Sister O'Kelley's tips for teaching nude figure drawing


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Sep 21, 2023

Sister O'Kelley's tips for teaching nude figure drawing

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This is Part 3 of Tales of a Lecturer and Director, which continues to explain what it's like to ascend through the ranks of academia. Here I follow in the footsteps of a long-serving Roman Catholic nun who gives me advice, and I recall my own undergraduate experience in figure-drawing class.

I met Sister O’Kelley at her office just down the hall from the galleries. She offered a cheerful hello and a closed-lipped smile. While her makeup-free, translucent, pale skin sags slightly from age, her complexion appears smooth, clear and bright. She wears a short-sleeved white blouse, a navy skirt, pantyhose and taupe lace-up orthopedic oxfords. Her thick ankles support her slightly pear-shaped frame. A silver chain with a small crucifix hangs from her neck. Seated with hands folded on her lap, she explains that the nuns no longer wear habits. "They were so hot to wear. Black wool. Oh, and the labor of hand pleating the wimple. We had special ironing crimpers we used after laundering them." The old photographs displayed around campus show magnificent round white pleated wimples appearing like radiating halos around the nuns’ faces. Townies called them "daisy nuns." Her disposition echoes the former moniker's sentiment.

Aligned with a vow of poverty, her spartan office and the pristine white walls belie the decades of use as a studio. On the sizable waist-high table were neatly stacked drawings and unused sheets of 30x40-inch drawing paper. A saint scribe–like drawing table was in the corner; a piece of paper was carefully taped down. I could see the beginnings of her characteristic, painstaking layered geometric composition emerging. Red Koh-i-Noor technographic lead holders, boxes of graphite, woodless colored pencils, India ink and nibs were carefully laid out side by side and within arm's length of the paper.

Do I smell incense? Or is that weed coming in the window from the sculpture courtyard below? The students better not be blazing up a fat one and using the table saws. I need to go down after this and lecture them about how easy it is to lose fingers in the wood shop. Suddenly, I realized Sister O’Kelley had stood up and walked to the door. She offered, "I’ll show you the studio and storage room now."

The studio across the hall was a plain, ample, rectangular space with large louvered windows lining one side. The cinder-block walls were covered in critique panels punctured with so many pushpin holes that one wondered why they hadn't fallen to the floor in pieces. Metal easels and wooden drawing horses littered the ink-splattered and stained VCT tiled floor. The air smelled of charcoal, graphite, Sharpie markers and Krylon Workable Fixativ Spray. It throws me back in time, recalling my undergraduate drawing-class experience.

Sister O’Kelley makes a generous, sweeping, Vanna White–like gesture toward the adjacent storage room filled with still-life props and then gently folds her hands against her stomach. "This room can also be used for the model's changing room. Don't forget to use the heaters. They are stored over there in the corner with the extension cords. This classroom gets cold." She reflects, "The students tend to have difficulty confronting nudity and the intimate details of the human body. Often, certain areas are left blank on the drawing page," and then she adds plainly, with a nod and raised eyebrow, "I find it best to remind the students that they must draw the five N's—the nose, the nipples, the navel, the nest and the knees" (pointing to each area on her own body). Laughing, I ask, "That's great. Can I use that?"

I recount some of my undergraduate experiences taking drawing. "At Boston University, drawing class was three hours, three times a week. When drawing the human body, the entire figure had to fit on the page; bone structure and musculature must be anatomically correct, lighting consistent and perspective accurate. We measured everything by outstretching an arm and holding the pencil as a measuring device. And with one eye closed, the arms moved back and forth in space from model to paper to represent accurate proportions." Sister O’Kelley smiles approvingly and confirms, "That is the best way to teach."

My mind wanders to think about some of my experiences in drawing class that I don't share with Sister O’Kelley. I was late the first time we had a nude model in drawing class. I was 18 years old and exceptionally naïve. The other students mocked my Southern accent even though I thought I didn't have one. I mean, yes, I said "y’all" all the time, but I wasn't so Southern as to say things like "mash the button" when I got in the elevator.

Once, during the second semester of my first year, I walked into class late, and everyone was gathered around the platform. You could have heard a pin drop. So, when I barreled in with my backpack and drawing pad like an idiot, everyone whipped around, and eyes glared at me. I scanned the room, looking for a spot to draw, and as I rounded around the giant concrete pillar in the middle of the room, I saw the nude male model. I think I gasped audibly (I’m not entirely sure, but I’m pretty sure, because I received more angry looks). Never in my life had I seen a nude man before. Call me Tambrey "Tammy" Tyree from the old 1950s-’60s Tammy movies. Today would have been a scene from "Tammy and the Nude Model" if there had been one starring me. Just think, Miss Renie, the same sun that's shinin’ down on me this very moment is shinin’ down on Pete's penis. I tried not to stare.

