(Image by German painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann: State of Flux, 2013. Acrylics and Oil on Canvas. 220 x 180 cm. Ruprecht von Kaufmann’s Website.)
Two weeks ago, I enrolled in a drawing class. Drawing I, to be exact. For years I have been filling the pages of my drawing books with sketches: sketches of animals, nature, the sky, objects of beauty, deterioration and significance. So, I had a feeling I knew how to draw.
I was happy to learn, however, that I was wrong. Happy because it means that there is something I love that I can make better. Something I love that I can dive deeper into, like a pool of discovery waiting to envelop my imagination and sense of wonder. Drawing is a skill that brings me happiness and provides a space for me in which I can be completely alone. Sure, there is a social aspect to the class in which I am enrolled, and I find that I feel quite proud of my fellow artists with each new discovery they make. Each time they find the angle or figure out how to use a new sighting technique, I smile for them and feel a sense of hope for us all. Even so, for now, the aspect of drawing I love the most is the individual space it makes for me in my mind and in my soul. It is a place of aloneness but not isolation.
My drawing teacher, Sarah, stresses the importance of seeing something—really seeing it. She says, “Look and feel. Don’t think.” Her message, which is probably the message of all professors of drawing, is like salve to my weary mind. For me, thinking—the mind—is the place of safety. The mind is like the central control room of a space ship. The mind is the place of logic, reason, structure and equation. The mind is the place of safety and direction. I have come to rely on my mind as a steering wheel of sorts: when what I see and what I feel become too dangerous, or feel as though they are spiraling out of control, I flip a switch on the control panel and let my mind take over. So, Sarah’s voice telling me to look and feel, not to think, actually brought tears to my eyes. It was like the voice of a mother saying to her child, “Just trust me. Just trust yourself.” I accepted her words as my permission to open the door to my instincts and to embrace, instead of fight them.
Another of Sarah’s phrases, which is profound in its simplicity, “We are human which means we make lots of mistakes. Which makes us wonderful. And scary.” I laugh every time I say this to myself or share the phrase with others. There is such elegance in the idea of making mistakes. Making mistakes reminds us that life is like a dance on a tightrope between hope and despair. At different times in our lives we strive for perfection, for status, for approval, for affirmation, for worthiness . . . in our striving, our muscles become tense with control, calculations and the act of reaching out for something, or someone, that represents security. As any tightrope walker knows, tension is the enemy of balance and safety, which means it is also the enemy of adventure and true discovery. To understand the effects of tension on the human form we can look to the rigor mortis of the dead. To understand the effects of freedom and trust on the human form, we can look to the dancer, the tightrope walker or the hand of an artist. In this space of freedom—the freedom of looking and feeling—we are free to make mistakes. Which, as Sarah says, makes us beautiful. And scary.
My first homework assignment for drawing class was to set up a still life some place in my home, create ten thumbnail sketches of that still life for the purpose of finding the composition of the items that was most pleasing to my eye and then to draw the still life using only contoured lines. This means there was no shading allowed. I was to draw what I was seeing, not what I assumed I was seeing. This assignment—the very first assignment—revealed many things to me about my own state of mind. Two, specifically, that I will unfold here.
First, I need to relearn patience. The idea of creating ten thumbnail sketches seemed a bit excessive to me. It was my understanding that I could simply begin to draw what I was seeing. I assumed that whatever decision I made concerning the composition of the items in front of me, and how I placed them on the page the first time, would naturally be an adequate composition. I also thought to myself, “As long as I draw the items well, the composition is not really important for now. This is, after all, a drawing class.” So, it was with a bit of consternation and an impatient hand that I drew the first five thumbnails. As I began the sixth thumbnail, I decided to “zoom” into the still life a bit further, making the items bigger on the page. Suddenly, the items began to tell a story to me and I began to focus more on the still life than I was focusing on myself. This was a subconscious transferal of focus, the result of which was—to my surprise—more interesting compositions on my final five thumbnail sketches. In the end, I ended up using my tenth thumbnail as the basis from which I began to create my contour line drawing.
