Nature and Other Relationships

The job of emojis is to represent things—an abstract, cartoonish stand-in for the real thing—while drawing is incredibly intimate, pulling you in. In drawing, the choices of the hand are evident; no repeated mark is the same. Drawing is subjective, all the way through. My emoji drawings navigate this push and pull. They are at once silly and earnest, superficial and specific, intangible and material. 

Nature and Other Relationships examines how our use of emojis illuminates relationships—relationships between mother and child or longtime friends, the relationship between surface and meaning, our relationship to our devices, our relationship with what we define as “real.”

In the drawing Nature I depict all of the emojis in the category Nature, which can be read as a one-liner about our paltry relationship with the natural world in our digital age. But this group of emojis is also evidence of how, in our rituals and traditions, elements of nature are original sources for meaning: the evergreen tree as a symbol of resilience during the darkest time of the year, or the bamboo shoot welcoming growth and happiness in the Japanese New Year.

The largest drawing in the exhibition, Whoh (J.J.’s text to her mom from her father’s phone, Sept 4, 2019), is based on a text sent by a five-year-old to her mom about her love of sugar. Translated into an eight-foot tall drawing, the drawing becomes an operatic score of desire, conviction, addiction, and excess. The monkey is a protagonist in this narrative, introducing mischief, morality, and empathy. After row upon row of sugary treats, three Western Sahara flags are a surprising inclusion, especially considering how emojis are organized on our phones. (When asked to clarify, J.J. said her stuffed animal did it.) Well, everything is political. The last row of speak-no-evil monkeys I see as vacillating between horrified surprise, complicit silence, and suppressed giggles. It is a musical composition replete with held notes and motifs, a reprise of the monkeys after an interlude of flan and rainbow lollipops. Seen as a literary text, my drawing becomes a close reading.

In the process of belabored drawing, repetition becomes its own subject matter—not just the wow factor of repetition (although let’s admit 237 emojis in one drawing is a LOT) but repetition as its own relationship. For what else are our relationships but repeated actions: driving the kids to school in the morning or greeting each other as we return home each day. We must navigate this space of joy and pleasure, boredom and sameness, nuance and complexity.

I make each drawing the way each original text was composed: emoji by emoji, row by row. I start with an enlarged version of an emoji on my computer screen, sketching what I see in graphite. As soon as I feel like I’ve gotten the proportions right, somewhat absurdly I erase my marks until just a ghost remains. I have to, otherwise the colored pencils would get smudged by the lead.

I then build the color in layers. The wax binder keeps the pigment suspended, allowing me to blend new colors into ones I’ve already put down. It feels like mixing paint right upon the paper’s surface. Some colors are very forgiving, letting me push the color around until I’ve got it right. Other pencils, like the cursed category of green, are harder, truly: they contain less wax and therefore aren’t as friendly to work with.

The first time I draw an emoji I proceed at a snail’s pace; all of it is new. The thirtieth time I’m as much drawing my memory of the drawing as the object itself. Sometimes I remind myself to return to the original source and make new decisions—today’s decisions—based on what I see. Other times I let it be a memory, a path worn familiar.

The complexity of color astounds me: lemon yellow, burnt ochre, chartreuse, bronze, and goldenrod combine to produce the flame of a birthday candle. My colors are not made by dragging a cursor across a gradient on a screen. The chimera of a monkey’s shimmery fur is a continual mystery.

If I screw up, there’s no erasing. Forecasting into the future doesn’t help, and I literally have to cover up the past (with a sheet of paper to protect what I have already drawn). Whatever happens becomes the drawing.

For another work in the exhibition, Every text from Joy that includes an emoji (Jun 18, 2016), I keep the proportions of my friend’s original text the same, but substitute blank paper in place of words, drawing only the thirty red hearts that conclude her message. The drawing uses the language of minimalism, yet one steeped in intimacy. It becomes literally heart-centered, a meditation on the small and large gestures that build a friendship.

Included in the exhibition are six crystal ball drawings, part of a larger series. Choosing the crystal ball as a symbol implies a search for meaning, seeking insight into an uncertain future. But it also investigates the present. Drawing the same object over and over again asks the question: How can I pay attention? In my studio practice, I interspersed my repeated drawing of the crystal ball emoji among other projects. Each time I sat down at my drawing desk to begin a new crystal ball drawing, I was surprised how excited I was. It was not an exercise in tedium, but one of discovery.

Looking closely is its own reward. Our phones are magical, miraculous—but also illusory. When absorbing information from my phone, I find it doesn’t settle in my body. It is fun but fleeting. In taking up a pencil, I found my way into a world that is beautiful, nuanced, aspiring, absorbing. The information lands.

Emojis represent our yearning to connect. However far afield they might be in that effort, in a world that is both real and not real, they steer us toward each other. We are humans, in our bodies. We are human, striving yet imperfect. Relationships are a human undertaking: evolving, revealing, and wondrous.

Additional Bodies of Work