By Camilla Webster

Just the other day my behind was pinned to an uncomfortable fold out chair spattered with paint at the Art Students League on 57th Street. My eyes sprayed the wall of various figurative and abstract works in front of me. After three hours of sketching the nude torso of a live exotic female, it was time for our teacher’s discussion of our work.

Our model for the week has already wrapped her robe across breasts that had been my point of concentration and leapt gracefully from the platform placed in the middle of the class for a set of gawking hyper-concentrated art students.

Nude Study by Camilla Webster

Nude Study by Camilla Webster

Our teacher is Pat Lipsky, a native icon in New York City whose work sits in the permanent collections of The Brooklyn Museum and The Whitney. As I do every week, I sit with baited breath waiting for Pat’s thoughts to stream out of her on Proust or Monet or art critic Clem Greenberg, but this time I hear something quite different. It was like a great awakening. A once I was blind, now I can see kind of moment.

“Before I go directly into the work today I want to talk about something very important.” Pat grins and pauses. Then her eyes narrow. She raises her arm off her slim frame. Her lips parse together in almost a frown in a way that tells me something important is about to happen. “I was at Barnes and Noble. Erica Jong was being interviewed by Jennifer Weiner, the author of Good In Bed. Erica Jong said to her the fiction has to be convincing. I was really surprised because that’s what I find about teaching drawing and painting. So we had the same criteria in two very different fields. Erica Jong asked, Is it Convincing? And this is a question I want all of you to ask yourselves… this is part of what I’m teaching.”

We, motley crew of students, stare at the paper and canvases peppering the back wall of the class room in a building that for over a century has served as a studio and classroom for Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other American luminaries of the art world. An acrylic on paper work pops for me. A diagonal autumn brown against a yellow sunshine corner. Even in its abstraction, it’s convincing. Asking Is it Convincing? gave me such new clarity. I leave the classroom and I keep thinking about that phrase.

Is it Convincing?

Pat discussed this idea again a few weeks later at my prompting: “The reason I found this so interesting… I had been talking to students for months – using this (Is it Convincing?) as a single criteria for trying to make progress…going from being a student to being a professional. And here Erica Jong is saying the exact same thing about writing, which is quite different in most ways.”

I don’t think I’ll ever look at one of my books or paintings or anybody else’s the same way again. I think something just changed in me. Ideas matter.

I’m probably not alone. After all I’m not terminally unique. I’ll tell another New Yorker to ask Is it Convincing? And they’ll tell a friend. Those friends in Brooklyn might or might not be talking about fiction or paintings. Those New Yorkers and their friends may begin to ask this question of the candidates’ platforms in the race for mayor or they’re wondering about the story of their husband’s whereabouts after a night at the new Tao Downtown in the Meatpacking District. Before I know it I’ll find myself on the subway staring at an overhead billboard which asks: Is it Convincing?

So why am I telling you all this? Because it Matters.

Social change, new thought, new ways of viewing the world, events so often begin in the heart of a global metropolis like New York City with or without an organized movement. That’s all part of my new column of the same name. Because it Matters explores that ‘something in the water’ which if we harness it, so often has the power to change the world in ways both small and large.

Image courtesy of New York Magazine

Erica Jong
Image courtesy of New York Magazine

Writer Erica Jong, another native icon born in this city, is an important author, poet, and teacher. I believe she is often wrongly narrowed down in New York City’s champagne gossip scene to just her game changing book Fear of Flying and the phrase “zipless fuck.” Read the recent anthology Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex edited by Jong and you will find yourself looking with fresh eyes and a more thoughtful heart on your own sexual, emotional and romantic relationships.

Now I can thank Erica Jong for waking me up again, and thank Pat Lipsky for teaching me to see. And giving me a new idea. No small thing.

I encourage you to take a look at your own world, at your own work.

Take the time to ask: Is it Convincing?

Let the power of the native lens smack you in the face


Featured image courtesy of Vimeo

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