“It’s not about good drawing, it’s about drawing good.” (1)
Nick Moore recently introduced me to a creative arts activity that asked some interesting questions about ownership, value and worth. It wasn’t given a name but could perhaps be described as collaborative ‘free drawing’, and I enjoyed it immensely.
The activity involved a group of people (in this instance 14 students including myself) stood in a circle around an island of tables, each with an A2 piece of cartilage paper a chunky 6B graphite stick. With no theme or subject given we were simply asked to start drawing in silence. After about 2 or 3 minutes, just as I felt as if our group were becoming adjusted to the task and starting to become focused, we were asked to move our drawings to the person on our right and continue to draw on the one we received. This process continued, every few minutes passing the drawings on to our right; 14 times until we eventually ended up with the piece of paper that we had begun with. Our original drawings were now filled with 13 new and unique marks made by each person in the group, filling up the page and completing the artwork.
We then took a nice long tea break, taking in the opportunity to have a good look at the intensely energetic and detailed pictures we had created.
Activities like this enthuse and inspire me. Over the space of 40 minutes or so we had built a body of work that was truly fascinating to look at. Each image contained a series of marks made by each one of us; one person’s mark relating to the next person’s, forming controlled but totally random compositions. Each image was full of line, tone and shading, but also included representations of household objects, figures of people, animals and architecture. Some text resembled bold comic book style lettering, whilst other areas contained sentences stating thoughts, moods and feelings. I found it alluring to see the communication between different people’s markings and how they all began to relate to each other, capturing a snap shot of each one of us as individuals but also as a larger collective group at that very moment in time. Here the process felt as if it held far more value than the outcome.
But I couldn’t help sensing that not everyone shared my enthusiasm for this way of working. Thankfully this unease was addressed by the group (after washing up the tea cups) in a review session and with Nick as facilitator, we discussed how it felt for each of us whilst working through the activity. There appeared to be a sense of lost ownership from many who resented having to give up their initial drawings to be defaced by others, combined with a sense of guilt when beginning to draw on someone else’s artwork. Who now truly owned the piece was vehemently questioned and there was clearly some discomfort surrounding the signing of the finished pieces and claiming them as our own work. And I understand that completely…
Within the world of the graffiti art subculture artists painting over each others work is common practice. In towns such as Bristol there are a growing number of street based artists and not enough public spaces for artists to continually keep on producing new work, so it is inevitable that spaces that are permitted for painting see a high turnover of different artists work. As an active artist in this field, you have to accept that you are going to paint over another artists work and in turn, it is certain that another artist will go over yours. In my early days of writing graffiti, I found this hard to take. I didn’t like painting over other peoples paintings and I didn’t respond well when someone went over one of mine. But over time this became less important to me and I began to feel less precious about making art on the streets. In accepting that the artworks I painted were transient it loosened my approach to painting graffiti, freeing up space to try new things and push new ideas.
However this process took a long time; and over that time I was able to work through the same emotions that were felt be my peers during the free drawing exercise. What I gained from the graffiti art subculture was the realisation that street art cannot be precious; it is a temporary art form and as such we have to accept that the work we put out will inevitably have a limited lifespan. In many ways becoming less precious about the art we make allows us to take more risks – not worrying about the outcome opens up more space for creativity during the process.
I wonder if the most precious part of any artwork is not the finished piece itself but the story behind the context in which it was created…?
(1) Shaun D McMillan