A love letter to that one homework assignment.
Music featured in this episode:
"Miss You Much" (orig. Janet Jackson), arranged and performed by Janna Jackson.
“I drew my back, and my face is turned towards the audience.”
“I drew it sitting down, with a pencil in one hand and eraser on the other.”
These are students from Professor Tula Telfair’s Painting I class at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Every one of them recently completed a life-size nude self-portrait in Drawing I.
“Mine is me facing away, looking over my shoulder. And I kind of look angry in it.”
“I took mine back home to Cuba. And you need to have permission to bring in artwork to Cuba. So they wanted to see it. So I had to show it to twenty people at immigration back home. It was really awkward because there’s always the same people, so every time they see me now I think they’re looking at me with a different perspective. I’m holding myself. It’s two of myself. I’m pushing myself away.”
For nearly thirty years, the final project for Wesleyan’s Drawing I class, the entry-level studio art course, has been a full-size nude self-portrait.
“Just straight on, with my hand on my hip.”
Exactly as tall as you, exactly as wide, and totally naked.
“My mom was joking that maybe I could just cut off the head and frame that.”
Hundreds of students have created these self-portraits since the project began, maybe thousands. I drew one. Kate just finished hers.
Kate Gibbel: Maybe I'll pull—a Dorian Gray. You know? Maybe I'll imbue it with magical properties and put it up in my attic, and then I'll stay young forever. Maybe that's the point of everyone taking Drawing I.
PG: Can you describe your drawing?
KG: Sure. So my drawing is me sitting in a chair with my right leg up on the chair and my left leg down. So it's like, full-frontal vulva.
PG: Why did you draw yourself that way?
KG: I drew myself that way because it just felt like, when else am I going to have a chance to do this? I'm not an artist at all, I'm not even like a doodler. But I think it's one of those seminal courses that everyone at Wes says, oh you need to take this before you graduate.
PG: Okay, so here's the sort of question that I'm really, really interested in. What are you going to do with it? Where is it right now and what's going to happen to it?
KG: Right now it's rolled up in a corner in my room, because my parents are about to come for graduation. Not that I care so much, but it's, you know—But I’m living with my friend who is a Studio Art major and also has her self-portrait, and I think the two of us are going to hang them right next to each other in our apartment in North Carolina, in the living room.
PG: Why have you decided to do that?
KG: Cause we have no shame. That’s why. I think we feel proud. We feel proud of what we’ve done.
Virgil Taylor: I think there's something beyond drawing in the weird tragedy of the final critique of that drawing that's totally fantastic and totally makes everyone a better person.
Virgil drew his self-portrait in the fall of 2011, four years ago.
VT: What's great about Wesleyan drawing is that it ends with the most uncomfortable experience, which is a room full of giant drawings of your peers naked. And they're all kind of, hard-fought and almost-there. There’s a really fun element of melancholy to it. I ended up drawing in a crouching position, so I'm like, it's straight on, but my legs are—I can’t even do it anymore, I'm so not that flexible anymore, but my legs are like, kind of, my legs are like, up by my chest, so it's all there, and I think one of my arms is crossing.
PG: So what happened to your drawing? Do you still have it?
VT: I’m sure I still have it. I haven't seen it in a while. I'll find out on Tuesday when I pack up my stuff. But also, I'm learning to be fine with not having it, maybe. If you asked me last year I'd be like, I think it's? Where is it? I don’t know! But now I'm like, I think I have it.
Professor David Schorr first gave the assignment, in 1972. He ran Drawing I as figure-drawing boot camp and hated the idea that over spring break, his students went two weeks without drawing the figure. So he assigned the life-size nude self-portrait, a project he’d done in college. He sent his students home with lengths of spare newsprint from the local paper. They returned with their nudes and he held a group critique in which they hung the drawings around the studio and discussed them. He noticed that the students enjoyed it, and that after the critique, they drew with a new boldness. So he taught it the next year, and the following, and kept teaching it.
In 1989, Professor Tula Telfair began teaching the assignment at the end of Drawing I rather than the middle. She liked the idea that her course would culminate with a test of everything her students learned all semester. And, she told me, the project jibed with the college students’ fundamental egotism.
Tula Telfair: They take more care in doing a drawing of themselves than they would of drawing bottles or someone else.
Yet both Telfair and Schorr told me that the care students lavished on their own figures subsequently extended to others’ bodies as well as objects like plain old bottles.
Kay Wells: Well, I think you draw yourself as if you are a bottle.
That’s Kay Wells, who teaches art history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She drew a nude-self portrait as an undergrad at Barnard College, where the assignment also appears sometimes on drawing syllabi.
KW: That’s kind of the point of the exercise, right? That you have to look so objectively at yourself. You have to look at your body as an object in order to draw it.
