I went to my first life drawing class when I was hugely pregnant with my youngest. I can’t recall now how I learned about the classes at Académie de la Grande Chaumière in the 6th Arrondissement, but I do remember the bleacher-like seats in the small amphitheater room, and the anticipation of waiting to see who that day’s model would be. I marveled that I (lay-person-non-artist) was allowed to attend classes in the school where Chagal and Modigliani and Picasso had drawn, where working artists were honing their craft, where every week art students volunteered to stand for three hours so the rest of us could examine their bodies and draw.
What I loved most about life drawing was being brought into the moment. Creating art out of what was there, not what I wanted. There was no pontificating, no philosophizing; there was only this person in this moment, standing in a particular way, with particular folds of skin and body shadows and expressions and movement in stillness.
My first real exposure to this process of art bringing you into the present happened about four years earlier, when I was also hugely pregnant with my eldest. I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia at the time and my artist friend Nina and I decided to take a tour of the old Union of Artists Building. Back in the Soviet years, there were unions for everything—Union of Writers, Union of Artists, Union of Musicians. To be an official artist of any kind, required membership in a union, and membership in the Union of Artists came with a government sponsored studio in an enormous building on the Neva River—the Union of Artists Building.
As Nina and I wandered through the nearly-abandoned building, past the Church of John Lennon and boarded up studios, we found an open door and we knocked.
Enter, a man said. It was early spring and snow was still on the ground. There was no heat in the building, save a little space heater inches away from the artist. A filterless cigarette dangled from his fingers, and he did not turn around when we entered the room. He sat—heater on the right, large square canvas to the left. A palette, mixed paints and a painting that didn’t look like it knew what it wanted to be.
I’m lost, he said. Still not turning around.
Why? we asked.
When I had an enemy, it was easy. When I wasn’t allowed to speak my voice, it was easy. Now I have freedom. Too much freedom. Now I have to paint to make money, and I don’t know what to paint. I am lost.
And out of nowhere, for whatever random reason, I remembered these stories the other day, as I took my morning walk, past the bakery on Allenby, past the material shops on Nahalat Binyamin, and past the same intriguing scene—an elderly Russian woman (I’m guessing Russian because she had on a Russian scarf and had a Russian book in her left hand) staring into the window of an antique store, curiously named Bardo. This was day three of seeing her. In the same spot, wearing the same scarf, carrying the same book.
What was she looking for? The porcelain doll she played with as a child? The pearls she lost in the war? The chair she sat on as a young mother? Her look held longing, sadness, desire. Her look said she wanted to go back to another time. Anywhere, any time, but here.
I felt her, this Russian lady staring at the porcelain doll. I wanted to run and throw my arms around her and say, sister, I see you. Say, I want to go back too. Say, sometimes the present can be really just too much. Confusing. Lonely. Uncertain.
I didn’t obviously, just lamely stared at her, as she stared at the window, and I wondered, how do we hold on to the specialness of our memories and grasp the beauty and possibility of this moment? How do we remind ourselves that we get to remake ourselves every day? Every moment?
There’s no one way, thankfully! But that is why I write poetry. I write about today, what I see, what crazy things catch my eye. And I read poets who remind me to stay fresh, stay present, open my eyes. One of my all-time favorite poets, and particular favorite of late is Sandra Cisneros, who explores the necessity of not only living in the present, but enjoying the present, in her poem, “Having Recently Escaped from the Maws of a Deathly Life, I am Ready to Begin the Year Anew”.
She begins the poem with, For the New Year I will buy myself a chocolate éclair filled with custard. Eat it slowly, with an infinity of joy, without concern of woe and tight underwear.
Later, I will snooze with my dogs till I radiate love, for they are life’s true gurus. I will wake gently so as not to disturb the dreams that have alighted overnight on the branches of sleep, and before they flutter away on soundless wings, I will examine and admire each.
She closes with, There is much I know and much I do not know as a woman at fifty-six, but I am certain I know this. Life is not worth living without salami.
Okay, I don’t relate to the salami part—as a vegan. But I do relate to the sense of carpe diem; I do relate to radiating love and eating with an infinity of joy and dreams, and seeing the beauty that is right in front of you. Maybe that is what the old Russian lady was doing, seeing the beauty right in front of her. Perhaps something as simple as the beauty of the store. Maybe the beauty of her reflection in the window
So whether it is life drawing that brings you into the present, or reading or writing, or puppies or eclairs, or meditation or yoga…remember there is so much beauty waiting, just wanting to be noticed.
Note: Above life drawing by Eva Zafft