I glanced down at my finished sketch. The drawing itself barely resembled the figure: an explosion of ink and dried brushstrokes scattered over the page presented a distorted human shape. Instead of filling me up with pride, the image glowered back at me.
Minutes before, a short lady had shuffled by my line of sight. She donned an unremarkable light blue vest as she wandered around a garbage bin, bending down periodically. Reminding me of my grandmother, one of the legions of elderly who cheerfully volunteer to keep her Beijing neighbourhood clean, I immediately decided to make her the subject of my next sketch, another in a long line of weekly drawings.
The sun danced off her hair, a combination of natural grey and a tired chestnut dye. The outline of her head was a lot rougher than I expected – frizzy and lifeless strands constituted a tangled mess. I could feel my pen scraping through the page with screaming dried strokes as I depicted the messiness. The line then drifted to the lady’s face. The soft morning light bathed her tan, crinkly skin, clearly contouring the skeletonic frame beneath it. The surface took on a glossy shine, and a drop of sweat hurtled off her cheek and onto her stained blue vest.
Just as I continued the line to her torso, she inched toward the garbage bin. I gripped my brush-pen in place, ready to capture her movements. She plunged an empty hand into the garbage and started digging. My previous assumptions were shattered as she haltingly retracted her calloused hand, clutching a dripping Coca-cola can. Perturbed, I lifted my pen from the page.
The howling strokes bluntly told her life story with an unapologetic tone. Wrinkles displayed her old age, while the dirt and sweat between folds in her shirt narrated her living conditions.
Despite our class and age gap, there was a deeper chasm: the fissure between all artists and their subjects. I saw her, every detail about her, yet I didn’t know her at all. Through her rendered silhouette, I could almost see her younger self. And yet she remained elusive. I had always been taught to draw in a vacuum, to ignore everything but the shapes and the contours. This experience, however, forced me to confront all that I would usually ignore.
I was a teenager in the heart of Hong Kong, living with privilege in one of the most affluent cities in the world; she was a virtual ghost, an invisible citizen struggling in a parallel world beneath the surface glamor, maintaining the immaculate streets, enabling every resident of the city to feel proud of their tidy habitat. She was more than just shapes and lines; her life lacked the tidiness of the art studio. She existed evidently in this physical world, and the minimal acknowledgment of her existence disheartened me.
Looking back at my sketchbook, I still feel my heart pumping inside my chest, timing each second of my existence. The ongoing confusion, anger, and disappointment my sketch evokes announce my presence: not as a young artist who only values the superficial beauty in his work, but as a human being capable of feeling and reflecting through his work.
More than just a hobby that helps me express my feelings, art has become a lifestyle, a constant meditation that develops my perception of the world. art functions as a keystone in my life that allows me to experience and feel the world in a more personal fashion: render the invisible, explore beauty in the unexpected, and dust off the silenced truth.