Drawing Is Another Language

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D.B. Dowd is a professor of art and American culture studies at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis. He serves as faculty director of the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library at the university, renamed in his honor in 2016. A graduate of Kenyon College (BA in history) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (MFA in printmaking) he is active as a writer, curator, and illustrator. He publishes Spartan Holiday, an illustrated journal, somewhat intermittently. He has also just published with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Stick Figures: Drawing As A Human Practice. I’ve asked him to tell me the motivation behind and the need for having this unique book.

Tell me what Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice is trying to tell us? Is drawing as fundamental as speech . . . or as breathing?Stick Figures argues that drawing is an ancient human activity, practiced by all persons. How do I get to the airport? Pretend your phone is dead, so forget GPS. Anyone trying to answer that question is likely to say, “Here, let me show you…” and grab a pencil and an envelope to scribble on. That’s drawing! We use it all the time. Explain the rules of hockey. Describe geology. Help me understand “The Mason-Dixon Line.” These things have to be manifested visually. There’s something intimate in such an exchange, and it has to do with a fundamental sense of human agency. Coming to understand something, conveying it to others. It’s a kind of manual citizenship.

You’ve published this in concert with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. What is the connection between you, Rockwell and the Museum?I have been lucky to work with Laurie Norton Moffat and Stephanie Plunkett for many years, going back to an exhibition I co-curated with Stephanie in 2007 on the illustrator Al Parker. We have long shared a sense that illustration and “graphic” forms need more critical attention. But the field has suffered from an underdeveloped vocabulary; it’s been held back by condescension, yes, but to a greater degree by incuriosity. What, really, are these pictorial artifacts we so often take for granted? I was honored to be part of initial conversations, among others, around the formation of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, a research initiative to catalyze such work, about ten years ago.

More recently I have worked with the Rockwell to help create a new Society of Fellows, an effort to recruit and support talented academics to write on these topics, to improve the overall quality of dialogue. Others are also gearing up. The Illustration Research Group, based in the UK, has been holding annual symposia and is publishing a journal. We’ve just announced a new MFA at Washington University in Illustration and Visual Culture, that will integrate studio work, history/theory, and curatorial studies. I think the future is bright.

On Rockwell himself: partly due to rising prices in the secondary market, Rockwell continues to attract more scholarly attention. But the folks at the Museum know that soon anybody who ever contemporaneously flipped through a Saturday Evening Post with a Rockwell on it will be dead. The Center was a wise move, an adaptation to that reality. They are committed to American illustration more broadly now, and have been for some time. That applies to their collecting as well as theirexhibitions and programming.

We are living in a mechanical (in fact a digital) age, where our output is determined to an extent by technology. What do you mean when you say your are recasting drawing as distinct from “baby painting”?I think there is an important distinction to be made between the digital and the manual. We are physical creatures. Our hands are still fixed at the ends of our arms, which is, in fact, a big deal: our brains exploded in size when our hands gained functionality through opposable thumbs. The sheer number of nerve endings in our fingers connects learning to touch and manipulation.

We behave symbolically. We manifest ideas, which is why hand painted signs are often more intelligently constructed than many computer typeset ones. I think the technology of the future is likely to be better adapted to what we are good at and built for, and less about sedentary finger swipes. I am eager to dissociate drawing from painting in part because that’s where all theaesthetic anxiety comes from. As a historical matter painting aspired to create extremely persuasive illusions: that was its job, one taken up by cinema and virtual reality today. Those are all about specialized training and equipment, and often require access to concentrations of wealth: court painters and blockbuster film directors have some things in common.

Drawing is different. Drawing is a symbolic activity. Everybody can do it, does do it—even though you hear people say ridiculous things like “I can’t draw a stick figure!” We have to dissociate drawing from illusion-making. It can be used for that, yes, but that’s not its most essential function.

What is the most important lesson that you want readers to take away?Drawing belongs to all of us. We all do it, and we should do it more. It gives us a way to learn, to understand, to consolidate our thoughts—a method for coming to grips! It can be done with the most simple tools, going back to the first hominid to make a line in the dirt to show where the water is.

What was your biggest surprise whilst doing research for the book?The book engages an art school audience on some level—it had to start there, because part of what I’m trying to do is to encourage and help rehabilitate the students who crawl out of beginning drawing feeling defeated or dismissed. Beaux Arts drawing—blended with abstract expressionist biases absorbed by the painters who taught all the drawing classes after World War Two—is an outdatedcontraption, often indifferently delivered. Students
are expected to do it because it’s good for them, even though very few practicing artists use those skills today. Another part of that rehabilitation is ideological, because many fine art folks still, at this late date and in the face of declining enrollments, sneer at the aspiring designers and illustrators who fill the seats.

But the biggest surprise has been the conversations I have had with non-art, nondesign people about drawing. Once freed to talk about drawing without having to manage the aesthetic anxiety that seems to universally descend in the 6th or 7th grade, people get really excited. I have long harbored a hope that anyone with an interest in visual experience or human culture could get something out of the book. I wrote it that way—it’s not really an academic book. I hope it will be used in academic settings, of course. Honestly, the book is for everybody, just as drawing is.