Exposing a fear of drawing

Last September I started my Master’s Degree in Textiles at the Royal College of Art. I was full of excitement and fear. What if I couldn’t find a new way to challenge myself, be creative enough and keep up with the workflow? Buoyed up by my peers who were equally aware of ‘imposter syndrome’, apparently a common problem for students taking their place at the Royal College of Art, I told myself to take one module at a time and enjoy the opportunity.

Our first module was colour and hand embroidery. I am not a hand embroiderer, and I am not a designer, so choosing a colour palette and using it to influence hand stitch proved challenging. With a love for things unnoticed, unwanted and lost, I was drawn to working with abandoned materials. Having already, established my practice, it was difficult to find a new direction and I struggled with my identity as an artist.

At the end of the module, I had to deliver a presentation to two tutors and be ready for questions. Due to my lack of direction, I had to spent many hours rehearsing the talk. At the end of the presentation, I was challenged about a ‘perceived’ missing part of my practice. Why didn’t I draw? What happened before I started to make?

I admitted to a negative experience with drawing whilst studying for my BA. I had made a bad series of drawings and was strongly advised to find a new medium to work with. The words at first were quite damaging. Undeterred, however, I decided to investigate other forms of mark making. I explored blind touch drawings and placed mark making materials on the end of long sticks. I dusted off my sewing machine and started making drawings with black thread on calico, migrating to coloured thread on dissolvable fabric. Nothing was corrected and errors became part of the work.

Without my preconceived ideas of what drawing should be, I eventually found success in my making. I won a prize for drawing at the Royal West of England Academy, successfully submitted a large drawing to the 250th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and won third place in the Textile Open Art category for the 2019 Hand and Lock Prize for Embroidery.

The Bristol 2 Litre Engine, 2014

At the RCA my practice was, once again, being challenged and this time I was very worried.  Drawing seemed to be my nemesis. I had drawn incessantly as a child, felt an intrinsic connection to the materiality of the mark made on paper with graphite, charcoal and paint, but I did not know how to make it reflect my creative soul. I could not connect with the process.

I returned to blind touch drawings and this time a change happened. I had had a very difficult Christmas period and my angst started to show up in the marks that I made. I found solace in the sound of the charcoal scraping across paper and noticed a connection between the formation of the mark and how I was feeling inside. I translated these feelings into full scale torsos, layering them up one on top of the other. The drawings bore witness to a multifaceted, complicated female life ravaged by the pain of loss through suicide. How did I feel, how did the world see me and why did I always feel out of place? 2D drawing became 3D modelling as I manipulated unfamiliar materials into shapes that resembled the human form. Through questioning my processes and responding to the work of established artists, I discovered how the materiality of the mark was becoming more important than a perfect replication of what I was trying to draw. Unaware, I was discussing questions that had formed the basis of my practice since 2009. How do I speak about the unspeakable?  

At the end of unit 2 and 3 I gave an unrehearsed presentations. It all made sense. I didn’t have to learn it. My practice had become part of me, and it wasn’t what I thought it should be but what it needed to be. The materiality of the mark was questioning the unspeakable, it was giving me a tool to explore how emotion affects our being and how we might also wonder about other people’s feelings. How do we really know if someone is truly ok?

I am aware that the work produced during year 1 at the Royal college of Art was experimental, naïve and only the start of my master’s enquiry. I am about to return after the summer holiday. I am again anxious; I have not had made many drawings over the summer, and what I have done I do not like. Perhaps I will always have a fear of drawing, but I am excited to see where my examination of the process will take me next.

Julie Heaton