Before my first figure drawing class, I worried about gawking.
When I started this month learning about figuring drawing and the local figure drawing class, I worried about staring like some kind of rube and coming off as a creep.
I was only an artist in the loosest sense of the word. I barely understood what the different pencils and charcoals in my beginner’s kit were used for, let alone how to properly use them.
The pencil sharpener bedeviled me, but the elephant in the room was the live, naked woman.
Not to sound prudish, but the last time I’d sat in a room with a naked woman I didn’t know had been during the Clinton administration. Following the split with my then-wife, my best friend Brad decided to take me out to “Southern Exposure” to cheer me up.
At the time, I was sleeping on an air mattress in the corner room of a drafty house I shared with a couple of friends from college and considering buying an iguana for company. A night out to see naked strangers hadn’t crossed my mind, but Brad promised dinner before we hit the club and I was never one to turn down a free meal.
What I remember about that night is that we ate at Applebees (I had a burger and cheese fries) and that one of the dancers at the club turned out to be a woman who’d spent half a semester as my editor at the college paper.
We’d recognized each other during her set around the catwalk and while the jukebox kept playing her remaining two songs, we chatted about what we’d both been up to in the past couple of years.
Obviously, neither of us expected to be here, but it was nice to catch up, which annoyed everyone else seated at the edge of the stage.
When the last song ended and the next dancer began to line up, we both agreed it had been nice. She went around the stage, collecting whatever dollars were still offered and then Brad looked over at me and said, “I can’t take you anywhere.”
We left soon after, before anyone else I knew turned up.
Obviously, a figure drawing class is very different than a topless bar, but I still felt out of my element.
I arrived at the building on Smith Street right before class was supposed to start, an over-sized sketch pad under one arm and a drawing kit in my hands. The kit contained a collection of different pencils, pieces of charcoal and an eraser.
The Tamarack Foundation Studio was on the third floor, away from the rest of the offices and looked to be in a part of the building that was less finished.
The room Andy White, the facilitator for the class, led me to was simple brick — spacious, but a little cluttered. Pictures and paintings hung along the walls, but there were also boxes stacked to the side and some junk lying about.
There were mismatched chairs for the artists to sit on and a platform where the model would pose.
A chair had been set aside for the model, along with cushions and a crumpled sheet.
Andy helped as much he could. For my first class, he helped me find a seat, gave me a thin sheet of particle board I could keep on my lap to have a surface to sketch on.
“We have easels, if you want to try that,” Andy told me.
There was maybe half a dozen of us in the brick room. A couple of people were standing and using easels, but not me. Remaining on my feet to sketch sounded like more than I could manage.
Andy explained how the class worked.
“We’ll ask the model to do a couple of short poses to let us get warmed up.” He explained, “Those will be two-minute poses and then we’ll do some five minute and maybe 10-minute poses before the 20-minute poses.”
Around the half-way mark of the two-to-two-and-a-half hour class, we’d all take a break. We could go outside to smoke or find the restroom, if we wanted to. Andy brought a muffin.
He introduced me around and then Ariene Rachael Shomo quietly arrived. She was an attractive, slender young woman with close-cropped black hair. She wore a silk robe and smiled serenely at everyone as she made her way from the door to the platform.
As she settled in, we sat down.
Ariene slipped off her robe, revealing her briefs and a couple of tattoos. She wasn’t fully naked.
Andy explained later that was normal.
“I’ve seen it all,” he said. “Some people go for the full nude and that’s fine. Others wear something. A lot of people will wear bottoms, but we’ve had someone wear a top.”
What was most important was that everyone needed to be comfortable — and the parts that were being covered weren’t necessarily all that important for artists to draw.
Andy asked Ariene about what kind of music she listened to and then put on a playlist that helped fill up the quiet but left no real impression.
After a moment, he gave Ariene some direction for the first pose. Then he started the clock.
This wasn’t Ariene’s first time with figure modeling. She told me she’d been modeling for the figure drawing class off and on for years. She wasn’t entirely sure how many times she’d modeled.
“At least five, six or seven times,” Ariene explained.
A local artist, Ariene said she’d done her first session in the basement of Taylor Books, back when the class met there. She’d also followed the class to Apartment Earth and had modeled a few times at the current location on Smith Street.
She told me she grew up in Kanawha County but had moved around some through her 20s. She returned to the area last year during the early months of COVID, which was both good and bad.
“I really wanted to focus on my art full-time,” she said. “The community here is very supportive. It’s a very creative scene.”
During COVID, however, it’s harder to get art shown, but she was managing.
What was important was that Ariene thought Charleston was a good place for her to explore.
“I do some pop art, fun stuff, but I’m self-taught and not really sticking to one style. I bounce around a lot,” she said.
Ariene said she was a little nervous the first time she posed, but the nerves faded. She said she doesn’t think that much about the people looking at her, but just goes into her own head.
“I do this as meditation,” she said. “It’s very relaxing.”
She said she gets energy from the other artists.
“I encourage my female friends a little bit to give this a try,” Ariene said. “It’s very empowering.”
Drawing for me was frustrating. I could not make my hands do what I wanted them to do. Nothing I drew looked anything like Ariene and I took the failure to make a likeness hard. It was almost a relief every time I pressed down too hard with a pencil, snapped the lead and had to spend half a minute sharpening it to a point again.
My head was beginning to ache and I became aware that I hadn’t eaten anything.
When Andy announced the break, I put up my hands and said I needed to go. He nodded and with help I found my way to the elevator, the lobby, and the parking lot.