Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Encounter With the Headmaster

And so I found myself in the headmaster's office.  Gesturing to a chair opposite his desk, he stared at me silently for several minutes.  My mind raced as I recounted the sequence of events that lead me there.  Never could I have imagined that trying to donate a painting to my high school would have resulted in enough controversy to land me here.

The piece in question was not one painting but three.  A triptych inspired by one of my favorite books, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness — a book about the European colonization of Africa and the terror and cruelty inherent in man and nature alike.  Dark themes to be sure, but I was proud of the work and it had earned prizes and accolades.  The piece depicted Marlow (the book's protagonist) coming upon Kurtz (the book's antagonist) who has collapsed in the forest along the Congo.  It's a night scene lit largely by the moon and fire light, and is among the more painterly things I've ever done (though mostly due to my inability to do much else as I was a mere 17 years old at the time).  Admittedly the work is not among the most uplifting paintings you will ever see, but it's not violent or sexually explicit in any way.  It's a piece about two men, one of whom has given up.

I could see in my headmaster's expression a certain level of detachment as he tried to find an entry way into the conversation.  His pale blue eyes scanning the air for some unseen thread that might be lazily wafting before him.  As I waited for him to speak, I looked about the largely unadorned office with it's white walls and low pile gray carpet.  I looked at his standard, nondescript desk and the photos of people that I would never meet that sat neatly upon it. After running out of things to look at, my eyes eventually fell upon the man himself, dressed in a crisp white shirt, black tie, and neatly creased gray slacks, black socks and brightly shined black shoes upon his feet.  A gray suit coat hung casually over the back of his cordovan leather chair.  His tightly kempt beard had mostly turned to gray, as well, and it puckered as he bit his lower lip seemingly having found the in he was searching for.  I snapped to attention as he began to speak.

"If I could describe mt time in Vietnam," he began, "I would say that ninety percent of my days there were spent in pure boredom, while ten percent were spent in sheer terror.  And I was lucky, because for many it was ninety percent terror.  Even now, it is a subject that is raw for many people and I'm curious to know what you feel about this piece is appropriate for a school?"

For those of you don't know, Conrad's book was adapted to film by John Milius for Francis Ford Coppola in 1979 where Congo was substituted for Vietnam and was retitled, Apocalypse Now.

It took my mind a minute to catch up.  Wait.  What?  "Are you referring to Apocalypse Now?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"You know that that was an adaptation, right?" I asked.


I was perplexed.  "With all due respect, I fail to see what that has to do with the painting.  You're imposing your own prejudices on a piece that is about a completely different subject.  This is not a piece about the Vietnam War.  Have you ever read the book?"

"Yes, I have," he replied simply.

"Then you know it's about the European Colonization of Africa, the ivory trade, the mistreatment of the African peoples, etc., right?"


"Good, then I think we can agree that the piece should be dealt with on the basis that it is a depiction from that story, not a movie made 75 years after the fact."

Pause.  He seemed to ponder this a while, rolling the idea around like a mouthful of wine.  "I guess we can agree on that, yes.  I still wonder whether it's an appropriate piece for a high school."

At the time there was very little art in the halls of my high school.  There were a few paintings scattered about the campus' buildings of former headmasters, founders, the like.  I remember there being some random posters, one of John Singer Sargent's "Madam X," if I recall.  Nothing done by students or former students, at least nothing that was on display on any kind of permanent basis.  Little that wasn't stodgy or uninspiring (save "Madam X," of course).  I pointed this fact out to him.  I pointed out that while not uplifting, it was hardly an offensive piece.  No blood or gore.  No nudity.  I pointed out, too, that the piece had gained the school some notoriety, as well.  Finally, I pointed out that the book that inspired it is widely considered an important work of fiction.  "We have books for the sake of books, but what," I said, "about art for the sake of art?  Why do we need a reason?  Sure, the subject matter is depressing, but so too, are the books we're reading in class.  Plus, it's not like I'm asking for a check.  I want to donate the piece to the school so that others may be inspired after I've gone off to college."

He considered these things for a few moments.  The air buzzing with the sound of the fluorescent lights in the dropped ceiling above as I began to plan my next series of arguments.  After a long pause, there was a slow and subtle nod.  "Where would you suggest we hang the paintings?"

It took another second for me to realize that the man needed no further convincing.  I stumbled a bit and said finally, "In the hallway by the English classrooms, I guess."

"Very good."  He looked at the clock, realizing there was still time on his schedule.  Rather than dismiss me, he looked at me and asked, "have you seen Apocalypse Now?"  I nodded.  "Did you know that there was an alternate ending?"

Our conversation turned to the film, then films in general.  What controversy there was, seemed to have been minor and was now settled.  And the paintings were hung in the English hall as I'd suggested. Years later they would be moved to the library building.  Then, once construction was complete, they found their way into the new arts building, where I believe they remain to this day.

Whether or not the work inspired I cannot say.  Likely subsequent students found it unnerving if they even noticed it at all (though given that altogether it was six feet across, I cannot see how).  The biggest victory is that it is no longer the only piece of student artwork hanging outside of the usual display cases typical of schools.  Other work has joined it.  In fact, there is even a gallery there now.  Art for the sake of art.  And that is at least something.


  1. Actually the triptych now resides in the new arts facility. I saw it there last November.

  2. Amended. You sent me a picture of it, too, now that I think on it. I'm not sure if it survived changing phones, though... Gotta check.

  3. This is a beautifully written memoir. (It certainly brought me back to that office and that man.) I am glad that you wrote about this, and that I happened to see it! Art for arts sake. Amen.

  4. Very typical of that headmaster, as I recall. Play word games with him until he gets bored and hope for the best.

  5. Amy,

    When I read "that man," I instantly think of the way Mr. Bretzger used to refer to Reagan in the same way. Nothing to do with you, but it's an association that has survived for more than 15 years, so I guess it's here to stay.

    I might have gotten a lot of the details wrong. He probably had more decorating his office than I've listed. It seemed more important to get across just how bland he was. Horribly, horribly bland.



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