I didn’t draw at all for 20 years. And then I started drawing again, as you see. I don’t know if there’s a story there, but I feel like maybe there’s a story there. Or at least I’d like know what I have to say about it. This blog post is a crack at that story.
I used to draw all the time when I was a kid, at least as far as I can remember. I don’t have a lot of memories of drawing, especially, but an important early memory is of drawing complex systems of interchanges (layers and layers of roads, basically) after my family traveled to Nashville when I was in first grade. We drove through a few cities to get there, actual cities with freeways and skylines—like nothing we had in the rural South Dakota landscape I grew up in. I guess the stacked ramps and bridges around the interchanges made an impression on me. And I must have drawn often enough and well enough that some of the first few instances of encouragement I remember receiving from teachers or other adults were for my drawing talents.
It was in middle school, when I realized I could impress my friends by copying drawings from comic books, that I remember self-consciously starting to think of drawing as something I was good at. I plastered my room with drawings of monsters and X-Men and demons (and also DC Talk), and in one of the few real splurges I ever talked my family into I had a nice big drawing desk in my bedroom. The only real looking into any colleges I did at all other than just to go to my hometown college was to some art schools, though I didn’t follow through. I think I had some idea that I’d never be good enough to make an actual career in an artistic field, but deep down my most basic belief about myself was that I was a kid who, if he was good at anything, was good at drawing. I guess it was something I really liked about myself.
The years after high school were a struggle for me, and when I was 21 I threw away all my art. I chucked it all in the dumpster of the apartment building I was moving out of. I told myself I wouldn’t miss it, but there was a not insignificant amount of self-hatred that went into that act, which I didn’t tell myself about. And then I basically stopped drawing. I was a lot more focused on writing, anyway, and trying to teach myself to do that. When I would try to follow the inspiration or impulse to draw, I would mostly get frustrated. What I was doing wasn’t good enough to be worth doing. I wasn’t good enough or cool enough to make anything worthwhile that way. And anything meaningful I wanted to say couldn’t be said through drawing anyway, the only kind of art I had ever been any good at.
I eventually settled into a story about myself that I used to be promisingly talented at drawing, but that somewhere along the way my talent had withered and I couldn’t really draw anymore. I’d grown out of it. I once even tried to make a series of poem/cartoon/index card things, text and image, where I intentionally (if not consciously) drew everything poorly—not, like, charmingly crude or something, just bad drawings, drawn by someone who didn’t have any talent at drawing.
Some beliefs about myself from my early twenties hardened even as I worked my way through and out of a lot of the systems that had gone into those beliefs, and then they just sort of turned into assumptions about myself that I didn’t think held any particular charge for me. I used to like to draw. Yeah I was pretty good at it. Just kind of lost interest, can’t really do it anymore. It might be fun to try it again someday, maybe to make some real drawings to pair with poems, but I didn’t really care.
There were a few moments of drawing in there. Times when I would randomly start to sketch something in one of my notebooks and follow the old impulse. But it was almost never. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a decade and a half after I’d stopped drawing, stirred something loose. That was the first time I’d ever been to a museum with that much of a single artist’s work in the same place, and there was so much of it. I found myself thinking about the amount of time he spent just in the practice of painting, day in and day out, over the years of his life. Seeing that much of his work together you can see him solving problems in what he’s doing, trying things out, really exploring and changing with his understanding of how to translate the world he saw around him into a painting. At least that’s how it felt to me. Wandering through such an extensive record of someone’s artistic exploration I recognized aspects of an artistic practice that made sense to me as a desirable part of life. I wanted something like that of my own. A couple of times after that I broke out some old sketchbooks and tried to work on drawing a little bit more regularly, but I’d feel my own capability to be exhausted almost immediately. I’d kind of like something I drew, but then when I tried another drawing I would hardly be able to hold the pen steadily on the page. It was anxiety, but it took the form of a total lack of faith in every pen stroke. Everything was tentative and the drawings looked like it. So I’d give up. I didn’t need it anyway.
In August 2017 I moved out of my downtown Detroit apartment to a house in Hamtramck. The move came with some feelings of new possibilities of the sort I had felt really shut out of for the prior couple of years. I was in the early stages of a new relationship after my marriage had ended. And even though the people running the department where I was working on my PhD had made it clear they’d really rather I just quit, I felt pretty good about the classes I’d put together teaching Creative Writing elsewhere—it had reaffirmed for me a sense that I knew my way around the stuff I’d been studying intensely for the past decade. With no funding and a recent divorce, a lot of what I’d thought was pretty fundamental to who I was had left my life, but on the other side of it all, I’d come to a deeper understanding that there were parts of myself I could cultivate (and had been cultivating) just for myself, that were valuable to me whatever else might come and go in my life. Moving felt partly like an opportunity to really let some neglected parts of myself grow. Drawing felt like one of those things, potentially.
