Drawn by Hand

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

– Pablo Picasso

In the city of Bowie, at a local coffee shop, an elderly man with a trembling gait moves hesitantly throughout the dining room. His all black outfit accentuated with black gloves and a black beret separates him from the crowd of customers.  Clinched between a forearm and his chest is a handmade scrapbook which he claims tells the story of his life. He identifies himself as “The Painter of America” and invites the inquisitive or doubtful stranger into his unlikely gallery.

For almost 80 years, Sy Mohr had rendered on canvas, wood and paper a vast collection of paintings that chronicle moments of his life in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.  The story spans from the great depression to the present day.  Every painting is a vibrant interpretation of his experiences and as we unravel the meaning behind the art, we also meet the man.  We learn about his return from the Second World War and his ardent desire for peace amongst the nations. We meet his late wife of 57 years and discover his deep fondness for his family. We travel with him across the United States and take exotic excursions to places like Mexico, Canada, Haiti, Scotland, Ireland, Israel and South Africa.  Yet, in spite of having borne witness to unabashed racism, bigotry, and the steel gray of poverty, Sy recreates his journeys and encounters with a smiling sunshine, an undeniable brush of joy, and a contagious love and acceptance of people. Many of his colorful mural size depictions of people, culture and activities can fill an entire wall. However, art has not made a wealthy man of Sy; he currently lives only on Social Security. Almost all of his work, close to 300 paintings and drawings, languish on tables and rest idly against the walls of his house, with some locked away in a shed out back like a treasure hidden in a cavern.

Now, at the age of 90, Sy is determined to figure out what will happen to the paintings that tragically still lie in his possession after his death.  After a debilitating stroke and the loss of his wife, he currently lives at home with his eccentric girlfriend/caretaker and rarely sees his children.  Sy struggles to read and write and suffers from hearing loss. Consequently, he faces great difficulty in advertising his work to potential art curators and dealers.  Nonetheless, his grief and the fragments of his stroke could not keep him from drawing and painting.

More than just an intimate tale about an artist’s emotional and intellectual attitude toward the always changing times of his life, this documentary explores the very nature of drawing, something we can all remember doing as a child but have since left behind, or have we?  We doodle during conversations, lectures and meetings; we draw maps to explore what was once unknown, and some even turn their bodies into canvases by tattooing pictures and messages.  This documentary intertwines personal, philosophical and scientific commentary about the experience of drawing, its relationship with human physiology and psychology. And through the story of one man’s enduring passion, we travel the intricate path to answering the question of why we draw.

Director’s Notes

We human beings are all born artists. From childhood we draw as an affirmation to ourselves of that which is significant, to escape the harsh or mundane reality. Drawing is always a personal expression of that which appeals to us, whether because we deem it beautiful or tantalizingly horrific. There is no neutrality when it comes to drawing or to art in general. If it provokes nothing in you, it isn’t art. We begin to draw as children because we come hardwired with the need to make discriminations, to distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, important and unimportant. When we come to a conclusion on a matter we must express it either to seek validation or to persuade someone else to adopt our line of thinking. The reason most of us stop drawing is because those expressions of our judgments fall on deaf ears, so to speak, and when people stop listening, most people stop talking. Not so for Sy Mohr.