The class met twice a week for a 3 hour time period. A short, bald, mischievous man greeted us with a big smile and a stack of papers. He explained that he would teach us how to see properly, and also how to improve our writing. We went through the syllabus, course materials, and expectations. I’d later understand how my calculated choice of class would changed my life.
Shedding these perceptions was really challenging. It was unlearning a subtle, habitual way of seeing the world. I’d continually make the same mistakes over and over again. He’d laugh at me while holding his suspenders and say “No! The face is the wrong size! How big do you think your face is?” I drew my perception of the size of my own face. He laughed again, handed me a marker. He instructed me to do the following: “Go into the bathroom and trace the outline of your face in the mirror. Then really look at it.” I did what he told me, and was surprised to see how small the outline was. At that moment, I understood the difference between seeing and perceiving.
That is when my work became really authentic. I would notice the interplay of shapes and void spaces. My mind began to develop a non-verbal language when I started to draw people. Instead of thinking in labels like “hair, nose, mouth”, I started to think in shapes, color, and the amount of negative spaces in between.
Neil also always played eclectic music from around the world. We started swapping music, and I have many CDs we exchanged from those classes. I noticed the effect that music had on my art. It became really clear that my best work would unfold as I listed to unrecognizable music – either a foreign language or something completely instrumental. I still like to create with instrumental or electronic music – anything that helps me enter the realm of non-verbal thinking.
I stopped making portraits – and all visual art – during a really difficult time of my life. During my senior year of college, my parents divorce. The events were really catastrophic, particularly because it involved illness and addiction. In what seemed the blink of an eye, I lost my home, my parents, and any shred of security. I pulled away from creating. I isolated from friends. I had to focus all of my energy on survival.
It took a long time for me to get back to making art. Writing became more of an outlet for me as my life began to sort itself out. As things improved and I felt more secure, I started to create again. First, I explored landscapes. Then abstract work. After my last series of paintings, I decided to enroll in a class at The Art Students League. (New to my site? You should read Ineffable: Fantasy & Reality, which describes my last series of paintings.)
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just showed up with a large sketchbook and a box of pastels. Soon enough, I was able to access that non-verbal way of thinking. All those lessons from Neil were still fresh in my mind. Yet there was something additive to the works I am making now. The portraits I’ve been making in class now have more spontaneity. I feel free to scribble and suggest things like hair and shadows. I’m not so timid to use bold colors and wild gestures.
While I drawing, I’m very much in another realm of existence. It’s difficult to explain – maybe ineffable – but I become so enthralled in the act of creating that the work seems to flow out of me. It feels like I’m not drawing it, but that it is an expression of my reaction to the colors and shapes in the environment, and an almost involuntary movement of my hands. I’ll make 6 or 7 portraits a class. When I go home and review them alone, I’m fascinated by the results. It seems like I’m drawing moods, emotions, souls, and historical scenes rather than a model in Manhattan.