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Here at my art residency in Singapore, I’m busy this week giving workshops to students at Tembusu College, National University of Singapore. Before the workshop, I gave a short intro talk on The Importance of Talking to Strangers.

Having done participatory art for years now, I discovered that it’s imperative to engage people in these kinds of activities (workshops, experiments, etc) in the development of a project. The things that come out of these things are always insightful.

TembusuWorkshop.002

For this week, I didn’t want to give another artist talk, as I wasn’t going to be the artist for the night. Instead, I talked about the things I learned while talking to strangers. Because these students are, after all, strangers to me. I gave two example projects and the lessons I learned from them.

The first project is Rorsketch. This project became more enlightening for me because strangers saw things I did not see. (Visit the project site here.)

TembusuWorkshop.003

(Yes, the never-ending drawing-what-you-see-in-clouds project.)

TembusuWorkshop.005

From this, which was initially something I did for myself, expanding it to include other people. Asking four people what they saw in this image will yield four different interpretations. I ended up embracing the inclusivity of the project—nothing was right or wrong.

TembusuWorkshop.012 TembusuWorkshop.016 TembusuWorkshop.017

For the second project, I learned that strangers can extend my project beyond what I set out to do.

TembusuWorkshop.019

I tried, but this project just won’t die. Viva drawing your happiness! Check out DrawHappy’s site here.

TembusuWorkshop.021

Beyond the sketches people have sent me, what became additionally interesting were the comments left on the site, most of which are submitted months or years after I uploaded the drawings—a good case for putting everything online. I was already emotionally finished with the project, or was I? These comments made me think otherwise.

Here is one that made me think DrawHappy should be turned to DateHappy:TembusuWorkshop.030

And here is another that made me think of Craigslist Missed Connections (names are protected because by now, I’ve learned that the world is so small):

TembusuWorkshop.032

As the one who actually administers the site and monitors and publishes the comments, I can’t tell you how I had to pick up my jaw from the floor when I get notified by email. I can’t wait what this apocalypse project gives me. Stay tuned.

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Last December 1st, I held my first draw-a-thon. (You know what a marathon is, right? It’s just like that, except that you’re drawing.) It was at the Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum) of Manila, Philippines, for their Children’s Advocacy Program. I brought in two of my projects, DrawHappy (a global art project on drawing your happiness) and Rorsketch (a visual perception project where you draw your interpretations of clouds). After showing them some current sketches and making them warm up their hands, we got to drawing.

Kids, I have to say, are not only talented and completely open to new experiences, but also insatiable when it comes to pouring their imaginations on paper. The terror of a blank canvas doesn’t apply much. Here are some of the sketches:

Rorsketch

DrawHappy

And some photos of how it rolled:

Then we had chocolate ice cream, fudgee bars, and grape juice. Oh, to be eight years old again!

Thanks so much to the Museo Pambata for hosting me! Visit them on your next trip to Manila. And do emaill me at theperceptionalist[at]gmail.com if you’d like to do a draw-a-thon in your school or organization.

Last week, Jesse, an American soldier in Afghanistan, sent me a sketch for DrawHappy, a project I started in December 2010 where people can draw what makes them happy. (Sheesh, that sounded redundant. How about “embody their sources of joy and elation through illustration?” Better?)

bluebird

In his email, he wrote, “I know the scan doesn’t meet the requested requirements, short on resources out here.” (I usually ask for jpegs, and he sent a pdf.) I screamed to my computer, “Oh who cares about my requested requirements?! You drew a bluebird in the barracks in Afghanistan! And you sent it to me!” Hurray!

I know this is a piece among the many amazing drawings sent to me, but I will remember this (among numerous others) because of the timing. In the past two months, I’ve been neck deep in grant proposal writing, an activity that I find only slightly more agonizing than a root canal. My shotgun-like prolificness that were the two years at SVA, which seem like five years instead of five months ago, has slowed down into pockets of dreaming that have not been helped by tropical inertia. Because that is what these applications are: dreams. Intangible ones where you have to know what you want to make and how long and what it’s for and what are the things you previously did for them to even consider you and how your project is going to be amazing so please for the love of all things wonderful, pick me! These are pricey dreams, which require time, willpower, and a considerable FedEx allowance. They are infinitely less rewarding than actually going ahead and making them, but alas! you need the powers that be to say yes so you’ll have time and resources to actually execute them. And so this nail-biting process continues.

These are dreams that have yet to be realized. But still, they are the only things I have right now.

I’ve had times like these before—the downtimes and the in-between stages. I’ve learned to appreciate them because they are the spots when new ideas come and poke you and they sound crazy but you’re unstructured enough to do them anyway and realize that you do want to keep them and they become a part of you. But still, there are acute moments of suckiness and despair and isolation and un-belongingness.

I’m glad I’m on the tail end of this stage, and I’m so excited for the next step. (Eee!)

So in these last few months, few things can perk me up such as another human being reaching out to me (or at least a community I’ve built). Especially from one who is probably away from loved ones (although hey, I can only guess since we’ve never met). Whatever low points I feel, here in the city that I at least know, is nothing compared to what soldiers go through. Looking back, I’m happy that, stickler as I am for context, I asked people not just to draw, but to describe the moment of drawing. It makes me imagine the situations they are in, and realize that insightful and creative reflection can come out of any moment, be it favorable or not.

Like most creative people will tell you, the best projects they do are the ones they do for themselves. Whether they touch others or not, the first thing that happens is that the project sustains the creator herself. While this remains a side project, it’s probably the one that will throw me curve balls and surprises for years to come.

I love that the Internet can just cheer you up with a bluebird and give you perspective, just like that.

Thanks, Jesse.

P.S. And to you who are reading this, go draw what makes you happy! Visit the site here.

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!