Life Drawing… the nude.

In my High School here in suburbia, back in the early 60s, kids from grade 9 to grade 12 had the incredible fortune to be taught Art classes by a wonderful teacher. Prior to World War II, he had studied at the local art school and during the War he served as an Official War Artist for several years. On his return to civilian life he attended Normal School in order to be able to follow a career as a teacher.  He was a fine painter, and he had solid drawing skills, but as well a high regard for Modernist art principles and also experimentation.

Starting in Grade 10, we did regular study of anatomy from a skeleton he kept in the classroom and who he affectionately called Herkimer. He allowed us to dress Herkimer in scarves, gloves, shoes, jackets and pants, and then he’d demonstrate  just how the material might drape from a bent elbow or knee, where it stretched over the points of turn over adjoining forms and where it bunched and gathered on the inside of the bend. Herkimer was prominent whenever we did draped life studies of each other, so that we could make a connection between the live forms seen and the underlying structures. We did life drawing every two weeks, until looking and seeing while drawing, or being scrutinized closely as model, became a familiar and comfortable activity. I loved to draw and learned to appreciate the wonderful beauty of bone forms, and the complex interconnections that permitted human beings to be upright, move with purpose and expression.

It was while in grade 10 art classes that I began to permit myself to wonder about continuing to learn art after graduation. Formulating the plan to do so, I began to ask our Art teacher about what kinds of things one did learn in Art School and how it might be possible to undertake such learning. I began to discuss what I found out about this with my parents who were singularly unimpressed and dismissive about such a possibility.  Undaunted, I pursued my interests in art in my spare time at home with books borrowed from the Library, and drew constantly, from things observed and also from illustrations in art books. And I began to visit galleries downtown, on my own, fairly regularly, while ostensibly on shopping trips.  Meanwhile, the rest of required studies at school remained at the forefront of my young scholastic activities.

My parents thought that it was acceptable for a young woman to be interested in art as an uplifting hobby, or something a well educated woman might be casually engaged in on an amateur level.  However, they maintained and emphasized a convicted belief that a life in the arts (visual and performing) led to excesses of immoral behavior and hence the life of a social outcast, a demi-mondaine.  Mother cleverly illustrated her objections by reminding me of the tale of La Boheme, wherein the life of artists living in unheated garrets led to misery, excessive drinking of alcohol, illicit sexual conduct and Mimi’s untimely death due to consumption. Father, completely oblivious to my lack of interest in Chemistry, ignoring the fact that Chemistry classes were the bane of my young life, insisted that a career as a Pharmacist was one I must pursue.

In an effort to dissuade me from my hope to go to art school, they roped in a painter lady friend to take me to a life-drawing studio regularly held in the basement of the big art gallery downtown – The Businessmen’s Drawing Sessions. I believe my parents hoped that I would be embarrassed in such a setting.

I loaded myself up with a drawing board made up of a flat piece of a cardboard box, some sheets of newsprint, pencils.  Father drove me to the art gallery to meet up with the painter lady there, and left to visit a friend downtown. The lady and I descended into the basement of the art gallery and found the meeting room where the life-drawing session was held.  We were slightly late arriving, and the session was in full swing. We sat ourselves at the back of the room and began to work.

The model, a young woman of reasonable proportions and very naked, sat lounging in an armchair at one end of the room. Seated in school desks lined up in rows, as if for a drill in Latin declensions, were middle-aged men in business suits and ties drawing on little pads of paper. I began to notice that many of the men didn’t draw a whole lot.  While I understood that drawing from observation involved a lot of looking before making marks to approximate what was observed, it seemed to me that many of these men just gazed at the young woman and seemed to be making little progress on their drawings. The lady and I  worked away filling up several sheets of paper.  The model kept the same pose throughout the session.

The lady painter, the model and I were the only women in the room. This felt truly odd, and even more so, the arrangement of the model and the drawers was very awkward,  those drawing arrayed in tight rows, rather than gathered around and having varied points of view.  I was there to draw, so did, and forgot my feelings of discomfort in such a situation, and did the best I could in the circumstance. All the draped drawing we had done in school, plus the prior sessions of making studies of Herkimer, had provided me with a base from which drawing the nude figure wasn’t a particularly problematic extension.

At the end of the session, we packed up and met Father at the gallery entrance.  The lady painter told him that I had worked well and produced a number of reasonably acceptable studies, and then saying her goodbyes left us to continue our journey home.

