Barbeques are the Survivors

A lot of mobile homes burned in the Tubbs fire last month. And some next door did not. One tries to imagine the fire burning through one property and not crossing the street to burn another. What stopped it at that point? These are the questions that run through your mind when you look at the burn.

One thing you see lots of is barbeques standing intact among the rubble. They are the survivors of the firestorm. They look like you could light them up and grill a steak on them as is. By the end of the summer season I know our barbeque doesn’t really look so different from the ones I’ve seen in the burned neighborhoods. I guess their “species” already had lots of experience with fires and heat, so they took the Tubbs Fire in their stride.

barbequepen and watercolor and gouache in Stillman + Birn 9 X 12″ gray toned sketchbook

 

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A Walk Down Polk St.

Last Tuesday I met my friend Tania at her apartment next to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco to launch a day-long exploration of the city with a meandering walk down Polk Street from the Bay (at the top) to Market Street (at the bottom). I was armed with my sketcher’s gear and ready to plunk down and start moving the pen at any opportunity. She travels light with her iPhone in her pocket with its camera and built-in photo and voice editing, etc. We were both after stories and people to inhabit them and had no agenda beyond that.

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ink and watercolor in 9 X 12″ Canson Mix Media sketchbook (spiral bound)

The day was perfect for this kind of strolling with sunny sweater weather and no wind, a rare treat in S.F.  A lifelong resident of S.F., Tania was already sharing her stories of the various neighborhoods we passed through. Of course she knew where to get the perfect cup of coffee to start our day at Saint Frank Coffee in “Polk Gulch” right below Russian Hill.We sat in the window so I could capture some of the city scene along with the coffee drinkers and their dogs.

While I sketched, Tania read me one of the spell binding autobiographical stories/travel sagas she’s working on. Check out her blog where she publishes some of her stories. Her book Mother Tongue  a Saga of Three Generations of Balkan Woman, will be coming out in March.

As we were leaving Tania noticed that there were only men in the coffee shop all lined up in every seat and at work on their computers. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask them what they did to scare away all the women. Smiles broke out on all the faces as we left, something that tends to happen a lot on these excursions with Tania.

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Our walk continued with brief stops to check out the kind of unusual storefront and businesses one finds on S.F. streets. Some of them left us scratching out heads. I couldn’t resist the road crew with their colorful orange vests and plopped down on the sidewalk to sketch the work-people (that’s a woman holding the sign) while they ate their lunch. Behind me was MCC, a community center for “Diverse Beliefs, Common Values. A Home for Queer Spirituality”. Five inches in front of me was rushing midday traffic which vibrated the ground and caused me to blink madly to see the construction scene. That’s urban sketching for you!

After lunch we proceeded through the Tenderloin where homelessness and drug addiction is abundantly visible. It wasn’t an area where either of us was prepared to stop.

Arriving at the magnificent Civic Center Plaza and City Hall, Tania said “Let’s go inside.”

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I would have been happy to sketch the magnificent interior of City Hall with its classical, ornate elegance for days! But it also turned out to be a feast of elegance of the human sort with a steady stream of wedding couples, photographers capturing romantic poses while bridesmaids arranged the gauzy white trains.

As I sat down against the wall, this elegant couple in matching attire were posing for their engagement photo shoot (hence not white). I can only imagine what the wedding attire will be! (Note Tania with her iPhone camera)

The photographer told us that on any weekday you would find 25-50 weddings at City Hall and over 100 on weekends. But we found that number to be low because we saw at least 20 couples in the hour or so we were there!

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By the time the couple had changed outfits and come back for more pictures on the marble staircase, Tania had met them and urged me to show the sketch which had a bit of color on it. Aman held it up and wanted their picture taken with it.

We left City Hall with a bit of the glamor and romance and definitely sweetness of that day still clinging to us. You can’t help but feel hopeful for this couple as they launch into married life!

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It was time to soak up some sun in the Plaza and we were delighted by the knitted giraffes encasing some of the trees. Directly ahead where the orange cones were pointing was Market Street and a building with the word TRUTH drawing us toward it next.

As we neared Market Street we met some friendly “neighborhood embassadors”, people from the Hunter’s Point project who we gathered were there to help out with the homeless population as well as to help keep the public areas properly maintained. They had great pride in the fact that within moments a mobile soup kitchen would be set up and they would be helping to serve hot meals to those in need.

We watched as a van drove up and a nun was helped to unload deliscious smelling pots of food and boxes of bagels and salad. A tent and tables were quickly erected and people started lining up. The “embassadors” told us it would be OK for me to sit and sketch.

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And so, sitting on the cement wall with people eating steaming hot food on either side, I sketched as Tania listened to a woman with a heart breaking tale and the pigeons and gulls swooped in and out, scavenging what they could.

There’s a kind of alchemy that happens sometimes with this kind of sketching where you can begin to simultaneously experience not just the inside of your own space but that of others. I could feel the caring and enthusiasm of the servers, the relief and satisfaction of the diners all mixed in with my own gratitude for being there in those moments.

