Opinion  December 3, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

Exploring the Curious Doodles of Famous Non-Artists

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, page 64.

Although this article was conceived to be and advertises itself as one that explores artwork made by non-artists, it feels important to discuss the failings of the term “non-artist” before we get started. 

Can anyone who makes art truly be called a non-artist? I initially thought no, that the very act of making art automatically makes you an artist and that, perhaps, it would be more accurate to describe these individuals as people who did not become famous for their art. 

Such a description feels accurate for writers like Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky and Sylvia Plath—the first so-called non-artists that we will examine.

Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpt of the manuscript for Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel Demons, 1870-71.

Dostoevsky was a Russian writer who penned novels, essays, and short stories. Perhaps best known for Crime and Punishment, the author also doodled prolifically in his manuscripts. Scholars remain deeply fascinated with Dostoevsky’s doodles. While the sketches often appear sporadically and to be of random subject matter, some posit the doodles mirror a common feature of Dostoevsky’s narratives—polyphony, which, in literature, refers to the inclusion of several points of view and voices.

Sylvia Plath, best-known as a poet and author, not only doodled in her diaries but also created paintings and collages that displayed a keen understanding of visual media. Plath frequently cited art as her most profound source of inspiration through her life. And yet, her art has never been as popular as her writing. That said, there have been several posthumous publications of her drawings and paintings. And, in 2017, the National Portrait Gallery held an exhibition of her work entitled, One Life: Sylvia Plath.

Even though Dostoevsky’s drawings feel like a byproduct of his writing process and Plath’s more like an independent form of expression, both still seem linked to an abundance of creativity and the works generated feel like art. At this point, in the research for this article, it seemed clear to me that people who were so filled with creativity and ideas that they turned to visual expression as a hobby, habit, or in genuine pursuit of mastery deserved to be called artists. But then I took a look at the doodles of President John F. Kennedy.

JFK’s notes and his doodles on them from meetings and conferences during the Cuban Missile Crisis are deeply fascinating and, in my opinion, directly contradict the notion I had formed that anyone who doodles is an artist.

Perhaps this impression is irrevocably linked to my knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the tension that must have enveloped Kennedy through its proceedings. Even so, I can’t shake the notion that these doodles have more in common with fidget toys than works of art. They feel like mindless tools for concentration rather than part of a considered, even if casual, form of expression.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, page 30.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, detail of page 30.

 

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, page 74.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, detail of page 74.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, page 74.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Countries. Cuba: Conference notes and doodles, 1962: October-December, detail of page 49.

Then again, isn’t self-expression via art often triggered by an overwhelming wave of emotions and thoughts? How many artists create works in order to cope with their struggles? Perhaps JFK was doing that.

I am left believing that there are two kinds of doodles, conscious and unconscious. Interestingly, I myself am a practicing artist and have realized I engage in both types of doodling. And sure, one happens when I’m on the phone and the other, when I’m in a more focused, creative state. There seems to be a universality of the former. Maybe it’s more accessible.

As for whether or not to call someone an artist, perhaps it is best, as in many areas of life, to kindly follow the labels people give themselves.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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