Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Frida Moment

One of the main reasons I went to Mexico City was to make a pilgrimage to La Casa Azul in Coyoacán. I used to just admire Frida Kahlo's paintings, but the more I learned about her life, the more fascinated I became with her paintings, which are such stunning reflections of her soul and her feelings.

This week I've been taking the opportunity to tell my students about Frida. I've done this before – once on Halloween, when I dressed up as Frida Kahlo, unibrow and all – but this time I was speaking from the experience of having been in her house only the week before. (And I have to say that was a very powerful experience.)

I teach K-5, and the book I have – Frida, The Artist Who Painted Herself – is aimed at a fairly young audience. So I almost didn't read it to my 5th graders today; I thought they might find it too babyish, and I really wanted to get back to our regular lessons after such a long break. But I went ahead anyway, because she's such a great persona and a great story.

About three pages into the book, I started to read about how Frida had polio when she was six and had to stay in bed for a year. She was teased at school and called "Frida pata de palo," "peg leg." All of a sudden I remembered that one of the girls in the class has a condition that requires her to wear a brace, which makes her feel very different from the other kids. I looked over at her, and her eyes were huge. I couldn't tell if she was happy or upset; maybe this was too close to home, or perhaps embarrassing for her? As I read further, about Frida's bus accident and the fact that she had 32 operations, was in constant pain, and wore a brace or a cast for most of her life, I looked over again. Her face was flushed, but she was smiling. I have never seen her so excited or animated.

I left the text for a bit to describe how Frida would paint her casts with flowers and birds, in bright colors. One of these casts is still in Frida's house, sitting on her bed. One girl in the class asked if that wasn't "disgusting." I said no, I thought it was beautiful, and it was incredible how Frida turned her pain into something beautiful.

As soon as class was over, the girl who wears a brace came right up to me and said, "You know what's cool? She wore a brace, and I wear a brace! Look!" And she pulled her shirt up a bit to show me her brace.

I said, "Maybe you could decorate your brace the way Frida did, with paint or maybe with permanent markers. Ask your mom. Tell her you learned about Frida, and what Frida did with her casts."

She said, "I could draw pictures of all my friends!.... Oh, I know! I'll draw a picture of Frida!"

I'll be interested to know if she does decorate her brace. I hope she does. Either way, I know that of all the children I read that book to this week, she was the most inspired. I could see it in her face.

But Frida's stories touched so many other kids as well. Several students volunteered that they had family members affected with polio, including the mom of one student – she walks with difficulty, with a cane. Others related to how Frida had been teased at school for being different. And so many students had comments about why Frida would have painted things the way she did. Here are some of their comments:

"Maybe she painted herself uglier than she really was because she didn't think she was pretty."

"Maybe she painted Diego on her forehead because she was thinking about him or she missed him."

"Maybe she never smiled in her paintings because she was so sad about things that had happened in her life."

Frida continues to inspire, not just because her paintings are beautiful and mesmerizing and vibrant and at times shocking, but because we all can relate to the pain she felt, both physical and emotional, that leaps out at us from the canvas. And maybe we all can learn to turn that pain into something beautiful that will inspire others as well.

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