Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
“Burnt Norton“, T.S Eliot
Drawing was what saved my life.
That sounds like a ridiculously melodramatic thing to say, but it’s true. When I was twenty years old, I started drawing again after two years of not putting pen to paper, driven by an insatiable need to shape the chaos in my mind and surroundings into a tangible form; to wrestle with demons and pin them upon paper. I was taking a course in the German department on The Grotesque at that time, and the scope of the material I was exploring—from Fritz Lang to Kafka to Nietzsche and Wetlands, a sacrilegious bodily-fluid-obsessed German novel— drove my mind into a state of frenzy. I felt like for once the internal world of my thoughts resonated with the material I was studying. Two worlds collided, I started drawing, and I found myself unable to stop.
The initial feeling that swept upon me was this urgent need to create. To create to survive. To survive was to create. The compulsion to create was so strong it soon became the only thing that I felt I could live for.
At the time, I was about eighty-something pounds, a skeleton of myself, living in a hyper-controlled environment I felt out of depth with, trying desperately to don a human mask, ventriloquize the gestures that human beings ought to do, and failing quite miserably at it; my fingers kept fumbling and my strings kept tangling. It seemed that people spoke and acted through an unknown social code that I had no access to, and with every step I was clumsy, stumbling into yet another pothole that did not exist before. There was a huge disjunction between the person I felt on the inside- disgusting, grotesque, abject- and the external play of purity and perfection I was supposed to perform on this human stage. Like the girl in The Red Shoes, I was placed in a circle I was unable to escape, forced to dance to a tune I did not know. In a way, my emaciated form exemplified this: I was trying to be human according to an unknown script, and my soul withered together with my body, even if to all appearances my performance was perfect.
Drawing came in as a way to express the abject language within my body in the form of an archaic, obscure mythology of the self. I was creating myself by drawing, and slowly, my soul— after a couple of years of being beaten down by ideas of what I should be— slowly emerged uneasily, nervous about the first break of daylight. Initially, I drew excessively from stories, philosophies and films I was reading— Kafka’s bug, Thomas Mann’s incestuous twins, Noh masks, Oedipus’s gouged eyes and the Girl Without Hand’s dismembered limbs. But the drawings also took a life of their own, developing a personal language. Motifs recurred of doorways, eyes, bandaged limbs, the body constantly morphing and transforming beyond its own limits and excesses.
Before I started drawing again, I was mostly consumed by a ridiculous need for perfection that was mostly disabling. I sought the perfection of the perfect line or curve, and I was obsessed with making a potential mistake: inevitable, when one is an pen-and-ink artist, really (I should have chosen painting but as they say, the medium chooses you). When I started drawing again, that voice of anxiety would always rise up but I pushed it to the back of my mind because drawing was an imperative for survival. I could not afford pesky voices telling me that I could not do what I was in fact doing. Everything I created I deemed grotesque and ugly, my ‘deformed art children’, as I labelled them. Taking on that humorous approach seemed to enable me to continue drawing. I realized soon that when I made mistakes, nobody really noticed it but me anyway. Often, the drawings I loved the most were loved by me alone. Other times, the ones that I had deemed grotesque became well-loved and received by my audience. It took about two years of continuous daily drawing before the critiquing voice went away for good and I found myself approaching a blank paper and a strange silence. Likewise, the more I drew, the more opportunities came about to draw and stretch the limits of what I knew. Drawing also became a way of creating and expanding, not merely withdrawing and meditating on internal realms and memories.
I drew a girl at that time who I deemed a fertility goddess, because she was big and encompassed the world, and I was small, skeletal, struggling to fill the me-shaped space within it. This girl became the emblem of power I drew from when I felt depleted, which was most of the time. This was a girl of insatiable hunger, who birthed worlds, who propagated planets. She was the Cosmos in a Body, and a being who signified everything I was not.
In a way, these drawings were paper talismans and powerful evocations: by putting ink on paper, I was also participating in a magical practice of invoking certain deities, of keeping in certain forces and exorcising others. They were also ways of creating portals, doorways, ladders and ropes help me climb out of a dark place, and in fact those motif recurs in my drawings. Somehow, the tactile feeling of marking ink on paper felt close to home, close-to-the-skin in its familiarity.
At this time, other motifs occurred from the ones borrowed from novels, such as the twins separated yet conjoined, communicating telepathically through gestures and a mirror language. They could only see each other through a looking glass, sitting next to each other yet irrevocably separated by invisible forces. Also, there was the apple child who emerged one fall and stayed the entire winter till she broke into a hundred pieces by springtime, evaporating from my world as suddenly as the seasons turn. I also often drew myself into all my drawings as a hidden halo kitty on a soul boat. If you peek into every drawing, you’ll notice how her journey changes depending on the theme of each drawing: this is but one micro-story within a larger macrocosm populated by countless other micro-stories. In a way, each drawing is a non-linear pool of tiny narratives buried within each other. Take one thread and follow it, and a whole story will unfold like a piece of origami.
