Thinking Through Drawing Symposium: Practice Into Knowledge ☆

Thinking Through Drawing Symposium attendees

In a weekend that brought together leaders in such diverse fields as medicine, architecture, textile design and cognitive science and gave them a commonality, the Art and Art Education Department’s recent Thinking Through Drawing Symposium was a ground-breaking event and the first of its kind in the nation.  “This has been a long time coming,” states Professor Judith Burton, who organized the event alongside Andrea Kantrowitz (an interdisciplinary studies Doctoral student who conceived of the seminar after seeing the impact that drawing research had on school curriculum in the United Kingdom), along with Angela Brew of the University of the Arts London and Michelle Fava of Loughborough University. “Part of the interest in drawing and cognition for me is understanding how artists have characteristic ways of thinking about the world and their work that would be useful broadly in society and for children,” Kantrowitz explains.  The Drawing and Cognition Symposium was a step towards Burton’s goal of introducing drawing into the schools, “not so much as a specialist art activity, but as a way of constructing knowledge, shaping and communicating ideas, taking notes, paying attention and being imaginative.”

The seminar’s interdisciplinary nature was striking. As Professor Seymour Simmons of Winthrop University (who is currently doing research at TC on developing his ideas about the philosophical systems behind different forms of drawing instruction) states, “Drawing is connected both practically and theoretically to various ways of thinking in different domains.”  He continues, “We come to the table with different pieces of the puzzle.  The symposium expanded my scope of understanding how drawing figures into the world and how it is being viewed from different angles, and allowed me to put the pieces together and see how they connect.”  As Chris Moffett, Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy and Education and seminar panelist describes it, “Drawing is fundamental to all of us.  What became clear is that even if we tend to think of drawing as a narrow niche, it really speaks to our fundamental experience of being humans in the world.”

It was the Myers Lecture speakers, Simon Betts and Stephen Farthing of the University of the Arts London, who set the stage for the conference by opening attendees minds to the possibilities of what drawing is and the contexts in which it flourishes. Farthing engaged in something of a taxonomy of drawing, pushing the audience to consider the “outer extremities” of the practice, as Burton describes it. Showing an image of a plane taking off and casting a shadow, Farthing asked, “Is the pilot drawing on the ground?”  As Moffett (a pilot himself) extends it, “Imagine the pilot as drawing lines of flight through space. If we want to call flying drawing, do so and see what that allows.”

The most avidly questioned panelist was Neil Shah, a British surgeon who demonstrated how medical doctors draw out their operations. “Scientists work the forefront of imagination and investigation.  They need to draw because sometime that’s the only way to represent a thought,” Burton explains.  The intersection of art and science is something Kantrowitz is passionate about. “They are often pitted against each other, and that’s ridiculous from the point of view of how the brain actually works.  Scientific thinking is often stereotyped as non-creative, and artistic thinking as non-rational.  Both of those stereotypes are not only false but destructive of education and human potential,” she offers.

Jonah Moy's portrait captured by the drawing robot arm.

A conference highlight was a drawing robot arm developed by Patrick Tresset and Frederic Fol Leymarie, an artist and a computer scientist from Goldsmiths.  This arm perpetually created realistic, expressive portraits of participants and initiated much inquiry:  Is what the robot doing actually drawing?  Is the robot an extension of Tresset’s own arm, since it was programmed on his drawing style?  “These questions point to the possibilities that present themselves when you question drawing,” Kantrowitz feels.

Simmons describes the conference as a “matchmaking event” with participants now planning research projects across disciplines and staying connected on a listserv.  “There’s a lot of fruitful exchange that’s just beginning,” Moffet says.  A monograph with conference abstracts and artwork (there was a gallery component) is underway with Burton as the lead, as are next steps to secure a grant to teach drawing across the curriculum, the ultimate goal of all this work.

“Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Bauhaus…these places were centers of drawing instruction and creativity where the most innovative thinkers made connections through the medium of drawing.  This is a time when that type of creativity is obviously needed across the board in every discipline.  Groups like ours make these connections and make these arguments,” Simmons explains. He is currently working with faculty at professional schools of art and design where, perhaps surprisingly, it has become necessary to defend the relevance of foundation drawing courses in the digital era.

Simmons feels cross-disciplinary connections will add arrows to the quiver of why drawing matters: “People outside our domain give us ammunition and help look at drawing differently.” Moffett adds, “We tend to argue for the need for art education in the schools because it builds “creativity” as a kind of faculty, but this conference was a way of showing that it directly matters.”  For Burton, the matter is straightforward:  “Drawing is a whole other way of thinking, and that’s what the arts are best at doing.  They open us up to the world and provoke us to see it isn’t always like conventions tell us.”

Visit for a conference overview.