Ted, the course coordinator, wore a white linen shirt over blue jeans. Fifteen prospective students, including myself, stood in a loose group in the drawing studio, one floor up from the footpath. ‘This course’, said Ted, ‘is going to change your life. By the end of the first semester, you’ll be looking at the world differently. Even looking out the window, you’ll be looking through it as an artist. But don’t come expecting a holiday. Don’t come treating it as a break from work. You’ll be working harder here than you’ve ever worked before. And it won’t just be drawing, in the way you’ve done up till now. You’ll be taking photos. You’ll be going to exhibitions and reporting critically on them after. You’ll be completing assignments late at night, or on Sundays when you’d rather be at the beach. And in this way, week after week, you’ll be training your eye to see the world as it really is, and not as you want it to be.’
I stared out the arched window at the footpath below, and then back at the group. ‘I can guess what you’re thinking’, said Ted said. ‘How can a three-day-a-week course in drawing take over your life?’ He looked across at Julie, the other teacher on the course. Julie laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘this course used to be run as your typical adult education course. Classes were held mainly at night. There was no formal assessment. There was no expectation that students would return for a second year. But we’ve changed all that. These days, unless you’re in the running to become an artist, you won’t get a place on this course. Your place will go to someone who is ready to make a move into the art world. There just isn’t enough room, on this course, for hobby artists. This course is about training your eye in a way of looking at the world that will make everything in your life, so far, fall into place’. His blue eyes darting, Ted looked from one applicant to another, making sure of our attention.
‘Any questions?’ he asked. One woman asked a question about the portfolio required for the interviews, to be held over the next few days. Another asked about fees, and another about electives. I asked whether it was possible to do the course over two days, rather than three, and Ted frowned his reply. Then he clapped his hands to signal the end of the meeting. ‘See you at your interview’, said Ted, and left the studio with Julie.
Two days later, at my interview, Ted flipped through my sketchbook. ‘And did you do all these drawings at the same time?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘The main ones were done over a couple of years, with the bulk done during my recovery from illness in my late 20s’. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Who is this?’ he asked, stopping at a line portrait drawn from a photo. ‘That’s Robert Lowell, an American poet’.
Ted snapped the sketchbook shut. ‘Look’, he said. ‘Your drawing is fine. It’s your dedication to the course that I’m worried about. You asked, at the end of the introductory meeting, about doing the course over two days a week. What’s all that about?’ ‘Well’, I said. ‘I was hoping to keep my writing projects alive, alongside the drawing course’. ‘Oh’, interrupted Ted. ‘That’s not going to work. We need total loyalty here, total commitment’. He tapped the table with his finger of his left hand and jotted a note on his pad with his right. ‘This course runs over three days. But really it’s a full-time commitment. Otherwise’, he repeated, drumming his long fingers on the table, ‘it’s just not going to work’.
‘Ok’, I said, ‘I hear you. I’m willing to commit. I do see your point. I’ll have to make arrangements for my puppy, but I can do the three days. The writing can wait. I’ve always wanted to draw properly and now, with my daughter away, I can do it’. ‘Right oh’, said Ted, ‘we’ll be in touch with an answer by the end of this week’.
The street looked different to the street that I’d left an hour before, as I rushed into the art school for my interview. If I got a place on the course, I thought to myself, there’d be no more morning yoga and there’d be less time for housekeeping. If I was organised before, now I’d have to be super organised. But it would be worth it. I would be doing what I’d always secretly wanted to do. Only now it wouldn’t be secret.
When I got home, I went straight into the garden and started cutting back plants. When it started spitting with rain, even the dog took refuge inside. ‘Are you sure you should be cutting those plants back as hard as that?’ asked my daughter, appearing at the back door with a worried look. ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I asked a gardening friend, who said that these respond well to being cut back’. By the time I’d finished gardening, the bricks below the side bed were carpeted with green. I was wet with sweat and rain.
My world was about to change and I felt free. I was reinventing myself, following my own lead. My daughter was leaving home for college. But I wouldn’t miss her because my days would be busy just keeping up with my commitments, and seeing the world through artist’s eyes.
‘Dear Helen’, the email began. It was a no from Ted, the course coordinator. The course, he explained, was oversubscribed and they were unable to offer me a place. Would I like to apply again the following year, once I’d spent more time drawing and was ready to commit fully to the course?
I knew, from the email in front of me, that two-thirds of the applicants for the course hadn’t got a place. But in my heart the rejection felt personal. I had paid a price for being cocky. I’d mentioned my PhD and three books. ‘Big deal’, the rejection email said to me. ‘We don’t care about any of that.’ I felt clumsy, naïve. I had misjudged. I was keen to work in a drawing studio. I dearly wanted some instruction. But I’d been vain in thinking that Ted and Julie would want me over other applicants. I had other opportunities, as the rejection letter politely suggested. Why should an oversubscribed art department offer me another?
