Magnolia Draw

The first All-College Seminar of the year started with the quiet scrape of a charcoal stick. A pencil sawed back and forth. An eraser dug into a notepad, and then the wind rustled the leaves. Heads snapped up. After a little while, the wind dissipated; the noise of instruments resumed.


In lieu of a lecture one Friday night, Annapolis undergrads and graduate students, as well as the Dean and a fellow tutor, were first tasked with drawing the magnolia trees which shade the Mellon courtyard. An hour later, drawings in hand, all the participants did what Johnnies normally do, sit around a table and discuss a work, in this case three: a chapter from John Berger’s Landscapes, entitled “The Basis of All Painting and Sculpture is Drawing,” and two artworks, Auguste Rodin’s Couple féminin and Albrect Dürer’s Aquilegia vulgaris. 

The following is how Courtney White, AGI’21, described her experience:

“Having two children, I don’t get much time at all for hobbies like fine art. So when I saw the announcement for the Magnolia Draw, I quickly jumped at the opportunity. I’ll be honest, though, when I saw there was a reading to go along with the drawing portion, it gave me pause. But, it being only six pages long compared to the 70 pages of reading I have to do for each of my weekly classes, I thought I could handle it. (I’d only been in the program about a week at this point, so this was where my mind was.)

Auguste Rodin. Couple féminin.

When I arrived, I was shown some utensils, erasers, and paper. A few students were already outside drawing, but I didn’t know what a magnolia tree looked like. I glanced at the drawings of other students and observed where they were observing; then I went to work. It took me a good ten minutes to decide what I wanted to draw, but it felt good to finally start working on the drawing!

Then the seminar portion came. Berger’s essay was about the process of drawing a figure in front of you. Having had just come from drawing a magnolia tree, it was easier to relate to what he was describing. Still, 45 minutes went by before I noticed that his essay had more in it than just a description of drawing. Our discussion went on to different ideas such as imagination, reality, being enveloped in an idea, and more.

Albrecht Dürer. (1526). Aquilegia vulgaris.

I was pleased with how the tutors came into the discussion at the same level as the students, and being in a seminar of majority undergrad, I did not feel as out of place as I had anticipated. I think I really benefited from having a seminar with people of different ages and life stages. One undergraduate student in particular set out to explain what the process of making art was like for her, in relation to how Berger described it and how Dürer and Rodin enacted it. Her willingness to share her relationship with the text set the foundation for how I’ve come to understand my studies here. As a St. John’s student, one needs to read the texts in much the same way as Berger talks of drawing a subject. We need to envelop ourselves into the text, learning its ins and outs, in order to create it anew.

In my preceptorial, we’re reading The Red and the Black by Stendhal. ‘What is the point?’ I found myself asking, not knowing what conclusions my class could make with a work of literature. I struggled to participate in my first few classes, not knowing how to insert myself. The very next week after this All-College Seminar, though, with the concept of enveloping myself into the text, I was able to participate confidently and freely. I credit the Magnolia Draw for helping me better understand what being a Johnnie really entails.”


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