Drawing Voices at the New York Public Library
Flash Rosenberg is a visual artist, photographer, performing artist, writer, and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. She often signs her name with exclamation points and cares for three pet turtles that she rescued from a soup pot in Chinatown. Her business card says “Attention Span for Hire,” and she once won a costume contest by dressing as a censored photograph. Given this wild inventiveness and incredible free spirit, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Rosenberg has earned one of the more unusual job titles that I’ve come across: artist-in-residence for LIVE at the New York Public Library.
The position evolved from a story she performed at the NYPL in a program sponsored by The Moth, an urban storytelling organization. Afterward, Paul Holdengräber, director of the LIVE from the NYPL series, was impressed enough with Rosenberg that he urged her to start attending the library’s events on a regular basis. “'Don’t worry,’” Rosenberg remembers Holdengräber as saying when he invited her to spectate. “’Some sort of mischief will emerge.’” And lo and behold, it did.
Rosenberg started showing up in the audience, just to listen. “All these lectures go on all over town. We have theater reviews and music reviews and art reviews,” Rosenberg said. “Who actually reviews all this talking that goes on?” It was an idea that began to take hold. One night in 2006, she was inspired to bring along a pad of paper. Throughout the course of the evening’s conversation between writer Adam Gopnik and Holdengräber, Rosenberg began drawing what the two men were discussing, and Conversation Portraits were born. “And then I just started drawing them all,” she said. Gradually, she was named artist-in-residence of the lecture series.
For two years, she stuck with the pad on the lap approach, sometimes giving the finished drawings to the speakers. But as she became increasingly interested in “drawing talking,” this method seemed limited. “There was somehow not enough for me,” she said. “It looked like gift wrap at the end. It was very busy. And the way I hear things, the way I absorb them, it’s not like one big mush, or else you wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.”
Who is Mark Twain? from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.
This was when she fortuitously discovered that the library owned a document camera, which could film, record, and project whatever was drawn in the moment. She began recording the drawings she made, which were then edited and turned into incredibly entertaining animations, which you can find above and below.
“[For] the early ones, I made a rule that I could only use what I drew on the spot,” Rosenberg said. “And then I thought, ‘Where’s the accuracy in that?’ When you listen to a talk, how does it affect you? You go home, you think about it some more…maybe you read the transcript or see an article or even read the book that you might have bought that night. There’s no crime in intercepting a reflection of what it is that happened that night with what actually happened that night.”
Her animations cover John Lithgow reading Mark Twain, an interview with Jay-Z as he discussed his book Decoded, and a conversation between Keith Richards and music journalist Anthony DeCurtis. “I can actually have a sense of how a conversation’s going by how excited I am to draw the next point,” Rosenberg said. “You really start to listen differently, or you understand what’s being said more deeply I think when you’re drawing it.”
A few years ago, she even created an animation for the Lower Eastside Girl’s Club Big Read program, which centered on the poetry of Emily Dickinson (see video above). “I was very taken with [the Girls’ Club’s] instinct to give an artist from another time a heartbeat for now,” Rosenberg said of her Big Read experience. “Not saying here’s some writer you need to read…but to make a portrait of an artist’s passion. To take some liberty to make a portrait of what the instinct to like felt like and came from and could be.”
There are still a whole host of topics that Rosenberg said she would love to draw. “It’s not about a particular person. I want to make portraits of sensations that we have…I would love to draw the first time you go out to dinner with somebody you’re really interested in. You’re not even sure why you’re interested in that person, but there’s something in you that knows you want to learn more.” She also has dreams of drawing the State of the Union from an emotional, scientific, or artistic point of view. Some of her dream subjects can be found within her own apartment. “I would love to interview my turtles to get a perception of what they think is going on. They’re urban turtles. What is their life like not in nature?”
Rosenberg credits much of her approach to live drawing to photography. Even while working as the NYPL’s artist-in-residence, she was photographing Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to fund the films she made (today her work is supported by Lexus’s L/Studio.com). Photographing an event “is like a day off from my own opinions,” she said. Just as she would closely watch a family and try and use photographs to reveal the relationships she observed, she uses her NYPL animations “to try and get behind the eyes of [the speaker], to seeing what they’re trying to say so [I] can help them reveal it.”
In the process of revealing, Rosenberg hopes to “accelerate an understanding of something that was expressed by one person and understood by another.” But her drawings don’t just facilitate comprehension: they’re often just outright funny. “There’s something comic about flattening what a person says into a drawing.” Rosenberg said. “And that comic gives somebody who might be watching this a little more freedom to enjoy themselves as they learn something.”