Layers of Transcendence or "Sex, Painting and God"

The inspiration for this talk has come from several conversations at the Saturday Sketch Club. More than one Centurion has asked how I, a Christian minister,  paint nude figures and can be conflict-free about doing so. That is an understandable question for anyone living in our culture of shame, with Adam and Eve still around and embarassed, fussing with their fig leaves and the Puritans fighting to keep us all covered up, even today. St. Anthony was tempted by visions of naked women and became a Christian hero for resisting.

Frank Feldman, beloved Centurion , did a cartoon of the answer. It is a proud possession and I want to show it to you as the first slide. The nude model looks at the painter in priest’s garb and says, “Oh Father, does my state of undress bother you?” He answers, “Not at all. I would be glad to lend you my collar, if that would make YOU more comfortable.”
This says it all!

The longer answer lies in three experiences: sex, painting and prayer. Each of them has given to me times of trance or transcendence. By transcendence I mean that I am intensely active and yet I am not thinking in words.

 I  begin with a first experience of prayer. I went to a Quaker School and was exposed to Silent Meeting in the First Grade. I could not believe that we were expected to sit silently for an hour. It was tortment. But over the course of the year and the years that followed, I came to love that silence. I was mostly wool-gathering, but there were definitely times when I was in a kind of trance, not thinking in words. And it was pleasurable. I looked forward to the meetings.

My parents were serious agnostics. I never went to church as a boy. But I loved hearing our wise, white-haired headmaster read from the Bible in school. When he read about Jesus, I felt I was meeting an interesting, loving new friend. Later, when I heard people speak of Jesus as hateful and condemning, I could not bear it and still cannot. I am glad that Jesus was and is a wordless presence in my silence, a friend for this frightened, lonely boy.

Since I was in First Grade, I have always wanted to draw and paint well. When I was in the Second Grade, I had an art teacher named Miss Taylor who could draw like magic. I watched with fascination as people, elephants and street scenes emerged spontaneously from her pencil. I decided that the secret must be the pencil. So I stole her pencil. It was a #2 Mongol pencil. I ran home, all excited, hid in my room and tried to draw with Miss Taylor's pencil. I was heartbroken. I returned her pencil and did not try drawing or painting again for many years.

My next experience of trance was the discovery of sex, or at least the no-words excitement  that comes to a teenage boy all alone, behind locked doors. That was a gigantic experience and with it came thinking about girls which became an almost non-stop activity.

However, when I was 16, in 1949, I made my first visit to a monastery. The Franciscan cloister in Fiesole, outside Florence, was battered by shell-fire from the Second World War which had only ended three years before, but it was blooming with wild roses.  When I enteered the cloister, I felt I had come home and wanted never to leave.

That was an experience I have repeated over the years in many cloisters in Greece, France and Italy. I love being in them and painting them. I would surely have been a monk if I could have gotten around the problem of thinking about girls all the time.  I imagined walking around and around the cloister, caring for my garden, praying at all hours of the day or night and not having a care in the world.

I was still 16 when I prayed out loud, in a small group of young men,  that I wanted God to take my life  and put me to some task of healing in the world. The presence of Christ became even stronger. However,  some people spoke of Jesus with a memorable smugness and that made me want not to speak of Him for fear people would think I too was smug and not simply immersed in the mystery of His complex presence.

Then, as a freshman in college, I discovered life drawing classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was 1952 and such classes were still somewhat rare.
The first night of the class, I arrived ahead of time, chose a seat in the back and waited. The model entered, climbed up on the platform and dropped her robe. I thought I would pass out. It was hard to believe that all I had to do was look at her and try to draw what I saw. I soon was in a partial trance of happiness. There were many intrusions of words: “That is wrong; her arm is too long; her leg is too short;  gosh, she is beautiful, etc.” If the words are there, I don’t count it as a real trance.

That was the first of many life drawing classes. I have sought them out, or created my own wherever I have lived and they have given me the greatest pleasure even though I consider myself very much a beginner artist to this day. Being in the silent group of people drawing has a special link for me to the Quaker Silent meetings. There is a wonderful hush, that falls on the group as the model begins her pose as the men and women in the group commune with the figure.

There has been an enormous expansion of such classes in the last thirty or forty years. I owe a debt of gratitude to Win Knowlton for introducing me to a book called The Undressed Art, by Peter Steinhart. The book describes this huge expansion of groups across the country, drawing and painting the figure. Once thought to be a bit over the line, drawing groups are now accepted even in regions we might think would not accept them.

