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Katherine Soniat


The Autumn Sketchbook

At the first class he was asked to write comments about his drawings
to better understand the subtleties of charcoal and the smudges
of a rubber eraser. The course description made it clear that creating from memory
was expected and that for his final self-portrait a draft of the human skull would be
used as overlay.

The necessity for experiment, the instructor italicized,
counted more than a student’s ability to analyze or evaluate.
Though the human eye sees both creatively and abstractly,
most experience only the latter. That’s what his teacher had to say
about The Basics of Drawing taught at the community college
in the suburbs of D.C.

At times the perceptual theories copied into this sketchbook
read like a parallel history. Two points eventually refer to a third,
that being the vanishing point: From the bridge of his destroyer,
he watched ships caught in the crosshairs sink on the Pacific.
Flares of color. Refractions, like the Crab Nebulae. Then nothing.

One Saturday in his study, he must have decided the assignment
was more than he could manage. Bookshelves, chairs, his desk
on the red braided rug. Rearrange a familiar grouping. Draw it.
In the sketchbook is written etc. etc. etc., etc.  
replacing any attempt at design.
Otherwise, the page, dated October 25, is blank.

After that, it was time to work from memory. Preferably, a figure
represented by frames of action, the dimensions blocked off.
Picture a single energy running through your subject on which all else
depends: His figures of men take root like trees.

My father was inspired by the top shelf of the hall closet. Drawing after drawing
of his herring-bone cap and gabardine scarf that always were there when I opened
the door; my book of poems inscribed to him tossed in with maps on the floor.
He found comfort in things above ground and inland.
He preferred whistling to speech.

By Thanksgiving he noted the following concepts needed his attention.
More middle-tones, such as grays and lavender. Boundaries are too distinct.
Professor says, create volume and depth as if you are sending them to a friend
who has never felt such.
When the nude approached to sit on the table by the window,
his drawings disappear. Confused over the difference between
the contour of a breast and its outline, he eliminates her, asking
is she something created for (or by) my mind’s eye to express
an inexplicable  . . . ?  
Express is underlined heavily, but she has gone away.

Week 12: The egg. That pink eraser has smudged the oval shell.
His chamois and fingers are tools of softness now. The edges
still thick with rubbery dust. Scuro; dark. Chiaro: light.
New words for the day.
Week 13:  The egg grows more opulent and cross-hatched,
its bottom like a nest in the reeds.

Notes on a visit to the museum to see Bruegel (1525-1569)
at the end of the term: Other than a few handwritten letters,
sketches, and his paintings, not much of him survives. No contacts.
No correspondences. The implicit nature of biography, I think, deletion.
Then somehow he gets the idea that there are few works by Bruegel
which one can look at seriously, without laughter.
Without irony, he wrote that down.

For the final project, he had the choice of that self-portrait (15x20)
with the tracing-paper overlay of a skull, or matting and framing
his favorite image of himself. Neither is present.  

There are several renderings of a skull.
The first, a profile, is weak-chinned and doubles as it sits on the mirror
beside a babyfood jar.

Then the semester is over, and he’s alone drawing randomly. Brief forays
to/attempts at Bussard Farm: Three trees. Under one a headless figure,
and weeks later a spidery pier with a boat tied to it, then scratched out.
Scrawled in cursive below it, Too Frustrating.

A few pages later I enter, using his book—may.2004. milepost 168.
His daughter (the name assigned to me)

listing birds        binoculars (x735):

wide-eyed vireo    that mimics

cowbird    lays eggs in other’s nests

catbird    a mocker

barn owl    repeats its who-who’s       two short
two long         diffidently

rufus towhee    drink-your-tea, drink-your-tea
rising out of the russian olive

song sparrow    the best of their kind caged and shipped     
from an island across the ocean    they did not travel well

and what of the one who liked whistling        better than words.