Cooper Chronicles: I.25

(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.)

it was One Of Those Days.  two o’clock in the morning, and i stood in the drawing room, staring at my homework: six giant pieces of newsprint with vine charcoal smeared all over them.  a very perceptive (and possibly pre‑informed) person could tell that they were drawings of paper bags, but to me all they looked like was blurred, smudged messiness.  crit was in seven hours, and i wanted to sleep, but i had to finish the rest of them. 

as is typical, my friends and i had entered the room blithely, chattering and being generally silly; we put on some mellow electronica music and started working.  gradually, we talked less and less, until a look of grim resolve settled onto our faces. about an hour before, penley had stood up from his drawing, ripped it in half, and stormed out, leaving his assignment half finished.  One Of *Those* Days.

i glared at the work spread out before me.  the first drawing was all right, but as the hour got later and my frustration increased, they had became more and more unintelligible.  the last one was supposed to be a “nice”, final drawing; but by the time i got to it (about midnight) it was too late to buy “nice” paper.  so i struggled with the cheap stuff.  my professor’s words played over and over in my head as i clenched my teeth in determination: “do it wrong, but do it.  get it down.  look at it, erase it, start again.”  i was *trying* to do it, but it wouldn’t be done. 

we’re working with tone right now, and it’s giving me fits.  just when i thought i was starting to “get” drawing in the tiniest sense of the word, she introduced shading ‑‑ these dark, mysterious shapes that make a drawing beautiful if done correctly but ridiculous if not.  for me, it was usually not.  one stubborn bag just refused to be drawn, and in desperation i made it darker and darker and darker until it resembled a lump of coal. i erased it and drew it again, but this time the newsprint was tired of being scribbled on; the charcoal barely made a mark, and as i pressed harder the paper began to tear.  i wanted to cry, but i wouldn’t give those smirking paper bags the satisfaction.  they knew they were winning this battle, i could tell.  they had awakened all my feelings of self‑doubt and insecurity: “why am i playing around with this? … i’ll never be any good at this art stuff … i should get out of this school and go somewhere i can excel … i’m wasting my time and my parents’ money by staying here … ” i was alone; without anyone else there to lighten the mood, i sank further into my own melodramatic self‑pity and artistic angst.

three hours later, after pinning up and finishing the other part of my assignment (studies of the Old Masters; this week i was working from a Rembrandt), i climbed into my bed, exhausted, and fell asleep in my clothes.  sara woke me up at twenty to nine, and i hurried off to class, dreading  the lecture i knew i deserved.  despite the fact that i had pinned up before anyone else, professor gussow skipped around the room and didn’t come to my drawings until almost the very end.  i stepped forward, a little ashamed to even claim ownership. 

“AAAAHHhhhhhhh … ” that loud, slightly gravelly voice was cut off as she turned to face my work.  she stopped in the middle of sitting down and examined the drawings.  “these are very … different, emily,” she said in an i’m‑impressed voice.  i made a sound that was somewhere in between a whimper and a growl. 

“you don’t think so?” gussow asked.  

“no, they’re definitely *different*,” i pouted. 


“well, i was more frustrated than i’ve ever been.”

“ahhhhh.”  she smiled triumphantly.  privately, we all believe that gussow has some sort of frustration‑detector.  she loves to see the signs of a struggle.  she pointed, as i knew she would, to my last drawing, complete with smudges (both accidental and intentional) and rips in the paper.  “you can see that.  but it works.  you’re finally making yourself do it, and it’s paid off.  i just wish you had had a nicer piece of paper to wrestle with; you might have come out with something better.”  she praised my sense of composition, pointed out places in my drawings that really showed the volumetric quality of the bags and spots where i had used tone effectively and not just applied it in patches, and said that in general they “read” very powerfully. 

