Figure-drawing fugitive

Whenever I visit the Crocker Art Museum, I can’t help pretending I live there. I envision throwing elaborate parties in the ballroom and making grand entrances down the curving double stairway. “Welcome to my humble home,” I say to my imagined guests—all wearing topcoats and tails—as I lay a graceful hand across the diamond pendant at my throat.

So, I understood my friend completely when, on the way to the Crocker’s monthly figure-drawing session, he said, “The best thing about this will be hanging out in that beautiful ballroom.”

Well, that and participating in the classic endeavor to capture the human form in charcoal and paper—a tradition almost as old as art itself. I loved the idea but feared my drawing skills weren’t up to par. Let’s just say there’s a reason why, as an adult, I’ve chosen to focus on writing.

When we arrived, we were warmly greeted and encouraged to choose from an abundance of drawing boards, paper, pencils, erasers and charcoal on a table near the door. Inside the ballroom, a zaftig model sat on a stage, surrounded by roughly a dozen artists of various ages on folding chairs.

We took our seats just as a Crocker docent stepped forward to introduce herself. She explained the evening’s schedule: a few one-minute poses followed by poses five, 20, 30 and 40 minutes in length. The model, Diane, pulled off her long skirt to reveal a bright floral-print bathing suit and struck a pose, and we began the one-minutes.

No one expects much verisimilitude in 60 seconds, so it was fun to dash out wild stick figures and abstract gestures before the timer beeped. This wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I’d expected. What had I been worried about?

During the 20-minute pose, I remembered. I’d made my best rendition of Diane leaning on a chair, wearing a large sun hat. Granted, my grasp of perspective was shaky, and one of Diane’s arms was far too skinny, but I was satisfied I’d reached the absolute limit of my ability. As the artists around me sketched furiously, I waited for the timer to go off and tried to remember what I’d learned about crosshatching in junior high.

“Ten more minutes,” the docent announced.

Jesus! What could I possibly do for 10 more minutes? I didn’t have any more drawing tricks up my sleeve. I considered taking a bathroom break, but then I realized I still had the 30- and 40-minute poses to get through. It seemed impossible—like running a marathon with no training. What had I gotten myself into?

Without disturbing my still-sketching friend, I rolled up my novice efforts, returned my pencils and drawing board, and scurried into the lobby. I felt better almost immediately, but I still had almost 90 minutes to kill. Fortunately, the Crocker is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. I headed up the staircase and discovered a dream come true: an empty mansion! With the exception of a bored-looking security guard and one easily avoidable tour group, I had the place all to myself.

“Would you like to see my collection of modern art?” I said, ushering my imaginary party guests into my private gallery. I gloated as they oohed and ahhed at the Thiebaud and the O’Keeffe, but I forgot about them entirely when I saw Stephen Kaltenbach’s “Portrait of My Father.” Nearly covering an entire wall, the tremendous painting depicts the face of Kaltenbach’s father, near death, overlaid by a psychedelic rainbow pattern like the very fabric of the universe, pulling the old man back into its folds. The image held my attention for the better part of an hour. (The wise folks at the Crocker put a bench in front of it for just such experiences.)

I only roused myself from staring at it when I sensed the drawing session was nearing its end. I walked to the middle of the second floor and peered over the balustrade at the artists in the ballroom below. Each of their boards held a different interpretation of Diane in repose—the very newest art created in the heart of California’s oldest art museum.