I have been drawing all my life. It started with the usual baby doodles, and soon progressed to the princesses, fashion models, and horses that populate the imaginations of so many little girls.
By the time I was seven I had written and illustrated my own little “books” of folded sheets of cheap paper – thrillers about evil magic witches and love stories about choosing the wrong boyfriend.
Under the influence of the nuns who taught me, I soon gravitated to a more gruesome fascination with saints and stigmata, and began to illustrate my religion homework. I occasionally received commissions from certain sisters, to draw a poster to decorate the classroom, or a picture of some beatified individual for their own personal devotion.
My drawings always looked like what they represented, and although I was confident about my ability to draw, I have long been confused as to whether or not that makes me an artist.
I went to an art college in France, and dropped out after the first term. Nobody taught us technique, and the self-indulgent ego trips of my classmates bored me to tears. I concluded that if this was art, I definitely wasn’t an artist. And so I went back to doodling.
Recently my life has changed and I have been obliged to retire from my career. It has been a difficult transition, and the loss of identity has been problematic. Then, about a year ago, some friends of mine told me about Fighting Words, the creative writing centre for schoolchildren established by Roddy Doyle on Dublin’s north side. I heard how they were helping children to make their own little books, the way I had done so many eons ago. They were recruiting for volunteers, and soon I had signed up.
Although I was prepared to help serve the tea or stack the books, I confessed that I would also be happy to try my hand at the illustrations. The first time I went to observe a workshop, the scheduled illustrator was a no-show, and there I was, shoved in at the deep end!
There is no time to be embarrassed, no time to worry, only the few minutes during which you must think on your feet. How will you draw a cheeseburger who wants to take over the world?
The other volunteers tease out the story ideas from the class as a group, and the illustrator has only a few minutes to come up with images that will concretise their ideas and inspire them to complete the narrative when they move to individual seatwork for the remainder of the session. I have had to draw a ghost who takes over the body of a beaver, a buffalo who turns into a mouse, a tap-dancing alien and his dog, a talking marshmallow in “Elvis” hair, a fish who is allergic to water… it’s mad, it’s hilarious, and I love it.
I go there once or twice a week now, and I enjoy my ability to draw more than I ever have done in my life. It now has value and purpose, and what better reward is there for any of life’s labours?
Some of the children are so thankful, so wide-eyed and appreciative of anyone doing things for them…! Their gratitude and delight at Fighting Words is very affecting.
Working as a volunteer illustrator at Fighting Words has revived my desire to entertain the eye. I no longer see it as a selfish or trivial pastime, but as an occupation I might engage in with some success. I have taken up drawing again, and am developing a love of botanical watercolour.
These bright-faced little ones have reminded me of the witches and princesses of my own young imagination. Like all of us, they will lose their innocence to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune… but spending time with children again I am reminded of what it means to have spontaneous fun.
It has finally occurred to me that art does not have to confound or startle or challenge the intellect. It can entertain, divert and relax people as well. Above all, it is simply a “medium”, a bridge between people, a way to share a feeling about life and the world we live in.
I have to thank one little girl who approached me at a Fighting Words workshop one morning. “Miss, are you a real artist?” she asked me. I laughed, and said, “Yes”! Her little companion asked, “Are you FAMOUS?” “No,” I sighed… “not yet.”
For more information on Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, including how to volunteer, visit their website.