I auditioned for the arts high school, for dance, acting, and visual art. Two accepts and a reject.
I married a mask-maker with notebooks full of sketches. I bought Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and learned to look at the spaces between leaves, the negative shape around a chair. I spent hours in art stores, fingering stacks of rag paper, eyeing pastels and watercolors, knowing that anything I bought might make its way into a collage, but would more likely sit in a drawer, eventually used as wrapping paper in a pinch.
In museums, I lingered in Dutch Masters, Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists, scorning modern art. Anyone can put a yellow square next to a white square, or cover a hundred rocks in papier-mache the color of eggplant. While I knew in my head there were movements and mission statements and reactions to previous art, my heart thought, they probably can’t draw very well.
Sometimes I lived in one town long enough to call the Art Institute of Cincinnati or Chicago or Baltimore, go in and model. At class’s end, I’d walk the circle of easels, seeing my face, my breasts, my belly repeated, each at a slightly different angle, a different level of skill. They always asked, “are you an artist, too?” and I heard, Can you draw?
That’s what ‘artist’ means.
Someone who can draw.
And since I can’t, I’m not an artist. Actor, writer, director. Fire-eater, trapeze girl, arranger of flowers and knick-knacks, but not an artist. Because I can’t draw.
I can see when something is beautiful—but the message is waylaid en route to the paper, perhaps stopped for questioning at my neck, delayed at Customs in my shoulders, unable to pass Immigration at the border of my wrists. One day, someone compliments me on a photograph I’ve taken, and I think, perhaps the camera can be my hands.
In galleries, I start to notice juxtaposition, combinations of elements that make the viewer question the image. Waking dreams. Hyper-realism and magical realism and Tim Burton’s willingness to make the unreal real and the real jarring and sinister. I learn that I like snow and rain and things that fall. Hidden places. Peepholes. Stereoscopes. Reliquaries. I decipher Late Medieval paintings of the lives of saints, chronological events in egg tempera on one canvas: conversion, trial, resistance, death, beatitude. I see the World Press Photo Competition in Amsterdam and copy down,
“…the photographer was himself wounded by shrapnel, taking this photo after he had collapsed with a severed leg artery.”I want to be that serious. I am ready to be an artist.
I sign up for “Staged Photography” at Charles University in Prague. The first class is a lecture at the teacher’s apartment. Rudo is tall and slender, mild-eyed and balding. We crowd his living room, and the bones in my pelvis ache from the hard floor before the slide show even begins. But the pictures—yes. Black and white. Dreamlike juxtapositions. A man seated naked on the floor, his clothes in a frame, his head bowed, fallen leaves. Teabags lit from behind, like pockets with their contents shyly revealed.
Rudo shows us his Monuments series, backlit silhouettes.
“This is Monument to Faithfulness.” Curling metal tapes, a vegetable steamer, a stick, and the bodies of two birds found dead in the same nest after Rudo asked a handyman to block up the holes in the roof and they could not escape.
He continues: “You ask me what kind of props I carry in my bag. Here is hedgehog, destroyed by car. Here are happy jumping frogs, destroyed by car. This is Monument to Small Heroes.”
I start shooting portraits—my young waiter, with dimples. My classmates on the bus to Rudo’s studio. They are from all over the United States, Australia and Mexico, and they are mostly pissed off. When I turn up at the station, my classmates are in two groups. The Smokers are lighting one cigarette from the next, blowing out the smoke sharply, impatiently. The Bitchers are circled, conversing in low, urgent tones, and as I approach, a sharp-boned Bitch accosts Rudo’s assistant Zuzanna, here to take us to the studio, demanding to know why the bus isn’t leaving for another hour. While Zuzanna explains, extra time on the first day, the Bitchers metastasize and infect the Smokers, demanding outrage in lieu of an immediate bus. Zuzanna tells us the studio is in a village on the outskirts of Prague, and a quick mental calculation later we realize, our two and a half hour class is a five hour commitment.
I begin to think the Bitchers may have a point.
At the studio, Rudo wings through a lecture on portraiture, appropriately at the speed of light. “Information, representation, aesthetics, and atmosphere,” he rattles off.
“Copywriting, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry,” I think, to stick them in my head. A real artist wouldn’t need that crutch. But it’s easy to shush that voice, because we are going to model for each other, and that, at least, I know I can do.
I model, I listen to Rudo tsk and fuss and adjust. “Hmmm,” he says. “Is maybe not so good.”
I hang back from my turn at the big camera. The room thins out, classmates worried they’ll miss the bus. Finally, it is Zuzanna, the Mexican man, Andrew who has quietly explained f-stops to me, and me.
Rudo says, “let me use up the frames,” in a tone that is as close to excited as I have heard from him all day, and positions Zuzanna and I—“Zuzko, Zuzko, here! Now you!”—with our arms around each other, Andrew and the Mexican guy behind us with their arms around us both. The camera clicks surely, rapidly. Rudo leaps into the shot, Zuzko’s hands on her chest and my hands on her hands and the boys’ hands on our arms and the shutter in Rudo’s palm behind my shoulder. Rudo—“Call me Rudi!”—is suddenly passionate and frantic, clicking off careful shots between rapid set-ups. Our classmates shout to us from the street, and we run to the bus, full of joy.
We made things. We made things together, and a famous photographer took our picture.
We are ecstatic, bonded, seated in the Non-Smoking Non-Bitching Section, smiling when the bus driver stops to yell at the Aussie for putting his feet on the seat, silently shaking with laughter and dread and anticipation as Zuzko negotiates in rapid Czech to prevent us all from being asked to step off the bus next to a field of sunflowers, who knows where we are?