After all, it was only this year that a boy went home after his fourth grade class visited  the Dallas Museum, a major municipal museum, and told his mother that he had seen statues of naked women. The mother complained and the teacher was fired. I don’t know the end of the story; I trust she was reinstated.   As Americans, we are still not friends of our bodies.
Steinhart also records wonderful quotes of many people who have had experiences of transcendence in the process of drawing. I have left a copy at each table of some of his best passages. Let me know if you want one. People from all walks of life, with great variations in formal education and differing levels of artistic skill report the same soaring experience.

 I  committed myself to doing what I could, as a minister, to alleviate suffering in the world. The news of the Holocaust shaped my soul. Those reports and newsreels were the only experiences that seemed to frighten my calm and patient parents. I realized that there were many other terrible things going on in the world, some right in New York City. If I could hold back the fires of cruelty in any way, that is what I wanted to do. So I chose to be ordained even though there were so many teachings in seminary with which I disagreed that I nearly quit several times. Even today, I could go on for hours about all the things that most Christians believe that I do not believe.

A turning point as an artist came for me  one day when I went with Caroline, my wife, and our two small children to the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. She knew of my  blocked ambition to draw and paint and had encouraged me to bring paper and pencil. She said she would watch the children while I tried to draw.  I sat for over an hour trying to draw a cloister. The result was not great, but it was  encouraging to me. The time passed without my being aware of it. I was definitely in a happy trance.

There is one religion that had no problem at all with sex. Here are three slides of statues on the outside of a Hindu temple. (HINDU SLIDES) The Hindus of a thousand years ago knew that sex and religion were intertwined  in a beautiful way. The very foundation of religion and beliefs about the creation of the world are found in the experience of  orgasm.    These statues, showing actual sexual intercourse ( all positions except the missionary position), seem to me to be beautiful statues because of the careful and reverent way that they are carved. But it is only in the last few years that these books of photographs were legally allowed even to enter the USA.

After the photos of the Hindu temple facades, I presume to show you slides showing some of my cloister paintings alternating with some of my paintings of nudes. This is my own way of saying that the two are part of the same impulse, the same world, and my own trance state. I look forward to your reactions. I continue with the alternation of those slides as I go ahead with my remarks. Feel free either to stop listening or stop looking or let the combination just flow. There will be no quiz.

Then in 1994, I was admitted to our beloved Century Association. 

I greatly looked forward to joining the Sketch Club here. It was during the period of the extensive renovation of this building. So my first time of meeting with the Sketch Club was in the Library in the area beyond the space where we dine. I arrived a little late and the session was  under way. The model was standing on a platform which I remember as being very elevated, so she soared above all the heads bent  over their drawings. Her arms were over her head in a lovely graceful pose.The light was  all gold and honey. She too seemed to be all gold and honey. I felt a little the way I did at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, faint from happiness.

Don Holden was in charge and I will always remember his manner. He was unfailingly courteous to everyone, especially the models. He created an atmosphere of formality which was elegant, structured and, at the same time, intimate. I found myself saying to myself over and over, “This is a holy place.” I do not use the word lightly. A holy place is one in which the whole world seems to come together, a place in which life seems to make sense and actually is beautiful even though nothing is left out.

Leonda Finke describes what seems to me to be trance when she says in her book (which I recommend to you all- a beautiful book of her sculpture), “While drawing, even now in a group, I have the sense of living within a transparent bubble containing only the model, myself and the feel and sound of the instrument in my hand as it moves across beautiful paper.”

I distinguish life drawing from pornography by the presence of respect. In pornography a body is made into an object without respect for the one depicted. There is no special attempt to understand and appreciate the fulness of the one in the picture.She or he is only there to fuel a fantasy, the more impersonal the better. I admit that it worked for me as a young boy, so I cannot be too snooty about it, but it does seem we have come on a long rough road in the last 60 years. Our children and grandchildren are burdened with a special challenge: it is more difficult to think of sexual play in a gentle, tender, respectful way when the images from which they learn are so rough and hard.

The opposite of pornography is what people  do in Sketch Groups. People  are free to let their thoughts wander and I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit to having  fantasies of kissing and caressing the models. Of course those fantasies are there and they are of great, motivating importance. Each of us is a free, unique person and has his or her individual fantasies.

However, I am constantly and profoundly conscious of what an enromous privilege it is to be in the same room with a nude model, study the figure with close, careful attention and maintain an atmosphere of such respect as to be more accurately described as reverence. It is a huge part of the excitement to be entirely clear that this is a holy place. It is a place of passionate respect.

Steinhart also has a fine chapter about the models in drawing groups, where they come from, what they think and the individual ways in which they do their very difficult work.  I invite you to try, in the privacy of your own home to sit, stand, or even recline,  stay awake and keep the pose for twenty minutes. No twitching or scratching or squirming. No TV or radio. Pay attention to where your mind goes. It is both physically and psychologically very challenging and will help you appreciate the hard work  of a  professional model.

