There is a sexier version of this article. When I originally pitched the idea for the Immersion edition, I told Statement editors that I would finally dedicate time to my lifelong love of art and maybe gain acceptance from my prodigious father along the way. Sketches! Watercolors!! Inktober!!!! I immediately threw a copy of Betty Edwards’ “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” in my bag. I made plans to attend an experimental rave in Ypsilanti and spray paint in graffiti alley with my roommate, DJ. I had the killer idea to cap it all off by recreating famous pictures of masters at work: Jackson Pollock hunched over a canvas, Vinent Van Gogh with his bound head, Art Spiegelman chugging India Ink. This is not that article.
In the last month, I have not opened Edwards’ book. I did not attend the rave. My roommate rudely rejected my request to visit graffiti alley despite the fact that I gave him a full two minutes notice. I’ve fallen into that damp, drizzly November of the soul. Why keep writing this article after failing so spectacularly? I thought that the Immersion Edition might offer dedicated time to explore a major untapped passion, but we’re far past the event horizon for any real progress.
Instead, business as usual. Every couple of years, my Youtube feed overflows with CalArts sketchbook tours and Mattias Pilhede pep talks encouraging me to draw every day. I check out a manual from the library, and I schedule time to practice — until I abandon my resolution in a couple weeks. Essays, extracurriculars, family — everything gets in the way. Quite frankly, without an article deadline, things would follow the same pattern. But my name is on the content calendar for this edition, so I’m sworn to see this through.
I began to doodle small sketches to no avail; my rendition of Noam Chomsky looked like a shabbier Beaker. As time dwindled, I dashed to the Diag to recruit others for the cause, randomly asking passersby if they’d be willing to draw caricatures of each other. This immediately improved my mood. Engineering sophomore Cindy Yang agreed to help, but cautioned she was a terrible artist. Thank God. Sitting across from another bad artist, struggling to make basic shapes and giggling the whole time made everything all the more enjoyable. It’s like cooking with friends: even if the pan catches on fire, even if you burn the omelets, even if your mother never trusts you with a spatula again, the chance to laugh together is the real appeal. If drawing was always this approachable, maybe I’d never do anything else.
Soon, a duo of art students overheard me approaching others on the Diag and gleefully volunteered to help. We sat down, one of the two young women carefully grabbed a blue pen and the air immediately changed. To an amateur like me, watching her fingers glide was like watching a Formula One race. Meanwhile, with my failed Noam Chomsky, I was left racing Hot Wheels on an area rug. After five minutes of twitchy silence, she produced a four-toned portrait of me, capturing every crook in my nose and every fold in my beanie.
One of my favorite folktales warns about good artists. It tells of a painter who always drew expansive, exotic menageries of wild beasts but was always careful to draw his animals with only one eye. If he added both, his paintings would be too perfect, too real, and rhinos, elephants and tigers would race through Tokyo’s streets. Good artists command the world. My father is the best artist I know.
With a battered Strathmore sketchbook, the last inches of a Ticonderoga and three unwavering strokes, he could put my sleeping sister on a paper. On some days, the picture would snore louder than the person. In a past life, my father attended Bangladesh’s most prestigious art program, later working prolifically as a muralist and graphic designer. His training filled the house in other ways too. In my middle school years, after we bought a new home, he immediately started renovating. He would make plans and take measurements; he would install patios and kitchens and new walls. When a contractor friend would leave suggestions, my father would quietly reject them, only for the contractor to later admit to preferring my father’s vision. Throughout my life, I’ve been convinced that my father’s boundless creativity sprouts from his magical eyes.
I remember once asking my father to teach me when I was still in elementary school. I soon quit because I couldn’t shade a sphere properly. My father’s example was a perfect gradient of values. Mine was a checkerboard. Clearly, the ugliness of my sphere proved I was seeing things all wrong. This felt like a death sentence for my artistic career and a diagnosis of my faulty eyes. I would never see what talented artists saw in the world. So I stuck to writing, something I was demonstrably better at.