Then, I realized, Oh, shit! The only spot left (surprise) was on a drawing bench right in front of the model. As Sister O’Kelley might have explained, his "nest" was right at my eye level when I sat down. I took a deep breath, set up my drawing pad, sharpened my pencil and kneaded my eraser very slowly (head down for as long as possible). In my mind, I’m talking like Tammy in the movie Tammy and the Bachelor: A sight of strange things happened, powerful strange. I come from Carolina. I’ve been a-walkin’ all alongside Commonwealth Avenue. I’ve been drawin’ by night and walkin’ by day. I’ve come to this great college to sell eggs I’ve been toting in this here portfolio. But I see that there nekkid man done brought his own eggs.

I couldn't fit the whole body on the paper since I was so close to the model. I could only depict the lower torso. I was drawing everything I could not to have to draw his penis. Everything on the page was in great detail, except a big blank spot in the middle. I contemplated drawing one of those black censorship rectangles over that spot when I heard Professor Reed bellow, "We have need of eggs." Well, that is what I thought he said at first, but in reality, he said, "It is just a form in space. You must draw it. It is an upside-down saltshaker!" Was he talking to me?

Next thing I know, Professor Reed is kneeling next to me, drawing the model's penis on a scrap of paper. "You see. Think of it as you would a still life. Break down the shapes. A cylinder, half a sphere, and spheres in a cloth bag. Now you try." I start to draw on the page, and he demands, "Measure it!" I can hear giggles from my roommate across the room. I shoot her a look as if to say, Shut the fuck up; I’m going to kill you after class. I stretch out my trembling arm toward the model, holding my pencil tightly to take a visual measurement, and I swear my hand was about six inches away from his man parts. I start to map it out on the page by measuring length and width. Then Professor Reed insists, "Too big, too big. Measure again!" provoking the whole class to roar with laughter. The model turned bright red. Returning to his senses and realizing what he has implied, Professor Reed quickly says, "Time for a break." I hear in my head Miss Renie saying about me, Bless her heart. She's kinda simple. She just doesn't know how to do.

It took a while to get used to people just walking around the classroom nude or out in the halls wearing nothing but a bathrobe and asking students for a light for their cigarette. All types would model: an ancient bald man with a beer belly and gray chest hair, a statuesque pregnant woman with dreadlocks, a mousy pear-shaped blonde woman with shock-white skin. Nude models were present in nearly every drawing, painting and sculpture class. All I could think about was that I hoped someone washed down those chairs the models sat on with some Lysol. Alternatively, I couldn't stop thinking about how dirty their feet were. Couldn't they at least wear some flip-flops or something?

Eventually, we all got so used to the nude models that it never seemed like a big deal anymore—until one day in sculpture class. We were modeling clay into an anatomically correct full-figure maquette in preparation for a realistic life-size work. Amid the silence, my roommate says discretely but loud enough for all to hear, "I think the pose is moving." Now, this isn't an unusual comment when working from life. Sometimes, after holding a pose for a while, an arm slips or a chin drops, which usually means the model needs a break. I look up to see how exactly the pose has changed. I scanned the model up and down, carefully assessing the body until my eyes rest on the torso. My eyes widen upon seeing a fully erect penis. Then, one by one (me included), we each covered our sculptures with plastic and briskly walked out the door into the hallway.

Everyone is standing around shaking, doubled over with laughter. Someone blames (name withheld) for wearing a skimpy top without a bra. "Your nips are, like, totally at attention." And in response, she sarcastically grabs her boobs and says, "You’re just jealous." At that moment, Professor Lloyd, who had left class to get some coffee and a smoke, walks up to the group and barks, "It isn't break time. Get back to class."

Then someone says, "I think the model needed a break." Giggles erupt. Professor Lloyd gruffly says with the cigarette still between his lips, "What?" And I say, "The pose was moving" (and I point to my crotch) "down there." He says nothing, drops his cigarette on the polished concrete floor, angrily grinds it out and marches into the studio. The next thing we know, the model walks out fully dressed. Lloyd walks behind him and states, "Class is over for today."

Sometime later that same year, we were in a Friday morning drawing class. I had a spot towards the back of the room, which was annoying, because it was closer to the door, and theater students like that Michael Chiklis were always practicing primal screams. That can be extremely unnerving, let me say. In the middle of a session, the TA suddenly shouts with alarm, "Class is over." Everyone was frantically exiting, and I almost got pushed down in the melee. I didn't know what was going on.

I finally found my roommate in the hall and wondered aloud, "Did someone cut a big fart or something?" She says, "No. The model started jerking off. I don't think he was the real model." I respond, "Gross. Let's go to IHOP. I’m not in the mood for this nonsense." A couple of weeks after that, there was a security booth installed at the entrance to the art building, and we had to show our IDs to get in.

Now that I think about it, Sister O’Kelley probably could have handled these stories, except maybe the cursing. She wouldn't have approved of the cursing. Sister O’Kelley explained getting models and how the department secretary handled the process. She said it was difficult to get models, but sometimes students would sign up to do it. I explained I didn't think I would want to use students as nude models. She replied, "That is probably best. But the pay is good. Sometimes they need the money." I made a mental note: Ask that models have background checks.

Next up: Tales of a Lecturer and Director, Part 4: Awkward Conversations With Art Students.

Many Ph.D.

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