After twenty minutes, someone yells "Time!" Everyone gets to lean back, stretch.
The sessions take place in 501 Dodge Hall, a spacious studio I would have never entered, since I am not a Visual Arts major. For students like me who can't fit a formal art class into the schedule, the Artist Society, a new group sponsored by the Columbia University Arts Initiative, hosts weekly figure drawing sessions from six to eight on Friday nights. Open to all Columbia University students for free, it is an opportunity to draw, to pause, to learn to see.
When I entered Dodge Hall for the first session, unsure where to find the studio, a petite blond woman clutched my arm. Thick black eyeliner caked the delicate, wrinkled skin around her blue eyes.
"You must be our model!" she said, smiling. "Oh! You have the most gorgeous teeth."
I thanked her for the compliment, but she sensed my confusion. "Are you here for the drawing class?" "Yes," I told her, but I was not sure whether we were speaking about the same one.
We weren't. The model for her class was missing and she asked me so sweetly to stand in, that I could not refuse. In a dark studio, with four students spread across the room, I tried to hold a posture for five minutes, barely able to stifle my laughter. It occurred to me, after perhaps the first minute, what a luxury it was to be still, to do nothing but look at anything my eyes could latch upon, so long as I didn't turn my head. The woman standing in front of me was wearing all black, her dark hair tied in a ponytail that bobbed with every quick flash of her head from me to her sketch. What was she noticing, what was she trying to get?
Minutes later, after my modeling time ended and I finally found the room for the Artist Society, I had answers. When I sat down at the table to draw, I understood what compulsion the woman with the ponytail might have felt. I fixated on Jennifer, the shapes she made with her body, her mussed hair, and the sheen of her tights, only glancing at the page to check my work. While the sketches were brief, I could not ignore the details. I might have gotten down an outline of Jennifer's body, but I wanted to catch the bangle she was wearing.
In the Society, students draw according to their own desires, with the materials they have chosen to bring. There is no teacher to point to your composition, contour line, or use of contrast. If you don't like the angle you have, you can move. I imagine one could pray or meditate in the silence.
The models hold a few poses for five minutes each, then for ten minutes, then twenty. What's remarkable is not how each increment of time imposes a limit, but how sufficient five minutes can be. When I concentrate on the shape of Jennifer's wrist, time is as irrelevant as it was to me when I was young. During afternoons in the backyard, I would trace shadows on the ground with a branch, and dusk would often catch me unaware.
Another experience during a drawing session reminds me of the curiosity and wonder I had at five years old. When Catherine Howard BC '09 modeled in the nude, I could not help but compare our bodies, how different they were. I could not help but wonder what it must be like to have her short red hair, or her rosy freckled skin, her breasts.
It is amazing how much I once absorbed, how impressive all that I experienced with my senses was. So impressive I still retain entire images, the bridge of my mother's nose as I traced it with my fingers when I was younger, for example. I have traced it from her lap so many times, I am often able to doodle it in the margins of my notes. Now it is not often that I decide to exercise such observation.
As much as I would love to take an art class here, Saroja Bangaru CC '09 offered me another perspective.
"I do too, Sumaiya," she said. "But I am more than happy with this."
Sumaiya Ahmed is a sophomore in Columbia College. She has been a writer, illustrator and photographer for the Spectator and The Blue and White. She plans to study Arabic and French. She is the Arts Editor of The Current. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.