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Life Drawing

ART TIMES September 2006

At Richard's studio behind the River Gallery in Independence, Oregon, a nude woman climbs onto a sturdy table draped in red velvet. When Richard switches on and adjusts the lamps, her hair brightens, her tawny skin glows, shadows cross behind her legs.  A heavy, bearded man leans forward on a drawing horse holding a piece of compressed charcoal.  The model turns and settles, and he begins drawing her legs—the cave behind her right knee, the long dune of her left thigh—and the arched, medial twilight between them.  Around the room people are looking up and down, up and down.  A painter dabs shiny pools of brown; a woman with a ball point pen rolls out long looping lines of blue.

The model is looking away, and the warm glow of her back fills part of an old Victorian mirror. The heavy man charcoals her shoulders and head, hesitating at her face and dropping suddenly to her legs, then rising to the rich shadows of her breasts.  What seems like a disorganized approach is his way of mapping the territory, establishing proportions.  The rounded notes of Monk's piano fall lightly from an old LP on the turntable and the air tastes of coffee and wood smoke.

After fifteen minutes the model turns. Her right hand vanishes and her torso twists into a classic contrapposto, accentuating the Latin cords of sternomastoid, trapezius and deltoid, while she looks at us as warmly, like a woman who's tried herself out, not in stone or clay, but in the vernacular, fleshly pleasures of seeing and being seen. The painter clips a fresh piece of paper to his easel. He needles his brush into a walnut wash and lays a low baseline beneath her buttocks. The heavy, bearded man—hands and shirt smudged black—sips coffee from a ceramic mug and beams upward. I follow his eyes to the high, water-stained ceiling, the grimy, unused fluorescent lights, the chipped walls stapled with sketches of landscapes, fish, and women, mostly women. There are also framed pieces—fine works in oil, ink and pastel—hanging from rusty wires. But the model's body is unwrapped and clean on its red-draped pedestal. The heavy man has left her expression blank and he lightly shades the dip above her navel, the sandy waves of her abdomen, the deep values of her spherical breasts. But he can't stay away from her face. The orbit of her right eye darker than it need be, he digs out the light with an eraser. An idea recovered.

In the new reclining pose that faces us there is a sense of the body's jaguar length, its power to take us. I notice that she is wearing a pearl necklace, and for the first time during the session, I feel a slight charge between my legs. A beautiful woman wearing nothing but pearls.  The model's short blond hair is pulled up into a Grecian corona of soft flames that catch the paper under the quick strokes of a dark hand. The heavy man pulls back and sighs like a gentle beast, changes charcoal densities and rockers out her down-swung breasts. Calmed by this gravity, he slowly emerges near her waist, moving high over her iliac crest, her great trochanter, and down the femoral glade, riding the plump of her paired calves. A pastoral retreat, thigh-soaked in meadow and a honey-hipped hill. He works her torso, her neck, suddenly finding her feet wandering out in the desert. "Two more minutes on this. Then we break," Richard announces from across the room. There is a sense of urgency, the cheekbones, the delicate mouth, the eyes, finally, the eyes. A woman I recognize. "Okay. Let's take a break." And she folds her pose, smiles, stretches.


Lisa is the model. She arrived at my apartment before the session and demanded a glass of wine. "I want to mellow out before I do this." Lisa had never modeled, never taken off her clothes before a group of people. "I have stretch marks," she said as I filled her glass.  "I've got scars." Lisa's two children are home with a sitter but the cancer she battled last spring and summer may still be with her, there's no way of knowing for sure. The removal of a malignant tumor from her right breast just over a year ago is marked by a shiny, fading, two-inch line. Two surgeries, four chemotherapy treatments, forty radiations, and continuing doses of menstrual arresting tomoxifn and zolodex have given Lisa a new appreciation of the flesh. "I love my body," she told me one afternoon before going in for reconstructive surgery that included silicone implants. "Might as well do what I can with it." And Lisa went from a damaged B to a full C.  "You look beautiful," I said. "You'll be great."


