Drawing nude or naked figures from life can be a strangely asexual enterprise. Of course there is great sensuality - following the body¹s line - the possibility of going from the curve of a hip into some deep part of a person. But she is there on the model stand, not here where I am. It is like this girl who is getting into a reclining pose, her breasts sinking into new lazy positions left and right on her rib cage, with her skin and her nipples and her graceful collar bone and her shaved vagina - as if she is inside a glass case - a specimen looked at for serious student reasons,not a naked lady in the same room with me.
Just once in that intense period when I was drawing scores of women - maybe hundreds or a thousand - just once there had seemed no glass case. What was on
my mind that one time as I drew had little to do with a detached understanding or the relationship between the trapezius and the deltoid and pectoralis.
The League had models of many shapes and ages. It was hard to tell this woman's age. Late thirties maybe. Maybe older. Eyes that had seen more than a young girl would see. A big, smooth, brown-haired woman, with breasts at a point of ample over-ripeness.
I did not especially crave large female appendages, Playboy magazine clichés that can have little to do with abandoned desire. But the way this model swung her breasts as she changed poses made me feel the way I had felt when I was 19 and discovered Vasco Pratolini and was overwhelmed by the description - which went right to my groin and which I had never heard before but would never stop hearing from bad writers - of breasts like ripe melons - which I saw in my mind, as I saw up the model stand now, were actually more like soft pears than melons.
In the break I asked her if she would like to join me on this spring day for a lunch of sandwiches in a part of Central Park just off Columbus Circle that was the League's backyard.
So far as I can remember, it felt like life was flowing at that point.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Monday, April 23, 2007
These late Thursday afternoons at the League that I have just begun again - and so much is coming back so fast - this fine torso of this fine nude person in front of me is joined, I suddenly remember, to this fine pelvis by a muscle called the external oblique, which explains this small graceful curve I just drew above the start of the hip.
It is like riding a bicycle, Chris Gallego explains and it is true I have not forgotten - back here on this bicycle again as if it is the same time I was last on a bicycle - that last time I was taking a piece of charcoal in a line from the pit of the neck running down the sternum between the breasts, down between the halves of the abdominus rectus and riding over the navel and down over the pubis and continuing now along the inner left leg all the way to the foot that holds most of the weight and is of necessity planted directly below the chin.
And now, after a few of these open drawing sessions at the League I go to a figure drawing class - my first actual class in years - at the Woodstock School Art, the place that was what had immediately brought me to Woodstock back in a time that sometimes seems like several lifetimes ago - back when everything had changed and was changing and I knew would change again.
Chris Gallego, who teaches this new class in Woodstock, had been at the Art Students League in the mid-eighties just before I was there and we know all these characters in common - and all the places around town where you could draw from models at any hour of day or night, from the fairly plush, historic Salamagundi Club to a famous dirt-encrusted basement place in Soho, and all the art schools in between.
And it is all still there, though some of the personnel have changed - yet no more, I trust, than at the League - where everyone I see seemed a counterpart of everyone I would see there 20 years ago.
And when the drawing pad is in front of me and I am tied to the model - wedded at the moment - by a stick of charcoal, I feel waves of happiness that I felt 20 years ago - this time this is me - there was no family precedent for this, and no one is around to tell me, as my late lifetime friends constantly told me in the past, that I should forget about all these visual things. You are a writer, aren't you? You can't do that! You're a writer. Writers are supposed to write.
Friday, April 20, 2007
As I write about drawing - as I have been doing for ten days - as I write about how freeing it was in the late eighties to stop being a writer, I find my writing weaves in and out of my drawing as my drawing does my writing. My writing. The writing that goes beyond literal or constructed or imagined contractual demands. And I realize that even in the late eighties I never stopped writing.
In that time back then I always carried a notebook. I wanted nothing to do with words, and - however - I had to put this wanting nothing to do with words into words. It struck me one day, during one of Michael Burban¹s drawing and anatomy lectures at the League - a time in which I was as much in 15th century Florence as 20th century New York - as I listened to the wonderfully theatrical Burban and watched him draw, I also looked out a big window in the big studio room and drifted into myself, though still aware of Burban and his model and his skeleton - drifted off as thoroughly as I would drift off if I had been bored by the lecture, but I knew this as the opposite of boredom.
I never stopped writing when I told myself that what I am discovering are matters for which I do not have words, as in those shapes that change, as in what had been a small dark squiggling mark takes over the page and takes me back into literal comforting and dangerous dark woods from childhood - when comforting places become threatening places when the images appear as I put marks on my pad - and find I am already putting what is in these emerging images into words, the words following the images on the pad just as the words, when they mean anything, always follow what is taking shape somewhere free from the dead rules of life and language.
