by Susan Cohen Smith
Sometimes the rewards of teaching come years after retirement. My former student, Edward Chung, is for me, the gift that keeps on giving.
A ninth grader struggling in my French 1 class submitted his written work accompanied by the most fascinating drawings. The following year this young man fortuitously appeared in my Art 1 class. During the subsequent three years, he went on to win first place in almost every citywide art contest in the Philadelphia district. To work off his detentions, he did a drawing of the school, which was reproduced and given as a parting gift to retiring staff members.
Edward is a naturally gifted traditional artist, whose ability to faithfully record exquisitely detailed images from memory is surpassed only by his expressive, emotionally charged, technically excellent, stunningly beautiful creations. As a child in Hong Kong, he began drawing on his bedroom wallpaper. For him, artistic expression has always been a powerful vehicle for translating his vivid mental imagery into tangible visual reality.
In Edward’s senior year, I had more than my share of “Service Learners:” students who have enough credits for graduation but need to fill up their rosters. Not really wanting to serve, a restless Edward needed something constructive to do but it couldn’t be another contest or mural for the school. I had the perfect project for him. My husband had framed out an area off our second floor with the intention of creating a door that would lead to an outdoor deck. For two years, I suffered the sight of the Tyvec building material where the door would go. I had the idea of painting a trompe l’oeil mural of a door to hide the offensive Tyvec panel.
My husband cut a piece of plywood the size of the opening and brought it to school. Edward ably sketched a drawing of a door with a large glass window. For the window’s reflection, I handed him a crude snapshot of the buildings
across the street from where the painting would be installed. It so happens that across my street was the rear of the Art Deco Reliance Insurance building, an area of greenery, a parking area, and a bagel shop with striped awning. To my amazement, Edward did a convincing, detailed sketch of the structures, as they would appear in the window’s reflection merely by looking at the poor quality photo. Next, he executed a skillful representation of the door in outdoor acrylic paint. He obligingly used the same distinctive color paint to match our front door.
In March 2001, my husband hung Edward’s painting of a door on the outside of our house and it has been there ever since. It has been quite a neighborhood attraction, even more so now that the building across the street has turned into the Perelman Annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The site that Edward painted is where the rather unattractive addition to the Perelman has been appended to the old building, much to the chagrin of the neighbors facing it. Edward’s faux door painting serves as a reminder of how the site used to look.
Over the years, the painting took a beating from the elements and was beginning to fade. I needed to find Edward to restore the mural. With my son’s help, I located him and renewed our acquaintance. Edward was pleased to hear from me but was sad to have to tell me that his career as an artist was going nowhere.
He had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Digital Media and had not been able to find a job in his field in three years. He did not want to visit his family in Hong Kong because he was ashamed of his situation. His mother always told him that I brought him luck and success in high school. So I took on the daunting task of helping him to find a job in a crowded field during the worst economic recession in recent memory.
I scrutinized his resume and website and tried to learn ways to improve them. Never having had experience in web design, it was an education for me as well. What I noticed about his latest work was that it lacked the imagination and mesmerizing attention to detail that his high school work had. Edward’s greatest asset was his ability to elevate ordinary, mundane subject matter into extraordinary works of art, an element totally absent in his college work. I also recognized that he had lost all confidence in himself as an artist. I know firsthand that Art School has a way of tamping down youthful exuberance. My alma mater had a similar affect on me many years before.
I don’t accept credit for it, but within three months of our renewed relationship, Edward Chung landed what he calls his “dream job.” Within a very short time, his enthusiasm and zest for life returned.
He successfully repainted the trompe l’oeil painting of the door on site, perched on the roof outside of my second floor. He spent many hours in the sun after work on this endeavor that dragged on longer than expected because of weather-related delays. After a painting session, Edward would join us for dinner. He entertained my family with lively conversation and impressed us with his gustatory sophistication.
Edward Chung continues to keep in touch with me. He seems to be enjoying his life to the fullest. Knowing that I played a small part in his success is probably the most gratifying reward a retired teacher could hope for.
Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher. She taught Art and French for 36 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org