The Daily Heller: Istanbul on ___ Pencils a Day

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Stephen Alcorn, artist and illustrator and “staunch believer of the primacy of observational drawing as a means of engaging with our surroundings so as to better understand what we see and experience,” recently visited Istanbul. Over a seven-day period, he challenged himself to fill a 96-page 11 in. x 14 in. sketchbook. Drawing from dusk to dawn, he has chronicled, through a variety of idioms, techniques and media, an equally varied array of subjects. These include historical artifacts, religious monuments, shop windows, flower vendors, refugees, tradesmen, the city’s ever-present cats, as well as the warm and welcoming acquaintances he met along the way. The outcome, an illuminated book, is a testament to the power of Istanbul’s glorious confluence of Byzantine, Islamic, European, Middle Eastern and Asian influences to astound and inspire.

Alcorn sees the practice of drawing (and by extension the cultivation of knowledge) as a conversation among different ages. For your enjoyment and edification, here The Daily Heller visits Turkey through his eclectic drawings.

What is this collection? Were they done for the muse or to amuse yourself?
My goal was to transcend the typical tourist’s approach to art appreciation—a cursory approach that rarely has an observer spending more than a few fleeting moments before a work of art, and walking away with little more than a series of snapshots to show for their time spent in a museum or a new, unfamiliar place. When I draw from life, I strive to celebrate the ties that bind the seemingly disparate mental faculties of analysis and intuition. Indeed, my particular approach to observational drawing is predicated upon the recognition of, and trust in, the eye-mind-hand coordination: a process in which the flow of consciousness, rather than its interruption, is celebrated and fostered. My interest in all things art historical is predicated upon the belief that civilized culture depends not solely on innovation and modernity, but also on a critical and imaginative assimilation of the past. In Istanbul, we can see the reintegration of the Classical worldview into Modern life in not only the erudition, the confluence of Byzantine and Islamic humanism, but also the rich mythological themes of its pantheism and the profound psychological insights it has to offer. What we experience to this day in Istanbul is what was made of that intersection of diverse cultures. A continued, renewed interpretation of this tradition is a necessity for the West, if it is to understand its own. The history of art is a repository of the past; as such it serves as a collective memory. In Istanbul, the past is made ever-present by the tangible evidence, visible on every street, of its transcendent artistic and cultural heritage.

I find that drawing, as Milton Glaser rhapsodized, is thinking. But it is not too much of a stretch to say that thinking is out of fashion for some designers? Do you require that all designers draw?
In my practice, I embrace drawing as a pictorial discipline while recognizing its links to the written word. That link is still intact in China and Japan. In the West, drawing became strictly pictorial without losing its symbolic potential. Graphic symbols still straddle the border between picture and pictograph, while design and drawing cross paths in endlessly creative ways. Consequently, the relationship between drawing and design assumes an interesting dimension in some Western languages. Until recently, the French used the word dessin to describe both drawing and design. Dessin now refers to pictorial drawing while the English word “design” is used to describe design. On the other hand, Spanish has always distinguished between drawing and designing through the verbs dibujar and diseñar, respectively. Italian softens the distinction with elegance and refinement through the multipurpose word disegno, the basis of design. The ability to draw can only expand and enrich one’s visual vocabulary.

Do you demand or suggest that drawing be narrative, representational, realistic, stylistic, abstract—all, none, or any of the above?
As a practitioner and instructor, I embrace all manner of drawing. When I draw directly from life a tangible subject or object, I find myself irresistibly drawn to “wrapping my head” around it. If the drawing is of something that does not exist in the material sense, it provides me with the gratification of generating a tangible subject from an abstract idea. In drawing, form and content are co-dependent—to the point that one cannot exist without the other. As a result, drawing has the ability to unite ideas and physicality, and does so in a manner that requires processes of translation and distillation.

Why do you draw?
I find that the coordinated activity of the eye, mind and hand leads to an engagement that unifies body and soul, and that by restoring the haptic to its rightful place in my daily existence, I achieve a more mindful state of being.

Like Milton Glaser, I believe drawing to be the most effective way in which to engage with my surroundings, and to internalize and commit to memory what I see and experience, for to draw is to look, and to look again. What is more, the process of drawing from life fosters honesty and, by extension, the ability to see truth in beauty, and beauty in truth. Of course, the instinct to draw is at once universal and timeless. In many ways the drawn mark was the first step toward virtual reality. It allowed prehistoric artists to record what they had committed to memory while hunting. Deep in caves that were only discovered in the past 100 years, they recorded their observations long after their experiences. Yet they drew what they had witnessed with uncanny accuracy and left us a record that exceeds a chronicle of their experiences. Cave art reveals a graphic imagination that transcends transcription. It is more than a visual record of a hunt. We may never know its true purpose, but can see ourselves in the marks. We can see the wellspring of our humanity. This is why I draw.

You use other media but is drawing an end in itself?
Drawing is arguably the medium that speaks most freshly, directly and immediately about the mysteries of the human mind. Indeed, if we want to know an artist, the drawings are the ideal place to start. Viewing a monumental painting or work of sculpture can be like attending a formal lecture or a public performance. But looking at an original drawing is another experience altogether, one more akin to having a conversation. Drawing is an intimate activity that allows artists to reflect on their passions and thereby reveal their true temperament. A drawing can represent a map of the mind or a labyrinth—something into which we are irresistibly drawn, through which we must find our way, and from which we emerge enriched and inspired. Drawings can provide a foothold to reality or take flight into the unknown. The spirituality of a drawing is predicated upon the reification of what had been imagined. Drawing, in other words, gives substance to the imagination. Therefore, an eloquent drawing may constitute an end as well as a beginning.

What is the key spiritual difference between drawing and photography when creating a record?
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that photography and its related media, e.g., film and television, tell the most truth about what we see. This is not true: The camera may tell another truth about a subject, but not necessarily a more convincing one. Experience shows that the practice of drawing by hand can bring us into a deeper and more fully experienced connection to a given subject. It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well. To draw is to place our thoughts on a surface. Unlike a camera, we are incapable of merely recording. Unlike a camera, we imagine what does not exist. To that end, drawing transforms our optical limitations into emotional and intellectual virtues. No matter how accurate our drawings may appear to be, they cannot escape our thoughts and feelings. The marks reveal our character even when they appear mechanical. The image may deceive, but the line never lies. Delving further, I find that marks, signs and symbols made on physical surfaces with a stylus, pencil or brush have a way of restoring authenticity to the image, and can serve as a healthy antidote to the artificiality spawned by the unbridled simulacra of our age, whereby illusion becomes a substitute for reality. I encourage my students to create drawings that are born of steadfast observation, and whose skill, care and determination invite the viewer to feel and to think—drawings that are not merely sensational attempts to get a message across in a matter of seconds (the goal being to create drawings that invite repeated viewings, and that link us to a profound instinct in our being, as distinct from the cursory superficiality of today’s mass-media communications).

Can you ever see altering your approach, like you shift from woodcut to pencil, or have you found your métier?
The work I make is heterogeneous in nature. This is by design, for by fostering a syncretic culture in my work I have found that both my studio and my classroom become a virtual crossroads of the rich and varied civilizations from which we all descend. The absence of segregation in my work, and the resultant stylistic and technical range, embodies the cultural, stylistic, technical and thematic diversity I seek to celebrate as an instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and beyond. Like Hokusai, I will always remain a student; as such I will never stop looking, and stop seeking, and hopefully never stop learning.