by Caroline J. Simon
I sit cross-legged on the ground by the lake at Oxbow, painting the stump in front of me. I capture the grace, bulk, and heft of the stump with a few deft strokes, as I have been taught. My pallet knife layers stroke after stroke of raw umber, burnt umber, browns, and grays, mimicking rough bark. In the upper right quadrant of the painting, I brush smooth, short horizontal warms, the reflection of the dune spreading across the lake’s still waters from the opposite bank. I use some of these same warms for a few of the places where the sun touches the matte surfaces of the bark. I throw just one or two cerulean echoes of the lake water onto the trunk.
All week my teacher has been trying to get me to loosen up. This stump-portrait is loose. But she wants me to “see” and paint what I see. What do I see in this stump?
My teacher is sitting on a shaded porch with someone, rocking and talking. “That stump is nuclear,” she says as I hold up the canvas on my way back to the painting barn. I hear this as damning. Ambiguous “praise” at best. I look at the canvas again, for the first time seeing resemblances to the old Trojan Power Plant on the Columbia River. “So, okay then. Try to make the foreground have that same over-the-top quality.” I nod. I mull over her comments as I continue toward the barn.
I sat down by that stump in defiance, willfully intent on painting an Idea. “Though its stump grows old in the ground, at the scent of water, it will bud.” I came to Oxbow grieving. I was manufacturing an icon of hope.
I am laying down line after line. Contour drawing, it is called. This is the fourth of six life drawing exercises that we are doing this afternoon in the meadow at Oxbow. It rained this morning. The sun is warming the damp from the morning’s rain, making the air smell green. Our subject is a young woman who spends most of her time on the kitchen crew here. I am trying to be a good student. Look. Let the lines define not just the shape, but the weight, of what you see. Look mainly at the model. Glance at the paper only to set your pencil back at its starting point.
I hope my hand and eyes are obedient. My “monkey mind” is not. While my hand moves, my thoughts chatter away. “How does she stay so still?” Her back and neck arch as she reaches her arms behind her, resting her hands on a high stool. Her head is back. We have only fifteen minutes for this exercise. Earlier, when she was seated in a chair, we got thirty minutes to do an ink and brush sketch.
“How does someone get a tan like that?” Three inch circles are dotted in even patterns over what would have been covered by a one piece bathing suit. “Did she pose outdoors in body paint recently?”
People walk back and forth on the path behind her, on their way to the dining hall, the pottery shed, to hike the woods. Some look at the model. Some look at us looking, look at us drawing. Look. Draw what you see. “Where has she gone?” Her eyelids droop. Her body drapes in unselfconscious repose. “What would it be like to be her?”
It is our last session, the “gallery walk.” All students have displayed our week’s works along the painting barn walls. One of the MFA students has painted a nude on a five foot by five foot canvas. The model stares straight ahead at the viewer. This is no “come hither” look. These eyes demand, “What’s up with you?”
“Why did you choose to paint your nude with glasses?” asks Dave, a public defender from Chicago. A serious amateur painter, he’s done some very interesting pieces this week.
“She was wearing glasses,” several women say in unison.
When the “gallery walk” gets to my section, the teacher focuses on an odd shaped, incomplete, eight-inch acrylic sketch I’d made sitting in the woods. The classmate who’d spent all week talking, making the rounds and looking over shoulders had seen this scrap Wednesday and said, “Can I have that?’ So I’ve tacked it up. Within the trapezoid the sun flitters through the trees, falling on the leaves and bracken on the forest floor; slivers here and there of cobalt sky showing through the birch, maples and ash. Thinking of this as a preliminary study for some later, finished, work and wanting to get done before I was consumed by bugs, I’d rushed. Trees, leaves, breeze, rustle, light, sky, the occasional whine of a mosquito. Stillness.
“Best work you did this week,” says the teacher, tapping it with her finger.
Caroline J. Simon is a philosopher and administrator at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. She is the author/coauthor of five books, including Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity and The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny and Imagination. The latter book uses literature to explore the nature of love. She paints from time to time and has recently become intrigued with creative nonfiction as a vehicle for exploring topics that outstrip the capabilities of academic prose.
Image by Michael Arndt is from here.