Life Drawing Studio, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Originally published at ICA.

“Would you like to draw?”It’s noon on a bright spring Saturday. Ingrid is wearing a black-and-white puppy Cerberus t-shirt with a short navy blue artist’s apron over her jeans. Zippy with excitement, she stands in ICA’s lobby welcoming every visitor.“This is drawing-all-over ICA day!” she explains. “We’ve got a still life set up on the ramp, we’re sketching art in Ruffneck Constructivists and drawing with light in the auditorium.”Organized by artist Beverly Semmes, this ICA@50 program is a response to the ICA exhibition Drawings: The Pluralist Decade (1980), which also represented the United States at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Performance artists Vito Acconci and Laurie Anderson were in the show, alongside Christo and dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown. In keeping with this variety, Life Drawing Studio is an expansive day of (almost) anything-goes drawing. The sole rules: pencils only, and don’t lean on the walls. It’s still early, but already a group of three generations of women are crowding through the door. Grace hands them large plywood drawing boards, pencils and graphite sticks in a range of softnesses, brightly colored pencil sharpeners, and brown paper bags for capturing shavings and stray bits of eraser. Beverly sets them to drawing Kendell Geers’s glass and steel sculpture, Stripped Bare, in the exhibition Ruffneck Constructivists in the first floor gallery. A teenage girl with long, glossy black hair holds her drawing board against her waist as she traces the lines of the shattered glass in green and blue pencil.Semmes, who had her first museum solo show at ICA and has taught college-level drawing for years, is costumed for visibility in a dress designed by artist Ann Agee. She has invited four artists to act as roving instructors alongside her: Anthony Campuzano, Jeffrey Gibson, Rune Olsen, and Sheila Pepe. All wear calf-length blue aprons—”so that they know who we are,“ explains Beverly.Our models, Kendra Greaves and Lynn Lunney, are true performers. Athletic, they work at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and have brought with them an array of brightly patterned clothes—flowery 1950s-style dresses in bright red and electric blue; yellow-and-orange harem pants—allowing for costume changes throughout the day.Rune sets up his activity—drawing with light—in the darkened auditorium, his iPhone clipped to a tripod. Inspired by Picasso’s drawings made with light on a long-exposure film that were published in LIFE Magazine in 1949, Rune offers people a handheld nightlight to “draw” with. As a draw-er makes fleeting shapes in light by moving around in front of the iPhone’s camera, the app LongExpo captures the intertwined glowing pathways as a still image.Next, in the dimly lit auditorium, Kendra and Lynn perform short acrobatic poses. People sit in a circle around them, focused, requesting encores of the most interesting positions.“How about trying something more intertwined, so we can’t tell which body parts belong to which model?” Rune proposes.That’s a real drawing challenge. It forces you to pay exacting attention to the relationships between angles and curves instead of merely approximating “leg” or “torso”-type shapes. Jeffrey’s drawings expertly combine thick and thin, fast and slow marks, which animate the bodies on the page.After a picnic lunch of falafel, hummus, pickled red cabbage, and grape leaves for all, we are refreshed and ready to start drawing again on ICA’s terrace. The models are in everyday costume now, the draw-ers seated on benches. Kendra wears brown boots and a grey hoodie, a blue gingham bow in her hair. She looks serious, grounded. I’m amazed she can keep so still.Beverly is instructing us in the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse drawing. First you concertina a piece of paper into multiple horizontal sections. Then you draw the top section (i.e., the model’s head) and fold it back so that it’s hidden from view. Then you pass the paper to your neighbor, who draws the next section (the torso) without looking at what you drew. They then fold their contribution back and pass the paper on. And so on.“Can someone do the last quarter of my drawing?” Beverly asks.A twenty-something Penn student obliges.“I got to the bottom and there wasn’t really room for legs,” Ingrid laughs. She holds up an Exquisite Corpse drawing of Lynn, who—thanks to our Chief Curator’s imagination—appears to stand in a geometrical flower pot. The drawing reminds me of three-time ICA exhibitor Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison (Woman House) series of paintings and etchings.Throughout the day, I take iPhone snaps of all kinds of drawings for a virtual pinup on ICA’s Instagram feed, including: a carefully contoured profile of one of the models; a bold portrait of William’s dog Francie by Sarah McEneaney; and an angular architectural study of the museum itself. While photographing some gorgeous, rapid-fire sketches of the two models intertwined, I ask their creator if she is an artist.“Kind of,” she says shyly.Her friend squeezes her arm. “Of course you are.”“I’m a beginner artist,” she concedes. “I’m taking life drawing classes at Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philly—my instructor there let us know about this drawing day.”She and her friend stay all day, until the last visitors straggle away and Grace collects their drawing boards.“When’s the next drawing day?” someone asks.”Give it another fifty years,” Ingrid laughs.I vote sooner.—View the virtual pinup, read more about Life Drawing Studio, and find out about upcoming ICA@50 programs.