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Tania suggested a tram to get us back uptown where we could have dinner near her apartment. We could have taken a regular city bus or trolley or cable car, but the trams in S.F. have a special charm and claim to fame. As other cities in the U.S. were discontinuing electric cable methods of transportation in favor of buses, S.F. decided to continue, and to this day has a fleet of historic trams from cities all over the country. So we hopped on the Kansas City Tram for our rush hour ride and I got in my last sketches of the day.

Bijan Stefan writes In Praise of the Flaneur in the Paris Review, “The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart. ”  I think it’s safe to say that we were . . .last Tuesday. . . walking Polk St. . . for that day at least . . .embodying a modern version of the  “flaneur”. Perhaps you have a bit of flaneur in you too?

Visiting the Burn

The roads through neighborhoods burned in last month’s devastating fires are finally open again. Over 5100 homes burned and an additional 1000 buildings. This past week I was drawn to take a better look, by a complex mixture of compassion, curiosity and my own need to heal in the way that comes easiest for me, through art making.

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pen, watercolor, gouache in 9 X 12″ Stillman + Birn Nova Series Grey toned sketchbook

In the Mark West Springs area: rubber melted off tires, steel girders collapsed/bent,  while on the same property trees retaining full foliage.  Across the street roses blooming, and farther down, beautiful homes untouched by the flames. But that night of October 8 the fire didn’t stop there. It twirled like a Dervish and raced on for miles. In the bright light of a sunlit day, there was no sense to make of its crazy drunken path.

Yet here I sat on a lovely fall day, listening to the Mariachi music and mellow voices of the workers nearby. Pink ribbons flapped in the breeze on mailboxes indicating that a hazardous waste inspection had been done.

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Metal, cement, bricks, rocks, some glass and ceramic tiles and statuary remain, though not always in the original place. In these neighborhoods there are so many stairs to nowhere now. And this goddess arising from the shell, having also risen from the fire, seemed full of despair in one moment. . .and full of hope in the next. The metal sculpture on the right (once a heater perhaps?) tilted empathically at the same angle as the goddess. So much beauty in all this loss, shining paradoxically through the sadness.

roundbarn The Round Barn had stood on the hillside in Santa Rosa for 119 years before it burned in the Tubbs fire. I wanted to see it, and pay homage with a sketch, but although we knew where it was supposed to be, we couldn’t find it. On the blackened hillside above Mendocino Avenue leaned a small, leafless tree. I assumed at first that because the Barn was such a beloved landmark, the usual fire debris had already been trucked out.

But as we caught sight of the stone pilings, arranged in a circular fashion below, we realized we had reached the spot. Piles of rusty nails and bolts littered the ashy ground and green shoots of grass, bright and vibrant were already beginning to lend a healthy glow to the hillside.  Such was the contrast to the mountain of gray debris left behind by the fire that consumed the K-Mart and others businesses.

A walk on the burnt hillside restored my vision of nature as flexible, yielding to disaster, bending and springing back so ardently on this hillside meadow where an old wooden barn burned to the ground. Who knows what flowers will decorate the hillside this winter and spring?

It was time to choose which of the fire art I would render in my sketch. A few sheets of metal curled up in sculptural beauty, kissed with colors of flame and oxidation? The big oak which split in two in the fire, making a kaleidoscope of sky holes in the trunk and a stretch of trunk curling down to meet the ground and opening up future homes for many creatures? I chose the bench to sketch, for the story it told of the fire’s unique artistry.

Howl-O-Ween and Day of the Dead

The Plaza in Healdsburg, CA was a busy costumed place last weekend with canine Halloween fashions on Saturday and Day of the Dead celebrations on Sunday. Couldn’t resist showing up to sketch at both events.

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The Howl-o-ween Dog Parade was a benefit for the Sonoma Humane Society charity veterinary services for fire victims. It was less a parade and more a costume judging contest with lots of ribboned and tutu-ed and hatted dogs in costumes. Also kids and families milling around – in constant motion of course. I got frustrated enough trying to find a subject to sketch and finally just put pen to paper to catch whatever I could!

howlathon3At home later I had fun doing some quick sketches from my pics. Poor Doggie Parton. Her wig and hat kept smooshing her ears and slipping off her head, and  I imagine that tutu was a bit scratchy too.

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And the Unicorn pooch was clearly feeling a bit burdened by his white swaddling and extra set of ears. But hey! the event raised money for their less fortunate canine counterparts who lost their homes in the fire, so they were doing their part.

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The Howl-0-Ween event was over quickly and we stopped at Martin Ray Winery on the way back and sketched chickens. Not only does Martin Ray have fabulous wines and wine tasting room but exquisite gardens and even free range chickens that come right up to you begging for a treat. Trick or treat! The sign on the bar reads, “We don’t coop. Watch for poop!”

We had no seed treats for the cluckers, but it did seem like they might have an interest in painting with us. Those beaks got quite close to the wet paint. Be assured though, that the sketch in the following picture is the work of Becky, not our hen hosts.

