After several lost semesters spent doing serious (read “heavy”) anthropological research, I relocated to the desert and changed universities. During my first summer there, I re-discovered drawing. It’s something I’d always been good at, and enjoyed, yet somehow I’d been more or less totally repelled by every art class (and art instructor) I’d taken during my primary school education. So when I attended Professor Dan Britton’s introduction to drawing class, I didn’t expect it to become an immediate and consuming obsession. But it did.
That summer, I think it must have been 1999, I spent a lot of time dragging a folding card table to the forgotten corners of Phoenix, Arizona, setting up under the sun and drawing crumbling buildings, ranches and trash heaps. The textures of entropy were the perfect matrix to exercise my eye and hand. People would stop and watch, sometimes ask questions, and occasionally menace me.
For about three days in a row, I sat at the outskirts of a junkyard. There were piles of wooden pallets and old tires, burned out car bodies, old appliances. Looming over the whole scene was a decommissioned power plant: essentially a massive tangle of pipes and girders and catwalks, paint blistered and peeling from the sun and burnished smooth by the wind and sand. I worked fiendishly, trying to capture the irregular and battered shapes, the patterns of decay and wear.
Back in class, Dan pinned my drawing to the wall by its corners, then stepped away. He moved closer, then further back. The whole class was tense with his silence. I thought for sure he was mesmerized by the graphic composition that organized a seemingly bottomless feast of spectacular detail. Finally, he looked right at me, building the suspense even further with his imploring gaze.
“What the fuck is this?” I took him to be teasing me, pretending befuddlement at my virtuosity.
“It’s a junk yard,” I reported with a satisfied smile.
“NO!. This?” He gestured across the paper horizontally, about two-thirds up the page. He was serious. My head started to spin.
“Ummm… Mountains?’ I clarified.
“Bullshit. That’s a wiggly line. …Mountains?’ he scoffed. He looked back and forth between me and the drawing repeatedly, his disdain obvious. “Jesus Christ,” he cursed. “You’ve gotta draw the shit out of the mountains.”
I remembered the moment I’d noticed the Four Peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains, faint and blue in the distance, the long meandering movement that traced out their peaks, even thinking I was clever for insinuating the distant geography so simply. “… and… done!” I’d thought.
Dan lightened up on me after his initial salvo, but his lesson came through plain and clear. If you’re going to include something in your composition, don’t do it as an afterthought. Make choices. Be purposeful. Develop, explore and execute EVERY DETAIL.
There’s nothing wrong, so to speak, with a simple squiggly line. They can even look like mountains. But Dan could tell that I’d made an empty gesture, and that’s what made him angry. I’d taken the mountains for granted, drawn them in simply because they were there… and it showed.
So now, when we include them, we try to draw the shit out of the mountains.