Art and the Equality of Seeing

Student work, pastel, Nancy Wait (1979)

Student work, pastel, Nancy Wait (1979)

Excerpt from a memoir-in-progress ~ first life-drawing classes at the Art Student’s League. 

“The models were different every day. They came in all shapes and sizes but to us they were simply “nudes.” Most were young, though some were middle-aged, even old from time to time. I was amazed at their lack of embarrassment in showing themselves so freely. I thought they must be a breed apart. Then after a few days it all began to seem normal, and I wondered how I could have thought it otherwise.

After the strangeness wore off, I found it freeing, as if studying other’s bodies, not to be critical or admiring, but simply fascinated, was the way life should be. I stared at the nudes for hours on end, studying them intently. Observing where the shadows fell, and where the light. Where the bones were and where the muscles. My only goal was to portray what I saw as honestly and realistically as I was able. I had no opinions, no judgments. If the model was an old woman with sagging breasts, so much the better. I liked drawing wrinkles. There was character in every line. Flabby, sagging skin was far and away more  interesting than the smooth, unblemished younger faces and bodies. The more lines, the more character—the more interest. The more flesh the better. I rejoiced in the model with folds and folds of flesh. Unsightly bellies and double chins were a feast for the eye. Even with the young and slender models I prized the sad expression, the stringy hair. Previous standards of beauty flew out the window. A kind of equality took over. An equality of seeing, where everyone was equally fascinating in their own right.

(detail) pastel, Nancy Wait, student work 1979

(detail) pastel, Nancy Wait, student work 1979

I didn’t quite realize the effect all this was having on me until the night Lenny was trying to flag down a taxi. When a cab stopped at the corner to let out a passenger, we waited while the woman extricated herself from the backseat. She was obese. Before the life-drawing class I probably would have looked at her with disdain thinking how could she have let herself go. I would have been critical of the red dress that clung to her overblown misshapen form. Instead, I observed how she lugged her heavy body across the seat, then heaved herself up. I thought in uncritical terms of form and mass. I saw the fabric of her dress pulling and stretching with her movements, and then I looked through her dress, through her skin, imagining the bones and muscles beneath the flesh. I noticed how her face showed the strain of exertion. I sympathized. I felt compassion. Once I was relating to her, seeing past her physical form, I saw her beauty. As if my eyes, piercing her flesh, had reached her soul. Then she was out of the cab, onto the curb, making her way to wherever it was she was going that night, and I slipped nimbly into the back seat followed by Lenny. The door slammed shut and we were off. It all happened quickly, just another night in the city, but I thought about it a lot afterwards. I think I was realizing how learning to draw was changing the way I looked at people. At everything really. As if it all became beautiful simply through the act of observation. Once I had seen, I could never go back to the place of not-seeing.”

I decided to post this today as an antidote to the video:  “the power of Adobe Photo” shared on Upworthy by Laura Willard  who says, “…what I really want is for us to stop turning beautiful women into drawings and passing them off as real.”


About Nancy Wait

Nancy Wait is an artist a memoir writer, author of "The Nancy Who Drew, The Memoir That Solved A Mystery," and a former actress (stage, film and TV) in the UK under the name of Nancie Wait. She once hosted the blog talk radio shows "Art and Ascension" and "Inspirational Storytellers." Her current project is a second memoir, "The Nancy Who Drew the Way Home."
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2 Responses to Art and the Equality of Seeing

  1. Nancy Seifer says:

    This piece does a great service, Nancy. Thank you for helping us to see through the eyes of the Soul.


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