Mating Manatees

Ken is a retired attorney who lives near the Osteen Bridge that crosses over the St. Johns River.  His back yard opens up on a backwater slough, and he sees gators, migrating birds, hawks, eagles and osprey.  He knows where the fish hide along the banks, and he can tell you exactly how high the water rose over the retention wall at the edge of his property after Hurricane Irma.

I teach drawing lessons to Ken.  He’s 87 but still eager to learn new things and pick up refinements in his technique.  He mostly does pencil drawings of wildlife and flowers, and gives them away as gifts.  I enjoy working with him and listening to his stories about working as an attorney for the city of Casselberry.

This Friday I happened to glance in a mirror that reflected the river behind us.  I saw gray shapes rounding up out of the waves.  Dolphins?  Ken told me that they probably were, but his wife, Mary, interrupted us a few minutes later and said, “Ken!  There’s these gray and black things rolling around in the water.  What are they?”

Ken looked out the window and said, “Manatees!”

He and I went out and studied the river. Ken told me that submerged manatees floated beneath the flat spots on the water where the waves rippled less.  Suddenly we saw a nose and a couple of flippers, a back and a flat tail.  Ken said, “That’s two of them together.  They’re mating.  This is a once in a life time moment.”

The manatees, five or six of them, roiled the waters for about fifteen minutes.  During a lull we saw a gator swimming away from the bank twenty yards upriver from us.  Ken knew him by name (Bottlenose) and told me that you could tell the length of an alligator by measuring from the end of the nose to the eyes.  A ten inch gap meant that the gator was ten feet long.  Ken said, “And it’s always true, even to within a sixteenth of an inch.”

We went back inside and finished the lesson.  Ken gave me an eagle feather with a split near the quill.  He said, “The eagle uses this kind of feather to brake his air speed.  I got this one after I saw two birds fighting over a fish.  It just floated down.  It’s perfect, not torn up at all.  I thought your wife might like it.”  Ken knows that my wife loves nature, and gave me a flower drawing for her to keep the month before.

I drove home through rush hour traffic, and the farther I got from Ken’s refuge, the uglier the world became.  Cars, truck and buses snarled together in nasty clumps as we passed through construction zones.  Aggressive drivers weaved in and out of traffic racing all comers to the next red light.  Strip malls packed either side of the road.  By the time I got home, I longed to find a quiet spot where I could reclaim a feeling of peace and clarity.

A lady at church speculated today that living here on earth is hell.  We needn’t worry about finding something worse in the afterlife.  I can almost agree with her but for those moments when I get to see manatees mating, when I feel a cool breeze crossing a river, when I hear eagles crying out in the branches above me.

If this is hell, God does have some mercy.  He gives us glimpses of heaven.

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Walk Through An Art Show

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I saw my show, “Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People”, for the first time last Thursday.  My wife and daughter came to the opening that night, and I mostly interacted with faculty, a man named Tony, and two high school art teachers who happened to be on campus at the time.  I gave a lecture about my work to the folks listed above and a class forced to attend.  But the somewhat listless students listened and didn’t lapse into smart phone drifts of attention too often.  I got a few questions at the end that helped me to explain things a bit further.

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Judy helped me to refine my speech, and we agreed that the underlying theme in a lot of my work is humor.  So I opened and closed my presentation with jokes.  One featured hump back whales, and the other told a story about swimming lessons involving trips to the middle of Lake Erie, a tough father, and being tied up in a bag.

My work was treated with respect, and the reception felt warm and friendly.  I recommend Daytona State College and the curator, Viktoryia McGrath, to any artist interested in exhibiting their work in a college setting.

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My daughter, Annie, spent the weekend with us and brought along Shakespeare and Sedgewick, her two dogs. She left early Easter Sunday afternoon, and Judy and I both felt a bit sad now that the flurry of activity had ended and the house was a lot quieter. We decided that we will be moving next door to a child once they settle down in a permanent location.

Now I’m looking forward to making new paintings under less stressful conditions, finishing out my semester, and starting summer projects.

Making the Grades

I paged through another portfolio in my studio and gave grades to each drawing.  Classical music played in the background, and from time to time I looked up at unfinished paintings that I hadn’t touched in a week or two.  So many classes to prepare and give.  So many judgments to make and advice to give.

Some portfolios were well organized with no missing drawings, and the work showed effort and talent.  Some showed talent but little effort.  Some showed no talent whatsoever but a desperate need to get something out of the course.  (I respect the students in the latter group and wish that I could give them higher grades.)

