Win Cloud changed my life without even quickening his breath. When I was sixteen, my father signed me up for a figure drawing class. It met Wednesday evenings on one of the upper floors of the student union on the campus of the university where my father worked. Every other student taught or went to school there, making me by far the youngest.

I don’t know how many unclothed women I’d seen in my life in person up until this class, but it wouldn’t be an impressive number. What I knew best about the female form came from looking at paintings and drawings. My parents dragged me to museums all my life. I hated it but something of the reckoning with bodies on a flat surface stuck. I’ve made my own sorry attempts ever since I can remember.

There were some art teachers before Win but few would have a bigger impact. Especially considering how little he taught outwardly. His method was near-silent osmosis. He’d saunter around the room now and then, offering occasional advice or correction, but for most of the two-hour duration, he was at his own easel, making muscular, effortless-seeming, rhythmic gesture drawings. Sometimes he’d add a wash to accentuate the direction of the light or a fold of flesh. He drew with his whole arm, the rest of his body bending along gracefully to the mark created by the stub of charcoal held loose in his hand. It was like Tai Chi but with a visible record of each motion. The naked woman on the stand in the middle of the room was a pretext for this series of body movements. The rest of us were like uncoordinated bumblers by comparison. But you wouldn’t know it by how Win treated us.

He made everyone in that room feel like a colleague, a fellow student of a subject that could never be truly mastered. Because art for the artist is a way of being rather than a means to an end or a series of technical tricks to overcome. What Win communicated without a word was the engulfing flow of engaging with the world by making marks in reaction to what it threw at you.

From the first hour in that room, I sensed I’d be doing what I did there for the rest of my life. And it turned out to be so.

One time, a couple years back, sitting in a booth at the Albatross, Carey told me about a beautiful woman he was with when he was young. She was wild and free and almost as beautiful as he thought he was back then. She got him hooked on smack and her father hated his guts. Her name was Nika Cloud. It took me some time to put it together and I never told Carey about the connection. I didn’t want him talking shit about a guy that mattered to me. Also, it felt good to know something he didn’t. Because he knew everything. All you had to do was ask.

Win never talked about his family. I didn’t even know about the aikido thing, but when Carey said it, it clicked everything into place. The way the man moved was right out of those old kung fu epics. He’d glide, seeming to barely touch the linoleum beneath his black slippers. Carey went on and on about how perfect Win’s daughter’s ass was. He had a talent for making anything beautiful ugly. He blamed her for making him a junkie and said she stepped out on him with every other swinging dick in the scene. As he was going on and on, I wondered what Win would be like as a father. Did he live with Nika’s mother? Was he in his daughter’s life at all?

I went on Instagram and found her. Thirty years after the time Carey knew her, she was still stunning. In her timeline were pictures of farmer’s markets, flowers, and a couple children bearing her unmistakable genetic trace. Way down the scroll, Nika posted several of her father’s paintings. Then a post announcing his passing.

After the class, I didn’t keep in touch with Win. I didn’t know yet that’s a thing you could do. That some of your teachers would be happy to become your friends. I don’t know if Win would have wanted that, but seeing him smiling in cropped Instagram snapshots made me regret not trying.

The drawings I made in his class got me into art school. I still catch a life-drawing session when I can find one. It’s like going back to the rudiments, the source. Win showed me how to lay the foundation for everything I made after. Without those easy charcoal marks, I couldn’t have made a thing worth a second look.

Maybe if Carey had taken Win’s class he wouldn’t be such an asshole. Probably not though.

At the very least, he might have learned how to draw.


{Was interviewed on the Selected Prose show.}

{Made a new collage book.}

{Wrote about the new bookstore coming to my neighborhood.}