On Drawing Life
Last spring, when the pandemic hit, I finally stopped traveling. I had wanted to spend some time getting to know the plants that live around me—my plant neighbours—but I was always tempted by invitations from other places, Kyoto, Shanghai, Taipei, Guangzhou.
Now I finally had time to go up the hill behind the village every day. It’s a short hike, about twenty minutes, and I would get off the main trail and walk up an old path, made of large stones supposedly laid down by prisoners.
I would encounter thousands, millions of plants. When something caught my attention, I would stop, find a place to sit, and draw. But I also know that it doesn’t matter what I decide to draw—every plant is fascinating when I really look, even the most common one. I’m drawing living plants. It’s a practice to see life, to sense life, and to record life, albeit in a very limited way. Initially, I was curious to learn the names that our ancestors and scientists have given to the plants. I used two apps, one book, and two websites to make sure that I got the right identification. After a while, finding out the name was no longer important.
I would often draw a habitat, not a single individual. Hong Kong is a subtropical place. Plants grow densely together. There are many vines. So, it doesn’t make sense to single out an individual plant.
I like to sit close to them, to be physically intimate. This limits my scope of vision. So, I tend to draw small plants, rather than large trees. (Only in Berlin did I start to draw trees.)
Drawing is a simple practice. All I need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and a clipboard. For one year, I have used up only three 6B pencils. So, this is a carbon-light way to keep myself engaged.
Drawing in nature is a good life. It’s an easy way to have a good life. Even when it got very hot in Hong Kong, after sitting down for a while, after my mind settles down, I would feel the breeze. And often after I calm down, a butterfly or some other life would land on the drawing to accompany me.
Now, as things are gradually returning to “normal,” I’m getting busier again. So, it’s becoming harder to find time to draw.
If I didn’t get to draw during the day, I would draw some plants in the village at night.
This spring, lychee trees in the village blossomed spectacularly. So, I drew their flowers and bulging fruits often. One neighbour, Sister Meichi, noticed that I like drawing, and asked me to draw a lychee tree on her family land. The tree was planted by her late father and was in full bloom.
For the solar term Greater Snow, from 7 December to 20 December 2020, I drew the same plant for fourteen days. We (my partner, myself, and Sesame, our 13-year-old Yorkie) came back to Hong Kong from Berlin and had to quarantine in a hotel room. We brought a tiny tree fern from Portugal back to Hong Kong with us.
The small plant was growing every day. You can see a new frond unfurling over time in the drawings. Plants probably don’t care if I draw them. It’s really just for me to cultivate myself. But perhaps they also enjoy my sitting with them for a while. They must also feel my qi and can tell if I’m feeling peaceful or not.
The drawings have been shown already a few times in China, usually one or two sets. Others’ interest in this project surprised me. Any art student can draw like this. Perhaps nowadays it’s no longer about our abilities to draw. It’s about our willingness to draw, to sit with other lives and draw them.