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On Sunday two streets were closed off around the Healdsburg Plaza for a day of celebrating the Dia de los Muertos. diadelosmuertos2

These days every business, every store front, every organization, and every event is an opportunity to thank the First Responders who confronted the firestorm head on, saving lives and properties, even as so many were lost. So on this day of remembrance, a whole block was given over to the firemen and their life saving equipment.

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The theme was “An Event of the Heart”. I had to blink to remind myself that I was in Healdsburg and not in the heart of Mexico! Music, dancing, altars honoring the dead and food. Colorful, spicy, and loud. A family affair for all ages, welcoming us gringos as well. A lovely lady was feeding the incense offering to the ancestors.

Some Advise about Monsters

Happy Halloween and El Dia de los Muertos! With such thick post-fire angst in our communities here in Sonoma County, it’s been a good time to let off steam, indulge in gallows humor and make playful art.  I decided to launch the next Muse Group yesterday with monster ink-drips a la Stefan Bucher the Daily Monster creator. Check out his fun website to see the technique.

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The sound effect that goes with this monster is a loud, wet raspberry thwit! This guy suffers no fools and we love him for it!

MuseHalloween-2The spider webs and tarantulas invaded the studio when they got wind of the lesson plans.

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They spun their webs all over the tables and even got into the paintings! And then, for some of us they even got into the words!

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Pay attention you may notice. It doesn’t have to be Halloween for one to wear a mask. It doesn’t have to be October 31st for one to become a monster. Our daily masks and monsters love to play to an audience. Most of the time no one notices or cares much, except when they get out of hand and start shouting or moaning or generally demanding too much. Therein lies the danger!

So, don your mask and take your monster out for a walk every so often (like Halloween!). Let it strut and boo and hiss, all in good fun. Then you can keep your friends.

Fire Flow

firepourDemo for Monday Muse Group: acrylic, Pouring Medium, collage (paper, netting, “medallion skins”)

Such beauty, red, color of sunset, of ripe apples, of rosy cheeks and

Color of flames blowing this way, color of monster chewing up homes, melting down metals and tossing cars like those evil midwestern twisters.

And that Hollywood Oscars-night glow on my horizon. Dumbfounding.

A couple of days after the Tubbs fire (since anointed as the most destructive fire in California’s history) began and while it was still raging on, I tried painting the horizon in flames in the night sky as I viewed it from our living room window on that night of October 8. It didn’t work. There was no way to paint it “on purpose” because this fire was the essence of random. Add to that rampant, unconstrained and unpredictable.

Those same adjectives could be used for acrylic pouring medium which is formulated to make acrylic paints flow and level out and keep moving as you tip and turn the paper, and to keep moving until they dry, which takes a while. Pouring Medium is the name for the Liquitex brand, but Golden has their own version called GAC 800. Mix a few drops of fluid acrylic paint with the medium and you’re ready to pour, either onto your painting surface (paper here) or onto plastic in order to make “skins”, or as I like to call the more circular pools, “medallions”. Here are some of the other medallions I made.

medallionsWhen they’re dry, after a day or so, you peel them up and use them as collage pieces. The one on the lower left was made by marbling with a stick and tipping the surface. The others were made on a level surface with pouring and dropping the paint, all mixed with pouring medium.

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These involved more tipping of the surface to cause more random occurrences as in the painting at the top. You never know what’s going to happen. . . like that fire.

I’ll be teaching “medallions” and other mixed media techniques in the upcoming workshop. Contact me if you’re interested!

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Rescue and Now Restoration Beginnings

Our Sonoma County fires have reached nearly total containment now I think (hope!) and most of the neighborhoods that burned have been opened up for the owners to begin the process of sifting through the rubble for salvageable belongings. The air is clear and we have begun to venture out into Santa Rosa to see the damage and try to get our minds and hearts around the loss of property and so much more. Last week we walked the Sonoma County Fairgrounds where the evacuation center and fire rescue headquarters have completely taken over the grounds.

firerescueheadquarters2We walked through Grace Pavilion where evacuees were resting on cots and talking to counselors and FEMA and insurance reps and other volunteer helpers.  We sketched the soldiers and the tables with free towels and flip flops and mobile TV center and mobile laundry and mobile cafe.  We looked through the fence to see the fire trucks and a vast tent city erected for first responders,  an astonishing command center for fire rescue in Sonoma County.

And today we ventured out to familiar settings in Santa Rosa, now less familiar except as seen in news articles for the past two weeks as charred remains.

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At Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Restoration Services vans and crews were everywhere restoring landscape around the performing arts center.  The building next door on the east side is now a burned out shell which had housed the Anova Center for Education. A hazmat team was cleaning and removing loose debris, and we spoke to two of the school staff in the parking lot. Anova Center for Education is a K-12 school and services for children with autism and learning differences. School is temporarily suspended while they await portable classrooms which will be erected in the parking lot until their building can be rebuilt.

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There’s a cruel irony to the pure white fire hydrant right outside the burnt out shell of a building. If it had feelings it would surely be unhappy that it couldn’t fulfill its one mission in life. Or perhaps I’m just projecting my survivor’s guilt onto it.