- Life Drawing by Stephen Pham
Life Drawing by Stephen Pham
Commissioned as part of FCAC Writes: a collection of new work by writers from Melbourne’s West and beyond, published online. Curated by Bigoa Chuol.
Took about six weekly overdrawn notifications and driving to Cabramatta’s deposit ATM at 11pm last year to realise that being broke wouldn’t cut it anymore. I’d run out of grant money in February, applied for Newstart in March, and got rejected because I’d rescheduled the job provider appointment, even though I ultimately attended. I put my car repayments on hold, chased up old invoices, and signed a book publishing contract for a $1000 advance. Mum took out a community loan (choi hui) to pay our rent, after I could no longer afford it.
Being broke is a different kind of depressing. I could not afford to go out, and I didn’t want to rely on the charity of friends. The shame of being poor is a great motivator for self-isolation.
At home, social media was a headache. News of weddings on Facebook, throwbacks to overseas holidays on Instagram, thinly veiled gossip masquerading as political discussions on Twitter – people I didn’t care enough to delete were either too happy or too angry. I needed another distraction. I decided to learn how to draw.
Learning to draw had been a long-time dream, and while I made a couple starts, I never followed through. Instructional books assumed too much about my ability to imagine. Katy Coope’s How to Draw Manga, which I bought from Lucky Book Club nearly twenty years ago, starts off with a generic, gender-neutral face wearing a bandana. I drew this over and over, and when I was confident, I turned to the next section, to be dismayed that I was supposed to improvise faces from the sets of eyes, noses, and mouths she provided. The book then ramped up its complexity under the assumption that I’d made up the mileage by imagining and drawing my own characters. It was nothing like the maths books I’d used to teach myself: follow a couple of examples, apply them to the exercises, then check the answers at the back. How to Draw Manga asked me to make up my own problems and solve them. Pointless.
Bored in a high school art class years later, I drew that same wonky face. Circle divided into quarters. Split these in half vertically. Top eighth is the bandana, top-middle is the forehead, eyes like separated halves of the Maccas logo take up the next eighth, mouth is a horizontal line somewhere in the bottom eighth, and nose like a falling kite lies on the crosshairs between. Matt Robinson, a White boy who spent his weekends making sparkler bombs out of Eclipse mint cases, wandered over and asked what I was drawing. I said it was anime. ‘What fuckin ani-may is that supposed to be,’ he laughed, and walked away.
This time, I decided to commit to drawing every day, regardless of how painstaking the process might be. I settled on DrawABox, a free online course based on repetitive exercises that built off one another. I started off drawing straight lines, which turned to rectangles, which turned to cubes, which turned to plants, bugs, and mammals. It was a grind, but drawing cubes for a whole month kept me from dwelling on the job rejections I received daily. The best thing about Drawabox for me was that it didn’t ask me to imagine too much.
Around the same time, a friend had left her job at a fast food retailer. I’d been open on Twitter about my joblessness and she asked if I’d wanted to take her job. I thanked her and agreed.
The interview was fine, but the job was, and still is, brutal, especially in comparison to the office jobs I’d worked previously. It’s standing for hours on end. It’s wolfing down meals in ten minutes. It’s heavy lifting in the stock room until I get light-headed, and when a manager catches me leaning against a wall to catch my breath, getting assigned to scrub the toilets as punishment. It’s sticking my bare arm down a sink full of cleaning chemicals because gloves are too expensive. It’s attempting light conversation with coworkers think that doing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon-esque accents are peak comedy. It’s plastering on a smile and cheery voice for an endless stream of customers. It’s beeping and whistling drive-thru alarms, managers interrupting conversations with a customer to scream, ‘What are you wasting their time for!’ And while it’s not Amazon levels of exploitative, it certainly is thankless. I was shocked to find out my 18 year-old coworkers were getting paid $17 an hour.
Shifts require me to be engaged on all fronts. It’s hard work that demands all my attention, whether I’m wiping down equipment as quickly as I can without cutting up my fingers, or repeating the customer engagement script and fake-laughing to create a welcoming atmosphere, Arlie Hochschild’s original definition of emotional labour. If I’m on closing shift, I get home at 3am, body sticky with sweat and sugar and grease. I wake up well into the afternoon. The day’s a write-off. Dull pain behind my eyes. I’m certain there’s more to life than work and recovery, but don’t know what to do with this information.
