urban sketchers

Beauty among the ashes

Exploring yet another burned out neighborhood in the path of the October 8 Tubbs fire I drove out Mark West Springs road. While walking down a street of flattened homes this antique car rose out of the ashes and stared at me like a giant beetle. The squashed garbage cans seemed to be having a dialogue with it, so I sat down to listen to what they had to say about the event.

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pen, watercolor and gouache in 9 X 12″ Stillman + Birn toned Nova series sketchbook

The constant drone and thunking of the bulldozer down the street and conversation of workers kept me company while I followed the lines with my eyes, unencumbered by knowledge of familiar shapes I’d drawn before. Squashed circles and wavy/sharp edges and broken pieces set the brain free to engage in a pure effort of drawing as it should be, without distractions of the mind.

A couple of workman stopped by to ask me if I had lost my house here. People are always ready to offer condolences. A supervisor with a company on contract with FEMA or OSHA or, I wasn’t quite clear, engaged me in conversation. He had come from Miami, where he lives.

“I was there in the middle of the hurricane destruction,” he said, “and it looked a lot like this does” waving his hand over the flattened neighborhood they were clearing.

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Continuing up Mark West Springs way and out Reibli road and other country lanes, I traced more of the fire destruction and found a peaceful spot by the side of the road. It was a typical scene with layered colors of alternating lush vibrancy and dark, burned areas with debris, like the trees above, still green at the tops with browned scorched leaves and black charred trunk. The human habitation was leveled and peppered with white and black ashes, and the grasses were surging back encouraged by recent rains. Even here the cranes and bulldozers droned on in their clearing jobs around every corner in the road.

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Sittin on the dock o the bay

Back at Bodega Bay for another effort to catch the crabbers in action. No such luck this time. Finally we just plunked down benches facing the marina boats to contemplate a highly complex scene. Pick something and leave out the rest is a strategy that sometimes works.

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pen and watercolor in 5X8″ Stillman and Birn Alpha series sketchbook, full spread

The Sheriff’s boat certainly gave off the vibe of authority, all black and steely gray. I would want to have my fishing license handy when it drove up alongside. The little boat next to it looked like it might be a nice place to take a nap, or have a drink with friends. The riggings of nearby sailboats were singing in the wind which whipped up a bit in the afternoon, as family throngs celebrated their Thanksgiving togetherness by walking the boardwalk and pausing for endless family pictures.

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A burly fisherman made a wide berth around me while sketching. His dog was equally burly and might have caused a start if I found his nose too close. This was a picture snapped as he walked away and sketched later from my iPhone.

 

 

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?

Nob Hill with the Urban Sketchers

Last Saturday the SF Urban Sketchers met at Nob Hill to sketch Grace Cathedral and top-o-the-city scenes. The icing on the cake was a visit from our Australian friends Liz Steele and Jane Blundell who perched alongside us on the streets sketching and enjoying a near perfect sunny day in San Francisco. The group swelled to 83 sketchers and there was plenty of socializing with old and new sketch friends.

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fountain pen and watercolor in Hand book w/c sketchbook, 8 X 8″

While we perched on our stools across the street from the Cathedral we enjoyed the photo shoots of several brides dressed in the romance of white and bouquets.

nobhill06I might have to sketch this one from the picture! I was too lost in the arches and hangings and intricate architecture of the cathedral to catch on in time for a live sketch of this.

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Sitting next to my friend Cathy McAuliffe, who always finds an elegant way to simplify a scene I thought I’d try her approach for a quick one. Maybe I should have slowed down a bit? But sometimes on the street sketching with friends that accuracy ceases to matter. It’s about the story of the moment I will definitely not forget.

At 3:30 we met in the park across from the Cathedral to share sketches and welcome our guests. I took a bit of video on my phone to capture a sense of the day. (click image to play)

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At this point some of us were a bit fried! Many sketchers would think this rather strange, but my default relax-a-sketch mode is people, especially when it’s people relaxing in parks on a lovely sunny day with their dogs.

