The associate at the Michael’s craft store in Southridge approached me carefully, like she was half convinced that she might need to call for medical help.
I must’ve looked dazed, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
“Can I help you find something?” She asked.
Everything came out in a weird spill.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m taking this art class. It’s a figure drawing class. I haven’t picked up a pencil or a drawing pad since high school. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’ve ordered a book. Andy said I should get an 18 x 24 newsprint sketch pad and vine charcoal.”
The young woman smiled and said, “No problem. Follow me.”
I followed along. It seemed like the only thing to do. I felt anxious to be starting this month-long project and needed someone else to handle some of the thinking for me.
A long, long time ago, I used to draw and sketch. It was always a hobby, something I did without really thinking about what I was going to do with it – not unlike writing, actually.
When I was a kid, writing and drawing were two things I spent hours and hours on. Just as I filled notebooks with awful stories and even worse poems, I packed sketchbooks full of awkward drawings of monsters, buildings, animals, and people.
I thought maybe if I got good enough, I could break into comic books, be that rare triple-threat, writer, illustrator, and inker, but I wasn’t very good. I couldn’t draw a passable dog or human hands — unless I traced them.
Somewhere near the end of my senior year, I gave up entirely on drawing and stumbled down the road that eventually led me to where I am today.
But I’ve thought a lot about picking up a sketch pad and starting over because, clearly, I need one more hobby.
Occasionally, I’ve seen flyers up about figure drawing classes or somehow stumbled across them online, but I was directed to a local drawing group by local artist and art teacher Chet Lowther, who sent me to Andy White.
Andy said the group began years ago in the basement of Taylor Books and then moved to the Apartment Earth Gallery on Hale Street in 2017 after the bookstore’s basement became the home for the Flora Lee Hark Cohen Underground Cinema.
After Apartment Earth closed, the group met Thursday nights at the Tamarack Foundation’s Studio in the building at 1116 Smith Street in Charleston to draw a live, mostly naked, human model.
“Sometimes, it’s just a couple of us,” he said. “Sometimes, we get a little bit of a crowd, like a dozen or so.”
Skill and style levels varied, too, but that was entirely OK.
“We’re all working on it,” Andy told me.
I asked about joining the class — as an aspiring artist and as a reluctant model.
This made sense to me.
Figure drawing classes cost $20 to drop-in unless you’re a student. I was an amateur, not a student. The group also offered a discount if you signed up for a four-week session — $60 instead of $80.
I figured I could trade a couple of classes for a little of my time — and I wanted to see how other people might actually see me, which might help me see myself.
I don’t think we see ourselves as we really are, most of us, anyway. We tend to edit our perceptions, color them with our moods and our history. We add or take away weight in the mirror, ignore wrinkles or imagine there is more hair on top of our heads than is really there.
Almost exactly three years ago, I weighed 265 pounds, about 80 pounds more than I weigh now.
It was the heaviest I’d ever been, but I had no idea. I didn’t see myself as being that big. I made excuses. I was willing to say that my body frame was just heavier or that I had a lot of muscle beneath a layer flab.
The number on the scale and what I saw in the mirror didn’t match with what I knew.
My truth came apart after I began treatment for essential hypertension. The doctor put me on blood pressure medication and then pills for high cholesterol. The doses started out low but crept upwards over time.
Then, after an annual checkup, I learned that the enzymes in my liver were a little off.
This wasn’t anything to be too worried about, my doctor said, but I needed to give a little more blood and they needed to figure out what was going on.
Cancer, while unlikely, was a possibility, so I took some tests, waited, and got a referral for a specialist.
Lots of people would have handled this calmly, but I freaked out and had a “come to Jesus moment” about my health.
I did some research and found out that hypertension can put a strain on the liver. What seemed like the best way for me to head off the troubles was to drop the extra weight, get some exercise and manage my stress.
Right away, I gave myself a crash course in basic nutrition and then got a food diary and calorie counter app for my phone.
It was a boring way to lose weight.
I watched what I ate and counted the calories, but it worked. The pounds slowly fell away. In January of 2019, I joined CrossFit WV with the goal of training for a Spartan Race and got in shape, almost in spite of myself.
By the middle of February, I didn’t need medication. My blood pressure was down. My cholesterol was amazing, and my liver was just fine.
I also felt wonderful and was, really, better to be around.
So far, I’ve done pretty well with maintaining a healthy weight. I step on a scale a couple of times a week, just to check in, but try not obsess.
A lot has changed for me, but a lot hasn’t.
When I was heavier, my wardrobe trended toward oversized, hooded sweatshirts and baggy sweatpants. Loose fitting clothes weren’t just more comfortable. I could hide in them, and I hated having my picture taken, which seems funny for a guy whose face routinely shows up in print.
Even after the weight came off, I was always the last guy at the gym to pull his shirt off in the middle of a workout, regardless of how hot it was or how much sweat was coming off my skin.
This isn’t modesty. It’s more like paranoia.
So, I signed up for the classes to try to get back into drawing and agreed to come model one night — fully naked, if that’s what they wanted, because I wanted to see myself as perceived by an outside, objective eye.
I bought a new sketch pad, a kit full of pencils, erasers, and charcoal, along with a how-to-draw art book. I would work on taking some steps toward trying to make art again.
Then I began thinking about how to shave off just a couple of pounds.