On Considering the Pencil, No Erasing Allowed

written by Anne Abouchar

I recently visited the excellent University of Georgia’s art museum, in Athens, Georgia, USA (not Greece), to see a small but powerful exhibition of the prose and poetry responses of incarcerated women, including those in immigration detention centres, to pieces in the collection. One woman wrote of the memory of her grandfather teaching drawing, encouraging his students to use their pencils freely, but with one stipulation. ‘I can remember my grandfather saying, ‘No erasers in my classroom. You can go over it as many times, but NO ERASING!’ What would it mean if we forbade erasing, in the metaphorical sense.  If we allowed people to go over themselves, their situations, their ideas, their lives as many times as they liked, to reinvent, to reconsider, but allowed no erasing. 


Erasure isn’t to ignore, it removes the line, thought, person all together. When we erase something, we can claim it isn’t there, never was there, doesn’t exist. And if something doesn’t exist, we don’t have to do anything about it, because, well, it isn’t there. 

We live in a world of ‘nos’, no protesting, no trespassing and more recently, no small boats. This last one is a particularly pointed effort at erasure. If you aren’t here, on your way here, we don’t have to consider you. We don’t have to consider the reasons you are on these boats, we don’t have to consider the conditions of the journeys, and we certainly don’t have to consider a humanitarian response. Because we have erased you from our consideration. 

Rachel Whiteread’s House, made of pencils, is the simplest of house outline. Yet for millions of people in the world, there is no house or dwelling, simple or otherwise.  Whether through human or natural disaster, war, drought, flood, earthquake, systemic corruption (the list goes on) a safe place to live is non-existent.  Her work asks us to consider the pencil as the building material for a house. I asked a young architect friend of mine recently if he still uses a pencil when starting to design a building or was everything done on computer now. He answered emphatically that everything still starts with a pencil on a piece of paper. A hand, holding a pencil, moving across paper. A human touch, a human connection. 

Graphite was discovered in the side of a mountain near Keswick, Cumbria in about 1500. By the second half of the 16th century locals were creating early versions of the pencil for artists around the world, particularly those in Northern Europe. In 1832, the first modern pencil was developed in the first pencil making factory, in Keswick. At its height, in the mid-19th century, the area boasted 4 pencil making factories. Today, only the Cumberland Pencil Company remains, and since the late 1930s, specialises in high quality coloured pencils, producing over 14 million a year. Yet, Keswick, snuggled between Skiddaw Mountain and Derwentwater Lake, remains better known for the nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle and its picturesque landscape, so inspiring to the Romantic poets, particularly Coleridge and Wordsworth.  For me there is a connection between poetry and the pencil; I cannot read one without the other.  I would never dream of writing in a book, even a textbook, yet I cannot read a collection of poetry, and I read a lot of poetry, without a pencil in my hand. There is something about the close collection of words, the shortcut to emotion and meaning and truth that compels me to underline and star and add exclamation marks or interjections on the page, but only in pencil. It is not because I am afraid of ink permanence, rather I want these reactions to be coupled with that unique sound of graphite on paper. That soft scratch that says, I am here. Here in the moment, reacting, responding, considering…

In the fantastically Victorian pamphlet, written in 1853, I picked up at the pencil museum (of course there is a pencil museum in Keswick and of course I have been there) the unknown author describes the pencil making process in the most romantic, awe struck turns of phrase. When the pencils are complete, he imagines the destinations of these bundles of wood and graphite ‘one…to the studio of an artist, another to the boudoir of a lady, and a third may embody the rising genius of a youthful prodigy.’  Fanciful as these notions may be, there is something satisfying in knowing that an object so simple can, in fact, go on to help achieve great things. (ok, less sure about what the lady in the boudoir is doing with her bundle of pencils, maybe writing or responding to poetry!). And, of course, these early pencils did not have erasers on their ends. 

What if we could all turn ourselves into pencils, if only briefly. We could create, inspire, amuse, or even just cover a paper with angry scribbles until the fury had passed. We could shade, highlight, blend, adjust, modify, correct, readjust, reline, rethink, reconsider. Consider and reconsider. Again and again, the world and our place in it. But no erasing, please. 


Anne Abouchar is a London based arts writer and long time friend of Migrate Art