Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2004

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A Fender Painted Blue

A Fender Painted Blue
Professor of Art
Peter R. Leibert

Professor of Art Peter R. Leibert reflects on how he has centered his life


Al203*2Si02*2H20: the formula for pure clay, or kaolin. Four basic elements come into play here: earth, air, water, and fire, the latter, fire, having the ability to make the material permanent. Ceramics have always fascinated me from the first time as a young kid I read about Heinrich Schlieman and the artifacts he discovered. My involvement with ceramics, professionally, has been primarily in the art world. Ceramics, however, crosses over into many disciplines and is part of our everyday life. It is an important key to understanding history; it has provided us with idols for worship, building materials, highly specialized refractory parts, kitchen and bathroom equipment, radio, engine and rocket components. It is part of the chemistry and physics world. Traditionally, we have written on clay; kaolin on the surface of paper abrades graphite. We use it as a cosmetic and health aid: kaolin — kao and pectin (used in jelly). Good old Kaopectate. If any of you have a dire need for Kaopectate, I can get you a 50 lb. bag of kaolin and a jar of pectin at a great price.

I used to worry a lot about spreading myself too thin: not “making it” in the big professional world in any one area. Probably I could be considered a classic case of A.D.D. I teach, play music, make art, call and play for dances, busk and volunteer. For six years I volunteered in the State’s largest mental hospital (one of the most rewarding things I have ever done). I was a member of the Preston Fire Department and also Ambulance Chief. One of my childhood dreams of driving a fire truck was finally fulfilled. I founded the Westerly Morris Men 28 years ago. We still dance here on campus on May Day at 5:30 a.m. when the sun comes up and we usually end up on President Fainstein’s lawn about 6:15. Please feel free to join us.

When I mentioned my concern about “making it” or “not making it” in the professional world, to an artist friend, Jim Melchert, the former director of visual arts for the National Endowment for the Arts, he simply looked straight at me as we sat by the fire late at night in our keeping room. “Peter,” he said, “what are you talking about? You have made it.” Now that I have been teaching for about 200 years, I think I know what he meant. There is a certain security that comes with aging, knowing that your experiences have contributed to a certain amount of wisdom that may be useful to others, or even a comfort. Couple that with a subject and it can’t get much better.

I feel exceptionally honored to have received the John King Teacher of the Year Award and have been trying to figure out why I have been blessed with the ability to get along with, enjoy, and communicate with students, something that John, whom I knew quite well, was exceptionally good at. Certainly, the discipline of studio art makes this sort of interaction a bit easier than, say, a lecture course in an academic area.
Most truly great teachers just happen, and we probably never will know why. Those of us who happen to bump into them never forget them, nor do we forget the gift they gave us — especially if we teach. I have been very fortunate throughout my life to have had great teachers personally in my family, academically, and within the arts. So I will try to identify some things that I think have made me aware of who students are, but equally important, who I am.


that I wanted to be involved with the arts, a logical conclusion since I had been surrounded by music, dance and song since infancy. I remember little, if anything, of the “nuts and bolts” education classes I have taken while pursuing a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Art Education. Most of what I learned about teaching came from the teachers and artists I had while obtaining my Master of Fine Arts degree.

I read some place that “Eighty percent of what we teach is who we are.” Twenty percent is content; the 80 percent would be the life experiences and connections that shape the person. And, Jane, my loving wife, reminds me from time to time that “People allow you to become who and what you are.” We are all teachers, intentionally or not. By our example we send a message to others. Hopefully the lesson we teach is the value of learning from others, the value of communication and the importance of avoiding jumping to conclusions.

I have certainly made mistakes, jumping to conclusions that I have regretted, and also, at times, found amusing. Peter, our son, arrived home one Christmas from the Kansas City Art Institute. On our way to the airport parking lot, I noticed a slight sparkle just above his lip. It was dark; ah ha, a nose ring. I didn’t say much about it, but when we got home he proudly showed Jane, his mother, his TWO tattoos; one small armband and a huge Celtic design on his stomach. My naïve comment was “couldn’t you have spaced these out over the next few years?” His reply: “I have.” Jane’s comment was, “If you and three of your Morris Men buddies could get a tattoo in Liverpool 18 years ago, there is no reason he shouldn’t get one, two, or three tattoos in Kansas City.” So, that night, Peter, tattoos and all, took me to the El & Gee to hear a punk band he has played with in the past. Ye gods, I have never heard such “descriptive,” obscene language and wondered the whole evening why these folks were still alive and where they had come from. I didn’t have to wait very long. After the show, Peter introduced me to them. They were the sweetest, most respectful, kids I had met in a long time. So much for jumping to conclusions.

We adopted our daughter, Julie, when she was three months old. Julie is black. When I arrived at the hospital for the birth of her second child, Shaniqua, she asked me since I had been the coach for her sister Kristin, and brothers Damon and Peter, would I be her coach for Shaniqua’s birth? As if I had much time to decide! Off we went to the delivery room. I was standing next to Julie, holding her hand and “coaching” when in came Julie’s obstetrician, a very attractive, tall, thin, black woman. “What —— is —— HE —— doing —— here?” she asked (talk about jumping to conclusions). Julie looked straight at her and said, “That’s my dad.” I have never felt prouder in my life.
I have always been somewhat of a risk taker, and so when my son Damon, CC class of 2000, said that he wanted to take my ceramics course, after a great deal of thought I said “Okaaay.” For the first few weeks of class, few if any, knew that Damon was my son. “Professor Leibert, could you show me why this thing keeps collapsing?” We both played a pretty good game even after the class was well aware of our relationship. Damon continued to call me “Professor Leibert,” and I continued to treat him as a student. Damon did well in the course and I became much closer to him as a father, mainly because of the comfort level he afforded me during the class. As a teacher, I will have to say that this was one of the most cherished moments in my career.

At times, we all like to think we are pretty terrific. My wife Jane is amazingly quiet, one of the truly brightest people I have ever met, loving, and understandingly forgiving. One of my faults is that I have a horrible time remembering dates and numbers.

Jane was helping me cut wood in the forest, and we were loading it into the back of my truck when I said to Jane, “Why don’t we go out to dinner tonight?” “Sure, but why?” she asked. Thinking, “Ah ha, I got her!” (she is usually amazing at dates) I said, “Because it is our anniversary.” Looking me straight in the eye she said, “Peter, that was last month.”
I like to think that my decisions come from common sense and understanding that most likely developed a long time ago from my parents — my first teachers. This leads me to “A Fender Painted Blue.” I was probably 8 or 9 and we had just purchased a 1949 gray Plymouth. It sat proudly in our garage, but its color was wrong. It really should be blue, I thought. Well, I started with the back left fender. Light blue, enamel paint. About the time I got up to near the door my father walked in and stopped dead in his tracks. “Peter, what on earth are you doing?” he asked. “Well,” I said, sensing something was definitely wrong, “I thought you and Mom would like blue; gray isn’t really a nice color.” I don’t remember what his words were, but I do remember that, because he allowed me to communicate my thoughts and didn’t jump to conclusions, I was never punished. What could he say, the poor man? His kid was only trying to please him. I think of my parents and my family. I feel fortunate that they have been with me this many years and that they continue to come to class with me. l

Leibert made these remarks at the Honors & Awards ceremony on April 24. He concluded his talk with a concertina performance of Glis der Sherbrooke, also known as “The Big Ship.”


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