The Soulful Art of Teaching – Sitting and Crying with Mark Rothko

Rothko No 3, 1967; courtesy KIng & McGaw
Rothko No 3, 1967; courtesy King & McGaw

By Aryeh Ben David

I don’t know why I love Mark Rothko.

I had a window of time between meetings and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I wandered around the Met for a few hours. The Impressionists, Vermeer, Rembrandt. But I always came back to Rothko.

When people ask me why – I have no answer. It baffles me why I am so enraptured. His paintings have no flowers or faces or landscape. There is no particular content he is trying to convey. Just giant blocks of color. Why should I be so taken?

Rothko wrote: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.

I can sit in front of his giant canvasses for hours. I don’t know if I weep, but in some inexplicable way, his paintings penetrate and evoke my most inner being. Art commentators say that Rothko was always searching for the essence of the essence.

Rothko didn’t give descriptive titles to his paintings, but names that occur to me include: “Mystery,” “Becoming,” “Imagine.” I sense him relentlessly asking “What if?”

His colors are primal, pre-natal, inchoate. Pre-content and pre-form. They are chromosomal and infinite. They are in the process of becoming; they are beseeching us to stir, shape and splash. Rothko wrote that he didn’t want us to look at his paintings, but to enter into their space.

For me, Rothko created a space that invites my deepest and most raw sense of self. He captured the space between and before. He invites and evokes my soul. Somehow, I leave with a deeper sense of serenity and generosity. I feel enlarged. Even hopeful.

Number 5 (Number 22); courtesy King & McGaw
Number 5 (Number 22); courtesy King & McGaw

And certainly more soulful.

The dictionary defines “soulful” as – stirring, deep, meaningful, or moving. As in “soulful eyes, soulful music, soulful art.”

I would have defined “soulful” as, “evoking, evocative.” And I would have added, “as in Soulful Education.”

I think if I were training teachers I would take them to the Met, or any art museum. I would invite them to find the artist or painting that touches and evokes their soul. I would have them dwell in that space, sitting and reflecting. I would want them to experience what it is like to bond with the artist and to be evoked.

We educators need to also become artists. Not only to transmit content but to have our own souls touched and to offer this space to our students.

Rothko wept when he painted. Looking at his canvasses, I feel the passion, hope, and yearning of his tears.

Now, in the summer, it is the time to reflect on how next year’s school year will be different. What would it be like if we educators wept when we created our masterpiece classes?

Aryeh Ben David is the Founder and Director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education.