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Terry Sanville

Life Drawing

Vi khi Nao by Sadie Smith

Determined not to look, Samantha strode past the tall mirrors that covered an entire sidewall in the studio. Her third-year college drawing class would arrive in a half hour and she hustled to set up the easels, arrange the model stand lighting, and select a cassette to play on her ancient boom box.

But the mirrors drew her in and Sam stopped to stare. Jeez, I look like a scarecrow…I should be planted in some farmer’s cornfield…and my hair looks like gray straw.

The door at the back of the studio rattled open and that night’s model sauntered in: pale, well-padded, wide hips, big breasts, with red hair worn in a French braid.

“You’re early, Lucy. What’s the rush?”

“Ah, ya know…boyfriend problems. His jock buddies keep razzing him about me posing nude. I told him it’s my body and ta fuck off.”

“That doesn’t sound good. He should come by sometime. I’ll pay good money for a male model who can hold still for forty minutes.”

Lucy grinned. “Yeah, that would teach ’im. Whatcha got planned for me tonight?”

“Nothing special, some quick poses, then a couple twenty- or thirty-minute ones with a break in between.”

“You don’t mind if I study while you’re setting up?”

“No, go ahead.”

Lucy moved to a folding chair, dumped her knapsack on the floor, and sat rapidly thumbing her cell phone.

She’s probably texting her girlfriends. They write about every inane moment in their lives. Can they even see the big picture? What the hell, can I?

From the storeroom, Sam retrieved a female human skeleton hanging from its stand and rolled it to a spot close to where Lucy would pose. She’d always told her students that it’s the bones that begin to define the form, with muscle and fatty tissue dressing them.

Sam clicked on the boom box and set the volume at mid-range. The smooth sounds of Miles Davis playing

All Blues filled the room. Groups of two or three students lugging their art supplies pushed into the studio and selected easels to draw from. The music helped keep the chatter down. Lucy left to change into her kimono. She hadn’t been modeling long and still felt shy about stripping in front of strangers. But once naked, she held a pose perfectly and went into her own space somewhere out there in the galaxy.

At ten minutes after the hour Sam clicked off the music and stepped to the podium. Fifteen young faces, more girls than guys, looked up from their cell phones. For a moment, Sam was sitting with them, in the company of her friends at art school so long ago. She smiled to herself. Some of the girlish chatter never changed.

“All right, young da Vincis, please turn everything off. For the next two hours, we’ll be exploring the strength and beauty of the female form.” Sam motioned to Lucy who removed her kimono and stepped onto the model stand.

“We all think we know the differences between men and women. But aside from different organs and hormone levels, females are covered with a layer of fatty tissue beneath the skin.”

Sam took Lucy’s hand and extended her arm. “Notice how the muscles are smooth and not as sharply defined as a man’s. The entire woman’s body is a series of tangential curves and planes with few hard edges – except maybe for bony broads like me.” Sam slid her own sleeve up to expose a mole-speckled arm.

A gentle chuckle floated through the room.

“Because of this smoothness and curved surfaces, it’s difficult to capture the female form using only lines. Tonight, I want you to try and use tone, highlights and shadow to suggest shape, weight, and volume. We’ll start with some quick poses to warm up, followed by two or three long ones.”

Sam turned the music back on. Lucy moved through a sequence of two-minute poses: standing, kneeling, sitting, facing forward, back turned. The frantic scratch of graphite, conte pencils, charcoal sticks, and dry pastels on paper laid down a background for Miles Davis’s trumpet work. Sam wandered among the students. Some sketched quickly and used just a few strokes of charcoal to capture Lucy’s pose. Others struggled to portray only a part before she shifted to a new position.

After twenty minutes, Sam announced a short break and arranged Lucy into a sitting pose on a hard-backed chair. “Sorry, this one might hurt a bit.”

Lucy grinned. “Don’t worry, that music helps. But I’m gonna end up with red lines across my back and legs.”

“Let me drape the chair with a blanket.”

“Yeah, that’ll help.”

Sam rearranged the lights and faced the class. “All right, feel free to move your easels around to get an interesting perspective. If you can, try something unusual. Drawing foreshortened views is a real challenge, but play with it. And watch your proportions when you draw those crossed legs at the knees. A lot of people have trouble with that. This pose will last thirty minutes.”

The classroom turned into a Keystone Kops skit as the students hurried to relocate their easels and gear, bumping into each other, laughing, and vying for the best spots. But in a few minutes they calmed and settled into serious drawing.

