Drawing Lines between Right and Wrong

I’m taking a drawing class at the local community college and have really had an epiphany related to art. Art and writing are both about finding yourself. With art, you’re learning how to see; with writing, you’re finding your voice. There are no “right” answers in either of these subjects as everyone sees things differently. 

In class, we are assigned projects to do within the three hours we’re there. Last week, we were split into groups and sent outside into the night to draw specific items. Four other students and I were instructed to draw an aloe plant while the other groups drew flowers, trees, or grass. The object was to draw only lines–no shading. Our lines had to tell the viewer what was in front and what was in back while being realistic to our subject. The artist is given artistic license to omit or add details in order to improve the composition.   

Many of the students in my class had a hard time connecting with the plants they were assigned to draw. Some find line drawings boring. Some find plants boring. Some, including me, were irritated that we were banned from using erasers.    

I tried to connect to my aloe plant. I wanted to see the plant as best I could even though it was eight o’clock at night and our plants were dimly illuminated by building lights. We couldn’t erase any of our lines, so I found my aloe plant quickly growing more and more chaotic, and I found myself staring deeper into its recesses to uncover lesser noticed details that could be used to realign my lines.  I tried to draw every last spike, every marking, every curve of the leaves. I darkened the front-most leaves and lightly penciled in the farthest-back leaves.

Later that night, I saw what the other four were drawing and realized again how subjective and unique drawing can be. We were assigned the same plant, yet none of our four drawings even resembled each other. Some looked like underwater sea plants, some looked like prairie grasses, some zoomed in on the front-most leaf, while others tried to get every leaf there was.  At that point, I felt okay. My lines were poorly drawn in my opinion, but what I drew was mine. Nobody but me could have drawn the aloe plant the way I did, just like I could not have drawn the plant like my classmates. We each saw something different in the plant that allowed us to take our specific approach.

In this same manner, we each connect with nature differently and write about it in unique ways.  To me, one of the most important things is to start a dialogue and elicit conversation so that more people can share their views and learn from each other. To get there, I seem to ponder unanswerable questions. I toe the line between “right” and “wrong,” wanting there to be a clear-cut definition. In reality, if there ever are agreed upon “rights” and “wrongs,” most of them shift with time, circumstance, and experience.

A case in point comes from Katie Lee’s journals from 1955.  At the time, she was lamenting the impending construction of Glen Canyon Dam. She ran the rapids of the Grand Canyon numerous times and was a staunch environmental activist, yet what was “right” for the time has changed considerably.

Take, for instance, this passage from All My Rivers Are Gone:  

“As for the river, we drank it, swam in it, washed in it, fished from it, cooked and built driftwood fires beside it; never gave it a wink. Furthermore, we sank our garbage out in the middle. It acted as a disposal, ground everything to bits in the space of a few silty miles – cans, bottles, the works—and we cussed the dudes who buried their crap on the banks for the coyotes, foxes, badgers, and other wild critters to dig up and strew about. My present-day camper friends tend to choke on this piece of logic, but try to visualize how few of us there were in this true wilderness, compared to the masses hardly able to find a place even half as pristine now.” 

These days, we are told by park rangers, environmental organizations, and some outdoor retailers not to add soap to water, not to drink water without a water filter, and definitely not to drown our garbage in it.  All of sudden, “right” and “wrong” look much more subjective when put to the test of time and circumstance.  

“Right” and “wrong” look more like my poorly drawn aloe leaves.  They intersect with each other, looking very messy on the page; it’s hard to tell where one leaf starts and the other ends.  “Rights” and “wrongs” are very similar. The more arguments you ponder to justify something as good or bad, the more gray area you find. The more the lines between the two start to look like one big blob.

Yet society asks us to make choices, whether by voting, or by purchasing goods and services, or by supporting causes. Every day, we’re choosing something that’s “right” or “wrong” for us. Is there, in 2011, a right way to be an environmentalist? If so, I’m sure I’m violating at least half of the requirements. From the outside, I’d judge myself harshly if asked “is she an environmentalist?” I eat red meat. I don’t always recycle.  I commute more than forty miles every day by car to and from work.  The majority of the lights in my house are on right now even though I’m not in any of those rooms.  

But it doesn’t take away from the fact that I value my connection with the outside world. I want to respect the land that I am a guest upon and invite the animals to roam near.  I want to help increase the longevity of access to clean water and clean air and open spaces. 

Every day, we encounter situations where we have the opportunity to act upon our ideologies and defend our positions. Tomorrow, I have to defend my drawing in front of the class, by proudly exhibiting my aloe plant drawing and standing behind it, messy lines and all.

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