Steinhart refers to the endless variety of personalities and moods of the models. That is important to me. The models who come here seem to me to be basically happy people who have learned to live peacefully with themselves during the long silences in which they are posing. If they happen to be angry or sad, that can come through strongly and presents special challenges for me. Of course they are entitled to feel any way that they feel, but their strength as professionals comes from their ability to go inside their hearts and heads and find a strong, peaceful place for the sessions.

I take this opportunity to salute good models everywhere for their discipline, their elegance, their courage, their creativity, their vulnerability, their strength, and the gracefulness of their work. They are a lovely, complex group of individuals,

So I am happy to declare that life drawing and painting is very far from being a hidden pleasure. Instead, I feel that this is one of the purest expressions of the religion I embrace. I would not mind it coming to the attention of my bishop. I believe that God made us with all kinds of feelings and with endlessly varied bodies. To take time to appreciate those bodies by drawing and painting them as best we can seems to me to be a holy activity.

What accomplishment in life can be greater than to look at a face or a body and try to understand it, to reproduce it in all its vulnerability and sweetness, all its defensiveness and anger, all its pride and fear? When we die, we will not go with our money or our trophies. We will not go with our paintings and drawings either, but I doubt that anyone, when he or she is dying, regrets the time taken in the sacredness of this artistic endeavor.

Chrsitianity is a religion that believes that God took on human flesh. Horrible cruelty and wars have resulted from the twisted allegiance of some to that belief. But also, Christians believe, or should,  that the divine and the human are beautifully bound up together in each one of us. Flesh is as holy as spirit and it is wicked to try to separate them. The best artists, for me, are the ones that show the divinity in the face of an old man or a young girl, the divinity in a human body, the divinity in human flesh.

May I make special note of Francis Cunningham, who has certainly painted his share of beautiful women, but he also has painted women far from the canonical ideal and men who were even as old as I am, not conventionally pretty bodies, and he has shown them to be magnificent. His paintings are monuments to the dignity and vulnerability of humanity. I cannot begin to do that, but I hope to learn to come closer.

I hope that the day will come when we will be glad to live with paintings of nudes hanging on our walls at home whether they show a conventionally beautiful body or one that manifests its strength or weariness and complexity, but is not within the cultural conventional range of “lovely.”

So it is a huge part of my life today to have the privilege of painting live models, to treat them with the same elaborate respect as Don Holden and now Louise Peabody at the Century Association or in my own studio. There it is possible to go into trance, working hard on the line and the color, the volume and the personality.

 I hope some of you here today, who think you would never go, that you can’t draw a line, would just come once on a Thursday morning to the Century Association. Just say you are my guest.

If you come, do know that you will be surrounded only by other people like you, at various stages of learning, that you could learn just by continuing to draw along with the rest of us. Some have even gone into trance at the very first session, saying that the time just flew by and they had no idea that the time was up. Their troubles were left behind.

As you have looked at the slides, you may have noticed that young, beautiful female models far outnumber the males or older women or anyone who is too thin or too fat according to our cruelly narrow definitions of all that. I am the one who books the models on Thursday mornings and I admit that I could engage a wider variety of models.

The process of working on this talk has changed me a little bit. If part of the idea of doing the drawing is to accept your body as it is then I should book some lumpy old men like me, or women who are not conventionally beautiful, or at least, more different types.

I am thankful to Byron Dobell for giving me an image of this talk, the painting now known as “Sacred and Profane” by Titian. It shows a nude woman on the right and an elegantly gowned woman on the left. He used the same model for each. It is the nude that is understood as “sacred’” and the richly clothed one who is regarded as “profane.” Titian recognized the purity of the one who was naked, because she was without vain adornments.
This slide is of a painting that I did fifteen years ago. The model was posing in the sun on a terrace in the city.  I asked her to hold  up a wine goblet in the gesture of a toast. Then on the left, I  painted a self-portrait in eucharistic vestments, holding the chalice up as if I were toasting her. It is interesting that I put myself in the shadows. I then hid the painting for years, not daring to show it to anyone, because I was still under the weight of the Puritanical burden of the institutional Church. It has taken all these years to bring it out into the light.

 I owe it to my dear brothers and sisters of the Century, who have helped me come out of the shadows.
 I paint nude models because it gives me enormous pleasure! It is holy work, recognizing the grace and gravity, the beauty and sensitivity of the models. Not only is there no conflict for me, as a Christian, it almost seems to be my happy obligation!

Please, now make your own comments and share questions on this topic of endless complexity and delight.

Stephen Chinlund
April 2006
Century Association