Patience. I was amazed at how the still life began to speak to me. I was also amazed by the aptitude with which my hand began to move across the paper in front of me with less rigidity and a greater use of instinct. As I continued to draw, I listened to music; I looked, I felt and began to see each line as separate. New. Not a nuisance, but a unique and individual beauty. Sarah’s voice rung through my head, “Learn to love lines.” Part of what I was discovering is that learning to love lines is like learning to love anything or anyone, it begins with my own willingness to patiently observe and accept the subject for what it is, as opposed to imposing my own assumptions onto it. Or them. Another part of my discovery unfolded itself before me in a more obvious way . . . I did not check my phone for notifications, alerts or messages. Instead, anytime my mind wandered in the direction of my phone, I refocused back onto my drawing and decided, over and over again, that I the only communication I would allow would be between the lines and my hand. Honoring the process in this way created the space I mentioned in the beginning of this writing: a place of aloneness. In that place there is peace and a newly burgeoning relationship with wonder and openness.
Second, I have experienced the closing of many proverbial doors in my life lately. Without going into too much detail, so as not to exhaust the reader and not to exhaust my own heart in the process, I will simply say that I have felt a great deal of disappointment. This disappointment had begun to work as a hammer into the stone of my confidence. It was as though the harder I tried to do anything, the harder the hammer hit the sides of my head, hands and heart. I was getting discouraged. Really discouraged. I began to hear a voice in my head, “Just stop trying to do anything meaningful. Just stop trying.”
I sat with the voice in my head for a day. One day. I pondered what it would mean if I just stopped trying. Just stopped pondering the dreams, the goals, the relationships and the motivations in my life. What if I just simply stopped? If I stopped pursuing, I would stop being disappointed. I would let life happen to me, instead of through me.
For one day I allowed this disappointment to grip me and I sat with it, face to face. I felt an overwhelming sense of grief—as though someone died—and I began to understand the words of C.S. Lewis as he describes the anatomy of grief. He says it much better than I ever could:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
The next morning, the sun rose. As the Bible says, “His mercies are made new every morning.” And so they are. I made a decision to stop focusing on the disappointments, to learn from them and to make new goals. This is when I enrolled in drawing class. This was the day I restructured the things in my lesson planning for the Public Speaking class I teach—the things I knew I could improve. This is the day I began to edit the play on which I have been working for three years. This is the day I decided that I would feel the pain of disappointment, I would allow myself to grieve, but I would also keep stepping toward hope, instead of sitting with despair. I decided to regain my confidence and trust that as long as there is breath in my body, there is purpose. I made it my responsibility to keep my eyes, heart and hope open to new possibilities.
What does this have to do with my drawing homework? As I focused on something other than myself, and as I began to experience small victories on the page, I felt a sense of aliveness that I had previously felt had been extinguished. I began to learn that my eraser is equally as important as my 2B pencil. I made mistakes—so many mistakes—but as quickly as I made them, I learned something new. My mistakes were actually teaching me how to see—truly see—what was right in front of me. The still life and I began to work together: when I was truly looking and feeling, I was bringing it to life on my page. When I started to think, I was bringing myself to the page. So, though this process—beginning to learn the process of looking and feeling—I began to realize how my own sense of control, which was a result of the fear of making mistakes, was stifling my aliveness. And I really wanted to embrace my aliveness, not fight against it.
In conclusion, the hammer—or disappointment—that was smashing into the sides of my stone confidence caused me a great deal of pain. Even so, pain is often the chisel God uses to sculpt us into the best versions of ourselves. This means that our pain is not wasted. As C.S. Lewis writes, “You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.” I am not perfect—not at all—and I really have no desire to be perfect. But Lewis’ metaphor is clear. There is purpose in pain.
As Sarah says, “In Drawing I we are learning to see. That’s it. You would be surprised how difficult it is to simply see.”
Look and feel. Don’t think.
–copyright Jill Szoo Wilson
Song that inspired me today: Black Hole Sun, by Soundgarden