Text by Dorothy Smith published in ‘..the lives we live..’, Grangegorman Public Art in December 2020
Drawing a rich metaphorical word.
We draw water
draw tickets draw curtains draw guns draw breath draw things behind us draw things to us draw conclusions draw attention to ourselves We can withdraw from a person or place We can become withdrawn We can withdraw to a drawing room We are drawn to certain people and places We are drawn to activities and objects As people we are drawn together People have been hung, drawn and quartered We draw pictures.
What is happening when we draw?
To draw implies movement, a shift from one place or way of being to another, a transition from one state or function to another. The water moves from the well or river to the bucket and becomes a liquid to drink or wash with. The curtains extend across the window and block the light, provide privacy. Air moves from outside our body to inside and becomes part of us. We remove ourselves from others physically or emotionally. Our focus, attention and physical being shift when we are attracted to new places, people, objects and activities.
The act of drawing embodies movement; a pencil moving across a page, a stimulus transformed into marks, information and ideas being sifted, sorted, processed. The source material from which we draw can be visual, conceptual, emotional, it can be a clear idea or a ‘niggling’ thought. Drawing transforms this source into another state, in a specific place, giving it form and function. Some ideas will never be realised or generated if not worked out through drawing. Drawing is searching. It is a way of thinking. It makes ideas visible.
Drawing is an intrinsic part of human existence. Drawing goes back through time and form, from a luminous example such as the Lasceaux cave drawings of 20,000 years ago, to ipad sketches of the present day. Everyone, with few exceptions, has drawn at some stage in their lives. We start drawing at an early age often before the age of one. Drawing is non-discipline specific; architects, cartographers, engineers, and all designers draw to capture, develop and visualise ideas, to communicate. Drawing has a role in medicine, maths, the sciences, and communications. Drawing is not the preserve of the artist.
Drawing is both a verb and a noun. To draw is a process. A drawing is a product. All drawing takes place somewhere on this continuum from process to product. In early childhood children are involved in the process of drawing with little concern for the look of their drawing. Teenagers become concerned with the look, wanting to get it ‘right’. Where anyone’s work lies on this continuum is dependent on the person, the discipline and the context in which the work is happening. Some people will work exclusively on one end or the other of this continuum, others will, in exploring an idea or over the course of a project move back and forth along its full length. No two people draw alike. No two people see in the same way.
Drawing is a quiet word. It has an intrinsic psychological component. It operates in a private sphere and requires concentration, attention with an openness to chance. It is a unique way of interacting with the world and with oneself. It is an embodied activity that necessitates the moving, distilling, arranging and sorting of information from, potentially, many sources into new ideas and knowledge.
Dorothy Smith, May 2020
This text was based on a short talk I gave at Drawing Together, a public seminar which took place in St Laurence’s Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, 12 October 2019. Curated by Conor Sreenan GDA (Grangegorman Development Agency), held in association with the Irish Architecture Foundation Open House Dublin. Drawing Together launched a series of City Drawings by plattenbaustudio. These drawings, commissioned by GDA, marked the 10thanniversary of breaking ground at Grangegorman, following the masterplan for the site drawn by architect James Mary O’Connor of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects. The event gathered architects Valerie Mulvin, James Mary O’Connor, Jennifer O’Donnell, Jonathan Janssens, moderated by artist Dorothy Smith, to discuss the role and value of drawing in city-making.
Catalogue essay by Emmett Scanlon, Land Marks, RHA Ashford Gallery, Dublin 2, 16 March – 8 April 2018
“Thinking happens live”, Dorothy Smith replies. I have asked her how certain she is of what she is drawing and where on the page she is drawing it before she marks the blank white sheets with the grey-black graphite. It is a brilliantly blue December, Dublin morning. She is showing me the drawings contained in this exhibition and we are in her new studio. The studio is large. A not quite white room, but it is bright, with a pair of doors looking back to her house, through the garden, to the dozing cat. It is rather tidy for a studio because it is new I imagine, it is not yet itself, it is still in between.
“Mistakes are ok”, Dorothy continues as she shares further drawings. I am beguiled with her drawing process. It is a process that looks tightly controlled but one that Dorothy assures me is rather freely – albeit patiently – employed. What kind of pencils are used I ask? It seems it is just the ones you pare – light, common, ordinary but clearly heavy with intent and purpose once held in her right hand and lead is led to make line.
