The Artist Speaks of the Gestures of Life
Remembering Professor Glen Buunken (1943 – 2013)
During the regular semesters, I took printmaking with Prof. Brunken. But, in the summer courses he would focus on drawing. It was in those intense early morning drawing classes that I would absorb life lessons and expand the core beliefs of my art philosophy. I listened to him teaching every day in that large drawing studio on the second floor of the spacious old building known as West Hall. We students stood at our easels hour after hour, day after day. Prof. Brunken once reminded me that “When the Muse comes, you better be standing at your easel.”
We did not have air conditioning but the wall of open windows was adequate. A slight breeze would waft across the large room; it was enough to keep us going as we labored at our easels, drawing from the live model. We stood in a circle around the model’s platform. The room had a well worn floor.from generations of art students who learned the rudiments of making art with various professors. As we struggled to find the forms and planes of the figure, we kept our eyes focused on the nude models who took a pose on the model’s platform. That platform became the center of the room and the apex of the world that connected us to our internal longings to find balance and purpose as artists. We held pieces of black charcoal sticks, worn down lead pencils, blocks of waxy crayons, and even brushes and paints as we slashed, swooped, smudged, and splattered the large sheets of drawing papers that were clipped onto the thick, heavy, drawing boards held upright on our tall metal easels.
After the four hours of drawing, my hands, arms, face, and clothing would be covered with the materials I had used for my drawings. It was so exciting and I often felt like a small child who was playing in the mud – joyous and forbidden. It seemed that for the first time in my life, I could get very dirty and I was breaking the rules – and it was all okay. I relished those summer days making drawings and feeling like I was part of something so special, there with my classmates, and Prof. Brunken.
We worked away at the drawings before us each day. Prof. Brunken would walk about the room. He stopped beside each of us, looked at what we were doing in our drawings, and made comments and suggestions. Often he would make a joke and laugh about what he saw on the page. And, we laughed with him. He had a sharp wit and a critical eye. His ability to focus in on the most minute bit of information that a student needed was uncanny.
Before I started going to the university, I had been a painter who was enchanted with the landscape and had been making paintings that would be called “painterly realism.” I painted every day once I started painting at the age of 36. I lived and breathed painting and art. Before I went to sleep at night, I would read from one of my art books and study the photographs of drawings and paintings. I visited art exhibitions and looked closely at each work that interested me, trying to learn from them and bring information and techniques into my own work. I had studied for six years taking private classes with an artist; and then with a teacher at a local art center.
All of this eventually led me to expand my art education and begin work on an art degree at the university. At the age of 42, I was now a nervous freshman student. I was surrounded in the classroom by young students who were the age of my own children. In fact, I had grandchildren, too! I tried not to be self-conscious or intimidated by their youth but to just keep my own sense of purpose in my mind. I was there to learn everything I could about everything I could study. I felt like a child who was on a merry-go-round and I was reaching out to capture the brass ring. It was the most exciting time of my life, to return to a classroom as an adult filled with desires and a passion to spend the rest of my life making art. It was as though the sky had opened above my head as I whirled around on that merry-go-round, reaching out into the future. The vast universe had opened up to me and I was learning to fly into the clouds with a brand new pair of wings.
Prof. Brunken was my advisor. He encouraged me to take courses in everything and particularly in the things I knew nothing about. I began this adventure into the studies of everything, with courses in Geology, Biology, and Sociology. I never found a course I did not like, and I never found a course that was “easy.” I put everything I had into each of the courses I had and each of those disciplines gave me new information that I could take back to my art.
I had a secret, hidden desire as I entered the university fine arts program.
My goal was to learn how to do abstract art. I had seen some abstract paintings in my gallery visits and I was swept away by the magic and depth of it. There was something so mysterious about abstract painting, and it pulled me into it. It gave me an emotional response like nothing else had done. I bought several books on this way of working and did a lot of experiments on my own before I started classes. Soon, my desire to make abstract art came to the forefront of my mind, and I began changing. I did abstract art in my dreams at night; during the days I struggled to find the way to learn how to do it in the classroom.
It was exciting and yet it was frightening to me. I had to leave my comfort zone and change my ways of thinking and working. Prof. Brunken would be the catalyst that would push me over the edge into this new consciousness and understanding of the world. Art making, passed from being a perceptual notion, to being conceptual. One morning Prof. Brunken paused during one of our little gatherings. He smiled broadly and said, “The more I think of scribbling, the more I like it!” He seemed to be a child again as he spoke to us about the joys of freedom of expression. He affirmed for us that we were able to be a child again, to scribble. This was the message of the day. It was all okay and I was free to play and enjoy the physical activity of drawing with a passion.