A tweet’s been tormenting me since I saw it in December 2019. It’s from account @slime_golem, and reads:
The question is sincere, but the compound word ‘cubescore’ is sarcastically deterministic. It asks you to complete a simple task and offers you some form of judgement in the form of a number. It reminds me of astrology’s popularity in recent years. But where astrology was ‘vague enough to carry both optimism and pessimism depending on emotional necessity’, a structure that might provide certainty if not resolve in the uncertainty of other people, the ‘cubescore’ raises more questions than it answers. When I imagine cubes spinning, I can picture dozens, if not hundreds spinning, but only for a split second, enough to be an impression, not long enough to be an image. Does that count? What does my cubescore say about me? Can I improve my cubescore? How does my cubescore compare to other people’s?
A more popular tweet helpfully clarifies the phenomenon behind ‘cubescore’ as the ability to recall visual information, with aphantasia being the inability to ‘see’ anything at all. Aphantasia is a recently discovered phenomenon, and its implications aren’t particularly far-reaching. As Ed Catmull, aphantasiac and former president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, points out, mental visualisation isn’t the same as creativity or imagination. Aphantasia is not necessarily an impairment on any kind of creative life.
Still, it’s hard for me to shake those associations. I have low visualisation skills for everything but smell, which is difficult to represent in word or image. I can more easily summon the sticky-sweet meaty punch of a pile of dog shit someone spilt bubble-gum milk tea on than I can picture my sister’s face. While I have no use for either of these things, I think about the implications for things I do care about. How can I work towards something I can’t see? How can I flesh out something that is, at best, a glimpse in my mind?
Second shift I had my first bad customer. Elderly lady, blue rings bordering her brown irises, who ordered six coffees for her friends. She asked for Equal in her coffee. I asked a co-worker, who told me that we used a different brand, but to put in ‘Sweetener’ through the register. I repeated the order, but read ‘sweetener’ out loud. The lady flared her nostrils, twisted her upper lip, and the fluorescent lights flashed in the blues of her eyes as she yelled, ‘Butter! Who puts butter in coffee! Are you stupid? I said Equal!’
We chugged through the rest of the transaction. Her shoulders relaxed and she leaned in and chirped, ‘Thank you, lovely young man.’
When she and her friends left two hours later, all the rubbish was on the floor, cups laying sideways, tan liquid pooling into the Astroturf they were sitting over.
As I mopped, I thought about Flannery O’Connor’s women. They embody a twisted kind of grace, wreaking emotional terrorism and patching it up with surface-level sweetness. In one of my favourite short stories, ‘Everything That Rises That Must Converge’, Julian’s mother, a White woman, offers a Black child a penny in front of the child’s mother. Under the guise of kindness, Julian’s mother twists the knife of White supremacy that makes her charity possible in the first place. In Hilton Al’s words, it was an indirect way of calling the Black mother the n-word.
Did that elderly lady think I had the memory of a goldfish? That she could cover her abuse up with a smile? More likely, like Julian’s mother, she only wanted to fool herself. If anything went awry, she could console herself that she did all the right things, that she was innocent.
One of my first drawings was a cactus. The idea is simple enough: phallic-shaped plant with spikes. According to Betty Edwards’s 1979 pseudoscientific-but-still-helpful book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, though, the biggest hurdle beginning artists must overcome is precisely this process of simplification in the ‘symbol system’. These artists take note of what’s there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object.
In other words, instead of drawing things as they appear in front of them, beginners use the idea of the object to guide their drawing. This leads to inaccuracies
Keeping this in mind, I took several hours to look at the cactus. Though at first the spikes appeared arranged randomly, I noticed that they occurred in a line spiralling up the outside of the cactus. Between clusters of spikes was an asymmetrical bump and, moreover, shoots occurred where a spike cluster might appear. My best guess was that the ‘bumps’ were something like fat leaves fused, spikes protruding from the top outermost corner.
After I’d finished the drawing, my mum caught a glimpse and said, ‘Beautiful! Now that you’re drawing, why don’t you go back to uni and become an architect?’
I don’t hold any illusions about drawing being anything more than a hobby, though. It’s not art. I’m just studying and trying to build good habits. Realism, for me, is not a goal but a method. If I can make a realistic, detailed drawing, that says to me that I’ve finally understood its smaller composite shapes, that I can transfer its existence onto a flat piece of paper, that I truly believe it exists, invisible, on the page and I’m only tracing its contours.
In October, I started drawing faces, aiming to improve by my 100th. I’ve surpassed 300 faces and I’m still making mistakes. Human faces are difficult to draw. They’re made from small, complex forms that shift subtly from person to person, and if Betty Edwards is to be believed, these differences are difficult to perceive because faces are charged with symbolic meaning. When I look at a nose, I don’t just see the roughly-trapezoidal shape it follows, I also see everything I have been taught to expect and want from them: Pinocchio’s nose growing larger and longer with every lie he tells; before and after photos outside Cabramatta cosmetic clinics advertising nose-slimming procedures; racist caricatures where wide noses stand in for the laziness of Black people, long, aquiline noses for the greediness of Jewish people, and upturned button noses for the perpetual foreign-ness of Asians. Thinking about what noses signify distracts me from seeing the bridge, ball, septum, and wings that make them up. All these distractions end up as mistakes, which add up to uncanny portraits: dead eyes, flap noses, void mouths. Well after drawing them, I realise that I’ve missed the forest for the trees.
Saturday night last April I was working drive-thru. Baby blue Camry, dents all over the hood and doors pulled up to the window. The driver, whose order I’d taken just a minute ago, was a white guy, blue eyes, cracked lips, neck tatts, and a bushy beard. In the passenger seat was a bunch of foam cups, dirty papers, and ciggy deck cellophane wrap. I asked how his night was going and he said he was picking up some food for “a chick”. I smiled, nodded, held out the EFTPOS machine. He tapped his card, which declined. His thumbnail was a dark green crescent moon. His face sunk and he looked down muttering, ‘Sorry, gimme a sec.’
Before I worked service, getting my card declined was an ordeal. Time slowed and my face burned as I transferred money from my joke of a savings account, all while the retail assistant’s scowl burned into the top of my head. I had exposed myself as poor, unworthy of wasting their time. On this side of the counter, though, I learnt first-hand how little it mattered. From the window, I said, ‘Happens to me all the time, it sucks man. Take your time, shout out when you’re ready.’
This bikie-looking guy must’ve gotten all kinds of judgement, and I didn’t wanna add to that. From what I could tell, he was poor, and his rough appearance, a caricature of White outlaw machismo, was both armour and weapon against his economic powerlessness, what Raewyn Connell calls protest masculinity. These men looked out for me in mosh pits at metal shows when I was 16, so I had a soft spot for them.
While he transferred money between his accounts. I applied the 50% service discount. He tapped his card again, it went through, and I said, ‘Hope your girl appreciates it, man. Stay safe, take care.’ He smiled thanks and said, ‘Great service, by the way.’ He pulled a wallet from between his thighs, put his card away and closed it. It was a leather wallet, the front emblazoned with the logo of the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary organisation.
Monday following, my manager called to stand me down because of COVID. No correlation to the Nazi, though. Just a coincidence.
The former prison that houses the National Art School is small but difficult to navigate. I’d arrived on campus an hour early for life drawing, but I could not for the life of me find Building 16. I asked a tradie, who shrugged and wished me luck. I went through studios of knitted sculptures and through labs of iMacs. I was sweating by the time I realised I could walk around the round sandstone tower in the centre of campus.
The session was in an open room with concrete floors. A second level overlooked it. I wrote my name down, slid my $20 into the jar, and hopped between the easels of art school students and retirees to sit between an old man wearing a puffer vest over a plaid shirt and a young art student with a septum ring. Standing on a platform in the centre of the room, the model, nude, looked like Susan Sontag, right down to the white streak in her dark hair.
I’d practised figure drawing using pictures from the Internet before, but drawing a person from real life was an entirely different experience. Susan Sontag sat on a chair, body twisted away from me, leg crossed, a soft shadow from her pelvis running up along her spine before dissipating at her shoulder blades. The timer beeped and she turned, faced me, leaned on her hand between her forearm cutting into her left thigh, triceps now jutting out where her upper arm was smooth before. Seeing up close masses of fat and muscle shifting and sagging and pulling with different poses left me with a better understanding of how bodies looked and moved, not only through space, but also through time. The bodies I’d seen on screens seemed to have discrete beginnings and ends that were difficult to draw, whereas Susan Sontag’s presence assured me that her body continued well after my perspective ended. On my left, the old man in the puffer vest dabbed at his canvas with a brush, not even looking at the model, while on my right, the art student spent large swathes of time staring at the model, before striking at her sketchbook with two, three decisive swoops, charcoal hissing against paper.
On the bus home. My phone vibrated. Store manager. Asked where I was, I was late to my shift. Shit. I didn’t even know I was rostered. Told me to expect a disciplinary meeting. I hung up. Hyde Park rolled by out the window. Calm.
Drawing with other people, in that room so charged with intention, was affirming. It wasn’t that I felt validated as a visual artist, it was that, up til then, drawing had been a solitary pursuit. Being with other people, even if we were silent, helped me see and imagine in ways I could not alone. There’s no other way I would have rather spent my time.
About the Author
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is the creative director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement. His writing has been published in Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review, and Sydney Review of Books. In 2018 he received the Create NSW Writers Fellowship to commence work on his manuscript Vietnamatta.
FCAC Writes is supported by Malcolm Roberson Foundation.
1- Contains image provided by Stephen Pham, and illustration by Nadia Lian.