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Drawing on Another Side

Postcard from the Linden St. art studios

By J. hale Russell

LINDEN ST. ART STUDIOS—Few things are more intimidating than sketching a naked female stranger posing five feet away. To be precise, I can think of two things more intimidating: first, doing so without knowing how to draw so much as a stick figure; second, discovering that the model in question likes to examine the finished products for “different perspectives” on her body.

Luckily enough, I had a chance to do all three of these things Tuesday afternoon in my summer school drawing class. As the model wandered the compositions at the end of class, she indeed saw on my easel the “different perspective” she had been seeking. Standing directly, if lopsidedly, on the shoulders of Picasso’s infamous red skies, I had used my newfound artistic license to make her lips green and mysteriously proportioned her legs to be roughly the same length as her neck. (Though perhaps I am giving myself a bit too much agency, for I think my cray-pas did this on their own, with very little guidance from me.)

As far back as I can remember, my father, an artist, has urged me to explore the underutilized right side of my brain through art lessons, which somehow has never happened. Though I am frequently asked if I share his artistic talents, I can confirm that the drawing gene skips generations. As a proctor for Harvard Summer School, I was entitled to a free class, and naively signed up for Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) S-12, “Exploring the Nature of Drawing.” Finally, I would have the chance to try to create what I had criticized so easily as The Crimson’s Arts chair last year. Having gone through three years of college without really learning anything truly new—despite all the (unfinished) reading we do, college seems to be more an expansion of things you learn in high school than an exploration of really unfamiliar areas—the prospect of trying something in which I have neither natural disposition nor past training was exciting and nervewracking.

My trepidation going into the first class proved to be misplaced. Sprawled on the floor in front of a driftwood composition, it was relaxing and even fun to do two-minute sketches in a variety of materials. I got a bit ahead of myself early on, when I decided that I, too, could imitiate Jackson Pollock—an episode which came to an abrupt halt when my ink splattered not into a beautiful pattern on my paper but rather into a less desirable blob on the shirt of the budding artist standing next to me. I also learned that raspberries are deceptively complicated structures, and I would do my artistic talents too great a compliment to say my repeated sketches, for three grueling hours, of this particular berry resembled a lump.

However, our teacher, an inspiring and witty painter from Maine, has mastered the art of reassuring me through rhetoric that is either extremely optimistic or extremely euphemistic. For instance, he calls my art “energetic” rather than the term I might use, “messy.” I have also noticed (but hope others have not) that I consume more art materials than anyone else in the class, probably because I am so “energetic.” In case you are curious where your tuition money is spent, Harvard provides unlimited art supplies to VES classes (as the instructor repeats on a daily basis, “the great crimson mother shall provide”). I am on a mission to reclaim every penny that has funneled from my parents’ bank account to Harvard, one charcoal stub at a time.

Friends have greeted my artistic endeavors with mixed reactions. By mixed, I mean some are more sensitive than others in describing my unique gifts. One friend who accompanied me to my class’ studio room for me to pick up some supplies took a look around and immediately exclaimed, “These are terrible!” Later, when I remarked on her harshness towards my artisic expression, she explained that it wasn’t personal and rather was because she “just doesn’t like modern art.” I doubt my drawings of fruit (lumps) constitute “modern art,” but I accepted it as a compliment.

Having reached that age where, conventional wisdom says, you lose most of your ability to learn new languages, instruments and skills, it’s refreshing to have the opportunity to try something completely new—something which happens rarely after high school. In fact, I think the professor was right that I am at an advantage for having no artistic experience; my lack of confidence means that I am more pliable and ready to throw around ink and erase everything and spill water everywhere. It feels good to leave the studios covered in charcoal dust and paint, an inky reminder of the brief escape my class provides twice a week.

J. Hale Russell ’05, a former Crimson executive, is an English concentrator in Adams House. He is accepting commissions for original signed Russell still lifes entitled, “Lump with Lump.”

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