Learning the art of living

My life is filled with enriching affairs and I know what my Hell looks like.

My Hell is a blank space where one of two scenes are set before me.

In the first scene, a white screen fills the space and a black cursor blinks in the corner. Flashing, flashing, flashing. An empty page waiting for words, but I have none. The cursor continues to flash. My mind grasps for letters, symbols and sounds, but there are no words. I can’t type and I stare at the pulsing line that counts nothingness for infinity.

In the second scene, I’m sitting in front of a beautiful blank page. My imagination is mapping stories, streets and fictional faces across the virgin space. I can almost feel the marks, lines, shading and shadows forming images in the emptiness. My hands itch to draw, but I have no stationery. Not a pen. Not a pencil; not a paintbrush. No food colouring or coal; neither lipstick nor eyeliner; nothing with which to make marks. I can’t even fold the page or cut it up. For all eternity, I can only imagine and I cannot create.


That’s my Hell: alone in a place in which I cannot create and I’m constantly confronted by empty space. A world with no colour, no stories, no marks. No space for imagination.

Fortunately, Life is infinitely richer than Hell.

I am surrounded by stories that I’m free to read and I can tell stories with symbols and scracthes. I line my walls with piles of books; I turn pages, fold corners and circle significant words. I scroll through online archives of artworks and stand in silent galleries. All this time, I dream of leaving a trail of stories, drawings, paintings and poems. I hope to overflow with creative knowledge collected from this world; to live by Jac Vanek’s words

“You are the books you read, the films you watch, the music you listen to, the people you meet, the dreams you have, the conversations you engage in. You are what you take from these. You are the sound of the ocean, the breath of fresh air, the brightest light and the darkest corner. You are a collective of every experience you have had in your life. You are every single second of every single day. So drown yourself in a sea of knowledge and existence. Let the words run through your veins and let the colors fill your mind until there is nothing left to do but explode. There are no wrong answers. Inspiration is everything. Sit back, relax, and take it all in. Now, go out and create something.”[1]

As much as they have informed my past, so have particular writers, artists and illustrators played an important part in paving my future. I’m learning to write because I’ve fallen in love with words that have spilled from skilled pens. I need to draw because I draw so much inspiration from the hearts that fill this world. I try to paint stories with words and portraits with ink because I have seen incredible paintings and stores of pain portrayed in beautiful ways.

My soul, my art and my story are inextricably and intimately entangled with the stories that have shaped me. My life has been a series of magnificent affairs with worlds made of words and works of art. These writers, artists and stories have been my truest teachers, my greatest friends and my deepest loves.

  1. Kahlil Gibran – The Prophet

An elixir, a sage, a writer, an artist

My dad gave ‘The Prophet’ to my mum as a birthday present decades ago (Dear Alli, Happy Birthday – Let the book speak for itself. All my love, Dan), and they gave the book to me when I was 16. It was unlike anything that I had ever read. Every sentence, idea and illustration resonated in my mind and cast my life into the light.

Kalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, philosopher and writer. The Prophet contains 26 of his prose poetry essays, which tell the story of Almustafa, the prophet who is about to leave the city of Orphales to return to his home. Before Almustafa boards his ship, he speaks to a crowd of people about the nature of the human condition, the essence of morality and images of life.

Elixir and sage: This book is my Bible. The words are wrapped around my soul and threaded through my philosophy. They are my compass, my mast and my mentor. Although ‘The Prophet’ does not cure the human condition, it speaks to many of the questions that burden my heart and the prose continues to inspire my life.

Writer: Gibran’s words are fluid and imaginative. He plaits his poems with metaphors of flowers and profound philosophies, invoking breathtaking imagery and enchanting scenes to express ideas too deep for words. He speaks of how the truest answers manifest in the natural world, and describes life in the most honest terms. His writing is a way of translating the sound of knowledge into the shape of words, turning thoughts into wisdom and accessing dreams:

“Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.

But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.

You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.

You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.”[2]

Artist: While his book is an enlightening lesson in life and writing, it is also recognises that words aren’t always enough:

“For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”[3]

Ideas need more than imagery – they need images and illustrations. And indeed, the book includes several of Gibran’s drawings, paintings and prints. The artworks speak in the only language that is more universal than kindness, and they give life to the silent words.

In this way and so many more, this book has been the most enriching arrangement of ink to enter into my life.

  1. Molly Crabapple: journalist and artist

The ‘art’ in ‘articles’

The first two years of studying Journalism were horrendously dull. I felt unchallenged, unfulfilled and uninspired. But in the beginning of this year, I found the freedom to include art in my articles – to draw portraits of the people I interviewed and comics of the events I covered, to illustrate articles and create cartoons. It seemed that journalism could be a superb adventure, and then I was introduced to Molly Crabapple’s work[4].

