xx037 • Draw confidence
Everything is better when my daughter and I draw together.
New Year’s Day, 2023. Brisk winter weather, but warm enough that my daughter and I cycled our ebike the nine-plus miles up from Brooklyn to Central Park, and after watching the first glorious sunset of the year over The Great Lawn, eventually pedaled ourselves home.
We made the trip in order to squeeze out more time with our visiting LA friends, who were visiting their UWS friends—and specifically to give Abby a birthday embrace. She and I share a belief that how you spend the turn of the year, and who you spend it with, sets the tone for what’s to come.
While pausing briefly to buy snacks for our pack of restless children, the friend-of-friend turned and asked me that seemingly simple, very NYC get-to-know-you question: ‘So what do you do?’ Given my elevator pitch is currently in rewrites, I stumbled through the beats of my story, what I used to do, what I do for work now, what might be next… and then I was cut off.
'Let me help. Kyle is an artist. He...'
Right there, standing in line to buy sweet roasted nuts, surrounded by tourists, Abby effortlessly said the thing I'm always way too embarrassed to name about myself.
Approximately fifteen years ago, my girlfriend and I were on a day trip north of our San Francisco home base. I'm driving the blue Honda Element I picked out after graduation. We are in our late-20s. The Northern California sky is blue, the hills are dry-season bleached yellow. I remember the palette, but not the full context of the conversation. We are either just about to move in together, or maybe this is our break from unpacking boxes. I vaguely recall the conversation started in an attempt to suss out each other’s decorating style/s. We were still new to each other, still mapping each other's minds and hearts. Definitely have not covered our approach/es to picking interior accessories. I opened up to share my insecurities as an artist; the struggle I’ve felt trying to be a designer. Who knows what words were actually said in response, but I will never forget what my body heard back: '…but you are not an artist.'
She didn’t mean to wield the dagger and the wound never quite healed.
Seven years and multiple moves later, the same girlfriend-now-wife and I are living in Brooklyn. In every address since college, I’ve built some variation of the same workspace: ample shelving for my library of books, a large tabletop surface for drawing/crafting/dreaming/computing, and a pinboard/pegboard for hanging inspo and tools. For the Park Slope apt I evolved my approach, creating a faux built-in wall unit out of free-standing Elfa and reclaimed wood.
Here, sitting at the salvaged desktop, a tiny nugget balanced on my lap. She was just fourteen months old and her brain was exploding. Likely she reached for the can holding the eye-catching red options; I opened one of my own half-used spiral sketchbooks from childhood. I talked out loud to my daughter as I showed her how each of the pens created a line of different shades and weights.
I often joke that my job is to be my daughter’s studio manager. I ensure that the supplies are plentiful and organized (as much as possible). The pencils are sharpened, the washi tape is patterned, and the ever-rotating library books are packed with new methods. There’s even a vintage card catalog unit labeled by material: dry-erase markers, pipe cleaners, yarn, pom poms, clay, tape, batteries…
After her mom and I separated we moved a few more times, but the studio setup has remained our constant. We settled into a steady custody schedule which enabled our sacred weekend rhythm: Saturday nights are for watching movies, Sunday mornings are for making art.
February 2020, I bought us a membership to the Brooklyn Museum. I told my then-four-year-old daughter that artists go to museums to learn from other artists. Artists also carry sketchbooks to capture their inspiration. We spent three consecutive Sundays checking our backpack and clutching our supplies. We tucked into corners, sat on the floor looking at paintings, took up residence on museum furniture… and then… well, you know what happened in March.
Trapped inside, we ‘visited’ galleries via Artsy’s app and tried to make optimistic collages from magazines mostly reporting on COVID-despair. We watched drawing lessons on YouTube. And then we, and the world, met @wendymac.
Even if you don’t know Wendy MacNaughton, you’ve likely seen her drawings—throughout Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat or via her visual column in NYT. Just two of her many, many remarkable projects. Wendy first came across my radar when I lived in San Francisco. Her expressive, journalistic drawings of the people living in our shared city were refreshingly empathetic. And beautiful.
During the early months of the pandemic, Wendy—who has degrees in both art and social work—was inspired by her own mother to start teaching live (free!) drawing classes for kids (and ‘kids’). Imagine some of you also picked up pencils to ‘Draw Together’ on Instagram Live, and later on YouTube. These sessions became a lifeline for so many and a regular habit in our house. Wendy taught my daughter and me to draw ‘inside weather’ charts, rainbow flowers, rocket ships, magical healing band-aids, and so much more.