But although I always had a notebook in my portfolio case, I took pride that people, noticing the paint on my shoes, asked me if I were an artist. I ran into Nancy in a bookstore. She had two Danish exchange students in tow. She introduced me as her writer friend. I tried to keep calm. Who did she think I was? Through clenched teeth, I made it clear that the only reason I was in the store was to buy a map of Florence.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
In the opening segment I am writing about a dark, small-window, low-ceiling old farm house living room in still unzoned suburban Connecticut, the wide floor boards at an angle, the small fireplace looking formal compared to the bigger fireplace in our more casual living room. I am writing about this warm but drafty room with its heavy, cold antique-store paintings, dark flowers on glass backed by what looks like blackened crumbled tinfoil. And rickety tables containing ashtrays and golf tees and dirty pipe cleaners and my father's cheap drugstore pipes, cigarette butts with lipstick on them, the furniture stuffed with horsehair, hard and unwelcoming - in this room where, always alone, I played the few records they had over and over again, dreaming that these records were signs of something out beyond this place that I might have one day. And that I did have one night down in the city. But here in Connecticut it was only a promise of the real music that might one day be for me.
On a stage I will read what I have written about this room and other past matters tied to songs I now sing. And on the stage behind me there is a screen on which is projected a family portrait done by a professional photographer - our fine Old English Sheepdog Nevil, and my mother looking game but distant, my father in flannel shirt smiling gamely, my brother Peter in flannel shirt, his jaw set with great firmness - my brother clearly the one who has the strength to keep up the front when the others fail. In the picture, too, our Southern grandmother, who has a satisfied if distant look. And then me off to the side and a little out of focus.
I played these limited records - the Beer Barrel Polka, Songs of the Veldt, and Bing Crosby Christmas songs - knowing that though not much in themselves they were avatars of something far beyond where I found myself stuck in Connecticut, me the dumb twin, the bad twin, the unhappy family in a place of rolling green hills, which beyond this house, I knew, could be a place of adventure.
On the screen behind me now is a quite abstract watercolor of Connecticut - vibrant greens but black tree limbs or ape arms or iron works boundaries seeming decorative but also seeming elements of a cage. And with the green is also the color of blood.
Standing in front of the screen, I talk of how mysterious images appeared forty years later when I began to draw - and an oil version of these images is projected the screen - the floppy-eared dog, the child so wispy it was a ghost, the woman with important breasts, and another figure in the sky that, though wispy like the child, is strong and benevolent.
In that first go-round in 1987 one of the courses I signed on for at Parsons was a basic design course where, in the name of design exercises, I drew my life - recurring images: a dog, a child so lost it might be a ghost, a woman with fine big breasts, all in a forest from which a benevolent face seemed, in the sky overhead or in the leaves, as wispy as the ghost-child but with solid substance. Though the dog, the child, the woman - all were in jeopardy.
I did it six inches by eight inches. Then keyed the little drawing and transferred it to a board I acquired that was six feet by eight feet. And doing it and looking at it filled me with powerful if undifferentiated emotion such as I had thought I could never experience - and then I colored the enlarged version, and the colors took over - the color. (And I did it again in oil some years later when I had more technical skills.)
For a time I put color aside. I went back to anatomy and figure drawing and it did not often get me into such a huge place as in the moment color appeared. But it sometimes did. I worried that the uneducated drawings I made when I started - children around a tree in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, human looking cars parked in the winding roads of the union houses across Eighth Avenue, cheerful and dangerous hanging traffic lights, and wooden water towers against the sky (not unlike one that had been in my childhood line of sight way back in Connecticut).
I thought that with anatomy and further knowledge I was in danger of getting farther away rather than closer. Yet I had to try. And sometimes I got very close. And I knew I might need the anatomical knowledge to get closer.
In recent nights, now 20 years later, rather than reading I have been looking at pictures of skeletons. And because de thigh bone does not attach to de hip bone without muscles and ligaments, I am looking at pictures of muscles too. As on that plaster replica of the old Houdon statue that I got out of a storage area behind the hot water boiler last week.
Monday, April 16, 2007
The last time I was at the Art Students League it had seemed a matter of life and death that I, starting so relatively late in life, get far enough into this visual world so that in my next fifty years I could bring actual figures to life. It was more than a symbol of what I was after - getting actual embodied women and men right in ways I had not done, though had sometimes approached in words, in my first fifty years.
