I told a fib today. It was easy, because it was in French.
You see, I’ve been seeking a new artistic outlet that will allow me to get out into the community and interact with other people. By “new artistic outlet,” I mean something that fosters self-expression but that will take me away from my 9-5 life of intoning “do-re-mi-fa-sol” on repeat five days a week. By “community,” I mean “outside of my all-consuming place of work.” And by “other people,” I mean “nice strangers who speak French.” Because this is a linguistic undertaking as much as anything else.
And so I signed up for some ambiguous drawing workshop that I saw on the internet. Ambiguous because the description, even when translated into English, meant nothing:
But that’s okay. I fired off an email or two via Google translate, hopped in my little orange car, and arrived at this oasis of an art studio in an otherwise dingy pocket of a generally dingy city. Like, it was across the street from a landfill. But that’s okay. Because inside the gates, it was a visual and auditory oasis, with charming courtyards, pleasant music, and rooms named after famous artists and musicians.
I arrived 10 minutes late on a Saturday morning, purchased a fancy pencil, an eraser, and a giant piece of intimidating paper, and installed myself in front of an easel. The instructor quizzed me.
“I’m a beginner,” I said. This I still considered to be more-or-less true.
“I’ve never taken any classes.” This was the fib. In truth, I am a drawing-school-dropout. But I didn’t think that would be pertinent information for the maitresse. She asked me what I wanted to learn, and I told her I was here to have a cultural experience. She asked me what I wanted to draw, and I told her, “something easy.” And so she taught me how to hold a pencil, and told me to draw a rectangle.
Who holds pencils this way? Only people who don’t know how to hold pencils. It must be “free to move,” she said. My pencil freely drew the sort of rectangle a toddler might draw. La maitresse smiled (okay, laughed), and told me to erase it. “Like this,” she said. “Rest your hand on the paper to stabilize it. And relax.”
Awesome. She did not tell me to recreate the vase perfectly on paper. She did not tell me to analyze the vase. She did not even tell me to think about the vase. Just feel it. With my whole body. Okay. Feel the vase.
She smiled (laughed, really), and said, “Voila!” And she explained how to use my pencil to measure the proportions of the vase. What happened to feeling the vase with my body? How do I use a pencil as an instrument of measurement? It has no numbers. How imprecise. And where exactly do I put this pencil to transform it into a ruler? As soon as I move closer to the vase, the vase gets bigger. So now I have this growing and shrinking object that refuses to be measured accurately. But okay. I’ll try.
Well, if that’s all there is to it, I might as well draw the clay pot beside the vase as well. It, too, is an ellipse. Is it? I think so. And it’s in front of the vase. And kind of beside it. About the size of my pencil. I’ve got this.
I didn’t have this. I neglected to use the pencil to measure the space where there was nothing. The flat little pot would need to be much taller than it actually was. I could not wrap my head around this small-but-not-small pot. And wait – was there not a gap between it and the vase just a moment ago? What devilry is this?
“Voila!” she said when she saw my elongated pot. And she plopped an orange in front of the vase.
She did not exhort me to feel it, not with a single body part. She and her apron floated away, and I drew a circle. I measured it every way I could think of. It is this height in proportion to the vase. It is this distance away from the pot. It sticks out this far in front of the vase. It extends this far beyond the edge of the vase. But every measurement I took negated the previous one. How can it be half the size of this and double the size of that at the same time?
I could not see the oval. I could only see the circle. And every time I looked at it, it was in a slightly different place.
“Il bouge,” I said helplessly.
“What moves?” she asked.
“The orange. The vase. Everything!” I cried in exasperation. In French. With perfect clarity. She threw back her head and laughed. “I like this lady,” I thought. “I can make her laugh in French.”
Eventually we gave up on the shape-shifting orange. She showed me four different pencils and told me to practice my shading. I must make little, grayscale triangles over and over again until there is no visible contrast between the light and the dark. I must practice at home, with the designated pencil. And then it would suddenly be easy.
Now I remember why I was a drawing school drop-out. Ten years ago I enrolled in a drawing class in Peterborough, and it did nothing but stress me out. When I did the homework, the instructor never asked to see it, and when I didn’t do it, I was reprimanded. And the assignments mostly just involved a lot of squinting and headaches. Drawing is stressful. That is why I quit.
I wonder if my new maitresse can help me over this psychological hurdle. Because it is psychological, right? I mean, people draw things all the time. Drawing round things on flat paper is theoretically possible. It’s not some kind of superpower.
The maitresse from France only comes to Morocco once a month to throw back her head and laugh at people like me. In between, there is, apparently, a kind and patient man named Mustapha who will guide my faltering hand from one enigmatic shape to the next. For a fee. If I dare go back.
Well, the French practice was awesome. Plenty of one-on-one conversation. Lots of new vocab. People who are interested enough in my poor pencil’s plight that they will repeat themselves slowly until I understand what they’re saying. I suppose, even if I never conquer my circular tendencies, the linguistic experience will be worthwhile.
But what I really want is for it to be fun! Not to make a masterpiece, but to feel at ease with whatever my pencil spews out. To feel that my teacher approves of me and my efforts. To feel that I belong in a place that is slightly out of my comfort zone. To believe that I can learn to see this world as a flat-but-not-flat place that is reducible to manageable edges. To laugh with people about my drifting fruit. And to figure out the pencil = ruler conundrum.
Do you think I can do this? It’s not yoga. It’s not a choir. It’s a completely new domain. It could very easily go all wrong. And it could very easily become a second artistic home, if I can just hold my pencil backwards and let go.