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This week, I got two groups of students from Tembusu College here at the National University of Singapore, to voluntarily participate in my Apocalypse Workshop. The goal was for them to imagine a climate change apocalypse.

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The first activity was called My Apocalypse. These were my instructions:

Name and describe your favorite place in 50 years as climate change affects it. (Write about it and draw it.) This could be a city landmark, the family farm, your apartment building, your favorite cafe, or any other place you feel like speculating on. Please be as specific as possible. Scenarios can be positive or negative. (Some questions to ponder, but please don’t limit yourself to these: What does it smell like? What plants and/or animals are present, if any? How hot or cold will it be when you are sitting there? How will you get there? Can you see clearly? Will your pet be happy living there? What is the color you see when you look up? Are there walls, and what are they made of?)

I asked them to name the actual place (and not just write, “the world” or “the city”) because I wanted them to be as specific and detailed as possible. The participants were also more likely to choose different places and thus provide a wider range of descriptions.

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The second activity was called Superpowers for the End of the World. These were the details:

If you had a superpower to navigate through what you described in Activity 1, what would it be?
Examples of superpowers can be the ability to: smell an incoming tsunami, be invisible to animals, turn into ice during a heatwave, or anything that your current senses and abilities can’t let you do right now. It can be an extension of your biological abilities, or a device that performs it. You can list more than one superpower.

I wanted to frame it in this way so that people will find it more fun and exciting and really think outside the box when it comes to climate change. Nothing like superpowers to get the creative juices flowing!

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The last activity was called The Apocalypse Lookbook, where I gave them fashion design templates:

What will you wear to the apocalypse? Use the templates provided. Define the function of each wearable.

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I let them do each activity for twenty minutes, and afterwards, they shared what they made to the  group. These university students all had taken a class on climate change, or were in the middle of one.  They came from business, economics, engineering, and communication majors. I also had one participant who is a professional environmental engineer.

Here are some photos from the sessions:

DSC08956 DSC08958 DSC08959 DSC08973_A DSC08984 DSC08991 DSC08998 DSC09008 DSC09013

I’ve given lots of workshops in the past few years—this definitely yielded among the most imaginative results. I’ll be sharing those soon. Thanks to all the participants, and also to those from all over the world who sent their answers online!

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(Seoul)—Last Saturday, a group of high school students from the docent program of the National Museum of Contemporary Art of Korea made their way over to the Changdong Art Studio for a talk and workshop with me and fellow artist-in-residence, Karolina Bregula.

Ms. Sung-hee Cho of the NMCA Korea's Department of Education & Residency Program

Ms. Sung-hee Cho of the NMCA Korea’s Department of Education & Residency Program

After I made the students go on a scavenger hunt in my studio, we had homemade kimbap and tteokbokki for lunch. Then, I facilitated short workshops on drawing what they see in clouds, assigning colors to memories, and a blind smell test to dig through their memories.

There are few days when I think having a group of teenagers go through my room is a good idea. This was one of them. Such bright young ladies!

There are few days when I think having a group of teenagers go through my room is a good idea. This was one of them. Such bright young ladies!

Drawing cloud interpretations

Drawing cloud interpretations

A wall of clouds!

A wall of clouds!

Connecting color to memory

Connecting color and memory

A smell test

A smell test

For the color workshop, I thought the work of this student who matched color with pop culture was spot on:

Colors as pop culture references

Colors as pop culture references

I also loved this color palette of memories by another student:

Color and memories of places

Color and memories of places

Oh, and some used The Hug Vest as well.

The Hug Vest lives!

The Hug Vest lives!

Post-workshop cleanup wearing an apron. Ms. Cho and her assistant spent an entire day making tteokbokki for all of us. And it was great!

Post-workshop cleanup wearing an apron. Ms. Cho and her assistant spent hours making tteokbokki for all of us. And it was great!

All in all, a lovely and inspiring day with such intelligent women, who will soon be off to university.

With thanks to Ms. Sung-hee Cho of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, and the staff of the National Art Studio of Korea, Changdong. Also huge thanks to Ashlee Seo Hyung Lee, who translated for me during the day.  

hotteok, South Korea

hotteok, South Korea

Annyeong, everyone! I’m starting another project.

During my first three weeks in Seoul, beyond the palaces, the museums, and other beautiful attractions the city has to offer, I learned to fall in love with their street food. I have started some drawing projects over the years, and so I came up with The Movable Feast: A Street Food Project, an interpretative illustration project that celebrates the joys and oddities of street food around the world.

