It’s lessons from life drawing class again. Three hours in the middle of a Thursday when I check out of “normal” life and enter a secret, sunlit world in the jungle in Haiku, Maui, and study, and attempt to draw, naked people.
The location is convoluted to get to, so I’m still figuring out the best way to get there. I can think of three routes, and I decide to leave early and take back roads. Putting my drawing supplies in the car and firing it up, I keep the radio off and mentally review the things I decided to do after last class.
- Practice drawing. Well, the new sketchbook is sitting on the seat next to me, unopened, but I did buy it. Next, I have to have pencils handy and actually draw.
- Keep the radio off and cultivate mental white noise. That didn’t work at all. The effect of the class lasted about one day before I was back to my usual hectic driving myopia.
- Really look at and notice stuff this week. Also not really happening. I’m too busy and overwhelmed right now with my therapy job and my author job. But at least I wrote a decent essay last week, which I sent off to a literary magazine to challenge myself, and I bought a sketch pad for outside-class practice, and gel insoles for the shoes I’m wearing this time.
I turn onto the two-lane road that cuts through the sugarcane fields to Haliimaile, the first leg of my exploratory side-roads route to the atelier. Coming toward me is a mud-covered, jacked-up truck, complete with hunting-dog cage. He flashes his lights at me. Slow down. The po-po are ticketing ahead.
I slow to thirty and hit my lights to thank him, but hit my window squirter instead. My wipers flap. Dammit, I’ve had this new car six months and I still don’t know where things are! He flashes again, worried I didn’t get the message, and I give him shaka through the window as he passes, and see the white of his grin.
I love Hawaii people. So aloha. We all try to avoid the ridiculous ticketing traps that abound on our low-speed-limit roads.
Sure enough, there’s a cruiser hiding behind a big clump of pili grass. I give the cops shaka too. I’m pro law enforcement, as everyone who reads my books knows, even if I like to avoid a speeding ticket. Further on, I flash a warning to the cars coming toward me, paying forward what the dude in the truck did for me, and they flash once to acknowledge, a chain of aloha communication all the way to Baldwin Avenue. There, I take another jag up the road and then another wilderness one-laner through a windly overgrown gulch with hairpin turns and a one-lane bridge. This goes on a good while, with the upshot being that I end up getting lost and have to call my sister, who lives in Haiku and is also attending the class, and have her talk me through the various tiny jungle roads until we both end up at the studio.
The slender tattooed model is here again, and, happy to see her, I impulsively show her the blog post I wrote, using my phone to access it in an empty moment before class starts. As she takes the phone, I’m immediately petrified that I wrote something unflattering or that will hurt her feelings and make her feel shitty modeling for us again. Oh, God, why did I show her the post? I can’t even remember what I said, only that I meant admiration.
I’m practically chewing my nails as I set up my easel and she scrolls through my blog, dignified in the towel she’s wearing to cover up. She looks up from reading and says, “I model because I’m an artist too, and I like to challenge myself to do hard things. I’m brave.” I remember that I speculated on her motives.
“Thank you, that’s so great to know,” I say, babbling and nervous. “It’s so weird because there’s no communication. We are all just in our bubbles, projecting stuff onto each other. Writers are the worst that way.” I’m still hoping I haven’t hurt her or affected her feelings about modeling for us today, but it seems to be okay because she says, “That was some good writing. Especially the part about the backlit gecko.”
Class gets underway. I position myself in front to avoid some of those awful foreshortening angles. We do longer poses this time, fifteen minutes working up to thirty. I’m still struggling, but the gel insoles help, and having more time is less stressful though my efforts are not any better.
I notice new things about our model. She has noble bones, cheekbones and jaw prominent and almost equidistant, below a short forehead. Her neck is curved and graceful, and there’s something Celtic and warriorlike about her as she finds ways to sit and stand without moving for extended periods.
Not that I ever get around to drawing her face. I entertain the modest hope of positioning her head correctly on the paper as an amorphous blob.
The master must find me particularly terrible because he keeps coming by, making a tiny tsking sound in the back of his throat as he observes, correcting my stance, the height of my easel, even my grip on the pencil.
“What is wrong here?” he asks one time, his neatly-shaved head cocked, eyes on my latest atrocity. He’s Russian and classically trained, and reminds me of a very serene male ballet dancer, every inch of his frame radiating discipline.
“The shoulder is too big. The leg is too short.” I’m still only seeing the parts, not the whole.
“You are right.” He bestows this on me with a head nod like it’s a gift. I can identify the distortions, even if I’m unable to correct them. “You must stop thinking so much. You just need to see and record what’s there. You are too busy interpreting.”
He shows me how to use a plumbline to map the placement of key points on the body, how to use a pencil to divide the figure in half, then sketch the dimensions using the midpoint for reference. I’ve never learned this kind of technique before. I pretend to understand, nodding and saying “Ah, yes,” because I hate not understanding so much that I can’t bear to ask him to explain it a third time.
But, he finds out anyway when he catches me using my pencil to gauge the midpoint, then laying the pencil on the paper and literally halving it.
“No, no, no,” he says, twinkling. “You use the pencil to find the midpoint, but that does not mean the drawing is the size of your pencil.”
I can feel my cheeks getting hot. “Do you have any alcohol? I think that would help.”
And he does laugh then, along with the rest of the class, and says, “It does not help. Believe me, I’ve tried it.” Yes, he’s Russian.
At some point, I back up and sneak a peek at my sister’s page. We’re side by side, doing this together, and the moral support has been critical—in fact, I wouldn’t be taking the class if she hadn’t asked me to join her. But we’ve also always competed a little in our art, and she narrows green eyes at me. “No magic happening here. You needn’t worry.”
“Misery loves company.” I’m relieved she’s not better than me at the moment, and annoyed that I still find that competitiveness within myself. Ugh! There’s so much pettiness in me, and this class is constantly exposing it.
I drive home via the predictable but boring highway that’s probably the easiest route after all, realizing that I feel better than last time. I’ve accepted my ineptitude. It still smarts, but laughing about it helps. And I’ve decided to keep blogging about this experience to keep the lessons from the Cheryl Strayed writing conference alive.
I’m going to try to be as naked and brave as our model, exploring and sharing what I find out about myself through the challenge of this art.
Fuzzy white silence finally accompanies my contemplation of the moving butterfly sails of windsurfers and kiteboarders soaring the waves at Hookipa as I drive past the famous ocean break, and join the backup of tourists on the road into Paia. I feel drained and yet full again as I turn up the highway toward my home nestled on the vast purple flank of Haleakala.