The model is late. Joe, who often poses for us, recommended her to Chuck. “You’ll love her,” he said. “She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”
We have hauled out cubes of soft new clay from the supply cabinet, sliced them with wire, set up our stands and boards, taken out our tools and pounded out our bases, by the time Chuck telephones the model to find out where she is. Turns out she’s lost. The GPS misled her, and it will be another half hour or more before she gets to the studio.
Susan with her big glasses and butcher striped apron jokes with Fran, who she has nicknamed 'the clay whisperer'. “Maybe the most beautiful girl in the world is a figment of imagination,” she says.
Chuck walks lopsided in his ancient trousers, hoisted and cinched with a belt so they won’t fall down. Since we need a model, he produces one of his own pieces for us to copy. He sets it on the platform - a sculpture of a female nude about half size, mounted on a wooden stand. It has an arched back and twisted torso, one arm bent with a hand across her face. The face, turned sideways is hidden from view. One knee is raised; the other lies flat. The twist in the torso suggests emotional pain. “Work on this until she gets here,” he says.
He shambles round the room, then stops. Perches on a stool for a moment. “Can you get it right,” he teases, looking at somebody’s work. “Try to get the movement here, will you? Try to get this curve, and the fullness here.” Then, “you want to slenderize this bit, love. Don’t hesitate to look at the model,” he says. Usually during the third week, he tells us that “now it’s time to do the eyelashes.”
“Did you do this?” he asks. “There’s hope for you yet. Maybe you should stick around.” Or, “Your proportions are wrong, kiddo. Look here. The leg is too short." Or, “The face slants back from the middle of the eye; it cuts back.” Sometimes he says, “you might want to exaggerate this. Try to capture the gesture. Jest-char.”
Thirty years ago, Chuck’s daughter was killed in an accident. He had been uneasy about her hiking around Europe. But then it was the darnedest thing. Within a couple of months of her return, she was surveying in a field out in Arizona, and a truck came out of nowhere, killing her instantly.
“How do you recover from something like that,” I asked when he told me this story.
“Oh,” he said. “I was out of it for years. And that’s what saved me.”
Now he’s telling Trish the joke about two cannibals. She wasn’t here the first time he told it. “They’re eating a clown,” he begins. “And then one turns to the other and says, does this taste funny to you?”
Trish roars. She has long silver hair and a beautiful face. She often sculpts horse heads. She always arrives late and gives Chuck a kiss and teases him a bit and he sometimes sings her songs, and then she goes around the room and greets everybody individually.
Chuck has known many of these students for years. They started out with him. Cindy has a photograph of Chuck when he was an air force pilot in the 40s, and Trish asks if she can have a copy. He looks so handsome and strong in that picture, but it’s still the same old Chuck. Even I can see this, although I’ve only known him three years.
There’s another Charles in the class as well, who sits on a chair resting for a lot of the time. “He’s almost as old as me,” Chuck jokes. The second Charles has blue eyes, a cherubic mouth and a crumpled chin and he always captures the gesture with little more than thumbprints in the clay. He likes his work unfinished, and doesn’t want to lose it. So a lot of the time he sits in a chair, with blue rubber gloves on his hands, gazing into space. I wonder what he’s thinking at such times. He likes to leave his piece alone. “What have you been doing lately Charles?” asks Chuck.
Charles answers, like Eeyore. “Oh, I’ve been looking out of the window and worrying a lot.”
The room falls quiet as we work with Chuck’s sculpture as our model. The smell of damp clay fills the bare room, and sun streams down from the skylight. Behind us, the drying shelves are piled with work – and above the pegs where we hang our coats, a row of kneeling student sculptures, differing only in execution: hands behind heads, as if to loosen the hair, terracotta bathers by a dried up stream.
Past and future fall away as I sink my fingers into clay, to reproduce the arch of the back and the line of the leg. I take up a knife to shape it. I press and slice and kneed the clay, so that it contours beneath the knee, and then slants into a bending movement.
“Shall we turn the model,” somebody suggests. And since Chuck’s sculpture is not a real person, Trish wise-cracks about notifying the model when you’re going to turn her. “Excuse me, I’m turning you now.”
From the new angle, I see a hidden curve under the back and also the well of an armpit with one breast resting in a hollow beneath it, sinking down, and the line from the collarbone to chest. The arch of the ribs surprises me with its prominence and the depression of the diaphragm rises to belly, and contours down before traveling up to the hip bone.
The arm across the face, palm upturned, hides an expression, which would be too painful to see full on. My eyes smart. Chuck limps round, and stops to make observations, standing contraposto at my side. “You might want to accentuate this curve, but you’re the artist.” When he says 'you’re the artist' you feel he doesn’t like your work. But when he asks if you can do it right, you feel you might be onto something.
The most beautiful girl in the world has finally arrived. She will pose for an hour and a half. She seems a little ditsy. Susan extends a hand. “Hi. I’m Susan,” seething through her smile, because of the wasted time.
Someone pulls the heavy canvas curtain across its runners. The most beautiful girl in the world takes off her clothes. She has short dark hair and long proportions. But she can’t hold the pose of Chuck’s sculpture – because it’s too painful, she says.
Instead she crosses her legs the other way, left leg up instead of right. The twist of the torso is less pronounced like this, and the buttocks rest on a soft surface of slanting cushions, so that she’s reclining at a less exaggerated angle. She places one arm across her face, shielding her eyes, like a sunbather.
This girl is herself, but nothing more than that. She lies across the model’s stand. Nothing about her body suggests emotion, passion or privacy. I’m trying to see what I saw before, but either I see too much or not enough.
By the time the class ends I’ve had to undo what I started. I wet down my piece with sprays of a water bottle, cover it with a plastic bag and shove it onto the shelf. I wash my hands, soap between the fingers, and dry them with musty smelling paper towels.
“Goodbye kid,” Chuck says as I kiss him on the cheek. “See you next time.” He’s perched on a stool as I leave the studio.
This is how I will always remember him.