Our guest columnist Annie Peyton is writing from Thailand on a 2016-17 Henry Luce Scholarship. The Luce Scholars Program is a nationally competitive fellowship program that provides an individualized professional placement in Asia for 15-18 young American professionals each year.
By Annie Peyton
During my study abroad year in Denmark, I took a watercolor sketching class and have in the remaining years intermittently used my watercolor set. I packed my paint, sketchbook, pens, and brushes into the pile of hot-weather clothing for my year in Thailand with the idea that this fellowship was an opportunity to reignite a long-lost hobby. Before leaving, I had vague ideas and aspirations about connecting with the Thai community during my Luce year—fellowships offer an opportunity to explore connections with people and place in new ways, by both being pro-active and following the unexpected. In this fellowship year, sketching is the latter.
Most of my hobbies are solitary—reading, swimming, drawing—but while looking online for art supply stores in Bangkok, I came across a surprisingly social outlet: an urban sketching club. The next “meeting” was a few days later in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which is how I found myself, one Sunday morning, sitting cross-legged on a sidewalk with my sketchbook and watercolor set on my lap, surrounded on both sides by a line of Thai sketching enthusiasts drawing the streetscape. The 20-something-to-70-something group was friendly, welcoming, and intimidatingly talented. Several people looked through my sketchbook, and if they noticed its mediocrity, they were kind enough not to say. After a few hours, we laid out our notebooks on the sidewalk, dozens of sketches out for viewing.
Participating in Bangkok Sketchers has motivated me to sketch more during my travels and daily life in Bangkok. Many of the group’s member draw each day; I saw in their sketchbooks beautifully rendered bookstores, bowl of noodles, and apartment interiors, scenes of everyday life. I am not that dedicated, but I now have a several pages from time spent in Thailand and elsewhere to look back on.
Sketching helps me to experience place in a different way. When visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I spent an hour sketching a view from the top of the temple. (It helps, in these cases, to have patient travel friends and warm weather.) I noticed far more detail of the intricate architecture and landscape than I would have by merely looking at or photographing the view. The analog, slow-paced way of observing my surroundings helps me see proportion, scale, detail, material, and color in a deeper and more intimate way. As someone involved with the design of the built environment, this process of observing can be more rewarding than the result.
One recent weekend I asked a sketching club acquaintance to meet, thinking we would go somewhere to draw. We instead wandered Bangkok for several hours: knowing my architecture interest, he had picked out some old buildings for us to visit, ones that I had either seen only from a ferry in passing or didn’t know existed. Eventually, we found a rooftop terrace with a view of the Chao Phraya River and sat in silence for hours, drawing riverside temples and the condominiums beyond. I’m more unabashed here in my social directness—“We barely know each other, but do you want to draw together?”—and afternoons like those can be the result. I’ve learned that even activities that I thought wouldn’t help me interact with my new community can, in fact, be gateways to connection.
Sketching distills for me the Luce Scholars ethos of learning from Asia and living “the slow life” into a medium that I can work with. I don’t produce anything near the level of my fellow sketchers, but I’m okay with that—these are drawings for me, records of times when I’ve allowed myself to slow down and really see places.
Annie Peyton is an architectural designer and avid urbanist. She is a 2016-2017 Luce Scholar in Thailand, and was a 2014-2015 Global Health Corps Fellow in Rwanda placed with architecture firm MASS Design Group. Annie studied architecture at Tulane University.
Photos by Annie Peyton, 2017
© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved