It is helpful, too, to say that the nipples are about one head below the chin, the navel another head below the nipples and the symphysis pubis about three-fourths of a head below the navel. The knees may then be said to come halfway between the symphysis pubis and the floor. —Robert Beverly Hale
A sense of proportion and a rough awareness of where the nipples are located are not just helpful—they are essential knowledge for the working artist. And nowhere do they come in more handy than when you set out to draw the human figure.
There is a door on the south side of Spring Street near Lafayette that leads down a flight of stairs to a basement full of easels and drawing tables. There is a hush of deep concentration there; people are hunkered over those tables with various drawing materials, and in the center of the room on a raised platform is a naked man or woman. They are all engaged in the ancient practice of drawing from the nude.
It is called the Spring Studio. It is open seven days a week, 360 days a year. There are three sessions a day, each three hours long, and it costs ten dollars a session, even less when you buy in bulk. It is run by Minerva Durham and it’s not a nonprofit—she calls it a business. I look around; there is no fame, glory, or money in this. I call it a public service, or maybe a religion.
This activity reminds me of the study of martial arts, or meditation, or perhaps what practicing the scales means to a musician. There is a certain modesty here: drawing from the model is an experience that most will find very humbling—it is damned hard. And is it still of value? How does the contemporary visual artist practice? Against what objective physical reality do we compare our efforts? Perhaps a deep knowledge of the form in which we travel through the world could have an abstract fiction for us, regardless of the actual form our work takes.
Cézanne said, “The study of the model and its realization is very slow in coming.” I have personally found this to be an understatement. I slave, the drawing gets worse and worse, and, at the same time, the model gets more and more beautiful. The curve of the belly, the curl of relaxed fingers, one could almost reach out and touch, but STOP. That would be against the whole monkly discipline of the thing; the erotic is meant not to be acted upon but instead sublimated into the work.
However, my own art education consisted almost entirely in drawing and painting from the model in long, agonizing sessions both morning and afternoon. It was terribly rigorous, often very boring, and yet the whole school had a charged erotic atmosphere that was not all sublimated. There, artists earned their bad reputation. Many of us also modeled in the nude to make money—nudity seemed very natural in Alabama, where it was hot. Quite hot. And humid, too.
I found modeling itself to be an incredible torture. I used to go around during the breaks seething with anger, comparing my pain to the inept drawings. The models at the Spring Studio impress me deeply—they care! They strike difficult poses and sweat and quiver their way through them. They are proud, and rightly receive rounds of applause at the end of every session. There are youthful and mature ones, thin, muscular, fat. Their poses and their body types suggest the Baroque, German Expressionism, the Romantic, the Cubist.
The women are quite various in their degrees of voluptuousness, but the male models all have one thing very strikingly in common, which I will stoutly deny has anything to do with the following recipe.
My friend Martin Arnold is a filmmaker, not a painter, but he still has a few good ideas. He showed me the perfect way to cook an Italian sausage. The best places to buy a sausage in the neighborhood, in order of goodness, are Mama Maria on Graham Avenue and Joe’s Busy Corner. Tops is pretty good too. I like the hot, but try the sweet as well. I haven’t been to the Pork Store on Lorimer, but I’ve heard good things about it.
Prick several holes in each sausage with a needle or the tip of a sharp knife (Martin prefers the needle). Place in a frying pan with almost enough water to cover them. When the water is completely boiled away, they will start to brown in their own fat. Keep turning them until the outside is nice and brown and crispy. This is the opposite of the usual way to cook other kinds of meat or vegetables—usually they are browned first and then slowly cooked through. But with sausages, Martin’s method seems to really develop the spices and improve the texture.
The rest of the meal can be very simple. Joe’s Busy Corner has great choices in ravioli and wonderful homemade sauce. Or, for something completely different, try a suggestion from Poimane, the fabulous French cook, and serve them with raw oysters. First take a bite of hot sausage, then slide down a cold oyster. Repeat. That is the way to restore yourself from, or prepare yourself for, a study of the human body.
ContributorCathy Nan Quinlan