When I work my way through a stack of portfolios I get indirect feedback from my students.  I’m making a grade for myself as I review the successes and failures of my students.  I take mental notes about which exercises worked better, which bombed, and which seemed easy only to the highly talented.  I think about other classes where a usually successful assignment caused despair in this class, and try to figure out what led to the different outcomes.

When I get to the end of grading a group of portfolios I usually feel great relief, but also regret that the relationships I’ve built with my students will come to an end soon.  I’ve gotten to know their quirks, their weaknesses and strengths, and sometimes it seems a shame to let all that go.  I know that a new semester will give me an opportunity to build new ties to a fresh batch of students, but sometimes wish that I could keep working with the ones I have.  It’s like parenting in that success means an eventual bittersweet departure.

Of course I’ve gotten an occasional class that made me happy to see them hit the exit for the last time.  I get dreams that repeat for years following this scenario:  students ignore me, mill around the class, and find my mounting anger and frustration amusing.  A Drawing II class from two springs ago was the living embodiment of this nightmare.  And when these students spent a large portion of the final critique complaining about assignments, I cut the proceedings short and deleted my final speech.  I hoped that most of them would never cross my path ever again and knew that many of them thought the same thing about me.

But all things pass, good or bad, and I like to recall the times I shared a joke, helped a student figure something out, got to know someone better.  Teaching is about sharing knowledge while making a human connection.  And even if the connections get broken as students go on, I like to believe that traces survive, that a moment of giving echoes through time.

The Instructor

Once upon a time there was a drawing student named Henry.  He worked at Disney and believed in Jesus.  He drew Bibles, crosses and mouse ears when given the chance, and he hated the instructor.  He knew, just knew that the man had no faith in Christ or Walt Disney.  And the instructor frowned every time Henry brought out his pictures of his lovely wife and two darling children.  Didn’t he like children?  Or didn’t he believe that Henry was their father?  Why couldn’t he be the father?  He had the right equipment and knew how to use it.  The instructor didn’t care that Henry did his absolute best, had put his past permanently behind him.  Jesus saved him, and then he found Lisa, and now he was happy.  Really, really happy…What did the instructor know about anything but drawing bottles and boxes?  He could talk all day about perspective, but did he have any?  Did he understand true suffering, the suffering of Jesus for mankind, the suffering of mankind trying to be like Jesus no matter how much it hurt?  That smug bastard was the king of his classroom, but not King of the Universe.  Henry wanted to be there when God gave the instructor his Final Grade.

Helen sat next to Henry.  She hated the instructor too, but wasn’t sure why until Henry told her that the instructor was arrogant.  Helen hated arrogant men, and this teacher (He wasn’t a real professor, was he?) was dirty minded too.  The instructor had asked her if Robert bothered her and didn’t believe it when she told him that she liked Robert.  Robert was funny.  The instructor said, “I saw you bend over to pick up your back pack off the floor, and Robert bent over your back, hugged you from behind, and whispered in your ear, ‘See you next Tuesday.’  You’re okay with that?”  Helen was fine with that.  Robert just kidded around, and she hadn’t felt anything sexual.  The hug had been funny and nice, and she didn’t care whether Robert had pressed up against her butt and his hands accidentally grazed her…The instructor was the real pervert imagining filth when grown people were just having a bit of fun, horsing around.  She wasn’t a weak woman like her mother who let men do what they wanted and pretended to like it.  Helen could take care of herself better than some fake professor who saw harassment in one harmless little hug.  Arrogant bastard.

Robert sat two easels away from Helen, but he’d already decided that she wasn’t the one for him.  Too old and lean.  Stringy blond hair.  There were several girls in the class, younger, juicier, who deserved his attention.    But one stood out:  Charlotte.  She was a tough chick who wore work boots, skinny jeans, tank tops, and pink lipstick.  She smoked cigarettes with him during break.  She liked his jokes, dirty girl, and paid close attention when he got close to her and touched her shoulder and told her about his mother, the artist.  Most girls thought that he was weird when he went on and on about Mom, but Charlotte listened…Mom knew that he was a special and had lots and lots of talent.  Robert didn’t care that the instructor gave him Cs.  He knew that it didn’t matter if he drew abstract textures while everyone else drew still lives.  Real artists didn’t bother with anything but abstraction and the human form.  He loved the human form.  And it didn’t matter that Charlotte asked him to stop touching her arm, her shoulder, to stop bumping his hip against hers (“Oops again, hah-hah!”) when he passed by her easel.  She pretended to be pure but acted like she had plenty of experience.  He could tell.  Girls liked to put up some resistance at first, but gave in eventually.  Most did.