During the move, I found an old sketchbook I’d shoplifted from the college bookstore I worked at in undergrad. It was a nice comfy 7×9 with good weight, totally unused. It was perfect to leave sitting somewhere by my couch in case I decided on a whim to pick it up and try out drawing every now and then, if I wanted. This time, in a new place, with that new feeling, I managed to sometimes reconnect a bit with the old sense of immersion in the page you get when you’re lost in a drawing. I told myself it would be cool to have a whole notebook filled up with drawings by the time I moved out of my new place. This turned out to be a valuable cognitive trick, one that helped me pay more attention to what I got out of the practice of drawing occasionally over time rather than putting too much weight in any individual drawing. I was interested in what the notebook would look like after I’d filled it all up, so I could let the drawings accumulate without worrying first if they’d already arrived anywhere.
I didn’t draw often—making poetry was how I pursued my usual creative impulses—but I started to feel like I was finding ways to sometimes make drawing work. I’d try to make still life drawings of the clutter around my apartment or occasionally something I’d photographed out on a walk for myself. I experimented with some abstract drawings that I liked to make mostly for the feeling of lots of swift parallel strokes of the pen. Occasionally I’d try something that felt more like a comic panel or an illustration. A few drawings from that period stuck for me, though, as pieces I felt really happy about. They were drawings that I wanted to keep looking at. They felt completed as drawings in themselves. I was glad they existed and it had felt good to have made them and it made me want to keep drawing. I also sort of started to wonder: had my talent for drawing not actually disappeared?
In the first months of 2020, something led me to start a twitter thread of drawings. Actually, it was the disappointment and worry I felt in the wake of Bernie’s big losses in the primary, the feeling of hope dwindling. Out of that frustration, one night I spontaneously made a drawing, a quick sketch of a figure holding a bathrobe under a lamp [not included on this website] drawn after a couple of moments in the 1950s The Blob movie I was watching, along with some random dialogue from the movie. It wasn’t a great drawing, but I liked some things about it. There was a thing with the mouth and eyes that was cool. I don’t know, something about it, I decided to post it to twitter with a caption like, “tonight’s stress-relief drawing.” And I realized that I felt like there was something repeatable in having made the drawing and posted it. It probably got one like at the most, but it felt right to have done it. And sometime not long after, I tried again, a drawing made spontaneously to relieve stress, and added it to the thread.
Who knows how long I would have kept that up, but I was a few drawings in when the pandemic hit. Drawing felt like something new and active in my life, and I was happy about it, but it wasn’t threatening a major creative re-orientation just yet. The first days of the pandemic were hard. And then, in a lot of ways, it got harder and then harder. I was too anxious and stressed out to write, or even to read. I’d try to work on poems I’d been working on, or I tried to fall back on my usual grounding of a daily writing project, and it felt wrong. Something for another moment, another era. I’d try to read and I’d just restart the same paragraph over and over again, not retaining anything.
Out of that fog of stress and anxiety, though, I realized drawing allowed me to focus. Working on the drawings, I could lose myself in just solving the problem of how to make the drawing work. It’s a closed system with its own rules, and you just have to find out what they are as you bring the drawing into existence. So much around me felt rotten and wrong, and I felt entirely inadequate to it, but for the time when I was working on a drawing I was able to feel engaged in something real that was apart from all of that. I still focused mainly on still life drawings, thinking I could build a practice of drawings of the chairs or cats or clutter around me. This fit with the new reality of just spending a lot more time at home.
I kept tweeting the drawings with the caption “today’s stress-relief drawing” and/or what music I was listening to. I’d get a like or two now and then, but the drawing grew into something a little more like a project, and it was really just the act itself of giving myself a thread of drawings that I updated regularly that made that happen.
For a while, for the first time in a couple of decades, I really tried to push myself to see just how good of a traditional drawing I could make. Once even in pencil, just to see how well I could make the fabric on my chair look like a real texture. Some drawings I was just giving myself the challenge of seeing if I could pull it off.
As life didn’t get any less stressful, I found myself leaning into drawing more and more and it grew into a regular part of how I got through my days. I mixed my domestic still life drawings in with drawings of things I took pictures of when I was out on walks or runs around Hamtramck or with drawings of photographs I’d made earlier or that I’d nab from the Internet or movies I was watching. I started to think more about ways I could be a little more systematic in coming up with images for drawing. Maybe I could make a series of drawings of ice cream trucks around Hamtramck. Or maybe I could make a series of drawings after significant news images over time.
