Betty Duffy

Monday, April 20, 2009

Still Undressing...not necessarily with dignity

It's weird how I somehow feel better seeing my name in your post, as if I matter more because you mentioned me in cyberspace. I'm only saying that to affirm that we do all need community and we seem to be on this eternal search to see if we matter.

I probably need to warn my family off of this one, because I do have these experiences from my past that I feel compelled to mine, now that some time has passed and I can see them (sort of) objectively. You see, when I mentioned in a post that I posed in an undershirt to be painted for Karly Whitaker’s senior art thesis, I actually didn’t pose in an undershirt. I posed in my birthday suit (Sorry, Mom, it’s true).

It’s traditional for artists to use live models for their work. And in college, Karly and I used to get together on Sunday evenings for a figure drawing class at the college art center, where the university paid for a live nude model. At these sessions, we began to discuss the possibility of my posing for Karly’s thesis. In my youth, I operated under the mistaken assumption that in order to be a writer, you had to EXPERIENCE things in order to write about them. Not surprisingly, I produced volumes of tortured memoir. I thought as well that if I could be represented, or immortalized, not only in my own work, but in someone else’s, then I could prove that I mattered.

I was unprepared for the fact that the experience of artistic nudity is by nature an act of objectification. The artist evaluates you on the basis of color, shape, or composition. And it didn’t matter how much of my soul I tried to project to Karly. I would end up a two dimensional image on a canvas.

I should have known better. Some parts of my tortured memoir are worth revisiting. Here’s an excerpt:

“Karly and I drew yesterday. We had a nude model, emaciated and tattooed with shaved vital parts and piercings. I drew her upside down with her knees tucked under, her hair blending with the folds of the blanket on which she sprawled, her ribs and hip bones protruding out of the gray background. I stared at her for a long time attempting to convert her body into shapes and lines. I imagined myself in her position, curled up for warmth between poses, fiddling with the heater and the lamps, trying to ignore the interrogation of the artist's eye—breasts, armpits, naval, inner thigh—all under the same wonderful scrutiny—the scrutiny of interpreting something exclusively for its shape.

When the model left, I stood in front of the mirror to draw myself. The shape I drew was rounder, with satisfying curves, and yet somehow one-dimensional and improperly shaded. I could not turn my own shapes into real life. I could not scrutinize myself.

M (Former boyfriend) apparently obsessed all day that Karly and I were posing for each other, which honestly, has come up in conversation more than once. M thinks that permission to view the body is reserved for people who are intimate with each other, and I like it that he cares. But I still want Karly to draw me in her fluid charcoal lines and make me look beautiful. As M put it, I want to be the center of attention—just not critical attention. Devoted unwavering adoration of need to find faults. Just draw me! Draw my breasts, armpits, naval, and inner thigh. Watch me as I circle the room bathing in the glow of the maglite!”

At that time in my life, I would look anywhere for redemption, except where I needed to look. Ex-boyfriend so keenly pointed out that the spotlight I directed towards myself was a maglite (a flashlight), when what I wanted was the high-beam spotlight of the masses. Ultimately I would come to know, and gain satisfaction with the even brighter sun of God’s love and acceptance, but I’m ashamed to admit that there was a time when even that was not enough for me, because my sin prevented me from understanding its reality. What I really wanted was to be famous, but if I couldn’t have that, I suppose I would just have to be satisfied with the love of God.

I want to say that there are licit means for Christians to provide one another with affirmation, and indeed there are (friendship, service to our families and one another, and through the purification of our art, music and writing, etc.)—but I cannot count on them nor be satisfied with them alone. The bottom line is that I have to kill the narcissism that supplants the sufficiency of God’s love.

Yes, I want to matter. But immortalization through art, through writing, through blogging, what have you, is a flawed endeavor, I have to remind myself. As with tattoos, the final image, or the reflected image is an incomplete picture, lovely though it may be. But God sees all: the naval, the armpits, the doubts, the restless seeking, the betrayals, the ingratitude, and he loves us still. God has provided us with the most profound and sublime affirmation, and yet every so often, I still seek a lesser one.

“What man needs is a communion that goes beyond that of the collective; a unity that reaches deep into the heart of man and endures even in death. . . Man cannot identify himself with God, but God has identified himself with man—that is the content of the communion that is offered us in the Eucharist. A communio that offers less offers too little.”—Pope Benedict XVI


jenX67 said...

The more I read your blog, the more I love your style of writing. Knowing how busy you are with family responsibilities, I think you must be a disciplined person to put out such well-developed ideas --- and paragraphs! I feel like everything I do is rushed, rushed, rushed. Maybe less is more, but 100 ideas - always marching through my head.

mrsdarwin said...

Lovely post.

In the end, did you like the drawing of yourself?

Roz said...

I found your blog from TSO's quotation on Video-Meliora-yada-yada. Really Good Writing is a combination of skillful writing and worthy reflection -- suffice it to say, I'll be back. Meanwhile, I'm pondering.

Oh, and I have to tell you. There's something fantastically amusing about seeing the post's labels at the bottom: Beauty; Delusions of Grandeur; Naked People. Have you been spying on my brain?

Betty Duffy said...

Jen, I don't know if disciplined is the right word...maybe compulsive.

Mrs Darwin, In the end, the picture was unfinished and now possibly resides in storage somewhere in Michigan.

Roz, welcome. I am humbled and grateful for TS's mentions on his blog, and I thank you, too for following the link over.

Betty Duffy said...

I've had some communication with the artist since I posted, and Karly, I hope you won't mind my sharing them here, because you raise some interesting points:

"Yesterday, in that post, you suggest that we are only fully known in the light of God's love, that that is the ultimate and true communion we seek. I agree with that assertion, but have to disagree with this one:

"I was unprepared for the fact that the experience of artistic nudity is by nature an act of objectification. The artist evaluates you on the basis of color, shape, or composition. And it didn’t matter how much of my soul I tried to project to Karly. I would end up a two dimensional image on a canvas."

I have to believe that artistic expression can aim for the communication or representation of soul, although it must speak in the language of shape and form--or, in the case of writing, these clumsy words. (in fact, that was the subject of my master's thesis, on Thomas Eakins' portraits---he wanted his students, after being well-trained in the matter of anatomy, to learn to capture the figure's "centre line"--a unique, determining meridian, from which all else flowed.) I know that I didn't manage to capture much of your soul in my chances at drawing or painting you back then, and honestly feel that I know you better now after being made privy to the revelation of your writing. But learning to see the face of God in others, in the people around us, is one clear path towards the divine, and attempts to represent that vision can be, however limited, a holy offering. There is nothing we want more than to be understood, to be seen fully, and our friends
and community can provide a taste of that (it seems to me that the great benefit of marriage is having a partner who can know and witness most of your life story)."

I'll be thinking on this...