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 Crowd at Golgotha

The responses of the Jews and Romans to Jesus’ suffering have always fascinated me.  Pilate found a mob’s blood lust distasteful, but wasn’t moved enough by Jesus’ innocence and acceptance of His fate to give Him a reprieve.  Another man’s life wasn’t all that important to Pontius.  The Roman soldiers delighted in Jesus’ fall from power and mocked Him as they crowned Him with thorns.  His pain was their sport.  Veronica saw His suffering and tried to ease it, and His mother bore witness to her son’s death without turning away.  Others ran away and hid.

I could have been any one in the crowd of onlookers at Golgotha.  I have a similar range of responses to weakness, suffering and tragedy.  When I see someone in distress I sometimes feel an urge to rush in and fix things.  At other times I’m repelled by the ugliness of the moment, or am afraid that a particular form of human frailty might be catching.  At certain unfortunate moments I take delight that someone else is suffering too, or what’s worse, I feel glad that it’s them and not me.

I became more aware of my wavering response to misfortune when my sister was diagnosed with ALS.  She saw my hesitancy to enter her new existence and share in her suffering, and she eased me through the transition.  She wanted me to know that she was all right, that she hadn’t really changed inside.  (She was blessed with strength and grace and did her best to help others even as she was losing her life in slow increments.)

I also watched how strangers reacted to her as she went about her business in public in a motorized wheel chair.  Some became anxious, some pretended she wasn’t there, and others smiled too broadly and made a big fuss when they approached her.  They  patronized her by talking too loudly and in simple sentences.  It appeared that they thought that her impairment was mental as well as physical.  My sister ignored the awkwardness and just went about getting what she wanted.  If onlookers had a problem with her condition it had nothing to do with her.

I’ve become more aware of the cruelty that sometimes seems to surround us.  I’ve recently heard children mocking an elderly couple for their frailty, and saw adults smiling contemptuously at a person in a wheelchair struggling to thread his way through a crowd on a sidewalk.  Their lack of empathy astounded me, and I wondered how they managed to avoid realizing that they too could end up in a similar state one day.  But weakness provides a tempting target, and some can’t resist taking advantage of another person’s misfortune.  I believe that the perpetrators feel empowered when they add to the suffering.  I despise this behavior, but am not immune from this form of malevolence.  Some of my worst moments of self loathing follow such lapses.

My wife has helped me leave some of this darkness behind.  My upbringing wasn’t always sweet and kind, and I learned to defend myself with harsh words and anger when challenged.  A few months after I got married I noticed something unexpected:  when my wife and I argued I always seemed to lose.  When I vented my frustrations and hurt her feelings I had the sensation that I was hurt too.  Even when I defeated her in an argument there was no real satisfaction.  There was no such thing as winning if it came at her expense–it was like trying to arm wrestle with my right arm pitted against my left.

I’m beginning to understand that I have similar interconnections with those outside my family circle. I occasionally get a glimpse that all my actions and decisions have a ripple effect on the people around me.  The ties extend everywhere and all through time.

The witnesses and participants in Jesus’ trial and execution were in different states of awareness.  Some saw a man’s suffering as something separate from themselves, while others were aware that Jesus’ agony was theirs too.  My intention is to have more moments of wakefulness, more glimpses of the reality that we are all one human mass of suffering, joy, fear, hope, love, hate and desire.  Humanity is a continuum and none are above, below or separate.  We all hurt or help our brothers and sisters by everything we do say.

Peace.