Monday, October 13, 2008

Sudden serendipity

Yay, Sudden Fiction class has begun again. Award-winning writer, Eleanor Morse, deftly leads a group of 12 writers with a seemingly simple premise: take a prompt, write for one hour, and read aloud. Sounds easy, but it's in fact a complex and heart-thumping experience. The undeliberated act of writing in the midst of others has proven invigorating. I found out: I got me a well of material inside. Eleanor asks us to let it out, unedited, unfettered. Comments upon reading must be positive only. Eleanor says, "So, what's the rigor in that? Well, it waters the strong parts while letting the weak parts be forgotten."

Truly, encouragement is an underused teaching tool. I've taken the technique into my own classes; prompts, free reign, and praise have yielded some great responses from my students. I mean, really, art school can be a cavernous den of egos and criticism. Nobody wants to take a risk. But I have to take risks, alongside my students.

Recently, I asked them to head outside the classroom and do 10 sketches in an hour:
4 females, 4 males, one animal, and one person with a wheeled vehicle of any kind.
After doing a bit of paperwork, I headed out onto Congress Street to draw. In "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw", Peter Steinhart writes, "Drawing is a way of communicating with the world, of listening to what the world has to say and answering back." Finding a sunny perch on the sidewalk near a bus stop, I got out my charcoal pencil.

When you draw, you have a short and intense relationship with your subject. Proportions, posture, clothing, and temperment somehow surface in the marks you make.
And drawing from a person who has not given you permission, who may not know what you're up to, means you make your decisions quickly. This is visual agility training.
This man was holding a bag and glancing in both directions, scanning for the bus. I imagined him taking the #5 to the Mall and applying for Macey's Santa position.

Santa man got on the bus. I kept my gaze but drew a guy in my foreground, taking a break right on the opposite bench. He's an artist who works in the facilities department, but I don't know his name and did this as stealthily as I could.

It was time to move my viewpoint. I crossed the street and caught this stoutly stylish lady just before she stepped on the bus. I liked her skirt.

This was my wheeled entry: a double one, the delivery man with his dollie rolling into the back of a SYSCO truck. I normally don't gravitate to drawing vehicles, but hey, I gotta set a good example.

This lady was probably waiting for a bus, too. All sexy and wearing a very sharp leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and taking in the street scene. At this point, my pencil needed sharpening, but I'd left that in the classroom. I was out of colored paper. I fished in my bag for another pencil and drew 5 more in a lined notebook.
I loathe drawing on lined paper, but I did it to complete the task. Headed back to the classroom, where everyone put up some of their hasty sketches. There are always at least a few good things that come from this sudden sketching. Sharper perceptions, an awareness of choices, shorthand, and radar. Why are we drawn to certain things? Why are we compelled to draw them?

Now, students are supposed to take one of the "field notes" from the outing and do 25 more drawings of that one person, morphing in any possible way through characterization, distortion, memory, invention, backstory. Try it, it's fun!

The next day, I had volunteered in a classroom at King Middle School as part of the Lead On project. Students are learning about leadership, researching leaders, doing portraits of a chosen leader, and self-portraits, picturing themselves as leaders. People like concrete how-to-draw formulas, but honestly, there are none. In my view, each artist has to hold the pencil himself, look through his own eyes, establish his own point of view. Students were given paper (I gave out a couple of sheets), pencils, and mirrors.
Mr. Miranda reminded them about PERSERVERANCE, which has to be the most key phrase for artists! Drawing is a challenging task in any circumstance, but drawing one's own face can be an exercise in complete frustration. Again, I provided encouragement and used the extra sheet of paper to draw an example of say, how I draw a nose. In sixth grade, there's enough distraction to go around. But both classes I saw had good determination, due diligence, and they gave me a King clap at the end. One student asked to have someone pose, real quick, for her. I volunteered. She did this sketch in about 3 or 4 minutes, signed it, and gave it to me!

Olivia, you are a brave and brilliant artist, and may your skills of agility and observation grow stronger with age and practice. Keep up the good work!

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