A lovely article from Nathan Dunne of The Guardian, showing us how understanding others can be a pretty basic art. With screens and space removing us from each other, something as simple as life drawing connects us. An intimate study of an unknown body reminds us of our own memories and feelings, and that others have them too. What’s more, just a “pocket of time”, as Dunne says, participating in a group activity, is sometimes enough.
Daily life is increasingly a relationship with the screen, a digital reality of reproduction, manipulation and surveillance. As Win Butler of Arcade Fire sang on Reflektor in 2013, “We’re so connected, but are we even friends?” Increasingly, I feel that the most persistent symptom of the internet age is a lack of empathy. In 2006 the then-senator Barack Obama referred to the US’s “empathy deficit”, while commentators have used the notion of an “empathy gap” as a talking point, often with regard to climate change or racial tensions.
The place where I rediscovered my capacity for empathy was in a life drawing class. Picture a dusty room with no windows above a chicken shop. With a piece of overpriced charcoal, I marked out the contours of a middle-aged man’s impressive belly. My drawings were terrible, truly terrible. I couldn’t get the head right, or the nipples right, or the toes or torso. It was a mess, a car crash of broken lines. While my classmates were delicately rendering the suprasternal notch, the bellybutton I drew looked like a scrap of three-day-old sausage left out for the dogs.
I began to feel for that body and person not my own
But even as I struggled with my drawings, I began to feel for that body and person not my own. According to Heddi Siebel, who teaches a life drawing class at Harvard: “It’s so vital and important for one human to be studying, looking, and perceiving another human because it eventually creates empathy. You’ll start to understand your own vulnerabilities by studying those of the model.”
My empathy breakthrough really came during a class in which I was trying to render a model’s eyes, which were shadowed by impressively thick brows. Something about the way they defined her face put me in mind of a cousin I’d lost contact with. Courtesy of the eyes, I was suddenly inside a memory, wading through a bright patch of roses in Mrs Murphy’s garden with my cousin in 1996, when suddenly she fell among the thorns and cut her arms. Blood flowed into her palms. I helped her up and we sobbed together.
My classmates, a mixed gender group of all ages, all appeared captivated by the model’s face. I wondered – what had she been doing in 1996? Were her parents kind to her? Had she even known her parents? Focusing on the model’s shifting poses – seated, slumped, athletic, crouched – I started to imaginatively inhabit her experience. I drew her stillness and wondered how she relieved the inevitable tiredness that came from this work. The result was one of my better efforts.
I started to imaginatively inhabit her experience
A crucial aspect of the class was music. On a portable stereo that was old enough to have a tape deck, the instructor played a hymn called Christ the Apple Tree on repeat. It made for a deeper concentration and, for a brief moment, I wondered if I could smell the scents of a garden. The lyrics became clear, as if slowed down – This fruit doth make my soul to thrive / It keeps my dying faith alive – and then faded away, absorbed by myriad other sounds; the shifting of chairs, a phlegmy cough, the tsk of the charcoal.
The challenge was to wade through the music towards the model’s body and collect the birthmarks and scars and stray hairs before marking the page. Here was a cage of bones and blood, like my own, and yet wholly different in its shape and complexity. To be caught in this kind of transference felt like liberation.
I have found life drawing to be a pocket of time away from the screen, one in which a small group of people are intensely drawn to real bodies. Skinny, fat, muscled, scarred, bald, tattooed, hairy. Each presents its own challenge for those behind the easels, but one that has allowed me, in a sense, to become other people. Seated in a circle around a nude model can also at times feel like being part of a very select group – lovers of imperfect bodies.
I never thought intense concentration about thigh hair would be on the path to a better community but, in an age where hatred or fear of the other is increasingly weaponised by pundits and politicians, perhaps being willing to spend a couple of hours drawing the naked bodies our neighbours is a good place to start.