She has faithfully kept a sketchbook for years. She prefers a black hardbound journal approximately nine inches by twelve inches in size. Such a book can be purchased at almost any art store. Each has about one hundred fifty sheets of drawing paper. She can usually pick one these sketchbooks up for seven or eight dollars.
At last count, she has filled over thirty such sketchbooks with a variety of drawings, citations, notes and other miscellaneous fragments of information. She tries to make at least one or two entries in the book every day. It takes between six or seven months to fill a sketchbook book entirely from cover to cover.
Many artists keep a similar sketchbook, all for more or less the same reason. A sketchbook is a kind of visual warehouse, a place for storing ideas, references, resources and observations, each intended to be one day transformed into a real project or work of art. She employs her sketchbook for much the same purpose.
For better or worse, her head continually swells with ideas. Some of these ideas are grandiose, some are simple, many are inconsequential, some are mildly clever, most are earnest and some, thoroughly inane. Most of these ideas are incomplete and will likely remain unrealized. Regardless, she records them all in this journal without prejudgment. It's hard to tell when some random speculation might turn out to be something real important.
She draws constantly and has done so every day of her life since she was a child. Still, she remains dissatisfied with her abilities and continually looks to make one improvement or another. People think she draws well. She knows better.
Though she is insecure about what she sees as her every shortcoming with pen and pencil, she continues to draw regardless of her apprehensions. She draws because it is an activity she enjoys, because drawing offers both solace and diversion. She draws because she knows if she does not draw, she will never get any better than she is right now. But mostly, she draws because she cannot stop herself from doing so. It has become her one great compulsion, all the more so now that she’s gotten older.
This afternoon, she’s seated in the Greenhouse Lounge, third booth from the rear on the left, sipping an overly tart glass of Cabernet and drawing in her sketchbook. She will sketch for about three hours. She will drink four or five glasses of wine. She will complete one or two sketches. Each measure of her unhurried passage through the afternoon is transposable. If she completes two drawings, three hours will have passed. If she drinks four glasses of wine, she will have completed two drawings. If three hours have expired, likely she’ll be broke.
Today, she’s drawing the image of a potted plant, bedded in the bowl of a toilet. She imagines it an amusing juxtaposition. Indeed, most of her drawings in one way or another deal with the placement of an object in some unnatural context. A sailboat is rendered trapped within the intersection of two urban streets, a man in a business suit is illustrated riding a skateboard, a gravestone is perched at the end of a hospital corridor. Some of these images are morbid, some are humorous and some are unexpectedly impotent, the product of an idea that seemed much more interesting in the imagination than it would prove in its drawn form.
She draws them all. She does not discriminate one from the next, at least not at the moment of conception. She prefers to simply draw the idea out, playing with it in her head and hand, deferring judgment only until the image has found a place for itself in her catalog of illustration. By her best own accounting, she has completed 7,600 sketches in the past seventeen years. This comes to about 450 drawings per year, a little over eight and one half representations per week, one and one quarter sketches per day. It will have taken about 12,000 hours of labor, or a tad more than 15,000 drinks of varying sorts: soda, coffee and most recently, $4.50 glasses of wine, poured from the weathered bottles lining the bar at the Greenhouse Lounge.
There is no reliable way to know where the compulsion to draw comes from, just as there is no way to know why some people write short stories and others take up accounting or bird watching and others, petty larceny. It just happens. Understanding why any of us do what we do is one of life’s more inexplicable mysteries.
Still, it is easy to suppose the compulsion to draw is both gift and burden, imparted in the womb prior to birth, awaiting only sufficient development of an infant’s manual dexterity to enable the purposeful grasp of a crayon. Likely, this is only partially true. An innate instinct counts for much, but not all. The talent for drawing in fact, might be remarkably commonplace. All sorts of people might be walking around with the ability and not even know it.
What is necessary, but far less common, is the instinct to develop this compulsion, whatever its magnitude. To become real, the gift must always be coupled with thoughtful guidance and much practice. Of course, it takes a considerable amount of time. For true artists, often it takes a lifetime.
