The Box, 2018

It was late in the evening when A. arrived. He was carrying the box with all his childhood drawings. I wanted to hear more about his abrupt decision to stop his career and destroy all his works. You have to save these drawings for me, he said while entering the door. I accepted not without reservation, as I really wanted to know more about his childhood. What follows is nothing but an attempt to faithfully report the story he told me that night.

My friend A. was a very prolific child. At the age of three, he was experimenting with vertical, horizontal and circular movements, using pencils, wax crayons and markers. He used to refer to his very first drawing as “The Big Bang”, until the day he studied the dates written on the top-right corner, and realised that his first drawing was actually another one, a much less remarkable one. Although unlikely, the possibility that he could actually remember himself making his first drawing was something real for him, and the idea of a depiction of the Big Bang at the beginning of his career got stuck with him for a very long time.

At the beginning there was a box. It was blue, worn-out by the passing of time, rather than from poor handling. My friend A. told me the box was his mother’s. She was working as a secretary and she always had some office supplies at home, kept in a drawer of a cabinet in his living room. He loved to go through all the items in that drawer. Pens, fluorescent markers, clumps, post-it notes pads, staples…the stapler! A solid, heavy, beautifully designed chrome-plated stapler, along with a few boxes of staples refills. He told me he still remembered the day he eventually managed to refill it without anybody's help. The hole puncher was another object he was fond of, with its built-in reservoir full of round-shaped confetti.

At the beginning there was a box. Something magic always happens with boxes. They can keep an object out of sight for a certain amount of time, separating and connecting a before (when you want to preserve something), and an after (when you want to retrieve it), producing a suspension as well as an intensification of time.

At the beginning there was a box. It contained about two hundred drawings, made when A. was between three and five. Same paper, same rare format: 33 x 21,5 cm. Each drawing carried his name and a date, presumably hand-written by his mother. No, she said when asked about it, that must be your kindergarten teacher’s handwriting. He contacted her, and they did met. I can remember the faces of all my students, she said. It turned out that writing the name and date was not her initiative. She was asked to do so by a psychologist who was collaborating with the kindergarten at that time.

When A. rediscovered these drawings, they looked uncanny and familiar at the same time. He pinned them on the wall in a chronological order. A retrospective of my earliest works, he said. When did his work as an artist begin? How to define a specific moment in time? Isn’t it always somehow arbitrary? After a while he started to fantasise about being able to draw like a child. If he was able to do it before, why not now? Was it because he had not made a single drawing in the previous ten years? For since he decided to become an artist, he had programmatically avoided using artistic media that rely on the artist touch as direct expression of the genius’s personality. Suddenly, it became a matter of artistic integrity. In order to start to draw again, the first step was to legitimise such a sudden change. A widely accepted processes of legitimation is education, he thought, and traditionally art education has consisted in learning by copying the old masters. He then set about to copy his childhood drawings.

While copying, he started to remember things he had forgotten. Was it because he was making the same movements he made thirty years earlier? Was it possible that those gestures could help the recollection of his memories? A sort of motor-stimulated memory? Could a body movement function as catalyst in the process of remembering? For he suddenly remembered the frustration he experienced when adults asked him to start another drawing on a blank sheet of paper, rather than keep on overlapping drawings on top of each other in a single sheet. He remembered the smeared paper due to the excessive rubbing with the markers’ felt tips or with hard erasers, he remembered playing with toy cars on top of his drawings, the taste of the pencils when chewed, the failed attempts to arrange all the colours in a coherent chromatic order. He remembered enjoying using two or more colours at a time and trying to colour the markers’ caps. He remembered throwing the markers here and there in his room and, when he was a bit older, trying to improve his previous drawings with a black marker. He remembered his mother saying that it was not allowed, as it was important to preserve the drawings as they were.

During the copying process, he noticed he was learning a number of tricks enabling him to produce child-like drawings again. Nonetheless, that wasn’t the same as being able to draw like a child, he thought. For children, the activity of drawing is more important than the final result or its preservation. Moreover, children wouldn’t necessarily set their limit within the margins of a sheet of paper; if allowed, they would rather draw on the walls, on pieces of furniture or on their skin. One night, thinking about such things in his studio, he started to look closely at his fingers, stained during his last copying session. He purposely continued the stained pattern, until he covered his fingertips, and then down to fill the whole palm. There it is! Now I'm finally drawing like a child, he thought when he realised that he was driven by pleasure and curiosity, without being preoccupied about the final result.

After that revelatory experience, he started performing one-to-one conversations with museum-goers who accepted to spend five minutes with him in a tiny room. Here, A. would tell his story while making a free drawing on the palm of the person sitting in front of him. He considered those conversations as processes of initiation; each initiated person was left with an ephemeral palm-drawing and a story. Each time the hands were washed, ink particles were released, flushed down into the sink and spread into the world. The drawings would have eventually disappeared while the story, the key to decipher their meaning that made them more than just ink on the skin, had a chance to survive by oral transmission.

Everything changed when A.’s first daughter was born. He accompanied her first experiences with drawing. My daughter likes to draw with somebody at her side, he told me. We basically make collaborative drawings. She doesn’t like to draw alone. She ask me to draw something, a sad cat, a dog, a rabbit, an elephant, an asparagus that cries, a star, a square or a rainbow. Then she goes over it, over the eyes, the ears, the mouth, in an attempt to repeat the drawing, to learn how to do it, or maybe even to improve it. Sometimes she gets frustrated, as the result is maybe not what she had expected, while I usually think her intervention produces a dramatic improvement, making my drawings much more expressive.

My friend A. told me he once took her to one of his residencies. He installed paper all along the walls of his studio, to let her draw freely. She immediately found new ways of drawing, like stretching out her arm and draw large, perfect circles, or walking along the walls while drawing long horizontal lines. And apparently she enjoyed drawing dots. Puntini!!!! After a while, she started to test the boundaries of that situation, looking for areas of the wall which were left without paper, drawing on the floor, on her clothes, on her skin…but that’s another story…

Apparently, A.’s daughter is precociously into the alphabet letters. In the most widespread theory on the development of the drawings skills in children, the first scribbles and experiments are seen as a way to acquire the necessary skill to obtain a more accurate imitation of reality. A different approach should be explored, based on children’s early fascination for writing, as a system of signs mysteriously connected to sounds, words and meanings. With such an approach, the development of the drawing skills might rather be instrumental in acquiring the necessary skills to exercise and master the faculty of abstraction, thus accessing the magical region of language.