Isabel Smith ‘24 (she/her), Staff Writer

Work produced by Grace Cho ‘21 in the workshop “Room with Bill Thelen.” Photo courtesy of Grace Cho ‘21. 

The True Likeness exhibition opened in Davidson’s Van Every and Smith Galleries in October 2020. The exhibition is a portrait collection: an assortment of faces, an immersive visual diary of existing as a human being in all its complexities — a page written by each artist. It is raw and personal and expresses feelings of connection across differences. True Likeness paints a portrait of the intricate root system that forms the United States, one made up of individuals with their own stories, experiences, and history. 

True Likeness embodies the emotions shaped by our recent isolation. Its works carry a sense of questioning identity, self-discovery, crippling loneliness, and connecting with both the intimate, innermost parts of yourself and the communities to which you belong. In particular, artist Bill Thelen exemplifies this, exploring themes of identity, queerness, COVID, and politics in their work, maximum joy, which they created amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Maximum joy is an installation in True Likeness, composed of watercolor on paper, ceramics, a t-shirt, oil on canvas, various books, and fireworks, all of which come together to create an abstracted, imaginative self-portrait. They created some of the included drawings in Drawing Room’s Zoom Drawing Club: a virtual gathering, which meets every Saturday over Zoom, for people to soothe their loneliness, openly talk to each other, and most importantly, make art.

On February 6th, Thelen hosted a Zoom drawing club for the Davidson College community. There were about twenty five participants on the Zoom call, most of whom I had never met before. However, it did not feel uncomfortable or foreign; it was just people, coming together to enjoy each other’s company. It was casual and conversational, and there was an emphasis on ‘no pressure:’ no pressure to have your camera on, to speak, or to show your creation to others — but if you did show your drawing it would be met with excited compliments. The welcoming atmosphere was strengthened by the title drawer, applied not just to Thelen but to everyone, regardless of their ‘level.’ Instead, if you enjoy drawing, you are a drawer, simple as that. Thelen would refer to “us drawers,” a phrase which carried with it a sense of community, sans need for fancy pencils or sketchbooks or degrees. 

Around every ten minutes, we would get a new drawing prompt, one which could be provided by anyone in the group. Again, there was ‘no pressure;’ it was just an open space to create art, with the prompts serving as guidance and inspiration for those who wanted it. They were random and creative (with one being “Part one: Draw your favorite shape. Part 2: Draw the shape you cannot stand at all”) and it was fascinating to see everyone’s interpretation of a prompt, especially when we only had a few minutes, which eliminated the urge to overthink. Drawing forces you to avoid perfectionist tendencies and to live in the moment. One participant expressed her thoughts on this, saying that art is really great for times like this, and that thinking about how to present the world around us as interesting and beautiful helps distract from worries about what you cannot control.

The Zoom session did have a bit of the trademark Zoom awkwardness at the beginning, admittedly, but that went away quickly. And though gatherings on Zoom have their disadvantages, Thelen noted that they can exist on Zoom in ways they cannot in person. On Zoom, you cannot see all the participants simultaneously — there is no mass of imposing bodies in front of you, their heads swivelling around to stare at you when you speak — and Thelen said this helps them to let their guard down and not “worry about sounding stupid.” 

For me, that admission of nervousness or social anxiety was an incredibly relatable statement. It is what makes artists human — not in a sense that their humanity has not occurred to me before, but that I am an intern in the gallery, and I see Thelen and other artists in True Likeness’ works everyday, taped to the wall, but there they are disconnected from their human maker. To now be able to assign the art and the artist to not only a face and a voice, but also a relatable sentiment, challenges that detachment and feeling of otherworldliness. It questions the expectation of artists as capital-A Artists, an idea of a person rather than a human being, either having overwhelming confidence and ascending above self-consciousness, or, in contrast, the ‘tortured artist,’ who is unstable, trapped inside themself — not that these cannot exist, but they are more caricatures of creatives than real people. Seeing inside the practice of making art and the imaginings of the artist makes art more accessible and much less intimidating.

Being involved in the process of making art is meaningful; it creates an idea of art as an ongoing process and experience (one which can be collaborative) instead of a fixed installation and set moment in time. Art is always evolving. Art is a way of taking care of each other, which is more important than ever. 

True Likeness is currently on view in the Van Every and Smith Galleries for Davidson students, faculty, and staff, with the Smith Gallery closing February 21st, 2021 and the Van Every Gallery closing at the end of March. 

Drawing Room’s Zoom Drawing Club meets every Saturday on Zoom. Contact @drawingroomnc on Instagram to get involved. 

Isabel Smith (she/her/hers) is an undecided major from St. Augustine, Florida. She can be reached for comment at issmith@davidson.edu.