Drawing Fire

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I wrote about Steve Mumford last year when his work was only available on Artnet. Now he has published a sumptuous book collecting all of the watercolors and observations he made during his visits to war-torn Iraq.
He told me that he drew almost exclusively with a dip pen while there and that he carried his art supplies in the pockets of his flak jacket, ready to sweep everything together and haul ass if there was any sort of trouble. Some of his paintings are of bombs blowing up under humvees or soldiers returning sniper fire and those sorts of pictures he admitted he had done from photos he took on the scene and then painted back at his hotel or even in his studio safely in New York.
He said that drawing gave him a sort of access he could never have gotten as a journalist. Many photographers were embedded with troops but the Iraqis were often suspicious when they saw a camera. Women in particular did not like to have their pictures taken and retreated behind their veils.
But when Steve sat down to draw, he was trusted. People could see what he was doing, and knew how they were being depicted. And they had the universal interest most people have to watching a work of art come to life, seeing how the lines emerge and take shape. Iraqis have a rich artistic tradition and enormous respect for artists. Steve was able to sit in meetings between the soldiers and the Iraqis, to capture everyday life as it was led in the streets of Baghdad, because people welcomed him.
Steve says he is a shy person and yet he drew crowds whenever he set up his little folding stool and began to draw. Imagine what it’s like to sit on the sidewalk in a war-zone and sketch. Imagine being under the scrutiny of people who could be suicide bombers. Imagine being in tense situations like negotiations with local mullahs or driving down dusty roads in a US military convoy. I’m amazed he could relax enough to do such wonderful work.
Most people are enormously self-conscious the first time they draw in public. There is something very presumptuous in setting yourself up in public as ‘an artist’. You are sure people are watching your every move (which they may well be doing) and then dismissing your feeble efforts and snickering behind your back at your ineptitude. All of these paranoid thoughts swirl in your mind as you draw, little yammering voices nipping at your pen, distracting you, judging every stroke you make.
Of course, like so many excuses we give ourselves for not taking risks or trying new things, your fears are hogwash. The only reactions people have when they see an artist at work is fascination, respect, and envy. Most people will watch from a distance but some will stand right near you. When I draw in Chinatown, the locals come right up and virtually lean on me as I draw; often the same people will stay glued to my side for a half an hour as I work. Occasionally people will gently ask a question about what I’m drawing or why I’m drawing it. If I wear headphones, they probably won’t. I can stop and engage them and reap some quick admiration, or just carry on with my work. On extremely rare occasions, something a little more dramatic might happen. In Jerusalem, some boys try to rip my sketchbook out of my hands and run off with it. Every so often someone has realized I was drawing them and felt violated and insisted I stop (of course, I always do; I wouldn’t make a good drawarazzi).
I urge you to get out with your journal and capture life in the streets. If you are unbearably nervous, sit with your back against a wall or draw the view through a caf� window. I think it’s nice to share your work with the people you are drawing � though I don�t do it often enough. Last week, my pal Tom drew a fire station; the firemen saw him and loved the piece so much they gave him a t-shirt and asked to make a copy; they said they want to make it into a poster. I had a similar experience at a brothel in Nevada that Dan Price and I drew (long story, another time).
If you ever get horribly anxious as you ply your pen and pad out in public, think of Steve Mumford in his flak jacket surrounded by unfamiliar faces and the smell of smoke, and suck it up.

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