The place of art

Maureen practicing violin, c. 1952

What is art, and what place has it had in my life? This was the assigned topic for the first set of high school student essays I graded in my first paying job in California. In those days, the late 1960s, California schools had enough money to hire readers to relieve teachers of the time-consuming task of grading papers. I worked primarily with Millicent Rutherford, the Humanities teacher at Lynbrook High School, in the Cupertino Union School District. Over time, we developed a warm friendship.

I was saddened to learn that Millicent died last October, at the age of 91. Her obituary notes: “She will be remembered for her glittering sense of style, her sharp wit, and her boundless energy.” A 1991 Los Angeles Times article on remembering teachers who made a difference  includes an anecdote by Stephen Bennett, CEO of AIDS Project Los Angeles:

“We’d study Italian art and [Ms Rutherford] would get . . . photographs from some of the Pompeian paintings that are not typically looked at—the parts of Pompeii they won’t show you because the graphics on the wall are what Americans would consider lewd. And she’d show up in a Pompeian red dress to start the day.”

To honor Millicent’s memory, I’ve been thinking about how I might respond to her essay topic.

When I was the age of Millicent’s students, music was my passion. I played second violin in my town’s municipal orchestra. At my first concert, the orchestra tackled Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It must have sounded decidedly amateurish. But the experience of being a part of that magnificent work, of sharing the language of music with my fellow musicians and with an audience, is a thrill that has always stayed with me.

orchestra at researsal

Tauranga Municipal Orchestra at rehearsal in the high school assembly hall, c. 1952. I am in the front row, just to the left of the podium.

“The Old King” by Georges Rouault

Painting too speaks a language without words. On the wall of my office is a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s “The Old King.” I saw the original fifty years ago, at the National Gallery in London. Friends I had come with moved to another room without me as I sat on a gallery bench, weeping. I still weep inside when I look at it.

Concerts, theatre, dance performances and visits to art galleries have always been a major part of my life. The written word has been my personal art form. To struggle with the lines of a poem, to convey emotional meaning through images, leads me to a personal answer to the question: “What is art?” For me, it is a way of sharing what is meaningful in our lives.







8 Responses to “The place of art”

  • Alice Richards:

    We all lose special people in our lives progressively faster as we age.
    It is the memory of wonderful experiences with them that keeps us in contact, spiritually.

    Did not know you played the violin, Maureen. My father played a violin and I the viola as well as being part of our school orchestra.

    Music in any form gives us a powerful dimension.

    Happy Christmas to you and all the “California Family.

  • Harriet Gleeson:

    Yes. For me, art touches the deep center.

  • Jewels Marcus:

    Brings back many memories of trying to master the violin at the ripe age of 10 (I really wanted a drum set). At 13 I propped a canvas on an orange warning cone i swiped from the street and copied a painting i found in a magazine. While i never reached fame and fortune in these endeavors I did experience great joy and peace.

  • Sandy:


    You continue to evoke so much emotion into your writing, your art! Thank You for sharing!

    Hope you and Tony have a wonderful holiday!


  • Joan Hansen:

    Thank you Maureen. Have a Merry Christmas.

  • Joan Hansen:

    Thank you Maureen. Have a Merry Christmas. Joan

  • Judith Pogue:

    Just a clarification. Cupertino Union School District is an elementary district. Students from that district feed into Lynbrook High School, which is in the Fremont Union High School District. Unfortunately, I came to FUHSD after Millicent retired. She sounds like a wonderfully inspiring teacher.

  • Maxine Binning:

    Hi Maureen, What a wonderful friend you had in Millicent. The written word is so important in conveying thoughts and ideas something young people generally speaking do not do today. I spent many years in Colleges in NZ and here in Australia, marking English essays and exam papers in English and in History and it saddened me to read so many papers that failed in presenting the answer to questions requiring an enquiring mind . Thanks for your memories.

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