17 June 2010

First Drawing

This essay was published in the Manifest Gallery International Drawing Annual Exhibit (INDA5),  Fall 2010. http://www.manifestgallery.org/nda/inda5/

It was the summer I turned five. We were driving to California from our home in Kansas in our chocolate, ‘52 Olds. Dad drove. Mom rode next to him upfront. My older sister and I spread out on the couch-like backseat; it was before seatbelts. The floor-well, behind the driver, was my private nook. I’d sit cross-legged, twirling the knobs on the red plastic Etch-A-Sketch. Or I’d lay with my neck supported by the hump that divided the floor, my legs propped up on the door, my toes tickled by the wind whipping through the open window. Looking up at the clouds, I saw faces and animals in their shapes.

     It was there on the floor that I drew a picture, the first that I have recollection of making. Over fifty years later, I remember the specifics and urgency that prompted me to take up paper and pencil. I had something to figure out. In my head, the images were indistinct. They called out for paper. What I had in my head wasn’t real or certain, until it was before me. I drew a picture of a man and a woman—my father and my mother—standing next to one another, naked, facing forward. I struggled to make their bodies right.  What did a woman have that a man didn’t? What did a man have that a woman didn’t?  Most of the time, I could recognize a man as a man and a woman as a woman. But some of the time, it was unclear. I struggled to put down what I knew about man-ness and woman-ness.

     For the man, my father, body hair was the defining feature. A mass of dark swirling hair in the shape of a fully leafed out tree filled his chest and trickled down his stomach. Tufts of dark hair squirted out from his armpits. His arms hung from broad shoulders straight to his sides, with shaggy mats on his forearms. Two oval, badge-like nipples punctuated his furry front. I didn’t know much about penises then. I’d never seen my father or any other man without swim trunks or boxer shorts. So, in that place below the belly before the legs started, I fudged and put in a lot more squiggly dark hair.

I had more to go on when it came to drawing the woman, my mother. I’d seen Mom and Grandma without clothes as they walked from the bathroom to the bedroom. I’d watched them dress. Their breasts were large swaying pillows. My mother’s were more bulbous, my grandmother’s more downward hanging. My mother’s nipples were small, pale pink bumps. My grandma’s were larger and darker, almost brown; they looked like a doll’s wide brimmed sunhat stuck at the ends of her down-to-the-waist appendages. I knew that women grew hair in a triangle-shape below their bellies. My mother’s was dark and thick. My grandmother’s had dwindled to a few, white, strands. In my drawing, I delighted in making my mother’s breasts bigger and rounder than they actually were, her nipples like tiny rosettes, her only hair besides her pubes a curly crown.

Underarm hair stumped me. Men had it and women didn’t--except for my father’s youngest sister, Aunt Esther. I saw it when she did cartwheels across our lawn when she stopped over on one of her road trips cross-country. She wasn’t a woman like my mother. Aunt Esther was more a man-woman, something other. She always traveled alone; she didn’t have a husband or a boyfriend; she had small breasts and narrow hips; she never wore dresses or skirts; she licked her fingers loudly at the table; and she was cantankerously opinionated about everything. She also had hair on her legs. I didn’t understand until later that she was a woman who didn’t shave and was a renegade from society’s expectations of womanhood in many other ways.

I felt so satisfied when I finished the drawing. I had pinned down something important by drawing it. I knew things that I didn’t know before. I had collected my random observations and the flickering semblances of them from inside my head, and made something concrete and real on the paper. This drawing marked the beginning of my study of what makes a man and what makes a woman. It was the beginning of my grappling with my own unfolding female body. It was the beginning of my knowing people by drawing them. It was the beginning of my knowing that by drawing I deepened my understanding of the world.

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