Friday, 14 October 2011

life, drawing

Driving to the life drawing class, Katie was nervous. "What if they make a fuss about me being there?"

"You're an artist," I said; "You've got as much right as anyone to be there. And if they're any use, they'll recognise that and it'll be fine. You know. Artists. They're good."

We parked near the great Victorian Gothic hall of the Bristol school that hosted the class, and looked for the way in. A young woman cycled by, a big bag of sketchbooks in the basket on her handlebars.

"We'll follow her," I said.

Wise move. Crossing the schoolyard, three more women joined us. All young, all carrying sketchbooks. I hoped Katie was feeling reassured.

"Are you Mo Samgrass?" I asked the friendly man at the door.

"No; there he is, over there."

Mo was chatting animatedly to a bearded man. There were a lot of bearded men there. Mo was fairly beardy, too, actually, come to think of it. We approached him.

"Hello! Dru and Katie Marland. We wrote..."

"Ah! Yes. Sorry I didn't write. I've been talking about it with my wife. She thought that there might be problems with your daughter being here. So we think it would be better if you didn't come. The models..."

"I did explain in my e-mail..."

"Yes, but..."

I'd written to Mr Samgrass last week, explaining our intentions.

I’m looking for somewhere for my daughter Katie to practice life drawing; she’s 14 and an enthusiastic artist, but we think that she could do with some life drawing experience. Do you have any spaces left on your courses?

He'd replied

If you wanted to send along your daughter to either class it'd be fine with me. Including this week there are 6 sessions left of this term so the cost would be £35. You should bear in mind that this is nude life drawing, given your daughters age however, although I'd be happy enough if you were.

So I wrote back

Thank you, Mo! What does she need to bring along? –also, as she is a bit lacking in confidence when it comes to new places, would it be poss for me to accompany her for at least the first evening? –I’d be happy to join in and to pay too, if it wasn’t in the way.

I hadn't received a reply, but I knew that Mo was a bit haphazard when it comes to e-mails. So I hadn't worried unduly.

Mo was now being edgy, and a little embarrassed. "Some people might object to having a child here. You're here tonight, though, so you can stay for this evening, if you like, and just pay £11."

He was flustered, and hurried. We decided to stay...

There were three circles of chairs. A helpful woman explained that one circle was for short poses of five minutes, one for fifteen minutes, and one for an hour. The fifteen minute circle seemed the most popular, and we rather fancied joining it. But there wasn't room. Several people were sitting at big circular tables, facing the middle; everyone else perched drawing boards or sketchbooks on their laps.

"Sitting at tables seems to be getting popular," said the woman ruefully.

"Yes; the caravans of the art world," I said. We exchanged wan smiles.

Katie and I went and looked for seats over in the hour-long circle. Some people already installed in their seats helpfully pushed them back to allow us room.

The session began. Every five minutes, Mo would call out "Five minutes!" so that the five minute models could change. And every fifteen minutes.... and so on.

I made several sketches. Sometimes it just doesn't come together, and my sketches looked embarrasingly bad. I sneaked a glance at my neighbour's picture, and didn't feel quite so bad about it. His was interesting, and full of texture, but proportions all over the place. Obviously, it is rude to look at other people's stuff, let alone judge it, but I was a little reassured.

Katie was doing very well.

Next to her was a bearded man who hunched over his work, and emitted marshy sniffs every few minutes. His work was tiny and very squiggly. (I mentioned this to Katie later; she said, "Yes; it was good, though; but scary....")

After an hour, everyone downed pencils and congregated at the drinks vending machine, or stood chatting. The models stood together, wrapped in blankets, exulting quietly in the freedom to move their joints.

Katie and I discussed our next move.

"Let's just go" she said.

That was fine by me.

Mo saw us leaving, and hurried across. He seemed very keen that we shouldn't think badly of him. "It's difficult running this group," he said. "We have to keep the curtains well closed to stop people staring in. Someone once brought their son in, and the model objected. My wife had to play cards with him all evening."

I'm very bad at responding fully and eloquently to things, sometimes. "I've been at the receiving end of discrimination for other reasons, and I know how Katie feels," I said. Katie also tried to express her outrage. Mr Samgrass was very sheepish; a sheepishness tinged with annoyance now. He returned the money I'd paid him, and expressed the hope that we might return when Katie was sixteen.

We emerged into the cool night, buzzing with anger and glad to be out.

"If he'd been objecting to us because I was transsexual, it would have sounded just the same", I said.

"I was thinking exactly the same thing," said Katie.

"I think we need fish and chips," I said.

"Burger and chips," she said.



  1. So two years from now will be OK and she'll be sufficiently more 'mature' to be allowed in? Right.

    I've met Katie, and I suspect she's already more mature than Mr Beardy Man.

  2. That's very unfortunate, I hope it hasn't put her off too much.

    What's next, an 'adult' section behind a seedy curtain at the back of the art gallery for all those life studies and racy sculptures? Excuse me, I'll get my dirty mac and I'm off to the Ashmolean...

    Won't somebody please think of the children!

  3. Humans! So screwed up about being naked an seen! Many of the worlds problems probably caused by this!!

    Scuse me, I'm just off for a swim at my favourite naturist beach...

  4. Yes, embarrassing. I'm cringing. A real shame.

  5. I can't stop thinking about this episode (which you've written up so well).

    Starting a life drawing class is embarrassing, not because of the nudity, but because you're in a new situation with new people doing something you normally do in private. It's hard, and you may well feel exposed. Life drawing is also deeply rewarding and worth sticking at. I know of no better way to improve drawing skills. So I'm really sad it turned out like this. I just hope you can separate the natural awkwardness of starting a new class from your feelings at the way Katie's admission was mishandled.

    So stuff them, and bloody well stick at it!

  6. The thing is, Caroline, that there were about 50 people there, all drawing, and the models evidently accepted their presence. And Katie was drawing too. The story of the boy who was with his mother does seem rather bogus as an excuse; it is one thing for someone to bring a child along while they draw, and another for the child (just about young adult) actively to participate in the work...

    I guess I didn't make it sufficiently clear, Tom; we were asked not to go back. I've edited the text to make that more clear now. I hope Katie isn't too discouraged. I know she's bloody angry.

  7. And I wasn't suggesting going back to that particular class. No way! I just hoped you'd find another one with a better thought-out admissions policy.

  8. I attended life class, with a youngster, the daughter of one of my friends coming along too. She was very good, better than most of us adults. It's a touchy subject all round.

    Our class was a lot less formal and the model joined in the conversation too. I'm sure there must be a 'warmer' class where Katie would be made to feel more welcome

  9. I got the impression that fellow-artists there weren't concerned, and that it was an organiser with a problem who was chiefly making the fuss.

    I bet Michaelangelo and Raphael didn't have this discouraging attitude to contend with, when they were first practicing their studies of nude bodies as youngsters!

    Yes, there must be other, more welcoming places in Bristol she can go to.


  10. Sorry, Tom. Yes, we must try somewhere else. If she hasn't been put off entirely.
    I hope you're right, Anji. I was just entirely unprepared for the possibility that someone might object to her presence...
    Thanks, Lucy. I hope one day she's hugely successful as an artist and then this chap can look back and remember that he barred her from the class!