Honoring Our Teachers
by James Mauch of Lewisburg, PA
All of us are teachers. We can’t help but teach others through our words, actions, and by example. I work with undergraduate, graduate, and returning adult students seeking to become professionally licensed teachers, so I am intimately acquainted with the path one needs to take to become a practicing teacher licensed by the state of Pennsylvania. I spend the majority of my time teaching my students about content, pedagogy, educational technology, effective lesson planning, assessment, regulations, No Child Left Behind legislation, and an increasingly complex myriad of skills and abilities that new teachers are expected to demonstrate in the twenty-first century classroom. I also devote an important, but seemingly ever diminishing, amount of time to discussing with my students the (to me) more important aspects of the profession: a love of subject, a love of teaching, compassion for students, the importance of instilling within our students a love for pursuing knowledge, and the importance of a literate democratic society not afraid to question. Often, our discussions lead us to several related philosophical questions: What makes a great teacher? Do great teachers somehow possess some innate abilities, or can the characteristics of great teaching be learned?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I do, however, believe that one attribute that makes someone a great teacher is his or her ability to help us along our paths to becoming self-reliant and independent. Elementary school teachers (and our parents) help us to learn our letters and numbers, helping us along the path to become independent readers, thinkers, and problem solvers. Middle school and high school teachers help us to learn about science, history, mathematics and other subjects, helping us along the path to become independent learners and just plain independent by giving us the skills we need to secure a job. I also believe that graduation from a four-year institution with a degree in education does not automatically make for a great, or even good, classroom teacher, nor is the converse true – that the only great teachers out there are the ones that never went to school to learn how to become one. I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.
I was introduced to the work of Eric Sloane (Connecticut, 1905-1985) through my grandfather, Alfred Erwin. My grandfather owned several books by Sloane, and thought highly of Sloane’s ability to document the architecture and material culture of the early American. I readily recognized within Eric’s books his reverence for the early American landscape and the spirit, individualism, and “doing for oneself” exhibited by most Americans – the same attributes exhibited by my grandfather, though I would also add kindness, generosity, patience, and love.
Born to a wealthy New York family in 1905, Eric’s real name was Everard Jean Hinrichs. His adolescent years likely appeared carefree to outside observers – private tutors, a brief stint at a Bordentown (New Jersey) military school, and summers at the family place on Lake Hopatcong (New Jersey). Sloane credited two neighbors – illustrator Herman Roundtree and typeface designer Fred Goudy – with inspiring him to begin to consider art as a vocation. Sloane convinced his father to send him first to the Art Student’s League of New York City, then to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, then to Yale to continue the formal study of art. Sloane experienced academic failure at all three institutions, though he did credit his time at the Art Student’s League with inspiring him to change his name to “Eric Sloane.” While a student with the Art Student’s League in the early 1920’s, Eric overheard a conversation between two teachers, George Luks and John Sloan, in which they extolled the virtues of painting under an assumed name until such time that a painter was satisfied with his work, then switching to his given name. The idea was that a successful artist would not be haunted by earlier, and presumably inferior, works of art. Eric later wrote that he intended only to borrow Sloan’s last name (adding an e “just to be different”), but he was known as “Eric Sloane” throughout his career.
Between 1922 and 1925, Eric’s world began to unravel. His mother died in November of 1922, and his father ordered his aunt to leave the house. Arguments between Eric and his father intensified. Older brother George moved out of the house to begin a landscaping business, and sister Dorothy later described the Hinrichs household as taking on an “unstable atmosphere” at the time. In an attempt to bring order to the household, the elder Hinrichs hired and fired a succession of household servants – the last one, however, he thought fit to marry after six months of employment. For Eric’s part, he began to leave the house for longer and longer periods of time, making his way across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as making brief forays into the New England states. By 1925, however, Eric packed his bags and left the Hinrichs home for the last time.
An older Eric Sloane would credit his departure as the event that launched his career and provided him with a life long interest in lettering, illustration, writing, and painting. Essentially, he stole the family’s Model T Ford and started west with no particular destination in mind. He earned money by lettering signs and menus for businesses along the way, and filled page after page of his sketchbook with illustrations of barns, fields, old farm houses, covered bridges, the Amish, clouds – little escaped his attention. He ended up in Taos, New Mexico, sketching scenes of the American Southwest and conducting tours of Taos for tourists. He did eventually return to New York with his first of what would be six wives to assist his ailing father. He was able to reconcile with the elder Hinrichs, only to see him die of a heart attack in 1929. It took two years to settle the Hinrichs estate and, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, Eric Sloane was left with nothing.
The personal and professional life that Eric Sloane built from a beginning that already would make for a fascinating biography is nothing short of remarkable. In his lifetime he would become a successful author, pen and ink illustrator, and professional oil painter. He wrote and illustrated World War II-era flight training manuals, flew with Wiley Post, became one of the first, if not the first, artists to paint clouds (Sloane called them “cloudscapes” – Amelia Earhart bought his first one), created a working model of the atmosphere for the American Museum of Natural History of New York, studied meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, executed a 75’ x 58.5’ mural on the west wall of the Independence Avenue entrance to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and later divided his time between Connecticut and New Mexico, painting the American Southwest in his Connecticut studio and New England in his studio at Taos. In 1969 he donated his extensive early American tool collection to the state of Connecticut, launching the Sloane-Stanley Museum of Kent, Connecticut.
It all sounds so unrelated – airplanes to tools. But Eric explained it all as seamless, meaningful, and above all, purposeful. His love of black and white illustration and fine lettering born from an admiration of Roundtree and Goudy led to an invitation from the Army Air Corps to illustrate flight manuals. His association with aviation led him to begin to draw and paint aircraft to sell to pilots – some illustrations I have seen are quick and rendered in an almost comic style, other paintings I have seen are extremely dramatic portrayals of a lone aircraft flying just above the cloud ceiling at twilight. His association with the early pilots who flew in and out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island led him to befriend Wiley Post, who encouraged him to begin to paint “cloudscapes” – large, dramatic paintings of clouds and storms. When he completed his first one, he feared it would not sell as it not only depicted a scene that so few had experienced, but it also depicted a violent thunderstorm from a pilot’s perspective. Amelia Earhart bought it shortly after it was hung for sale in the Roosevelt Inn.