Our blanket was spread out on the earth and as I started drawing the Kuttu scene, seven young children crawled near to peer over my shoulder. My friend, who also works in development in Chennai, said in shock, “You told me this would happen, but I just still don’t understand! I’m Tamil, but you’ve made seventy-five friends in this village! How?” I replied hesitantly, yet honestly, “Half of it is that I am white and I smile. The other half is this crazy thing of using art to connect with people.”
Plein aire sketching is something that I’ve done for pleasure since my trip to Argentina in 2011. On that trip, I noticed that when I was drawing around people it broke down barriers and was a fantastic way to start conversations and build relationships. When I worked with cowboy poets, I found out that if I could quickly sketch the profile of a performer and then get them to sign the picture any barriers of difference would fall away as we could connect through the language of art. Since then, I’ve started seeing sketching as tremendously powerful and under-utilized tool in development.
Back to the village: This is what I told my friend what was going to happen, “I’ll start drawing and first kids will start checking out what I am doing. Gaining the trust of kids is a huge gateway. Then, when the men see that I can be trusted with their kids, they will get curious. When I pass the men the book of sketches, the women will also get intrigued ask to see. In the end, I’ll be publicly engaged in a positive way and have opportunities to build deeper interactions.” That day, this is exactly what happened.
Symbols and art is a language that everyone speaks, and are conduits for us all to connect. By sketching publicly, on the spot, and of local scenes or people, it is a way to say, “Hi, I appreciate your world and am curious. Let’s chat.” It is a dramatically quick step to building positive positionality, or how a community relates and is able to trust you. I’ve found that photography and videography can’t do that, partially because the tech difference is unrelatable and most “documentarians” don’t take the time to sit and be still.
My next dream is to start using graphic facilitation in development meetings between professional strategists and community members. It is a method of human-centered design and a powerful tool to use graphic symbols to bridge language and culture barriers. It is also a way to iterate the design of a development intervention immediately with community members. Here’s my theory: