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Page1of 1 Visual Atrophy
by Wendy Richmond

I am at ease with words. I use writing to figure things out. Every morning, I “freewrite”: I follow a train of thought, and explore whatever is on my mind. I have no specific goal, and I don’t worry about quality or skill.

I used to be at ease with imagery. I investigated my ideas by drawing and photographing. But for the past year, I’ve been working more in the verbal realm, and so, when I want to think something through, I reach for my laptop instead of a camera or sketchpad. As a result, my “eye” has gotten out of shape. It’s like using only one arm, one gets stronger, the other gets weaker. I am experiencing visual atrophy.

This realization came when I received news that I will soon be going to the American Academy in Rome for a month-long artist’s residency. My project will be observing and documenting the ways in which people share (and do not share) public space in the city’s dense environment. I began to picture my days there—sitting in cafés and plazas, meandering through the streets, blissfully lost for hours in the process of drawing and photographing—and right away, the panic set in. I am rusty! Like a runner who has just found out that she will be in a marathon after a year away from the track, I knew that I needed to get back in shape.

In an interview in the book Between Artists, Vija Celmins told Chuck Close about her drawing practice: “I see drawing as thinking, as evidence of thinking, as evidence of going from one place to another.” Years ago, I asked my readers why they draw, and I remember relating in particular to one of the responses: “Drawing is my problem-solving process. My sketchbooks are a record of my thoughts, my array of projects and ideas, my characters and observations and stories.”

I wanted to regain my own fluency, so a few weeks ago I enrolled in a figure drawing class, two mornings a week. As soon as I put my new stick of charcoal to my new pad of newsprint, I experienced the primary symptom of rustiness—self-consciousness. The “editor,” i.e., the judgment pronouncer, appeared. “Oh, thank God, I haven’t lost it!” Next, “Hmm, actually not so good.” And then, “My mind is wandering, I am not into it enough.”

In his classic book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. People become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.” My goal in this class—and in Rome—is not to make great drawings. It is to employ the act of drawing as a means of immersing myself in observation; to be in the flow. After about twenty-eight hours of drawing the figure, I have a glimpse: Now, before I make a single mark, I look at the model until I see what is important. It might be a shape, or the light, or the feeling of weight. I choose one thing, and then I begin to draw, concentrating only on that aspect. The editor goes away, and I am fully engaged (at least for a 30-minute pose) in the realm of line and shadow.

Along with drawing, I also needed to reinvigorate my other dormant practice—photography. In 1998, in a column titled “Visual Episodes,” I described photographing as a way to explore and develop seeing. “Taking pictures is like exercise, and the camera is the aid that helps me tone my aesthetic eyesight.” At that time, I always carried around a point-and-shoot camera, using it to document and sketch ideas. A few years ago, I developed a body of work by using my cell phone’s video camera to surreptitiously capture the choreographies of New York City dwellers. I shot constantly, and the act of shooting became second nature. Without consciously realizing it, my mode of expression became the fifteen-second short story, and speaking its language felt effortless.

That cell phone is long gone, and it’s time to try another platform. I feel anxious about adapting to a new camera,
let alone facing the daunting task of choosing one. How quickly will I learn the new buttons and menus, and make the tool disappear? Will my mind be able to wander without being hindered?

When I arrive in Rome, whether or not I have done enough drawing, and no matter what camera I bring, I am confident that I will find the right flow. But four weeks in Rome is short and precious, and until then, I want to prepare as best I can to hit the ground running. CA

© 2010 W. Richmond

Editor’s note: Wendy is the author of Art Without Compromise*. Richmond
Wendy Richmond ( is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.