sometimes i’m happy with my work.  i know when i’ve done a good drawing and when i’ve done a lousy one.  when i’m content, gussow will compliment me in passing ‑‑ and then upbraid me for something i hadn’t even thought of.  that’s okay; i still feel a sense of accomplishment, and i can see how far i’ve come since the first day.  it’s when i’m angry with myself, though, that she appreciates my effort.  in a completely academic and sincere way, she offers encouragement and makes me want to try again.

the past few weeks have been bad for me in drawing class, and in school in general; i hardly ever feel even slightly pleased with the results of my labor.  i tried to explain it to penley one night: “i don’t think i belong at cooper.  i don’t understand anything; i’m not even sure if i’m *learning* anything.  all i do is become frustrated.  and i’m not used to this.  when i get a challenge, i want to face it head‑on and conquer it.  in  high school, i could handle anything.  all i had to do was apply myself and study hard, and i could get A’s.  why can’t i just draw hard and GET it?  how come when i work nonstop on my design project, i STILL don’t understand?  this is HARD!”

he grinned.  “congratulations, emily … you’re growing up!”

i suppose i am growing up.  planning my own meals, setting my own bedtime (or lack thereof), and yes, even listening to Prairie Home Companion voluntarily.  (it’s actually improving the quality of my drawings.)  and, mostly, learning that some things in life can’t be “gotten” just by studying hard.  it takes a lot of practice and a lot of frustration.  “life is annoying.  art is better.”  gussow said it herself.  and sometimes art can be just as annoying. 

the MoMA held an architecture symposium called “in the works: urban spectacle” on tuesday, and we were allowed to miss class to attend, though we had to jump through some hoops to get tickets.  there were two panels of architects, which included (most of you will be unmoved by this information, but i include it for your edification) libeskind, tschumi, koolhaus, hadid, eisenman, ito and (of course!) my own dear professor, raimund abraham.  i’m ashamed to say that one of the main reasons we went was to see if he would act any differently in front of his contemporaries; we were not disappointed.  he used the same in‑your‑face, quasi‑logical rhetoric that he uses in our crits, and spoke with no more respect to peter eisenman than he did to me.  few others got a chance to speak during his panel’s discussion.  overall, it was somewhat of a disappointment.  we got to see all the “big guns” of modern architecture; even philip johnson was seated in the front row, looking as though a violent sneeze might be the end of him.  but aside from hearing them talk about their work, there wasn’t much of a real dialogue.  mostly, they got hung up on the meaning of the word “spectacle” and played semantic games.  to his credit, abraham was the only one of the eight to attempt to hold a true debate, and he did most of the talking.  it was an interesting afternoon. 

more interesting, though, was the daniel libeskind lecture that penley and had attended at columbia university the precious night.  we had to sneak in, because it was too crowded and the lines were long ‑‑ so we put on our best “architect personae” and marched through the doors as if we knew someone in the front row.  amazing, how well that works … we had to sit on the floor, but it was worth it.  libeskind is a very engaging and fascinating speaker, a piano‑virtuoso‑turned‑architect who graduated from Cooper years ago and is now working from Berlin.  he’s pretty well‑known for his crazy museum designs ‑‑ the “unfolding spiral” V&A museum addition and the Jewish Museum, among others. 

one night eliot and i were doing drawing homework in my apartment when we got into a theological discussion; i was trying to remember the exact wording of a passage from one of the Narnia Chronicles.  so eliot brought in his boxed set, and i looked it up.  however, he forgot to take them back that night, or the next, or the next … so here they sit, a constant temptation.  yesterday, penley and i read most of the Silver Chair out loud when we were supposed to be making models.  well, i know what i’ll be doing next week during break.

this week is going to be another nightmare …  i have a midterm exam and project in history, a design crit, a photo crit, a drawing crit, and a written exam for literature.  looks like that soft embalmer of the still midnight won’t be seeing much of me in the next few days.  after that, though, i have a week’s respite, and then only 6 more weeks until (dare i utter the word?) summer!

i think i can. i think i can. i think i can.