Photo: Haley McKey
Photo: Haley McKey

Back To The Figure: A Classic Art Tradition Sees New Life

The figure in art is seeing a renaissance.

Contemporary artists are taking a fresh approach to the human form, and their work is readily seen on Instagram and other social media platforms. Depictions of the figure, and art in general, are more accessible than ever.

Artists like Elly Smallwood and Chloe Wise use the body to explore intense emotions or make playful cultural commentary. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the two artists commissioned to paint the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, are redefining the genre by infusing their subjects with meaning far beyond a simple likeness.

“I think there’s a certain novelty there; it’s something that has been ignored for so long,” says Will Fleishell, who runs the open drawing sessions at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Eastern Market. “Artists are looking back 100 years or so and saying, ‘We’ve lost something.’”

That newfound respect for figurative art is reflected in new figure drawing events around the city, bringing people together to study one of art’s greatest icons: the human being. It’s a way to meet people and build community while doing something creative, and it’s bringing in diverse crowds.

“I am always amazed at the variety of types of people who show up: professors, diplomats, doctors, students, moms, designers,” says DC-based event creator, figure model and On Tap contributing writer Courtney Sexton. “Art really is a great equalizer.”

She holds bimonthly figure drawing events for all skill levels at Park View hotspot Colony Club. Attendees draw the model, but also socialize during breaks and often hang around to talk at the bar after the session is over. Sexton says the location and friendly atmosphere are big parts of what keeps people coming back.

“There is often live jazz music drifting up the stairs and people are free to talk or not, drink or not – just enjoy the company and the catharsis that art can provide,” she says.

It’s a refreshing break from the hectic news cycle and high-pressure jobs that dominate the lives of many in the area. Fleishell, a professional artist with a deep knowledge of art history, says such a laidback approach isn’t actually a new concept.

“A number of the best portrait painters in history were real raconteurs, and they would engage their subject and try to get people out of their shells a little bit,” he says.

Fleishell is friends with many of the artists who come to his sessions and the models who pose for them.

“I think artists should be able to feel freer with themselves and have a little more fun,” says figure model and photographer Sheba Amante. “As a model, I get a lot of my energy from the group vibe, just as the artists get a lot of their energy from the models posing.”

Amante started working with artists and posing for classes and drawing groups in the area in 2010.

“I have approached my modeling work with the same compulsion and drive to create something new as I have with my own art,” she says.

She has seen several changes in DC’s figure modeling community over the past eight years, including the loss of some established figure drawing classes in the area.

“Several of the area’s universities have reduced or altogether removed life drawing and figurative art courses from their curriculum,” she says. “I’ve also noticed a handful of groups have shut down as artists lose their studios and such spaces in the DC area become more expensive. In the wake of these more public drawing groups dispersing, many artists have taken to hiring models on their own or in smaller, more intimate groups of friends.”

DC resident Matt Smith did just that when the popular drawing group Washington Drawing Center disbanded in 2016. He began hosting drawing sessions in his apartment with a new figure model every month, and the project is still going strong.

“I think people like the relaxed, informal environment we’ve cultivated,” Smith says. “We’ve grown through word-of-mouth so most of us are friends, or friends of friends. Some life drawing sessions feel like you’re taking a standardized test; no one talks, and it feels very anonymous.”

Artist and curator Jalila Williams’ event series Artist Evolve is anything but a standardized test. For her past few events, she set up models wearing expressive body paint under colorful lights and included food, live DJs and vendors selling handmade goods. She says that even if they don’t consider themselves artists, attendees can feel comfortable trying it out.

“You’re inspired by watching everyone else, so you might take your phone and take a few visual shots or ask for a sheet of paper and pencil, and folks are always willing to share,” she says.

It also facilitates networking, according to Williams.

“Vendors build their clientele by meeting interested buyers of their product, having a caterer allows people to give their food a try, and models, photographers and artists all get to meet each other.”

Williams kicked off her Artist Evolve event series in 2015 at music and art space Mousai House in the Union Arts building that used to stand at 411 New York Ave. Sadly, the building was sold to developers and is in the process of being converted into a boutique hotel. Williams has held events since then in other venues and hopes to do more in the future.

“In terms of the overall DC art community, it’s definitely booming,” she says. “There’s so much potential here and I hope that I continue to build a platform for artists to try something new.”

Amante also has a positive view of how the DC art community may evolve with respect to figure drawing.

“I see drawing groups in the DC area becoming more diversified as more people organize their own groups, and word gets around that art and drawing can be a fun social event for groups of friends to bond over. I hope to see groups be more experimental with the types of poses and even the models that they invite to pose for them.”

She notes the importance of increasing inclusivity for models.

“I’d love to see more inclusion of nonwhite skin tones and a wider range of body types and gender identities in the figure art created locally.”

So what is it about the figure itself that’s so engaging?

“I think figure drawing forces you to be more present,” Smith says. “It is difficult for the model to hold a pose, so as an artist, you recognize that time is precious. It forces you to concentrate in the moment.”

Right now, figure drawing sessions in DC are giving people the opportunity to both build new skills and make new connections. The human form may continue its resurgence in the larger art world, or it may fall out of favor again. But the power of art to bring people together will never lose its attraction. It’s something to be celebrated and encouraged, Fleishell says.

“Artists are part of society, and we have to build that society.”

Learn more about Fleishell’s Capitol Hill Arts Workshop classes at www.chaw.org and Sexton’s Colony Club classes at www.colonyclubdc.com, and follow Williams on Instagram at @bohemianfootprints for updates on future Artist Evolve events.

For other drawing classes around the city, check out the following spots:

Life drawing classes at Hillyer Art Space: 9 Hillyer Ct. NW, DC; www.athillyer.org
Open drawing sessions at McLean Project for the Arts: 1446 Chain Bridge Rd. McLean, VA; www.mpaart.org
Weekend Art Group classes at Montgomery College Rockville: 51 Mannakee St. Rockville, MD; cms.montgomerycollege.edu
The Art League drawing classes at Torpedo Factory Art Center: 105 N Union St. Alexandria, VA; www.theartleague.org

mm

Haley McKey

Haley McKey is an artist and friend to the wild living and working in the DMV. As an area native, she has seen DC grow and evolve over the course of her life. She loves writing about art, music, animals and our environment, especially the city's dedication to conserving wildlife habitat. When she's not writing or working, she's painting and drawing. She loves a sour cocktail.