During the second 18 week semester of my freshman year of college at the University of Kentucky I took an evening art class to prepare for the entry exam for the school of architecture. I somehow knew to my bones that trying to gain entry via an 8 hour plus half hour brown bag lunch exam would not happen based on cartooning skills alone.
My instructor, a magnetic woman in her mid thirties I unquestionably had a massive awe of, taught the class with a smile while maintaining an ever present intensity that never felt flaky or tolerant of whimsical fancy. Any theme, idea, or intent could be pursued within addressing the vague boundaries of a given project, as long as the pursuit were infused with passion, dedication, and a willingness to challenge self and elevate abilities to meet the needs of the answer you’d elected to depict. Meantime the individual sessions, three hours at a go twice a week, were laden with developmental exercises, lessons, and live nude models.
The first couple evenings with a live model were with a gentleman that enjoyed being seen, especially by the number of women in the class, some of them senior year sorority types, others tomboyish painter and liberal arts types. His manhood liked to rise to attention with fair regularity, enough that I felt inclined to draw that portion of him with cartoonish motion lines rather than static detail. All well and good until he came around after our second session with him and I had to scramble to pack up my drawings, not wanting to hurt the poor guys feelings. Hopefully he just though I had a shy disposition, rather than a mocking one.
The third live model session introduced us to a female model, and I don’t think I drew anything for the first three poses, just sat there on my artist’s bench; pencil poised mid air over the newsprint held to a massive pressboard by an unholy massive black rubber band. I didn’t begin to draw until the instructor came and sat next to me, perhaps sensing my unease, my utter lock up, pistons jammed, brain frozen, spinal fluid congealing in my sinus cavities. She broke the ice, or the page, and drew a quick line, an winding curve shaped like a languid X, what I’d latter learn animators aptly call an S Curve. Not all poses can begin with that shape, but when in doubt, it’s a great fallback, because most of them do, at least a bit. She didn’t say anything, just scratched the line, looked at the model, and drew volumes along the curve to reflect the masses around the core line of action that ran through the model’s ballet quality pose. She handed me her pencil, a half length of Blackfeet Indian pencil with a thin rubber band wrapped several times around the fore end for better grip. She rose, gave me a motherly pat on one shoulder, and tapped her watch before moving on to encourage the next student, an older woman returned to school now that the kids had grown.
I drew, and I sharpened, and I drew some more. Poses changes, pages were filled and drawings overlapped. I rolled the rubber band grip up the shaft of the pencil with a hurried pinch while the long, sharp tooth of my sharpener ate away the shaft like a hungry parasite endowed with an insatiable appetite. The break came and the model pulled on her robe. Typically I would have walked outside to get fresh air and try to chat up the older girls, the ones that’s buy me bags of booze and beer as long as there were cash left over to accommodate their weekend thirsts. I believe a solid half of the pints my floor of the dorm drank during that semester came courtesy of their generous procurement practices. Instead of hustling outside for the break, I remained hunched on my artist bench, heels of my hand filthy with graphite, fingertips gone silver, as I tried to work from memory and further empower the drawings, add volume, shape, shade, perhaps too much.
Some sketches became muddy, others gained definition. A couple garnered additive elements, an umbrella, long nose, and top hat ala Batman’s Penguin character for a pose I’d not managed to sufficiently detail in time. A hat to cover the missing hair, a nose to fill out the incomplete face, an umbrella to explain the strangely leveled hand.
Sitting back to regard all my work, I could see details I liked, though those were far and few between, and never all among the same sketch. Proportions seemed more a suggestion than a depiction, foreshortening a lost cause all together. One eye would have ample detail, the other seem borrowed from a Peanuts panel.
My friend Athomas studied illustration in France during his twenties, and studied with a master that had him draw the same drawing over and over and over until Athomas stopped rushing to attack the paper and could gaze upon the model and render complete truth with less than five lines on an unobserved page. At 40, I still attack every page, yet I now seem to bat about and average one out of five for truth in my sketches of live models, and that’s considerably better than I did as an 18 year old.
