I remember drawing regal ladies from my imagination with hair high like Marie Antoinette's and ballgowns the size of Jupiter. The fabric of their skirts was draped and ribboned and tied like the most elaborate wedding cake decorations; in my child mind the silk was just as airy and light as white frosting. Birds with beating hearts could live among the folds. These characters, my creatures, were beautiful and I had complete confidence that my rendering of them perfectly captured their exquisiteness. I would show each drawing to my mother with solemnity. "Oh, look at that! Isn’t she beautiful? And look at her dress," she would say, and I would be relieved-- my vision had been transferred, the drawn world shared.
Then I grew up and forgot that I liked to draw. Unless we are exceptionally talented why would we continue the pursuit? We stopped playing pretend. We stopped swinging high and splashing in muddy creeks. Because who has time for the mysterious magic of childhood play? Of course, we can witness a glimpse of that dominion, where imagination bucks and romps, in the real children we know. They run past us, practically under our feet, into the backyard. My goodness, their energy! It’s like they’re plugged straight into the booming amp of the earth-- they are simultaneously Jimmy Hendrix with the multiple arms of a Hindu god and all the electric guitars he’s playing. We’re lucky if we’re tuned in enough to even get an earful of the music they’re making on the universe’s stage.
When I got to Paris, I was too tired to write, much less plug into any metaphorical creative amp. As anyone who has moved residences knows, it sucks the life right out of you; even if you’re just moving one door down, it’s soul crushing to pack up your life in cardboard boxes, lug that life, and then plunk it down somewhere new. You wade through rising, syrupy tides of nostalgia as you sift through your stuff. Each book you take off the shelf reminds you of past selves and bygone eras. You throw out half-empty bottles of perfume that you once loved but which now smell like a distant family member you never much liked. If you can let go of that stuff, step out of that morass of memory, the process can be quite freeing, but it’s still a process, and it’s a draining one.
My husband and I threw away what we could and we finally met up with our remaining stuff in Paris, the city that has always felt like home, the city that’s crushed me every time I visited and then had to leave. I reunited with her like a lost love regained. And even the bureaucracy that stood between me, the American, and the city of my dreams only heightened the allure-- she’s good at playing hard to get, this one. But, it wasn’t just the move that was making me tired. It was the city itself. Paris is like a narcotic. And I was getting my fix every day, day after day. I was lulled by her thousand murmuring layers of history, struck dumb by all the clichéd beauty of her cafés and parks and museums. At the end of the day I felt nothing but stupefied, not exactly with the clear mind needed to get something, anything, even a few notes on paper, and I was frustrated not to have a creative way to record my first impressions of my new home.
One day a new friend, Alice, a painter, suggested I accompany her to an art studio that’s open to the public for drawing workshops. A live model holds a pose for three hours and artists can pay twenty euros to draw or paint in the studio, without instruction. “Just bring your own materials.” I had the twenty bucks, but few materials, seeing as I had forgotten that I liked to draw (with the exception of a few bouts of quickly passing whimsy) when I grew up. I bought some paper and pencils-- art stores, naturally, abound in Paris; she’s proud of her official seal of Artists' Muse. On their website the studio at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse describes itself as a “mythical place” and mentions that Picasso and Manet, among other mythic Muse-users, had a hand in the Academy’s creation.
I met Alice, a lovely young English woman, on the sidewalk outside the workshop studio, and her ease and smile zapped my buzzing nerves. She assured me that, though a teacher was present and might look occasionally over your shoulder to see what you're drawing, he wasn’t intrusive and wouldn’t ask too many questions, and also, it is was just fine that I was a beginner. We walked into the large atelier space whose surfaces looked like gigantic planes of a wooden artist’s palette. Large and small format paintings were propped against the paint splattered walls. Chairs of different shapes, heights, and sizes were arranged in a semi-circle around a small, slightly raised stage. It reminded me of a 19th century physicians’ theater.
Painters filed in quietly and went directly to their favorite spots to unpack their materials, and some of them retrieved their unfinished works from the walls. Most of the paintings depicted the same subject, a woman. Some portraits zoomed in on her face, others depicted her lounging far away.
