Opening up the gateway to sketching

In early November, students in the course 21A.513 (Drawing Human Experience) were surprised by the presence of two unfamiliar figures: a monkey wearing glasses who held a heart-shaped message that read, “I’m so glad you are here,” and the person who drew the monkey on the whiteboard – award-winning cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry. Barry’s book, “Picture This,” was an important part of the class’s syllabus.

As the guest speaker for the afternoon, Barry welcomed each student with her long gray braids swinging and pens hanging from her neck. Within minutes, she had everyone, including the course instructors anthropologist Graham Jones and visual artist Seth Riskin, gathered around tables with their eyes closed, drawing giraffes.

After asking the participants to open their eyes and hold up their giraffes, the room erupted in laughter at the variety of stubby legs, irregular necks, and erratic spots.

“It came out better than I thought!” one student exclaimed.

“Watching people draw with their eyes closed is fantastic,” Barry said with a smile. “It’s like being in a room full of dreamers.”

According to Barry’s book, “Picture This,” everyone is capable of drawing. Children do it naturally at a young age, but self-consciousness and societal expectations often discourage adults from continuing this expressive and deeply human practice. Jones noticed this when the class began in September.

“When we asked students what they hoped to gain from the class, about two-thirds of them said something like ‘I used to make art, but I don’t have time for it anymore,’ or ‘I didn’t feel good enough at it,'” he recalled. “For some students, this course has opened the door to a set of experiences that they’ve been missing out on for a long time.”

Charles Williams, a senior majoring in computer engineering, is among those students. “This class reignites the creativity and artistic expression that often gets lost as we grow up,” he said.

Exploring Human Experience

Drawing Human Experience, which was first offered in the fall, was supported by a grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). Both MIT Anthropology and the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery collaborated to present the course.

This is the second grant that Jones and Riskin have received from CAST. In 2019, they co-taught a course called “Paranormal Machines,” which focused on how interactive technologies can create experiences beyond everyday life. This previous course left them eager to further explore the intersection of their respective disciplines.

“Drawing is deceptively simple,” Jones explained. “You can do amazingly complex things with the materials that everyone has readily available.”

The syllabus for the course begins with a statement: “We do not judge drawings as ‘good’ or ‘bad.'” It also hints at what students will achieve: “We draw to give our inner world outer form, to create a space of communication between ourselves and others.”

Instead of focusing on technical mastery or photorealistic representation, the course grades students based on their sincere commitment to exploring this communication space and developing their own visual language.

Riskin, the manager of the MIT Museum Studio and Compton Gallery and co-instructor of a class on vision in art and neuroscience, said, “This class is different from a typical drawing class because it emphasizes the quality of thought over technical skills.”

Jones, an anthropology professor who researches human language and media, added, “At its core, anthropology asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ In this class, we’re giving students the opportunity to explore this fundamental anthropological question by introspectively examining their own experiences.”

The course is divided into three modules: abstraction, figuration, and diagrams. During the diagrams unit, Jones discusses how diagrams are used in anthropology to visualize complex social structures, such as kinship and gift-giving networks. “Diagrams organize thoughts and people,” Jones explained to the class. “They are one of the most significant inventions in human history.”

While students may encounter diagrams in their other studies that aim for precise representation of facts, Riskin encouraged them to consider a broader definition. “Ambiguity is a potent tool in art,” he reminded them. “If there’s no ambiguity, it might not be art because there’s no room for the viewer’s imagination.”

The students explored the work of artist Christine Sun Kim, who uses infographics for social commentary, such as her series of pie charts on “Deaf Rage” exhibited at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. They also worked in pairs to document the evolution of their relationships with classmates through diagrams. The resulting diagrams resembled swirling plasma, mushroom spores, or spiky plants emerging from seeds, with no x- or y-axis in sight.

The Essence of Drawing

Between classes, students completed drawing-based problem sets called “D-Sets” in their hardbound sketchbooks, provided at the beginning of the semester. One of the assignments, D-Set number four, had students practice gesture drawing by capturing the essence of human figures in rapid, broad strokes while observing people in public spaces. The goal, according to Riskin, was to “capture the whole, the gestalt, of a human figure in just a few seconds” rather than painstakingly reproducing every detail. Riskin and Jones designed several exercises to encourage “immediacy” and discourage self-criticism and goal-oriented drawing.

“The assignments made me think more about conveying meaning through drawing rather than focusing on representation,” said Jaclyn Thi, a junior majoring in computer science and engineering. “Overall, they made drawing much more enjoyable for me.”

While students were encouraged not to overthink the process of putting marks on paper, class meetings provided a social and supportive space for reflection on their work.

“The second class was a bit of a shock,” Jones recalled. “We had planned for students to exchange their sketchbooks and prepared prompts for them. But as soon as I said, ‘Turn to someone next to you who hasn’t seen your work,’ the room erupted into conversation. They talked for half an hour about their drawings, and we had to cut it short. It was like a floodgate had opened.”

During a peer feedback session in week six, students gathered around wooden tables in the studio, their sketchbooks filled with gesture drawings conveying emotional connections to important figures in their lives. Some pages were covered in bold, moody strokes, while others were filled with delicate lines. A few pages remained blank, devoid of marks.

One student’s drawing received particular attention for its confident charcoal strokes, which captured short hair, glasses, and a slight curve of a smile, evoking a sense of lightness and joy. Riskin addressed the artist, saying, “The drawing surprised you, didn’t it? It was easy because you were in sync with the person you were drawing. That, to me, is the essence of drawing.”

Kanna Pichappan, a sophomore majoring in brain and cognitive sciences and minoring in anthropology, found one of the assignments to be particularly challenging. “I chose to depict Goddess Durga, a deity from the Hindu tradition who inspires me to live with courage, inner strength, and a commitment to righteousness,” Pichappan said. “I was worried that my drawing wouldn’t turn out as I imagined. But thanks to this class, I realized that representing a figure’s form is not the same as capturing the emotions the figure evokes. That particular assignment helped me develop new habits, focusing on drawing what I feel rather than what something should look like.”

Weeks later, when deciding on a topic for her final project, Pichappan chose to explore the role of the goddess in her life “from a place of creativity and freedom.” She credits the course for enabling her to make this choice, saying, “It helped me shift from the belief that art is meant to represent something, to the understanding that drawing can deepen and enrich our personal human experiences.”

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