Sunday, 25 January 2015

Walking and drawing

I spend a lot of time walking and drawing. My own practice is quite traditional, I walk through Leeds and when I see something that chimes with what I'm trying to do in the studio, I draw it. Other artists are much more focused on the activity of walking and its potential as a way of marking the landscape itself. 

It was Richard Long that first alerted me to the potential of drawing by walking. I first saw his black and white photograph of 'a line made by walking' in an exhibition when I was at college. I realised at the time how liberating this was, you could could just do artworks anywhere and with no specialist equipment. Between hitchhiking lifts, he had stopped in a field in Wiltshire, once there he walked a straight line backwards and forwards until the flattened turf became a visible line. He then photographed what he had done. 

Richard Long: A line made by walking

I was occasionally doing some work for Keith Arnatt at the time and he was also making interventions into the world and photographing them. I helped him get his shadow drawn round and filled in when I was a student. He died a few years ago and this work now has an emotional resonance for me, his shadow still standing, frozen, like a soul trapped in the walls of the old sculpture annex in Bolt Street, Newport, which like Keith is now long gone. 

Keith Arnatt: Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969–72

Arnatt did some very interesting work using snow back in the 1960s. He laid coloured neons in lines over the moors, locating them in shallow trenches and then when it snowed he turned the electricity on, the snow would then glow in coloured lines. I thought this the most beautiful drawing I had ever seen at the time. He showed it to us during a seminar in 1970. 
The images below are of Arnatt doing his self-burial piece, another seminal work from about 1969. 

Simon Beck is another artist who has grasped the potential of snow as a blank canvas and his complex patterns of footsteps have been trod all over the snow spots of Europe. 

Simon Beck

Beck will walk patterns into sand as well, I'm pretty sure he also does crop circles, because they all have similar patterns. The point being as long as you can make a mark and photograph it, you can be as ambitious as you want.  

Earth art began in the 1960s and Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty' is a classic example of making a drawing using the materials of the landscape itself. Earth moving equipment being his drawing tools, rather than pencil or charcoal. 

Nothing is new of course and the Nazca lines below were made thousands of years ago in Peru and are sometimes over 600 feet longThey are shallow lines made by removing surface pebbles and uncovering the light coloured ground beneath. Some are simple lines or geometric shapes; others are animals such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, monkeys, or human figures. If you have never come across them before they are worth a close study. 

Aerial view of a Nazca humming bird drawing

Yellow lines

George Musgrave came up with the idea of the yellow line. (Another character worth exploring; he had his own museum) The sign of the yellow line has been put to use all over the world,  it takes the idea of line as boundary and adds yet another layer of meaning. Line becomes a sign of forbidden territory or transgression. If these lines were discovered by another civilisation in a thousand years time, how would they be read? We realise they are to help keep traffic flowing, but another culture might look at our society and point out that these lines celebrate the power and status of the car within our society. They may mistakenly think this was abstract art. The Nazca lines would have had a clear use and understanding within their society, but we are so distant and so culturally different from them that it is virtually impossible to understand how the drawings were used and what they meant. 

The drawing of lines outdoors on roads or across grass is associated with particular sets of tools. 

Some professions are centred around the daily reality of walking and drawing, their lines although signifying important things are never thought of as art. 
Drawing in the street is always culturally very interesting. Our own culture seems preoccupied with direct messages about where you can and can't go, but if you compare this to Kolam drawings which are made by south Indian women with rice or chalk directly onto the street that is outside their homes, these geometric shapes, (again lines and dots) are thought to bring prosperity to homes. Every morning in Tamil Nadu women draw kolams on the ground with white rice flour. These drawings of course get walked on and disturbed by all the activities of a busy day but new ones are made the next morning. 

In the kolam patterns, many designs are derived from magical motifs and abstract designs blended with philosophic and religious motifs which have been mingled together. Motifs may include fish, birds, and other animal images to symbolize the unity of man and beast. Also used are designs for the sun, moon and other zodiac symbols. The way these drawings are used is possibly similar to how the Nazca used drawings. The ritual kolam patterns created for special occasions such as weddings often stretch all the way down the street, in a similar fashion, the Nazca may have created their huge drawings to celebrate special occasions. These patterns have been passed on from generation to generation, from mothers to daughters to granddaughters and their communal production is vital to the coherence of the community. 
We do tend to forget that when we were children we were allowed to make our own drawings on the street, who has never played hop-scotch?

Children drawing on a city street in the 1950s. 

We mark territory, draw maps to help ourselves navigate through the city, draw things and people, all these different approaches will be encountered as we walk the streets, then as artists we begin to draw and whatever we do becomes part of and in dialogue with all the other ways that people are using drawing to navigate their own path through life. 

Nobutaka Aozaki, Here to There, Hand Drawn Maps of New York
Nobutaka Aozaki makes his way through the city drawing small maps on whatever is available as he goes. Gradually these build up into larger maps, similar to the way our own memory map of a city grows as we become more familiar with where we are. Think of your mental map of Leeds when you first arrived. For many students it is a line drawn between the rail or coach station and the university sector, with an off-shoot that links in wherever student accommodation is. However by your second and third year that map has grown and expanded. 

Sharyn O’Mara makes 'Walking Drawings'. These drawings explore the nature of the spaces in between places. Made while walking from one place to another, the only structure to the drawings is the movement of the pen from left to right on the page, a reference to western language. She states, "I draw without looking at the page, simply holding pen to paper and allowing line to document the movement of my body through space. Lines jump and meander, dots indicate moments of pause or shift." See 

Sharyn O’Mara: Walking Book

There is a Lancaster University research project looking at how drawing can be taken out into other spaces. See Walking the Line is a research project that "investigates artists and creative practices that transport drawing into unusual, and challenging situations, both conceptual and actual." 

I have already looked at how Francis Alys walked the boundary line between Israel and Palestine with a green tin of paint in his hand, which steadily dripped out as he walked. See.

The Green line is a military term that is used to describe a "temporary" buffer zone between two fighting sides. Walking can be a very political act. Where you walk may transgress someone else's idea of property, or you may trespass or go into areas 'not for you'. The city of Leeds now has many areas deemed 'private property' which I used to think of as places for free public access when I first came to the city. For instance 'the Light' was an open street but  when we tried to draw in there last year the students were turned away because it wasn't allowed by the centre's management. 

Whatever you may get from this post, the central concern is to make sure you go out into the world and think about how your work can benefit from a bit of fresh air. If stuck for something to do, go for a walk. 

Patrick Ford (an ex LCA student) has been making some really interesting map work in response to walking around the city of Saigon. You can find an article on his work in the Interdisciplinary journal of critical cartography. Find the full text here.

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