Thirty seconds and a blank page

A week ago I boarded another plane and said goodbye to London: morning crumpets, everyday cakes with cream, windy blustery drizzle, soaked shoes, sunlight on pavement and hazy watercolor skylines, dinners with new friends.

A few days ago I found my way to Grand Rapids, Michigan; and am already taking in a new set of daily moments: the messy beauty of a house full of children and questions and projects and curiosity, post-dinner dance parties, following the routes and rhythms of a new city, bridges over inky water, Michigan cherry butter, peppermint tea and evening conversations with dear old friends.

While I spent bits of November on tubes and trains, crisscrossing London, wandering through markets and exploring alleys and ancient bookstores, breathing the big-city air and snapping photographs; most of the time I was tucked away in Stanford-le-Hope, a small community 40 minutes east of the city. And I'm still trying to figure out how to put words around my time there. The generous circle of relationships I found myself in felt like a lesson in hospitality; like learning the art of being received. But it all happened far too quickly — I'd only just caught my breath, and it was time to move on to another city, another community. Another place to find home and family for a small window of time.

It reminds me of sketching, this way of being; these polaroid-snapshot looks at a place. 

Here's the thing: there’s a lot of life that happens in a month. A lot of breakfasts and dinners and cups of tea, a lot of sleeping and waking and conversations and deadlines and decisions, big and small. Seven hundred and thirty hours, to be exact. I keep thinking about this amount of time — a month — and what it allows for, and what it limits. “It’s kind of like a fortnight,” one English man said to me soon after I landed in Stanford-le-Hope. “It’s more than just a's long enough to fully arrive, to get connected; but not long enough to really settle in.” Indeed. My time in Stanford felt like getting a long first look at someone, and trying to quickly capture and put down on paper the most important features, the broad strokes. And then, I wonder if every month will feel like this.

In my first year of art school, I took a one-week summer class on figure drawing. It was a condensed course, so for that week we spent eight hours a day together: a group of about twenty students, a tangled forest of twenty long-legged wooden easels, two models, and our instructor: a veteran artist, a cheeky and world-wise master of the craft named Chris Gargan.

This class transformed me, the dutiful student and careful perfectionist. Its focus was on learning to draw the human figure, and (since clothes tend to get in the way of this) the use of nude models was the standard approach. That first morning, after our model stepped up on the platform and dropped her robe, it took all of about two minutes of nervous giggles and awkward eye-shifting for the rest of us to settle into concentrated zones, charcoal in hand, and to begin to look through a new lens of line and curve and angle, form and shadow and shade, rather than the default lens of skin and sexuality. I remember feeling a shift in the room at Chris’s forceful call to attention and awe; his promise that any hint of disrespect or rudeness, either to the models or about them, would be swiftly met with expulsion and a grade of zero. This was no game, no laughing matter, and no joke. These are the bodies of people with souls; these are our bodies, and we are here to see them — truly see them. To notice how they move and halt, settle and change. To recognize the beauty of this body of ours, and to put it down on paper in the way we each understood it.

We began with gesture drawings: thirty seconds and a huge sheet of newsprint.

Now, the point of gesture drawings is that they’re quick and very rough. Ours were timed — 30 seconds, sometimes 15. Since you only have a few seconds to capture what you see, it forces you to make split-second instinctual decisions about what is most important; about how to capture and convey the essence of the figure standing in front of you. It's messy by nature; forced by limited time to give up some measure of control, the drawing gains an immediacy and expressiveness. I was often surprised at what I saw on my paper after 30 seconds, and how those lines carried more energy and life and humanity than if I'd spent three hours on a careful drawing. 

I am trying to see each month like this, now. Thirty seconds and a blank page. Time always goes by more quickly than I think it will, and I easily get anxious and flustered over how to structure my days, balance priorities, get everything done...while also wanting to be actually present, with people. To really be where I am.

I think maybe it's okay, though; this quick look, these long-but-short days and weeks. This amount of time asks something different of me, and I'm learning how to respond. Isn't it often like this? We live in split-second glances that fly by like blurry trees through train windows. I can't catch it all, and I won't try to. I'm praying for eyes to see the bold lines that carry life and energy, the strong curves that speak volumes. To set them down in my heart and on paper, and to let the rest go.

Photo: Sketches by Lisa Anderson, Well House Gallery, Horndon on the Hill, Stanford-le-Hope, England.