Wells cut off her own nude self-portrait’s head and framed it. Today it hangs beside her bed. And these days, she teaches architecture courses, in which she often assigns drawing to her students.
KW: You go out, throughout the city, and you have to draw various examples of various kinds of architecture, so that you really learn what’s particular about those buildings by having to replicate things through your own drawing.
She told me she finds that drawing anything makes her students look harder at everything.
KW: There’s no objective reason why drawing the human body is any more difficult than drawing a bottle.
After Professor Telfair taught the nude self-portrait for several years, other professors adopted it, and the onetime assignment of necessity became a Wesleyan institution. Ask any Wesleyan student about “the Drawing I final” and they’ll know just what you mean: those sixty-odd giant, rolled drawings that appear a few weeks before every semester ends, carried to class by their exhausted authors and then brought home. And then?
Alahna Watson: I have not unrolled it since the critique in Drawing I, freshman year.
Alahna did her self-portrait in the fall of 2009, six years ago, when we were both freshmen.
AW: My self-portrait has been in Connecticut, Florida, and Boston. It's been under my bed, in a closet, and now it's in a small storage room in Cambridge. I honestly don't know why I'm keeping it, because I don't plan on ever hanging it up again, but I can't throw it away because I worked on it for so long. So it's maybe the only object that I have that is valuable, that has no real value to me.
Alahna puts it well. The drawing’s precious but undisplayable. And for all its intimacy, it doesn’t mean much without an explanation.
AW: When I first did it, I was a very different person than I am now. I grew up in a conservative family in the south and was a very straight-laced person. Chose to live on an all-girls floor my freshman year in college. Even drawing a nude model from life was really shocking the first time I did it. Because I'd never seen a naked man before in life. So drawing my self, having to not only stare at my naked body for weeks, and then present that in front of a class of people that I didn't really know very well—yeah, it was probably the most radical thing I'd done, because it was the first time that I did something my parents did not approve of.
PG: Can you describe what your nude self-portrait looked like?
AW: I was standing, one of my legs was propped on a chair, so kind of like bent knee, and one of my hands was behind my neck. It definitely dampened down a lot of my insecurities. Because I was just like, I'm just a body. I'm just a series of measurements and shading. It’s really interesting to stare at your face or a part of your body for a really long time and really get to know it, in a kind of almost scientific way. It's good for having an idea of what your body actually looks like, not what you think it looks like.
I retrieved my own self-portrait from my parents' house, where I keep it. I also drew mine freshman year. My girlfriend and I opened it together.
PG: You're laughing pretty hard.
Manon Lefèvre: Oh my god. The expression on your face is so serious!
PG: How would you describe the expression on my face?
ML: You look like of—it's like a combination of sadness and maybe like defiance, almost like you're pleading someone. The position is almost like, one hand on your chest, one hand out, as if you're maybe making some kind of declaration.
PG: Okay, so when I did it, I thought as just sort of like, here's a man at ease, but now what it looks like—it looks like it's all about the penis, to be honest. It looks like I had one hand on my chest and the other hand, like, “Here it is! Have a look!”
ML: Yeah, but the face is not gleeful or boasting.
PG: No, it's true.
ML: It's almost like, look what they've done to me.
PG: When I was doing this I learned that my legs are shorter than my torso. If you look at my body—
ML: Well, you do have a very long torso.
PG: I have short legs, though, I think. Like, I think my torso is the right length and my legs are short.
At the time, learning this about myself shocked me. I’d assumed I knew my body but really, I’d understood it with a kind of shorthand. I’d never had to look close enough to know it. Glance at a bottle and you can easily dash off a bottle-like shape, but once you look closely, you’re without excuse. The general gives way to the specific, to the singular curve of this bottle’s shoulder and the facts of this one neck. I still think about myself as a man who’s a bit funny-looking because his legs are slightly too short.
Yet I feel a great tenderness toward this drawing. I remember staying up all night to finish, then walking to class both too tired and too wired to worry what anyone thought of my incorrect proportions. I was proud of the drawing.
I think students feel proud of their work not just because it’s intense to bare your body before your classmates. It’s also really difficult logistically. You have to construct a makeshift studio, arranging a large mirror and a massive sheet of paper in your tiny dorm, while negotiating drawing time with one’s roommate—or roommates.
Kevin Brisco: I actually totally cheated on the assignment and did it in my underwear, and sort of imagined what my genitals look like.
PG: The truth finally comes out.
KB: The truth finally comes out. Well, I lived in a triple, and I had to do the drawing in my room.
Kevin did his self-portrait in 2009, the semester before me.
KB: And the night I came home to work on it, I was in my underwear and my other roommate didn't know I was going to work on it, so he started a study session in our triple. So it was like four different people who didn't live there, and I'm standing there in my boxers. It’s like, well I can't get naked now. I saved the genitals for last, and was forced to use my imagination.
