I’ve paid good money to look at a naked woman, and all I can think is that I should have worn orthopedic shoes.
I hold my pencil in the awkward grip of someone who hasn’t come to the page in years as I gaze at the model on the stage. My lower back aches from standing in bare feet on a cement floor, and I’m probably too stiff for something like this figure drawing class.
This woman’s body is as different from mine as a whippet’s is from a sheepdog. I wonder what motivates her to come to an artist’s atelier out in the jungle of Haiku, Maui, and pose uncomfortably for hours with people staring at her nakedness. I can’t think of any amount of money that I would do that for, and I wonder if she’s brave, exhibitionistic, or both.
“One minute poses,” the master says. The model stretches out tattooed arms in a dramatic gesture. All around me, diligent pencils scratch the paper. Awkward before unfamiliar nudity, I make a few motions with my pencil, clumsy and too big, compelled to try because I’m supposed to. As I do, I realize the light’s hitting her in a really interesting way.
I want to capture that place between elbow and hand, the gilded top of her ear. Her stomach has an interesting guitar-shape, ribs moving gently as she breathes, bones pulsing like watching a gecko backlit on a window. She’s tattooed all over, and as I study it, her skin takes on the quality of fabric, folded like drapery.
“Keep your eye moving across the whole.” The master appears behind me, taking my pencil and making tiny flicking gestures across my paper. He conjures her likeness in a handful of marks, an immediate and ghostly djinn, while my awkward rendering looks like a chicken wing.
“See the shapes. Don’t interpret, just record them. Triangles, rectangles, ovoids. See the negative space as much as the positive,” the master exhorts. It’s gibberish. I feel some essential shift in perception is needed, and I can’t make it. Instead, I see impossibly difficult foreshortening, extensions, and twisted angles. Body parts, and not the whole.
The sixty-second poses seem to go on forever, a string of weighted minutes like a dive belt pulling me under. Moving my pencil is pushing lead against gravity: utter vanity, a waste effort that documents my ineptitude. I barely begin to situate the model on the paper when the pose changes.
I struggle on, hating my incompetence and humility, and considering, as I grapple, what lengths I normally go to avoid these feelings. Yet here I am, in front of a great expanse of paper, trying to capture what I see.
As time unspools, a blissful lack of thinking eventually takes over. My mind is white buzzing silence, just an occasional phrase bubbling up that I hope I remember.
“Cloudy velvet afternoon light.”
“Skin canvas stretched over hard and soft organic structures is what’s defined as a body.”
“Toes are just like fingers, only shorter.”
“The three darkest shadows are between the jaw and collarbone, under the armpit, and between the legs.”
No music accompanies us but the random chirps of an occasional meadowlark or mynah bird, the rustling of pencils, a sigh of frustration, the murmur of the master correcting, the sough of the wind in the kukui nut trees.
I improve during two-minute poses, beginning to loosen up and be less afraid, and I’m better still at the three. I degenerate again at the four-and five-minute poses. Finally, I produce a ghostly, attenuated seven-minute drawing that looks like heat shimmer on a desert road. That concludes three hours of my life on a Thursday in April.
Meanwhile I have come to know the model very well. As with any highly-studied object, familiarity breeds attachment. She’s almost a Velveteen Rabbit to me by the end of class. My judgy intimidated thoughts have faded, and I think I know why she’s doing this, now.
Her body is her art, and she’s sharing it with us in a physically demanding performance enhanced by tattoos. Every muscle is clearly defined, a series of ripples, curves and angles, and she probably does something like yoga because she’s flexible and toned, but not hard like a runner or a weightlifter. During the breaks, she puts on a robe and sits quietly, and I realize she’s allowed us to treat her as a prop, as objectified as one of the busts lining the room.
But I don’t like that we’ve done that. During one of the breaks, I thank her for the effort that makes her tremble with strain as she holds difficult, interesting poses. I want to draw her better so that her sacrifice is worthwhile.
I stuff the trash can at the end of class with my fractured sketches. I feel guilty about wasting the model’s effort and physically throwing away paper and time. I’m dogged by shame at my failure—and yet, as I push the evidence down into the can, I consider that voluntarily putting myself in a position of inadequacy and overcoming it could be a noble thing, and worth doing.
Afterward I get in my car to head back to my usual highly-connected, overstimulating, technology-laden life. I’m wrung out, and my lower back is tight with strain. But I’m also filled in a new way. Really looking at someone so carefully, for so long, has changed me. It’s laden with insight I don’t yet understand, but want to.
The radio is usually on as I drive, drowning out the timpani of my busy thoughts. But today, soft white static continues in my head as the light sifts over my hands on the steering wheel like gold dust, illuminating triangles, ovoids, rectangles and spheres. All around me is beauty I can’t process, but I could if I had an hour or two to really see it, and was able to use my pencil to know it.