Inclusive cuisine

Street food is arguably the most socially inclusive, yet sometimes unnoticed or taken for granted, of all cuisines. There is neither dress code nor reservation required. Everyone has to wait their turn. Street food is among the best things to eat when one is rushing to work, taking a break in between classes, or being too lazy to cook. It is cheap, easily available, and delicious.

The menu of street food can be simple (such as coconut juice and watermelon slices) or more complex and hard-to-find (such as escargot on the go, lobster sandwiches, and grilled tamales) This system includes a range of members—from the ambling taho vendor (Philippines), the seasonal bocadillo stall (Spain), to scheduled and franchised food trucks (United States). It is a mobile and complex system that consists of the producers of raw materials, the makers of the actual dishes, the transportation and infrastructure that bring them to the venues in which they are served, the governing bodies that allow their selling, and the vendors and consumers themselves.

Globalization and diaspora

In many ways, I have discovered that street food is a symbol of globalization and diaspora. Many of them hail from other countries, but with local flavor. Consider goroke, the Korean version of the French croquette. Or hotdogs in Iceland. Or shawarma in Canada. It is also a symbol of urbanization—as the population who move from rural to urban areas increase, so does the need for alternative sources and ways of distributing food.

Street food as identity

I believe that street food is a vital part of the culture and identity of a city. It is indicative of the sustenance immediately afforded by its geography. But more than that, it is a symbol of a people’s resourcefulness, creativity, and survival. They tell us stories about ourselves.

Eating and perception

Eating street food fires up all the senses, which are the center of my larger body of work. Street food conjures up memories of childhood and gives strangers a shared experience of a meal. These drawings themselves are interpretative; more than documenting what they are, I also draw how they’ve made me feel, and write the memory I have about them.

Follow the project’s Tumblr here.

P.S. Drawings up every Monday!

P.P.S. As I am based in Seoul, many of these posts will be about Korean street food, though I will draw all the other street foods I’ve eaten in other countries, past and future. But if you wish, you can submit photos of street food from your country and I can try it out and draw it. Or submit your own drawings, following the format I’ve started. The link to submit is here.

The Movable Feast, where eating means research. Thank you for checking it out.

I was training by myself in the dojang tonight. While in a full split, I decided to draw. When I looked up, the hour had passed.

A sign I need a break.

This is why I usually take a class. My hips are killing me. But at least I still have this drawing. Ole!

This week, something unexpected happened; I’m a published print journalist once again. Pop the champagne! It’s nothing I haven’t already wrote or spoke about before—I wrote about DrawHappy (full article below) for the readers of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. This is the first print article about the project, and I hope to write about my other projects, too.

DrawHappy in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Learning section

How did this happen? Last week, I had coffee with my former editor, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years and who now runs the Learning section. She was kind enough to listen to the projects I am running. That was on a Wednesday; my first article ran five days later. I have been through enough to be grateful for paths of least resistance. It’s pretty much the same routine of me looking at all submissions, except that whatever I send to my editor will exist in print first, then this blog.

Why this newspaper? Well, I used to write for them. While I was rarely in their offices—the consequence of the Internet—I did meet my editor, the president, and the chairperson once, and they’re quite lovely people whom I respect. I have quite fond memories of assignments involving me as a zookeeper, a magician’s assistant, a mascot, a sushi chef, as well as the requisite book and movie reviews. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also has the widest readership in the Philippines. Because it exists in print as well as online media, I hope my projects reach even those who can’t afford technology.

Back in the day, I was what they would call a youth correspondent, and I was just out of high school. (No need for gasps of ageist-related awe; there were people younger than I was, and trust me, the differences in depth of writing among them were vast.) During college I wrote over 100 articles until I moved to New York.

I am very thankful for those years with the Inquirer because it taught me to be able to write about anything with the tightest of deadlines and with the barest of writing instruments and technology. It has taught me to take criticism, hate mail, and the occasional death threat with as much poise and dignity as possible. Going back to those old articles has always made me smile and wince at the same time. What one writes when she is 29 years old is quite different when she was 17.

It’s also funny because, as someone who was always taught that writing is no way to make a living, it has been helping me pay the bills in the almost-two months I’ve been finished with my Fulbright. Back in those days, I deposited all my writing-related paychecks in a couple of local bank accounts that I promptly forgot when I left to travel. It’s not much, but hey, guess who just paid herself while she gets her projects off the ground? Oh, the irony.

