Portraits. Figure drawing. Painting. A piece of charcoal in between your fingers. The scratching sounds of drawing on a canvas. The dunking of brushes in water. This is the symphony of the art student. The story of Lena and myself.
Lena has been a standout character for me since I read the series in High School. Lena is shy, quiet, and emotionally reserved. A dreamer. She does not enjoy being the center of attention. I am an awful lot like her. I am an INFP. I am reserved, shy, and sensitive. I like to stay in the background and dream. I also have a burning need to create. And feel most alive when I am behind an easel.
I used to draw everyday, from the time I was seven. I would carry papers and pencils with me and I would draw anything I could think of. My grandmother, who was an artist, spent many visits with me, teaching me little tricks to make my drawings better. She gave me a framework to create. She showed me how to draw figures from eight circles; she sparked my interest in drawing people. And so I drew people from my imagination. I made fantastic little crayon worlds of color and people, far away from the reality around me that was drained of color and expression. Drawing was my little safe world from all the monsters outside of my paper that could make me sad.
Then her fingers started itching for a piece of charcoal…It was like leaving drugs out for an addict.
The world has always been a bit scary to me, but the world I create from the end of my paint brush or my pencil has always made me feel happy and safe. As the kid of a screwed up divorce and a toxic extended family, art has been my therapy, though I didn’t realize that until my 20’s. Once I began to notice the people around me, I began to soak up people’s emotions, and I didn’t know how to process the sadness and the pain. In High School, I began to understand that there was more to the drawing process than simply creating things from your imagination. In order to grow, you had to look deeper. You had to study the world around you.
As a child you were taught to see the world in geometric shapes and primary colors…Then you had to spend the rest of your life unlearning them. That was life as Lena could tell. Making everything simple for the the first ten years, which in turn made everything way more complicated for the subsequent seventy.
But, I didn’t want to look deeper. I didn’t want to tap into the world and investigate it the way I was supposed to. It was too painful. So I hid, in perfect images on the canvas. My work was stark, vanilla, and generic in its symmetry. My color choices were identical to what I saw in the pretty and safe inspirations I chose. I duplicated reality by removing everything dark and rough from the image. I smugly believed I was better than everyone else, because my images were so perfect. But that’s not what art is about! Art is about emotion and communicating a story behind the lines and colors. You are saying something. And my teenage work said nothing. I painfully realized this at a Senior Art show at a local gallery. I wandered around the gallery looking at my competitors’ work with superficial confidence. Their messy strokes and moody colors to me were less than my ideal art. I would win, I knew it. If the judges had taste I would.
And I didn’t. I didn’t even place.
Lena had been avoiding Valia’s obvious pain, and her own associated troubles. Seeing Valia’s face, she couldn’t ignore the pain. Drawing Valia meant not only seeing it but going in after it. Lena felt that her only hope was to try in stages….She wouldn’t just find the sorrow, plentiful though it was. She would be an archeaologist. She would unearth the former Valia; she would rediscover her in the midst of all her ravages…Lena was drawing what she saw, but allowing the past to inform the way she interpreted it, if it was possible. She could see the beauty if she really tried.
That moment of underwhelmed achievement and, real failure, made me reflect. I recoiled. I knew what my art was missing, but I refused to go there. Refused to be uncomfortable and be an archaeologist like Lena. So, I put down my brushes and my pencils and I packed them away and decided I did not want to be an artist anymore. I didn’t want to investigate the depths of a person’s face and soul with my charcoal. I didn’t want to examine the world around me with my paints. What a silly way to think!
You can’t escape emotions or pain. They are everywhere. In the books we read and the topics we discuss. You have to cut yourself off from everything to not feel something and, even then, when you feel something, you have to feel it all by yourself. It will clobber you.
She had thought that her challenge would be to paint his anger, to confront it. But now she knew that wasn’t the challenging thing. The challenging thing was to see past it…Sometimes you could see things more truly when you forfeited your normal visual relationship with them. Sometimes your preexisting ideas were so powerful they clubbed the truth dead before you could realize it was there. Sometimes you had to let the truth catch you be surprise.
I’ve gone through many phases of art now. Abstract strokes. Angry, dark painting of distress and pain. Faded colors, too muted to barely speak. Bold expressions on portraits. Watercolors. Acrylics. Oil Pastels. Charcoal. I have duplicated, interpreted, and dug through the world around me to find the beauty hiding beneath. It called to me, screamed at points for me to find it. Instead, I ran away. I hid my head away from art. I despised it for a while, for its pull caused me pain. And then one day, as I was working on a short story, art called to me again and welcomed me back with a hug. It released my demons and opened my eyes back to the world of random lines and shapes. The beauty with the world waiting to be discovered. Reading Lena’s character development from ‘Girls in Pants,’ spoke to me deeply about my own journey. It put expressions and emotions into words I could not find. Pretty surprising for a Young Adult Fiction book. I expect that out of Dostoevsky, not Ann Brashares.
The trick of drawing was leaving your feelings out, giving them the brutal boot. The deeper trick of drawing was inviting them back in, making nice with them at exactly the right moment, after you are sure your eyes really were working. Fighting and making up.
Fighting and making up is the concept that spoke to me. As I create my illustrations for Udal Cuain, and even write Udal Cuain, I am confronted with this. There are deep emotions I am dredging up with every chapter I write. I must fight and make up in order to capture the feelings I am after. The story cannot be told without it. Even a simple portrait, like in the ‘Girls in Pants’ story, cannot be made without confronting the bad to showcase the good. It is a necessary battle to have on the canvas or the page. Without it, we are saying nothing of value, we are noise for the sake of noise shouting into the abyss of creativity lost.
Brashares, Ann. Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood. (2006) Delacorte Press: New York, NY.