Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

The Reality Party

s-p-painting-2Self-Portrait, oil/canvas, 12×9″

Reality is a slippery thing.  Every time I paint a portrait I discover that my mood and the mood of the sitter creeps into the paint. The expression of a painting can completely change if a slight twist of the lips or a squint in the eye is added.  How do I catch the reality of a person if they keep metamorphosing right in front of me?  Objects in still lives are easier to pin down, but if I look at them long enough I discover hidden shades and colors that I hadn’t noticed before, and my perception of the whole is changed.  Landscape subjects flicker and move continuously with every stray breeze or the passing of a cloud.  What then is real about a street or a tree?  Nothing is still and unchanging if I’m really paying attention.

Is it worthwhile to keep looking for reality?  I think so.  Reality is a process of discovery, of finding new things in what appears to be obvious and familiar.  It cannot be circumscribed or pinned down, but its open-ended nature makes life that much richer and mysterious.  Art critics have long ago declared that realistic art is dead, and those who persist in this tradition are morticians applying cosmetics to a corpse that should have been buried long ago.  But of course the naysayers are not practitioners in capturing reality and have no idea that it is an ever expanding field.

DSC_1215                         Bust, charcoal, 17×14″

I’ve been following the news about the Democratic Party and their search for a new message that will revitalize political fortunes for its brethren.  I’ve also been thinking about the Republican drift into fantasy and anger driven polemics.  The GOP has based its political fortune on stoking the fury of its adherents by offering them false narratives.  Scapegoating, denying science, flag waving in the service of suppressing dissent, and ignoring the facts of recent history are some of the tools they’ve employed to seize power.

If the Democrats truly want to distinguish themselves and to set an original agenda they could identify themselves as the Reality Party.  Search out the real, proclaim it, and offer concrete solutions in response.  Never try to recreate a world that has long past, but respond to problems as they arrive with a clear eyed resolve to do the best for the most people.  Never promise a one size fits all solution to any one dilemma facing our country, but attack any difficulty with all the tools at hand.  If there are no tools, then figure out how to make them.

Wouldn’t it be great if politics graduated from its current practice of engaging in ceaseless dogfights for cash, influence and power?  What if Lincoln’s vision of a government that is “by the people and for the people” came to fruition and our elected officials focused on doing practical things for the benefit of all?  I’d vote for any candidate that fit that bill regardless of party affiliation.

I sometimes tell my Drawing I students that I’m teaching them to search for What Is.  They often prefer to hold onto What They Think Is There.  They struggle with the basics of perspective because they refuse to draw what they see and hold tight to drawing what they thing ought to be there.  Some get upset when they discover that their assumptions about reality are wrong or do not predict all possibilities.  But if they stick with the process they discover that What Is is a wonderful field of open inquiry, of ever expanding horizons. And isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” most likely to succeed when it’s based on such a search for reality?

dsc_0112     Bougainvillea Looking West, oil/canvas, 20×24″

Get the Hell Out of Delaware: Part II (Pecked by Blue Hens)

I toured the University of Delaware before applying to grad school, and had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I visited classrooms and looked at bulletin boards and hallway exhibitions of student work.  There wasn’t any tangible reason to feel uncomfortable with the surroundings.  I had a premonition of coming misfortunes.

Judy and I were invited before my first semester started to a Welcome-to-UD party for fine art grad students.  The host was a sculptor in his second year.  He was warm and friendly, but nearly everyone else there was antisocial and somewhat hostile.  Judy and I got some food and sat at a picnic table in the back yard of a two story, wood frame house.  I introduced myself to a few people, but they seemed unwilling to speak to me and Judy.  After a half hour of being ignored I leaned over to Judy and said, “I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with these people.”  We got up and left.

I was one of the few artists working realistically and had no allies among the grad students in painting and printmaking.  The group critiques could get harsh and personal.  If a professor or a fellow student ran out of negative things to say about the artwork, they would turn their focus on an individual’s personal weaknesses and engage in amateur psychoanalysis.  I found it particularly unsettling when it was acknowledged that I had successfully achieved a particular effect in my work, and was subsequently criticized for choosing that effect.

