Rules of thumb

When you make a hitchhike sign, write the letters all caps, include a border, and spell your destination correctly. You’re not aimless. Don’t look as if you are. Plan your sign before you commit marker to paper, making sure you have enough space for all letters needed:



That’s not going to work.


There we go. That’ll do.

Odd that I am reminded of these instructions as I sit in Gallery 211 of the Getty Villa Museum.

This morning the sky on the way from Kernville to Pacific Palisades had a grey, ready-to-rain tinge. My friend Lisa and I listened, rapt, to Khaleid Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” as I drove. We were on the way to soak ourselves in art history, so it seemed right to be so enveloped in a story about the triumph of dignity and hope in the face of a crumbling civilization.

Someone always tends to pick up the crumbles and make them tell their own stories. Auguste Rodin, who was influenced by ancient sculptural fragments from Greece and Rome, sensed those stories. I wanted to, too.

As Lisa and I ascended the Villa’s East Stair, that smell met us. The smell I smell in every art museum I’ve ever been in: Huntington Library, Louvre, Hermitage, Prado, Norton Simon, Kemper, and many more. A guard at the Villa told us the smell was ionized air, which protects the pieces from moisture. Whatever. Museum smell: It is the scent of slowly wandering, browsing, tired feet, dizzy head. Until … the world tilts, because you somehow, without warning, are drawn into an ancient tapestry in which is woven the entire epic of French kings, framed in gold thread. Or a Dutch still life with rabbits, wine, and lemons. Or a headless, armless, winged goddess with chalk-pale throat. Or a single shard of terra cotta.

The 6’9″ statue stands dead center in Gallery 211, whose theme is “Athletes and Competition.” The kouros, an “elegant and powerful athletic figure that reflects Greek notions of aristocratic male excellence,” commands center stage in the room. Says the Getty brochure: “A kouros is a statue of a standing nude youth that did not represent any one individual youth but the idea of youth. Used in Archaic Greece as both a dedication to the gods in sanctuaries and as a grave monument, the standard kouros stood with his left foot forward, arms at his sides, looking straight ahead. Carved in from four sides, the statue retained the general shape of the marble block. Archaic Greek sculptors reduced human anatomy and musculature in these statues to decorative patterning on the surface of the marble.”

Drawing the naked Greek is an exercise to introduce middle-schoolers and high-schoolers to the canon of proportions and the styles of the Archaic and Classical periods – periods from which Auguste Rodin drew inspiration in his sculpture. I’m trying to catch a glimpse of Rodin’s perspective, and to understand the literal significance of the term, “rule of thumb.”

Using a proportion grid on a piece of paper, I attempt to sketch the kouros, part by part, from the head down. This is when the hitchhiker signs pop into my head: “You are not aimless. Don’t look as if you are. Plan your statue’s nose, neck, knees before you commit pencil to paper, making sure you have enough space …  Think T-A-C-O-M-A!”

I had not expected the gallery to be so crowded. And I didn’t expect people to crane their necks to see my sketch. They must think I am an art student. If they can see my attempt to draw the Villa’s famous kouros statue, they really must wonder what kind of art student I am. Not one with much potential. My kouros looks like a 6-year-old’s rendition of the Michelin man’s sister sporting a mullet and shivering.

Behind and to the right of the statue hangs “Wall Panel with an Athletic Trainer.” I get so close to the panel, to the 4-inch-tall, cane-wielding trainer painted on the panel, that he disappears then reappears double, my eyes playing tricks. I’m thinking about how the stick-holding trainer illustrates the oblique squeeze grip, which extends the long axis of the arm, making humans capable of clubbing, hammering, and batting a baseball. Hitchhiking thumbs, sculpting thumbs, clubbing thumbs. I almost pitch forward, nose to the wall panel, with all my mind’s thumbs twiddling at once. Instead, I veer left, through a passage leading into Gallery 212, Coins, Gems, and Jewelry. Under the see-through cases of Gallery 212, I spy “Mask of Dionysos,” one of several mask shards under the glass. The “Mask of Dionysos” peeps at me, wide- and one-eyed, as if through a curtain, the fabric of some other realm. The shard suggests another eye, another brow, another gallery, somewhere behind this painted peeper. I wonder what it’s like, the world in which the bearer of that other, invisible eye lives. Maybe our canon of proportions doesn’t apply there. Maybe none of our rules of thumb apply there. Maybe I’d draw an even weirder-looking kouros there. Maybe in that world there’s no such place as Tacoma.


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