“But, I don’t know how to draw.” Cherish your inexperience and illuminate your angled perspective against those tried and tired. “But, what if I’m not good enough.” People care much less than you think. “But, I have my laundry list to attend to.” Your statement lacks space for free reflection, disordered expression and orderly relaxation. Allow your inner curator to manifest within the black ink smudges of woeful eyeliner after a rainy mood, along the astute angles of a crooked smile, between the wavering lines of the incredulous foot, for you cannot believe something so commonplace can be so mutilated in reproduction. Gaze in awe to your left, over your shoulder, at the interpretations on easels and keen eyes on artists for that indentation you couldn’t crack. Smile to yourself because you came. Rinse and repeat.
The Yale School of Art offers free figure drawing experiences every Monday evening from 8–10 p.m. With all supplies provided and no experience required, one need only bring a sense of commitment to the prospect of relaxation amidst your ominous GCal. A thought baby of School of Art Associate Dean Sam Messer, the weekly event has been engraved on the art calendar since 2006. It advertises a welcoming space for learning and self-engagement.
I arrived at the Art school’s basement at 7:50 p.m. with the anxiety of intended vulnerability pooled in my stomach. To my surprise, the open floor space was vacant except for the white platform center stage and art supplies scattered along the edges of the wall.
At 7:58 p.m. the students trickled inside — exponentially — grabbing easels and paper and charcoal in an eased daze no different than one’s inherent morning routine. At 7:59 p.m., I followed suit, setting up my equipment with the utmost difficulty in nature and an upheld expression that I hoped did but most likely did not read, “I know exactly what I am doing; don’t help me.” At 8:03 p.m., model Phoebe Helander ART ’19 scaled the platform and took her first position.
The figure drawing experience offers no sense of mandated instruction, no rules besides a sense of respect for the model in nude, the participants and the equipment. No guidelines for how anyone should approach the session. With no parameters, those in attendance possess a free reign which is so often lost in a regular day, engulfed in self-inflicted responsibilities. Schedules shape what you are supposed to be — drawing transcends.
“I like the relaxing atmosphere and the opportunity to learn from art students and other skilled artists — I learn something new every time I come to figure drawing,” a graduate student relayed.
In one-minute, five-minute, 10-minute and 20-minute intervals, Helander shifted her stance amidst the gaze of 38 attentive students. Artists sat, stood and laid around Helander’s stand to sketch attentively the bends and crevices of the human form. On the easels adjacent, sketches ranged from disjointed forms such as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’avignon” to more meticulously driven pieces like Jenny Saville’s “Reverse.” In the background, John Coltrane’s “Naima” swung students into an atmosphere of proactive pleasure.
“It’s a nice way to relax in the week, and I find it meditative to be focusing on what you’re seeing and trying to replicate it,” Gus Steyer FES ’20 relayed.
In the basement of an intimidating field, I found solace in knowing that interpretation has no label, that my strokes were neither right nor wrong, that my personal growth was measured not as a scaling factor, but as an ideology of my own determination.
Whatever I composed was an interpretation of what I wished to see. For one of Helander’s stances, I drew her using only boxes; for another, triangles. I didn’t care how my drawing looked as I took pride in each stoke because, in every sense of its odd manifestation, it was mine.
Anyone in the Yale community can sign up to model for weekly sessions. With prospects of lost anonymity due to the student body size, models who strip nude on the barren podium confront any physical vulnerabilities by cultivating a raw relationship with the artists in the room.
Vulnerability relays in the most individualistic of forms. I feel the most naked when others treat my insecurities and problems with a binary methodology. Everyone has them, and, in that basement, our collective experience in viewing the same form while producing individual perspectives peeled away any lingering vulnerabilities to reveal our own nudities in the purest light.
There’s something about drawing a human form. You become more thoughtful, not through objectification nor comparison, but in the sense that you notice more. Maybe, figure drawing is not meant to be about drawing for improvement or improvisation. Maybe, figure drawing is about drawing to notice. To notice the gravitational pull of the human eye to tangible vulnerability.
“[Figure drawing] lets you think more fundamentally about your experience not as an artist, but as a human viewing the world,” Steyer shared. “To try to put that down in front of you and reveal your interior experience of the world, now that’s priceless.”
It is with utmost disappointment that I say how commonplace it is to be so morbidly burdened by day-to-day activities that you forget to see the person sketching to your left as a person of the left, or as a person who hates mornings but loves cold pizza, if they identify as such. Passersby are more than mere bodies; look deeper.
I yearned to know what the artists in the room with me were thinking. Some said they daydream, others said they would rather focus on the fine details. I thought of my experience as absentminded thoughtfulness, what you do to take a load off, to end your day no different than a cup of tea or a “Friends” rerun. Break the vicious cycle and allow your mind to churn, to create and to materialize.
“People who come just love it,” Phoebe expressed. “There is no credit, you do it for yourself.”
What I’m trying to say is that transparency is a lost entity, but not in this studio. Maybe I am romanticizing an everyday figure drawing session, but, until you break your own vicious cycle and attend, you just have to believe me.
Lauren Cueto | firstname.lastname@example.org .