Chester Martin Remembers Stephen A. Harding, Art Teacher And Play Director

Thursday, July 14, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Stephen A. Harding
Stephen A. Harding

Stephen Harding was an Art teacher par excellence! He taught in our city school system from approximately 1946 until about 1971 and was gifted in fields beside the teaching of Art. He was hired to teach at Kirkman Vocational High School, and that is where he remained for his entire teaching career in the U.S.

Steve was a native of New York City - Manhattan - having grown up somewhere in the mid-town section, and attended classes held at the well-known (and still in existence) Art Students League. There he had classes under the influential anatomist and figure-artist, George Bridgman, whose books were standard textbooks for many generations of American art students.

It was Kirkman Vocational High School's Principal, Frank Huffaker, who "discovered" Harding and asked him to come teach at Kirkman.

Steve was hired during the first interview, inheriting a classroom I have described in another article, which was laid out by Sherman Paul, an established commercial artist and teacher of good reputation in the city. He (Harding) shared his expertise with his students and made us aware of new things in the world which broadened our horizons.

Mr. Harding tried to ensure that all his students saw every art show in town, so as to be aware of what was considered "best", or from which we could draw our own conclusions as to what was best. Hunter Museum did not yet exist, and neither did Television. Our best examples of painting and sculpture were in black and white textbooks, so any art “live” exhibition was welcome. Lovemans Department Store sponsored the local entries for the yearly national "Scholastic Art Awards", and all these entries would be shown at Lovemans. One small anecdote about one of these shows: a boy from our Art department who did not seem too "savvy" about what he was doing, struggled on an entry where he created a fabric design by drawing around half-dollars, quarters, nickels, etc., and then connecting them with curved shapes. He laboriously colored several repetitions of the same pattern and submitted it to the Scholastic Art Awards competition. Everyone snickered at the not-very-creative idea of drawing around coins, but he won a very nice (monetary) prize in the National show and his work was purchased!

Steve was a pipe-smoker, and smoked - at lunch - in the classroom with windows open and hall door locked. Those few of us permitted to remain in the room did not mind as he used only the finest tobaccos that had a really great aromatic fragrance. He had a fine collection of "old briar" pipes at his Highland Park home, and once, during a play rehearsal at his house, one of his most prized pipes disappeared. He was very upset when he discovered it missing - said it had been his long-deceased father's favorite pipe, hand carved and ornately decorated with ivory to resemble a fanciful animal - and Steve made a very emotional plea for its return. A few days later when he went home it was at his doorstep. That minor episode set very well for all of us who knew about it, and business proceeded as though nothing had happened. No suspicions were ever voiced, and not one word of discussion was uttered.

We were always being encouraged to view the University of Chattanooga's annual Senior exhibitions, held downstairs from the UC library on McCallie Avenue. I have explained in another article how much we enjoyed these. ("UC" means "University of Chattanooga", by the way - its name before becoming part of the University of Tennessee system).

Steve had also learned about directing plays while at home in NYC, and worked with two or three groups of players over the four years I knew him. One of these was a small group of truly excellent black performers. (I got to see at least one of their productions). I have described his work with the Frye Players Guild at Frye Institute on Cherry Street - how although the plays were free, they were ticketed: grabbed up very fast by a devoted public who could not bear to miss one of his great plays. The plays were repeated several nights in a row or on weekends. Steve knew some "key" people in town through these theatrical interests and they would come to visit him in our department at school, never failing to inspire us. One of our visitors was a very memorable Chattanooga businessman (by day) and actor (by night), the highly popular E.A. (Andy) Andrews. Andrews was from somewhere up north, but had made Chattanooga his permanent home. He owned a printing business in town which he advertised by frequently printing ink blotters with a message on one side from “The Raider”. (He called himself “The Raider” in honor of the Andrews’ Raiders, of Civil War fame, who are buried in National Cemetery, and were the very first individuals to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor). Andy Andrews was aging at the time we knew him and therefore well suited to playing roles such as the Biblical “Noah. He did this for the Frye Institute plays that Steve Harding directed, and also for the Little Theater plays, directed by Mrs. Esther Dressler. Steve also credited himself with introducing "Theater-in-the-Round" to Chattanooga - where no actual stage is required and few "props".

Today it is frowned upon for teachers to get too "close" to students, but in my day there were probably more instances of teacher’s pet” relationships than today - wholesome in every way. Steve was one of those altruistic spirits who would take money from his own pocket, or open his house to any (male) student who was in real need. He sheltered more than one boy who lacked a secure home life. One of Steve's greatest student friends later named his first-born son in his honor. Nine years after I graduated (I recently found out) that there had been a female student in Steve’s class who lacked a prom date. Steve Harding personally volunteered to take her so the poor girl could be escorted properly to that significant event! It was a success!

Mr. Harding could be perplexing as well: he was frequently embroiled in a minor war with other faculty members - especially one Bible teacher - or with the city school administration. He called faculty meetings, "difficulty" meetings, but I suppose that might be rather normal. His classroom voice did not carry well, but he was very critical of how we, his Southern students, spoke, "swallowing" our words, he said, and had problems with both our diction and pronunciation. I wondered if he had ever heard the strange accents of Brooklyn or Queens, where "Yizzle like goin' ta LaGuadier Airport" served for "you will like going to LaGuardia Airport."

On the "good" side, he taught us a lot, and talked on occasion about his young days in New York City - how he remembered when horse-drawn milk delivery carts criss-crossed Manhattan in the dark of morning, etc. Then, once, his aging mother came to visit him - and us. She was a slightly built, very lively lady, quick to smile, and laugh with us. She went with us to Lula Lake for one long afternoon of picnicking and sketching, and was the life of the party. Steve set up to do an oil painting of the falls, but was disappointed with the results and spent the trip back to school trying to wipe the canvas clean.

Following his retirement from the school system, Steve went to Japan where he spent the rest of his days. He had long admired the Japanese for their switch to Pacifism after WW 2. He returned to Chattanooga at least once or twice for a visit and told me how he had found instantaneous employment in Tokyo as an English teacher. He loved the Japanese people and seemed to have finally found his ideal home - at long last.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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