Lisa is in a light cotton robe chatting with the painter. He may be sixty years old but he has a remarkable head of hair, a silver hoop in his left ear, and the generous ease of a comfortably retired businessman. "You're doing terrific," he says to Lisa. "Very relaxed, great."  His paintings are drying on the floor before a portable easel. He has turned Lisa's body into tumbling brown clouds—quiet abstractions of the female anatomy. There is little facial detail, but the bodies seem complete.  I'd met him once at an opening, giving us just enough familiarity to discuss nude models. "Their personalities come through," he says. "But it's not from the face. Not even the muscles. I don’t know, but you can feel it."  I pause and look closely at his work. "I'm not worried about duplication anymore. That's obvious," he tells me.  "It's what the body says about form, about life."

Walking around the room there are many Lisas. A fifty-something woman with light skin and milky blond hair has drawn Lisa using only a ballpoint pen. Her tool seems too ordinary—I think of high school desk doodles and phone book art. But she has spooled out felicitous circles of woman. Lisa's round breasts sing into her biceps, shoulders and cheeks. There's something astronomically elliptical about the trails of blue. And in the white margin she's written, "Are you warm enough?"  Are you warm enough? It was question Richard asked early in the evening, a question I had forgotten.  

Richard puts another log in the potbelly stove and I leaf through drawings done in color pencil. I don't know the artist, though I saw him drive up earlier on his motorcycle. He is younger, tall, with the smart, sun-toughened face of a carpenter. His Lisas are muscular, dense, sexy in a way real art pretends not to be. When he sees me studying his work, he steps over. "Yeah, sometimes I get it. Sometimes not." 

"I like it," I feel compelled to say in a way I didn't with the others. This man is less accomplished, but he is drawing a woman that turns him on. I can see that. He has carefully shaded her ripe hips, flaring her small waist and abdomen into the voluptuous bloom of her breasts. "This part is tough," he says, hovering a finger above her shoulders. But he got something right for himself. Lisa's eyes and mouth are ever so inviting, her lips softly parted.     

The heavy, bearded man again mounts his drawing horse. He is eager to begin. "Alright," Richard says, and Lisa slips off her robe and hangs it on a nail. I stare at the lifeless garment and think, That's it. In the end, that's the body.  Lisa cried for days after the doctor called. Then there were the sobbing rants against the body's betrayal. "I don't smoke, I eat right and exercise. I'm thirty-three for Chrissake." But the anger didn't last. A week after her surgery she started walking. The walks got longer—she strollered her three-year-old son up and down the hills above the river, exhausted her six-year-old on a mountain hike, held the curious focus of her cats as she squeezed through sit-ups and dumbbell routines. "I want my body back," she insisted one morning as we stood naked before the bathroom mirror. "Look at these breasts."

"They look fine," I said. Lisa had always lamented that her breasts deflated after she nursed her babies. And then surgery left the right hemisphere with an apricot-sized dimple around which the radiated skin had tightened.  "No," she shook her head. "They're not fine!"

Eight months after her lumpectomy, Lisa chose a reconstructive procedure at Salem Hospital. The surgeon secured two silicone implants of 300 and 400 CCs behind her pectoral muscles and lifted the left breast, bringing volume and symmetry back to her chest.  Packed in a surgical bra, she rested in a Vicadon haze, looking down at the new ridge in the blankets. "I can't believe it," she whispered.  The pain dissipated after two weeks, the turgid swelling subsided, and scabs flaked off the crescent scars, now nearly invisible in each moony crease. "I think he did a beautiful job," she said. "Like an artist." 


The younger man presses hard to create the small, defined circles of Lisa's areolas. Looking up, pleased with his accuracy, he rewards himself with a smiling stare. Here, it is perfectly all right to gaze at a woman's chest or the shadows between her legs. "What are you focusing on?" someone asks. Lisa blinks, surprised by the question. "Me? Oh, just that crack in the wall," she says.  She finds modeling relaxing. "I just stare at something and empty my head."  A few weeks after Lisa's debut, I, too, would go before these men and women of the River Gallery, take off my clothes and climb onto the velvet-draped table. It was nothing like the stoic freeze I imagined necessary for a tableau vivant or the brute hydraulics of pornography. It was a bit like sitting Zen, but with more physicality. Like jogging—the calm rhythm interrupted only by an ache or strain that's worked through, until mind and body redissolve into the zone. The audible friction of chalk and the rustle of paper are not unlike birds and wind.  "Dancing," Lisa added. "Sometimes it feels like a really slow dance."  

The gallery's front door jangles and moments later a tall, balding, professorish-looking man walks into the studio and apologizes. He pulls a pair of wooden chopsticks out of his pocket and I wonder if he is here to eat. Dinner with a view? But these are his tools, and he is soon dipping a chopstick into an inkwell and lining Lisa's body. "It's unforgiving," he tells me. "You lay down a line and that's it."  His lines have the serious direction of the ball-pointer and the lambent play of the painter. Ripplely and seismic, he has come in late and just started dancing.


Monk's "Misterioso" swells like a shallow creek after rain, and suddenly the room feels freer. "What's with all the fish drawings?" Lisa asks, eye-wondering the studio walls.  There's soft laughter and Richard says, "I love fish. They're so simple and beautiful." There isn't much conversation in the life drawing group, but there are no vows of silence, and when I move to the other side of the room, Richard says, "Have a seat. You want a glass of wine?"

His desk is cluttered with drawings, books, pencils, tools, sticky cups, fly boxes and reels.  The careless clutter of the world. The garage or basement we've never straightened out, but from which we pull our devices of labor and delight. Right beside him in an open tin are the chalks, charcoals, conté crayons, pencils and stumps (thick ashy rockets of tightly rolled paper) that mark the course of his hands. Richard uses a stout stump to draw Lisa in wide, bold strokes that sweep over the paper.

These body-making lines and colors take me to the bright bathers of Degas and Modigliani's smooth Tuscan seductions, the enduring blue geometries of Picasso, even to the smoky oil painting of the languorous brunette over the bar at Lenora's Ghost, the pub next door where I've drunk away many a day's aches, ignoring cellular rebellion and the silent metastases of death.  Jogging off a hangover along the steep gravel drive of Fir Crest Cemetery, there are new pains in my knees and back, my temples sunburn where the hair has receded. And at home after a shower, I notice the gradual sink of my chest, the thinning in my shoulders, the way my face has drooped. "Use it or lose it," Lisa says, and we work our bodies, but the slow degrade is inevitable. Unlike the way Richard exercises his amazing portrait of Lisa, building the long muscles of her arms and neck, the calmly determined chin. From this angle, we have a fine side view of Lisa's right breast, but I notice that Richard has omitted the vertical scar.  "The drawing has a life of its own," he says. And indeed, many of these sketches and paintings will outlive Lisa, will outlive all of us.

Minutes before the session's wrap I see weariness in her slow blinks. The hot lamplight brings soft moisture to her face and arms, and a long piano improv surprises us by ending. With a perfect ankle line, the chopsticking professor closes the electric circuit of her long legs. The younger man bends over her torso, frantically shading in short, last minute stokes. The ball pointer pockets her pen and smiles, Richard leans back and takes a sip of wine, the painter stands up, and the heavy man just stares, holding his charcoal like a spent torch above Lisa's head. I study the arrows of shadow beneath her breasts, an image the artists didn't capture—something I'll just have to remember or learn to live without.    

(Henry Hughes' essays on art and literature have appeared in Newsday and Harvard Review. His recent collection of poems, Men Holding Eggs, received the Oregon Book Award).

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