12. Artist as a Reporter

 

March 21, 2021 “Artist as a Reporter: From a Living Room to a Battlefield”

Johanna Krimmel & George Butler

In this episode we look at reportage sketching on both an intimate and global scale as we meet award-winning reportage artist George Butler and beloved urban sketcher and instructor Johanna Krimmel. Both show respect and empathy in their documentation of difficult subjects.

Johanna Krimmel

Johanna Krimmel

Johanna Krimmel joined us from Darmstadt, Germany, to talk about a very personal reportage project. Like so many of us over the past year, Johanna’s sketching focus switched from her usual subjects of industrial machinery, cars, and groups of people to interiors and what she could sketch from her window. In early spring of 2020, her mother asked her to draw her father, who at 93 was in failing health. As we scrolled through her sketches, we could see the same setting of her father watching the news and something on TV marking time, such as news reports about the effects of Covid-19, Biden’s speech after he was declared the winner of the US presidential election, and Queen Elizabeth’s rare public address.

Johanna described drawing someone you care for as difficult (many of us find it easier to draw strangers) but also a form of caressing or cherishing what you see – you observe, take it in, process it, let it out again. Drawing her father was a special kind of connection and also a way of saying goodbye. At the end, when he couldn’t get out of bed, Johanna made larger sketches of him, saying, “It’s a way of dealing with the pain.”

She’s now working on a video installation of this project, creating a large “sketchbook” frame to project her 40 or so sketches of her father onto, with a chair in front of it in the position her father sat in.

Johanna’s project evolved by chance, and she encourages us to focus on our own personal motivation and what is important to us in our sketching, saying, “Don’t think about what others think about it, do what you want to do, then it will come out interesting.”

George Butler
image credit: @guspalmer

George Butler

Reportage illustrator George Butler joined us from London to talk about his work going to different parts of the world and looking for underreported, personal stories to share in drawings for newspapers and magazines. George has visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other places facing conflict to tell the stories about people who are affected. With his dip pen and watercolors, he draws from life, often standing with an A2 sheet of paper on a board propped on his hip. He has embedded with troops and interviewed business owners and visited with the sick and dying.

He talked about the effects of this very personal and emotional type of reportage, saying that drawing gives both a distance as the bystander but also a unique view into the hope and dignity and resilience of the people he sketches. He tries to keep in touch with the people whose stories he tells, but also says that what he is capturing might be a fleeting moment for his subject. The stories do stay with him – he remembers all of their names because he can’t forget them.

Viewers were curious about George’s use of a dip pen on site, which might seem impractical, but George says the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. He prefers the weight of line and varying tone of ink he gets with a dip pen. He says with this approach there is no turning back – you have to keep going once you’ve started. He spoke of the value in having the drawing unfold as people watch. It helps build trust – you’re there longer than a person with a camera, you’re not threatening, and an audience looking over your shoulder as you draw should be a right of the people whose space you are drawing.

In closing we talked about George’s book, Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Migration, which comes out on 1 April 2021. The individual stories and drawings of migrants and their reasons for moving help create a deeper understanding of migration. This book highlights what George says is a quality reportage artists must have – empathy – caring enough to understand the person sitting in front of you.

Challenge: Documenting Loss

Dig deep, reflect and share the story of something or someone you have missed, loved or lost. Maybe your focus is a loss from the last year, maybe from before that. If you documented something before but haven’t shared it online, consider sharing it now. As we saw in work by George and Johanna, these stories can be painful, but they capture the beauty of the human spirit. As our host Rob Sketcherman said, “We have this tool, urban sketching, that helps us deal with and heal from difficult situations.”

Be sure to share your USk Talks Challenge sketches on Instagram using the hashtags #usktalks and #usktalkschallenge. Tag our guests in your challenge sketches, and follow them on Instagram: Johanna Krimmel @jaykay2012, George Butler @georgebutlerillustration, and our host Rob Sketcherman @robsketcherman.

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