Cooper Chronicles: I.12

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

professor gussow held two postcards before the class, one in each hand.  both were portraits of the artist giacometti, a surrealist painter / sculptor from the early 20th century that is best known for his later works — elongated sculptures of figures.  his early work, though, is what we were working from: figures that were very realistic, investigative of the different planes on the surface of the body. 

she shook the first postcard.  “this was a self-portrait done when the artist was 21 years of age, younger than some of you.”  it was done in oil; exuberant, vibrant colors danced across the canvas, globs of paint whose three-dimensionality seemed to reflect the optimism and energy of youth.

the second was a black-and-white photograph of giacometti as an old man.  he was slumped in his chair, eyes downcast with his head in his hands.  “this was taken in his later years.” he looked, in a word, defeated.  the cumulative bad experiences of sixty years were nearly tangible in the picture; they seemed to weigh on his shoulders like a sack of lead.

we looked at the pictures for a long time.  my friend penley grinned.  “the moral of the story is, Stay Away From Art.”  we all giggled. 

gussow didn’t crack a smile.  “no, no,” she shook her head firmly.  “the moral of the story is, It Never Gets Easy.”  you will work and work and work.  and you’ll get better.  but it will never get easy.  you will never be satisfied.”

she paused.  “if you don’t like hard work and struggle, there are other careers that are much more noble … i mean, you could actually *help* people (more giggles) … and you could feel gratified, appreciated.  but if this (she gestured and took in the room, the building, the college in its entirety) is what you want to do, it’s sweat and it’s labor and it’s toil until the very end.  it never, never becomes simple.”

drawing has become my favorite class, mostly because of the teacher.  she is a short Jewish woman in her fifties, with a flat, ironic voice and a style of dress that is eclectic and very stereotypically art-teacher-esque: bottlecap earrings, bright green shoes and a brown fedora that she wears almost every week.  i was wary of her bohème at first, but gradually grew to admire it.  she demands hard, hard work out of her students, and nothing else.  anything less will be met with disapproval.  she is honest about the quality of her students’ work; if it’s bad, she’ll say so in no uncertain terms.  but she can always find some redeeming qualities — and she will, and she’ll pull them out and show you how to work with them until they take over the drawing.

last week, as a perfect example of her beneficence, she gave us a party instead of a midterm exam.  the walls of the studio were taped up with brown wrapping paper, and the easels pushed to the center of the space.  there were tables laden with piles of sandwiches and chips and huge oil pastels.  we were told to grab a sandwich, find a spot and draw each other.

even though we had recently switched to 24 x 36” paper, the brown “canvas” stretched on and on, and it was a psychological relief to make large, sweeping strokes with colors of pink and green and blue.  we layered pastel, chalk, tempera and charcoal.  then we moved to the right and set about “improving” our classmates’ drawing.  eventually the process disintegrated into painting on anyone’s drawings with soda and mustard.  gussow just watched it all with amusement, even taking a brush and joining in towards the end. 

days and days of studio work melted together until thursday, when (after three different extensions) we *finally* pinned up our work in the lobby.  wednesday night had been somewhat of a disaster; the full-sized cube had been built and assembled, but when it was rotated on its side the defective workmanship became obvious as it started to buckle and splinter.  the group that had supervised construction (and worked harder than any of us) stared, ashen-faced, as professor abraham joked about the failure of the project and offered to take the carefully sanded pieces home as firewood.  so, the cube will be rebuilt this weekend — and we have a sabbatical until tuesday, when the next phase of the project will be introduced.

after the pinup on thursday, we needed a break; raquel and i went out for falafel and then dashed off to the filming of the new “Cosby” show in queens.  our RA roommate’s boyfriend, sanchez, had gotten about 15 tickets. we felt very high-class as we went through a metal detector and were seated in a small section of risers overlooking the set.  we received a personal message from dr. cosby, who came out and talked to us before the filming began.  then, just as things were starting to get interesting, an extremely lame-o comedian came on and plagued us in between scenes for the rest of the night.  the experience was a good one overall, though.  mostly it was a treat to watch cosby himself, who is a master of improvisation, as he made up jokes spontaneously and poked gentle fun at the other cast members.

of course, the highlight of this week was the weekEND — when i made my first trip home so far.  my darling roommate went with me to the greyhound station to buy my ticket and see me safely onto the bus (to catch the one i wanted, i had to skip my first class ever — a shop class.  not a big loss to my education, i guess.)  despite my worries, the bus was nearly empty and i didn’t have to sit next to any weirdos — i was free to stretch out and take catnaps, from which i woke every twenty minutes or so due to massive antsiness.  i couldn’t sleep from excitement. 

driving back into baltimore was quite an experience; i realized, for the first time, that cities (like people) have distinct personalities.  the baltimore skyline looks nothing like the new york skyline.  their ports are different.  their stadiums are different.  even their street-corner vendors are different.  (in my opinion, nothing can eclipse the honey-roasted peanut guys on Broadway.)  and, also like people, it’s so cool to be able to know many of them. 

dad picked me up at the bus station downtown, which is in one of the worst neighborhoods; there were several arrests being made right outside the door.  (i stayed *inside* while waiting for him.)  drove home, where i received a celebrities’ welcome and an authentically Mommy dinner; stayed up late talking and catching up — dad had been to china and broken his ankle (not simultaneously!) since i saw him last.  saturday was spent in errands, running around to buy all the things i had discovered i needed after moving in.  that night, i went to see my friend keith’s play — he had several minor parts in “hamlet,” my all-time favorite shakespeare play.  anna came with me — driving into the city felt just like old times, except i hadn’t driven in over 2 months and felt like i was going WAY too fast even when under the speed limit. 

and, of course, visiting my church again was like walking into a room of long-lost friends.  much as i have grown accustomed to parish life in manhattan, there can never be another Holy Cross.  for that i am eternally thankful.

i rejoiced at the comforts of a shower big enough to turn around in without bumping your head, a truly quiet night in which to sleep (although it was creepy at first to have NO background noise) and an outside carpet of big, shiny brown oak leaves.  i marvel at the little changes that have taken place since i left.  the couch in the family room, recovered; a new wallpaper border in the upstairs bathroom; and my sneaky way of avoiding a certain traffic light on route 40, dubbed “the trick,” has been outlawed by two very nasty no-left-turn signs.  sigh.  you can’t come home again.