Head of the Class
Eyewitness: Frank Gonzales
The three rules that Frank Gonzales sets for kids in his art classes can be profitably applied throughout life: 1. Respect yourself and others; 2. Finish what you start; 3. Clean up when you’re done.
Gonzales, 85, has passed that wisdom along to thousands of students during his career as an artist and teacher in California, Mexico and Vermont. A couple of his works, constructed in collaboration with children at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, were on (partial) display in last Saturday’s soggy Quadricentennial parade. A 10-foot-tall effigy of John Dewey marched behind a figure of Sam Champlain seated on a bike, both of them wearing plastic raincoats to protect their stuffings from the downpour.
Gonzales became an avid Dewey acolyte as a third-grade pupil in Pasadena. Having done poorly in traditionally structured classes, the artistically inclined boy was assigned for three and a half years to a program inspired by the progressive educational philosophy that Dewey propounded throughout the first half of the 20th century. Gonzales learned to make kites and sophisticated paper airplanes in an aeronautics class that, in keeping with Dewey’s teachings, cultivated each child’s creativity.
“It was exciting and fun,” Gonzales remembers. “It had a huge impact on me.” There’s a certain symmetry in his decision, many years later, to settle in Burlington, where Dewey was born on October 20, 1859.
One doesn’t get far in a conversation with the high-spirited Gonzales before Dewey’s name comes up. Gonzales wants to make sure his interlocutor understands the philosopher’s significance because, in his view, Dewey remains underappreciated in his hometown. Gonzales has sought for years to focus greater local attention on his hero, proposing, for example, that Waterfront Park be renamed for Dewey. City officials didn’t go along with that effort to honor the University of Vermont’s most distinguished graduate, but they did agree, in 1996, to proclaim each ensuing October 20 “John Dewey Day.”
Gonzales celebrates every year on the Saturday nearest the date by organizing a parade along Church Street. It’s led by the giant Dewey sculpture, made of papier-mâché and strips of newspapers, that usually presides over the Fletcher Free’s children’s section. Kids wear masks and carry puppets they’ve designed earlier in the day with Gonzales’ guidance.
“We’re lucky to have him working here,” says children’s librarian Rebecca Goldberg. “Families just love how Frank works with kids.”
Though he’s taking the next two weeks off, Gonzales will be at the Fletcher every Tuesday afternoon in August leading free creativity classes for kids of all ages. He just concluded a weeklong stint as the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center’s first-ever artist-in-residence.
“Frank’s a very gifted teacher,” says Jeanne Plo, a mental health counselor who’s known him as “a mentor and a friend” for more than 30 years. “He respects children and their choices. He encourages their creative ideas, and as he works with them he tells stories that stimulate their imaginations.”
Plo, herself a former art teacher, met Gonzales at a series of workshops for educators that he led at Shelburne Farms in 1976. “It was a wonderful experience,” she recalls. “I had never met anyone quite that talented.” Many of the other art teachers had similar impressions, leading one to sigh at the close of that 10-day session, “Well, I guess we’ve got to go back to the real world now.” Plo remembers interjecting that Gonzales had just demonstrated that “being creative and in touch with your spirit is the real world.”
Growing up in Pasadena as the son of a Mexican father and an American mother, Gonzales was an enthralled spectator at the Parade of Roses every New Year’s Day. “I loved seeing the floats,” he says. “They made a big impression.”
So much so that he entered a float-design contest some years later at Muir College in Pasadena and won first prize for a princess’ flowery throne. But just designing the float wasn’t sufficient; Gonzales took part in its actual construction, acquiring the skills he put to use again last week at the Fletcher. For the Quad parade, he and his friend Ron Manganiello, founder of Bike Recycle on North Winooski Avenue, built an elaborate casing for the pedal-pushing version of Sam Champlain.
Following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Gonzales taught and made art for a few years in Southern California before leaving for Mexico. “I was tired of the whole Cold War thing and McCarthyism,” he explains. Gonzales also remarks on his paternal connection to Mexico, noting that his father once worked as a personal secretary to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
During the decade or so when he lived intermittently in Mexico City, Gonzales worked with the great muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who, he says, “had an amazing sense of how to use colors.” Gonzales also showed his own work at galleries in Mexico City, New York and Chicago during the ’50s and ’60s. That came to an abrupt end after he learned that the Chicago gallery was renting out some of his paintings and giving him none of the proceeds.
“I pulled all my stuff out of those places after that,” Gonzales recounts. “I came to see that they were all about making money and not at all about making art.”
As an expression of his rejection of art-world consumerism, Gonzales generally uses simple, recyclable materials for his own creations. At ECHO, for example, he has helped kids make puppets out of paper bags and fashion masks from manila folders. Earlier in his life, newsprint was the medium for a symbolic construction of which Gonzales is especially proud. Working in the early ’70s with troubled high school students in San Rafael, California, Gonzales helped them build a bridge out of newspapers, across which they walked on graduation day to receive their diplomas.
Not long afterward, he drove east on a vacation that brought him, serendipitously, to Vermont. “Love at first sight,” Gonzales remembers. He got a job teaching art at Bradford Elementary School and hasn’t lived outside Vermont since, although he does travel regularly to Ecuador, where one of his three children lives.
En route to an ECHO classroom for a Quad-themed mask-making session, Gonzales appears to be gliding up stairs and across floors. Slender beneath his sweatshirt, he has a feline quality that’s accentuated by the furry white fringe around his brown face. He may have the wrinkles of an octogenarian, but his graceful movements are those of a man decades younger.
Kids pick up on and play off Gonzales’ zest. Adults, too, regard him as an unusually kind and vibrant soul. “He’s one of a handful of the sweetest people I’ve met on this planet,” Manganiello says. Plo adds: “Frank’s a man who has a dream — that we restore ourselves to health and balance and a democratic way of living by being true to our creative pursuits.”