When we were finally able to leave the house again, my daughter started traveling with a small notebook. When we went on trips, could be an overnight or even just a short errand, I made sure to have something for her to draw with and something to draw on. Scribbles became shapes, that eventually grew legs, and later expressions. Worlds began to bloom. Then the alphabet emerged. One afternoon commuting back from her school, I looked down at my daughter standing on the subway platform and witnessed the most remarkable sentence coming together: I am an artist.
When we got home, my daughter took out her travel notebook to copy the full thought into a larger journal: I am an artist. A lot of people know that. The end.
She was six.
Over the holidays she pulled me aside to relay that a family member tried to encourage her by saying she could be an artist ‘one day’. My daughter wanted me to know that she looked up at this relative and proudly said, ‘I already am one.’ I have never introduced myself so cleanly.
I spent my childhood drawing, too. When I was a little older than she is now, I declared that I wanted to be an architect. My parents gifted me a Crayola ‘Designer Kit’ that came with two triangles, a template for curves and perfect circles, and a small drafting board with grooves that the included orange straightedge could slide along. I eventually graduated to a full-size drafting table. The gray matboard taped to its surface held onto my scribbles. I taped Frank Lloyd Wright postcards to my bedroom wall.
When I entered high school they were still offering a traditional pencil-and-paper drafting elective. The class was so useless that even the teacher would regularly fall asleep, but I loved getting an entire period to focus on the precision drawing assignments. In hindsight, I would have learned more approaches in a regular studio art class but I did get to refine my penmanship. I subsequently went through a phase of always writing in ALL CAPS. This is why strangers and friends regularly comment that my handwriting looks like an architect’s.
The plan was to become an architect. But at every fork, I chose the more certain path. Afraid the studio time demands of a B.Arch degree would keep me from campus activism, I opted for just an A-school minor. Doubtful about my abilities and enchanted by the opportunity to work at Pixar, I stopped working on my M.Arch application. Instead, I started spending my weekends studying for the GMAT. Somewhere along the way, I stopped drawing entirely. Instead of becoming the artist I dreamt of being, I pursued a career working alongside others more talented than I ever thought I could ever be.
I still kept sketchbooks, but rather than drawings, I filled them with confessions, scraps, and to-do lists. For a time I poured my creative energy into hand-sewing my own notebooks. I used to sell them at the annual Pixar arts & craft fair. One year I sold a handful of my photographs.
Parenting is the slow-motion reveal of a lifetime of clichés. Raising a human does in fact allow one to see the whole world anew. When our daughter was born, suddenly the blank page wasn’t so scary anymore. The tiniest mark was a revelation to her, and I reveled in the opportunity to share what I knew. We used to lay on the carpet and play a game where she would name a fruit and I would draw it. I drew a lot of apples and bananas. She discovered her words while I rediscovered everything I buried about perspective, shadow, and texture.
Around the age of three, my daughter went through a phase of asking me constantly: ‘Who are you waiting for?’ It was innocent. And enormously provocative. I used the prompt for a Kickstarter project that resulted in the first real proper piece of ‘art’ I had made in years: a three-color poster with the prophetic question framed by an XL question mark. The risograph proprietor convinced me to run 50 prints even though I only needed 20 to fulfill orders. The rest of them still take up space in my closet.
two three weeks I kept this tab open, trying to summon respectable sentences and a satisfying conclusion, about how my daughter taught me how to finally say ‘I am an artist.’ But it still makes me itchy to voice out loud. I thought this topic would be straightforward, it had to be easier than the heart-wrenching sessions writing about losing my dad. Joke’s on me. Creatively writing about one’s artistic insecurities is an endless naval-gazing meta loop. This is/I am a work in progress.
Thank you Abby for sending me The Artist’s Way years ago—for more than two decades you have always seen me, fully. Bethany, you inadvertently touched a nerve by sharing your own story of reclaiming artistry through parenting. Thank you for cooking and keeping an eye on our kids, those small moments of quiet unlocked this essay’s structure. Thank you Liz for the active encouragement—excited for your book to launch this summer.
Wendy Mac: you are a gift to the world. Your DrawTogether with WendyMac newsletter is an utter delight and I am inspired by the community you cultivate. It is true pleasure to draw with you at the Grown-Ups Table. I’d like to think we, and our Elements, drove past each other on Potrero Hill.
And thank you to the Brooklyn Public Library. I’d like to take all the credit for my daughter’s first art lessons, but reviewing my borrowing history reveals another truth.