Living in Denver in the mid ‘70s I was, as I like to describe it, “gainfully underemployed.” I supported myself with a variety of part-time jobs: some teaching at local colleges, some report writing, some evaluation research. I had lots of time before, after, and in between jobs to seek entertainment.
At one point, my friend Mack and I decided to sign up for a figure drawing class run by the Denver Free University (basically a collection of volunteer instructors teaching just about anything you can imagine that you wouldn’t find on a college campus…and some that you would.) Both of us had taken art classes in our youth, but neither of had drawn for a number of years, so we were eager to jump back in.
Figure drawing classes focus on drawing the human figure. This universally implies a human model. Imagine our surprise to find that there was no model in our figure drawing class: just a vase of wilted flowers. OK, it’s hard to find models.
The next session did actually feature a model. A young woman with long, straight black hair, wearing black jeans and a long-sleeved black tee shirt, sat curled up on a small dais at the front of the room. She was undrawable; just a blob of blackness. We dropped out of the class.
Not willing to give up our ambition, Mack and I listed our own figure drawing class in the DFU’s next term. Our course announcement acknowledged the difficulty in locating models, so we planned to recruit volunteer models from the class members. All very up-front and above board. We successfully ran our class for several years using this format. We always had a model, usually nude, but occasionally partially draped, according to the wishes of the volunteer. Some were male, some were female. Some were skinny, others not so much. Some were younger and smooth, others old and wrinkled. In short, a great variety of figures to challenge our charcoal or pastel.
Occasionally, one of the members would bring a guest to model for the class. One such evening was particularly memorable. The guest model was a young woman about 20 years of age. She was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Shortly after removing her robe and striking the first set of poses, one of our members, I’ll call him “Ed,” started packing up his supplies and slipped out the door. When Ed returned to the next class, I asked him why he had left. He said that the woman was so gorgeous that he worried that he would be staring at her rather than drawing her, and that was fundamentally unfair and disrespectful to her. So he left.
Wow! One doesn’t normally expect such a profound ethics lesson in a Free University figure drawing class. It has stuck with me all these years. Ed, by the way, was just beginning a long career as a political cartoonist. I wonder if he remembers that evening as clearly as I do?