The art of the elementary (school)

When I get around to it

an infrequent column by Kip DeVore

The paintings on the walls of the elementary school on Madison Street, where Ironton’s Casey’s Store is now, were understated so much in the same muted tones as the school itself that the paintings seemed to us – or to me at least – to be a part of the building

It was as if the paintings had come with the school when it was built, probably around 1917.  Though the architecture of the high school and the elementary buildings was definitely institutional - that is, sparing the ornamentation of privately funded structures - you could still feel the leftovers of the Gilded Age of the late 1800s after the Civil War, when you grasped the heavily enameled banister, or especially the ornamental, but solidly hefty newel post at each new flight of stairs up to the second or third floors, depending on the location of your classroom.  

If you were like me, with no such thing as a book bag, and textbooks that just kept getting heavier the higher you climbed, you’d be thankful when you finally cleared that last step and maybe this earthly life would be over.  To your surprise, one of the teachers would be standing there ushering you into class and, to your horror, you’d realize that this new day had only just begun.  

The paintings, of course, were not actual paintings, but rather prints or perhaps even posters, in frames, of the original paintings. There would be maybe two per classroom of a president and the other a landscape with a brief, typed description.  

My desk wasn’t on that side of the classroom so I didn’t get to read the descriptions, and the paintings were up a little high as the ceilings in those old classrooms were very high – a heating nightmare for management since all your best heat would rise to the top. But even so, down near the floor where we sat at our desks, it was still rarely cold and even comfortable or sometimes too warm from the stout steam radiators over near the tall, broad double-hung windows all along one side of the classroom. 

The four paintings I remember were two portraits of presidents, obviously one of George Washington and the other of Abraham Lincoln.  There may have been  a Ulysses S. Grant and maybe a Chester A. Arthur, or others - I don’t remember any from after the 1800s. 

The two landscapes, I would figure out much later, were The Angelus and The Gleaners, both by the French artist, Jean Millet (pronounced Zhahn Mee-lay.) The Angelus painting at times held my attention as we settled down to class – two peasant farmers in the foreground, a man and wife pausing in mid-field standing straight and motionless, heads bowed, the man clutching his cap in his hands and the woman nearby with her hands folded neatly in prayer to her chest, all beside a wheelbarrow with iron or wooden wheel—not a rubber tire— and the field behind fading away to a distant church steeple on the horizon.  

I imagined the church bell ringing and the couple saying a silent prayer or praying out loud.  Googling Jean Millet online today brings up these and his other paintings easily.

The other landscape, The Gleaners, for me, a second grader with James Bond, Alvin and the Chipmunks and astronaut John Glenn buzzing around inside of my head, was uneventful and seemingly irrelevant but, at the same time, powerful – the imposing forms of three women in heavy peasant clothes and scarves, their faces hidden in shadow,  stooping low to pick up the straw or leftover grain from the ground.  

In the distance, wagons loaded with heaps of wheat and lads fluffing the plentiful harvest with pitchforks contrasted sharply with the back-breaking work of these ladies in the foreground, who may barely get enough grain for one loaf of bread.  The artist had made his point - two worlds so close side by side, yet so woefully far apart.

 The subject of The Gleaners was mentioned in Ironton Mayor Lourwood’s column here recently (Good Advice, The Mountain Echo, March 1, 2017, page A4), quoting from Leviticus 19, “…When you reap…do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest… Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.” 


Kip DeVore is a painter, poet, and sometime columnist who works and lives in The Valley.  He writes long, colorful sentences, so try to keep up.