Photo: Drawing by Michael McJilton
Look in the margins of school notebooks or on pads beside telephones and you will find constellations of mark making. These obsessively scrawled images, fussed and exaggerated, seem to have organically sprung up alongside conscientious note-taking like mold upon cheese. In the household of my youth, the telephone notepad often had collaborative scribbles where one person would continue the design begun by someone else. I was fascinated by my mothers’ lacy motifs and the names and numbers reverently traced again and again. Whether they seem to subtract from or amplify the task at hand, doodles betray the workings of the mind as steam to a kettle.
The seemingly innocuous process of doodling came to the rescue of my friend, artist Mike McJilton. As an expat artist delighting in the fertile Berlin art culture, he had been riding a crest of newfound drawing vigor, rigorously honing his talent with acutely perceived social observation. As spirited as this burst of creativity was, the bottom suddenly went out and he found he couldn’t draw with that same aplomb. Like coming to the studio and finding someone had changed the locks, he was forbidden from the place where once he held sway. It is a maxim of the artist that as soon as we suspect our efforts are in vain, doubt blossoms and fulfills its’ own prophecy — Mike remained unable to successfully draw until he noticed what was occurring during his telephone doodling. The throw away sketches that he was doing while preoccupied were hitting the mark, and doing so better even than his previous accomplishments. They were pared down figurative and architectural scenes, cartoonish and airy but full of life.
While it’s unfair to fit the course of an artists’ development into a narrative I will gleefully commit that injustice for the sake of this metaphor: art is the traffic between seeing and interpreting, and when the traffic only goes in one direction it creates a jam. On one level it appeared as though Mike had been collecting raw data in his drawings with no manner of processing that information and nowhere to go. Still that information was percolating in his subconscious and only accessible when he wasn’t paying it attention. The phone call doodle (or noodle as he puts it) was the perfect vehicle to let out that stored energy without pressure or an agenda.
Mike saw how good these doodles were but couldn’t replicate them at first without the assistance of the phone, so he made sure that he was always drawing while on the phone. After a bit, they evolved into a more predictable drawn language and he was able to continue them sans phone. They are beautiful drawings that casually marry disparate qualities; stark yet sensitive, comedic yet serious, abstract yet narrative. There is great joy in the line, even and especially when the line is clumsy or cavalier. This is a trait that is found in many great artists from Klee to Guston where a mature wisdom is funneled through childish abandon.
The compulsion to draw while conversing on the phone is a very unique and interesting behavior. In studies it has been shown that this activity actually enhances recall of the conversation rather than act as a distraction. The restless part of the mind is occupied such that the doodler can better concentrate. In my own phone doodles I see a gamers’ logic unfold; strange visual algorithms riff off of the boundaries of the page and the obstacles of words. It is the look of thinking; both the debris from doing it and the visual punctuation of actual thought.
While the term doodle itself suggests an abbreviation of the otherwise lofty task of drawing (it was originally a synonym for simpleton), it has long had the precedent of being considered high art. As modern art has developed a taste for pure forms of image making, poetic and even mystical character has been found in the doodle. It is a form seemingly stripped of ego that recalls the earliest impulses to draw. The surrealists experimented with different forms of automatic drawing, letting an image grow purely from itself and expose subconscious predispositions of the draughtsman. Cy Twombly is perhaps most famous for elevating the marks made by doodling to a classical level, using it as something of a bridge across the ages of history and art.
There is something wonderfully intimate about doodles. They are literally the subtext of a conversation made permanent if only on a napkin. They lack all pretense but can manifest flecks of hidden genius. As a tool they can unstick the doubting draughtsman in us and reveal buried impulses in a safe context.
Michael McJilton’s work can be seen at www.michaelmcjilton.com