Sam checked the wall clock and asked Lucy, “How does it feel?”

“It’s okay. My legs may go numb but that’s cool.”

“Just hang in there.”

Time flowed like thick syrup across a warm pancake. Sam’s stomach growled and she cursed herself for skipping dinner. She circulated through the class, stopping to point out excellent sketch work, or to take a student’s pencil and add a few strokes to pick out highlights, to correct problems with perspective, or to add contrast and depth. The guys seemed to need the most help. I wonder if they’d do better with a male model? Good ones are so hard to find. But the guys always seem to exaggerate the… She grinned to herself and continued meandering.

With a loud clang, the back door flew open and the night janitor entered. He wheeled his squeaking mop bucket along the sidewall toward the front of the room, his white-haired head bowed as if in penance. The metal bucket rattled each time it rolled over a seam in the floor. Reaching the model stand, he stopped and looked at naked Lucy through thick bifocals before quickly turning away.

Sam clicked off the music and approached. “Scotty, what in heaven’s name are you doing? I’m in the middle of a pose.”

Scotty removed his battered baseball cap. “So sorry, so sorry, Ms. Jenkins. But I can’t stay late tonight so I thought I’d…I’d…”

Most of the students had stopped sketching. Only Lucy stayed focused.

“But you can’t come in here and disrupt my class.”

“Sorry, so sorry. But I hafta clean up now…it’ll take just a little bit.”

“For God sakes, why now?”

He fingered his cap and stared at his feet. “Well, ya see, I…I…”

“You can tell me, don’t…don’t be shy.” Sam tried keeping the exasperation from her voice with little success.

“Well, ya see I went home for lunch today like I normally do. I found my Missus strainin’ on the toilet, and she looked really bad. She had a crooked smile and was clutchin’ her chest.”

Sam moved close to Scotty so that their conversation might be slightly more private. “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope she’s okay.”

“I called 911 and they came and took her to County General. She’s been in their ICU all afternoon.” Scotty’s voice shook but remained loud, as if his need to tell someone, to expose the truth, included the entire class. The students froze in place, graphite- and charcoal-covered hands motionless in front of them, like someone had paused a YouTube video.

“Maybe you should go be with her,” Sam murmured.

“I tried, believe me, I tried. But they wouldn’t let me see her…told me to come back this evening.” He stood under the blazing lights before the model stand, skinny like Sam, his arthritic hands wringing his Dodgers cap, his gray uniform ragged at the cuffs and stained with cleaning fluids.

Jesus, it must be bad if he’s telling me all this in front of the class. “So you want us to stop while you clean?”

“Yes, please. I really gotta get to the hospital before nine. After that they won’t let me in. I’m sure the Missus is really scared…you know how old ladies can get.”

Why does he think I know how old women feel? Do I look that old? Am I as withered and disoriented as he is?” Sam frowned and pushed her shoulders back but clamped down on what she wanted to say.

“Okay, Scotty, okay. We’ll get out of your way.” Raising her voice she announced, “All right, take a break outside, please.”

“Thank you, Ms. Jenkins.” Scotty began furiously wet mopping the linoleum. “My supervisor checks my work every night at the end of my shift. He’d be on my case if I didn’t finish up. I…I can’t get a break from that punk.”

The class cleared out and Samantha followed. Outside on the terrace, the cool California night hit her damp skin and she shivered. Jeez, that feels so good. I almost feel human. I gotta do something about the heat in that studio. But then, it’s gotta be just me because the models always complain about it being cold.

She sat on the edge of a planter and unconsciously reached for the pack of cigarettes, that habit she’d given up a year before. The students gathered in a couple of groups; some smoked, but it didn’t smell like cigarettes. Their conversation grew loud and animated. Finally one of the groups approached her.

A tall brunette with cropped hair asked, “Ms. Jenkins, can we talk with you for a minute?”

“Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, we really love your class. And you’ve really helped us. But…but…”

“Go ahead and spit it out. I won’t bite.” Sam grinned and wished she had one of their funny cigarettes.

“Well, we like the models that you bring in for us to draw. But they seem too…too much like models…ya know, typical of what most people think is beautiful.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well…yeah. Some of us want to draw real people, ya know. People that are more like us.”

“I thought that’s what I was doing? Just about all my models are students.”

“No, it’s not an age thing. We want to draw people that have flaws, ya know – blemishes, bad hair, misshapen boobs, fat asses, big noses, scars, crows’ feet, ugly tattoos…ya know, people like that janitor.”

