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Drawing Group Sketches East Thetford’s Cafe Society, One Patron at a Time

  • Lynn Sheldon, of Lyme, N.H., left, Bert Dodson, of West Fairlee, Vt., and Stephanie Gordon, of Piermont, N.H. draw Valley News reporter EmmaJean Holley for one hour at Dodson's studio in Bradford, Vt., on May 2, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stephanie Gordon, of Piermont, N.H., studies her subject during a drawing session in Bradford, Vt., on May 2, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News reporter EmmaJean Holley is drawn by Lynn Sheldon, of Lyme N.H., and Bert Dodson, of West Fairlee, Vt., at his studio in Bradford, Vt., on May 2, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Drawings of Valley News reporter EmmaJean Holley made in Bradford, Vt., at Bert Dodson's studio on May 2, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After an hour of being perfectly still Valley News reporter EmmaJean Holley laughs after the session is over in Bradford, Vt., on May 2, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 04, 2018

It was hard to settle on a single point in the Bradford, Vt. studio. After all, I was going to be staring at that point, and doing absolutely nothing else, for the next hour.

There were a lot of points to choose from. The surfaces in the room were dynamic patchworks of paintings, drawings, photographs and prints — each image a nod to the long and distinguished career of Bert Dodson, the celebrated illustrator from West Fairlee, who works out of the space in the Bradford Academy building. Volumes on art and science, and countless copies of National Geographic, crammed the shelves. Off to my right, what seemed to be a giant papier-mache wolf’s head dangled in the corner. What I took to be an unusually colorful Medusa’s head hung over by the door.

Dodson greeted me in the space where he hosts his weekly drawing group, and thanked me for agreeing to model for them.

“No problem,” I told him, even though it wasn’t entirely by choice. The group didn’t have anyone scheduled to sit for them Wednesday evening, and I’d been cajoled into rising to the occasion, for journalism’s sake.

Dodson gestured toward the old leather recliner in the corner, around which was clustered a semicircle of chairs, where I was to make myself comfortable. As the artists trickled in and set up their supplies, I surveyed the room for a spot to stare at. I chose a small bouquet at the bottom of a prominently framed illustration, settled into the recliner in a way that I hoped would not grow to be unbearable, and told the members of Dodson’s weekly drawing group that I was ready to begin.

It was a small turnout that night: There was Lynn Sheldon, of Lyme; Stephanie Gordon, of Piermont; Karl Neubauer, of Newbury, Vt.; and, of course, Dodson.

Earlier that day, I’d talked to others who modeled for the group before, to get an idea of what to expect. Christie Pippin, a jewelry-maker based in Hartford, said it reminded her of how it feels when she meditates or does tai chi, and stressed the importance of wearing comfortable clothes (which, unlike with many modeling gigs of this nature, stay on for the duration of the hour). Chip Hobson, a mechanical engineer from Thetford, found it so relaxing that he accidentally fell asleep. Don Hodgdon,  of Thetford, was sore by the end of the hour, but said it was good to get out of his comfort zone — and the fact that his portrait has been compared to Willie Nelson doesn’t hurt, laughed his wife, Bev Hodgdon.

Their individual experiences may differ, but all of the Dodson drawing group models have one thing in common: They’re part of the Isabell’s Cafe community.

Bev Hodgdon, who owns Isabell’s with Don, is the linchpin to this unique collaboration between the East Thetford eatery and artists. Since March of last year, she’s been recruiting and scheduling her family, friends, employees and especially Isabell’s regulars to sit for Dodson’s weekly studio group. Hodgdon’s little black calendar book contains the names and daytime numbers of the people who have consented to model, and she has a system in place so that nobody forgets.

The fruits of Hodgdon’s — and the artists’ — labors now hang on the cafe wall, in a rotating series of portraits called “Faces of Isabell’s.” By Hodgdon’s count, she’s garnered the drawing group more than 30 of Isabell’s faces so far. She wants to put together a series that adheres to a particular theme, such as “People W ho Serve in Thetford,” which would comprise firefighters, pastors, lawyers and the like.

“Some people are quite honored to be asked,” Hodgdon said. “They say, ‘Wow, yes.’ ” Most have heard of Dodson, who has illustrated more than 70 children’s books; created the acclaimed political comic strip Nuke; designed the animation for the four-part PBS special on microbes, Intimate Strangers; collaborated with biologist Mahlon Hoagland on the book The Way Life Works; and wrote and illustrated the much-loved Keys to Drawing, in which he famously proclaims, “Anyone who can hold a pencil can learn to draw with some degree of proficiency.”

