by Govi Snell
During quarantine, I took to sketching my friends' selfies sent into a WhatsApp group chat.
It was a timely undertaking in a period when the respiratory droplets secreting out of our faces have necessitated concealing ourselves behind masks and we've taken to keeping our potentially deadly physicalities within the confines of home. But, as I became sequestered from faces, I found myself drawn to them and particularly to the familiar faces of friends.
I've always been fascinated by faces. In my opinion, every face is a beautiful face. The curve of an eyelid, crook of a nose, arch of an eyebrow, and the morphing emotions that wave across the surface being endlessly watchable things worthy of attention. Faces change so much it makes it hard to believe that anyone is ever really one person. A squishy rotund baby face grows till it develops its first pimple, its first fine line. It carries the joys and the sadnesses; it smiles and it crumples.
My friends' faces, and the focus on minutiae that went into my sloppy attempts to draw them, were a major source of comfort for me during a lonely period of self-isolation. As I have zero background in art of any sort, the renderings are amateurish to say the least. Beyond whatever artistic value these drawings have, sketching made me feel closer to my friends in a time when being physically close to anyone really was impossible.
Of the art that has come out of this barf-inducingly bizarre and dreadful year, there have been some real personal standouts. Art has reckoned with the terrors of the pandemic and been a way to trudge through the burden of surprise freetime. In Vietnam, where I have been living for the past two years, art has also been a tool in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. A viral, pun intended, handwashing song, accompanying dance, and propaganda style posters have urged the public to wear masks and follow absolutely vital hygiene procedures.
This kind of messaging, that acknowledges the sad necessity of having to physically distance yourself from your desires, can be found outside of Vietnam as well. In a profile for Rolling Stone, Suzy Exposito gets a peek into the life of Puerto Rican reggaetonero and introvert hunk, Bad Bunny. While quarantining, Bad Bunny holed up in an Airbnb with his girlfriend, the jewelry designer Gabriela Berlingeri. Berlingeri and Bad Bunny recorded "En Casita" during this time. Exposito describes the song as a "twee trap ballad about wanting to visit a lover but needing to stay in quarantine." I describe it as the endlessly boppable song that I've listened to on loop whose boppability is even sweeter for its mournfulness. The song's refrain "Toca quedarme en casa, casa (ah) Toca quedarme en casa, casa (ey, ey)," truly encapsulates the more privileged preoccupations of 2020. "It's time to stay, home. It's time to stay, home. Home, it's time to stay home."
And so we stayed home. At this point, it's necessary to say that my stretch of staying home because of the pandemic has been relatively short. In a strike of luck, I've found myself living in a country that has dealt with the spread of COVID-19 with swiftness and seriousness from the outset. Nevertheless, the two periods of self-isolation that I've gone through living in Saigon have been weird, unsettling and passed by ever so slowly in the way that time can sometimes feel stuck like ketchup to the top of an overturned bottle— just plop down already! As it gets close to being, in the words of Jordan Firstman, "one full yar"of isolations and losses big and small, I know that for me, my silly little drawings and the silly little drawing hobby that they've prompted will be one of the positives amid the wretched.
Among these more impactful artistic expressions from a world riddled with the coronavirus, our little messaging group, entitled "Farts n' Stuff," was making our own "art."
"Farts n' Stuff," which, full disclosure, was eventually redubbed "Flowers n' Stuff" because of one friend's distaste for poop-related humor, contains myself, one of my older sisters, and three friends which I have known for what feels close to my personal forever. Our text thread was everything you'd expect from a group of friends confined within their own isolations. We shared fears, selfies, pictures of food, a cheeky almost-nude or two, okra updates, outfit appraisals, old photos from by-gone eras, and a flurry of frustrations over "vag blood," "lady flows," untidy partners, and a lack of partners. Amongst this came documentation of creative endeavors to pass the time, which of course also included frustrations like, "How the fuck does one draw a hat?" That was me.
Paintings, violin practice, makeup tutorials, and video updates from two friends who had taken up the ukulele included some of the artistic contributions. One particularly adorable video showed my friend, who I've never heard sing before, singing and strumming away on the ukulele sweetly until she misses a chord and looks to the camera letting out a characteristic outburst of exasperation. As in all things, the sweet and the sour.
I can't remember why I decided to draw their faces but I'm glad I did. My first sketches were experiments in replicating selfies that I'd requested in the chat. Done with pen on the lined paper of a Composition notebook that I had taken to journaling in, their recreated faces peered up at me garish in their haphazardness. But somehow they looked enough like their faces, and enough not like their faces, to be entertaining.
In the first drawing I did of my sister, her oversized head is tilted to the side and I've somehow made her look like she descended from turtles. The other representations are similar variations of ludicrous.
From here, buoyed by my friends' amusement, things got more "serious." I graduated to using a pencil and even upped my game with unlined paper. Taking multiple tries at illustrating a friend's nude, I ended up liking my messiest version the most. The hip juts out, and the bizarrely small arm covering globular titties prove that life drawing is a bit above my skill level. From here, I kept my attention on faces luxuriating in being able to escape myself as I focused on their puckered lips, raised eyebrows and as they chomped on apples and squinted in the sunlight in baseball-capped selfies.
Finding real joy in the immersive experience that these depictions entailed, I took to drawing pictures of myself and scanning Instagram for other friends and eventually celebrity faces to consume and digest as weird, twisted little fragments of the already doubled reality.
Critiquing my work, I have to say that there is something of their faces that I've been able to capture. It feels silly to share something so unsophisticated but in a way I delight in the messy earnestness of the drawings.
And, overall, it has been a gift to pay attention to my friend's faces and from there, faces more generally. I think you really start to see someone anew when you spend long enough looking at the set of their jaws, the reserve of feeling in their eyes and the lines that form around the corner of their mouths when they smile. That, coupled with the estrangement from bodies that the pandemic has entailed, made the experience of drawing faces especially heady on reflection.
I like how complicated faces are. I like how they are so different than you'd expect them to be when you try to draw them. I like how a photo is a moment frozen. I like how a frozen in time picture of a friend far away can create a new little friend to carry around in your notebook. I like how trying new things as an adult is humbling, often mortifying, and keeps you young. I like how I learned how to self-soothe by staring at a picture, putting pencil to paper, looking again, erasing, trying again, and the momentary freedom from self that that offers. I like that I've drawn myself looking like a little old lady, like a little old frog and duplicated the stress present in my eyes as they peep out from above my mask and grasp my resigned expression. I like that these drawings have made my friends smile.
It's been a hard year and these little faces have definitely made it a little better.