Do you believe that art can change the world?

charcoal drawing of girl
Charcoal on paper
© 2106 Margaret Sloan

I’m always on the lookout for cute photographs. At a local parade I snapped photos of a little girl waiting for the next queen-of-the-rodeo horse squad to clip-clop past, thinking, this will be an adorable painting. Little girl with stuffed cat. What could be cuter?

As I mulled over how I wanted to interpret this image in paint, the flickering screen of my inner eye kept standing this child in the ash of the ruined city of Homs. I saw her hide as bombs flew. I saw her run with her mother through a hail of bullets. Worst of all, I saw her wander through the rubble of war.


My art is usually pretty apolitical. I just paint pretty pictures. I want to make people happy. I don’t want to offend. I try to ignore my activist brain.

But the image of this child in war wouldn’t go from my mind. I tried to ignore it, and  penciled many sketches in which she happily watched a parade while tinsel and confetti rained on marching bands and dancing horses. But I crumpled each scrawled drawing into the recycling bin.

Where does art come from?

Do you believe that artists have muses? I’ve always thought it a conceit, a mythology of wishful thinking. But if a muse has ever spoken to me, she did so this weekend, through a lump of charcoal and a sheaf of paper. That muse gave me an ultimatum. She demanded—no, she unequivocally ordered me—to draw this little girl in a street of disaster. She conscripted my arm and forced my hand to create this image.

I’ve never known war. My country hasn’t had massive armed conflict on our soil in nearly 200 years. So far I’ve been lucky to have avoided terrible natural disasters. The children in my family have grown up safely, well-fed, well-loved.

The thought of any one of them—and by extension, any child anywhere—wandering alone and afraid, makes me weep.

I had just started working on this drawing—smearing the charcoal with my fingers because the urgency with which I needed to draw made a pencil seem too weak, too precious—when the fiddler called me to say, “oh my god, they’ve had a terrible earthquake in Ecuador.”

More children wandering amid ruins.

If I believed in using emojis, at this point I’d insert a very, very frowny, frowny, frowny face.

Can art change the world?

Can a drawing change the world? I don’t know. I think they have in the past. Artists in the past believed in their own power. Bertolt Brecht said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

But in our modern era, saturated with horrific images, thoughts, and actions, what can a few smudge marks on paper do to heal the world?

If there was a muse at work in my studio, I don’t know what she expects from the creation of this drawing. But I can guess.

Dear reader, if this image touches you, I hope that it will entreat you to be more human. Of course I know that you are human. I imagine that you are compassionate, loving, and concerned. I also imagine that you, perhaps like I do, sometimes forget the children in the world who wander alone across disastrous landscapes, made homeless, frightened, and alone by events not of their making.

I hope this image will make you remember your humanity.

If you are able to help, please do so. If you can donate time, money, or just prayers and thoughts, I hope this image will entreat you to become involved in helping. Help someone, anywhere, anytime. I’m not going to give you a list of charities. You know how to find them.



Drawing the portrait: Week 4

Charcoal on smooth newsprint

The image I see in my head when I start to draw a portrait is ever so much better than what I actually draw; why won’t that image in my mind come out through my fingertips onto the paper? While I was happy that I caught the likeness of the model in this portrait (week 4 of Felicia’s portrait drawing class), the rest of it leaves me, well, disappointed.

Felicia often tapes tracing paper over students’ drawings to demonstrate how they might better change their drawings. As she demonstrates, she often mutters to herself. In those half-verbalized thoughts, there is a whole lecture for the student who pays close attention.

That night, she traced over my drawing of the model, concentrating on the nose. She talked about where she saw edges. Were they crisp edges? Soft edges? Form or cast shadows? How did they wrap around the form; where did they create a sharp angle? She applied her charcoal pencil as if it were the finest sable brush, and modeled a perfectly dimensional nose in a few strokes.

I realized—once again—that I still wield my pencil like a bludgeon. I need practice in order to handle it like a fine brush.

I need to go home and simply play with the materials we used for the class. Play with them with no expectation of results, except for learning what a simple charcoal pencil can do.

Now there’s some great homework. Play. Play. And more play.

I’m smiling.

Charcoal portraits: lessons learned

These pictures, the first two I drew for Felicia Forte’s portrait drawing class, should have gone with the post Drawing the portrait: week one. But they didn’t make it, so I’m showing them now.

Week 1: Charcoal portrait on rough newsprint

After 4 years learning to draw at the atelier, I can hit a likeness pretty well. But although this first drawing (above) might resemble the model, it’s not hanging together drawing-wise. Too many scratchy lines and no clear shadow pattern. I know that. I knew that when I drew it. But I’m afraid of making those kind of marks. I don’t know why. Sometimes as artists we fear unreasonable things.

Week 2: Charcoal portrait on rough newsprint

This second drawing is better. Felicia stopped me midway through and said, just draw the shadow pattern around the eyes. Don’t worry about the eyes themselves. She was right.

Getting caught up in details right away doesn’t improve a drawing. Lesson learned on this drawing: Simplify. Look for the big pictures, the big shapes; the rest will follow.