Many of his drawing group members are self-described amateurs, like Sheldon, who joined the group six weeks ago after deciding it was time to start drawing again, now that her children are grown. Others, like Gordon, are more practiced; she retired as a Hanover High School art teacher, and has been drawing with Dodson for around 10 years. Nobody could quite recall how long Neubauer had been coming, but they said he’d become a fixture, along with his style — standing rather than sitting, using charcoal rather than pencil. Dodson, though undoubtedly the artistic heart and soul of the group, welcomes all skill levels — and all models.

After decades of leading the group, “we get all our models through Isabell’s now,” he said.

Before Hodgdon started hooking it up — an arrangement suggested by Dodson’s wife, Zelma Loseke, who is friendly with Hodgdon — the group would often struggle to find models. As group member Tom Baccei, who hangs the portraits at Isabell’s, wrote in the exhibit’s informational text, “it is a challenge to find willing ‘victims’ to sit stock still for an hour and let a group of strangers stare at them for an hour, while drawing them with varying degrees of success!”

Pippin and Hobson may have had relaxing, even meditative experiences during their hours in the leather chair. Then there was Charlie Buttrey, a lawyer from Thetford who described himself as “not the sort of person who sits still well for very long.”

Sitting made him reflect on daguerreotypes, a photography method common in the 1850s that was so time-consuming, some photographers had their subjects wear neck braces to ensure they stayed still. Even after Buttrey found a comfortable position, “it was a challenge to kind of just let myself exist without any movement,” he acknowledged. He found it helped to sing songs to himself, though.

“I just played through a playlist in my head. … I think everyone should do it once, if just to get an appreciation for what these models do all the time.”

Hobson suggested that the time commitment might be another deterrent. Sitting takes up an hour of a weekday night, plus commute; for folks who live in Norwich or Thetford, “two exits up 91 might be farther than they want to travel,” he said.

Although outsourcing model-recruitment to a local business may be an unconventional solution to an understandable problem, this is not the first time Isabell’s regulars have been cast into art. Back in 2008, when Dodson held his 70th birthday party at Isabell’s, the Vershire photographer John Douglas took portraits of more than 50 patrons who attended. The black-and-white prints found a home on the cafe walls, creating a visual catalog of the Isabell’s community that, nearly a decade later, has in a sense been reincarnated into graphite and charcoal.

One key difference, though, is that photography captures only one version of a person, a single snapshot in time and space. After modeling for a group of artists, you get to see yourself from different angles — not just from different points around a semicircle, but through different eyes. It’s you on the page, but also a translation of you, and the only one of its kind in existence.

Pippin, drawn to this idea, felt Hodgdon’s proposition was too good an opportunity to pass up — even though she lives farther than two exits from Bradford.

“I was really excited, because I knew that Bert is such a great artist,” she said. “I think for some people it reminds them of public speaking, being in front of a crowd at the center of attention. … But I would say just have fun with it and enjoy the experience. It doesn’t happen very often, getting to sit in front of all that talent.”

She even wore her pearls for the occasion, and was delighted with the variety and quality of portraits she inspired, despite the low turnout of artists on a sleety March night.

It was a relatively small turnout this Wednesday night when I sat, too, with four artists, Dodson included.

Seconds into our hour, the room was silent except for the soft scritch-scritching of pencil on paper. A few more seconds and, like Buttrey, I was ready to jump out of my skin: I was acutely aware that I needed to wiggle my toes, I wished I’d brought some water, my hair was tickling my ear and I had Closing Time by Semisonic stuck in my head, against my will.

After a while, though, my agitation dwindled to mere impatience, and then to a sort of peaceful resignation as I lost a sense of time. I stared at the bouquet until it began to look strange and distorted, and everything around it seemed to fade — I’d read once that this was called the Troxler effect, and happens when the visual stimulus outside of a single fixation point does not change. It’s the trippier cousin of how you eventually stop feeling a constant sensory stimulus, like the clothes against your skin, or the way a piece of hair lies annoyingly against your own ear.

Eventually I zoned out, a skill my algebra teacher said would never serve me. I skipped to the next song on the playlist in my head. The minutes went by the way you go bankrupt, or fall in love: slow, then fast.

When I heard a church bell chime, I blinked in surprise.

“It’s been an hour?”

“You were in your happy place,” smiled Gordon.

I smiled back. It felt odd, after an hour spent stony-faced. Happy might not be the word I would have chosen, but it came much closer than I would have thought.

Bert Dodson’s drawing group meets on Wednesday nights from 7 to 8 in the Bradford Academy building. Drawings from previous sessions can be viewed on the Dodson Studio Group page on Facebook. To set up a time to volunteer as a model for the group, contact Bev Hodgdon at Isabell’s Cafe at 802-785-4300. She will take care of the rest.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.