Sketching as a Question: Connecting the dots

In my USk Talk last weekend I spoke about my favorite subjects to sketch and of two recent sketching projects. The theme of the talk was Asking Questions Through Sketching. Here is the gist of it.

I love drawing. I’ll draw just about anything, but if I have to pick what I love sketching best, I’ll pick drawing the hustle and bustle of a city, drawing people and drawing in markets.

Golden domes, in Singapore and in Mexico City.
Mehendi ceremony, Indian wedding. Cambrian Symphony, Peter and the Wolf.
Farmer’s Market, California. Flower Market, India.

Drawing is a language, one in which you can ask questions, explore and discover. My project documenting the vintage signs of San Jose began as a simple quest to find deeper connection to San Jose, a city I now call home. In the signs I sketched and researched I found fascinating stories leading back beyond Silicon Valley to the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. I discovered architectural movements that are quintessentially American, and I learnt a lot about neon and the fine art of neon-bending.

I ran into more questions than answers: Why does history matter? What do we lose when we lose our small stories: those of a collective of small businesses and mom and pop stores? What happens when all that gets preserved is grand monuments and public buildings? How do we balance preservation and development?

My vintage signs project grew into a website, a book and a show at History San Jose.

One of the most valuable things that came out it were the people whose paths crossed my life like Heather David, a local history expert (among many other things) and an incredibly generous human being I learnt a lot from. Equally important were the men and women I chatted with as I sat on sidewalks and in parking lots, sketching these signs. Often homeless and panhandling near where I was sketching, they told me their stories as I sketched.

The high rate of homelessness and poverty in San Jose is a hugely sad phenomena. I had been reading about it to try and understand it. But facts, figures, reports, and data, while all very useful, didn’t put a face to the issue for me. The articles I was reading broke down poverty by race and region, they looked at addiction, education and rent in the city. But the stories I was hearing on the streets told a different story. One of resilience and of hope, one with a human face.

And that led me to think: What if I drew and shared the faces and stories of homelessness and recovery? Would a different picture emerge from this reportage collection?

And this led me to my next project, Faces of Recovery, a project in progress.

The continuing need for social distancing might have interrupted this project, but I will come back to it as soon as I can.

Through my talk, I hope to inspire more sketchers to think of sketching as a language and to use it to look beyond their own lives. To ask questions and seek out answers and explorations that they can share. Because the language of drawing has the power to tell stories in a universal and very human way.


Listen to the whole USk Talk here. It includes a fantastic first half with USk founder Gabi Campanario, who shares stories of his methodology and explorations as a reporter for the Seattle Times.

About Suhita Shirodkar

obsessive-sketcher. graphic designer.
This entry was posted in Close to home, Education, Faces Of Recovery, people, Portrait, reportage, san jose, Silicon Valley, teaching and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Sketching as a Question: Connecting the dots

  1. jankto says:

    Your Faces of Recovery project is deeply moving. It’s one that I can visit over and over. I look forward to the time when you can continue to document the resilience and hope of the people you meet there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Susan Wilson says:

    Suhita, I’ve always admired how generously you use your drawing. Your “What If’ is just another example. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Susan, you’re always here to say a kind word and to provide encouragement. I miss sketching and painting on location: I wonder if some socially distanced sketching is a possibility? Lets talk!


  3. This is a beautiful project! How wonderful to share the voices of those who are so often judged or ignored. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. KATE BARBER says:

    These recovery stories are so sad, but with very hopeful endings. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice paintings of India, and your faces of recovery. I really like some of your signs.

    Liked by 1 person

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