The instructor of the art class had us meet in a different building on the far end of campus to watch a double feature of Swimming to Cambodia and Baghdad Café one evening as an attempt to broaden our perceptions, and the questions we should want to ask, investigations to make in the larger world around us. Another evening she had us meet at a gallery downtown for her friend’s opening, a gala evening where I discovered boxed wine and the headaches it brings. She assigned us a final project wherein we could create our own monuments, an open invitation to be as grandiose or idealistic as we liked. I had grown up around graveyards and lonely fields, so I created a convoluted and unabashedly massive funeral monument the scale of Maya Ying Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial with as much restraint as the Singapore’s Haw Par Villa, particularly the Ten Courts of Hell portion. Mine sought to depict a garden surrounded by multi-story semi-cubist, semi-absurdist (faux naturalistic) fountains and statuary that reflected the spirit of the Seven Deadly Sins. I spent two weeks drawing each monument individually at a roughly movie poster scale, then concentrated on a central piece as large as a high school world map to show the entire garden populated with my seven piece collective monument.
Also discovered during the course of sleepless nights working on my so called masterpiece of a final project that regardless what you’ve heard about Jackson Pollock, mixing and finishing Guinness and Smirnoff en quantity overnight will really make a mess of you, what game makers call “rag doll” and cause you to swear off at least vodka for about a decade or more. Not a feat I would recommend.
I got into architecture school, and I got an A+ in the art class that’d helped do a lot more than prepare me for the architecture entrance exam. And I’m glad for that, as any experience that yields more than you’d asked of it worth pausing to appreciate, even if a touch past a couple decades later.
Architecture school’s first year, divided into two halves, each eighteen weeks long, had a mandatory drawing session every Thursday afternoon that lasted three to four hours, depending on the instructor’s mood. Usually these sessions were in a white washed slat-board room at the top of Pence Hall that the Kentucky sun seemed intent on turning into a kiln. The instructors, typically Keith whom I’ve mentioned previously, though others did sub in time to time, were ardent, demanding, and unreserved with criticisms as they circled the room as though hunting for weakness. Watching Alan Rickman run classrooms in the Harry Potter films reminds me of those life drawing sessions.
Where my freshman art class had enjoyed a selection of dancers and performers that were all youthful, healthy, and at the relaxed, confident prime of their Grecian statuesque prime, the models brought into architecture school were meant to challenge us, to find truth in our lines, more than that, in the structures, spaces, and compositions we described on our tablets.
The philosophy is simple, to design spaces for bodies to occupy, you must first understand the spaces within the body itself, what a human body is comprised of. Add to that the lessons in the Architecture History course about Golden Section, Golden Rule, about form versus function and function versus form, about Le Corbusier’s organizations of organic forms, and Renzo Piano’s industrial beauties, and I began to grow increasingly curious about the structures that comprise the organism, any organism, drawing in my childhood curiosities about entomology and instructor Keith’s references into spatial, architectural, and informational deconstruction.
The models brought in were sometimes elderly, or layered like pancake stacks with rolls of ample diet. Some were wiry and perhaps recently interned, others slumped and defeated, office workers unmasked, stripped bare, seeming hollow, empty. Dead.
And then we actually drew the dead. University of Kentucky has a warm air cadaver lab, a long room lined with rows of stainless steel tables not unlike what you would expect to find in the embalming room of a mortuary. Bodies littered the tables, most of them no longer intact, pieces and parts all shaved bare, recognizable tattoos and moles removed, flesh and meat turned an odd, sickly yellowish orange hue from the formaldehyde the cadavers had been preserved with. Formaldehyde is a smell that sets into your pores, your sinuses, and even after several days of showers lingers like an old friend or lost bet.
