Live Nude Girls

Florence Hill and the art of figure drawing

A working draft of the human genome released two years ago revealed a conclusion that many had already intuited. That is, while humans have surprising amounts of shared genetic material (99.9 percent in common), each of us is still pretty distinct--especially once we figure in the influence of the environment and our own personal development. Seeing the drawing co-op led by 71-year-old local painter Florence Hill would have told anyone what took ten years for the Human Genome Project to figure out. Not only are the assembled artists singular in the elements of their style, but the one nude model they're all drawing could be a dozen different people, depending on which sketchpad you look at.

"Would you like some paper so you can draw?" Hill asks when I arrive at the California Building in northeast Minneapolis, the site of the weekly session. It is an appealing offer. Something about sighting the contours of a naked human body and attempting to transfer that image onto a pristine sheet of white paper holds great romance. In fact, the scene here could have been taken out of almost any other era: Fat yellow sunlight issues down from large windows onto a nude model, who stands atop a small, raised platform. The same image appears in hundreds of paintings throughout history: Léon-Mathieu Cochereau's 1814 "The Interior of David's Studio at the Collège des Quatre Nations" is a prime example.

The model today is a blond-braided woman with the ruddy-complected, slightly full body of a French peasant girl. Her gestures are theatrical, arms and hands held out from the body, torso stretched upward and chest thrust forward, a twist to the spine, legs stretched out and on display. All around the model, situated in every corner of the studio, artists perch and look intently back and forth between her and their sheets of paper, making quick notations in pencil, ink, charcoal, or crayon.

Still life with artists: Florence Hill (front) and her figure-drawing co-op
David Kern
Still life with artists: Florence Hill (front) and her figure-drawing co-op

During the early part of the two-hour session, the model changes poses every five minutes. There are 13 artists working on this day, Easter Sunday--fewer than the normal 18 or so. They work quickly and intently, trying to keep up with the model. Later, she will strike a seated or reclining pose that will last 20 or 40 minutes, and the artists will relax a bit.

Or not relax, as the case may be: Each artist approaches this task in a different fashion. For example, one elderly man, who wears a black beret and has set a cane down next to his right leg, draws tentatively with his left hand, his elbow uplifted and shaky. He has suffered a stroke, I learn, and he has taken up drawing as therapy. Meanwhile, a woman nearby straddles a bench and hunches her back over to scratch with a drafting pen at a pad of paper placed between her legs. Next to her, another woman makes sweeping gestures with a Japanese calligraphy brush and spreads rivers of inky color across the page. And in the opposite corner, a man with a piece of raw charcoal pushes and smears his way into the paper, drawing pose atop pose until his drawing surface is a great and dusty mass of black.

The more finished results of such artistic variety are currently on display at the Mill City Café on the ground floor of the California Building. Called simply "The Figure," the show is a retrospective of the artists from the co-op. The work of 42 people graces the walls of the smallish café, hung salon-style across the better part of three walls. There is a great range of colors and modes of expression. Witness the elegant, sinuous pencil lines drawn vaguely in the style of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in Cathy Huber's "Ann." Or the cacophonous and muddy expressionism of watercolor in Doug Lew's "Nude Sitting." Or the elegant and tonal abstraction of rubbed charcoal in Maura Matula Williams's "'The Crows,' He Said, 'They Taught Me This Dance.'"

"They're very diverse," says Hill of her compatriots, and she should know. She has run this particular workshop every Sunday for the past 26 years. Hill, who came to the Twin Cities in 1949 from Greenbush, Minnesota, in the far north of the state, now makes her living selling large floral paintings at the Wilcock Gallery in downtown Minneapolis. When she began the co-op in 1976, she says, there were no other such opportunities in the Twin Cities. Now, she knows of 10 or 12 other such groups in the area. The activity seems more popular than ever, and Hill says she gets a couple of calls a week from people interested in attending.

For Hill, whose lively curiosity has kept her going all these years despite never having taken formal art classes, the co-op is not run as a business. Anyone can show up, pay their $6 to cover the cost of the model, and get to work. Hill explains that artists come for different reasons.

"Some come to experiment with colors," says Hill, "or with different palettes. Others like to play with negative shapes or things like that." She says some have even learned to draw in the studio, having never tried before. "In the co-op, we gain by seeing other people's styles. It's a burst of stimulation and a way to get together and share ideas. Otherwise we really could start to feel isolated."

Hill pauses, then continues. "It isn't everyone's cup of tea, the figure....The only talent there is is [having] an abiding interest that won't go away."

 
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