Below is the article, with the link to PDI’s website here.

What Makes the World Happy

DrawHappy: A global art project on drawing your happiness

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

—Dalai Lama

Perhaps it was a nagging curiosity, perhaps it was restlessness, but for one reason or another, I found myself in the mysterious and sometimes mystical country of Iceland. It wasn’t just the need to get away from the mania of New York City. I went there on a hunch. For years, I have been fascinated with happiness—its arbitrariness as well as our insistence on studying it as though it were quantifiable. Iceland happens to rank consistently as one of the happiest places in the world. And so off I went.

I wanted to ask these people what made them happy, but ah, how do I get them to show it? I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw their happiness. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures, and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.

Kindness is first

I vividly remember the first time I asked someone to draw. It was in a diner, a short pit stop on the way back to Reykjavik after spending time in the black beaches of Vik. The young man, Arnar, who worked the register and couldn’t be more than 17 years old, was such a warm an genuine character that I knew I had to ask him.

When you have a project in your head, the initial step is always one of uncertainty and awkwardness. I didn’t have a name for the project yet. I felt foolish for even asking. But I was immensely touched when he drew something that I never thought would be the first sketch. “When I see people do an act of kindness, that makes me feel truly happy,” he said. Kindness! In a world that’s often depicted as materialistic and disconnected! Perhaps there was something to this after all.

A one-woman happiness machine

That first encounter made it easier for the succeeding ones. I became a one-woman happiness machine right afterwards, asking everyone in my path. Even a particularly cold and windy day (in Iceland, “windy” means “being swept off your feet”) didn’t stop me—I went through the entire street of Laugavegur, the primary commercial street in Reykjavik, and asked every single person who would listen to me. Some turned me away, but many took my offered pencil and drew, which they confessed they hadn’t done in years. Some told me that no one ever asked them this question before, which made me do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!).

I set my goal for the Iceland trip to 100 drawings, a big yet manageable number since my trip lasted around two weeks, with half of the time spent chasing waterfalls, volcanoes, and the Northern Lights. But I persisted, even asking people on the plane with me en route to New York. Upon returning, I reviewed the sketches I had, reflected on why I was even interested in doing this to begin with, and decided to put everything online and continue the project.

Drawings as data

My teachers and classmates at the Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, where I received my MFA this May, helped me a lot in tightening up my story and clarifying my intentions with DrawHappy. A final project for my Data Visualization class led to me creating an infographic about the sketches I had. I began treating the drawings as actual data, categorizing the countries where people came from and what they drew. I think doing this helped me understand why people chose to draw what they did.

Until now, I ask people to give their name, age, country of origin, and profession. They don’t have to, but I encourage it because I think it’s important to own up to your happiness and it gives me a way to see how it is defined by people of their demographic. I also ask them about what they were doing right before they made the drawing; I think our notion of happiness is contextual and affected by the things that surround us. How a person views happiness also changes through time, and occasionally, I get another submission from a previous participant, whose definition of happy has evolved.

Going global

It has been more than a year since Iceland. The project has since received submissions from 47 countries. Even now, my heart would skip a beat every time I get an email from a complete stranger, wanting to participate in the project. I have smiled, laughed, wondered at, and cried at the stories I have gotten from people I may never meet. DrawHappy has been a window into our shared humanity, one that is universal and timeless. I hope to run this project forever; I think it has sustained me as well as the people who have supported it.

Lessons on happiness

DrawHappy has also made me understand happiness in a deeper way. Happiness is a paradox. To quantify it, as I have found, is less interesting to me than to qualify it by what people have chosen to draw. Happiness is also a way of life, not an end. How we are happy, that is, whether we can see the little joys in the day, matters more than the bigger payoffs of life. Finally, I now believe that happiness is something that can be cultivated or practiced every single day. I hope that in getting people to draw, they will be reminded of their happiness and that they take steps to pursue it.

Parts of this article have appeared in the project’s site, http://www.DrawHappy.org as well as my personal blog, http://www.ThePerceptionalist.com. Follow the project at http://www.DrawHappy.org or @idrawhappy.

Starting today, we will be accepting DrawHappy submissions from all PDI readers! Visit http://www.DrawHappy.org/submit for submission guidelines  and terms, and email drawhappyproject@gmail.com with the subject line “DrawHappy PDI.” We will feature a drawing every week in Inquirer Learning, and will post them online at http://www.DrawHappy.org. If you wish to hold a DrawHappy event in your school, company, or organization, please email me as well.

