Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sketching as faith seeking understanding: A reflection on drawing Rowan Williams

I sketched this last night as a break from my routine reading. Three reasons why this sketch.

First, I was curious whether I still able to sketch after haven't been doing it for many years. Second, I'm finding ways to reconnect the whatever little artistic skill that I have with the theology that I'm learning. Third, I always thought of drawing some theologians.

I took a photo and posted it on Facebook as a backup copy in case the hardcopy is lost.

A friend, Andy Lie, who is currently located in England, saw it and wrote, "You have somewhat restored the humanity into RDW compared with some of the caricatures in the British press."

Restored the humanity into RDW (Rowan Douglas Williams)? How so? All I wanted to do was to sketch.

Upon further thoughts, my friend who being in England is more sensitive to the media portrayal of Williams than I am. Therefore, it could be that this sketch though does not bear any restoring significance to me is seen by him with wider connotation and deeper meaning.

One can simply google through the various comical portraits of Williams in the British media and notice how each carries certain caricature. One can tell what is the press trying to say about it's impression of the person from the way the person is portrayed, not only through words, but also through their drawings and photos. The portraits represent in some sense the producer's attachment to the object.

Here is a reflection by Roland Chia that makes the point:

"[The] arts can be said to be that human activity which, by engaging with the materiality of the world, illumines in various media something about the world's depth and reality. Ther arts, therefore, can be said to be a way of knowing, a way of being and a way of doing. They represent knowledge of reality by reflecting on the meaning of the way things are: the world's being and becoming. Art is an activity because it is also a response to perceptions of reality. In this way, the arts, like everything else about human culture, cannot be understood in abstraction but must be located in a historical, cultural and social milieu."
(Roland Chia, 'Artistic Makings and Meanings: Contours of a Theology of the Arts,' in Sights and Sounds: A Christian Response to the Creative Arts and Media, ed. Robert M. Solomon and Lim K. Tham [Singapore: Genesis Books, 2006], p.9)

One may call Andy's reading of the sketch a 'dimensional disobedience'. This disobedience is not negative. It is disobedience, nonetheless, because the sketch does not carry the dimension perceived by the observer (Andy) when it is produced by the artist (me). In Williams' own words:

"The degree to which art is 'obedient'---not dependent on an artist's decisions or tastes---is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland. [...] The artist does not exhaust the significance of his or her labour, but creates an object, a schema of perceptible data, that will have about it the same excess as the phenomena that stimulated the production in the first place. Art moves from and into a depth in the perceptible world that is contained neither in routine perception nor in the artist's conscious or unconscious purposes."
(Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love [UK: Continuum Books, 2005], p.147, 149-150.)

When I was sketching this piece, I found my hand being moved by various self-directed insistences and concerns: the face has to be thinner, needs more shadow at the bottom of the nose, the coat needs to be sketched in another direction to prevent the dwarfing of the body, and... the beard.

The most wearisome of all was that I would end up drawing Karl Marx.

There is always risk and fear throughout the process. For one, the pressures and insistences that moved the pencil in the best envisioning did not actually provide any glimpse of how the product would look like in the end. All that I had at that moment is solely the desire to see how would the finished work be, and the imagination that is driven by this desire.

Therefore to sketch is always to risk deviant representation of the object. With a few careless strokes, Rowan Williams becomes Karl Marx.


Tony Siew said...

Hi Joshua, you have real talent. I think the Archbishop would be proud.

Sze Zeng said...

Thank you Tony. The Archbishop has must better artists around him to sketch his portrait. :-)

Jason Ting said...

I agree! Doing sketching and drawing will complement you doing theology in that it will add a different side to you! :)

(You should sketch more and revive the talent that God has given to you)

achorusofehoes said...

Nice. Make me want to take up sketching faces again. I liked the reflections that you wrote as well. All thins things about the artist's intention and how others interpret the art in different manners makes me think of the bible. Sorry I'm just throwing something here without proper explanation. I've had too much thinking up stuff today so it just popped my mind when I read this.


Sze Zeng said...

Jason, thank you for your suggestion. I'll probably do that :-)

Sze Zeng said...

Jonathan, thank you for telling. :-)

Yes, you should also continue your sketch!