PG: Can you tell me where it is today?
KB: It is somewhere in Brooklyn, hopefully. I never put it up til junior year, just kind of floated around in my closet. And then that summer I went to live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and I kept it in my living room, and it was a funny showpiece, people always thought it was interesting or weird, or whatever. And then at the end of the summer I bought a plane ticket but didn't realize, I thought it was a week later—basically my whole move out date just like sprung upon me. The most hasty packing I've ever done in my life. And then I realized not until a couple weeks later that I left my nude drawing up in the living room of this house.
PG: Oh no!
KB: The landlord, he was this dude named Clyde. Really the most lackadaisical landlord. So I can pretty much be guaranteed to know that thing was still up whenever the next person moved in. So I don’t know. Maybe they kept it, maybe they threw it away. But I miss that thing dearly.
KB: Did you ever see my final?
PG: No, I didn't.
KB: It was essentially me making jazz hands around my penis. Super ridiculous. Just kind of a joke on the whole assignment, like, ahh, nudity, ahh! The professor used mine as an example of what not to do unless you're really gonna commit to it.
PG: So were you proud of the final drawing?
KB: Oh yeah. It was funny, me and Will Feinstein, we both agreed, we were in the same drawing class together, we agreed we didn't have the best drawings, but we clearly had the funniest. You should really talk to Will about his—
Will Feinstein: Hello?
PG: Hey, Will.
WF: Hey man.
PG: Can you describe for me what your final looked like?
WF: So it's a picture of me looking at the viewer, drinking my orange juice out of a carton.
PG: And you're fully naked?
WF: Oh yeah, fully naked.
PG: Can you tell me what has become of your self-portrait? Do you know where it is right now?
WF: Yeah. Well, I, um, I brought it home and I instantly unfurled it for my parents, and I insisted it be hung in the front hall in a giant frame, but they both shuddered, and now it's rolled up in the basement.
PG: Do you have any plans for it?
WF: I keep a copy of it on my phone, a picture of it, so I can show people, as a gag.
PG: In what situations do you show people?
WF: Like, do you want to see my nude self-portrait drinking orange juice? I show them before they can answer, sometimes. And then they've seen it.
Kamar Thomas: Where it is today? I have no idea. It was lost in a big move from America to Jamaica, when I was moving back.
Kamar did his the fall of 2008, seven years ago.
KT: I don't know if I left it somewhere or forgot to put it in a barrel. That's how you ship things internationally. A literal barrel. It's round. No joke. Put it on a ship, and the ship arrives like a month later. You have to go to a wharf and clear that shit, like its, okay, it's no joke. It's a twelve-hour process. You're going in the morning and you leave at night, is how long it takes. So imagine my shock when I opened it up. No drawing.
PG: Ah, that's terrible.
KT: Yeah. I was very sad about losing it because I have no pictures of it. I didn't own a camera at the time. You know, this was 2008. I had a flip phone, and that thing had no camera on it, so I have no documentation of it. There's no record that I did it other than in my head.
PG: What does the self-portrait look like?
KT: Picture the lotus position, people are meditating with their feet folded, and I'm leaning on both my hands, and then one leg is stretched out fully.
There’s a weird little history of nude representations of college students. Bear with me. When a student arrived on campus at Harvard, Mount Holyoke, Princeton, Radcliffe, Smith, Swarthmore, Vassar, Wellesley, Wilson College, or Yale between the years of 1940 and 1960, more likely than not, the school took what was called a “posture photo.” These meant a nude portrait, front, back, and profile.
A researcher named W.H. Sheldon conceived of and guided the project, hoping to quantify the relationship between body shape and intelligence. The students knew nothing about this, just that someone was studying “comparative postures.” The students also didn’t know their naked selves would join a massive collection that would make its way to the archives of the Smithsonian. Based on the project’s window of time, President George H. W. Bush and Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton may have been included.
I say “included” because between 1995 and 2001, the Smithsonian burned them all. A representative from Yale watched as the Smithsonian’s people shredded the photos and then fed them into a furnace, to the relief of many alumni. One Yale grad put it bluntly: “Our naked butts are in the Smithsonian,” George L. Vogt told the New York Times. “I can understand why the Smithsonian would want to record the quack science of the time, but I cannot understand, nor can I accept, that they would retain naked photographs of living people.”
At Harvard, though, these images live on, sort of. At the Peabody Museum there stand two statues, one a man, one a woman, whose measurements reflect the average of W. H. Sheldon’s measurements. They’re affectionately—and creepily—known as Norm and Norma.
If the Wesleyan drawing project fits into this story, maybe it’s as a happy, unintentional inversion. If nothing else, the project has produced many students who, like me, emerged a little easier about their particular proportions.
