By Jeri Griffith
Marlboro Music Festival
I come to the blank page to contemplate life. Drawing is a way to explore and learn about something. When you draw, it’s necessary to abstract yourself. You must see the world in terms of shapes rather than in terms of concepts. There’s a mandate to give up your preconceptions about what you think you see and really look. Viewed in this way, drawing has a moral value. It teaches me to quickly release preconceptions.
For me, drawing from life is, by its very nature, an inexact science. If I put down a line and notice that it’s wrong, I adjust by putting down another line in an attempt to find the form. In life drawing, as I practice it, the subject is not posed or fixed. Rather, it’s a moving target. Inevitably, my chosen subject will move. Life is never still. Then I have to decide what to do. And that’s an opportunity for me to make choices. Maybe I finish the drawing from memory. Or I can quit and leave behind a bare sketch with only a few lines—a poignant suggestion of what was once there and no longer is.
Drawing is a relationship between me and the world—a way of practicing the very nature of relationship. My drawing involves making constant adjustments as I forage for options. Ideally, it’s a model for the way we might relate to one another. A drawing cannot recreate reality. It is simply a series of suggestive marks on a page. We can’t truly know human beings either. We simply have to limn some imperfect understanding of who they and continue to adjust as we come to know them better.
The marks I make are…just that…marks. Each person’s marks are unique as handwriting. Of course, one can imitate. I can try to copy the drawings of other artists and maybe I’ll even learn something from that. But my marks will never be exactly the same as someone else’s marks.
When scientists cause collisions in huge tubular particle accelerators, they end up seeing the tracks or energy of the short-lived sub-atomic particles they create. My drawing lines are those kinds of tracks. Drawings are, by their very nature, ephemeral. The idea that any drawing I make will be extant in three hundred years seems unlikely. It’s a miracle that we still possess works on paper by Renaissance masters such as Leonardo. In the free-for-all of history, what survives?
Drawing is a meditation, a reminder, an attempt to record an awareness that passes all too quickly. Here, at a rehearsal at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, I love to draw musicians. There is a relationship with sound as well as a relationship between the performers and the shapes of their instruments that acts as a muse. I have training and years of practice. I am not a novice. Even so, I experience hesitation. This is the moment when judgment intervenes. There’s a fall from grace, a time when I doubt my capacity. How well will I perform? The answer is to release the very idea that there’s some sort of attainable perfection. I have to do something. I make something even though I know it will fall short.
Drawing is a singular and isolated activity with a wildness to it. You’re doing this by yourself. It’s all on you. Even if you’re in a group drawing from a model, drawing is still a very private action. The blank sketchbook page results in a confrontation between you and the uncreated.
When I begin a drawing, I look for something to grab on to. I’m seeking a “hole” in the visual fabric, a place to reach into and then work out from. I make one mark and then another. I correct things I’ve already put down, either because I see more accurately or because my subject has already moved on. Sometimes, I try to show the change as it occurs with multiple lines.
Life drawing is like life. It’s in motion. Each image is an archaeology of images that came before. The first seeing is not the ultimate seeing. The sketchbook is draft material, and that’s its power. I’m evoking something here. The most rudimentary line is an indication of what I’m trying to say about my subject and the space between us.
Drawing from life requires courage and patience that is an antidote for anger. OK, the subject moved. Don’t get mad. It happens with lovers and friends as well as with automobiles and rivers. It’s the way things are. The scene is not fixed or perfect; therefore, I cannot aim for perfection. And even this “I” that I think I am protecting seems to disappear when I’m really involved in the work itself. Drawing is an attempt at ownership, but in the end, I have to ask: Who does this belong to? What does it mean? I am here. This is the blank page where I make my marks. Out there is something I only loosely comprehend.
Writer and artist Jeri Griffith lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont, after stints in Boston and Austin, Texas, but her childhood was spent in Wisconsin. These disparate places each feel like separate countries to her, with landscapes, seasons, and ways of being that influence both her art and her identity. Jeri has published stories and essays in literary quarterlies. She is currently working on a memoir and a collection of short stories, as well as organizing exhibitions of her art.