Ten years crept by between the time I graduated from high school and entered college. When I finally decided to go, it was after the end of a long and shaky relationship that terminated when I began to grow up enough to realize that my life wasn’t going to get any better unless I did something. This included ending the marriage and starting school.
At 28 I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I didn’t realize then that I might never know, exactly. I enrolled in community college to see how things would go. It turned out to be my second good decision, after the divorce, and I began to feel some real optimism about my possibilities for the future. I thought I’d like to focus on art, and so I took every class they had in the department. It was wonderful. After that I was accepted into the art department at a four-year school on an academic honors scholarship, full ride, and that’s where I began to really learn about art.
Anyone can learn to draw, you see. It’s true- drawing is simply placing marks on a surface. If you can write- and not even necessarily legibly- you can draw. The mechanics of drawing take some practice, exactly like back in kindergarten when you first learned to make your letters. Using different drawing tools such as pencil or charcoal or chalk means learning how different materials act on different surfaces. Adding things like light and shadow or perspective requires some ability to apply logic to what you see on the page in front of you. It’s somewhat effortful to get good at drawing, but not impossible. I know this because I have been teaching drawing for many years and seen a lot of surprised and happy students.
The thing about art that I am still learning, and hope never to stop, is the stuff that makes it more than just mechanics and practice. My first real lesson in the meaningful content of art came during the first drawing class I took as a junior at my new school. It took a while for me to get into the expectations these new art professors had. One of my first drawing assignments involved making a series of drawings based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air. As each drawing came due, we students would tack our work onto a long white wall for a peer review and critique. How exactly do you draw water without literally drawing water? Those (like me!) who did just that- producing lovely seashores and lakes- were roundly scoffed at. The idea, I soon discovered, was to make your viewer feel the“water” in your drawing. Aha! This class was all about the abstract expression of ideas. I got over being insulted and and threw myself into trying to see things anew.
Now that I saw how things were, I managed. I have a decent imagination and can talk my way out of a paper bag if I have to. I could play that critique game pretty well, and began to learn how to make drawings that fit the expectations of the professor and his course.
After the elements series, we went on to make a drawing for a blind person. (Simple, really; create a textured surface that doesn’t come off on your audience’s hands. I used layers of foam board, cardboard, and fabrics. It was an interesting exercise.)
The one that got me, though, was the assignment to “make a drawing about nothing". How in hell do you do that? As soon as you place a mark on paper, the drawing at its most basic is “about a mark on paper”. I toyed with pretending to tack up an invisible drawing and do the talk thing. And then I conveniently forgot about the assignment completely until the day it was due.
Working in sculpture class that morning, one of my mates asked how I had solved the drawing problem, and I was immediately overcome with dread. You do not come to drawing class unprepared.
Inspired by petulance and bravado, I ripped a sheet of black paper out of my pastel pad and grabbed a piece of soft black charcoal. I swiped the charcoal on the paper in three savage downward strokes. The black on black made the marks practically invisible. The edge where I took the paper out of the pad had ripped unevenly, leaving a jaggedly torn edge and some of the little diddly things from the spiral binding at one end. Oh well.
A few moments later, I tacked it to the wall, fully expecting a major dressing down by my classmates and professor. They could be less than gentle with shirkers and dilettantes.
We discussed each drawing in turn. None had passed the room’s approval. Too much “stuff” happening on surfaces. We had to disregard the “about marks on paper” idea and focus on the “nothingness”. Then, it was my turn.
Apparently, my drawing had a Zen quality that depicted…nothing. Not even the anger at myself and the assignment. I was shocked. And abashed by my lack of effort. I said so; was told that insight and accomplishment need not take time and effort.
I did not believe it, then, but I was gracious and didn’t argue. I did not want to talk myself out of a good grade for the assignment. It took me years to stop feeling like I had pulled something over on the class. Maybe I even had, and in that particular moment in time, my teacher had decided to make an aesthetic example out of something very simple. Eventually I was able to apply that standard to my own work in asking myself, Does this drawing say anything more than the marks on the paper? Or is it a drawing about nothing?