At age 19, I’m confronting the same ugliness on the page. But I’m tempted to reframe the ugliness of my drawings as something useful. After years of seeing the oppressiveness of conventional beauty standards, I hesitate to discard ugly things outright. There’s an underdog charm to an ugly jalopy and an irresistible quirkiness to a neon blue comic sans sign. To purge ugliness would be to lose so much of the world’s fun. Maybe ugliness has its own place.
Umberto Eco, Italian scholar and medievalist, argued that Christian art saw everything as beautiful, as playing a part in a carefully planned cosmic order. Ugliness as chiaroscuro — an essential darkness that elevates the light. Perhaps making ugly images is more than a step toward making beautiful images. Perhaps ugly images and beautiful images coexist in an ecosystem of meaning, giving each other value. On some level, I do believe that if we lived in a world where faces were only painted beautifully, we’d lose appreciation for beauty’s evasiveness. Still, this explanation disappoints. I want my drawings to do more than elevate other artwork.
Eventually, post-Diag adventure, I wandered to graffiti alley, where text and art collide. I decided to spray paint a poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” which I translated recently for a comparative literature class. As I’ve never been able to read Bengali script, I had to rely on my mother’s transliteration for the process. Spray painting each baby blue character recalled a time when all writing was just painting.
The blurry intersections of image and text make me question my identity as a writer.
As Lynda Barry points out in “Making Comics,” learning to write only comes from a willingness to draw. At first, we drew our names because the process of creating each letter had not yet become instinctual. In other words, there was a time when I found writing as cryptic as I currently find drawing. When I was three, I didn’t know how to recognizably shape R’s or U’s. Now, I don’t know how to recognize noses or hats. But the mystery of writing never stopped me. The question of whether I was a good writer, whether I could believably describe anything in writing, was irrelevant. Instead of worrying about the emotional response of others, I was learning for myself. It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s because neither of my parents write poems or stories; maybe it’s because my teachers thought that a student who was writing terrible limericks was more promising and unique than a student drawing terrible pictures. Either way, the same discouragement never set in for writing.
It’s easy to believe that my identity has ossified since childhood. Sure, Barry’s analysis does remind me that writing was once mysterious but I’ve already chosen a path. I’m a writer and not a painter or cartoonist or printmaker. Are our artistic identities really so set in stone? After all, if I try to decipher window signs in Hamtramck or my mother’s Satyajit Ray books, I completely lose control of language. When spray painting Bengali poetry on the wall, I’m drawing not writing. Once again, each periwinkle curve, each sweeping matra presented a complete mystery.
Adults often see no coherence in the messiness of children’s illustration. Barry, however, believes that “kids speak images.” As they spontaneously draw, they find meaning in the picture. To them, the open-ended nature of drawing presents a space to freely create (or find) characters, stories and places. As a child scribbles, a bee might become a firefighter which may become a house. The idea of strict resemblance never enters the equation.
If my identity as a wordsmith is so contextually dependent, why don’t I embrace the approach children take to art? If I lose control of language, the bedrock of my creative identity as soon as I spray paint Bengali characters, why don’t I embrace being an amateur? Let’s abandon thinking about art as an ordered, intentional expression of the fixed selves, tuned to the tastes of others. Let’s embrace a conception of art as an unstructured, release of a chaotic and constantly changing self. Instead of being burdened by the pressures of excellence and progress, let’s be amateurs. I have never been only a writer in my life and letting go of this narrow identity allows me to start exploring an endless sea of possible selves. Whether I’m “good” at cartooning or painting or printmaking is entirely irrelevant.
Working on this article has brought me no closer towards perfectly depicting anything. Now, the possibility of perfection in art — a day when all the mysteries are solved and there’s nothing left to find — feels dreadful. I’m lucky to exist in a world where I’m always changing, where everything inside and out is in constant flux. I’m lucky that I’ll always have the chance to be an amateur.
Statement Correspondent Awmeo Azad can be reached at email@example.com.