Recently I attended a life drawing class at York Art Gallery. It has been a few years since I took courses at Leeds College of Art, and it was both frustrating and rewarding to pick up charcoal once again. Frustrating because the drawings never look like I think they should – rewarding because in the concentration and application, the time flies. More than anything else life drawing is about looking at the figure, rather than being guided by the idea of the human form we carry in our heads. It requires attention to negative spaces; the shapes within the human form; and the relative size of limbs at different angles. To respond to the uniqueness of a given model, on a particular day, requires deep concentration and endless practice.
This is the reality, and the intrigue, of the human figure: not the ubiquitous muscular young athletes presented to us in textbooks. Nike Okunade, in her second year at Southampton Medical School, was struck by the individuality of the life drawing models. “I loved the idea of getting to draw different kinds of people, different genders, shapes, and sizes.”Price-Kuehne, F. E. (2010). Life drawing for medical students. BMJ, 340.
Turning up to these classes as a participant can also offer the opportunity of activity without the burden of role. While for many people the profession of someone may be irrelevant, clergy often experience altered interactions when their identity is known. In some cases people censor their language, or apologise for swearing. This may be a minor detail but it betokens a change to behaviour that may run deeper than simply the use of colourful language. I imagine many people find this when their profession is known, from police officers to funeral directors. Simply being present, focusing on the person we are to draw, has the benefit of company, sensitivity and a common task. At the same time it is humbling, engrossing and nourishes the soul.
Despite my frequent lament that it appears we wish to return as soon as possible to our pre-COVID lives, there is evidence that many people have re-evaluated their lives and priorities. Writing about a renewed passion for nature following lockdowns, the New Jersey journalist Ambreen Ali wrote last week about how the pandemic has changed her family life: ‘My children rolled in the sand and escaped into their imaginations, oblivious and content’. Whether in nature or art, crafts or cooking, some people have discovered fresh priorities. It may account in part for the high level of retirements at the moment.
Once we are beyond childhood it can feel that the world around us is largely assumed. Memory informs our sight and steers us through the journeys and activities of daily life. It is a way of living that makes a lot of sense – experiencing everything afresh every day could be exhausting. Prior experience helps us cut to the chase and get stuff done. Yet it also comes with risks. When we assume we know what we see there is the chance that we miss unexpected qualities. Perhaps what astounded people about Jesus was his capacity to see and speak the world differently. Little wonder that a child became the symbol of how his followers could enter the Kingdom of God. Being born again requires us to grow again and move beyond the kind of thinking that leave us acting on auto-pilot.
It is wonderful that despite the many losses caused by the pandemic there are people who have found fresh excitement and creativity in the world. A global crisis is not a desirable way to help us re-evaluate our lives – but it would be remiss not to reflect on our lives in the wake of suffering. All experiences have the capacity to teach us. If we are able to do so, there are opportunities to take that draw life back into us. Moments and activities that revitalise our sight, and allow us to question our assumed world in the face of one we see (again) for the first time. A seeing that can draw life out of what we think we know – and reminds us that in creativity we are working with the life-bringing spirit of God.