When I was in Clermont-Ferrand, I spent my Thursday afternoons in a drawing class. I drew copies of pictures I found in magazines and in the newspaper under the watchful eye of my drawing teacher. He often came up behind me and peered over my shoulder. I would stop drawing, nervous about what he might say. He would scold me for having paused my pencil. “I want to see the way you draw,” he would say. And then he would criticize what I’d drawn and either correct it with his own pencil or take mine out of my hand.
I loved my drawing class. I liked flipping through magazines to find my pictures, liked the smell of the drawing room, and liked my drawing teacher who criticized my every pencil-stroke. The other students, though, were my favorite. Sometimes they asked me questions, but I mostly listened to them talk to each other while they drew. I absorbed French phrases through their quiet conversations and though I rarely participated, the other students made me feel French by association.
When I came to South Carolina, I wanted to find something like my drawing class in Clermont-Ferrand. I wanted to listen to people talk and spend a few hours a week on something hypnotic and calming like drawing. I wasn’t actively seeking it, but when I passed a sign for “Nature Drawing and Journaling for Beginners” on my way home from the coffee shop one day, I was sure I’d found my “thing.” I looked it up when I got home and even called Hatcher Garden to find out more.
Though I was at first disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to afford the six-week course, my parents swept in and offered it as a Christmas present. I was thrilled and took a trip to Hatcher Garden the next day to sign up.
My nature drawing and journaling class ends today. On the first day, six weeks ago, I was nervous. I didn’t know what the class would be like, who would sign up to take it, whether or not it would live up to its French predecessor. I walked into the Hatcher Garden boardroom and was greeted by smiling, southern women. They welcomed me and treated me the same way as my classmates had in Clermont-Ferrand–with some curiosity and warm conversation.
Helen Correll, our teacher, published a book of nature drawing and journaling at Hub City a few years ago, and it’s all done in pen and watercolor. I look at it sometimes as I walk through the bookshop. When she offered to teach me to draw with little pens, I jumped. The pencils I had been using always smeared and smudged. My drawing teacher in France used to take pictures of me with graphite on my nose and cheeks. He’d parade his cell phone around the room to make sure everyone got a look of the silly, messy American girl. With pen, though, no smears. All the lines are fine and clear.
This weekend, Rohitha and I took a drive to Caesar’s Head State Park. We drove on roads that curved and dipped past baptist churches that grew smaller as the mountains grew taller. We passed trucks and stands for boiled peanuts and little antique shops. From the observation deck at Caesar’s Head, we were breathless. It was beautiful.
Rohitha and I walked the Raven’s Cliff Falls Trail. At the end, we were promised a gorge thick with trees and a tiered waterfall. We followed the swipes of red paint on trunks and branches. For a while, we didn’t see anyone. The path sloped and shrunk. It was like falling into a tunnel of leaves and twigs. I loved it. Rohitha felt claustrophobic.
We reached the waterfall and found families with dogs and babies looking out over the gorge. We ate peanut butter sandwiches before turning around to follow more red paint back to our car.
I like to think we’d have taken this hike and others like it whether I’d signed up for nature drawing and journaling or not. I like to think Rohitha and I would have been ready to explore the mountains and trails around us. But I do think my drawing class has encouraged our outings. I’ve wanted to do my homework–to walk and be outside, drawing and listening and watching, as Helen suggests.
It’s all worked together, this drawing class and living somewhere new. As I started with pens last week, Helen and the other women talked about my trip to France for my residency. “You can take pens and watercolors in a little travel kit,” they said. I promised to draw and journal and send postcards. Helen says drawings from travels are better than souvenirs and I think she’s probably right.
Now, as I move around South Carolina and Michigan and France and elsewhere, I’ll have a little notebook full of the leaves and bugs and flowers I’ve seen. This class is different from the one I took in Clermont-Ferrand, but it’s one I’ll be able to take with me.