When I learned to draw I would do life-drawing. This involved sitting and looking and putting what I saw onto the page using lead pencil or charcoal or watercolour and brush.
The final lines on the page were less important than the act of looking. A first glance will give us an idea of something and yet we don’t really see in that glance. It is impossible to see clearly without practice, time, study. Our brain does not allow us to see clearly. What we see is just a confirmation of what we expect to see. We get the broad brushstrokes but not the exact detail. The detail is filled up with what we have seen before.
We all carry a mental picture around of the world. Say the word ‘tree’ and each of us will have a different idea of what a tree is. Look at an actual tree and we will see the basic variations that differ from our idea of treeness. If the tree is a deciduous tree in winter it will have few or no leaves. If it is a gum tree it will have a specific colour and a particular shape that is different from that of a fur tree or a jacaranda. Still, even adding these details into our mental picture, we are not really seeing the tree but just an adjusted version of our idea of treeness. The only way to really see the tree is to sit with it and to look at it, spending time with the detail. More and more surprising details will emerge.
How often do we spend time looking at Vulvas. I do not mean the kind of time that is had during the act of sex. A different kind of attention is directed at a vulva when one is sexually aroused. The sight of a vulva we are about to lick, or to finger or to penetrate with a cock or a dildo or a fist, tells us more about our own arousal than the vulva itself. How often do we really look at a vulva without intending to fuck or to masturbate or to give pleasure. Where do we get our idea of vulvaness?
Casual sightings of vulvas in the wild are rare. We never see pictures of vulvas in magazines. We rarely read about them in books unless we are reading with the intention of becoming aroused.
On new years eve this year I drove down Brunswick Street in New Farm and saw a man standing on his balcony furiously masturbating. I realised as I drove past that I have seen quite a few penises just in passing. I have seen five flashers, 4 public masturbators, several streakers with their penises flopping from side to side and countless men urinating at the side of the road, against trees and in parks.
I have seen nude women. I have seen them in life-drawing classes with their legs closed or elegantly crossed, on late night TV and in the movies but I can’t remember ever having casually stumbled across an actual vulva on display.
We do not see vulvas. They are hidden between thighs, thighs that are opened only in the act of sex. Without arousal to mediate between our eyes and a vulva the initial reaction from seeing a vulva is usually surprise or even disgust. There is a shock that accompanies seeing and this shock leads to quickly looking away.
I have begun to practice the art of seeing by setting aside time to life-write. In this process just like with life-drawing you write what you see, really see. You look at a thing not relying on your preconception of that thing. You spend time with it. You look at negative space, the space around the thing, the placement of that thing in the world. It is useful to practice life-writing with objects that you are used to. The process of life-writing them shows you what your assumptions had hidden from you.
When life-writing vulvas you are starting almost from scratch. You must write about something that you may only have seen as a crude series of lines in the margins of someone’s school book, or filtered through the haze of your own sexual arousal.
In this project I am sitting with vulvas. I am looking at vulvas. I am translating them as they really appear, without filters, without airbrushing, without sex. Because I am too poor to pay women to open their legs for me I am using images from internet searches. An initial image search for ‘photos of vulvas’ gives me anatomical drawings and livid images of dissections and disease. It gives me images of airbrushed nipped and tucked vulvas and a photograph of a woman spreading her thighs and just a blurry section of pink staring at me where her vulva must be. I am sitting in a café as I write and I am looking at these vulvas on my phone. I keep my phone close to my chest. I am aware that if people were to see what I am looking at they may be offended. Why do I know that vulvas will offend people? How did I learn that? Why are there so few images of vulvas outside of medical procedures and porn. If I search for feet I get photos of feet. If I search for hair I get hair. If I search for elbows there are elbows. Why am I presented with prolepses’ and labia-plasty and blood and meat and disease?
Later when I am home I will life-write my own vulva. I am very fat and so this will require lots of pillows, a mirror or two\ and the kind of pen that doesn’t stop working when you hold it upside down. Maybe I should take a photo of my vulva to save me the acrobatics. Maybe I should save it and upload it to the internet. There are not enough vulvas in the world.
