A short talk given at Falmouth School of Art's forum on Drawing, March 2015
One idea about drawing and language that means a lot to me comes from a writer, Ursula Le Guin. LeGuin calls it the handmind – a thought voiced by a potter in her utopian novel Always Coming Home: ‘Nothing we do is better than the work of the handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.’
We often hear art and poetry spoken of as forms of thinking. That’s a simple enough proposition, but it begs the question ‘What do we mean by thinking?’ And what’s the difference, if there is one, between thinking something, and seeing it? The cartoonist Lynda Barry uses an expression I find helpful, here: ‘the unthinkable mind’. When we draw or write stories, Barry suggests, images behave ‘more like ghosts than ideas’, moving as if with a mind and a will of their own. And releasing that movement of images (which, for Barry, is synonymous with imagination) involves a mode of seeing that’s enacted by making, and is a quite different species of thought to discursive, analytical reason. A curious thing: the apparent inability of critical thinking to access this direct, responsive seeing. And something that Mervyn Peake once observed, that I often drift back to, is that learning to follow the thread of what you like is the discipline that best facilitates such seeing-by-making, whatever we choose to call it.
To illustrate why Le Guin’s handmind appeals to me, and what I mean by seeing and liking in this context, I’ve brought a drawing project that was interrupted by another idea, one which grew up around it, like ivy taking over a tree. The first project: 1000 flies. To draw a thousand flies. An idea seeded by hearing about the practice, begun in Hiroshima, of folding 1000 paper cranes as a form of peace-prayer, or ritual healing: Senbazuru. But long before I got to 1000, something else overtook this plan, something that eventually unspooled as a story called Fly Sings. Why did this new thread grab my attention? Most simply, perhaps, because drawing for its own sake no longer excites my interest the way it once did. Because drawing comes alive, now, as part of a broader process involving words, and the visual combination of words and pictures, in narrative form. Words, drawings, the behaviour of both on the page, their place within a sequence of pages, all acting upon each other such that none of these factors can be weighed separately. And drawing, as an output in its own right, now breathes most easily as a by-product, a spin-off of this storytelling process.
But what of that vague sense of connection with folding paper cranes, with making images as a prayer for healing. For healing what? And setting out to draw 1000 flies sounds like a strategy to slow things down. Why? And why flies? The healing and the slowing seem to be connected. Mind keeps racing ahead, but the hand has been moving while thinking runs its endless circle, and now a small fly looks up from the page – a smudged black mirror to my fidgeting, human-centred, centreless world. And looking at this anthropomorphic fly looking back me, four words float into view from The Descent of Inanna, a poem I first heard thirty years ago, and which was first pressed into clay some 6000 years ago: Then a fly appeared. Something begins to gather around the elements of that Sumerian story, begins to stick to this little fly soiling the white page with her filthy black feet. Something pointless, irrelevant, interesting. I like it, and I want to know more. Attention slows as words take up the reins, and the drawings peter out. The 1000-page fly-paper is put on hold, but this first rash of flies has spawned an offspring:
This fly is, of course, on her way to the moon, a stricken chicken-licken who carries news of the great dying underway on Earth, and has gone to get help. Gone to find hare, in fact, ancient moon-animal deity named by the old stories as ‘She who hears the cries of the world’, and to bring her down here, before its too late. And hare, seeing as she does all that unfolds on the world spinning below her, has already seen fly coming, and knows what she’s about long before fly gets there:
So it comes as no surprise
when fly appears
one bedraggled supplicant
weaving an erratic line
across the endless field below
A little speck of ruin
coming out of nothing
to find her