Tonawanda News

March 7, 2013

KEPPELER: Art can take you places

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Somewhere in my parents’ home, it waits.

It’s pretty unassuming, really. A little green wire-bound notebook, maybe with a Girl Scouts or Brownies logo on the cover — I don’t quite remember. I live in mixed trepidation and hope that I’ll track it down someday, in whatever storage box or bin it now resides. 

I purchased it, as best I can remember, when I was 6, probably with allowance or birthday money. And for a year or so, it was my most treasured possession.

I filled it with pictures.

Heaven only knows how they’ve survived the years. They were just good ol’ No. 2 pencil on lined paper, line drawings mostly of animals and landscapes. Because I had (have) an overactive imagination, they were accompanied by stories about the animals, anthropomorphized in the way dictated by a childhood formed in part by Disney movies and my beloved “Wind in the Willows.”

Filling that little box was my masterwork. I was incredibly proud of it. Flipping through it one day, I decided: This was it. This is what I was going to be when I grew up. (A pretty big decision when you’re in the first grade.)

I was going to be an artist. 

Oh, OK, I’d be a writer too. I did like telling stories about my pictures. I would draw pictures, and then write stories about them. Or vice versa, maybe.

And I held on to that decision.

My artistic abilities never really matured past those elementary-school drawings, and eventually, I backed away from that part of the dream. The love of writing stayed. Then as I headed off the college, an adviser tactfully recommended that it might be a little easier to make a steady living as a newspaper writer instead of a novelist or children’s book author. I listened.

More than 30 years after I bought that little notebook, I’m a writer. I’d probably one of the few people in this world who can say she become what she wanted to be when she was 6 (and probably one of fewer who’s happy about it).

But in a way, it was art that got me there.

We all know that, in these days of school aid cuts and focus on testing, it’s often the arts that get the ax. Positions aren’t filled. Teachers are required to run from building to building, juggling (sometimes physically) projects and gradebooks and mentoring hundreds of students. Things you can’t quantify or test for — like, perhaps, the effects of the arts on children’s lives — can get the short end of the stick.

I spent some hours this week both at the Carnegie Art Center, watching North Tonawanda art teachers ready the “Creative Visual Arts Student Spotlight” exhibit that opened Wednesday night, and at North Tonawanda Middle School, where I talked to a number of students about their feelings about the arts. It got me thinking about that 6-year-old girl, who would have been so thrilled to have her art represented in a real gallery. OK, it would never have made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre, or even the Abright-Knox.

But it was art, nevertheless.

We all know that those who go on to make a living strictly in the fine arts are probably relatively few. But you never know what will start a dream that may take years to pay off.

Maybe that painting got one student thinking about a story. Maybe researching the history of the Day of Dead, or so-called “ugly mugs,” caused another to start reading a new book, and touched off a fascination with history. Maybe the process interested another in the business aspects of running a gallery, or the organization necessary to pull off a successful exhibit. 

We’ll never know what didn’t happen because a student didn’t get an early exposure to art. But that makes the loss no less a tragedy.

Are reading and math and standards important? Of course they are. But so are things like art and music and theater — all the so-called extras that inspire kids, keep them interested, make them look a little farther.

And if we forget that, our lives will be the poorer for it.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at