Here was it that I learned the power of art to create a mythology. My motifs took a life of their own: they mirrored the things I was studying, the themes I was exploring. I would draw halos, Saints and holy hand gestures obsessively, only to find the exact gestures in religious paintings in Italy the month after when I went on exchange to Florence. I would draw about metamorphosis obsessively only to start a course on the same subject matter the month after. Again and again, strange synchronicities grew between the world of my mind and the external world. It seemed like there was an uneasy synchronization happening between the outside and the inside. For once, I could communicate.
I wasn’t sure of the origin of these beings, only that they turned up when I needed them and would disappear when I no longer did. They changed continually and organically, taking a life apart from me, like a parallel universe that continually existed along my own, a boundless resource I could always tap into.
When I realized I could get well—shortly after leaving the hyper-controlled environment I mentioned—I had no idea what to do, only that the language of my art reminded me that the body was the locus of change. Transformations inward come from changes outward. I had lost my period for about two years, and I was about ten months into physical recovery, gaining about twenty or more pounds (a notable feat for someone who has always been on the scrawny side and struggled to gain any weight). My period was still absent, and so I drew another fertility goddess, this time with the strong intention of bleeding again. It worked: the day after I finished it, I got my first period after more than two years of being infertile. The drawing, on the left, I named “Genesis”.
This was when I realized really that what I had been doing was, in its way, a magical practice. I constantly drew as a way of extracting outward change by creating something similar but tangible through pen and paper. I would plant ‘seeds’ or sacrifice girls in the fall, and they would grow and change when spring came. When I drew, I fell into a meditative state of mind in which my mind was a blank slate and ideas came flowing through me. I was a conduit, and all that was needed was a subtle intention for change to occur. Oftentimes, I would instinctively get images of what a client needed before they mentioned it. Drawing for me was a way of channeling, a way of escaping myself yet also a way of coming back to myself.
I personally believe that art is a magical practice. It is more than a mode of catharsis that one uses to expel difficult emotions. By creating, you are also creating yourself into being. You are reaching deep into the well within yourself and you are extracting its essence into the waking world. Art is alchemy; it is transmutation of soul-matter into physical form. In many cases, I am unconscious of what I draw but the act of drawing pulls it out into consciousness. In such a way, I’ve discovered fragments of lost selves over the years through the process of drawing. For example, one of the motifs I was obsessed with was the womb (hence “Watery Wombs: Memories of a Fetal Self” was born), and the space within that imaginary construct. The womb was a point of return which was inaccessible and by drawing it, I was also, in a way, retrieving fragments of myself that had broken off due to trauma or other discordant events.
In a way, drawing puts you in mythic time (similar to the still-time you go into when you meditate), which is a space where things come through you from mythic-time into present time (from NOWHERE to NOW HERE, as Diana Wynne Jones put it in Fire and Hemlock). It may be very mundane, sometimes, as meditation often is (mind you, I hate meditating. I can’t do it. That’s why I draw). It may seem nothing is happening when you draw or that ideas come slowly, but through the intention of creation, beings are born.
The central theme in my art is growth: the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. I feel, as a being on this earth, that I am constantly shedding old skins and crawling into new ones. I have so many knots to untangle in my past, yet I also have so many chapters to create in my future. In this very present, right at this moment, I possess a depth of stories from past lives and also the potentiality of future selves waiting to be born. I want to express that pain is part of change and integral to evolution. Some of my characters are in flames or being consumed and others are in hibernation, dormant, pregnant, or birthing. Yet, regardless, they all manage to change, sprout, burst out of previous shells into a plethora of new beings. They are constantly in motion, coming into being. The many figures in my art are in a way all facets of one being, which is a psyche that is constantly changing.
Nowadays, my artistic practice is much different than it was before. Seven years into my art practice, I feel like my art has matured and earlier motifs have transformed into different forms. Whereas, in the beginning, my themes were almost obsessively violent, they are nowadays more nurturing and plant-like, for lack of a better word. Beings are slowly born not out of the violence of being pulled from the womb but from other beings. There are still points of rapture and break, but they are also balanced by cycles of growth and rebirth. All in all, a steady harmony has developed between the disjunction within my psyche and the rhythm of putting pen and paper, of going to drawing-space and creating. There is less of an urgent need to draw, draw, draw, lest I die. It is more now the steady rhythm of the heartbeat that compels me to continue. And I am sure this will morph and evolve with time to come.