This first time around in visual, as opposed to verbal, worlds - when life was starting again. Living alone in Chelsea in a bright one-bedroom apartment I had found in a time I was sleeping on couches and in borrowed places and furnished rooms - this place of my own now that backed out over a small garden that had gone wild, with a tree by the window that one visitor dismissed as a weed pretending to be a tree but that to me was all the tree I needed. And out past the tree, a cityscape, rooftops with old cylindrical wooden water towers that continued on south as far as I could see -
I had gotten rid of my new bed and lined the bedroom walls with wide heavy shelves I installed myself - never handy with such things until now when I had to be - shelves to hold my drawings and painting that were not on the walls, and my supplies - newsprint pads, watercolor blocks, canvases, bristol board, boxes of colored pencils, pastels, oil and water soluble crayons, tubes of intense watercolors and tubes for deep if not quite so intense oils and acrylics. And I went to meetings, and I was at the league drawing from life early each morning, and by midnight I was in a Soho basement where multiple models posed, still drawing, my eyes shifting from the models to the pad, trying for whatever I was worth to bring figures to life. To life, and into this life of mine that had begun - again or at last.
Twenty years later I had a calling and a new career and I lived with a woman I loved in rare harmony - so unlike past marriage - and there are people inside as well as outside our place, where I live in the country and look out on a mountain - a real mountain, that can blend with but not be confused with the mountains of my often dark, but sometimes full, New Hampshire childhood and adolescence. Twenty years later - and it is time to start working from the naked body again.
Starting late, I had been deep into anatomy in my Chelsea apartment and at the art schools and in a dissection room too, for I had to get these figures right. I understood what it meant to say "My life depends on this."
I had stopped writing back then, 20 years ago, not sure what I could live on, for I had always written, as opposed to holding jobs. But writing was failing me and images were saving me. I did not know yet how tied this all was to getting the written versions, not just the visual versions, right. I slept on a day bed not yet cleared of drawing implements. Every inch of wall space here in the living room, as in the former bedroom, contained drawings and diagrams. I had a plaster copy of Houdon¹s pointing man, the man with no skin and all his muscles displayed. And I had a plaster hand. And a plastic life-size skull. And
also an undersize skeleton that looked almost real. I was in negotiations with a squeaky-voiced man buried deep in the Natural History Museum who, underground
networks in art and medical worlds knew, imported real skeletons illegally from
I had to get the real figures - the flesh and blood ones not just on the model stands but also those in my head - the real figures, not just the anatomical diagrams of them, the real figures, not the figures of the past that I could make into literary devices, but the real figures that might or might not be in my life. I had to get these figures right. So I drew from dawn to midnight.
And suddenly I am back. Writing now, but also taking breaks from writing and a break from abstract painting to join a studio figure group at the Woodstock School of Art, and look in on the open figure drawing sessions in the League when I am in the city - and also, although Joe in his dirty undershirt who had the night and day Soho basement place on Greene Street is gone, there is a new woman named Minerva on the scene who has models posing morning, noon and night on Spring Street. And although I am not drawing from dawn to midnight now, I need these places again, to move with what I am doing in my writing now, in my life now, this life-and-death search again to recreate the actual embodied figures to save them and me from embalmment in past or present.
I heard it on my radio, which I listened to like a resistance fighter with a forbidden short wave set - listened to it under the covers in my room in the back of the house to which was attached an old rickety outside staircase that made me feel I might be safe even without the radio, for with this literal escape route it was as if I were living not just in the back of the house but so far away they might never be sure to be find me - maybe if I stayed alert - and followed what I knew of the world outside the house, which sometimes seemed a place where I could be safe - as on that hill or in those radio programs, life with the band leader Ozzie Nelson and his singer Harriet Hilliard and their happy children, or in "One Man's Family," or that of "The Great Gildersleeve" -
The green hill with an old water tower that was in my line of sight though the door to the outside staircase this hill that I knew before I slept was really there, and would come also in dreams where from its crest I could see a shining city, and where beside the water tower I, liberated in my eighth year of life, was the groom in a wedding featuring a girl from the gentler parts of Snow White or Pinocchio - or from Oz - gentle and understanding and no more fathomable, I knew, to the angry people in the other end of this house then was
this strange, almost unsingable song they never knew that I heard one night in secret on the radio.
Chickery chick, cha-la cha-la,
I took my things the hill and water tower and also the dream city beyond it the dream of the girl with me on the hill and other dreams, as in the one where I was on a platform at the forsythia end of our driveway and people were streaming up the road to hear me -
I took all these things to my lair, there in the free world, not their world, this world under the covers, aware that sometimes above the covers breezes came through the screen door across from me:
This world of mine that was there even when I had to go underground.
Those breezes. Those places. Those other people.
Ballica Wallica, can¹t you see,
That chickery chick is me.