Friday, October 7, 2011

LISTENING TO THE CLAY

My sculpture teacher Chuck was in better form today than he was last week. Last week I was a little bit worried about him, because he’s old, of course, and his health is not so great. But today as he limped round our work stations, he seemed fairly comfortable. He was wearing a corduroy blazer, which Harriet said made him look distinguished.

“You need to work on the hands,” he told me, when he got to my piece. “And put some clay on the upper lip. It looks a little flat. And you may want to build up the nose a bit. Although the rest of it is looking good, kid. You’re coming tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“I’ll try,” I said.

I love to come in twice a week. That way I spend a full day a week working on sculpture. Several hours, four days a week I’m busy teaching writing, but lately I don’t spend much time working on fiction. Having said that, during a break between classes yesterday, I sat under the trees on a bench, reading Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction. For the first time in months, I felt excited about reworking some of my stories.

Trish, on the far end of the sculpture studio, is building a tall abstract. Behind her stands a full sized skeleton. Light pours down from the skylight. Everybody is calm and quiet today, absorbed in their work, and in the middle of the room, a naked woman, our lovely model, strikes what Harriet calls the “Little Mermaid” pose.

Behind our model, shelves of our work is drying under plastic.

Barry is making a bust this time. He always has more tools than everyone else – a bucket of brushes and knives. He takes his work seriously all right, although whenever a good song comes on the radio, he can’t resist bobbing up and down to the music. The rest of us always smile at this, and exchange glances.

Livia has colored her hair and looks very chic. She’s working on a bust as well. She’s a sculptor and a painter, but she also poses for us, and next week she’ll be our model.

Harriet is struggling this week. She started her piece over again from the beginning today. Chuck says she has to get more curve into the back.

Cindy is working on a smaller scale, and as usual her work is beautifully articulated. Next to her Susan is doing her thing. Her work is sort of blocky, always with a small head, and frequently leaning very far forwards. Next to her, Fran works silently. These are the mainstays of the group.

Silent work. So much good comes out of silence. Ben got us tickets to the Synetic Theater production of Macbeth last week. We were absolutely stunned, captivated for every second by their powerful, silent and eloquent production. How is it possible that a silent production of Macbeth, with none of Shakespeare’s poetry, can be the best production of that play we’ve ever seen? What does that say about words?

A few weeks ago, I showed my students the TED talk by John Francis – who walked the earth, refusing to ride in motorized vehicles, after he witnessed an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. He remained silent for seventeen years, and learned a lot from silence, mostly, he said, about listening.

Listening to the clay.

That’s what we’re doing here. That’s what Charles, the elder sculptor in our class, does when he takes his time setting up, sitting on a chair, with gloves on his hands, reflectively. He likes to capture the gesture, and to keep his work simple. He spends a lot of time sitting on his chair. But what he puts into his work is so good. It holds up enormously.

“How are you today, Charles?”

“Oh,” he says with a downward inflection. “I’m all right.”

A quiet day in the studio. Everybody working. Trish with silver hair and silverly laughter and the other Trish next to her. And lots of new people too – working hard at their pieces.

This is what I did today: I let go of words, and of myself. I learned a little bit more about how to see. I partook of the most basic form of expression - articulating with a bag of mud something that I saw. I worked on the curve of a hip, and the slight curve downwards of the line of the thigh. The underside of foot – the sole with its complicated mapping – the heel – the creases underneath – the proportion of toes – and distance between them.

I worked on the profile of a face, and the way it slants backwards. I took a bit off the tummy – and angled the armpit and the short inward line towards the breast, a hollow above the collar bone, the long crease running across the trunk, below the breasts.

So absorbed did I become in what I was learning, that I didn’t care much about the end result. I have no particular attachment to that. Because after I’ve finished this piece, I’ll move on to the next.

I’d love to get that exploration back into my writing. Maybe it will happen by applying the ideas in Catherine Brady’s book. But maybe it doesn’t matter so much as I thought. Writing is a wonderful and important way to communicate. But it isn’t the only way. And it isn’t the only thing.

Silence often says more than words.

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