The presence of a gift is not unimportant however. As novelist Wallace Stegner once said, “you can’t make a writer out of a born plumber.” Neither can you make him an artist. She understands this. Whenever she looks at drawings she made as a child, she can recognize qualities in them which persist to this day: the manner in which she forms a simple line, her sense of proportion and composition, her eye for the illumination of a subject. All of these elemental characteristics of her hand have remained unchanged for nearly forty years. And though she’s grown more skillful over this period and the ability to render persuasive representations of a subject has become far more reliable, but at its core, her ability has been evident if not wholly formed for a very long time. It is as though at least some part of her compulsion to draw had been hardwired from conception. There is nothing she can do about it. There is nothing anyone can do about it. It is simply there.
There is comfort in this understanding, but also discontent. It suggests that those aspects of ability that are innate are by the same measure, limited. If talent is only a gift, there is little that can be done to alter its fundamental nature. Practice and training only hone those attributes already present. The gift cannot be transformed into something it was never destined to be.
She understands this too. Despite all her patient work, she still draws in much the same way she drew as a child. She still makes the same visual mistakes. She still misrepresents objects with the same imbedded misunderstandings. She still cannot fashion the figure of a human head without a subtle elongation.
If you draw intensively for a very long time, you would expect to learn something important about drawing. This has been true for her, but also, not true. There are certain technical faculties that do improve over time and your confidence in your own abilities does grow. The numbing terror of confronting a blank sheet of drawing paper vanishes entirely.
But other things do not change at all, or if they do change and improve, it is only by a very little amount, at a glacial pace: things like the way the world is seen and how, for better or worse, this vision is translated images that can be shared with someone else. All of which suggests that the ability to draw is like language, a knack that comes to you very early in life, perhaps even in infancy. Once established, this faculty is remarkably immune to change. You can work on it around the edges and improve things here and there, but the basic aptitudes remain more or less fixed.
It follows that when we observe the signature gestures of celebrated artists and believe their distinctiveness the sole product of a deliberately crafted artistic vision, we may be completely mistaken. Though we admire the attenuation of Modigliani’s nudes and the queasy unworldliness of Chagall or the liquid brushstrokes of Monet, these distinctive qualities may well be the product of something other than each artist’s own unique vision. Maybe it is all really much simpler than that. Maybe they just couldn’t draw or paint in any other way. Maybe this was their innate, completely inescapable gift. Maybe they couldn’t be anything but what they had from birth been destined to become, whether they wished it or not.
Regardless, one thing is certain. At one moment or another, each of these artists first embraced the calling of their gift and then pursued it with abandon. And this of course, is the real question. Why would one individual surrender a lifetime to the beckoning of the gift, while another ignores its presence altogether?
It is a compulsion the artist alone understands. It is something she hopes to one day understand about herself. She can however identify the very moment she discovered the true nature of her compulsion to draw. It happened one fall morning in 1963. She has been drawing ceaselessly ever since.
Forty-three years ago at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in White Oak, Kansas, in the third grade elementary school classroom of a marvelously nurturing teacher, Ms. Margaret Salfrank, her students were instructed to create a book that was to include a drawing of everything that existed in the entire world: a work to be titled “The Everything Book.” Even at the age of eight, she was one of Mrs. Salfrank’s most ardent students. She and her fellow students took this assignment very seriously and with great deliberation, began to draw everything that they imagined the world to contain: flowers, horses, houses, trees, mountains-everything.
It was then and yet remains a futile but ennobling choice of assignments; to ask everything imaginable of young students who could not yet acknowledge that there might be some limitation to what one person can know and then articulate and then realize.
And yet, as must surely be appreciated, this is what teachers are supposed to do with their lives.
Nice piece of work, Mrs. Salfrank. A very nice piece of work indeed.
And so, this is what she’s up to this afternoon at the Greenhouse Lounge. It is what she’s been doing for every day of each of the past forty years: drawing a picture of anything and everything that exist in this world, without differentiation, without judgment.
Three hours have passed. She’s broke. The drawing of a flowering toilet is complete. A sketch of a woman born without ears or eyes is partially rendered. She will finish it tomorrow. She will walk out of the Greenhouse, up Dunbar Street and back into her apartment. She will lie down on the floor of the apartment’s living room and sleep, not stirring again until well after 1 PM tomorrow.