On a wall, leaning, close to the doors, there is one framed and finished pencil drawing. It is outlined in walnut, exquisite as the sun finds it. It is an explicit sign of something finished, a deadline reached. Yet it too is also something about to move, neither of the studio nor of the gallery but somewhere in between. No, no, no but how, when do you begin to draw, I ask – “I just start”.
This work begins though, well before it starts. Smith does not deliberately leave her studio or home and set out on an expedition to find the fragments, the ruins or the spaces of the built environment that clearly intrigue her and whose portraits she presents in Land Marks. Rather, she notices these things as she is doing those things, cycling here or walking there, with an entirely other destination and purpose in mind. The housing block on the Canal (Encounter)was cycled past several times before it was fully noticed and eventually drawn on paper. This kind of active, accidental awareness of the world around her, the alignment and overlap of her necessary interests or preoccupations with whatever crosses her path on any routine day, lends the work an immense temporal charge on the one hand and a compelling spatial potency on the other.
The larger drawings, made with ruled, repeated layers of black-grey lines, are clearly showing some thing at one moment in time, a year, a day, an hour in the life of the thing portrayed. Often isolated from context, the state of the thing is not always clear however, they each feel very in between. Is the thing drawn being constructed or taken apart (Capital series)? Is ithappily occupied or sadly abandoned (Encounter)? Was the thing once useful but now redundant (Port Structure)?This can, at times, make for uneasy viewing as our instinct to resolve and to be sure about things is subtly challenged. What these drawn things clearly are however are parts of our constructed world, bits of building. Very often drawings of that world feel frozen and devoid of life. Smith’s momentary drawings however, show us that in between things are in fact restless, moving and dynamic. Like all great portrait artists, Smith captures the elusive characteristics of her subjects. In the large drawings of Land Marks, she succeeds in capturing the most elusive of all because she shows us that while indeed made of rigid, hard materials buildings are not really fully static or ever immutable. While not alive like you or I, buildings most certainly do have lives, finite lives which begin and end. As buildings ‘live’, their lives overlap and intertwine with the people who build, use, occupy or simply notice them and if only for a moment or for months, such overlaps leave buildings and people forever altered.
Of course, in order to build at all, we seek to control the future use and life for the things we build. However, life does not always go according to plan. Smith, in her Other Landscapes series, draws our attention to the neglected edges, corners and resultant, awkward spaces that surround us. In these square drawings, drawings which make deliberate reference to the tradition of Western landscape painting, Dorothy Smith close-notices the unplanned or the seemingly erratic and spontaneous occupation over time of otherwise formally planned and constructed spaces as people pitch their tents, drop concrete barriers or add another piece of visually chaotic signage, perhaps intended to restore order.
A front garden (Other Landscapes – Stone Circle) is drawn close up, reminding us that nature too is an active, purposeful participant in our built world. People and plants appropriate space and not always appropriately. In each drawing, the observed tension between planned intent and unpredictable outcome is beautifully expressed somehow in each hatched and busy pencil line, worked over and under and through.
In Land Marks, by taking her time and having the wit to notice, Dorothy Smith decidedly draws for us an arrestingly radical yet utterly vital reading of the world we inhabit. By isolating constructed fragments that may or may not yet be part of some greater composite and by respecting the spaces that emerge from an often accidental gathering of peculiar companions, Smith invites us first to consider but then to accept that the built world is something that we, as humans, do indeed construct and alter but that this built world, in turn, has a profound effect on us as we occupy it. A widely acceptable truism, within architectural discourse it nevertheless remains rather unclearly demonstrated that the social and spatial lives of people and buildings are inextricably connected.
In Land Marks, in the end, one is left curious as to why, how and, critically, who has made the things drawn, where does each thing fit in to our wider social and spatial stories and to when does each thing belong. As these are much the same questions that preoccupy humans, Smith has, in this work, optimistically offered a common ground, a space between in which the interconnectedness of people and built-place can be more substantially, productively and ambitiously discussed. It is a space we should enthusiastically occupy.
