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Santa Fe Artists Share a Passion at Their Weekly Sessions

For 40-odd years, a group of Santa Fe artists has met weekly to capture "the magnificent subject." Incubated within the Museum of Fine Arts in the '60s, the John Sloan Drawing Group was named for the famed modernist who spent about 30 summers here.
Former MFA director emeritus Bob Ewing played midwife, moving the group to various private studios, then nurturing it into the College of Santa Fe about 10 years ago.
"When I left the museum, no one wanted to take it over, so I took it with me," said Ewing, who concentrates on figure drawing in colored pencil. "When John Sloan was here, there was a group of artists that met together, so we did it in his memory."
Drawing groups date at least to the Renaissance, if not earlier, said Margaret Bullock, curator at the Harwood Museum of Art/University of New Mexico in Taos.
"There's certainly that tradition— that was where you started, that you learn how to draw and you learn how to draw from your master, whether it's Da Vinci or not," she said. Drawing with your peers became an academic tradition by the 19th century, with artists progressing from still lifes to live models. "For many artists of the 20th century, it's a chance to get together and talk about their work," Bullock said. The artists polish their skills and give and receive feedback.

In Santa Fe, about 15 artists meet in a studio behind Tipton Hall for three hours every Friday, rotating the cost of the model. Membership is by invitation-only; openings are rare. CSF art students sometimes drop in for mentoring and encouragement. The group shows their work together when the urge strikes them— usually every two years. Styles range from clean line drawings to pastels contouring every curve. The focus is support, rather than competition; the artists attend each other's openings.
"Somebody said to me, 'What are the rules?' '' Ewing said. "There are no rules."
The group is one of about four meeting in Santa Fe regularly.
The steady hum of a heater keeps the stark studio a toasty 83 degrees for the comfort of the model, its rhythm occasionally punctuated by the buzz of artist Michael Bergt's pencil sharpener. Four spotlights focus on the nude model, who twists and turns herself into a new pose with yogic limberness every 5, 10 or 15 minutes. At 11 a.m., she remains immobile for an hour. Easels and boarded "drawing horses" circle the square white stand draped with a teal bath towel. Plastic tackle boxes and shortbread tins cradle pencils, pastels and slender stalks of charcoal.

Staying in practice
Painter Geoffrey Laurence takes an ambidextrous approach to charcoal and pastel, his blackened fingers testament to his dual skills as he captures steep contrasts in shadows and light. Laurence shows his work at LewAllen Contemporary. He likens drawing to a musician's scales.
"Artists have to draw all the time," he said. "Rembrandt was sketching constantly. It's like exercise. If I don't draw for three weeks, it starts to go. It's just like a muscle."
He taught himself to work with both hands, insisting each appendage possesses its own character.
"The left is more female; the right is more male," Laurence said. "The left is curvilinear, the right is more linear. Why walk around with this one thing that's hanging down there like a dead limb? We don't use one foot."

A painter who shows at Addison Arts, Siddiq Khan isolates various body parts from each pose onto a single piece of drawing paper, sometimes compiling as many as eight images on a single page.
"Your eye moves from one to the other," he said.
Sometimes he takes them home, cuts them out individually and places them on a canvas "so they become like an abstract painting."
"For me, it's like a discipline," he continued.
Khan is the baker of the group, bringing brownies, muffins or sweet breads to fuel break times.

'Mad hatcher'
Figure painter Michael Bergt jokingly calls himself "the mad hatcher" for the crosshatching detail that shades and shadows the hollows of his figures.
"It enables me to get around the form better— to delineate the volume," he explained.
"For me, it's both practice and practical," he said of the drawing group. "Quite often, a drawing will turn into a long pose sketch and then a painting."
A former cartoonist and illustrator for Esquire and Playboy, Bill Murphy has been known to burst into show tunes and Irish ditties to lighten up a serious round of sketching.
"I got the set of her mouth, which makes me very happy," he said, glancing down at his pencil sketch of the model's face.
He cares more about capturing some vital essence of the model than an exact likeness.
"Rather than anatomical, it's the personality."
Murphy prefers to draw in the company of his colleagues rather than in isolation.
"It's the same reason why I don't watch movies at home— I go to the theater," he said. "The shared experience makes it more enjoyable. You talk about the curve of a line. It's more fulfulling.

Big names
Although the group has boasted such art luminaries as Ford Ruthling, Forrest Moses, Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant, its pedigree never included the great co-founder of the Ashcan School, although legends describe Sloan and his colleagues sketching in the basement of the Palace of the Governors.
"(Museum of Fine Arts founding director Edgar L.) Hewitt would let visiting artists use studio space in the Palace," said Josepth Traugott, MFA curator of 20th century art. "I don't know of any records that confirm more than the romantic story."
"It's just a very good thing to do. It keeps the instrument working. And drawing the human figure is the most difficult thing to do. I call the figure 'The Magnificent Subject' ."



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