Remembering Ralph Borge


This is a tribute to Ralph Borge, my drawing instructor back in 1966. You ran a photo of his wife Martha outside their home gallery on B Street in Point Reyes Station. She was holding an image of Ralph, who passed a while back. Before I saw this photo in the Light, I was remembering that drawing class and started to write this tribute. I felt it would be nice to give Mr. Borge, as we called him, some well-deserved credit.


In the 1960s, I was looking for a teacher who could teach me to draw well—not the superficial version to which I had been exposed. Without hesitation, people told me to take a class from Ralph Borge at C.C.A.C. in Oakland. 

I signed up for his Introduction to Drawing class, where he hauled us all over the city: to the old railroad yard where cars sat rusting away, to broken-down boat docks on the estuary, to the ancient cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue, to the backyards of two-story buildings with sagging porches and stairways. One time he brought a motorcycle on the grounds, a complicated affair with all its innards showing. Another time we were instructed to draw a white egg against white paper. He wanted to see everything—no fudging or changing the subject. 

What’s the point, you are probably asking? A camera can do that. Mr. Borge told us that too many people shift too quickly into a “style” that is superficial, and get stuck there. If instead you get to know your subject, warts and all, you acquire a depth, a solid foundation to work from. Then, and only then, can you go off into an interpretation or impression of your subject. 

In order to draw a subject according to his instructions, one had to slow way down. Surprisingly, instead of frustration and fear of failing the class, I entered a peaceful and contented state, where time disappeared and reactive and distracting baggage was parked. The subject got drawn, bit by bit, on the paper just as it was. No problem.

Our drawings were pinned up on the wall at the beginning of the next class so Mr. Borge could see what we had been up to and comment on the pieces. Normally, one would find this very intimidating, but I did not. It was intriguing to view all our work on the same subject, and we could begin to see the uniqueness of each student’s work, like personal signatures. Rumor was that you could not get an A in his class unless you could draw as well as he—and he was very, very good. I ended up with a B- and that was fine with me.

What I received from that one introductory class was much more than learning how to draw. It was a strong foundation in how focused attention, without judgment, could help me live more solidly in the world, to appreciate and be present with the beauty all around me. Later I went on to develop the neutral observer or witness with other teachers and groups. After all that work, this comment of Rumi’s makes sense: “Out beyond the ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

I had begun by being a neutral recorder in that drawing class, and I now live up the street from the Borge family home and gallery. I am deeply grateful and appreciative to Mr. Borge for the foundation he gave me and others back in 1966. It lives on.


Gail Greenlees lives in Point Reyes Station.