A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)

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Martinez assembles the group; some are here for the first time, and others have been coming for months. He hands out an assignment. It's a scrapbook of sorts, an autobiographical expression of themselves he has divided into topics. They will take a self-portrait, write a letter to the president, draw a landscape of particular meaning. "Think of it as a résumé of yourself," he explains as they brainstorm ideas for other chapters. "This is a way for you to develop stories and drawings about you personally, and these are the titles of each page," he explains as they go through the list. "It's up to you to interpret them however you want." There are no deadlines, no guidelines, no grading system, he explains to them. They can finish it in a week or make it a lifelong project, he tells them.

"What is this teaching us?" one client asks. "Organization," he responds.

Finding an outlet for this creative energy is like discovering an open window in a smoke-filled room. It's a way for them to channel their ideas that is safe and comfortable. It is a concept his students embrace. Canvases around the studio reflect a wide variety of concepts. One woman has painted Fear of Anorexia, which shows a stylized naked fat woman with a wraithlike skin and a bone figure next to her. Another woman is carefully replicating a nature scene from a magazine; next to her a young man sketches Jar Jar Binks. They joke with Martinez, recommend hair products, talk to him about music and movies they've seen, ask him for supplies. They obviously adore him. The class is as much about socialization and relating with other people as it is about art.

A newcomer to the class doesn't appear to be buying into this concept, though. He tells Martinez he wants to be a landscape and portrait artist, and he's here for drawing lessons.

The teacher walks over to the supply shelves and returns with a piece of butcher paper and a box of charcoal and begins to draw as he explains. "Mine is philosophical work and conceptual work, it's not about making a painting look real." The man looks at him with resistance. Martinez keeps trying to reach him as he opens the box of charcoal. "I don't like methods," he says, as he lays out the blank sheet in front of him, smoothing it. "I have an idea in my head, something I'm thinking of, say it's a flower," he says, drawing a sweeping arc of a stem, "or a house," he says, boxing in a crude slanted roof and four walls. "I'm vary naive. You learn as an artist that you have to accept who you are." He smudges the lines of the flower petals, softening them with his large thumb as he speaks. "If you want to be an artist, it's not about making things look real. You have to make art, think art, breathe art, go to galleries, look at art in books.

"It's about how it makes you feel, not how it looks."

The truth Martinez once sought has taken a back seat.

"Go ahead and draw something so I can see what level you're at," Martinez suggests. The man is withdrawn and replies he's at the kindergarten level. "That's great!" exclaims Martinez. "That's where I'm at, too."

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Susy Buchanan