“Why would you want to live all the way out there?” That was what a…
“Are you drawing, like, fruit? Or will there be naked people there?”
When I say I’m going to Nishi Art Collective life drawing classes, people nervously giggle before proceeding to bombard me with questions about the awkwardness of staring at a nude stranger and trying to draw their privates.
My only previous experience of life drawing was at a hen’s party. 15 women (including mothers and sisters) in a room well-stocked with alcohol and a hot naked guy did make for an awesome coastal weekend away, but not exactly exceptional works of art.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect from a typical life drawing class when I met Meg Morton in the foyer of the Nishi building in HotelHotel. Meg is a practicing Canberra artist who runs the Nishi Art Collective on the second and last Tuesday of every month. Her own practice focuses on found objects from the Australian landscape, and she predominantly creates works connecting to specimens such as seeds, feathers and leaves.
Meg discovered her love of life drawing whilst in Berlin in 2013. “I joined about ten different life drawing classes around the city. When I got home, I really missed it – there wasn’t anything really like it in Canberra, nothing as chilled out and unconfined.”
“I love seeing how different people approach it,” Meg enthuses. “Everyone who comes to these classes teaches me so much about life drawing, and I’ve really learned a lot about how to communicate the different styles and techniques.”
I quickly feel at ease within the group. For my first class, I bring a girlfriend along, who like me has never seriously sketched before in her life. I come back for a second time on my own, and have already booked in for several more.
The class is held on the top floor of the Nishi building, a large open plan space intended for office use. We work at the far end of the which is surprisingly cosy due to the cluster of easels around the model’s stage. All of the materials are provided, and you just pick what you’d like to work with and set up at an easel. Another great thing is that it’s BYO.
We get straight into it. The lovely female model disrobes and we begin doing a series quick 30 second sketches to warm up. She adopts different stances to help us practice alternative perspectives, and Meg talks through some varying techniques which we might like to try. Honestly, within about two minutes, I forget that I’m looking at a naked woman and am completely absorbed in how to best capture her with my charcoal. The pose times get longer and longer, which gives us more time to focus on smaller details and refine our depictions.
We have a half hour break, during which many people duck down to Monster for a quick snack and drink, before returning to a series of longer 20 minute poses. These are more focused, and Meg moves quietly around the room offering praise and assistance to the quietly focused group.
I find the whole process meditative in a way similar to yoga. I’m so intensely focused that my mental monologue (which normally sounds like several cats being coaxed into a washing machine with a spray can of ice water), is completely quiet.
I ask Meg about the general level of experience in the room. “Generally, it’s a 50/50 mix,” she tells me. “Half of the people here are regulars who practice outside of the class, and have been drawing for years. The rest are either first-timers who have never drawn before, maybe wanting to tick off a bucket list item, or people who drop in every so often.”
I also ask her about advice she’d give for first timers who are shy about their perceived lack of creativity or artistic experience. “One of the most important aspects about life drawing is the freedom to be as private or as public as you like,” explains Meg. “Some people have been coming to the class for years but prefer to keep to themselves, and that’s completely fine. They’re happy for the occasional tip, but they can just zone out and do their own thing.”
I notice that whilst some people proudly leave their works on display during the break, others choose to keep their works private. I find it really interesting to see the different styles and perspectives from the examples around the room.
Meg and I talk about how conservative Canberra can sometimes be when it comes to life drawing, and how people might feel nervous about coming along to a class by themselves. “Not many people come as friends,” Meg says reassuringly. “A lot of people are here by themselves. Some have made friendships from coming along, which is really good. I’m happy to sit one on one with people and help them try different techniques, whatever they feel comfortable with.” I chat to some of the professed newcomers who tell me that they wanted to something creative to break up their public service role, or that they’d just moved to Canberra and wanted to try something new.
The unexpectedly lovely thing about going to the life drawing class is how it’s changed my mindset about the female body, and my own self body image. I talk to one of the models at the end of the class and thank her for the beautiful poses she gave us to work with, and ask her what she thinks about her job. “All bodies are just a series of shapes,” she reflects. “Sometimes we’re squishy shapes that lie on the couch, other times we’re a series of beautiful flowing curves. Every single body is beautiful.”
What: Nishi Art Collective Life Drawing class
When: Second and last Tuesday of every month
How much: $20 + booking fee