For our first 2D project, we were tasked to design a series of 6 lines, each representing a specific emotion. (“Line” here meaning “a long, thin rectangular canvas,” not a literal line.) This was a test of our ability to convey concepts through visual expression. Among other restrictions: it had to be primarily 2D, it had to be abstract, and it had to be in black and white.
To create the visual elements of our work, we were encouraged to experiment with mark making. Our tutor Joy thoughtfully provided many artist examples (which I didn’t study) and a host of facilities (which I rarely used). We were encouraged to experiment by making a big mess on paper (which I did, a lot) if we cleaned up afterwards (I mostly didn’t).
So how did it go? Well, don’t tell anyone, but…
…it was actually kind of fun.
I knew this project was going to be challenging from the moment I was given the project brief. Some background on myself as an artist: I’m interested in utilitarian design, or what you might call “lowest-common-denominator design,” where the objective is to convey your message as clearly and simply as possible. For instance, a street sign has to be instantly recognizable and understandable. Otherwise it’s a bad street sign, no matter how pretty it looks.
Abstract art, on the other hand? Well, there’s a reason I don’t visit art galleries very often. Abstract art doesn’t speak to me at all. I can analyze it rationally and appreciate the thought that went into its construction, but by and large, most abstract art has no more emotional effect on me than Milton’s Paradise Lost would have on a housefly. And I was being tasked to create abstract art. That was my job.
So I decided right away that if I was going to do this project with any measure of competence, I needed to recontextualize the criteria. I needed a more concrete angle to approach the project from, a more straightforward “hook” that I could relate my emotions to. Thus, I turned to my interests to find something that could encompass the whole magnitude of human emotion, yet remain concrete and relatable to the observer.
That something ended up being history.
Confession: I’m a history nerd. I’m fascinated by the past events that shaped the world we live in today. Contrary to what many people believe, history is not dead: it’s a reflection of human lives, which are both similar to and different from ours. When something monumental takes place in history — in life — it’s because it was important to our collective consciousness. It had meaning. It had power. It had emotion.
I had my hook. For each emotion I had to illustrate, I decided to pick the historical event that I felt was most characterized by that emotion. I did some research and brainstormed many different events, eventually settling on this lineup:
- Anger: The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 1914
- Love: The Christmas truces, 1914
- Surprise: Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, 1928
- Fear: The establishment of Dachau concentration camp, 1933
- Sadness: The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 1945
- Joy: The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989
I restricted my selection to things that happened in the 20th century, both for the sake of my sanity, and to make the events more relatable to the viewer. The fall of Rome and the Mongolian siege of Urgench may have been powerful moments in history, but the movements of ancient empires are difficult for most people to relate to. In contrast, everyone knows what WW1 was, who the Nazis were, and what happened to Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.
Some events that didn’t make the cut were Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Maastricht Treaty, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This doesn’t mean that these events weren’t important, but that I felt they didn’t express emotions as strongly as the selection I chose above.
Anger: The Assassination
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that started World War I. It was a terrorist act that inflamed long-standing tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, leading to a dissolution of diplomatic ties. The two bullets that killed the Archduke and his wife would eventually drag all of Europe into armed conflict.
To convey the destructiveness of anger, I wanted to emphasize the violence of the assassination. I forcefully crushed the paper and tore holes in it with a pencil to suggest bullet holes. The “bloodstains” were created using Chinese ink, which I dripped down the contours of the paper; once the general outline had been created, I used block printing ink to darken the stains and play up their contrast against the white background.
I have to say that the bloodstains took a very long time to get right. I experimented with different consistencies of ink, different techniques to get it to run down the paper, etc. In the end, I got the best results with very thin ink that was first splashed onto the paper horizontally, for the “entry wound,” then allowed to run down the contours of the crumpled paper.
Love: The Truce
The Christmas truces were a display of love amidst the bitterest conflict of the 20th century. French, German, and British soldiers that had been fighting each other in the trenches for months — that had barely even seen each others’ faces — laid down their weapons during Christmas and crossed no man’s land to sing carols and play kick-ball with each other. It was a protest, a release, a signal that they did not want to fight each other even if their governments ordered them to. And to me, the love that surfaces through hardship is the most powerful love of all.
For my submission, I wanted to depict the hardship of the trenches and the fragility of the Christmas truces, contrasted with the beauty of love. I decided to use an abstract representation of snow over the trenches. I used pencil rubbings on cobblestones to create the texture of the earth, and simple cross-hatching to create the airy atmosphere of the sky. The snow was created with negative space by erasing parts of the crosshatching.
The most obvious thing about this line is how I tore the paper in half and taped it back together. To me, it represents how war and hatred divided the continent of Europe, and how love brought it back together, even if only for a day. I also feel it captures “love” better than a simple depiction of infatuation — because it’s in times of hardship, when everything seems in danger of falling apart, that love is most important.
Surprise: The Discovery
When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, he had no idea he had discovered the first antibiotic to be mass-produced, or that his discovery would save millions of lives. He was merely confused about why some of the bacterial samples he was researching had been eradicated, while others remained healthy. Following that surprising development led him to isolate the fungus that was responsible for killing his samples, to discover and label its antibacterial properties — and the rest is history.