(I wrote this post as an update to DrawHappy, an ongoing art project where I ask people to draw what makes them happy. The full text of it is below.)

Well, almost. I returned from my trip to Iceland on January 10th, bringing with me a hundred sketches, a sea of stories, and a now-heightened tolerance of the cold that is quite useful for one who grew up in the tropics. I never thought I’d continue DrawHappy, as I’m usually doing other projects and have a really short attention span. But the post-Iceland sketches came in sporadically, and I’ve realized that it was the occasional email or package with a happy drawing that helped sustain me—and I hope those who follow the project—throughout 2011. It didn’t even have to be a fancy sketch; many I’ve received were beautifully simple. But I think it was this simplicity that made these drawings a joy to behold. Others were more elaborate, and I’ve been speechless at the amount of time and effort it must have taken to do some of them.

But first, hurray, we have a logo!


(A little late, but grad school has kept me busy.)

I used a stick figure jumping for joy, since in Iceland quite a lot of people drew that, handing their sketch tentatively and apologetically because their drawings weren’t a da Vinci. But I think the simplicity of it brought about clarity, which was the reason I asked you all to draw instead of write. I loved the sketches, stick figures and all. Thank you for all of them.

Remember the visualization I made after the 100 sketches? Honestly, I did that to pass a class, as I felt I had no other interesting data to use for my final project. But I loved what I learned from the analysis of these sketches, especially where happiness may be plotted on other standards of happiness. It made me ask questions. Why draw? Why record the moment of drawing? So what? Now what?

Why draw?

Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. No one is judging how good the drawing is; the lone requirement is that you embody your definition of happiness by taking a pencil to paper. To draw is to make clear to yourself. The project forces you to dig deep into your memory and pull from its recesses that which sustains you as a human being.

I believe most of us lose opportunities to draw. Our lives are run on devices, which I love and use eagerly; this project would never have had this global reach without technology. But while we can externalize some abilities to our machines, I hope that we don’t forget some of the basic skills that are not just universal, but critical for self-reflection and growth. I consider it a minor triumph to get people unplugged, if only for a few minutes.

A more practical reason for drawing is that while the aspiration for happiness seems to be universal (although I suppose there will always be a lot of masochistic grumps in the world), our definition of it is not. Moreover, there are times when it is difficult to label it; this is why the labeling of the sketch was not required. (I still believe it shouldn’t, though it might help me entitle your post! In these cases, I’ve done my best to simply describe what I saw, and not interpret them.)

Why the moment?

I am a scientist by training; this has given me an analytic stance when doing any project. Our definition of happiness as well as the quantification of how happy we are is dependent on what we are doing in that specific point in time. If you were riding horses that day and were still feeling exhilarated, then naturally you will draw horses. What makes other human beings happy also affected what we think makes us happy; hence, the company you kept at the time of your sketching was also recorded. I recall a time when two friends I asked both drew food. One sketched pie and the other, Pinot noir and grapes.

What I wished for

I hope that this project has made the participants want to pursue their happiness because of this brief moment of having to have considered it. There were some people who told me no one ever asked this of them before, which made me both do a double-take (Seriously?) and a cartwheel (Yes! About time!) I, too, have learned so much about the universality of happiness and how, despite our different zip codes, we all aspire for similar things in life.

Other things I’ve learned

1. Brazil is a very happy country. I hope to physically take this project there one day. Obrigado for the shout out, Super!

2. Beauty comes from boredom. Another reason why it was interesting to examine the moment of drawing:  many drew while they were bored in school, a meeting, a conference.  It must feel very satisfying to take that moment back for oneself. I loved it.

3. One should participate and not just observe one’s projects. I drew my own happiness, too!  It also inspired a lot of sketching projects, such as this and now this. It has also been a great reference to my lifelong obsession with human perception.

Now what?

I really want this project to go on forever. It would be interesting how this would look like in 5, 10, 20 years. I’m not expecting to receive hundreds of submissions a day (though that would be awesome!). I am  fully aware that drawing is asking a lot from people. I hope to take this project many steps further. It’s not just because it’s such a joy to do; more broadly, I want to ask, “Is it possible to have a record of what sustains humanity?” And once we know what does, will we take steps to ensure that we, our community, and our society make it easier for us to grasp them?

Thank you for supporting this project! In the meantime, please do keep sending me your sketches. Or  let me know how this affected you, if it has.

More updates soon!