Drawing a carabao: creative practice and the malleability of memory

I haven’t had much studio time these past few weeks and when that happens, I feel unsettled. My daughter has been doing a lot drawings in her sketchbook and looking through her sketchbook inspired me one night to grab my journal and draw something. I was just itching to make something. Anything! But what? For some reason it came to me to draw a carabao. A carabao is a Filipino water buffalo, which I have never seen in person, but the carabao is a central figure in a family story. My father would tell us a story about the carabao in the region he grew up in. In my memory, the story goes that there was a carabao walking in the water and my dad was up in a tree and he decided to be like Tarzan and jump from a tree and land on the water buffalo’s back. The carabao didn’t take too kindly to that, and he was thrown off and he broke a bone. With that story in mind, I looked up a photo of a carabao that I found endearing and started drawing it in my journal.

I always lose myself in the drawing process. I think it comes from that hyper focus of looking and trying to transfer what I see to my hand and pencil and paper. Everything outside of that just fades away for that time. I started the drawing at 9:30 pm and I just intended to work on it for a little bit, but then all of a sudden it was past midnight and I really had to go to bed. It wasn’t done, but I had to get up early the next day.

I wasn’t able to return to the drawing for another day or two and I was able to finish it fairly quickly. Although honestly it always seems like a drawing can continue endlessly. My daughter has been doing these meticulous pencil drawing portraits in her sketchbook and then using a bright posca marker for the background, and I love the contrast. So I copied her!

Memory is a funny thing though. I asked my oldest sister about the carabao story and she had a different version. She said that my father was riding on the carabao with his father, my Lolo. My grandfather said to him, you need to learn how to swim, and picked him up and dropped him into the water. Upon which my dad learned to swim. My first reaction was, wait, what about the Tarzan part of the story? Then my second reaction was, geez, that’s a terrible way to learn how to swim!

I asked my mom and she reinforced my sister’s version and said she didn’t remember my version. Now I’m wondering if I made up the Tarzan story! My husband suggested that maybe my dad gave different versions of the story depending on who he was talking to. I have one more sister to ask and see what she remembers.

My father passed away about 13 years ago. Memories fade and memory is malleable. Drawing this carabao made me feel close to my dad in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Also it made me curious about the world that my father came from and left to make his life here in the states and wonder if I’ll ever make it to my ancestral roots on my paternal side. Would it feel familiar? Would I stand on the shores of the South China Sea and look out on the water that generations before me stood on and feel a kinship? I wonder if I will ever find out.

I do love how the creative practice can help us tap into things of our known and things that are of our unknown. It’s a path I love to wander down.

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