment. Long enough for me to capture a few images, though.

But perhaps most striking was the morning we came upon the hawk, which I chose to paint for the park.

We were so close to him and he didn't seem to mind at all. It was as if he was posing in this most majestic and photogenic manner. And the air was so still, quiet and serene.

A privileged moment.

Hickory Knob State Park, thank you for the oppurtunity.

Sialia sialis by Uschi Jeffcoat

"The Bluebird carries the sky upon his back."
-Henry David Thoreau

And so do some of the people in our lives. I was asked to paint this piece as a special gift for a favorite friend who truly is someone that makes you strive to be more than you think you can be.

This happened during the same week as a neighbor passed away so both personalities were on my mind as I painted.

Both educators, both mentors (one to me and the other to my husband), both leading by example and both so very gentle and kind.

Just like the eastern bluebird. Possibly my favorite bird to watch.

It was the discovery of these birds in a bird box in my backyard, left by previous home owners -  that began my love of bird watching. One of my best friends from childhood had collected blue birds. That was my extent of bluebird encounters up to this point.

Not only would I think on the simplicity of childhood as I observed them, but also I began to learn from these blue wings. Things like beauty in flight and purpose. Gentle, yet industrious, hard working and protectors of family, Sialia sialis had much to teach me.

Much like these heaven bearing friends of mine whose songs can carry the rest of us.

SB, you have been such an instrumental part in my life! I hope I can have an ounce of the TRUE southern lady grace you have! Thank you for investing in me and teaching me so much! "Lucille" - I am excited about all your future "tractor and engine" adventures!

 Sialia sialis watercolor on aquabord 8" x 8"

Sialia sialis
watercolor on aquabord
8" x 8"

Bird Theatre by Uschi Jeffcoat

I'm beginning to feel like a potential character in a Hitchcock film.

People have asked me where I find the subject matter for the birds I paint. And honestly, mostly they come to me! But I do have bird feeders, reside in a neighborhood with old, tall, majestic trees and slow moving creeks nearby, which helps! So Snow White, I am not...

(I also, have a few friends with an eye for artful bird encounters that will call me.)

eggs

This week has been off the charts!

It has been a week of interesting bird architecture, drama and tragedy.

Act I: This is the bluebird nest I have been watching in the box we have at home.

I monitor it daily. They were supposed to hatch on Saturday, Day 12. They didn't.

Nor did they hatch on Monday, Day 14.

Mr. & Mrs. Bluebird began moving the eggs in the nest and covering them in the days past, which I have never seen before. I was getting worried.

And then hello, this morning. This is what I found. An entire new nest built on top of the old.

I wonder if the freak snow we recently had in SC has anything to do with this doubledecker nest we now have.

I am assuming the old eggs are buried beneath? I am leaving it alone for now because both birds seem to be active and perhaps preparing for a new brood. Nevertheless, I am utterly confused by this.

And can I do this in my own world? Just stack a little covering on top and pretend the unfinished matters just stay somewhere hidden beneath all that nesting?

Act II: Most remarkably, a Shakespearean poisoning has taken place. The victims were discovered by a very young and enthusiastic naturalist.

And when I was asked - why, yes of course I want to take a few pictures of those beautiful birds!

A little life lesson here. Things that look amazing and maybe taste good are not always so good. These plants in your yard will hurt the cedar waxwing, which is what happened to these two. The cedar waxwings were simply gorging on those beautiful berries.

The plant is called Nandina or heavenly bamboo. I find the second name ironic, given the death it has caused. Nonetheless, it has promptly been removed from my own yard.

 Act III: My goal for the this week was to actually complete a watercolor,  but a small and swift little home intrusion has occurred.

This little wren decided to fly in the home when the door was open. The dog lost its mind and the bird flew ALL over, ALL the rooms and ALL through the hall, a few times.

Gracious.

 

Needless to say, not as much painting as intended has been completed this week, but quite a bit of study, drama and bird chasing has.

 

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." -Alfred Hitchcock