WATERLOO | Artists Priscilla Steele and Thomas C. Jackson have several things in common: A shared pursuit, a seriousness of mind about creating art and a passion for human figure drawing.
In twice-a-week sessions for the past five years, Steele and Jackson have been drawing together with other artists using models. Each has amassed a substantial number of drawings and studies based on the human figure, but disparate in medium, style and expression.
Differences in these bodies of work create a visual exchange or “Dialog Human” that is the subject of an exhibition at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. The show runs through June 29 in the Forsberg Riverside Galleries.
Artist Henri Matisse once said that what interested him most is “neither still life nor landscape: it is the human figure.” Modern dance choreographer Martha Graham noted “the body never lies.” In all its frailties, vulnerabilities, strength, beauty and awkwardness, the human figure is both extraordinary and mundane.
Steele says drawing the human figure is the most demanding art “because as humans, we recognize any irregularity in another human … we identify with the pathos of the human figure.
“It is not only a source of endless fascination but an undeniable vehicle for the most deep-seated beliefs and intentions that I have. Usually the most successful drawings I have are from naturalistic observations that take a U-turn – some spark, gesture or beauty of form that shows the abstract power of the human form,” she explained.
Steele teaches art at Coe College and owns a gallery in Cedar Rapids. Jackson, also of Cedar Rapids, is a full-time artist.
Jackson thinks of images as “abstract shapes” and sees the possibilities in different lines and positive and negative spaces. “I imagine how the figure might fit on the page … do I crop it so only a part of the figure is filling up the entire sheet, do I leave parts of the figure incomplete? It’s really important to me to have that combination of control and spontaneity. If I try to control everything, there is no surprise.”
He began the group drawing sessions to work with brush and ink and investigate lines, light and dark values and “how I think about angles, lines, rather than what I think about a feature or object. Some drawings work out, some don’t. I look at it like a batting average. Every time I step up, I’m hoping for a hit,” Jackson said, laughing.
He often combines more than one image into an artwork, exploring and weaving together the connections. Steele often layers her images, creating collages, as well as creating small three-dimensional art objects.
WCA Curator Chawne Paige describes the artists’ work as “both masterful. Working with the same models at the same time, they each have taken their perspectives in different directions. The human figure is the springboard of the visual conversation that occurs between the two artists. Each artist, in their own way, has pushed the work to abstraction.”
Jackson acknowledged that drawing in a group has its own dynamics. “I’ve always been able to concentrate on my own work, though I probably mentally isolated myself when I started. As time goes on, you get to know the regulars, conversations become broader and it becomes more comfortable.”
Steele has been coordinating the group since 1992. She recognized a kindred spirit in Jackson when he joined the group, but said she was surprised and flattered when he broached the idea of a dual exhibition.
Jackson said, “I said to her, ‘I think some of this work is very good, and it would be really good to get this work out there and get more responses to it. Showing how two artists can work together yet have such different approaches would be a strong show.”
Steele agreed. “Our work is so distinct, and the more I thought about it, I felt the differences between our personal expression could be visually arresting,” she explained.
Jackson customarily leaves a drawing session with completed pieces, while Steele’s style has been to focus on studies. After his proposal, Steele began “working without a safety net,” and producing her own finished works in the group.
“Tom has an uncanny sensitivity to abstract composition, and it has been wonderful for me to see that sensibility at work. At the same time, the discipline that I’ve cultivated and fluency of naturalism in my own work is something he admires as well. He wouldn’t have asked me to show with him if there hadn’t been mutual respect.”
Now they value each other’s artistic critiques and offhand observations. “It’s a rare opportunity to gain objective insight into a shared activity,” Steele added.
After the WCA show closes, their work will be exhibited in Fairfield. Plans also are being made for future shows.