by Bob Bahr
It would be easy to miss Andy Wei’s entry in the Small Paintings competition at this year’s SKB Dubois workshop. It was an innocuous little black Moleskine notebook sitting on a sculpture stand upstairs, sharing space with a wonderful sculpture of a kangaroo rat that won the Headwaters Purchase Award.
Some undoubtedly were curious and picked it up, but after the sketchbook earned Wei the Rising Star Award, everyone had a look. Inside the pages were a handful of portraits, exquisitely rendered. We thought the sketchbook deserved a closer look.
Wei explained that the images were drawn from the Humans of New York website, which presents photographic portraits of people in New York along with a bit of their story. Wei executed the portraits using an inexpensive Bic ballpoint pen—no smudging, no erasing. The cheaper ballpoint pens don’t release a lot of ink, so with a light touch, Wei can just scumble a bit of ink on the page for quartertones. By restating areas, he can make some parts darker.
“I started following Humans of New York back in 2014,” says Wei. “I like the sense of legitimacy of the stories. They are real stories about people. They don’t discriminate about anything. They just present their perspective. And in the process, they eradicate ignorance.”
One might think that Wei would choose which portrait to render based on its visual interest, but the 17-year-old scholarship attendee says he chooses pieces based on the appeal of the written story. On the page with the portrait, Wei transcribes a key quote from the featured human. The order in which he draws them is based on how they will flow in sequence. “I try to have a variety of compositions,” says Wei. “If there is a story that I like but the previous face has the same view, I choose another one. I have an archive of saved stories that I like and I find the most logical and aesthetic order to put them in.”
The portraits on the Humans of New York website are in color, but Wei is working in monochrome. This bothers him not in the least. “I use the sketchbook to practice my sense of value,” says Wei. “With values, you learn more; it expands your spectrum of colors that you can use—you can use whatever is compatible. I don’t think it takes away anything to have them monochromatic.”
The Texas artist says it takes him about an hour to do each drawing—two hours at the most. He plans to fill the entire sketchbook by June, when he graduates from high school. And then he will give this Moleskine of treasures to his art teacher, Fahmi Khan. “She gave me the sketchbook, so I wanted a way to give back to her,” Wei says. “It’s like, ‘This is what you invested in me, and I want to give back more.'”
There’s a theme developing. Wei is doing these portraits to make someone feel good. This project makes him feel good.
“I usually read Humans of New York when I am feeling down,” says Wei. “It helps you see the broader perspective. When you read their stories, you realize that what you are facing is not the biggest crisis. You can make it through, as they did. But it’s also about moving away from ignorance. It made me realize no matter what age, gender, race, or socioeconomic background, we all face the same struggles in life.” Ω