It is probably a five or ten minute pose, early in the two-hour evening class. Not much time to correct or refine, just get some marks down to imply shape, volume, presence, then flip the paper over and get ready to do it again with a new pose. Fall 1986 or spring 1987. My first experience with a nude model. Everyone else in the class is a college student or older so there is no one else to talk with about the awkwardness of being in a room with a naked person. They all take it as a given so I have to as well. Although the aim of a life drawing class is to study form, there’s no way of entirely distancing yourself from the reality of an unclothed person in a room full of clothed ones. She’s vulnerable and has to trust the rest of us to behave, but she also has a certain power because she is the center of attention, the reason we’re all there. For a sixteen-year-old few of these issues are anywhere near formulated much less verbalized but making art out of being in this room with this woman is nothing like setting up a still-life or illustrating some half-baked fantasy. Looking at her and trying to draw is the most intense, immediate thing I’d ever done up to that point.
The student union at MIT is just off Mass Ave, next to the athletic center where I’d sometimes go to play squash with my dad. He signed me up for the drawing class. The months of evenings that I go there crystalize the fact that there would be no escape from art for me. It took what I had been doing in sketchbooks and on the margins of school books and inside my head and brings it directly out into lived experience. The instructor, Dick Stroud, doesn’t teach so much as creates an atmosphere without resistance in which all we have to do is find the marks to note the model’s gesture. There’s no talk of meaning or content, just a seemingly physical reckoning with human form. The space he leaves open for us to wonder about what it is we are actually doing makes it possible to overcome inhibitions and insecurities which are natural to beginners. The feeling in the room isn’t unlike a yoga class (which I wouldn’t experience until more than a decade later) where every individual is stretching to the limit or just past the limit of their own abilities but no one is in competition with anyone else. It is also implicit that there’s no perfect solution or winning at what we are working at.
The way I drew her right foot has always bothered me. It looks like a flipper. It looks like I couldn’t decide which way the foot should be pointed. I should’ve erased it and tried again but either didn’t have the time or didn’t see how off it was at the time. Mangled foot and all, she became part of my very first “solo” show. It was held in the upstairs lobby of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, where I worked. A year or two later, my parents had her framed and hung her in their bedroom and she’s been there ever since.
Now when I visit their home and see her, she reminds me of that classroom in the student union at MIT, where I found out beyond a doubt what I’d do the rest of my life. But the things a sixteen-year-old knows are not the same as what a forty-six-year-old does. There was no way I could guess that thirty years after that first life-drawing class, I’d still be doing essentially the same thing. It’s not a bad drawing—misshapen foot and all—just a few easy charcoal marks. It’s confident in a way which is difficult to replicate these decades later. Not knowing what you don’t know can often be a help that way. I see a lot more than I did back then but when faced with a clean sheet of paper all that experience can hobble you. And yet, I have no yearning to be that sixteen-year-old again. He could draw a little but he didn’t have much else figured out. Today, if I were to go to a life-drawing class and spend a few hours looking at naked woman posing, I’d have a million associations to reckon with beyond the problem of rendering some version of what was before my eyes.
p.s. I’ve been drawing at Wendy Clinard’s dance studio in Pilsen lately. Some of these drawings will grace her studio wall (along with other non-dance-related artwork) on December 9th and provide a backdrop for her performance with violinist Steve Gibons that night. Below is a collage of sketches of them rehearsing. I’ve also made a page on my site to collect all the drawings.