Friday, January 13, 2012


At our first sculpture class of 2012, Cindy explained things for the new students. She’s the one who helps Chuck, our teacher. These are the drying shelves and these the shelves where we stash our work in progress; we turn the model every ten or fifteen minutes; that is where the water fountain is, the toilets, and the coffee shop. She introduced all the sculptors: This is Gail, and this is Fran, Amanda and Charles, and that over there is Phoebe –wave to us Phoebe! And right here are the two Trishes – they happen to be standing side by side – So it’s Trish squared. And this is Ray and this over here is Barry.

Our model Gabrielle reclines on the stand with a pillow under her head. She’s a quiet, inscrutable girl with long proportions, a beautiful slender body, and a small head of closely cropped hair.

I haul out a packet of clay and slice off a wedge with my wire. Charles, the elderly statesman of the group, positions his stand next to mine.

“Hi Charles.”

“Well hi,” he says.

Charles is very old. I don’t know how old exactly,but he’s way older than you are, for sure. He begins to work. Stands there with surgical gloves on his hands. I’m told he sells his work at a gallery near the Watergate Hotel. His face is cherubic, his skin folded and translucent, and his eyes very blue.

After a bit, he sits back on the chair. Susan comes over to talk to him. Susan has been in this group since the 1980s, working with Chuck at Montgomery College. She wears a butcher block apron and enormous glasses. They talk about their hearing aids. Meanwhile, I keep working on my piece – working with my knife on the bend in the leg, and the rounding of the buttocks, and the way the back is arched and slants underneath.

A lot of the people in this class are elderly. But they are still engaged in art and creativity and all of them march to drumbeats of their own.

Chuck, our teacher, comes around. He’s eating a gingerbread cookie, brought in by the Trish with the long silver hair. Yet when he speaks his breath smells like oil of cloves. “Can you offer suggestions?” I ask.

“You might want to define the breast a little,” he says between bites of his gingerbread cookie. “And over here you might want to cut back the knee a bit.” He jabs at my sculpture, then begins to measure the limbs - the thigh, shin and the arm bones. “Looking good, kid. And I love this here- this coive (curve). Beautiful.”

Meanwhile Charles sits back on his chair, gazing into space, occasionally chatting with Susan. They talk about age. “The thing is, I don’t feel old,” says Susan. “when I see my daughter’s in-laws I think of them as old. But I don’t see them as my age.”

“Let me tell you,” Charles says with authority. “It doesn’t get any easier. I know a lot of people in their 70s but they all have parts missing.” He laughs quietly to himself, resigned to it by now. “Oh yes,” he says. “To me 70, even 75 sounds young.”

"A friend of mine had a grandmother who turned 100,” I put in. "At her birthday party she sighed and said, ‘I wish I were 80.'"

Charles and Susan laugh easily. "That's just it," says Charles. "Sure," he says. "It doesn’t get any easier.” He’s laughing at himself, and at the condition of being old in which he finds himself. But he doesn’t seem to mind that things are dropping off.

Then Susan tells a story about someone who wanted to be charged with statuary rape on his 100th birthday. I don't think it’s a very funny story, and neither does Charles.

"You haven’t heard what I said," she says.

"Oh is that right," says Charles. So she repeats the punch line and it has just as little impact as it did the first time around.

I adore Charles. I love how when Chuck asks him what is new he always says “Nothing. And that’s a good thing!” You see, Charles is going very gently into that good night. He isn’t raging one little bit, against the dying of the light. In fact, he’s made his peace with it. He's lost hope. At the same time he’s still himself. He’s an individual, a different kind of guy who likes to go to the Washington Ballet, and come to sculpture class and sit there anyway, even when he doesn’t feel like working.

I sometimes catch a glint in his eye when I engage him. I think he feels himself to be a man when we are talking – as if his age has no part of it. Because it doesn’t.

Chuck comes over and helps me with my piece. He hears us chatting and puts in his own two cents. Something about a Benedictine monk he befriended, who he invited for a swim in the pool at his condo. When the monk undressed, he revealed numerous tattoos of naked women on his arms.

We laugh at the story and turn back to our work. After all, the business at hand is to sculpt the naked woman who is lying right in front of us.

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