Emmett Scanlon is an architect focused on the social purpose of architecture. His practice is focused on finding new ways to describe the relationship between people and their built environment through building and spatial design, drawing, research, writing, education and exhibition curation. He is co-ordinator of the MArch program at University College Dublin and Architecture Adviser to the Arts Council. In 2018 Emmett will complete the public art project Home on the Grange and participate in Engaging Places, a collaborative art and architecture project led by Create in association with Heart of Glass and in collaboration with Tate Exchange / Tate Liverpool.
This is a piece I wrote for Droichead Arts Centre Programme in 2018. Part of their ongoing series ‘Voices’. I include some of the paintings of neighbourhood windows I refer to.
You start on a path not knowing where it will take you. An interest in painting and art leads to encounters with many elusive, previously unknowable places and ideas. A move to a specific geographic location leads to experiences that deepen interest and expand knowledge.
Paintings of images seen during night walks in my locality mark the start of paying closer attention to the built environment we construct. Glimpses into the lit windows on residential streets, images of interior lives filtered through and semi obscured by curtains, blinds, potted plants; rich colours, texture, light, warm and cold; the front window representing how we present the public version of our private spaces.
The business of Phibsborough, Dublin, where I live, the complex business of fitting so many moving things; people, cars, busses, bikes, prams, wheelchairs, trucks, vans, scooters into a space first laid out centuries ago. The corresponding underutilisation of other spaces; vacant sites, empty premises, top floors; the difficulty of getting from A to B, of crossing the road. Over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban settings. How our cities and built spaces work matters.
Drawing as a methodology of exploring these spaces may seem incongruous in this linked and digital age. Drawing is a slow process in a fast moving world; in a fugitive space such as a city, constantly evolving and never ‘finished’.
My work includes drawings of urban structures and infrastructures, incorporating many urban topographies including those temporary, permanent, functional, abandoned, those undergoing change, the iconic and the demolished. Drawing has helped me explore my own neighbourhood and my experience of it; it has made me think about the importance of the places in which our everyday lives unfold. I have been surprised by what I have discovered, what it has made me notice; how deeply layered are the places we create, how stimulating it is to look and draw.
[The artist] is bending over his table, darting on to a sheet of paper the same glance that a moment ago he was directing towards external things, skirmishing with his pencil, his pen, his brush, … He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call modernity … it is much easier to decide outright that everything about the garb of an age is absolutely ugly than to devote oneself to the task of distilling from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain, however slight or minimal that element may be. By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. Charles Baudelaire (1863)1
Looking at these drawings, Baudelaire’s words come to mind because it is immediately apparent that these works, drawn from the gritty urban environment, are a distillation, a refining. The drawings have the kind of formal quality that often characterises the best kind of ‘realist’ interpretation. Take Made and Considered, a drawing of a “large derelict plywood sign on an empty plot, part of the Mater Hospital site”.2 The precision of this large drawing and its evident intricate methodology, is not at the service of a mere rendering of surface texture, rather it is a translation of this multi-layered, ad hoc structure into a refined formal language of repeated graphite lines. This language is also employed in works like Underpinning and Come and Go. So that rather than a simply mimetic response, we encounter interpretation, re-presentation, invention.
Looking at these drawings we recognise the “garb of an age”, or more precisely its under-garb. Smith’s subject is the messy, fugitive, contingent, stuff she describes as an “almost invisible part of our infrastructure”, 3 disregarded but nevertheless the stuff that literally underpins our built environment, something to which Underpinning, a highly formalised intricate drawing of ‘rebars’ also attests.
Smith’s interpretations make us look at these familiar yet ephemeral things and spaces differently, newly. The utilitarian nature of these spaces is acknowledged in some of the titles such as Come and Go, an anonymous Brutalist stairwell, while a similar piece, Procession, presents a nondescript flight of concrete steps, each describes a terrain vague brought into telescopic focus. It is the banality of these spaces, their neutrality that gives Smith license to reinvent so freely.
Smith’s perambulations around her Phibsborough neighbourhood, and elsewhere in Dublin’s north inner city, recollect Baudelaire’s modern artist “ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert”. 4 Her modus encompasses that rich tradition of the flâneur, the Situationist and the psycho-geographer, as narrated by Baudelaire, Joyce, Benjamin and Debord. Baudelaire insists that the artist has a “loftier” aim than that of the “mere flâneur”, in pursuit of “the fugitive pleasure of circumstance.” It might be suggested that the artist searches for something equally fugitive, a kind of knowledge.