Her amazing articles embody the words of Lyndall, the protagonist in Olive Schreiner’s novel, ‘The Story of an African Farm’, who says: “Words are gas till you turn them into pictures”[5]. As a writer and an artist in New York, Crabapple puts the ‘art’ in ‘articles’. She uses her talents and intelligence to uncover social injustices, critique unjust power structures and produce remarkable packages with words and accompanying illustrations.

Through writing and illustrating, she translates her philosophies and experiences into articles and artworks that engage, awaken, educate and inspire audiences internationally.

With a sharp mind, an observant eye and a rapidly dancing pen, she tells the stories that need to be told and paints the reality that she writes about in a dynamic and enrapturing way. Her style, approach, attitude and intentions represent the journalism I wish to achieve and the journalist I hope to be.

Crabapple's writing and illustrating inspired this article about Prof Skelton's expedition into the Okavango with National Geographical and the Wild Bird Trust.

Crabapple’s writing and illustrating inspired this article about Prof Skelton’s expedition into the Okavango with National Geographical and the Wild Bird Trust.

  1. Frida Kahlo – The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait

Words, colours and confessions

As I ran my fingers along the library shelves, I was instantly entranced by this book.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait’ consists of four main parts: an introductory essay by Carlos Fuentes, an essay by Sarah M. Lowe, a facsimile of Frida Kahlo’s diary and a translation with commentaries by Lowe[6]. Essentially, the book serves as an immensely personal introduction to a passionate woman whose life was intertwined with the fate of a vibrant country. It’s a highly effective amalgamation of research, ideas, images and art.

Fuentes’ essay contextualises Kahlo in terms of her political climate and revolutionary passions in a deeply conflicted country, and Lowe’s essay focuses on Kahlo’s painting style and the content of her diary in relation to her experiences. Together, the essays inform the next 172 pages, which depict Kahlo’s diary in all its honesty and luminosity.

Tears filled my eyes and my heart grew in size as I followed her doodles, fell into the colours and floated in the shapes. Even though I can’t read or understand Spanish, Kahlo’s art journal clearly communicates her agony, charisma, insight and psychological states – as well as demonstrates her extraordinary talent. This is all affirmed in the last half of the book, where Lowe translates Kahlo’s entries and relates them to Kahlo’s experiences at the time, thus grounding, contexualising and analysing the (largely) undated artworks.

Without distorting or tainting the essence of Kahlo’s diary, the book realises the potential of art as a means for confronting mortality and exploring the intimacy of ideas in the languages that we dream in. It’s a way of telling stories with words, colours and confessions. It’s a window of wisdom and a snippet of a soul.

  1. Aryan Rand: life and art as philosophy

Art is the essence of existence

Here are the origins of three words that determine my being:

‘Art’ comes from Latin ‘ars’, meaning ‘technique, skill or craftsmanship’,

‘Philosophy’ comes via Latin from Greek ‘philosophia’, meaning ‘love of wisdom’, and

‘Aesthetics’ comes from Greek ‘aisthesthai’, meaning ‘perceive’.[7]

Just as wisdom is cultivated by perceptions of the world, so are perceptions and knowledge involved in creating and appreciating art.

Reading_Control ComicEvidently, these three concepts are inextricably intertwined with art criticism and creation; the cultivation of wisdom and the essence of being. Ayn Rand, a Russian-born American writer and philosopher, says as much in her book, ‘The Romantic Manifesto’, where she argues that art is the product of philosophy:

“It is not journalistic information or scientific education or moral guidance that man seeks from a work of art (though these may be involved as secondary consequences), but the fulfillment of a more profound need: a confirmation of his view of existence—a confirmation, not in the sense of resolving cognitive doubts, but in the sense of permitting him to contemplate his abstractions outside his own mind, in the form of existential concretes.”[8]

On her account of aesthetics, art is a testament to the artist’s imagination, metaphysical value judgments and practiced skill – it is a product of their most intimate philosophies and talents. In addition to shaping my understanding of art, its purpose and meaning, Rand’s philosophy of art has also informed how I assess and appreciate artworks.

Essentially, her theory explains why art is essential to both understanding existence, and engaging with the world in which we exist.

  1. Art documentaries

The art of stories and the story of art

I love to read, write, learn and draw. So if I sit at my desk to draw (or paint, or illustrate), I watch art documentaries at the same time. Profiles of masters[9], features on mediums[10], biopics of artists[11] and the ideas behind movements[12]. It’s similar to doodling during lectures, except art historians like Andrew Graham-Dixon and Alastair Sooke are the lecturers and their presentations are alive with images.