And we were told as we walked in that to have a check mark for the class, each student must remain in the room for minimum of ten minutes. Anyone that kept drawing beyond ten minutes would receive extra credit. I drew for three hours straight and rendered some of the finest pieces I have ever committed to paper, illustrations I’ve long ago lost or given away yet can see clearly as I recall this anecdote. A face san’s jaw and front half of throat, exposed tendons and sinew, muscle and bone, skull and excavated cranial basin.
I’d love to say I thought the place rocked, that as a metal head that had recently discovered the Canadian band Skinny Puppy, this room energized me. I can’t say that though. I felt a gamut of emotions, a blender’s whirlpool of cyclic strands streaming through twitches of abject horror, surprise, shock, unease, nausea, disgust, repulsion, curiosity, and discovery. Years later when Lindz, Alex, David, and I explored the Body World exhibit at Science World, I saw people leave the exhibit from less than five feet inside the door. I can fully appreciate that reaction, and there are many of the pieces in that touring exhibit every bit as unsettling as what I encountered during the drawing session in the cadaver lab. Thankfully the Body World exhibit doesn’t have the smell of formaldehyde, their plasticize process seems to have beaten that room temperature presentational quandary.
The item in the warm air cadaver lab that bothered me most sat soaking in a jar on a shelf in the back of the room, a whole male head that had been sliced horizontally like a loaf of bread and stacked backed together inside the jar. At first glance, it’s just a head in a jar, yet something seems off, out of place, not right. Even at a distance I could tell an alignment didn’t match, and getting closer discovered that some of the slices were rotated like the thirds of a Rubick’s Cube. One of the slices had gone straight through the bridge of his nose, and the lower half didn’t line up to the upper half. That asymmetry really bothered me and I had trouble looking at the jar once I’d sorted out what float in it.
I learned a lot of nifty facts while I drew in the cadaver lab. I learned that only one other student in my class could stomach the place as long as I could. I learned that coroners discern whether an infant’s corpse had been born alive or dead by putting it into a tub of water. If the baby floats, it had been alive and had oxygen in its bloodstream. A sinking baby is either a witch or never took a breath. I learned that dental students practice on cadaver heads. What a strange penance that would be, to have to suffer repeated root canals at the hands of rank amateurs for the rest of eternity.
My drawing ability after my first year of architecture school had improved by leaps and bounds. I now understood structure, form, mass, and volume. At least well enough to consciously take ample liberties with them. And just when I seemed destined to become a solid artist at the least, I stopped drawing and left for boot camp. Though I did a smattering of cartoony illustrations while away, my hard honed skills atrophied, I got lethargic, and didn’t begin to pick up again until after I’d returned to Kentucky, left architecture behind, and begun spending more time around the college radio station and fellow liberal arts majors, drawing comic book monsters, tentacles, and everything but the actual, proper human form, as though to restrain myself to trying to define truth in my lines from what I observed in life would dredge up my sense of incomplete training, expose the inadequacies I felt for not properly seeking or developing on my own the skills to pay the proverbial bills.
Face it, you can draw all the monsters and schlock you want, boobs sell. If you can’t draw a decent woman, you really have to be able to draw exceptional monsters, and my work largely sat somewhere in between. Half decent women layered with monstrous details and visual noise to compensate for the inadequacies of craft, detail, and stroke; to hide the lies in the line.
Fast forward to my return to college in Oregon, and to a fresh attempt towards artistic development. I still deferred to making monsters, had an intention to learn digital tools and bring my goofy creations to life. Photoshop 2.0 held the floor then, industry standard. I had to get into an independent study with the Dean of the Art Department to do this, and that independent study lead to the career I have today, designing video games for a living, and a decent living at that. Not the celebrity and reknown Shane Gline’s beautiful and stylish illustrations of women have garnered him, though I don’t really care as much about that as I did decades ago. I’m lucky to have the life I have, even if I took a very indirect route, one often tied to a pursuit of seeing and or drawing better beauties, and invariably leading instead to things I enjoy; making things up, adding humor and monsters and goofy whatnots wherever I can, especially when I can’t bring what I see in front of me to life.
If I can’t tell the truth in the line, at least I can have fun lying, right?