Back in the first January after the Crash of September 18, 2008, I was one of many who found themselves bewildered and petrified by the cascade of economic events beyond their control. I don’t need to go into personal details, (just google “auction rate securities + fraud+ retirement savings”) except to note that it did seem that all pillars of safety were falling, most especially the capitalist system — a system I had relied upon as a professional designer to put food on the table. By January I had spent four months archiving, updating, shaking the known trees, and banging my head on a small flat stone. With the phone-line to the capitalist world apparently dead I sat for many long hours at my kitchen table immobilized and staring into the abyss.
In this state I began to read newspapers with a grim scavenger obsession: what had fallen in the last hour? What was next? Who was suffering the most? And that is when I began to clip out the faces of bankers. Through no fault of their own they were all men. I began to draw them. Mr. Goldman Sachs, Mr. Arrested at 4 AM in his red sweatshirt, Mr. I Am Not Either Guilty. Oh, and one woman, Ms. Software Oligarch, in her perfect mannish Nehru shirt. I moved on to men shouting (mostly coaches) and men playing baseball. All this complicity, all this power and rage, captured in the sweet, soft, smudgy newsprint. At a certain point I couldn’t stand it anymore. I bought some tulips and turned the sketchbook around and started drawing petals and leaves, thinking, what will it be like when faces and flowers meet in the middle? And what is the masculine, and what is the feminine, what is this all about?
It was technically a wonderful exercise in how to use colored pencil, which I had never tried before. It was soothing, slow, patient work, perfectly suited to the intimate space of the kitchen. And emotionally it was revelatory. To shift from one subject to another, from livid anger to botanical grace over the course of the day, brought me a measure of equanimity. It also dealt with one of my favorite subjects in art, the Real and the Unreal. The ardent tulip was unequivocally real, the newspaper, not-so-much. Although I was using exactly the same materials for both there were subtle shifts in perception as the subject changed.
Revisiting the sketchbook in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement I found a few other drawings I had forgotten: the innocents, the lost players, the embarrassingly earnest. It seems the theme of power and powerlessness, of crumbling security and tidal economic changes, of the need for refuge, are not going away anytime soon. For millions the world is far more shaky than it was in that first dreadful year after the crash.
Of Flowers and Men. Selections from a personal sketchbook, colored pencil and lead pencil on Moleskine. (Click to enlarge.)