While my hand flutters across the page or paint splatters and pools, my mind absorbs knowledge about the artworld; the history and movements, the philosophies and psychology, modern art and the industry. While I draw, I learn about art, I learn about stories and I learn about art stories.

At the same time that seeing other art teaches me about the artworld and inspires my art, so am I learning how to think, talk and write about art. When I exchange my drawing tools for writing utensils, I reflect on those documentaries; how they are constructed and the content that’s included.

The scripts are interesting, informative and cohesive, embedded with the diction, dialogue and characteristics crucial to art criticism. The visuals enrich the narrative and give weight to the words. They teach me about the history of art; how to create correlations between artists, artworks and movements; to review exhibitions and appreciate works; to examine the processes behind the products.

Ultimately, these documentaries have not only taught me about art, but the art of writing about art. They have exposed me to the words used to write about art and the ways in which art can be created. They have broken the divide that Andrew Graham-Dixon articulates in the opening lines of his documentary, ‘All in the mind – the secret to drawing’, as he sits in a study filled with books:

“This is the room where I do most of my work, writing about art. While I’m working, I’m thinking in words. The artists that I write about think in pictures.”[13]

  1. Zapiro: (more than) a cartoonist

The satire soldier

I don’t want to just draw dreams and pretty pictures – I want to draw the line on what is wrong and what is right; what is black, what is white and what needs to be read. I want to join the ranks of satire soldiers who wield their pens and imaginations as ammunition against corruption, injustice and censorship.

Zapiro. the satire soldier

Zapiro. the satire soldier

Zapiro’s cartoons have undoubtedly inspired this passion, and continue to motivate my ambition. For almost three decades, Jonathan Shapiro has been converting current affairs into concise imagines, coloured with humour and coded with demands for social justice. With daring lines, simple shapes and relevant settings, he twists news updates into humorous comments on the state of society. It’s brave art that speaks in an accessible language.

I messaged Zapiro’s Facebook page saying that I wanted to learn the art of cartooning – to be able to translate ideas into images and speak in a universal language. These were among the words of wisdom I received in reply:

“Cartoons are about ideas, and reading, even more than drawing, relies on imagination. The more widely you read both fiction and non-fiction, the more interesting your ideas become and the combination of words and images that cartooning needs will become a strong point for you.”[14]

It’s enlightened insight; an invaluable observation; a phenomenal philosophy – and with any luck, I’m learning that lesson while you’re reading this.


[1] Vanek, Jac. ‘A Quote By Jac Vanek’. Goodreads. 2015. Available: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/776207-you-are-the-books-you-read-the-films-you-watch. Accessed: 10 Oct. 2015.

[2] Gibran, Kahlil, and Suheil B Bushrui. The Prophet. [Oxford]: Oneworld Publications, 2012. Print. Pg 65

[3] Gibran, Kahlil, and Suheil B Bushrui. The Prophet. [Oxford]: Oneworld Publications, 2012. Print. Pg 71

[4] Crabapple, Molly. ‘The Faces Of Guantánamo’. The Daily Beast, 2013. Available: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/03/molly-crabapple-sketches-the-faces-of-guantanamo-s-hunger-strikers.html. Accessed 10 Oct. 2015.

[5] Schreiner, Olive, and Francis Brett Young. The Story Of An African Farm. New York: The Modern library, 1927. Print. Pg 204

[6] Kahlo, Frida, Sarah M Lowe, and Carlos Fuentes. The Diary Of Frida Kahlo. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. Print.

[7] Simpson, J. A, and E. S. C Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Print.

[8] Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. 1969. New York: World Pub. Co. p 19

[9] Sookes, Alastair. Modern Masters – Pablo Picasso. 2013. Youtube: J. Glenn ModernArt. Avaibable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBrY1vpwPhU. Accessed 11 Oct. 2015.

[10] Graham-Dixon, Andrew. All in the mind – The secret to drawing. 2014. Youtube: TheArtistsPlace. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KhmsJNiKqc&spfreload=10. Accessed 11 Oct. 2015.

[11] Frida. USA: Julie Taymor, 2002. film.

[12] VHS PILE. Bad Art For Bad People. 2013. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=win_Cwj-gSw. Accessed: 10 Oct. 2015.

[13] Graham-Dixon, Andrew. All in the mind – The secret to drawing. 2014. Youtube: TheArtistsPlace. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KhmsJNiKqc&spfreload=10. Accessed 11 Oct. 2015.

[14] Zapiro. Zapiro’s Facebook Page. 2015. Facebook Messenger.


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