On the way home, Father quizzed me about my impressions of this experience. I told him that it felt really odd that there were only the three of us women in a sea of suited middle-aged men, and that these men didn’t seem terribly serious about the whole drawing activity. Further, I ventured the opinion that our sessions of drawing the figure in our high-school art class had been more useful, because most of us there were engaged and working in a truer sense. And I announced that I would not waste my time with going back to this Businessmen’s Drawing group, but would carry on with drawing on my own and in school, and then, after graduation continue on to art school for further studies.

Somehow, Father didn’t seem pleased with this outcome. Rather than dissuade me from a goal of which he did not approve, the opposite happened.  He did say to me that at 15 I was far too young and inexperienced to be so firm in my decision to persist, and that as I became older and wiser I was sure to change my mind.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have grown older, but not necessarily wiser and have maintained my love of learning about and making art. I still attend life drawing sessions, to me it is an activity similar to that of a dancer warming up at the barre. I do not live in a garret, or on the margins of society and have not yet died of consumption!

8 Responses to “Life Drawing… the nude.”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    How well I know this story, with variations!
    My mother thought it was quite alright to go to artistic productions of theatre, music and visual art, but horrors! if you wanted to be a producer or participant in one of these things.
    Art was for beatniks and bohemians, not good Protestant, bourgeouis young women whose purity of spirit might be compromised by the company they kept. And so I was forbidden to go to art school.
    I don’t regret now that I went to the University and took my art education from some of the finest teachers this province has ever had in matters of visual education – Sam Black, James MacDonald, Bob Steele, Gordon Smith, Penny Gouldstone amongst others.
    I’d got around my parents by studying art education at the University. Nevertheless, I threw over everything after a few years of teaching. I wanted to be an artist more than a teacher. I managed to go to Art School for 4 years in Europe. What heaven!
    How wonderful your post is today. It evokes many memories. I’m sure it will evoke them for many an artist who has had ambitions. Thank goodness you persevered. You are a wonderful artist.

  2. Deborah Barlow Says:

    When I “came out” as an artist to my father, he said, “You can’t be an artist–they are Bohemians and sleep with their models!” I have never slept with any of my models, and I have never considered changing my country of residence to Bohemia…

  3. Nita Says:

    we get too influenced by our parents I think when we are young. For them it may be a casual word, but for the child it can remain etched in the mind forever.
    And as for wisdom, you have it.

  4. Tommi Says:

    I would love to sleep with Deborah’s models (see 2nd comment from top) – or I would just love to be able to sleep once again in Bohemia (which is only ’round the corner from me). I really have no association to art other than the work that must be put into it. If only there were more people in the conventional world that would at least strive for something artistic.
    I guess.

  5. James Steerforth Says:

    Precious! Great retelling of memory.

    I’m still asking myself those same old questions about how serious one should be or can possibly be about being an artist/writer.

    Because so much of this “activity” has the stigma of the nonessential.

    Whereas there is no question, of course, whether we need bakers, engineers or insurance salesmen 🙂

  6. suburbanlife Says:

    James – “artists and writers” are the “plumbers” of the soul, allowing for freely-flowing connection amongst us all, the clear waters as well as the sludge:-) isofar as I think that, to me these people are as much to be appreciated as the guy who comes to connect one to water sources and sewers. All kinds of labour are essential, to me… unfortunately the hierarchical positionings of importance amongst us all set up artificial barriers to appreciation of each other. 🙂

  7. suburbanlife Says:

    Deborah – ‘coming out” is the right term for it, it is an announcement and acknowledgement of “difference”… thanks for the great and incisive comment, maybe moving to Bohemia would have elements of living in Suburbia, too many of the same “types” might lead to a certain kind of boredom, not enough variety, maybe?

    Tommi – I think we all sleep/dream in Bohemia without necessarily having to go there? You have travelled in Bohemia, a lot, I suspect:-)

  8. scottfree2b Says:

    “…the life of artists living in unheated garrets led to misery, excessive drinking of alcohol, illicit sexual conduct and Mimi’s untimely death due to consumption.”

    Well I have to admit that as a musician, other than experiencing death due to consumption, I have lived (and mostly enjoyed) all the rest of the horrors mentioned here. I wouldn’t trade those years for ANYTHING! Now my son, having witnessed all of the above in me, is the one warning his children away from the arts. I don’t worry for the grand kids. Artists carry a burning desire that can’t be quenched (and may actually be stoked) by the feeble warnings of well meaning parents. Ain’t Life Grand!!!

    I enjoy your blog 🙂

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