At night, in my room, I look through my notes.
“Whole body portraiture. Anatomical—gives information.”Put a neutral mask on an actor, take away the face and all its information, and everything shows up – the slight hunch in the shoulders, the swayback, the left foot turned slightly inward, the chin held too high.
“Classical—the body as sculpture.”A twist in the body is always more interesting, more fun to draw.
“Modern—the body as shape.”Costuming A Midsummer Night’s Dream, building on the actors’ bodies since I couldn’t draw the design plates. Bodysuits with humps built in, stuffed stockings as vines around their legs to deform and make them otherworldly, fairies of the earth instead of the air.
On Thursday, we take the bus again, the Bitchers a little diffused by not having come so early. No-one’s camera is as small as mine, everyone’s bag is heavy with tripods and long black lenses and multiple cans of film. All the other digitals are second cameras.
There is a frame set up in Rudi’s studio, a waist-to-neck-high square fenced with dried wheat. The lights are diffused with fabric panels. Today we make silhouettes, posing each other behind the frame, the backlight giving us shapes and outlines. It’s my turn, and I think, what would I make my acting class do? I ask the Australian if he’ll take off his shirt. First he thinks I’m kidding and then he refuses. I start to think of something else but Rudi charges in, stripping to the waist. I pose a tiny girl from New York with her head and chest arched back, Rudi holding her by the waist, his hand cupped upward over the hollow of her throat. Between the points of her collarbones and in the palm of his hand I place two tiny origami cranes. For me, it is her breath, caught by him, flown from her body into his hand. After I press the shutter release (Andrew looking into the viewfinder to make sure I am in focus), Rudi says, “Finally, a good idea!” and I bask in his words for three days. Maybe I can learn to translate my gaze into a picture.
Next class. Still lifes. Rudi’s phrasings. “When you choose objects from the table for your still lifes, please put them back, or is absolutely cows.” Cows? Ah, chaos!
“What is the difference between picture number one and picture number two? Number one is right and number two is wrong!”
I can’t tell the difference.
I ask Andrew, and he tells me something about light values. I scribble in my notebook,
“Objects as themselves, objects as shapes,”and hope that phrase will help me. Rudi comes and looks at the viewscreen of my camera, points and says that two of my pictures are good. I know they’re good, too, definitely better than the others, but not why. Like a novice playgoer, I know what I like, but I can’t say what makes it so.
The second two weeks, the second teacher, begins with disaster. Most of the class was told they should dress for the dusty school courtyard; I come in ignorance and a white skirt. The program director looks askance at me when I won’t lie down with the others in a row of spoons, forming a crowd trooping uphill to a black and white cartoon of Prague Castle, drawn on plastic sheeting and rolled out on the ground, lines of flour extending the mural. Photographer Miro decamps to a fifth floor window and directs to his assistant’s cell phone. In a burst, I am determined to be useful, and I run up five flights to lean out the next window. I shoot with my puny digital and run back down to show the class what they look like. Three times I make the trip, breathless from climbing the wide stone steps, lying flat on a desk in the hall, half my body defenestrated above the concrete, exchanging smiles with Miro and showing him, too, what the finished picture will look like, since he’s shooting film. My classmates want copies, and I make a list of emails. I have taken the same picture as a real artist.
At the end of Miro’s picture, his assistant gives our next assignment. We will meet in the darkroom. I don’t know where to buy photographic paper, or the chemicals for development. I am sick to death of busses, of metros, of hours spent agonizing over why my pictures aren’t good. I have had my fill of not knowing, and I quit the class.
My last day in Prague, I meet Rudi for coffee, as a thank-you, and to show my prints and be graded. He picks a shot of my scarf draped over a box from the studio trash, and one of a rock from Brighton tucked in a torn piece of paper. I don’t know why they’re better than the others, and he doesn’t tell me. But he does give me a B, which first infuriates me and which I then attribute to my cheap camera, but still knowing, I am not an artist.
My last night in Prague, I have finally worked up my nerve to shoot people’s daily lives, to see what I can mine from strangers. I pretend to take pictures of a building, lit up in the dusk, snapping instead the couple on the sidewalk in front. When I download them, the six pictures are far too dark to show. Only I can make out the smudges of their story. So I write it, instead:
A woman whom I at first take to be a prostitute clings to a man in a business suit. She is in a short, soft grey dress, bare legs, bare shoulders, her hair softly in her face. The man carries an umbrella and briefcase. In the dim pool of a post-Communist streetlight, they embrace so tightly it is clear she is not here for money. He kisses her, and breaks away, taking her hands from his shoulders one by one, as kindly as he can. They bid goodbye formally, na shledanou, in the smoky yellow glow. He crosses the street; she stands at the edge of the zebra crossing and watches his back around the corner of the next building. And then, as if she can no longer bear it, she runs like a deer, across the street, along the next building (me briskly behind trying to seem a casual tourist), and catches him at the entrance to the Metro. She touches his shoulder—he sweeps her into his arms, their faces bury in each others’ necks. They embrace again (there is no other word, it is not a hug, there is nothing comforting about it) and then he descends, she standing at the top of the steps, clinging to the edge of the waist-high wall. She watches, it must be long past when she can actually see him, and he is gone. And then she turns and runs.That is how I draw.
whipchick highly recommends the Prague Summer Program for writers and artists.