Updated: Feb 2, 2021
When I started my job as a member of the cruise staff team I honestly had no idea what to expect. My job description was "entertainment." Vague enough? I thought back to cruises I had been on as a guest. Game shows, Bingo, trivia, dance classes, these were all things I more or less was familiar with. I had no idea that two weeks after signing on I would be standing in front of a class of eager guests on a sea day morning (think of a sea day like a Monday after a holiday weekend) with a brush in hand teaching them how to paint a landscape, a still life, or a funky guitar. I had barely even picked up a brush before! It turns out that when you let go and let yourself have fun, anyone can be an artist. Here's what it's like teaching when you yourself feel like a student!
I first became familiar with our painting classes when I was working embarkation day, manning the tale where guests sign up. I thought, "how fun is this? I wonder who gets to be the teacher!" And the next day I had Canvas Set Up and Training listed on my schedule. Me and another cruise staff arrived in our game-room-turned-art-studio first thing in the morning to lay out the brushes, easels, and paper plates which would be their artists palettes. I was squirting blue and yellow onto these while asking questions about how I would teach guests to recreate something I had never done before. Excited about learning, but nervous about instructing! My friend told me to just relax and I would see that it's no big deal. Very easy, and a lot of fun, she promised.
The guests began arriving an hour later and we checked them in. Some had decided to do their own wine-and-paint day with mimosas in hand. Others were young boys kicking their feet nervously as they held their mom's hand and waited for the class to start. I was right along with them, in my uniform and name tag, and hoped I would make something that looked halfway decent so that I could switch roles with my teacher next cruise. I had absolutely nothing to worry about. My colleague was an excellent teacher and made the class fun and informative. I had worked in education before, formally and informally, but I was taking notes the whole time so that I would be able to emulate her carefree and helpful style.
The next cruise we had a department training on all the paintings so that we would all be up to speed. It makes scheduling much easier when everyone can do everything. We all sacrificed a precious port day to set up shop in one of the conference rooms (did you know that ships have conference rooms??) and let the Bermuda light shining in the window inspire us to create! Our cruise director was amazing, he brought us coffee, the good kind, from the LavAzza bar and huge chocolate boxes from the gift shop. It was a little bit overwhelming to have so many paintings to memorize by the end of the week, and we only had two days with our instructor onboard to learn! The good thing was that I had a very experienced team to help me out, that day and going forward. The sun set and our nightly game shows were starting soon, so I put on my formal gown and hopped onstage, not realizing until after I had finished that I still had a prominent swipe of green paint decorating my forearm.
I have always been a very Type-A color between the lines kind of person, but I had to learn to let go and let myself swipe my brush across the canvas without worrying about what the end product would look like. I started every class by reminding my students that their painting would not look like mine, nor like the example, nor like their neighbors. Theirs was going to be entirely unique and that is a good thing! Entire families would ask me on embarkation day if it was worth it for all of them to sign up for the same class, since they didn't want to bring home four of the same picture. I promised they wouldn't have four of the same at all, but rather the chance to make a really cool collage with four different interpretations of the same class. I met a man in Canada who signed up to paint the guitar on every cruise that he took, and would do something different each time. He would sign it with the year and the ship's name, or the voyage destination, and add it to his home gallery. What a beautiful idea.
My first class, teaching the guitar, is pictured above. You can see the variation in all of our canvases. I love the idea of all of these hanging in different households throughout the country, a memory hanging on the wall, and art with a good story behind it. Every class brought something different. I had people who would follow every word that I said, hoping to make a carbon copy of what was hanging up as an example. I totally sympathized, since I had been in their shoes not too long ago, but I tried to encourage everyone to lighten up and let the brush guide you. I had people who would disregard half of what I said and paint their sunflowers purple and their sky green, or add features like a lake into our mountain view pieces. I was so inspired every week by their creativity and their willingness to fail. I could tell from the beginning who would be who. When I asked them to pick up their brushes, the rigid folks would hold it by the very tip, up by the bristles, to force every stroke where they wanted it to be. The more carefree students would let it sit in their hand like a cigarette, floating and waiting for instruction.
We couldn't have had a more beautiful place to experiment. The panoramic windows of our card room showed the ocean below us, rushing past as we glided along its surface in search of warmer weather and pinker sand. Without fail, the captain would come on a few minutes into every class to make general announcements over the PA system. He would tell us our course, the weather, and the depth of the water. I would think, "I'm a mile above the bottom of the sea and I'm painting a sunflower." In the few weeks that we had a young, dashing captain onboard, I would take this opportunity to disclose my crush to the class, and they would wink at me later that night as I assisted the photographers with the captain's portraits, with the man himself standing just a foot away from me. I was always excited to see canvas on my schedule and know that I got to begin my week in an intimate setting, turning strangers into friends, and creating beautiful art in the process, with a view of my home skipping across the water. I never got tired of that.
A good friend of mine would use these classes as her therapy sessions. Most of our students were older ladies, or groups of daughters, mothers, and aunts, and she was so quick to bond with all of them. From being homesick, to being lovesick, she would share with these ladies and they would share their stories with her. Without a doubt she would have a comment card at the end of the cruise saying she was, "lovely, kind, entertaining, and deserves much better from that boy!" It was true, all of it!
Canvas classes were what welcomed me to ship life, and how I said goodbye. My very last day onboard, right after I found out that they were sending a few of us home before the airports closed, we sat in a conference room. On a different ship, with a different team, in different waters, and painted together. I still have that first guitar, and that last sunflower, sitting in my parents house in Florida. Tangible reminders of wonderful memories, connections made, and oceans crossed. To pass the time until I'm covered in paint and cleaning brushes again, I watch the Bob Ross channel and write down remarks that seem helpful, things that would help my future students let the sea set their creative side free. There are no wrong brush strokes, only new possibilities created with each movement.