Methodology – Art as a Mode of Inquiry

Bow watch in a storm onboard the Schooner Zodiac.

I just returned from a 4-day sailing trip through the San Juan Islands on the schooner Zodiac. It was a work trip (The Evergreen State College), which meant about 6 hours a day of very productive seminar sessions, usually discussing poems that have at least a tangential relationship to the sea. We also had sessions on two days that dealt with drawing as a mode of inquiry to be used in conjunction with scientific disciplines. Faculty member Lucia Harrison provided everyone with a handy notebook that provided detailed examples and instructions for creating a field notebook that includes drawing from observation…even for people who don’t ordinarily draw. She led some excercises on the deck with gestural drawing and blind contour drawing. Gestural drawings are very quick, energetic drawings that just aim at getting down the mass distribution of whatever you are drawing – capturing the gesture, without getting caught up on details. Blind contour drawing is all about the details, except you are NOT LOOKING at the paper as you draw. Imagine your eye and your hand are attached. You move your eye slowly over whatever you aim to draw, following the outlines, the interior lines, any edge that your eye can perceive. If your line runs out, you back your eye and your hand back over that perceived edge until you can meet up with a line your eyes haven’t yet followed.

Contour drawings by the author.

Blind contour drawings always come out looking strange… proportion flies out the window (so to speak). An excercise like this makes you look very closely and in an organized fashion at an object, causing you to notice features you wouldn’t otherwise see. After these exercises on board ship, we went to shore and picked objects on shore to draw using the same techniques. The following day, we spent 3 hours on shore with a much bigger assignment, including drawing a map of the area as well as studies of a creature or a feature (plants, geological features, animals, etc.)

Field Journal page by the author.

Field journal page combining gesture, contour, and shaded drawings.

Sometimes, art history and art criticism seem to be about defining “good” art and “bad” art. Writings through the lenses of art history or art criticism at any given time are a pretty good window on what the issues are at the time the piece is written – and may have nothing to do with what was going on when the art was actually made. In the Western World, art has been somewhat removed from daily domestic life – art belongs in churches, museums, state buldings, the homes and offices of the wealthy. With the increase in public art programs and community arts initiatives, are we moving toward a greater inclusion of art in our daily lives? What would our culture look like if art were a part of most people’s lives? Not just as viewers or consumers of art, but as practioners? What if drawing were for everyone, not just children and professional artists? What if drawing were a valuable and intellectual/physical mode of inquiry in our society?

In Lucia Harrison’s workbook “Strategies for Keeping a Field Journal,” She identifies six elements of the intellectual work of drawing (my additions/comments are in parenthesis):

– Develops observational skills. Close study helps you explore how something is structured, how it works, or what it is doing. This is especially true of field studies – the objects being drawn are not dead – they are alive and engaged in being themselves – eroding, budding, nesting — they are active and careful observation can help you explore what they are doing.

– Requires active learning, engagement in studying the subject (this is not television).

– Enhances awareness of relationships among parts and whole. Helps you identify the key structures that make up an organism (even if you don’t yet know names for those structures)

– Helps synthesize ideas, connecting outer (text or lecture-based) and inner(physical/emotional) experiences.

– Communicates understanding, theoretical possibilities, insights, and feelings (all at the same time, without devaluing some aspects and prioritizing others).

– Builds a relationship with the subject to foster responsibility and caring (both of which are necessary in order for policy decisions to be made that could prevent further destruction of habitat, damage to biological diversty, etc.).

Beyond the assignments for these sessions, I made some additional drawings, including a gesture drawing done in color and a study of the ship’s rigging during a storm.

Gesture Drawing done in color. Algae bloom in a high salinity lagoon.

I drew this quick study of a small lagoon on a sand spit on Lopez Island. The very highest tides let saltwater into this small lagoon. Water evaporates, leaving salt behind. The water is so salty that only very specialized organisms can live in it. This type of algae is one of them. The lagoon smells absolutely horrible, but that very smell is a sign of the rich biological environment of the lagoon. The lagoon is edged with pickleweed, which I didn’t get to move close enough to see. The edges of the lagoon are a very sensitive ecosystem and walking through it damages the plants, so we stayed away from making a close examination of the pickle weed.

Another drawing that I did on the trip is a study of the rigging on the main mast of the schooner during a storm. It was too stormy to actually sail that morning. All the sails were down, but it was so windy that the ropes belled out from the mast. I loved the pattern against the sky so I decided to draw it, first in pencil, and then I did a version in color with chalk pastels. I’m not presenting this drawing simply as a work of art, but as a means of getting to know the rigging. As I was drawing, I realized that I actually knew the function of each of the ropes, even if I didn’t know the specialized vocabulary to name each one. The day previously, I had been assigned a sailing post: mainsail, topsail, starboard side. The sheet (rope) that I hauled on raised the throat end of the top of the mainsail. It was massive, and it was hard work, and I was just one person of the 30 people involved, each with their own task – and we all had to work together in order to get the ship moving under the power of the wind. It was awesome technology, and amazing teamwork. Drawing helped me think about the technology, the individual tasks, and the harnessing of the wind for a shared goal – plus the vulnerability of the endeavor. Experiencing the technology of the past first-hand is a luxury and a rare experience.

Lara Evans, too stormy to raise the sails, 2010

2 thoughts on “Methodology – Art as a Mode of Inquiry

  1. Hi Lara,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reflection on our trip and the role of drawing in our daily lives. Your images of the mast rigging and the algae bloom bring back such vivid memories of the place and experience. Thanks for your support during the drawing sessions. I’m looking forward to keeping up with your blog. I like the way you are linking your personal experience with larger issues.


  2. Pingback: Remember the Schooner Zodiac from last month? « Not Artomatic

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