Rachel Deane 16 PT talks about work in progress with Senior Critic Gwen Strahle.
After two weeks of daily 12-hour studios, Senior Critic Gwen Strahle is seeing signs of fatigue and frustration in many of the 26 students participating in her popular Drawing Marathon. So she pointedly intervenes to remind anyone “getting too fussy” about their giant drawing-in-progress to “chamois it out” or start fresh. “It wouldn’t be a bad thing to do,” she advises.
Considering the 100+ hours students have already invested in this intensive studio, Strahle’s matter-of-fact announcement is calmly reassuring. It’s also a reminder of one of the central tenets of the studio, says grad student Melissa Weiss MFA 18 GD. “There is definitely an element of relinquishing control” – an expectation to “not treat the work with a kind of preciousness,” she says. “I think that’s not for everyone, but it’s been invaluable for me.”
Inspired by marathons taught at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture, Strahle began RISD’s annual Wintersession Drawing Marathon in 2004. Chelsea Gibson 06 PT/MFA 10 PT, a transfer student with experience in the NYSS marathon, proved to be “an excellent TA” that first year, the long-time Experimental and Foundation Studies teacher says, since she could totally relate to what RISD students were going through.
For the first two weeks of the Wintersession studio, students are immersed in “an intense, extended focus on drawing,” working every day from 9 am to 9 pm. Strahle fills the space on the top floor of the Waterman Building with flora and fauna from the Nature Lab and other objects that she ties together with yards of cloth, creating a cohesive drawing tableau for students to reference as they make large-scale charcoal drawings on 5 x 6-foot paper.
“The setup is like a trap – a web,” says Strahle. Students “can fall into the seduction of wanting to draw a beautiful swan, without thinking about anything else. But the setup is also designed to merge the object into the whole.” To get students thinking expansively about the context objects exist in, she encourages them to chamois their drawings regularly, leaving a residue of dark and light tones that become the artist’s “drawing world.”
As first-year student William Hua 19 EFS elaborates, this process helps him to establish the tone of a perceptual drawing first and then visually “carve the objects into existence” – adding and subtracting tones to help them surface from the background. Since he plans to major in Industrial Design, the Foundation student says he elected Drawing Marathon to solidify his 2D skills before transitioning to a practice of 3D making.
Exhausting but invigorating
After the first two weeks of marathon days, the studio moves to a more typical Wintersession schedule with artists building a body of work based on their own choice of subject matter and materials. “This can be as challenging as the first two weeks,” Strahle points out. “Students have to motivate themselves.”
Interestingly, many students actually choose to stick with the rigors of 12-hour days in the studio, happy for the opportunity to immerse themselves in drawing. For Weiss, who majored in English at Pomona College before working for five years in the environmental nonprofit sector, Drawing Marathon is expediting her efforts to catch up on the core experiences of a formal art and design education. And not only has she seen her skills improve in a few short weeks, she has also discovered an amazing passion for drawing.
“I didn’t realize until now that I love to draw,” Weiss says. “And outside the classroom I’m noticing light and tone in new ways. It’s a totally different way of seeing things.” Though confident that she’ll apply this studio experience to her graphic design practice, she admits, “that’s less important than just getting this as part of my art education.”
Over the years Drawing Marathon has proven to make such a profound impact on students that past participants like Victoria Choi 18 PT are thrilled to be invited back as teaching assistants. “There is no better word to describe the experience than ‘life-changing,’” she gushes. “It teaches you what RISD expects from you. After I took it my first Wintersession, I felt like I was really at RISD.”
Though Drawing Marathon is definitely draining, it’s also liberating, says Rachel Deane 16 PT. “A lot of times when you’re that tired, your work takes form in a way you wouldn’t expect because you’re not actively thinking about it as much” – which, of course, leads to happy accidents and creative epiphanies.
Besides, “once you’re here and going you don’t feel the exhaustion as much. It’s really only trying to get here and then walking home at the end of the night that's terrible,” Deane laughs. “You crash as soon as you get home.”
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