Drawn Together in Difficult Times: The Power of Mark-Making
Last week, I turned my back on my three-year-old for a moment too long. I know this because, when I turned again, he had daubed a large scribble on my white kitchen wall, with thick red felt tip.
For children, drawing comes as naturally as breathing - scribbling, doodling, letting the pen trace patterns on whatever surface is to hand.
I’d like to suggest that lockdown may be an ideal time for adults to grasp a little of this childlike drawing spirit (although not necessarily on a kitchen wall). This week, I’ve had a socially-distanced catch up with two ladies who have launched a new project – ‘DrawnTogether
’ – to encourage and stimulate drawing during lockdown, using social media to stay connected.
Griselda Goldsbrough, a freelance community artist, and Gaby Lees, a community arts specialist, first met when working at York Art Gallery where they had the idea to place sketchbooks and pencils in every exhibition space, for visitors to pick up and use at their leisure.
Gaby was the Curator for Arts Learning at the gallery at the time, and it was one of a series of steps taken to allow visitors to engage more deeply with artwork on display. It was an admirable idea, facilitating visitor interaction, inviting their responses; but drawing, Gaby and Griselda also knew, is ‘good’ for us: “The process involves focussing – on the hand, the eye, on drawing materials and mark-making – which requires mindfulness and contemplation,” explains Gaby. “Drawing is a meditative occupation.”
The link with wellbeing has long been appreciated. Drawing can help steady our breathing, clear thoughts, and even, studies indicate, aid memory - you’re more likely to retain what you hear if you’ve been doodling at the time of listening, indicating something of the impact on the brain.
In light of this, you’d think we’d all be drawing, much of the time. But in reality (and I write this from experience of running arts events), often it’s too easy to get the idea that our abstract lines and swirls are not acceptable. We say things like: I’m not good at drawing. (I hear that a lot.)
But I’m going to make a rather bold statement here. I’d like to suggest that drawing is able to transcend the everyday baggage and fears. Human responses like being ‘not very good’ slide into insignificance when you let yourself get lost in the art, because drawing - doodling and sketching - is more potent than it can appear.
Gaby and Griselda took the process further by enabling visitors to take part in something shared through the sketchbooks, daringly inviting art that would be left behind for others to enjoy.
Essentially, there was no memento of the experience for the original participant – no piece of paper to carry home and wonder what to do with. For the mark-maker, the finished product was gone. The focus, therefore, is on the process.
And other things started happening at York Art Gallery too.
“We noticed that the sketchbooks had become a sort of conduit for dialogue between visitors,” explains Gaby, “– a way to share ideas, feelings and responses with each other, as well as a record of ideas.”
As time passed, they decided to explore this further, setting up what became known as a ‘Sketchbook Circle’ – a monthly drawing session using the shared books, with space for conversation as well as collaboration.
“Each session built on previous ones - through the developing relationship within the group, but also through the sketchbooks themselves. As the sessions continued, several members of the group reported feeling less anxious and more confident,” says Gaby.
Pre-lockdown, Gaby had just established a Sketchbook Circle at the Cooper Gallery, in her latest role as Sector Specialist in Community Arts for Barnsley Museums.
Now, together with Griselda, she has launched an online project, through social media, “to continue the practice of drawing as a shared experience” whilst lockdown prevents face-to-face meetings.
is a compilation – a magazine if you like,” Gaby says “– highlighting what’s out there. Each week a theme is inspired by someone who has used drawing for wellbeing. We launched this month because, whilst we are all reliant on social media to stay connected, DrawnTogether
hopes to encourage and explore different ways we can share our experience.”
This week, the focus is on birds, taking inspiration from Edwyn Collins, famed initially as the lead singer of ‘80s band Orange Juice, but gaining international recognition after his solo hit single ‘A Girl Like You’ in 1995. “What is less well known,” explains Griselda, “is that he found drawing a bird a day helped his recovery from a stroke. Having lost the use of his right hand, Edwyn had to learn to draw again with his left. But his love of nature, especially ornithology, helped to motivate him.”
Griselda is well placed to understand the impact that art can have. As well as a freelance artist, she is also Art and Design Development Manager at York Teaching Hospital NHS Trust Foundation, providing a participatory arts programme to support patient, staff and visitor wellbeing. Recently, the Stroke Unit in Scarborough also worked with two artists, Sara Semple and Karen Thompson, who supported patients through weekly art sessions.
Griselda and Gaby were committed to encouraging drawing before lockdown. “Now,” they say, “we’d love others to share their drawing with us. We welcome everyone who loves to draw, doodle, or sketch and invite you to make your mark!”
In these uncertain and unsettled times, I’d encourage all of us to have a go at whatever mindful activities help. This may well include trying out drawing or doodling, but also writing, meditation, or listening to birdsong or calming music, if feeling anxious. And I appreciate there is a lot to feel anxious about.
Drawing won’t solve our problems. But it does have the capacity to help our minds and bodies cope with the emotional and physical impacts of stress. For me, sitting in the garden with a sketchbook can feel very calming, and very peaceful.
Likewise, I’d encourage parents out there to draw alongside our children, modelling the process of being still and reflective and, I hope, enjoying the shared experience. And in an effort to avoid any more incidents like the red felt tip fiasco, I have purchased a rather large box of chunky chalks for the garden, where my family will be making our marks this week.
You can find out more about Gaby, Griselda and DrawnTogether
Rosie Goodwin is a freelancer education consultant, who runs events and arts engagement activities through her small business, MakeMore Arts, based in North Yorkshire. Find out more at www.facebook.com/makemorearts