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This is what some city folks do when the day is not the usual blustery cold SF summer weather;  hang out on park benches with their newspapers and kids and dogs. Sketching a scene like this ways feels like a fascinating expedition into other peoples’ lifestyles, and with the advantage of no electronic screen in between!

nobhill08We ended the day with a picnic on the hill at Lafayette Park overlooking the bay, with the city spread all around us below and the trees above. At the picnic table I sat next to a sketcher from Russia who’s a scientist living in the city now and doing cancer research. . .and sketching! If I ever get to Russia I’m going to contact their UsK group and sketch with them! Sometimes it feels like we’re a little United Nations of sketchers. Do you think maybe if the Sunnis and Shiites sketched together there would be more peace in the Middle East? What about democrats and republicans here?

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While the urban sketchers (and family members) tackled the landscape of trees and bay and distant hills (they never seem to tire!) I sketched the sketchers and then it got dark and we headed home.

Travel Sketch Workshop in Occidental

On Saturday the Travel Sketching workshop met up in a shady spot with benches across from the Union Hotel in Occidental, California. My hope was that we could imagine the workshop as a simulated vacation day where you’re enjoying the town with friends and having a heightened awareness of the stories which evolve.

Fine for me to say I know. It’s a bit of a challenge for some students to find a way to get comfortable making art in a public place, not to mention deal with all the materials challenges, like paint that dries out instantly, and where do you put your water anyway while balancing the sketchbook? And last weekend there was also the HEAT, which rose to about 95 degrees some time in the afternoon.

However this fabulous group of artists rose to the challenge and even got into the swing of it. If I hadn’t been so busy I would have thought to photograph their sketches, showing different styles, different approaches to visual story telling that we could all enjoy.

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After warming up with continuous line drawings we turned to the question of what to put in a sketch and what to leave out. I demoed a quick 5 min. watercolor application using the shadow shape on the hardware store to do some modeling. I tend to include the things that tell the story as I see it: the orange Do it Best sign, the 25 mile speed limit in this country town, the lawn furniture on display and the palm tree. It all spells out that colorful corner in this three block long town. And I left out a lot more than I put in!

Hugging the shady spots the class wandered to find and sketch what was of interest to them. The lunchtime assignment was to record the food, table settings or decor of the restaurant or to continue sketching through lunchtime.

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It’s a given that no matter how busy your travel schedule is, there’s usually lots of rest and recuperation time spent in eating and drinking establishments. Especially when traveling with non-sketchers, this becomes the time to actually get out your sketchbook. Gluing the restaurant’s business card onto your sketch helps to fill the picture space and may be the piece of information you most need a year later when you’re trying to remember where you ate that lovely meal!

We all agreed that Occidental is a spot to come back and do lots more sketching! Even on Saturday the atmosphere was so low-key and the dense shade of redwoods was a welcome relief on this hot day.

These are a couple of sketches from my book, done the week before to get ideas for the workshop. The first one is rimmed by an account of an incident that occurred while I was sketching “sitting in a quiet spot in the parking lot by Howard Station Cafe, an ancient woman drives up in a rusted old van and tries to manuever by cane and handholds down from the cab, across a step and to the door of the library to drop off an armload of books. When she seems marooned and unable to resume her car seat, I rush to assist. She accepts help gracefully (gratefully), not realizing she’s a stand-in for my dear mother who passed 3 years ago.”

No matter how much I focus on improving drawing and painting skills, it is always in the service of telling a story.

A Tania Day

My friend Tania and I have a shared passion for encountering people of all stripes. You might say it’s a social anthropological interest (that was my major in college by the way). It’s also a love-of-humanity mixed in ample proportion with a flaneur’s curiosity. Tania channels it with travel, photography and writing. She talks to everyone, often in their native language, as if they were family and they end up feeling that way. I channel this urge more quietly with sketching, blogging and some travel. When I asked if she’d like to collaborate and see what happens, she agreed, even though neither of us knew exactly what that meant.

On Tuesday morning this week I showed up at 10:30am at her San Francisco apartment and we set off to see what would happen with a day in the city. She, traveling light with her iPhone (camera), credit card and keys in her pocket, and me with a small backpack (with stool, water, etc), my over-the-shoulder art materials kit, and a 9 X 12″ Canson Mixed Media spiral sketch pad which I carried in hand to be ready-on-the-spot. Oh, and a waist belt pocket for my iPhone and credit card. My version of traveling light.

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I requested a look at the Russian orthodox church where Tania and her family were members when she was growing up. When we got out of the car, parked in front of the golden onion domes of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, our eyes went immediately across the street where the colorful cathedral was reflected in the windows of the St. George Pathfinders building where Tania went as a girl scout.