Certain students were singled out for more abuse than others, and I found out years later that the school had a reputation.  The professors tended to pick out one male student in each year’s class and would focus their hostility on him.  It had become something of a tradition, and I was the one chosen in my group.

One professor tried to run me out of the program.  He had been away on sabbatical my first year, and when he returned he based his opinion of me strictly on hearsay from the other professors.  I had learned by that time to shut up and refuse to defend myself during critiques (If you argued they made you pay all the more.), but he still treated me with animosity.  I finally asked him why he arranged field trips during times when I had to teach classes, and why he failed to tell me when guest speakers were coming to campus, and he told me that I had a bad attitude and no one wanted me around.  I said, “When have I ever argued with you?  When did I cause any trouble?”  And he answered, “I could tell what you were thinking.”

I had hoped when I started school to find a community of like minded people who would be willing to share ideas and support each other.  By the end of my first year I realized that the grad students had formed cliques and that I was mostly left out in the cold.  My one friend was a painter named George who was a year ahead of me.  He was the scapegoat of that class, but didn’t seem to be bothered all that much by the disrespect and abuse.  The department chair, who was sloppy drunk at the time, openly mocked George in front of a group of grad and undergrad students during a year end, final critique.  Another professor came up to a large mural that George had painted and used his fingers to isolate four square inches of canvas.  He told George that those four square inches were the only part of the painting that actually worked.  George was fully aware that he was being screwed in front of a crowd, but gutted it out.  He escaped with his degree, but I doubt if one of the professors wrote him a good reference or gave him a lead in finding a gallery.

I too escaped with an M.F.A.  I managed to put together a strong body of work in my last semester, found a way to defend and explain my work without offending the powers above me, and happily put up my still life paintings at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts for my graduation show.

I still hoped to find a friendly connection with my fellow graduate students during the last few weeks of school and was pleased when three of them invited me out to dinner.  We sat and talked through a meal at Jimmy’s Diner, and everything seemed all right.  But when we walked out of the restaurant they surrounded me and told me that they were going to beat me up.  I had no idea what they were angry about–they didn’t say;  I replied that they could give it their best shot, but warned them that I would do my best to hurt them if they attacked me.  They figured out that I meant business and backed off.  My personal motto after that incident became:  Get the Hell Out of Delaware.

Years later I returned to U.D for a visit.  The campus was mostly deserted and I had a gallery in Recitation Hall all to myself.  I wandered around and looked at the framed photographs.  A woman came in and asked me if I was ready to lock up.  I recognized her.  I had a studio on the second floor in this same building in my second year, and she was a professor of weaving and worked across the hall from me.  She had since become the department chair, and apparently had called security to lock up the building.  She didn’t recognize me, of course, but somehow assumed that I was a guard even though I wasn’t wearing a uniform.  I identified myself and told her that we used to have friendly chats in the hall, but she bum rushed me out of the gallery and building.

This disregard for an alumnus wasn’t all that significant, but I recognized the treatment as something that had happened to me before.  One day during my second semester at U.D. I was standing outside my studio watching a fellow grad student give a drawing class.  I was looking for ideas for my own lessons.  A professor, who I had met at a couple parties and social gatherings, mistook me for a maintenance man.  He walked up to me and told me to fix the air conditioning unit.  I ignored him at first, but he tugged on my shirt sleeve and demanded that I do something.  I let him know that I was a grad student and that we had met.  He didn’t apologize or acknowledge his error, but turned on his heel and continued his search for the missing fix-it man.

As I left campus after being expelled from Recitation Hall, I connected the two moments of being mistaken for a guard and a workman, and decided that I had been sent a message.  I clearly wasn’t ever going to be recognized, wanted or appreciated by my alma mater, and there was no point in ever visiting or communicating with anyone associated with the institution ever again.

I have never returned to the campus since and plan to stay the hell out of Delaware until my dying day.