table of contents

In Dreams Begins Responsibility

“In dreams begins responsibility” — attributed by W. B. Yeats to an “old play.” Yeats used this quote as the epigraph to his 1914 volume of poems titled “Responsibilities”

It wasn’t until I actually did the thing that I had always dreamed of doing, that I finally figured out what that thing was. For years I fantasized scenarios that had little to do with what I wanted to do in the first place.

I imagined myself in a large, nondescript space. Against a wall to one side of the space I brewed coffee in the morning and prepared soup in a Crock Pot later in the day. My mind called forth many imaginary artists to share my dream, nondescript artists sharing my nondescript space. Maybe there was a platform on which models would eventually take poses at some point, but I never conjured up any imaginary models in my fantasies. I was always cooking. The Crock Pot and the coffee machine were the only things that were clearly discernible. The events that unfolded in one scenario were the cutting up and adding of ingredients to my afternoon soup: onions, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, parsnips and beans; and, in the other scenario, the placing out of a creamer and a sugar bowl next to the coffee machine. Of course, when my dream came true, there were no Crock Pots, no coffee machines, no creamers or sugar bowls anywhere to be seen.

My dream project took on form early in 1992 after I left a part-time job as a figure-drawing instructor and advisor in the Department of Illustration at Parsons School of Design on 13th Street in New York City. I was lucky to have had modestly prestigious employment even as a lowly adjunct, and I did everything I could to hold on to the job for nine years. Eventually, humiliations at the hands of administrators took all the value out of the job. I couldn’t continue to put my heart and soul into teaching and advising at Parsons after being denied the basic perquisite of a tuition transfer to my youngest child. A private hearing with the vice-provost in her office convinced me that I must be on a list of dispensable ageing instructors who had not achieved international acclaim and who had supported the effort to create a union, and therefore must be got rid of. I resigned.

When I asked the Dean how I could resign, he said that I could quit with a hand-written note of resignation effective December 31, 1991. I composed and penned the note.

I had been sighing and sobbing off and on for a week, but at the moment that I gave the note to the Dean’s secretary, my tears stopped and I was filled with joy, a feeling not unlike the feeling Beethoven expressed when he wrote the last movement of his ninth symphony.

“I just quit,” I said excitedly to the first friend that I saw.

“What? You quit? What will you do now?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”

“You are such a good teacher,” my friend said. “You really should teach somewhere else.”

Then, all of a sudden, I remembered the thing that I had always wanted to do. I remembered my fantasies, the Crock Pot, the coffee machine, the nondescript artists, the carrots and the creamer. I could open a figure-drawing studio. “That’s what I will do,” I said to myself.

While I taught at Parsons I had a small painting studio on the tenth floor of 225 Lafayette. When I decided to open a figure-drawing studio, I took a larger space in the same building on the seventh floor for $1,600 a month.

While it was important for me to define the nature of my dream project to myself, which I did as the project unfolded, it was more important to find ways to keep my dream going after I had started it. The most difficult task of all, survival, evolved daily. Informed by interactions with hundreds of artists and students, I had to adjust my thoughts constantly. I compromised often, I was quiet and alert most of the time, but loud and hostile other times. I feigned anger at times, gave in reluctantly when I had to, and, most importantly, I shed any arrogance left over from my youth. I lost all sense of entitlement. Slowly I realized that I was the servant of my business and that I could expect to pay dearly if I ever made a misstep. I continued to make mistakes. When I could, I learned from them.

The rent was too high. After two years at 225 Lafayette, I moved the studio into the cellar of the building across the street, 226 Lafayette, paying $900 a month. I remained there for 23 years. I would still be there now, but the owners had something else in mind, and in September, 2015, they declined to renew my lease. Fortunately, Richard Ogust, the owner of 293 Broome, was looking for artists to share space in his building, so I moved the studio eight blocks away. to that part of Broome Street that is in Chinatown, east of SoHo and Little Italy.

While I never conjured up any imaginary models when I dreamed of someday having a figure drawing studio, it turns out that the individuals who model for me have become the most solid and important realities of my day-to-day life as I manage the studio. There is an abundant source of fascinating figure models in New York City. Over the years I have tried to stay professional and to avoid attachments to the models, but it is impossible, and I find myself engaged, respecting their work deeply. As I look over the images that I drew of live models during the past 25 years, I am thrilled to remember them and to appreciate once again each model's uniqueness.

The artists who draw at Spring Studio are, in general, respectful and quiet, but not at all nondescript as I had imagined them to be in my fantasies. Like the models, each artist is unique and fascinating in his own way. There again, bonds form that go beyond professionalism, and my heart is engaged. It is precious to me that many artists who drew with me twenty-five years ago still draw at the studio regularly. When I had a stroke in January of this year, they and a few others, more recent arrivals, kept the studio running until I could get back to work.

Artists who have left town visit when they are in town, and there are always new artists from Canada, Europe, Australia, South and Central America, Africa, and Asia attending the drawing sessions. Because it is a drop-in studio, many foreigners come to draw whenever they come to New York City.

I didn’t plan for my business to survive all these years. I have no idea how i managed to keep the studio going, but I am sure that I wasn't alone on my path, that there were countless others who love to draw who were accompanying me. I am both surprised and pleased that Spring Studio is alive and well in Chinatown today.

copyright © 2017 Minerva Durham