Martin Beck, Patriarchal Funk #4,
Mixed media on prepared paper, Best in Show, Juror Merit Award. For most of my adult life, I’ve had Ankylosing Spondylitis, or A.S., a systemic, inflammatory, and incurable form of arthritis characterized by stiffness and intense pain in one’s joints and connective tissues. The disease waxes and wanes; waxing is aptly called a flare. The result of these intermittent and unpredictable flares is permanent damage to the joints and tissues around them, bony growths, and in severe cases, fused vertebra – ankylosis – also called “bamboo spine.”
These flares, some lasting months, have had a direct effect on my work in terms of content and process. Standing or sitting at an easel for extended periods is no longer possible. I instead focus on drawing and painting from life in two to four hours long sessions with the model.
I started drawing from life at the end of 2014, mostly as a remedial exercise after the disease kept me from making art for about two years. As a result, I’ve done a lot of life drawing, and I’ve come to believe that the nude speaks most directly of the human condition. To study another’s face and form is an attempt to understand that person's essential humanity: their frailty and imperfection. My arthritic condition has made me sensitive to these qualities in others. I’ve also found that if you study anyone with the level of intensity my kind of figurative work involves, you see their beauty and strength as well.
Our bodies are road maps of our individual experiences. In terms of the model, part of that is their self-expression. Hairstyle, tattoos, piercings, body hair, or lack of, makeup or lack of are all clues to a unique individual. My work then presents an emphatic confirmation of personality, identity, gender, and a way to contemplate and celebrate the human form in all its variety.
Just as people are complex, the attempt to depict them involves many variables. I try to let the figure emerge from the ground and let the model’s presence inhabit the work. It is remarkable how palpably present a person is once you begin to bring them out on paper or canvas.
I often quote a fictional character, Philip Marlowe from “The Singing Detective,” who is the creation of a fictional writer experiencing a severe flare of Psoriatic Arthritis: “People want all solutions and no clues. What I want are all clues and no solutions."
Wanting clues without the closure of a solution reflects the openness of our lives. I want my work to show this through the study of the nude as something that uplifts our experience of being human. Mine is not prescriptive art but does perhaps demonstrate a yearning to express and overcome at least my own humanity.
The materials I use are fragile. The paper, pastel, and water media are supple and vulnerable. I work with the model in part because it is a collaboration between artist and model, and also because it allows accidents, errors, and sometimes, a fortuitous moment. As such, I am more concerned with the act of drawing than the finished piece.
The 4th-century philosopher Augustine of Hippo wrote of the nature of time that there is a “present of things present, a present of things past and a present of things future.” Working from life seems to capture this essential truth of our awareness of time.
These aspects of time are one source of my current fascination with the nude – to capture the artist and model in this fleeting moment and let evidence of that moment endure.