I fell asleep on the train.
Two weeks ago, for the first time leaving Boston on the commuter rail, I was exhausted. Every time I leave Boston I’m tired, but that’s accompanied by anxiety and annoyance and I can't relax enough to sleep. A lot of the time I spend in Boston is alone, and I'm not very good at that. Loneliness empties me. I’ve left feeling frustrated and disappointed and not really understanding why.
This time I wasn’t sitting around trying to figure out my disappointment. Honest to goodness, I didn’t feel that way at all. I sank back into my seat and let my exhaustion overtake me as memories of the evening filled in.
That night, I had gone to a figure drawing class.
It wasn’t so much a class as it was an opportunity to draw a live model. I went to a studio on the 3rd floor of some building in Allston, which is some obscure part of Boston that I actually don’t know quite where it is, only that somehow I managed to get there and I managed to find my way back.
The man who owned the studio was a middle-aged man named Rocco Ricci and he wore tinted glasses and a beard. He served us chardonnay, sparkling water (I took the sparkling water, which was gross), grapes and crackers. He cut cheddar cheese with a plastic butter knife and looked at me and said in exasperation, “I need a new knife.” To every person that walked in, he told them, “Say hi to Liesl. She’s new.”
The model for the night was Jen. Jen, with the drawn-on eyebrows and smoky eyes and red lipsticked lips. Her hair was cut like a pixie and the color of pine tree bark. She had thighs that were amazingly huge. Her stomach stuck out and I loved her for it. I may be skinny, but my stomach sticks out too. My self-confidence swelled as I drew.
We began the session. Rocco discovered I had only a pencil and a sketchbook and immediately produced newsprint and charcoal. For those who don't understand the value of these, newsprint and charcoal are very durable. Charcoal's messier than graphite but just as easy to work with and makes for excellent figure drawing of all sorts. In short, I was rowing a boat and he gave me a motor.
We started off with 3-minute poses, or as Jen called it, “one-song poses.” Unlike any figure drawing class I’ve ever been to, there was music. Rocco played Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, as well as other people I never heard of. Jen spilled out trivia during her poses, naming her favorites - Neil Young - and reminiscing about concerts.
The musicians were shameless with the harmonicas, which went well with the location. The building is next to train tracks that the commuter rail rides on. The windows were open and I could hear cars driving by and every time the train rode by and made this big ol’ whooshing sound that rattled the windows. The one-song poses evolved into two songs and three songs. The sun set as we drew and the metal bars on the windows turned to gold.
A woman named Jan stood next to me. She went to art school but then did something else for 25 years but was now getting back into art. She sometimes danced to the music while she worked and it was contagious. I sang along to “Sound of Silence” and bobbed my head and tapped my foot while I drew along in time to the beat.
I hadn’t stood in a figure drawing class before. I’ve always sat in those super uncomfortable drawing horses and my back would break as I did tedious pose after tedious pose after tedious pose. These poses weren’t tedious and I had a great time because I was standing at an easel, which rhymes with my name.
I stared back and forth at Jen and the paper as I tried to figure out how to draw what I saw in front of me. I pinched the charcoal in between my thumb and index finger and watched my fingertips turn black. At times I attacked the newsprint because I hated the way that drawing was turning out. But then I turned the page and started over.
That is the beauty of drawing. It’s forgiving. You can start over and you will always be starting over, but each time you do you get better.
One particular drawing became my baby, a three-songer, or a 10-minute pose. I refused to concentrate on anything else and poured my being into this drawing. I manipulated the charcoal in my hand to make the shadows work just right and to capture the hard lines and soft lines. When I finished the details on her beautiful eyes and nose, I stood back and gazed at it.
"Wow," I breathed. I took the pad off the easel and began to tear out the page to put in my backpack.
"That's a keeper," said Rocco, coming over to look at it.
"I know!" I said excitedly, forgetting my modesty. "It was so fun to draw!"
"I could tell," he said with a smile. "I saw you get into it."
I finally remembered to put my ego away and turned red. "Oh, yeah. I'm not supposed to be full of myself about my art. Uh, thanks. Thank you. It really was an incredible experience." Jen laughed and started a new pose.
Later that night I tried drawing with ink, as is pictured above. A woman named Valerie handed me a brush and I dipped it into a bottle of India ink and attempted to draw. Ink is unforgiving. That is precisely why David, a fellow student, loved it, and precisely why I gave up after three drawings.
After it ended, I rode a bus to a subway stop with Jen, who smoked and told me stories of all the people who attend that class. She told me about Jan, who had a battle with cancer last year and whose art has become so much more intense because of it. There's Ben, a foul-mouthed genius who's been friends with Jen forever. Valerie, who I worked with on the ink drawings, is an art teacher and organized the group. John, the bearded one, never says anything but comes every week with his twenty dollars and sketchpad. And then there's David, very friendly and almost as new as me.
Jen and I parted ways and I took the subway to South Station and caught the last train to Kingston. I climbed up the stairs to the second level of the train, made my way to a lone chair and sat. I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes, and nodded off.
I was drawing again. I remembered why I liked it and found new things to love about it. I saw me, a great and an awful artist. Yet I continued to draw and I wanted nothing more than to improve. It's been so long since that's happened. Not like a "I must be better than everyone else" feeling, but simply, "I just want to learn."
There in the studio I found kindred spirits within the ink and charcoal and grapes. Rocco and his friends reached out to me, took my loneliness and placed it on the shelf and didn’t let me touch it not even once while I was drawing. I created on the newsprint. I no longer cared about who was talking to me and whether they were good-looking or not, but instead forgot myself as I soared into the art.