Joseph knew that the instructor didn’t respect him.  The instructor was annoyingly tall and walked around like the giant god of the world.  But Joseph had talent, more talent than the instructor, and he would show the man how good he was once the instructor brought in models.  Joseph had signed up to draw nudes, but that man made him draw bottles and boxes, toys, a doll and a beach ball.  Junk didn’t inspire him, and an artist needs inspiration to do his best work.  At midterm that prick had given him a D and told him to do some homework in the second half.  He might get a B if he applied himself.  Joseph did not do B work, but he did choose what kind of work he did. And he didn’t do homework.   Homework was boring.  Homework was useless practice when he, Joseph, already knew how to draw his hand, a still life, the interior of a room.  Couldn’t the man see that?   Maybe he was too tall to look down and see Joseph.

Mary was tired, really tired of being told what to do.  She worked as an airline stewardess and took the class for fun, as an escape.  She spent the week slaving for people who acted as if she were a servant, and now she wanted things to follow her terms.  She’d paid good money for this class, and technically, though he’d never admit it, the instructor was her employee.  And he was so rude to her, never saying anything nice about her work when it was obvious that she was the best drawer in the class.  Oh, he gave her As on nearly every assignment, but he always slipped in some nitpicking criticism about any little mistake he could find.  He must spend hours finding a line that wobbled a sixteenth of an inch, a tone that smudged slightly.  Why couldn’t he tell her just once how good she was, and then shut up and go away?

The instructor could tell that half the class hated him.  Henry was meticulously polite but sneered at him when he thought that the instructor wasn’t looking.  He whispered like a conspirator with Helen during breaks.  Helen glared at him as if his very existence offended her.  Joseph stared stone faced whenever the instructor looked at his drawings.  Nothing he said made an impression on Joseph.  Mary thought that she was running the show.  She lectured him on his duties as an instructor.  She told him one day, “First you have to greet me, say ‘Good morning, Mary.’  Then you have to praise me.  Then you can tell me all the things you think I’ve done wrong!” Robert oddly enough, thought they were buddies.  But Robert was a loon and a lecher who had taken the class to harass women.  And Robert’s sketchbook had odd little poems about suicide, about using a piece of glass to slash his wrists.  The instructor had reported him to the dean’s office, but they were worried about legalities and seemed to think that the instructor showed a negative bias toward Robert.  Thank God there were a few students who took him seriously, who worked hard and tried to improve.

The instructor’s wife pretended to listen when he complained about the class.  He joked, but wasn’t really joking, when he said, “My quest to be loved by everyone at all times has failed once again!”  She sighed and said what she always said at times like these: “There’s always another class.  There’s always another semester.” Continue reading

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)

Dysfunction: One Thing Leads to Another

A few months ago I drew a charcoal drawing entitled, “She Spurned His Advances”.  It showed an gawky looking monster hovering near a woman who was not thrilled by his amorous attention.  I used a Surrealist technique to develop the suitor, and based his lady on a 19th century daguerreotype.

She Spurned

After I finished this piece I got the idea to show a couple responding to a man’s unfortunate tendency to spontaneously eject his internal organs at inappropriate moments.  (I know what you’re thinking:  when is there an appropriate moment for involuntary self-evisceration?)  This idea evolved into “Eruptile Dysfunction”, an oil painting of a man responding to his wife’s sexual overtures by suffering a volcanic eruption to explode out of the top of his head.

dsc_0015  Eruptile Dysfunction, Oil on Canvas

I decided to satirize the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical ad campaign (the commercials annoy me), and I played around with puns.  I first came up with “T-Rextile Dysfunction.”  I envisioned a T-Rex couple in bed having unsatisfactory relations, but this idea seemed too cartoonish.  I found some illustrations of T-Rex running, and one of them showed a dinosaur looking back over one shoulder.  I wondered what could possibly make a giant predator look behind itself with apprehension, and I remembered a documentary about aviation disasters.  Judy and I watched an old report about airliners losing tail sections and wings in mid flight when their metal under structures failed from repeated stress. I got the idea that the T-Rex’s tail, elevated off the ground as the monster ran, might break off.

dsc_0034T-Rextile Dysfunction, Acrylic on Board

I’m brewing up a few ideas for more paintings in this series.  “Electile Dysfunction” could feature a prominent player in our current presidential race.  An angry couple could break up in a vivid way in “Rejectile Dysfunction”.  “Ejectile Dysfunction” could illustrate a faulty ejection seat in a jet fighter.  An architect might stand by the collapsed ruins of an unfinished building in “Erectile Dysfunction”.

I’m not sure if I will actually make these paintings, but it amuses me to think about them.