— Who didn't love art class as a little kid?
While it wasn't quite as esteemed as English class, or as vital as recess, for some of us it was that desperately needed break, a chance to flex the creativity that might not have served us as well while converting fractions or suffering through a spelling test.
And if you actually took no joy from scribbling and pasting... well, it's probably because you didn't have someone like the radiant and inspiring Bonnie Lucas in your classroom.
When I observed Bonnie's class at PS 110 on New York City's Lower East Side, her wide-eyed first-graders were barely breathing, they were taking their lesson so seriously. Bonnie treated them like adults, calling them her "pupils."
And as six-year-old Jaylin demonstrated her brush technique in front of the whole class, expanding a bright green dot, Miss Bonnie proudly shared with everyone that Jaylin had studied with her for two years. When the edges of Jaylin's dot began to drip because the brush was too loaded, Jaylin looked anxious, but Bonnie was excited and encouraging. "It's dripping, but she doesn't care. She's going to pick up the drips, because she is a painter!"
In this potentially embarrassing moment, Jaylin gave a tiny smile, and the other children on the carpet continued to look on in wonder.
"Picking up the drips" is symbolic of the way Bonnie Lucas navigates her life: Unconventionally, with spontaneity, and always making the best of things.
Lucas landed in New York City's art scene in 1979 to fulfill her dream of becoming a fine artist. She quickly broke into the feminist art scene, an era more famously pioneered by women like Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro. Her work received a flash of attention and glowing reviews, but she soon faded into obscurity. She began teaching part time to support herself, but always continued to make new work. Her pieces examine themes of domesticity, identity and childhood. This story Lucas is telling is usually presented in pretty pastels and cheery patterns. But when you look closer at the imagery—sometimes dolls trapped in nets or without limbs—the material takes on a much darker and edgier meaning.
She calls them "disturbing landscapes of childhood."
"I want to suck people in with the beautiful colors and textures and the pretty facade," she said. "But then once they're hooked, to see the narrative, the story, which can be pointed, strange, even disturbing. The way I feel life is."
Bonnie Lucas spent her life striving for simplicity. She's lived in the same fifth-floor walkup apartment in Little Italy for 30 years. Her living space is her studio-- with a Pepto-Bismol pink bathtub in the kitchen sink doubling as a work table. The white walls are a rotating gallery showcase of her latest projects. And stacked under her lofted bed are hundreds of collages and assemblages from over the years.
As Bonnie approached her 60th birthday last fall, she couldn't help feeling that her career was still incomplete. "I am living with hundreds of beautiful things, I want other people to see them." she declared. "I want a show. I have to jumpstart my career, I have to do it!"
With that moment of determination, Bonnie joined Facebook and worked the phones. She networked with old friends and reached out to complete strangers, hoping to reclaim a bit of relevance and her place in the art world.
After a few months, a friend connected her with curator Tod Lippy, editor of Esopus Magazine [www.esopusmag.com] and director of Esopus Space. He was drawn to the craftsmanship and layered storytelling of her body of work. After spending 10 minutes with her, he offered her a solo show at his gallery on the spot.
"It attracts you and kind of pleases your eye," Lippy explained. "And then the more you look, the more you realize you have to really think about what it is representing. And maybe it disconcerts you in some way, which to me is what all art should do."
On opening night of her first major show in decades, Bonnie floated around the packed room, greeting everyone from old grad school friends to the nine-year-old patrons that came to support the beloved teacher.
It was a moment 30 years in the making, and a clear sign that Bonnie Lucas is not past her prime — she's just beginning a new chapter.