“Yeah, that guy is great,” another girl said. “Did you see his hands…and his legs were shakin’ so bad, I thought the poor guy was gonna fall.”

Sam felt her face grow hot. “You really want to draw that? I was just trying to expose you guys to the ideal.”

“We know,” a tall blonde said. “But can’t we find beauty in the flawed? If all people have value, shouldn’t we be able to find it if we’re good enough artists?”

“Yes, yes, you’re right. What you’re talking about is finding and showing the subject’s character. That comes with experience and drawing skills.”

An earnest-looking boy stepped forward. “I think some of us are ready. As much as I enjoy staring at hot babes, I’d rather draw somebody like that old janitor. His sad story about his wife made him so real, made me want to try and capture it in my art.”

Sam nodded slowly. “I…I understand. You bring up good points and thanks for your suggestions. I’ll give it some thought.”

The students went back to their texting and smoking. Lucy joined Sam, her kimono fluttering in the evening breeze. “That was weird,” Lucy said and laughed. “So now I’m too pretty to draw? What do I hafta do, cover myself with tats, become a cutter, maybe sit around the house and grow a belly?”

“No, just enjoy your body while you can. It’ll change soon enough.”

With a bang and clatter, the janitor pushed out through the side door. “It’s all clear Ms. Jenkins,” he called. “The floor is jus’ about dry. Give it another minute and it should be ready.”

“Thanks, Scotty, and take care of your wife.”

The old man gave a quick flick of his hand and trundled off into the night.

Inside under the lights, Lucy resumed her pose. In fifteen minutes they took another break while Sam circulated through the studio, studying the students’ work and offering praise and advice.

She selected a tape cassette of Nina Simone’s songs and slipped it into the boom box. The students checked out each other’s work, laughing and pointing. Sam thought about what they had said on the terrace. She had been well into her thirties before she’d come to the realization that it was the edgier things in life that were most fun to paint or draw: the imperfect, the aged, both living and inanimate, that had stories to tell, had history, had character.

Going to the storeroom, Sam retrieved huge mushy pillows that she arranged on the model stand’s floor. She shifted the light poles and installed two more. Sweat poured down her face and she dabbed at it with the sleeve of her loose-fitting dress. She motioned for Lucy to lie on the pillows and arranged her arms in such a way as to show off her Rubenesque figure.

“All right class, our next pose will be complicated, so the models will try and hold it for 40 minutes. Yes,

we’ll have another model joining us momentarily.” Sam moved to the side door and propped it open. The cool breeze felt exquisite. She returned to the model stand.

“Some of you mentioned to me when we were outside that you wanted to draw something different, something less perfect than Lucy here.” Lucy grinned and scratched her thigh, leaving red marks on her pale skin.

“Well, our second model should provide the contrast you are looking for.”

The class stared at the open door and seemed to expect the mystery model to come waltzing in. Sam reached up and grabbed the shoulders of her dress and drew it over her head. The class gasped. Some of the girls tittered nervously. The guys just stared while she detached her bra, kicked off her shoes and removed her panties. Sam smelled the bath powder she’d applied before leaving her apartment and hoped that she didn’t look like a powdered donut.

“All right, class, you are to draw both of us. Again, choose your own point of view. But no generic art. Be particular, capture the character of each model, find our uniqueness, find our own particular beauty.”

The students again shifted their easels. The noise level rose. Sam turned on the Nina Simone tape and the whispers and giggles gave way to quiet stares, stares that bored clear through her. It had been a long time since she’d felt truly naked. She lay on the remaining pillows, stretched out, head-to-head with Lucy.

“You sure about this?” Lucy whispered. “A 40-minute pose, even one lying down, is gonna hurt like hell.”

“Yeah, yeah. My left buttock is already numb. I’m counting on Nina to help me through it.”

She gazed at the class. The students’ eyes seemed to focus like lasers on each bump, wrinkle, and imperfection. The cool air caressed her body and everything tingled, with flickers of pain just beginning. She closed her eyes, listened to the music and remembered her early days as an artist, before marriage, kids, breast cancer, and divorce. Yeah, I got plenty of scars. But what kind of story can I show them, and what will they show me back?


About the writer:
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 250 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes for his stories “The Sweeper” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Image: Vi khi Nao by Sadie Smith (contemporary). Fine art photograph. No technical information specified. By 2018. By permission. Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khánh, Vietnam. She is the author, most recently, of Sheep Machine, and story collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.

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