I looked up from the computer, away from the unwelcome email. I’d been shown up as the self-centred dilletante that I really was. I’d been seen through. The side garden that, five days before, I’d tamed in the rain, now looked hacked at, messed about with. Why couldn’t I do anything properly? Why was I forever making things up as I went along? Would it always be this way?
My daughter, already practised in missing out on things, having recently left school, gave me a hug. ‘It’s nothing to do with you’, she said. ‘You’re just a name on a list’. Perhaps she was right, I thought. But in the days after I made up my own story. I’d been passed over because I wasn’t serious about art. And possibly for another reason. The course coordinator, on hearing me say that I wanted to write about my experience of being a student again, had arched ever so slightly. Why, I imagined him asking himself, would he want to be described in his crisp white shirt by a middle-aged female student keen to reinvent herself through art?
Then again, from Ted’s point of view, I could be seen as a financial risk. Perhaps the government would give his department a smaller subsidy for my place, than if they gave a place to someone on a welfare benefit. Perhaps my daughter was right. I was just a name on a list and it was a numbers game.
For a few weeks I didn’t pick up a pencil to draw. It wasn’t a decision that I made. I just didn’t get round to it. Was I proving Ted right, that I wasn’t dedicated to art? Perhaps. But the conflict felt bigger, and possibly simpler, than this. I had applied to the drawing course to take my drawing to the next level, not to become an artist. I was fine with my identity as it was. I didn’t want my view of the world transformed. I didn’t want to take on the mantle of the artist. Writing was hard enough, why choose something even harder? I didn’t draw because I was cross with Ted for telling me that I had to become an artist if I wanted to learn to draw.
Until one morning I visited the local art shop and sketched my story about the drawing course to the woman at the till, who was supporting her own creative practice by working weekends at the art shop. ‘I wouldn’t worry’, she said. ‘That course has changed a lot. Just get back to your own drawing’. ‘I was thinking’, I said, ‘of doing a drawing a day, and of going from there. Only I don’t want to make it into a chore, into something I have to do, to tick off a list’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘of course you don’t. What about if you take a small pad? That way you can do a drawing most nights, as a way of unwinding, and look forward to it during the day’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘that sounds good. What about if, in a couple of months, I come back and show you what I’ve done?’ ‘I would like that’, said the woman, smiling.
It was a hot day and I was glad to leave my dog in the car in the garage next to the art shop. An hour and a half later, I returned to the car to find the garage door pulled down. Knowing that my dog was locked in the car in a garage which wouldn’t open until Monday morning, I panicked. As I was speaking to the after-hours security, agreeing a sizeable call-out fee, the woman who’d served me in the art shop appeared jangling a set of keys. Her face was red. ‘I only stayed back’, she said, with quiet fury, ‘because I saw a dog in the car’. ‘I’m really sorry’, I said. But it made no difference. The woman was fuming. ‘There are so many things that I have to do this afternoon’, the woman said, fumbling with the keys in the roller door. I said nothing in my defence. I had no defence. I had used the art shop car park while I went to a shoe shop – I had a shoe box under my arm – and then to a bookshop. ‘Oh God, I do apologise’, I said, trying a second time. ‘And you were so kind to me this morning’. But it was no good, the woman still frowned. And so I jumped into my car and drove away, as if from the scene of a crime.
After a week or so, I took the small drawing pad out of the cupboard. My daughter was away and there was a gap to fill, which was just the right size for drawing in. I lit an oil burner and dimmed the lights. But no music. The quiet was better for drawing. I put the flowers that I’d picked out walking the dog before dinner under the arc table lamp of the kitchen table.
It was the same the next night. I waited until after dinner and the house was quiet. I put whatever I was going to draw – usually flowers, but not always – under the lamp that pooled light on the table. Then I’d just look at the plant, fiercely at first, until I decided which part of the plant – or object – to draw. Sitting there, in the quiet, it became obvious which part of the plant I’d focus on. Like cropping a photo, I left out most of what I could see and focused on just a small area.
Once I started drawing, that small cropped area came alive. Details of foliage and shadow, of colour and depth, that I spent my days brushing past, as I headed for the fridge, now spoke to me. Head down, a clutch of coloured pencils in my left hand as I drew with my right, I let the drawing become my world. I focused on the plant, not on the page. As I drew, I was struck by the strangeness of nature, the peculiar shape of a flower, in a more concentrated way than was possible when I brushed past the plant out walking my dog. I never looked at my watch when I drew, so I don’t know how much time went by. I tried not to stop drawing to look at my drawing critically. And I was always glad that my pad was small so that I could finish my drawing in one go.
Every time I started drawing it was the same. There was a hump that I had to get over before I got into it. I never started out feeling confident. It was more curiosity that drew me in. Curiosity for the plant I was drawing, which I’d never looked at properly, and for the drawing that might come out of my staring at the plant hard enough. And though I never truly captured what was in front of me, I did capture something else, a glancing likeness that satisfied me.