Welcome to my Vulva Life Writing Class. Please feel free to participate. We will begin with quick sketches, 30 second poses. Then we will move on to longer studies. Don’t worry if your first attempts are embarrassing and rudimentary. You will get better at seeing as you go along.
30 second sketches.
- Two brown fleshy curls like upended malformed lilies or the roof of a cave and a small round bell at their juncture. Above this a starburst of dark hair flowering all from one spot.
- Two thick swollen lumps of flesh end in a v above which a nodule protrudes and a hat of hair above it, square like a tophat and the rest all tucked away.
- Thick upward curl from the lower left tapering up to where a simple pale trumpet pushes through a shadow without hair, just a scallop of darker skin arching over the whole of it and a dark full stop below.
- All of it a rectangle within a rectangle and the glossy sheen of dampness highlighting the bottom, the left side of the darkest rectangle within. Cubist. A line and dot and then rectangle rectangle. All reduced to clear regular shapes in gloss finish.
- A lightning bolt edge but all else a smooth plane of shifting colour, dark pink, almost grey at the centre, pale at the edge. All of it enclosed in an oval delineated by hue alone, pale beyond, darker where all metaphors of fruit are acceptable.
10 minute sketch
A flash of light in the dark shading of hair and skin and this single kite catching light, curling right to left in what looks like a single plane of bright flesh, an elongated triangle off centre and the tail of it ragged, disappearing into more curling black. But not an unbroken bite of skin, a thin line cuts from the top, a dark crack in the otherwise smooth surface a fold, a lean in disappearance of flesh and now a closer look reveals more of them, folds, throwing the triangle into sudden three dimensions. The promise of what is hidden, enclosed, spelled out on the surface, and furred all around by the dark hairs which present as several blocks of colour all knitted together at the top and the bottom and the sides of the fold and a slight shift to see the lines of black, each one highlighted – light from above and right, a fleck of light on the dark at a macro level. Stand back and there are two darker ovals, a shadow beneath the shadows of dark hair as if there are two patches of darkened skin.
It needs to be seen in this shift from macro to micro, the shapes which are fixed and solid and describe planes of colour from dark near-black through various shades of brown through to a greyed pink then within the solid shapes there is the detail which is never ordered, the crenulated edges of flesh, the erratic shift and curl of individual hairs, the tangle of shadow scribbled on flesh beneath the hairs the sharp shifts in light and shade as flesh protrudes and retreats. There is a sparser patch on the lower left of the darkest part of the skin, a curled grey-pink and a darker pink to the right of it with a column of folds rising deeper and deeper till they disappear into the deepest, greyest of these which underlines the left long side of the kite.
That sharp, dark cut where the triangle of furred flesh meets the soft hairless belly-swell. The darkest line at this juncture and the softer side-lines easing down and past the vulva. Everything convex and a sweeping darker curl like a question mark leading to the pale line of a single swollen labia, ragged edged, a lonely mountain peak amongst rolling hills. Everything within the large triangle seems evenly shaded by the dark, sparse patch of hair. Outside the hair triangle there is a darker patch of flesh or shadow. At the bottom edge there are two black dots, moles perhaps. They look like dashes in Morse code. The dark flesh stretches in a square bisected by a fold line where flesh presses up against flesh. A thigh rises etched with vague pale lines, dry riverbeds in a desert landscape. A bruise of slightly darker red flesh touches the skin in the shape of a thumbprint. I notice now that there is a bright shard, a sliver of light across the belly touching the upper edge of the thigh. I am made of triangles. I am all smooth, graceful surfaces, each with its separate ecology. I am surprisingly inward facing with only this one labia straining out. The clitoris, which takes up so much of my waking attention, is not visible. The flesh is a golden sand colour, buttery, the perfect canvas for a spill of light. After looking for a long time I can just make out a roseate glow on the left side near the labial swell and a slight rouge to the skin near the right thigh. The whole of the vulva seems smoothed over. There is no orifice. It is startlingly chaste in its sweet swell of flesh. My vulva is like bread risen and ready to be kneaded.