I was the last participant in Felice Koenig’s participatory exhibition Drawing Together, organized by curator Claire Schneider of CS1 Projects, at Big Orbit in Buffalo. The day of my visit, on the afternoon before the show’s closing reception, a table stood in the middle of the room, partially obscured by long sheets of paper hanging from the ceiling. As I approached, Felice greeted me and explained the process: two sets of markers were stacked on the table, divided into warm and cool colors. She sat down across from me and placed a sheet of paper between us. Our plan: to draw together for ninety minutes, each beginning on our respective side of the page, but flipping it whenever we saw fit (later, I noticed that Felice let me take the lead on this). Felice asked me what kind of music I liked, and I said I was open to anything, curious about what she would suggest; she put on a mix that someone had given her years ago, a playlist that was mostly meditative and quiet.
I don’t remember how I started to draw – how I chose the first mark to put down on the page. After only a few minutes, though, both ends of the paper were layered with thick swirls of color. In fact, at first I thought we would surely finish long before our hour and a half was over. (In a few cases, other participants made two drawings: that night, at the reception, one man told me that he “knocked out” the first drawing very quickly, while the second required a much more extensive process to complete.) As time went on, though, I found that I wanted to dig deeper and deeper into the drawing; it became more and more engaging to me the more I worked on it, and by the end I actually found it difficult to give up. As we worked, I occasionally glanced around the room. The walls were lined with drawings that had been made over the course of the exhibition’s three-week run: squares of paper covered with brightly-colored stripes, swirls, and in some cases, symbols and figures.
As we drew, Koenig and I let our conversation meander over many topics: our paths to getting involved with art, the city of Buffalo and its relationship to the artists who make their home there, and many other issues. One of the most interesting aspects of the process was the way it affected my experience of time: though it was difficult to relax at first, after a while I forgot about the clock altogether. The first time we thought to check on our timing, over an hour had already passed. Felice’s drawing techniques didn’t exactly mirror mine, but she was evidently responsive to my energy, and fascinated by the unpredictable nature of my aimless, evolving gestures. After an extended period of making gentle, tentative marks on the page, I decided to switch to a more aggressive approach, digging into the paper with sweeping, sideways strokes and choosing darker, murky colors. Felice was delighted, telling me that some of the past drawings were too sweet, as people are fearful of offending her, or perhaps themselves. In that moment I was struck by the interesting conflation of the social and the aesthetic: every gesture I made felt like a comment to Felice as we worked together. We were in conversation, and it was very hard to separate my drawing technique from the partnership we were forming. I began to think that was the whole point of the exercise. Our mutual drawing was not just an excuse for us to connect with each other – it was the connection itself, manifest in spontaneous formal relationships on the page.
Koenig’s work walks an unusual line between abstraction and social practice; she is deeply invested in her relationships with the people she works with, but she cares as much about the formal manifestation of the work. When my drawing was finished, she invited me to choose its orientation on the wall. Intrigued by this openness, I suggested hanging it horizontally – but Felice insisted that though I could choose which end was up, the drawing had to be vertical, like all the others in the show. Looking around, I noticed that the regularity of the orientation and spacing created a clean, uniform exhibition – there may have been numerous participants, but it was not a free-for-all. The inclusion of past works by Koenig, completed independently rather than in collaboration with another artist, gave shape to her specific intention for this project: not merely interested in participation for its own sake, Koenig’s concerns extend to the profound connections artists can make with their audience. She describes many of her paintings as attempts to communicate a state of being that is partly psychological, partly spiritual and overwhelmingly physical: wonder, awe, and excitement are experiences she continually investigates and attempts to convey. Koenig’s use of humble materials in Drawing Together – drugstore markers and paper – underscores her commitment to the significance of the ephemeral, unpretentious gesture.
At the exhibition’s closing party, dozens of people stopped by to look at each other’s drawings. Since so many people were part of the show, it’s perhaps not surprising that the feeling of excitement in the room was porous and diffuse: the attention was not concentrated on Felice, but rather dispersed among the various contributors. Each person seemed to claim a curious sense of ownership of the whole project, through their addition of one part of it. This collective sense of accomplishment was all the more poignant because many of the participants did not identify as artists, but were rather supporters of the arts, or of Felice herself – she even convinced her dentist to participate. Koenig doesn’t seem particularly interested in expanding the notion of what an artist is – she is proud of her professional training and takes a rigorous approach to her teaching. Rather, she seems to want to make a broader claim about the importance of creativity to bind communities together. The simple pleasure of being present together and giving oneself over to the work of drawing is what creates each image in the show — they exist as singular objects, but also as testaments to a much longer process of connection between people.
– Nova Benway, Open Sessions Curator