Henry Kiely: I’ll show people. I rarely look at it without the intention of showing it to someone who hasn't seen it. If people are interested in my painting, "What else did you do," I'll be like, I've got something pretty awesome, so brace yourself.
Henry drew his in the fall of 2007, eight years ago.
HK: My self-portrait is currently underneath my bed. In my original Drawing I portfolio container at my parents' house in upstate Vermont, hundreds of miles away from me. My relationship with it is totally unapologetic, but by virtue of it living in my parents' house, I can't take full responsibility for its being up, in a way that would make me feel comfortable for my parents. When I erect my mausoleum to myself, when I gain my millions, there will definitely be a place on the wall.
PG: So did you enjoy the project when you were working on it?
HK: Mhmm. Yeah, I enjoyed it a lot. I mean, I feel pretty comfortable naked, just period, so there were a couple times where I'd be, like, looking at myself in a mirror, naked, with, like, ten feet to my right, three dudes playing Bioshock on XBox. Which didn't bother me at all, but, like, some people were fine with it, some people were totally skeezed out but couldn't say anything, really, because it's like, one, this is my room. Two, this is a school assignment.
Carolyn Wachnicki: At the time, you know, after the end of Drawing I, you're used to drawing nude forms all the time. So you're really kind of desensitized to it at that point. It wasn't an issue for me. But looking back, I probably would have maybe censored it a bit more, just for the sake of posterity.
Carolyn drew her self-portrait fourteen years ago.
CW: Neither of my parents have seen it, as far as I know. I have this portfolio under a twin bed where my parents live in rural New Hampshire, and it has years of drawings. Probably seven inches thick, of just drawings. And I think I had these post-college friends coming to my parents' house for a ski trip, and I think I looked, because I wanted to remove it, because they were staying in my room and I would hate for them to stumble across it and be utterly confused about why it was there, and think it was like, is she really vain, painting herself naked? This weird Dorian Grey?
Sarah Hirzel, who’s taught the assignment several times at Wesleyan as a visiting professor, actually completed the self-portrait in one of Tula Telfair’s first classes to do it, back in 1992.
Sarah Hirzel: I was at a party when I was in my twenties, so maybe a decade after that class. And this guy that had been in my class, for the first time ever, started talking to me about my drawing and what I looked like in my drawing. And what he remembered about it.
PG: What did he say? What did he remember?
SH: What I looked like. Basically he was telling me that he remembered what I look like with my clothes off.
PG: Yeah, that's not—
SH: Which not really quite in the spirit of the class.
SH: I held onto the drawing. Not even exactly sure why. And it lived under the stairs in my parents' basement, in a roll. I looked at it, though, when it was my turn to teach the class. I was really curious. And I dug it up and I found it, and I was glad that my parents hadn't thrown it away.
PG: What was that like?
SH: Looking back at myself, I was like, oh my god, there's my body. I think probably 99.9% of people look back at their younger self and say, you had nothing to worry about. Everyone is vulnerable but they’re really, they're okay. You know? They're okay. Youth is wasted on the young, that kind of thing. Now, where I live as an adult, I have two children. And I make friends through my children. You know, they make friends, and then I meet their parents. Well, this one person I met at the playground, whose children are friends with mine, I thought, you know, gosh, you look so familiar, how do I know you? Well, it turned out we were in the same class at Wesleyan, but we don't know each other at all. And time sort of goes by, we get to know each other, our kids become very close, and all of a sudden it pops into my head that I know where I recognize her, and it's from the drawing. She was in that class, and I remembered her drawing of herself.
PG: What do you remember about that drawing of her?
SH: Well, the thing I remember about her drawing is that it was very, very modest. It was a really nice drawing, but she had figured out a way to sit with her back showing and her head twisted, so she's looking at you, and basically, I don't remember if there was any breast or anything like that, but it was basically, like, a drawing of her back. And it was a lovely drawing, I mean, I still remember it, which I think is sort of saying a lot. Here's a really crazy one. In that class, I met the person that ended up being my husband.
PG: That's amazing!
SH: Who also did the drawing. But I don't remember his drawing. I just found out, maybe the reason I don't remember his is, he started his drawing and didn't leave enough room for his head. So his head is not in the drawing! He did the feet up and then ran out of room. Mine was just full-frontal hands-on-hips, kind of confrontational. I think the drawing took like twenty hours or something. I probably did it over two days. You know, and, like, your boogers go black.
I do know. Though they’re the product of long hours of lonely labor, these objects make light work of years and years of distance. Start a conversation about your self-portrait and suddenly you’re right back with that student body.
SH: And I remember I listened to one album over and over, the whole time I did it. It was Janet Jackson. It was kind of her big breakthrough album at the time. Party music. And I ate popcorn, my friend had an air popper, and I basically ate popcorn and listened to Janet Jackson.
March 28, 2016