Lynn Thomsen (visual arts teacher): I’ve changed my mind about the project I want to do this year.
Me (program director): Okay, no problem. What do you need?
Lynn: 40,000 push pins.
Me: 40,000 push pins? Uh, sure.
The program is the Prelude Academy, a week-long summer arts workshop for gifted high school writers, dancers, vocalists, musicians, and visual artists who participated in the Indianapolis Children’s Museum Prelude Awards during the school year.
Monday. A dozen or so visual arts students gather in a makeshift studio at the Children’s Museum. They are eager, a little full of themselves, ready to show off their talents. There’s an overhead projector in the room, three big sheets of foam core (approximately 7’x8” each), drawing materials, dozens of art books stacked on a table, many open to colorful prints…and a bunch of cardboard boxes. Lynn opens the flaps of one, tips it forward so the kids can see the contents. Lynn says, “We’ve got 40,000 push pins here—red, blue, green, yellow, and white. What should we paint with them?”
Mutiny ensues. “Push pins! Are you kidding? This is like kindergarten!” one kid says.
“We want to paint,” another says. “With paint,” says a third.
“You already know how to do that,” Lynn says.
Grudgingly, muttering, they leaf through books looking for a work of art to replicate with the push pins. Using the overhead projector, Lynn casts the image of each one on the white wall for their consideration.
By noon they’re all in agreement on one thing: they’re not doing anything abstract. No way. Too easy. By mid-afternoon they decide it’s Botticelli’s “Venus on a Half Shell” they want to make.
Writing this, I have the impulse to call Lynn and ask, “Was it Monday afternoon that they decided to put her on a push pin instead of on the half shell, or did that idea come later, in process? Deciding to do that was the moment they totally bought into the project, though… wasn’t it?
But I can’t call Lynn. She died in January. She had a cold, it didn’t get better, and in what doctors could only describe as a perfect storm of genetic disaster, her organs began to shut down and in less than two weeks she was gone. I still can’t get my head around this. I don't think I ever will.
But the push pins.
Lynn cast the image of Venus on the foam core and the kids sketched her form onto it. They divided up in teams—head, torso, legs (and push pin)—and set to work. The rest of the week looked like this:
Kids bent over the foam core they’d placed on big cafeteria tables. Push pins everywhere, blown up prints of Botticelli’s "Venus" on every surface, sketches of her various body parts. Lynn roaming arpimd, assessing progress, gathering the group to give brilliant, impromptu lectures on, say, color theory or proportion or capturing the exact curve of Venus’s breast.
Sometimes they all stood on chairs to get a different perspective of their work, or taped the three sections together and propped the 8'x20' piece against the wall to see the full effect. There was music, there was singing—even a little dancing, to the rhythm of putting the push pins in their right places. And laughter. Lots and lots of laughter. They also argued sometimes. Panicked: how could they possibly get her finished in a week? They nursed sore, blistered fingers. The clutter of drawings, CD’s, books, art supplies, snacks, coke cans, bottled water, and various totems grew around them in mythic proportion.
They put Venus together and hoisted her on stage to be the backdrop for that evening's performance—amazed at what they’d accomplished. And there was Lynn, helping them, smiling. She’d known from the start the push pin project would be wonderful, though she hadn’t known at all what it would turn out to be. I’ve never known another person whose vision allowed her to remain completely open to possibility in her own work and the work she did with students.
“You were made to set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment,” the writer Annie Dillard said. She might have been writing it about my friend. Lynn was astonished by everything, and spent her whole life spinning her astonishment into marvelous forms, imprinting herself on the world around her. Art and life were the same thing to her.
Lynn’s astonishment at being alive shimmers in her paintings: luminous plowed fields, trees mirrored in summer-calm lakes—the light in them as real as the light pouring in through the huge windows in her loft studio.
You can see the fruits of it in the lives of hundreds of students whom she loved and taught, and who adored her, instinctively understanding that she was not only teaching art, but teaching them how to live. Her countless friends knew it when, again and again, she directed our attention to some small thing that made the world crack open in a way we’d never have imagined and, in doing so, lightened our heavy hearts. Lynn’s time in the world she loved was far too short. But the light she made wherever she went will live among us always.
When remember again (and again and again) that she is gone—and get that awful swirly black feeling inside: how can this be?—I make myself think of her in that makeshift classroom, working among those high school artists, completely engaged in their work together, “Venus on a Push Pin” coming to life beneath their blistered fingers.
Still, I miss her so much.