I’m writing on drawing, water and bereavement.

Imagine: you pull your pencil against the surface of the page, it makes that lovely rhythmical scratch and thud across the grain, and you are trying to capture the expression on the face of the person before you. You love that expression. Your pencil trawls and trawls the surface. It’s as though you’re trawling for the expression, trying to coax it up to the surface, as though the surface of the page were the surface of a body of water and the tip of your pencil a gleaming, loving hook on a line, hoping for a catch.

Like thought, letting its line down into the stream: the line sways, lifts, sinks, until there’s a little tug on the line and the sudden conglomeration of an idea. Imagine the artful calligraphy you need to draw on the surface of the water to animate the sunk fly and persuade the lurking fish it’s the caress of something living, a real morsel of life like the morsel of life it hopes to catch, and not a glinting hook concealed.

A sharp tug. You cautiously haul it in, carefully lay it out. Hauled out of the water a fish cannot survive long. The tissue of its gills are no longer supported and they collapse together, reducing the surface area so greatly that respiration ceases. When a drawing is completed, you have before you something that has just taken its last breath.

These were among the findings of the doctorate I finished last year, which examined processes of drawing by seeking out physical and conceptual analogies to the moving tip of the pencil across a broad range of sources, from fluid dynamics to fly fishing to literary theory. Drawing is typically imagined as an additive, connective and creative activity—adding marks to a substrate, for instance, to create a new and lasting image or continue a mimetic lineage from object to hand to page to eye. But the interdisciplinary, analogical and practice-based approach of my research began to indicate that the field of drawing is in fact scattered with connections to subtraction, loss, death and discontinuity. The heterogeneity of these connections, which span diverse disciplines and modalities, meant they had yet to be brought together within a single conceptual framework. This seemed to me a meaningful omission in the field of drawing research, and one perhaps worthy of further study.

When I packaged up and posted off my completed doctoral thesis to my supervisors ahead of submission, I did not know that I was pregnant with a baby who would be our second son; that the early scans of his pregnancy would reveal a dark smudge in the region of his abdomen that would ultimately restrict production of the amniotic fluid that his lungs needed to grow strong enough to breathe the air of our world and that ultimately, although he was safe where he was, soon enough he would be born, I would bring him into the light, as birth is fittingly described in some languages, and then he would, very gently as it turned out, and peacefully, die.

And although preparing for my doctoral viva and my son’s birth in the same few months was very challenging, the startling similarities between drawing and bereavement appalled me and fulfilled me in equal measure, because here, in the thesis I had just submitted, was the kernel of a framework for understanding the nature of loss in a profoundly transformative way, a way that throws open the importance of the poetic in the analytical and the personal in the scholarly.

The postdoctoral fellowship I began last month adopts methods from fine art and social history to build upon this research and personal experience, asking what drawing can tell us about bereavement, and what bereavement can tell us about drawing. To do this I am bringing together three distinct strands. First, my own maternal experience of neonatal loss, in which the act of creation is resolved in the beloved cadaver at rest; a resolution inflected by the proposition that drawing and death bear some resemblance as marks are laid down. Second, working with a paper conservation studio, exploring the interaction of pigment and support in works on paper such that despite appearances a mark is not static once laid down into the microscopically three-dimensional ground of the page. Third, a process of learning to form stable vessels from wet porcelain clay, concurrent with a practice of blind drawing in pencil. I hope the convergence of these strands will offer a tactile and experiential counterpoint to the conceptual connections to be made between drawing with death. I expect to find that their intersection will shift into prominence drawing’s promises of tactility, flatness and stability, and put these promises under new pressure as the urgencies of bereavement make exaggerated demands of them. When really tested, in what meaningful sense is a drawing really tactile, flat, stable—and how does this shift accepted paradigms within drawing research? Meanwhile, I think the nature of these demands, and the nature of their satisfaction or frustration, might bring new insight into what is longed for and what is lost in bereavement.

November 2019

An extract from my in-progress book is online at thepolyphony.org, the Centre for the Medical Humanities blog at Durham University.