Gesture Writing

I've been starting the arduous process to organize and move my studio from the city to the island. This has taken me on so many memory trips as I've leafed through my past, going through the layers of sediment and sentiment and discovering treasures long forgotten. As I've dug through my art school journals, I've rediscovered some of my old gesture drawings from figure drawing classes. These are very quickly sketched, usually thirty seconds or at most a minute. They make you see the very essence of things.

All of this processing of old imagery and experiences apparently seeped its way into my subconscious and was reborn in a vivid dream that combined old elements from art school in a new way. In my dream one of the models we used to draw in freshman figure drawing class became a real person to me- in a way he never was before. He began to tell me his story, even though I am fairly certain he is long deceased. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. Quickly.

There are so many reasons why we write. Most of the time we build on things little by little, combining pieces, forming a whole that gradually takes shape. The pieces can be paragraphs, poems, descriptions, or short essays.

I consider this to be "gesture writing" akin to gesture drawing. It is the essence of something. A warm up. An exercise in the durability and staying power of an idea.

I'm not sure where this will lead. Perhaps there will be a collection of these "gestures." But I am going to share this short piece here. I have changed the names, of course. But if you attended Syracuse University's College of Art in the late 70's, early 80's, this will bring back memories, no doubt.

If you feel so inclined, let me know what you think...

With Love,


He had climbed the stairs, all one hundred and nine of them, in a trance, as he made his way from Upstate Med down Irving to Crouse Hall. He didn’t feel the biting wind, nor did he pay any attention to the bloody red carpet in Crouse which created a womb-like interior. Art and music students swam by, flowing like storm run-off, holding portfolios and instrument cases like flotation devices as they made their way past Winged Victory who guarded the staircase leading to the upper floors.

He felt invisible and numb as he ascended the stairs to the fourth floor. The red carpet ended at the threshold to an open door, exposing the well-worn and stained wooden tongue-in-groove flooring littered with the odd-shaped benches which looked like a lower-case letter “h” that seemed to make no sense as furniture until they were straddled by unruly and unripe freshmen resting huge Masonite boards on the high side. He ignored the arriving students and paid less attention to the enormous drafty windows showing dark clouds gathering over the dingy expanse of Syracuse which had been in decline pretty much since the closing of the Erie Canal. It made no impression on him that he was standing in what used to be the tallest building around, an imposing and impressive Romanesque-Gothic revival style castle of a building designed and completed by a man named Archimedes Russell in 1889. It was under-heated and uncomfortable. That he noticed.

He barely looked up and nodded his head in gruff acknowledgment of the instructor standing next to the desk as he made his way into the closet in the corner. He didn’t know the instructor’s name. They were all the same: Steven, Karen, Roger, Carl… they didn’t care about him. He was just a body. Practically a cadaver. He overheard one of the freshmen say, “Dick Wicket? Do we have Dick Wicket today?” He waited for the snickering, which always followed, then he quietly removed his clothing, taking everything off except for his expandable metal wristwatch, folded the vestments carefully, and exchanged them with the polyester floral short kimono-style bathrobe he had in a bag, wrapping it around himself, looking like he had escaped from a spa for deranged women.

For three hours he exposed himself: every wrinkle, every crease, every line and bony protrusion, along with his sullen complexion and general flaccidity. He wore his skin like a suit of armor, deflecting intense stares as freshmen eyes probed his every orifice, attempting to transfer it in charcoal to large sheets of paper. He had suffered worse indignities in Vietnam. This was nothing. He shifted his weight, changing positions every minute as the freshman warmed up drawing gestures; lines that were not meant to be him, but to suggest him in an abstract way.

The poses became longer. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. He could hear his watch ticking, the sound of charcoal and conté crayon scratching, the instructor Steven, or was it Roger, saying “nice,” or “that foreshortening doesn’t work.” He could feel his leg going to sleep, numbness and tingling traveling upwards as he tried to not think about how hard the chair was that he was sitting on, draped only with a flimsy piece of cloth- so that they could draw the folds. He didn’t move, except for his eyes, as he cast them downward, trying to view his watch, waiting for the exact moment when he could break the pose. Relief washed over him as a fifteen minute break was announced. The freshman ran to the basement of Hendrick’s Chapel or The Blinker to buy hot coffee and honey buns. He put on his robe and went into the closet to smoke. The next pose would be an hour. He craved warmth- more of what was slowly dissipating from his nervous system, and a space heater, too. Why didn’t they provide at least the latter? Perhaps it was considered a fire hazard in such an old historic building, or were they that cheap or insensitive to the very nakedness his job required? He tried to feel the heat of the jungle, tried to remember the sweat rolling down his back. He didn’t want to go back there. Cold was preferable.

The one hour pose was not as torturous for him as it seemed to be for some of the others. He didn’t know them very well, the others. There was George. George was all energy and muscle. George would slap him on the back, “Yo, Dick, whassup?” He didn’t know what to say. George was a dancer- a modern dancer. He was black. He was the only one who refused to pose naked. He wore his leotard and often, tights, sometimes striped basketball socks pulled up to his knees. “Shits too cold in there. They don’t pay me enough to strip,” he’d say, “you gotta stand up to them, Dick. Say something.” He didn’t say anything. Not to George, not to the instructors, not to himself. George was from another planet- he brought his own music. He talked to the students, ran around and looked at what they drew, engaged them. He practically taught the class, taught the instructor. “See where my weight is,” he’d say, pointing to his quadriceps, “the weight is on this leg- show that weight with your lines.”

He didn’t care what they drew. He didn’t want to see it. He was there but not there. Frozen in the pose drifting in and out of consciousness while they sketched away, dreaming of the time being up, the darkness of night, and the line the next morning as he waited to get his dose. Unlike the freshmen being taught to use their kneaded erasers to remove areas of the charcoal to create depth and mood, he was working on erasing everything. Everything except the image of him, Dick Wicket, on their papers. He couldn’t erase that. Somewhere in the small recesses of his anesthetized ego, he knew that those drawings were the only proof that he existed.

 ©Nina Laden 2012 
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