These drawings literally draw our attention to “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”, the verso to the corporate grand façade’s immutable recto. Baudelaire opposes these two distinct registers, worldviews that are reflected in our built environment and our psychophysiological responses to it. Worldviews invariably have a political dimension and the longing for immutable beauty and eternal truth is a profoundly conservative impulse – a grain that these drawings run against.
Smith sees her work as ’embedded’ in both the “geographical and social space” in which she lives, and she sees this embeddedness as significant on a number of levels: her social and environmental activism are of a piece with her art making, they are a “continuum”. 5 There is another aspect to this embeddedness, one that she recognises as touching upon the idea of drawing as a means of knowledge generation. The title of the exhibition Made and Considered is significant in this regard. The artist is aware of this aspect, and sees her drawing as “a way of thinking,” the kind of thinking that is situated and embedded within the environment.
This “situated cognition” view of knowledge 6 sees cognition as “embodied” and “embedded,” reliant on both the body and the environment (both physical and social). This pragmatic, situated and enactive approach challenges conventional western conceptions of knowledge that regard it as something static and immutable. John Dewey characterises (1916) this view: “truth exists ready-made somewhere” and he regards it as essentially conservative and antidemocratic. For him, knowledge must involve action, and it must be of use: “only that which … enable[s] us to adapt the environment to our needs and to adapt our aims and desires to the situation in which we live is really knowledge.” 7
The exhibition title also brings to mind Giambattista Vico’s verum-factum principle, employed in defence of the humanities and the arts. Vico argued (1710) that, “the true is precisely what is made.” 8 Here we find the idea that we, as human beings, can only have true knowledge of that which we have made, whether individually or collectively. The significance of this point with regard to these drawings of the built environment is twofold. These spaces and structures were originally drawn by architects and made by builders. Now they are made and considered anew through Smith’s drawing process. On Vico’s view drawing might perhaps be seen as the means of knowing the constructed world par excellence.
The knowledge embodied in these drawings and generated through them represents the antithesis of what Dewey condemned as a “scorn” for the kind of situated knowledge that deals in messy stuff, in the physical, the particular, the fugitive and the contingent, that regards knowledge as “high and worthy in the degree in which it deals with ideal symbols instead of with the concrete.” 9 He is referring to the idealist metaphysics of eternal and immutable truths alluded to by Baudelaire. Against these, Dewey asserts an “enactive” and “situated” approach to knowing.
There is a thread that runs through the fabric of Smith’s work. It is not just the content of these drawings; the ends if you like – motifs from the fabrication of public spaces – but also the means, the acts of drawing, that have a political dimension. Dewey tells us that in the conservative view “means are menial, subservient, slavish; and ends liberal and final … Thus the identification of knowledge with esthetic contemplation and the exclusion from science of trial, work, [and the] manipulation … of things.” 10
Both Vico and Dewey’s ideas contribute to the rehabilitation of species of knowledge represented by the arts, and they both saw such knowledge as ultimately benefitting and democratising the civic sphere and the public space. In this centenary year of the proclamation of the Irish Republic we might remember that the res publica originally referred to things and spaces held in common, as opposed to the res privata, the private sphere. These drawings emerge from a complex multi-layered engagement with that public sphere. The artist sees the various layers and dimensions of that engagement as a continuum that encompasses social, aesthetic, epistemological and, yes, political dimensions.
Tom McGuirk, April 2016
Tom McGuirk is Senior Lecturer in Art Theory/Critical Theory at the University of Chester.
1 Baudelaire, C., (Mayne. J. trans.) 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Press. pp. 12-13.
2 Correspondence with the artist.
4 Baudelaire, C., (Mayne. J. trans.) 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Press. p. 12.
5 Correspondence with the artist.
6 Aydede, M. and Robbins, P. eds., 2009. The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
7 Dewey, J., (Boydston, J.A., ed.) 2008. The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 9, 1899-1924: Democracy and Education, 1916. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 344-354.
8 Costelloe, T., 2016, “Giambattista Vico”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), E. N. Zalta, ed., URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/vico/
9 Dewey, J., (Boydston, J.A., ed.) 2008. The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 9, 1899-1924: Democracy and Education, 1916. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 274.
10 Dewey, J. 2000. Experience and Nature. Enlarged, Revised edition. Dover Publications. p. 124.