Oh, no. What did I do?
Art Sherwyn walked around for two days with those words ricocheting around his disbelieving brain.
He had exchanged the comfort of quiet, cool mornings for school bells and multiple daily paint-splatter cleanups. He had abandoned a perfectly satisfactory nonschedule of late breakfasts and unrequired reading for mandatory early-morning showers and some semblance of preparation. At 69, he was going back to Stockdale High School, which had bade him goodbye eight years before. And, now, two days in, he wondered how he’d ever survive this extended subbing gig.
But how could this be? Sherwyn, an art teacher for most of 38 years, wasn’t just a celebrated educator — he was a Disney/McDonald’s American Teacher Award Finalist in 1995 and National High School Art Educator of the Year for the Pacific Region in 1999, to name two of many honors — but a sought-after lecturer (including a 2015 address at Harvard’s Innovation Lab) and teacher mentor as well. And now he was dreading a return to the classroom?
Even 6-foot-4 gurus of self-actualization can be daunted by their own rust.
But then, on day three of his temporary return engagement, Sherwyn remembered the second of two reasons God apparently placed him on this planet: to convey the empowering clarity of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love. And now, thanks to another art teacher’s monthlong convalescence for a broken foot, he had the opportunity to connect again.
“He just has this empathy,” said Linda Hyatt, the friend and colleague with the now-healed broken foot. “He identifies with everyone. He looks at every student as the most important person in the room.”
And it came through.
“When the time came,” Sherwyn said, “it was hard for me to leave. When I left, yeah, it was hard on the kids, too.”
Today, at 70, Sherwyn is drawn more exclusively to his other calling — that of working artist. A different sort of extended disconnection has had the opposite effect, however. Nine years without an exhibition featuring his own work has him motivated and eager — and now, his situation exacerbated by the pandemic, a tad anxious, too.
Few other than Cheryl, his wife of 41 years, have seen his work in the past eight months. Being of mature ages, they’re taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
“I have been playing it very, very safe with my wife,” he said. “I have spent many, many, many of my hours alone.”
There are advantages to that, of course, when you’re composing art, be it with paint, words or guitar strings.
Creativity can thrive in focused isolation, but without a platform to unveil it, something is lost. And performance — social connection — is an aspect of his identity as an artist that Sherwyn embraces. Is it art if no one sees it?
Sherwyn is not alone in asking that question. With exhibitions, concerts, readings and sporting events canceled, postponed or virtualized across the world, art — broadly defined — has suffered. But artists, driven back into their caves, have not stopped creating. When we all emerge, gradually over the coming months, might we expect avalanches of fresh evidence, much of it influenced, if not inspired, by impacts of the pandemic itself?
Sherwyn thinks so. He sees the toll of social restriction in his own work, which is primarily acrylic on canvas.
The community has seen and appreciated Sherwyn’s art. It has just been awhile: Sherwyn had featured shows at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in 2001, 2006 and 2011.
“You think, wow, I haven't had a good show since I retired,” he said. “What happened was that three, four or five years ago, I said it was time for another show. And I don't want just a little gallery show, I want it to be a show.
“I said to myself, well, I haven't created anything that show-worthy yet. And when I came to that conclusion, I went to work.”
And he got his show, landing on BMoA’s 2021 calendar with an exhibition, New Works, set to run from Jan. 28 through May.
But then the pandemic. Sherwyn said BMoA board members are set to meet in November to decide whether Sherwyn’s show, along with two others scheduled to open the same day, will open as scheduled, go virtual, morph to appointment-only, or be postponed. Sherwyn’s vote: postpone — until summer, perhaps, when his show can open the way shows are supposed to open, with lights, commotion and laughter.
Whenever it might be, he’ll have 20 or so pieces — angular architecture a common theme — ready to go.
Sherwyn, raised in Cupertino, grew up a jock, playing primarily football and basketball — but not tennis, the sport he would eventually coach with great success. “Playing tennis at my school would get you beat up,” he said. In basketball he was a big, quick ball-handling guard who could jump — or so he thought until the level of competition stiffened. “Suddenly everybody could jump six inches higher than me,” he said. “I just couldn’t get those last six inches.” Now, tennis was looking better.
He graduated from San Jose State and, eager to re-invent himself away from the Bay Area, took a job at McFarland High School in 1973. But it was at a later stop, at Wasco High, from 1985 to 2001, that the regional and national recognition started to come in.
He remembers lecturing at a regional education convention, mystified as to why he’d even been asked in the first place, and then, that night, getting a call in his hotel room from the convention director.
“He says, ‘We need to talk to you,’ and I go, ‘Oh ... what did I do?’ And I'm really concerned. He says, ‘Can we get you to speak next year at the convention in San Jose?’ And I remember being amazed.”
It’s like a recurring theme in Sherwyn’s life: “Oh no. What did I do?” Something good, invariably.
Sherwyn coached high school tennis for years, at one point winning three straight CIF Central Section girls titles at Stockdale, where he taught from 2001 to 2012.
He brought a Zen-like approach to his role as coach, placing as much value on compassion as on footwork.
“The greatest leaders take no victims and the greatest victories have no losers,” he said he would tell his players. “We sat down and we discussed it: ‘You're going to send 32 teams home this year as losers. How do you make them feel like winners?’ And so we created ways to make sure that our opponents always left feeling good. When we won those valley championships, all three years, I refused to let them celebrate in front of our opponents. We went straight over, we shook their hands. We showed compassion. We'll celebrate later.”
Sherwyn’s coaching focus is substantially narrower these days. Other than trips to Cambria or the mountains, where he sits, draws and paints, he will leave his self-imposed quarantine only to visit the Bakersfield Racquet Club and Nathan Kwon, a 19-year-old tennis phenom with college tennis aspirations.
“I started him when he was 7 but then pulled away,” Sherwyn said. “He developed and then somehow returned to me.”
Their sessions, as one might imagine, are as much mind as body, as much Zen as backspin.
Like Art Sherwyn’s art classes. Like Art Sherwyn.