From time to time throughout the morning sessions, we would take breaks from our work. Often, we would gather around Prof. Brunken. He would laugh and talk with us about making art; his own creative life journey; his views on drawing; and even his views on time and place. He would take some of our drawings and lay them out, one by one as he pointed out what was “working” in that drawing and why it was important. He taught by emphasizing the positive things he saw. And, it was interesting now that I look back on it because it did not matter if you were an art major at all. Each student was treated the same and each had his full attention.
One of the things we did every day on our own after class was over was to make many pages of rapid and small drawings in our sketchbook. They were called “gesture drawings” I would soon learn. We had been instructed to fill pages of our sketchbooks with those little drawings. There would be about 20 or more on a single page and we used drawing pencils or black ink pens to do them. When he gathered our sketchbooks and went through them, he would make a little asterisk mark beside the ones that he thought were the best ones. It was very affirming to look through our books after he gave them back to us and find a few of those little stars beside one of our “gestures.”
As the days went by, my understanding of the gestures of life grew. We made gesture drawings as homework; we made gesture drawing on the very large sheets of drawing papers in class. We learned to look into the surface of a figure; quickly assess the gesture that was creating what we were looking at when a person walked past us. We saw gestures at a distance; we saw gestures in the trees; in flowers blowing in a field; a person walking far away down the busy street; the furniture in the art studio. “Everything in our world holds a gesture,” he said. That gesture is the moving, living, life form of the thing we are viewing. It is what gives things life, movement, and stability.
Many years later, when I became an art professor, my students would learn all about gestures, too. We practiced looking for gestures in our classroom, in our drawings, sculptures, fiber arts, and in our paintings.
On one occasion, I observed Prof. Brunken as he was judging an art exhibition. He looked at a sculpture and said,
This person needs to take some drawing classes. This sculpture has a lack of understanding of structure. It looks like the artist does not know how to draw.
He could look at an art work and know if a person had studied drawing and understood gesture. We learned how to do that ourselves through being around him in the classroom and in our discussions together as he looked at our drawings.
I have observed everything in life through the lens of gesture that I began to develop as an eager student. After school days were over for me, I carried a sketchbook on all my travels. In those books I made gestures of the world I was experiencing. I wrote poems and reflections, and did sketches every day as I traveled and taught classes to my own students. As an art professor, I passed down the teachings I had learned in Prof. Brunken’s classrooms during those long ago hot summer mornings.
Just a few days ago as I traveled by car with my daughter, I spoke to her about gestures and she began to see them as we traveled down the highway together. She is a self-taught artist, and I know that once she begins to see gestures her own art will grow, too. One is never the same after we begin to see gestures.
The smallest things in our daily life begin to dance before our eyes when we look more closely at any movement. Begin to think about what is beneath the surface and see the spirit of the thing there; the movement and the embrace of the inner core of all of life present and visible to us as we stand in awe while looking at someone or some thing. A gesture sends a visual signal to an onlooker. While we engage in the various movements and acts of life, every moment of every day, we are typically unaware of the message that an onlooker is getting by watching us.
Many of our actions are basically non-social, having to do with problems of personal body care, body comfort and body transportation; we clean and groom ourselves with a variety of scratchings, rubbings and wipings; we cough, yawn and stretch our limbs; we eat and drink; we prop ourselves up in restful postures, folding our arms and crossing our legs; we sit, stand, squat and recline, in a whole range of different positions; we crawl, walk and run in varying gaits and styles. But although we do these things for our own benefit, we are not always unaccompanied when we do them. Our companions learn a great deal about us from these ‘personal’ actions – not merely that we are scratching because we itch or that we are running because we are late, but also, from the way we do them, what kind of personalities we possess and what mood we are in at the time.” (From Manwatching by Desmond Morris.)
We are so accustomed to taking a quick glance at everything and only seeing the surface of everything. Seeing requires more time. Seeing is a skill that has to be practiced and learned and it takes a lot of deliberate time to do it. Think of all the many images your eyes view every day as they rapidly flash before you. There are so many you cannot even see them because seeing comes slowly and it comes in layers. Seeing requires intention.
One day after Prof. Brunken had looked through my latest group of gestures in my sketchbook he turned to look at me and he said,
“Lynda, you need to look at this gesture drawing until you begin to realize it is beautiful. In fact, cut this one out of your sketchbook and put it in a frame. Put it in a place where you can see it. Look at it often. Keep looking at it until you understand that it is beautiful. For many years that framed gesture drawing had a prominent place in my home.
Today, I needed to write an artist statement about my own art. My statement will be included in an exhibition I will be doing at a museum gallery next spring. I thought about Prof. Brunken, and I began to realize that what I need to focus on in my statement is the central theme of everything I do. It is the gesture that is at the core of it all.
You can find additional information on “Gesture” at: