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Luiseno red ochre puberty drawings on a cliff face near San Diego, California.

There are myriad reasons people take lines for a walk. Throughout human history we see drawing used for identifying, tagging, marking, tattooing, mapping; drawing as calling, praying, “seeing;” drawing as destruction, as crossing out, propaganda, agitprop, signage, mnemonic storytelling device, literature, treaties; drawing as sigil magic, medicine, myth-making, prophesy, trap, exorcism, automatism — surrealist automatic drawing. We see Reiki healing symbols drawn in the air above a patient, and Navajo healing symbols drawn on the ground below them. Moreover, cultures all over the world use drawing magic to, if not foresee the future, then to affect it. Drawing magic may have defeated the Nazis.

Drawing is thinking, is a form of thinking, and is an exercise. Just see Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint, where he hooks his body up to bungee cords and tries to draw on the wall across the room. Drawing is strength building, and, like dancing, it is a practice of giving up and letting go.

Drawing is always a collaboration between you and the material, but we can also find examples of drawing as a mere physical feat, such as the cliff-face puberty drawings of Luiseño women in southern California. The rock drawings often appear as red diamond chains, and we might ask, are they drawing rattlesnakes, phalluses, ladders, lightning bolts, red moons, the Milky Way? We can worry about the “iconographic meaning,” but when we do we miss the primary meaning, the bodily “kinesthetic meaning.” We miss the fact that the artist had to prepare herself, fast for three days, travel to the site, make the paint, mark the body, then climb the boulder’s dangerous face with the paint, and then draw something. Who cares what they drew! The drawing is proof that such a transformational journey took place.

The red paint is purposefully left on the young woman’s body for weeks. It’s on the stone wall forever.

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Honda Ridge, Chumash puberty site near Santa Barbara. See David Robinson’s The mirror of the sun. Surface, mineral applications and interface in California rock art.

The artist is ‘timing in,’ and the wall becomes an interface between her and deep time, with the mineral spirits, and with the shiny surface and sun.

And suddenly, what appears simple and ‘naive’ is actually fully matured — neotenous, like a late drawing by Picasso, or like an aged Chihuahua who looks like a wolf fetus. To an initiate, ‘primitive scratches’ are in fact pathways to truth, to star charts, to vision magic, to history. Drawings are mirrors, dreams, and are a communication between levels of the self, between your current self, and your future self, and between your past self and your current self. Drawings are multi-directional windows into another world, and they are also that world’s window into us.

“We are like flies crawling across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: we cannot see what angels and gods lie underneath the threshold of our perceptions.” ~William Irwin Thompson (Evil and World Order)

Through drawing, however, we can see things that are otherwise invisible.

Drawing in Temporal Dimensions

Like any language, images speak through a kind of grammar. In A World Through Lines, English philosopher and artist John Berger describes how drawings communicate by using different temporal dimensions or tenses. Present tense drawings record what we see in front of us — a nude model, a landscape, a still life, anything in our waking world. Conditional tense drawings, on the other hand, record ideas and dreams about what could be, should be, and would be. Berger’s example: two people from different language backgrounds at a restaurant communicating on a napkin when they can’t find the words. There is improvisation and laughing. The third type, past tense drawings, are sketches from memory, which is a different kind of dreaming and a different kind of present moment experience. Through this third type of drawing, artists can, according to Berger, exorcize a memory like it’s a demon — “in order to take an image out of the mind, once and for all, and put it on paper.” Berger says the imagery can be anything — a bug, a bomb, “sweet, sad, frightening, attractive, or cruel” — but each has its own way of being “unbearable.”

Some drawings contain all three tenses at once, which triggers a new temporal dimension, a new level of communication, a fourth tense — maybe similar to the “fourth person” or “fourth voice” Gerald Vizenor describes appearing in Native American stories and drawings. Maybe this is the languages of a “fourth eye.”

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Medicine Vision by Artist B (Arapaho), Frank Henderson Ledger, circa 1880

Drawing lines is easy, but creating a good drawing is so hard “it makes you crazy.” Visual artist Amy Sillman: “You have to negotiate surface, tone, silhouette, line, space, zone, layer, scale, speed, and mass while interacting with a meta-surface of meaning, text, sign, language, intention, concept, and history.” Indian warriors imprisoned at Fort Marion from 1875–1878 filled old ledger books with exquisite drawings of their dreams, with the line quality and compositions a European or Asian artist would need years of formal education to accomplish.

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Here is an 1880 ledger drawing by Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota) depicting a Horned Clown/Thunder Being/Destroyer on a horse-like creature with eagle feet and buffalo horns. Art historians say the creature’s tail forms a rainbow curtain “entrance to the spirit world.” The beings are then passing through the tail curtain. The orbs covering the figure and the horse represent hail and any nasty weather that blends the two beings together. Accompanying the picture on the page were the words, probably written in English by Richard Henry Pratt himself, “Dream or vision of himself changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle.”

Drawing Transmotion

Some Native American drawings communicate what Vizenor calls transmotion — “a spirited and visionary sense of natural motion.” Transmotion specifically comes up while discussing traumatized Native American warriors and their dream drawings made at the end of the 19th century. According to Vizenor, transmotion is “unmissable” in Native American drawings, as unmissable as regular motion: a hand moves, a curtain waves, birds fly, men dance; and while these examples of regular motion touch our ordinary senses and our ordinary minds, transmotion goes beyond the waking senses altogether, a hyperlink to motions and emotions and cosmic gestures; to ancestral memories and animal totems; to ceremonial dances; to movements plugged into currents beyond the individual’s body. Vizenor:

“The warriors and their horses are pictured in motion, the artistic transmotion of native sovereignty. The scenes and motion were of memories and consciousness, not poses and motion simulations. The transmotion of ledger art is a creative connection to the motion of horses depicted in winter counts and heraldic hide paintings. The hides and shields are visionary.”

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Artist B, Kiowa, 1880, from the Julian Scott Ledger, 7.5 × 12 inches.

Pictured above is a group-induced memory of a delegation of high-ranking Kiowa men who visited a government agent at Fort Sill, c 1870. The first figure, carrying a decorated otter-skin bag, has a distinct painting of a bison head on his chin. A figure near the center is wearing what appears to be a U.S. military dress coat with a saber and scabbard at his hip. He and three other members of the group hold eagle feather fans. Sometimes fans are magical devices used by ‘shamans’ to scoop up souls and place them back into bodies. Sometimes they are used with smoke and dance to heal. They are also identity markers and ego makers, like the phallic Maya manikin scepters, or tattoos, head-dresses, and gorgets used by Native Americans.

Indian ledger drawings were mnemonic story-telling devices, and some were kept secret and safe, like a diary. They have a subversive history of also being associated with scripture and public records kept at a church or courthouse. The fact that native prisoners of war overwrote the ‘official’ records with their own polychromatic, visionary dream drawings indicates larger realities: resistance, survivance, and the ramifications of colonialism.

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Wo Haw, 1877, Between Two Worlds, self-portrait in graphite and crayon on paper. Both animals are breathing visions into Wo Haw’s face, suggesting that dream imagery may come from the more-than-human environment, from places beyond the dreamer’s control.

Puberty Drawings

We can all draw. Babies, without direction, pick up crayons and just go for it. Press play and the brain makes decisions before you even know it. Scribbles come from, and communicate with, a very primal, reptilian level in us. When we draw, we are ushered into a creative, nondual “flow state,” where the maker, the pencil, and the drawing become “one taste” in a moving river of creative expression.

Drawing is like traveling, but it’s also a kind of dancing. Take paper and pen and see creation happen right before your eyes! Meet chaos, and take it for a walk. Drawings can change direction at the speed of thought. And there is a trace of you, a fingerprint, that pours out of your pen and onto the page. If you are drawing what you are seeing, then the line is a record of where your mind has been. Relax the line, relax the mind. With practice, we can move out of the way, and let the drawing happen through us. When I’m outside drawing the landscape, I react to what I see — the contours of the trees tell my hand exactly where to go. Am I doing it, or is the landscape drawing itself through me?

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Pufferfish drawing a radial sand mandala.
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Kubric’s primate beginning to see otherwise.

Animals draw. Dolphins supposedly send pictures through their vocalizations. Bees draw maps of the garden through dance. We see evidence of human-made scratches on top of bears’ in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). Did the bears teach us to draw? Did the birds teach us to sing?

As Berger says, drawing is not important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you to see. Drawing is revelatory, like traveling, but it’s also like dancing. Let us zoom out for a moment to take in a larger picture. Drawings come before words in art history. We begin with scratches — pure pattern, pure abstraction — what we see in the 70,000-year-old Blombos petroglyphs and ochre drawings in South Africa; what we see in the 30,000-year-old lions brilliantly cross-hatched on the darkest walls of Chauvet Cave. The animal fat in the paint and lamp-light facilitated the making of images, the seeing of images, and other cultural advances. But wait, we were dancing and singing and speaking in pictures before we could draw them, right? Maybe not. Infants, before they can speak, know how to draw. Scribbling may be a necessary step into language and symbolic thought; it’s a protolanguage, ursprache. As “neurobiological impulse,” and as language instinct, scribbling may be the basis for human notational systems “upon which all self-reflection, or self-organization, depend” (see the scribble hypothesis). Making a mark, or filling something in, is about transformation and impermanence, but it’s also about creating something that stays — a trace, a signature, a scratch. There is identity magic in it.

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Unknown Lakota artist, c. 1880, from Janet Catherine Berlo’s “Spirit Horses and Thunder Beings: Plains Indian Dream Drawings”

Plains Indian warriors often dreamt of “horses with horns.” In the drawing above, lines of electricity radiate from the spirit’s hands and feet, and we witness other beings come out of the left hand’s effluvium. We see the creative power of drawing; the creative power of spirit-made-flesh.

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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