On one level, my submission for “surprise” is representational. On the left you have the Staphylococcus bacteria, and on the right you have the Penicillium notatum mould. Straightforward enough — but at the same time, I like how the pattern on the left gives way entirely, to be replaced by a different pattern that defies the one before. Surprise is, after all, a bait-and-switch, a progression from the known to the unknown.
The method by which I created this print is also surprising. While I had the concept down fairly early, I hadn’t quite figured out what tools I was going to use to make the marks I needed. I ended up using a pair of burnt-out matches that I found lying on one of the tables in the ADM building — don’t try this at home, kids. And when I finished my mark making, only to feel that the background was lacking in visual interest, I took a leaf out of my friend Ryan‘s book and used some stray tissue paper to create a gradient running from left to right.
Fear: The Oppression
Dachau concentration camp was the first Nazi concentration camp. It was a place of senseless cruelty and oppression, where human beings were dehumanized, forced to work, or simply killed. To live in Nazi Germany at its height of power meant living in constant fear — fear that you would be silenced if you spoke out, if you stood out, or simply if you believed something the government didn’t want you to believe.
My initial idea for this piece was to smear my handprints onto the paper, much like you might see in a haunted house or horror movie. Those hands would represent the struggle of the people trapped inside the concentration camp, and the desperation as they were sentenced to torture and death. But after consultation with Joy, I agreed with her comment that hands were a cliched way to represent fear. It would have been unoriginal, and it would have been unjust to the event itself.
My final submission is a crop from a larger piece, where I overlapped my handprints over and over until they created a solid black void. I chose to showcase this section because I find the darkness pooling in the lower left haunting and eerie — as though it was a reflection of the darkness of the Dachau concentration camp. I also like the way that my handprints are recognizable, but twisted into strange and frightening silhouettes, almost like the silhouettes of people.
Sadness: The Void
The bombing of Hiroshima was the first use of the atomic bomb in human history. In a single stroke, a city that had stood for centuries was wiped off the map. More than 90,000 people were killed, including at least 70,000 civilians; the true death toll is unknown, and may have been much higher. What is clear is that it was one of the greatest tragedies in recent history, and the shadow of the atomic bomb still hangs over our lives to this day.
In researching the events for this project, I came across a story associated with the bombing of Hiroshima that stuck with me. Sadako Sasaki was a 12-year-old girl hospitalized from chronic radiation sickness. According to Japanese folklore, anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish; to that end, Sadako spent her days folding origami cranes, asking other hospital patients for paper, all while her condition progressively worsened. Today, in memorial of Sadako, there is a statue of a girl holding a paper crane in Hiroshima, with an inscription that reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer: for building peace in the world.”
I used a paper crane as the focus for this piece, in homage to Sadako. At first I struggled to create a mark that was recognizable as a paper crane, since the three-dimensionality of paper cranes doesn’t translate very well to a 2D surface. However, I was able to get a close approximation by flattening my crane and using it to transfer block printing ink onto paper.
The ink streaks surrounding the crane are meant to suggest rainfall, tears, or bombs. They were a spontaneous addition after I felt that the solitary crane didn’t convey the emotion of sadness.
Joy: The Reunion
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the end of an era. It wasn’t just the physical wall that fell, allowing East and West Germans to be reunited with one another after two decades of separation — it was the fall of a political wall as well. The warming of relations between the West and the Eastern Bloc meant that people could live without the fear of nuclear war.
For my submission, I wanted to capture the specific aspect of the Berlin Wall’s fall that appealed to me — the sense of liberation, and being freed from an unjust system. The patch in the lower left is meant to evoke the Berlin Wall, with barbed wire and harsh stone textures; it fades away, trailing into swirling lines, where in the upper right the mark of a feather suggests freedom.
Although this composition seems simple (and suspiciously representational — I swear that isn’t a literal wall *cough*) I actually went through many iterations trying to get it just right. In some of my trials, the wall took up too much of the piece, and had to be pared back; in others, the lines were too prominent, and I felt they evoked a typhoon more than a light breeze. I’m still not perfectly satisfied with this iteration, but out of all my attempts, this one struck the best balance between lightness and legibility.
Thanks to Amanda for lending me her feather, by the way. Without it, this piece would probably not exist — at least, not in this form.
Here are some points I picked up from the critique:
- I misread the project brief and made all of my lines about twice as tall as they were supposed to be.
- My classmates found my concept interesting, but I wasn’t able to translate them into a striking visual representation. Let’s face it, those lines are a little drab.
- I should quit art and become a history teacher because I give the most interesting history lessons ever.
Now that all is said and done, I’m very impressed by some of the work my classmates have done (check out Shah‘s lines!) and I can see that I would have done better with more conscientious choices of mark-making techniques. Nevertheless, it was an interesting foray into a medium I would normally never have paid attention to, and it has certainly broadened my perspective on art.
At Joy’s request, here is a Photoshop impression of what the lines would look like at the correct aspect ratio:
And so my OSS post concludes. I leave you with a quote:
We are not makers of history. We are made by history.
— Martin Luther King Jr.
One day someone will look back on this period. What will they think of us? How will they remember us? Will they make art about us?