Student Sara Barkat has been an artist for as long as she can remember. The educational setting she was raised in cultivated a no-fear, exploratory approach to art that remains with her to this day. She believes, strongly, that everyone can move beyond “stick figure drawing,” even if everyone won’t be Picasso. It is her aim to help people find their real abilities to draw, and to bring Art to the center of curricula, thinking, and human life and interaction.
“Draw an l.”
“Draw an L. the letter L, in cursive.” So I replied to my grandmother, sitting beside her with a pen, a paper, and a plan. Looking at me doubtfully, she complied, drawing a beautiful, though minutely shaky, capital cursive L with loops up and down. I stared at it for a moment. Not quite the simple lowercase l I had been expecting, but this was even better—and I realized, in that moment, that I had never really seen her handwriting.
“Like that?” she inquired, and I answered in the affirmative, taking the pen back and drawing a line of looped L’s across the page. “What about that?” I asked.
Taking the pen back, she copied the motion, still looking confused. What she didn’t know yet was that I had had an epiphany a few days ago, and was testing my newly-born theory. I had been thinking, as I tend to do, about art, and many people’s steadfast insistence that the breadth of their drawing ability was limited to nothing but a straight line. I was thinking about the evolution of language, from pictograms to symbols to the Latin alphabet used in the English language. Why was this crippling belief so entrenched? I mean, these same self-avowed stick-figure-landers could write perfectly passable cursive, replete with the fluidity, detail, and strong lines required for drawing; yet when asked to turn their pen another way, the results were abysmal. Fear was, of course, the answer. The self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity, of people believing that they could not draw; faced with the expanse of the page and with no idea where to turn, it was far too easy to fall back on the old stick figure.
But the gulf between art and writing had not existed forever; at their roots, way back in the shadows of history, the two were intrinsically connected. When did that stop? And more importantly, why?
It was late at night and my little cousins had gone to bed. Curled up on the couch beside my grandmother, I drew a straight line. “Draw L’s along that line—like this.” She did so. From one straight line with the L’s all riding on the upper lip, we progressed to twining l’s dipping above and below the line, forming a pattern. From there, I drew a simple exoskeleton of a tree. “Draw L’s on the edges of that.” By now she was beginning to catch on. The L’s, in this case, were the leaves.
As I started watching my grandmother draw, I came to notice the most interesting thing. She started by copying my technique exactly, L’s curling around the sides of the branches, but as they gravitated around the tree, they began to morph, becoming looser and more fluid, curving leaves and swirls tracing through the inky branches. I held my breath, almost unable to believe my own eyes. Many times throughout the years I had tried to teach my grandmother to draw, and the results had always turned out shaky and timid, as though made by someone who didn’t know how to hold a pen. This was something different.
I drew more tree-skeletons, and a straight line along which grass could be drawn, giving suggestions as we went. Seeing that the middle tree had branches that stopped halfway down the trunk, my grandmother took the initiative and drew more. She was no longer passively copying my vision of the picture but adding her own ideas. I said she could draw more cursive letters along the ground as grass, and she started to do so, drawing curling R’s, B’s, and S’s. Halfway through the grassy ground, she stopped. “That doesn’t look right.”
I could almost feel my mind turning somersaults of pure shock as I stared from the page to my grandmother. I agreed – the other letters just didn’t give the impression of grass, looking more like, well, capital cursive letters – but I had never, in my wildest dreams, thought my grandmother would have stated a similar opinion. She had never given an opinion about art or aesthetics before; I didn’t even know she had any.
“Here, why don’t we draw L’s again,” I found myself saying, illustrating a few to show her how it would look. “See? Those look a little more like grass.”
And so we continued, drawing together a landscape which I proudly entitled as a joint project “by Sara and Grandma.” She seemed almost as surprised as I.
Photo by Richard, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.