Friday, December 9, 2011

A Reflection on Drawing, or, Why Brevity Has Never Been One of My Most Redeeming Qualities

I don’t think I can talk about drawing without talking about painting, and eating, and running (there’s a relationship between all these things, I promise), and that’s pretty much an autobiography, so I’ll just try to make this as painless as possible. Please sit tight.  To make things easier I will highlight in bold the important sentences.

Growing up, art was never a large part of my life. I remember telling a very surprised friend in Grade 5 that I didn’t know who van Gogh was. My parents, having never had the chance to develop their own extracurricular abilities, tried very hard to give me this opportunity; however, to them this meant going to great lengths to pay for my piano lessons and enroll me in piano competitions, because learning to play a classical musical instrument was the fashionable (and useful) extracurricular in our community. Unfortunately, much to their disappointment, I was, and still very much am, an awful pianist.

Then I went to secondary school, where Art was a required course for the first three years. (A quick note on the British education system: we have seven years of secondary schooling—three years of general “middle school”-equivalent education and then two two-year courses in “high school”, each of which ends in a bout of externally-assessed final exams. We start off with 14 subjects in Year 7, which gets narrowed down to 8 or 9 examined GCSE subjects in Years 10-11 and 6 in Years 12-13, under the IB.) That was when I started seriously drawing—and I couldn’t stop. Drawing spoke to me in a way that playing the piano never did, and I found myself eager to spend time and effort on drawing that I actively sought to avoid spending on the piano, even though for this I had significantly more external support and instruction. Probably I was just too relieved there was, for someone so incredibly uncoordinated, something even vaguely kinesthetic that I could do. Trust me, if you’d spent the first eleven years of your life feeling like a failure every time you had to do something remotely physical, you’d be ecstatic too if someone told you that your drawing of a dog looked like a dog.

Despite mild opposition from my parents and the knowledge that doing so would take up almost all of my time, I stuck with Art as one of my GCSE examination options and again for IB, although both times I had been convinced up until decision day that I was going to give it up. We’ve all heard the arguments before: it isn’t practical; it doesn’t offer any job prospects; it wastes time. I almost made the grim mistake of being persuaded by them. As it is, looking back, keeping Art in my life was probably one of the best decisions I could have made at that time. I couldn’t have known it then, and it seems melodramatic to frame it this way now, but drawing ended up saving my life.
A few months after I made the choice to continue Art for IB, just before I turned sixteen, I came down with some pretty severe physical and mental health problems. First it was clinical depression, which then manifested into anorexia nervosa, and then that brought on a whole host of other ailments and complications which I’d rather not get into right now. You can judge me for having been anorexic, and I’ll judge you for judging me. It wasn’t exactly the most glorious episode in my life and there are still a lot of things about that period which are very foggy in my memory now, but what’s done is done and hey, it didn’t kill me, so it must’ve made me stronger.

Anyhow, I like to think that some good things came out of that ugly experience. Amongst these were my strengthened relationship with drawing and my newfound relationship with running. I’ve been asked often how I find the resolve to run so much. The truth is, being able to run now—no matter how painful it gets—can never be as painful as not being able to run whilst I was still struggling with anorexia. I started running as a way to prove that I could, to prove that I was still alive and getting stronger and would become even better than I was before, and also to rebuild my relationship with food and eating. The irony here is that instead of exercising to lose weight, I’ve used running to gain forty-something pounds.

And drawing? Well, it so happened that my illness coincided with my GCSE final examinations, which were, to us back then, quite a big deal. Because I was on medication and rather out of it, I was put on a separate schedule from the rest of my year and that meant I had my own studio to work in for my Art final—a drawing. It was in colour pencil and, fittingly, the theme I’d chosen happened to be construction sites. My subconscious seems quite keen to make itself known through my artwork. It was very much a time of reconstruction for me: just as I was rebuilding myself intellectually through revamped studying and physically through running, I was rebuilding myself emotionally through art. It was through drawing and painting that I remembered how it was to feel joy and peace and contentment, and rediscovered the beauty in living.
 I was glad to return after that summer, although it meant that I was now in the IB. Now the IB Diploma is not an easy program, and in the second year it becomes particularly gruesome. The anxiety I was feeling over college applications meant that I could not focus on my art; I couldn’t come up with any ideas, I didn’t want to draw, and the quality of the work I eked out in those few months was appalling. It’s actually kind of funny to look at the pieces I made from October to December and contrast them to the work I started turning out in January, after applications were submitted. Compare, for example:
Can't remember the name of this one

Equality (diptych)
It was a tough couple of months but, in retrospect, thoroughly fulfilling. I spent every possible second drawing in order to meet the deadline and still keep up with the rest of life. I would stay for hours after school painting—it was an incredible way for me to unwind from the sheer exhaustion of the day—until the custodians kicked me out, then take the bus down to the municipal cycling track and run ten kilometres home. Then I would eat dinner, do whatever other work I needed to do, and draw until the early hours of the next morning. The combination of drawing and running gives me inexplicable, irreplaceable joy.
This 4' tall piece was entirely finger-painted. I gave up on using paintbrushes halfway through senior year.
I think that because I put so much of myself into my drawings and paintings, they reflect my emotional state too well—if I am nervous or distraught about something else, I can’t draw. That being said, drawing calms me in a way nothing else can. Usually when I draw, it is a very private experience, and I become unaware of anything except the form I’m drawing, my pencil, and my thoughts. Sometimes, after being ‘in the zone’ for too long, I have trouble readjusting back to the real world, and have trouble regaining my speech and motor functions (please tell me I’m not the only one). But drawing is also very social—one of my favourite things about studio time in secondary school was the sense of unity we shared, that feeling of being connected to each other by the engaging nature of our similar work, yet each being immersed in our own personal worlds. And I learned to draw by speaking and listening to (or, because this was often not possible, reading about) other artists and looking at their work, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t draw for an audience. It’s a language that is often easier for me to think in than any based on words.

It’s kind of ironic that every single time I’ve had to make choices, I make the decision to drop Art—and yet something always draws me back. It’s actually the one thing that has stayed constant in my life throughout these years, and I am so very, very thankful for that. I’m sure that other people can come up with a hundred arguments why I shouldn’t continue, but—at least for me—there only needs to be one reason, and I’ll keep on drawing. 

Through the Looking Glass

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