What do a labor arbitrator, a radio personality, a teacher, an epidemiologist, a registered nurse, an education specialist, a bat expert, a physiology professor, and a defense lawyer for the Dept of Justice all have in common?
This past week, I found out. And, in the process, realized that much of that which unites us as human beings has little to do with our professions, and much to do with what we long to do after-hours.
I first heard about Split Rock Art Programs from artist friends who recommended the workshops. Online, I found the perfect class for me: “Drawing for the Terribly Terrified” held for a week in the Northern Minnesota woods at the Cloquet Forestry Retreat Center. I would stay in a cabin. I would walk under towering trees. I would be in a part of the States I'd never visited, far away from anyone I knew, and I'd be wearing fleece for the first time in a year and a half. It sounded like the perfect class for me. So, last weekend I flew to Minneapolis – St. Paul and took a long, public bus ride to Cloquett.
I met my class mates for the first time last Sunday: women from San Francisco, Austin, Deluth, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Green Bay, and Michigan who, like me, wanted to learn to draw but doubted their own abilities.
Fast forward from our Sunday orientation and we’re learning the “strange truth at the bottom of the well” (Picasso): that we CAN draw. That drawing is fun. That we must remember to BREATHE, that the emotion of an object is just as important as its details. We learn that drawing is meditative. That it is hard, hard work. We are doing one of the things we fear the most: seeing a white sheet of paper, and daring to make that first, tentative line. The first two days we end in a deep exhaustion from so much unaccustomed concentration, and we retreat to our cabins to sleep. But by Wednesday, the energy has picked up. We’re feeling confident. Brave. Invincible.
Krista Kelley Walsh, our instructor, reminds us to trust our eye and hand to get out of our left brain, and into our right brain. Quiet, non-judgmental, and authentic, she teaches us mass gesture and line gesture drawing, the importance of organizational line, and shading. We use vine charcoal: black, powdery, dirty, and I learn to love its sensual feel on paper, the way it smudges out, making the lines faint, so that I can draw on top. I use Thai Chi movements at my easel; with both my feet firmly planted on the ground and with both my flattened palms, I smudge the charcoal in the large, sweeping hand-circles of soaring birds. I learn about the memory of a piece, how to build upon it, and that some of my best drawings were made in 15 or 30 seconds and that a two-minute sketch can represent a person’s character more than a detailed, representational portrait. Underneath my fingernails is a permanent line of black that doesn’t come out, even by scrubbing with soap. I’m feeling so very Jim Dine and Jackson Pollock; I’m channeling Dali and Kahlo; I’m entering the artist’s mind, and it’s MY mind, and I’m putting it all on newsprint and Stonehenge paper that’s clipped to the easel. I’m tearing it all up for collage and in tiny squares in my journal and it all feels good, and healing, and oh-so-very-me. Krista, our teacher, is harboring a secret little smile that she’s trying to hide. She knew all along we could do it; it was only WE who didn’t know.
But, the biggest surprise of the week wasn’t realizing that I can draw or that I can create pieces that I’m proud to say are mine, but the way we all connected in deeply meaningful ways. Seventeen women from various walks of life, various professions, and from many parts of the U.S. spend our meals and evenings together, hanging out at campfires, drinking margaritas at Mexico Lindo, working in the studio, and lingering over cups of tea, talking. We share our stories, our disappointments, our love stories, our divorce stories, our kid stories, our stories of courage and strength, and our grief. Our last day comes, and we hug good-bye, teary-eyed, exchanging emails and addresses.
I had arrived in Cloquet frazzled and off-balanced. I leave fulfilled, with greater faith in myself, and knowing that community is everywhere: at bus stops, in beginners drawing classes, and among a group of people who commit themselves to doing something as daring as putting a pencil to paper to 30-second drawing by shamash, + neon green hue
create some new -something that would never have been created if we hadn’t been brave enough to start.