Off the beat: Figures and self-fulfillment

I have always been enamored of the human body and all that makes us human. It’s the variation in the human experience that intrigues me. It’s the stories we yearn to tell, the values we have fought to keep or learned to let go and the insights we have gained from our individual experiences — which I believe the human body physically encompasses. And I find that beautiful.

I did not fully realize the extent of my appreciation for the human form until last spring, when I attended figure-drawing sessions held at Kroeber Hall that I had found out about through a friend who had similar passions. Open to the public for $2 to $4, these group sessions gathered every Friday at 6:30 p.m. for the simple act of appreciating the human figure and translating that appreciation through any artistic medium of choice. I would sit myself down amid an orchestra of artists ranging from performers within the practice of art major to composers motivated by sheer recreation like myself to aged and knowledgeable Berkeley artisans.

We would all wait patiently with modest eyes for the model to conduct his or her own unveiling, and then the gradual five- to 20-minute increments would orchestrate themselves in silence. With my instrument of choice — either a piece of charcoal or a set of complementary prismacolors — I would compose gestural studies and candid illustrations in my large, red sketchbook of the all-exposed, natural human body.

With every detailed curve and delicate arch of the body, my charcoal would speak intricacies my mind could not easily translate into words or speech. It was as though I were directly reading the narratives of these models with my eyes and transposing their stories into pages upon pages of gestural literature. And they, in turn, were indirectly contributing to a chapter in my story, affirming that this recreational tendency of mine was not one to be ashamed of, censored or suppressed.

The bodies towering center-stage in that classroom, as well as the surrounding eyes perceiving them, all had a story to tell. They all shared a history of dissimilar experiences that led them to stand confidently erect or sit self-assuredly free, just as I was led to that very time and place and circumstance, unapologetic in what came naturally to me.

Figure drawing became a pleasure of mine that I felt no guilt toward — and I indulged in it, fully and intentionally. It became an outlet in which I could observe and explore innate, physical complexities inherent to the human body that I was initially forbidden as an adolescent to acknowledge. It became the source of my own self-actualization, awakening me to the idea that we as humans were naturally designed to be and act as freely as we make possible.

I had not always been this way. I was born into a strictly conservative and traditionally Catholic family. I was raised with an infinite set of values to keep, an exact definition of morality to live by, as well as marred conceptions of virtues to practice and vices to pay heed to. I am the middle of three daughters and a youngest son of Filipino immigrants who imparted to us a cultural collection of stringent gender expectations, familial responsibilities and obligations, and heavily yet humbly outlined notions of respect. And yet, while this upbringing sketched safe, secure and sedentary lives that our parents had planned for us, our American-bred environment gave us the means of exploring otherwise.

Instead of concealing what one naturally feels inclined to do, like allowing the naked self to be read by and exposed to others — or even allowing oneself to realize that there is nothing inherently sinful with the former — I learned to embrace it.

My figural framework became an exhibition of my own self, showcasing the nakedness of beings similar in shape and size and design like you and me. We physically embody a collection of tangential displays of past experiences and future ambitions, all in a curated gallery of the self. The human condition, in both its physical form and mental capacity, is thus a multifaceted work of art that calls for celebration.

What makes this exposing of oneself ring so powerful and true in figure drawing is the actual openness and willingness in vulnerability of the actor before an audience. Self-expression becomes more than just self-fulfillment. It inspires. Like the model positioning his or her self in the center of the room to be seen and observed by surrounding artists, here I present my introverted self in my writing to be read and understood by beings such as your self so that you, too, will be inspired.

Contact Aleli Balaguer at [email protected]