A Gift of Light and Shadow

Six years ago, I was a little more than a year into law practice at a large, top tier firm in Southern California. It was a terrible fit, but I was deeply invested. I had done well at Duke law school, and being offered a job with this firm was a great achievement. My husband and I had long planned to move back to his home state of California, and taking the job made it easy to undertake the cross-country move and the drastic change in cost of living.

We had rented a house just a few miles from my office and a few miles from the beach. My husband loved it. I didn't, but I was fiercely trying to convince myself I could. My demanding job left little time for new friendships. I was lonely, my health began to decline, and a depression bloomed. I was desperate for something that would bring light back into my life.

Around that time, I saw a notice for a figure drawing meetup at a local gallery called Location 1980. It seemed like a nice way to spend a rare, free Saturday morning, so I dug out my charcoal and paper, and decided to give it a go.

That first morning, I felt like an impostor, but there were only a few people there, and the owner was so welcoming. It was a beautiful day. The drawing space was setup in an outdoor courtyard, and winter sunlight filtered through vines onto my page. After a few warm ups, I could feel the tension in my shoulders starting to dissipate. By the time we reached the last pose, I was comfortable enough to walk around until I found a perspective that made me catch my breath.

The pose was impossibly foreshortened, and I had to position myself on the ground with my drawing board propped in my lap, but I stayed put. I measured and marked and completely lost myself in the lines and shapes and shadow. When time was up, I stepped away and gasped with delight. I was too astonished to feign indifference.  The lines and smudges of charcoal had merged into a moment captured. There were deep, restful shadows and bright smooth planes. It was beautiful. The feeling was transcendent. It felt like something that came not from me but through me. 

I couldn't keep the drawing. I knew that if I brought it home, it would become an impossible standard, one that would keep me from returning to the easel. Besides, it didn't feel like it belonged to me, so I took a photograph and gave the drawing to the model. After that, every Saturday that I wasn't in the office, I came back to the easel. 

Eventually, I left the firm and California. I had a child and moved to Alabama. I'm still licensed, but I haven't practiced law in four years. These days, I am the one who runs the local figure drawing group, who tries to create a welcoming space for the new artists who join us week to week. And these days, I return to the easel almost every day to loose myself in line and shape and shadow.

Every now and then, I run across the picture of that drawing, and it still astonishes me.  It takes me right back to that place of deep darkness and the gift of dappled sunlight. It reminds me to keep searching for the moments that make me catch my breath, to cherish that transcendent flow, and to show up at the easel even when the work seems impossibly beyond my reach.


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