The Classical Mystique

Writers rely on all five senses to create inhabitable worlds for their readers. What better way to create a realistic and dynamic atmosphere than to remind us that while one sense is active — the default is to describe what is seen — the other senses carry on simultaneously gathering information and fusing our sensory experience together.

In my case, I mostly write about vision and sight. While that carries out the two very large tasks of helping us peer into life in the studio and also unpack what it means to make visual art, it only begins to introduce the experience. I would now like to evoke the sense of sound in the classical atelier for you: silence. This particular characteristic intrigues onlookers and dismays gregarious artists of all ages.

We do not speak while the model is posing in life room (the first three hours of every morning). We get four five-minute breaks and one fifteen-minute break during which we run to the restroom, make more tea, stretch a bit, and look at each other’s drawings. At library conversation levels, these breaks are the loudest we get all day. It’s the only time students from every year are in the same studio and although you might hear occasional small talk, it’s mostly shop talk that’s happening. We laugh about the grotesqueness of drawings gone wrong or engage seriously about the difficulty of proportional accuracy.

Aside from the shuffling and murmuring during these breaks, the only sounds of life room are classical music played at a very low volume, the sighs of a struggling neighbor, and the high beep of the timer signifying the end of a pose. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays our teachers walk around and give critiques maintaining the same volume with which a research librarian might direct you to the bathroom: with enough volume and clarity that they don’t have to repeat themselves but low enough that no one further than three feet can make out what they are saying.

After the life room session is over we head to lunch, which most of us bring so we can eat quickly and get back to it. We also bring lunch because we’re student artists, a breed for whom miserliness becomes psychological. Every scrap of paper is used, every pencil nub sharpened until it can no longer be held by adult hands. We sit at a wooden table upstairs in our studio and eat our left-overs and talk about artists we admire, exchange tips on technique and discuss life outside the atelier. This is when I get to know my cohort. A burst of loud laughter feels gluttonous and lunch seems to end as soon as it begins. When the clock strikes 1:30 the door is closed and no one speaks until 4:30, at which point still no one speaks but it would be less disruptive as it’s the agreed upon time that the vow of silence breaks and many start milling around cleaning and preparing for the next day.

It’s a trial to share a small space with a dozen or so people who carry on drawing and painting with laser focus. The tiny ambient noises start to annoy and break concentration. A person sharpening their pencils, some one at the sink washing their materials, that time I knocked five wine bottles (props for drawing) off my light box and they clanked and rolled until everyone turned and looked at me with pained patience in their eyes.

Apparently our reputation for silence proceeds us. Strangers ask me about it. When I was first thinking about applying for the classical atelier, I also looked into the expressionist atelier instructed by Mark Kang-O’Higgins. I met an alum who spoke very highly of both programs but said personally she couldn’t handle the classical atelier, “so many rules and you know they aren’t allowed to talk.” A friend who had taken a workshop at Gage asked straight away when I told her I was in this atelier, “Oh my gosh, how are you dealing with not talking all day?”

I like everyone in the atelier and I’ve gotten to know them all well enough to feel warmly toward them and ask to borrow something I’ve forgotten to bring. Looking at it from the inside, I disagree that we “aren’t allowed” anything. There is huge value placed on consideration and never wasting anyone’s time. Juliette says this is a race. Not against each other but against time. There is more than a lifetime of learning to do but only a finite amount of time to do it. In the old days ateliers lasted ten years, now we try to do it in four. The silence mandate isn’t coming from the teachers. It’s peer pressure, plain and simple. In this setting silence is like a good fence in that it makes for good neighbors. Our homes are all quite small and built close together. We live there together doing our best to focus and learn and improve everyday for four years.

(Featured image: Philosopher Reading by Rembrandt, 1631)