This is a guest post from my daughter, Ava.
“She admires your work.” The French woman struggled to communicate these words to me, but conveyed a sincerity that transcended the language barrier. Her young daughter had been eyeing my sketch of La Toilette de Vénus at the Musée Rodin but was too shy to approach me. She would peek at me inquisitively through a doorway and then turn away whenever I looked up at her. I waved and smiled from a distance, aware that we shared something special: an appreciation of art. I enjoyed similar encounters with an Italian architect, a man selling newspapers in Mexico City, and a snowboarder on a Vail mountaintop. They all struck up a conversation after noticing me capturing the beauty of a place to which they felt close.
The tradition of sketching scenes from my travels began when I was ten on a family trip to Italy. Shortly before our flight, my dad presented me with a little black book. The cover read “Ava’s Travel Sketchbook” in silver writing that smelled of wet sharpie. He had his own “dad-sized” version, which he justified in the same way he defends his larger dessert portions. I treated this gesture seriously, and my dad and I set aside drawing time every day of our trip. Without these father-daughter drawing sessions, I would not have appreciated the intricacy of the stained glass in an Umbrian church window, gained the courage to jot down the expressive gestures of passing strangers, or tapped my foot alongside an elderly Roman accordion player.
Seven years later, I have a unique and extensive record of everywhere I’ve traveled embedded in the crisp white sheets of a three-volume series. When I flip through the pages, I am instantly transported to the date and place scribbled on the top left corner of each drawing. The sketches don’t just remind me of how the scene looked; they open a mental floodgate of smells, weather, interactions, and moods.
The books also bring back memories of the times certain subjects challenged me. I can recall many instances when I felt incapable of rendering a scene. I would spend hours beside my dad shifting my eyes between a complicated building, like St. Paul’s Cathedral, and my pad, feeling the sun beating down, and wishing I had drawn perspective lines in pencil before using pen. Prompted by my complaints, my dad would advise me to “just start over” with an almost frustrating level of cheer in his voice. He made it sound so easy, but what about all that time I had already put in?
As I became more experienced, I realized that starting over doesn’t necessarily correspond to wasted time. Flipping to a blank page isn’t counterproductive, because it means I have figured out what not to do, and I’m ready to approach the problem differently. While there were instances when I successfully captured a scene on the first attempt, there are also many abandoned or scribbled out drawings, begging to be torn out, but left in the book out of respect for the struggle.
The persistence, attention to detail, and creative problem solving required by sketching carries over to my other areas of interest, including physics. With the answers to a problem in the back of the textbook and a teacher who will explain the solution in school the next day, giving up completely after just one try is tempting. In a perfect world, my physics notebook would look a lot like the solutions in the textbook, a series of neat and correct force diagrams and trajectories. In reality, it looks more like my travel sketchbook: many pages of trial, error, more trial, and eventually success. While my end goal may be to sketch a pretty picture or get the right answer, I’ve learned that the sometimes messy process of creation can have a variety of unexpected benefits, like the charming attention of a little French girl.