I’d post each drawing to my growing twitter thread. The thread worked both as a way to spur me on by giving me something to be accountable to and as something I could look to and see how a project was starting to develop. Posting worked as sort of a marker in the ritual of making the drawings. Drawings I’d done before could start to fall into groups for me. After I had a couple of power lines drawings worked out, I started coming back to them regularly, and I’d try to space each power lines drawing out with drawings of other kinds. I started to lose interest in drawing what was around me in my house. It was just the same clutter always, and anyways it was hard enough finding safe ways to get out of the house or ways to focus my attention elsewhere. I didn’t want to obsessively represent the experience of feeling homebound, even if the art practice I was working out was partially as a way to cope with that feeling. I liked the idea of drawing by interacting with movies I watched in some way and I gradually came up with the idea that I could keep my still life drawings going by nabbing objects from movies.
My regular drawing practice is really what carried me through summer 2020, until it came time to start figuring out the Fall 2020 fully remote semester. At that point, I stopped pretty much everything except working on my classes for a few months. I burned myself out on that semester. I mean, burning yourself out on the semester every year is just a normal part of academic life, but this was different. I’d never burnt out that hard before, trying to shepherd my classes through the neglect and hostility the institution was showing to students and workers. When my fuse ran out that fall, I started back up with the drawings because I needed the meditative activity. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’d spent the months continuing to think about what I could see in the drawings I’d done so far, and I took back up with them with an idea that I had two drawing projects I could go with: power lines drawings and objects from films. And I told myself I had to make the drawing practice a priority or else I wouldn’t have the energy to keep up with anything else.
At that point, the drawings were more a lifeline for me than anything else. I kept posting the drawings to my thread and occasionally would get multiple likes, but I felt like I was really making these drawings for the practice of doing it and for an audience of myself. Thinking about the power lines drawings gave me a new way to pay attention to the town around me. When I’d make a power lines drawing, it was like I’d set up a finite set of lines I had to execute on the page. Making the lines was a meditative activity like tracing out the steps of a labyrinth. My nerves would be shot and I’d work on a drawing for a whole evening, let my mind and body think that way, and feel better. Something more than better, really. The objects from films drawings gave me another active way to pay attention when I was watching movies. And working on each drawing was like setting myself a finite set of problems to solve—what to translate from the screen into the drawing and what rules to come up with for how to represent it. Some of the roughest, most anxious and frayed times of that winter, I would set up some of my drawings around myself and feel like something was better inside of myself, even if I couldn’t do anything about the rest of the world. It was no longer at all about finding out if I was still capable of drawing. It finally felt again like making drawings was just something I did, a regular part of my life.
At some point along the way I dropped the thread and started making the posts as individual drawings, which to me was a switch toward thinking of the drawing projects as longer term than just the first fall/winter of COVID. Occasionally a tweet would make it out of the small circle of followers I had on twitter for a few extra likes, which was gratifying, but the ‘sharing’ was still largely potential. In July 2021 that changed, as a set of power lines drawings went viral, and the sheer number of requests for prints of the drawings left me feeling like it would irresponsible not to try to figure out how to do that. My follower count on both twitter and instagram grew by the hundreds, and suddenly I could expect a small but steady trickle of engagement on my posts. I like to think I would still be working on both of the drawing projects if that viral moment hadn’t happened. I was producing a body of work I felt proud of and somewhat surprised at. I didn’t need any external validation to know that. But the reality of an overwhelming reception—even subject as it still largely is to the whims and vicissitudes of twitter algorithms—has certainly affected the realization of the projects. I don’t know if I would have made this website, for example. I may have been talked into the idea of having a place for the drawings to exist online that was something other than a social media post, but I would have more likely thought making the site would be too much work and cost too much without any sense of there being an audience to cultivate.
I haven’t really picked writing back up yet, but the drawing projects don’t feel to me like a break with what I’d been doing with my writing. When I look back across the work I did writing the poetry for my MFA, the two manuscripts I put together over the years, the miscellaneous groups of poems that I was forming my next project out of—and all the work I did studying poetry and art and writing my dissertation—the drawings and photography feel to me like where that larger project has taken me for now. The artistic and theoretical concerns are continuous. In many ways it’s the same practice, or built on the same.
I had an idea for a long time I’d make 100 power lines drawings and then be done and I’d find something else to draw, and I figured around then I’d move on to drawing something else from movies, or maybe I’d do something else. I’m getting close to 100 now, though, and I think I won’t feel like I’m done. For now the project feels more open-ended, and valuable to be so. I imagine at some point something in one or the other project will transform and something new will start, or maybe I’ll pick back up with a thread I thought I saw in some of these drawings. I still have my photography to fold into this website, too. Whatever else, these two drawing projects feel stable to me, and it makes all the difference in the world to have a stable creative project under your feet. I don’t know if I missed drawing all those years. It’s not as if I was unengaged. But at the moment, I can’t imagine not having a drawing to be working on.