James Grubola has had a love affair with figure drawing and dance for decades, and both of these passions are currently on display at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts on Main Street.
Grubola’s exhibit — entitled The Friday (and Thursday) Sessions — occupies the main galleries of the space. Grubola, the former Chair of the University of Louisville’s Department of Fine Arts and Director of the Hite Art Institute, began his association with dance while he was at Wayne State University. As a student in what is currently called the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, he got to see the companies of Merce Cunningham, José Limon, and Arthur Mitchell.
At the same time he was studying and practicing figure drawing. Grubola likens his artistic process to the process of dance. Just as dancers frequently “mark” steps as they learn sequences, he’s sketching in the gestures he’s watching, capturing the essence of the pose, echoing their rhythms with the pencil in his hand. And this brings us to the majority of the exhibit: gesture drawings.
A long gallery shelf is home to a myriad of dated sketches of his “Thursdays” work — days spent observing Louisville Ballet dancers in their daily class. Grubola positions himself in a corner of the dancers’ Main Street studio where he can see the scope of the studio and also be relatively unobtrusive. As they move, so his pencil moves. He never erases. He turns the page and sketches again. It’s not unusual for him to sketch 20 drawings in their 90 minute class.
“Maybe two are keepers,” he said. But he keeps them all regardless.
Grubola has been sitting in on these rehearsals off and on since the 1970s when he came to teach at U of L. There were some years off when his administrative duties kept him from practicing his art frequently. But he’s sat in on classes from the time of former Louisville Ballet Artistic Director Alun Jones and dancer Helen Starr, during Bruce Simpson’s leadership of the company, and now in the tenure of Robert Curran.
Grubola said one of his inspirations is his daughter, Morgan, who took ballet lessons as a child and danced with the Louisville Civic Ballet. Grubola used to draw her ballet classes, and Morgan is represented in the exhibit in an installation entitled “Dead Pointe Shoes.” Comprised of many pairs of Morgan’s used-up shoes, this is both a whimsical piece and a testament to the dedication of dancers who can go through a hundred shoes a season (as the Frazier Museum Nutcracker exhibit recently revealed.)
One wall of the gallery showcases three life-size sketches of former Louisville Ballet dancer Tiffany Bovard. At the end of last season, she offered to pose for Grubola.
The resulting sketches are fascinating.
“68 Inches” is a triptych of Bovard doing the splits. The central sketch is her torso and face, neither revealing the effort of holding such a pose. With a trompe de l’oeil effect, the two side panels catch the continuation of the legs, and a carpenter’s ruler reveals the incredible stretch of a dancer’s legs — with pointe shoes, the width of the triptych is actually 72 inches.
“Triangle en Pointe” is inspired by Grubola’s young granddaughter dressing in a tutu for Halloween, and shows Bovard in the black tutu associated with Odile in Swan Lake. While Bovard was the primary model for this image, Grubola reveals that he also worked with both his wife (also a professional artist) and daughter as models to master some specific details of the image.
The third image of this collection is “Twenty Five or Six to Four” in homage to a song by the rock band Chicago that Grubola listened to while drawing these portraits. Here, Bovard is sitting casually, as if taking a break from a dance rehearsal.
Grubola continues to sit in on the ballet’s Thursday classes, finding the rhythm of the dancers in his swirling gesture drawings. A measure of his love for the dance is his gift to Louisville Ballet dancers of one sketch each of one of the classes they took.
The Cressman Center is part of the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville. This exhibit runs through February 24, 2018.