As we crossed the a street a van was unloading this man to spend the day at the Senior Center next door. But instead he sat directly in front of the glass reflection. I signaled to Tania and she engaged happily with the gentleman, the driver and passers-by, providing cover while I shamelessly sat down and started sketching!

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photo by Tania Amochaev

When I got up to leave 30 minutes later, I approached the gentleman in the picture, who had been totally silent, to thank him and show him the sketch. This brought a big, almost toothless grin at which point he rose and went silently into the Senior Center. We realized that he had actually been quietly posing for me!

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Inside the cathedral with its ornate iconography and candlelit gravity I sat wondering how I could capture this scene. A story always seems to emerge. Tania lit candles in blessings for her deceased family members, while a cleaner was noisily scraping wax off the floor, from hundreds of candles burned in prayer. (color added later)

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It was lunchtime so we headed off to the Cliff House. The sun had some out and we had a lovely view of the Sutro Bath ruins in our ocean side seats.

I sketched this one in pencil, a composite of different people who occupied tables as we ate, and then added some color later.

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Next stop at 2:30 was the windmill at Golden Gate Park where I sat on the lawn in the sun and sketched madly with my brush only, knowing that the California sun is too hot to linger very long without shade or movement. Meanwhile I heard Tania’s unmistakable laughter across the lawn and saw that she had befriended a family of tourists and sent the girls over to see my sketch. This resulted in the most delightful conversation about where they had traveled, their impression of the U.S. and more!

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photo by Tania Amochaev

I’m the one without the braid, in case you couldn’t tell.

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Tania was showing me her favorite spots as a kid growing up in S.F. So the next stop was Spreckels Lake, an enchanting body of water filled with model yachts on the weekends. She was so disappointed when we arrived at 3:30 and a couple men were taking the last boats out of the water. All that remained were birds! So the men took pity on us and invited us to the model yacht clubhouse which housed a regatta of handsome, handmade yachts!

Once again while I sketched madly, she got the scoop about this appealing hobby and the personal story of Russ, owner of the Sugarie Bake Shop in Pleasanton, while he cradled a small boat.

What followed was a walk down the street where Tania’s family home still sits, beautifully maintained. And we dropped in on her dear family friend Montie, 90 years old and a gracious and still flirtatious, host. We left with candy and smiles. . .and headed back to the park and the Conservatory of Flowers and Dahlia Garden, where we encountered. . .

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the Summer of Love in all its musical, turned on, tuned in mellowness. As the late afternoon sun warmed and the clouds of marijuana smoke enveloped us, the memories unspooled for these two old girls who were teens in the 60’s.

It’s probably beginning to seem more like a weekend of sketching, but it wasn’t over yet! Hungry again we headed to The Commissary, a restaurant in the Presidio, chosen by Tania for the seats at the bar where you can watch the chefs cook and plate their divine creations.

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As we plowed into our delectable dinners we learned how a chef tests the doneness of meats, saw deserts flamed and sauces stirred and meals plated with delicate mini-veggie gardens. And because it was a Tuesday and not a busy weekend night, we got to visit with the charming executive chef Ragelio.

Thinking about our day I was actually beginning to feel a bit guilty, having this much fun. The old Protestant work ethic had kicked in. (Sketching feels more like play, even though it’s a fair amount of work!) To which Tania replied, “The work ethic ends at 65!” No wonder she’s one of my favorite people in the world to hang out with.

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photo by Tania Amochaev

So I’ll end here. It was 8pm when we left the restaurant and I headed back to Sebastopol. But not before we got this picture. What a fun crew. If I hadn’t just retired from the Protestant Work Ethic I would have applied for a job.

A big thank you to Tania for her amazing ability to engage people of all walks of life, ethicities, and ages, and for sharing her San Francisco with me. And to all the people we met that day, who gave us smiles and the stories we will never forget.

Announcing: New Workshops and Newsletter!

The Imagine With Art Newsletter is now in its 65th issue and I’m happy to offer it to you here. This issue features new workshops for the fall, some Urban Sketcher Symposium news and an Art Play lesson: Powdered Graphite. Hope you’ll take a look!

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And join me for the latest in a series of on location sketching workshops!

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For more information and to register, please email me.