Alice and I chose short stools in the front of the atelier, close to the stage, and I picked out the smallest notebook and the lightest pencil I could find in my canvas bag. Behind me I felt the collective gaze, sharpening in readiness, of the real artists at their easels in the back of the room.
A long, thin brunette with hair cut into a triangular bob slunk onto the stage in an emerald green silk evening gown. Only Paris produces women like this. She looked like a languid flapper, a Jazz Age dancer, a model for a champagne ad. And she slipped the green dress right over her head.
And then, just as silently as the woman had knelt down and folded herself into a seated pose, a large white labrador retriever bounded up the steps onto the stage and stretched out alongside her.
The intimate presence of a naked human body positioned to be gazed upon is unsettling. It shocks your senses immediately open. The skin is a gauntlet thrown down, the eye the weapon in the duel. The dog napped and the woman… well, meditated? Or did she soak up our gaze through her pores, using the juice of our concentration as a psychic salve? The room hummed. The energy of artists in the act of creation, especially when creating in a group, is indeed akin to that generated in meditation or some other spiritual practice, because everyone is utterly present. They are alive in the eye and alive in the hand and alive in the line they are spinning out onto the paper. Behind me the room felt like a dark night in a wood filled with invisible animals of prey, poised, awake to their nature.
I might have been blushing, not because of the model’s nakedness, which she wore just as comfortably as her gown, but because of my amateur presence in the studio. Next to me Alice was working with rich, vivid pastels, beautifully drawing the model's torso. For the first thirty minutes I looked and fumbled with the line; a rain of eraser shavings came down in my lap. I drew the dog, peeking back behind me to make sure the other artists weren’t looking, like they didn’t have anything better to do than to try to sneak a peek at the light etchings of my dog portrait.
After an hour the teacher made a signal that I didn’t catch and the dog suddenly awoke and bounded back down the steps. The model relaxed out of her pose. The group dispersed for a break and I felt relieved that the séance was paused, if only briefly. When we returned for the next hour I was less self-conscious and started to lose myself in the process of drawing.
The logical part of the brain slowly quiets down its near constant yammering. The volume of the refrain “you’re too old to try to draw” turns way down low and it slithers to a slow-motion crawl until there’s nothing but silence in the mind. Like the other artists, it's just my eye, my hand, and the line. I observe and lightly sketch the whole scene of the model in front of a colorful backdrop, a rug with interesting shapes beneath her and the dog on his side, his soft pink belly rising and falling.
The peaceful spirits conjured in the room screamed and scattered for the other world from which they’d come.
Oh, Sweet Mother of Picasso, that’s my canvas bag that’s loudly shattering the concentration of the room. That’s my generic "Old Phone" iPhone ringtone that never rings because I know so few people in Paris. That’s my cell that I could have sworn I silenced at the beginning of the session.
“Pas de portable!!” someone shouted. I know, no phones! Of course, no phones!
I grabbed my bag and ran out of the room. I couldn’t risk taking the time to fumble around to turn off the ringer, so I bolted. After taking the brief call and letting my cheeks cool I noticed a sign outside the door of the studio saying “No one may enter once the session is underway." So I sat outside the doors like a benched little league player kicking his shoe in the dirt.
Eventually an assistant swung open the doors and asked me to pay. “Can I go back inside?” I mustered the courage to ask after handing over my twenty euros— surely that would grant me a re-entry into the atelier? “But of course,” he looked at me like the crazy American that I am.
I tried to make myself small as I tiptoed back to my little stool, picking up my pencil that had rolled to the ground. The spell had definitely been broken, but I had witnessed it. For very briefly, maybe even just a moment I had tasted that magic, glimpsed that other realm where children spin their tales, experiencing the world like it’s new every day. And, I had seen the other artists inhabiting that world. Was it simply the gravity of concentration? The quieting of the mind? The way that time uncoils like a smoothed out metal spring in the moment of looking and recording what’s in front of you?
Since then I’ve taken up drawing again, although I stick to solo expeditions in urban parks. But even alone, without a dog or other artists to annoy, I try to remember to turn off my cell phone, so that I don’t disturb the other worlds that I might reach in the act of sketching.
I can't decide whether drawing cuts through the narcotic beauty of Paris or magnifies it. Only the Muse knows.