The other day I painted this old adobe at the back of El Molina Viejo, also known as The Old Mill, in San Marino. The leader of our “Meet Up” group suggested we sketch there and we were joined by a number of LA Urban Sketchers as well. It was quite a gang of artists with maybe 20 to 25 people all together. The weather was just a bit overcast, but that made it a very cool and pleasant place to sit and paint. Generally, when I get to a new place to sketch, I give myself about 10 minutes to wander around—looking for the perfect shady spot. If I take much longer than that, I get anxious because I usually see a landscape I want to capture and am eager to get started. Not sure why I get this way. It’s like a timer gets set in my head the minute I step onto new ground and I can almost hear it ticking as I walk around. The Old Mill, and its lovely grounds, can be seen in its entirety in about 5 minutes. As I had found this perfect shady spot in that time my internal timer had not yet begun to gong. I was rather relaxed. So I wandered into the main building. Inside they have a tiny museum with a model showing how the mill worked when it was grinding grain. They also had journals, photos and several of the actual grinding stones on display. If you have never been inside an adobe, it’s kind of surreal. From the outside it looks to be of average dimensions, but once inside it feels quite a bit smaller, with low doorway openings and tiny windows. I think the rooms are actually smaller than you might expect because the walls are almost two feet thick, thereby taking up interior floor and wall space.
Wandering around inside the museum I learned that Father Jose Maria de Zalvidea, from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, built the mill (with the help of the indigenous Native Americans) in 1816. It was meant to grind grain that would supplement food needed at the San Gabriel Mission. But it only functioned as a mill for 7 years before a newer, more efficient one, was built nearby. Later a family inherited the property with this mill and they converted the building into a place they lived in for a number of years. Even though The Old Mill functioned as a mill for only a short while, I was really interested in that period of time—when it was clear Native Americans worked at the mill and did the actual grinding of grains. They were also probably the same people who actually built the structure. I didn’t seem to be in my customary hurry to start sketching, so I engaged a young man at the information desk in a conversation about the mill when it was actually functioning as a mill. As I knew that California Native Americans subsisted on acorns, I assumed that at least some of the time they ground acorns. (If that was true, it wasn’t clear how they got off the outer hard shell of the acorn, so they could grind the inner pulpy parts–based on what I could see of schematic. And it didn’t look like they were set up to rinse and rinse the ground acorn flour because it’s too bitter to eat unless you did that.) Anyway, the young man seemed a bit perturbed with my question because of course they hadn’t ground any acorns here, saying that it was a gristmill and only corn and wheat were pulverized for the people who lived at the San Gabriel Mission. He further reminded me that the Spanish missionaries had taught the Native Americans to plant and farm such grains as corn and wheat. And the message that seemed to be left hanging in the air was that the missionaries had somehow saved some of the California Native Americans from eating acorns by teaching them to farm something else. It was clear that our conversation was over and the young man turned his attention back to his computer screen and I headed for my spot outside. As I walked down the steps of the mill I noticed that a wedding party, with photographer taking pictures, had arrived. Wow! The joint was jumpin’!
But all I could think about, as I set up my paint pots, was the notion that the Native Americans indigenous to this part of California somehow needed “saving” from their “primitive” ways. It almost seemed that what bothered those early missionaries was that it was just too “simple minded” to gather acorns, grind them and then make food. Somehow it would be much smarter to till the soil, plant seeds (saved from somewhere), water and tend the growing plants, harvest and then grind the corn or wheat—finally making something you could cook and eat. That may have been quite a trick back then as Southern California was (and is) a desert, without summer rains. And to further complicate this whole missionary scenario is the fact that corn and wheat are not native to California, and maybe there would be a problem growing something new in the Southern California soil. I’m guessing that it’s a lot of work to gather, grind and wash acorn flour, but it also seems like a lot of work to plant, water, tend, harvest and grind grain to flour. Not to mention, seed for the next year’s planting would need to be collected and stored somewhere. And then, of course, someone would be hauling lots and lots of water.
Finally, I put aside my thoughts about those early days. I had done a sketch or two, mixed some colors and was loosely applying the big washes for this piece. I was contemplating colors I could layer for the walls of the adobe. But I was also attracted to the old stone wall that held back the soil just below the building. I used my “bark” colored Inktense pencil to outline the rocks and mortar. I also noticed just a hint of blue in the rocks and added some color with my “sea blue” pencil. I liked the way the colors worked together and the Inktense pencil lines gave some nice linearity to the rocks. I thought the pencil also provided an excellent “rock-like” texture to the pebbly watercolor paper.
I took a couple breaks to let the color dry and finally decided I was done and ready to wander around to the front to see what the other sketchers were doing. I started to pack up my gear. A man I had seen when I first arrived moved his set up to a spot nearby. I had never met him before and just assumed he was part of the LA Urban Sketchers group. We started to chat and I asked him where he was from. I thought he said he was from Highland. I thought he was referring to Highland Park, an old LA neighborhood I had heard about. As I am not from LA I assumed that maybe the locals shortened it to Highland. To be sure I had heard him correctly, as well as continue our conversation, I asked him where that was. With no condescension in his voice, but with a bit of smile, he explained that it was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I immediately started to feel pretty ridiculous, but he kept up our conversation in earnest, tactfully ignoring the apparent holes in my knowledge of geography. And as you may have already guessed he had said he was from Thailand not Highland Park. I found out that he and his wife were visiting their son here in LA. (I never did find out “where” his son lived in Los Angeles. I was just too embarrassed to continue this line of polite conversation.). In fact, the nice man was the one who had seen the announcement on the Urban Sketchers Facebook page and convinced his wife and son to come to The Old Mill to paint. And after I got over my mortification of appearing to be just another California airhead, I really enjoyed continuing our conversation. It turns out that they were a family of artists and all of them were enjoying an afternoon of sketching and painting in this tiny little spot in San Marino. Realizing that he was from Thailand reminded me of a wonderful friend who was from Brocklyn, but her husband was from Thailand and both their children were born there. When I was newly married, in the early 90s, we worked together at a school in Danville. She was a wonderful and gifted teacher of fifth grade and I was the school’s science teacher. Her husband was (and is) an amazing painter as well as a gifted sculptor, her son graduated from the College of Design in Pasadena and her lovely daughter studied ballet. So, she too came from a family of artists. Unfortunately my friend died of ovarian cancer in 1998. It was pleasant to think again of her when she was very much alive with her wonderful art, music, science and literature lessons. In my mind I can still see her big smile and feel her generous heart.
Soon my new friend’s wife and son joined us. We all chatted a bit longer and then went together to the front of the property. It was getting close to 4 PM and The Old Mill would be closing at 4. (Old Mill hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4.) Everyone was milling around, trying to find the perfect spot to share our work and take a picture. I heard that a couple artists were upset that the wedding photographer had inconvenienced them when he asked them to move a bit so he could take pictures of the wedding party. One of the other artists and I locked eyes upon hearing this complaint and decided that whoever said that needed to “get over it.” I mean, we draw and paint all the time. But hopefully this couple wouldn’t be getting married again and therefore no such interruptions would ever occur again. I told the other “like minded” artist that a wedding “trumps” a bunch of artists with ugly sun hats any day.
And just like that, we took the group photo and then we all left in our respective cars. I don’t look at Facebook anymore, so I didn’t see if my new friend from Thailand posted any pictures of his family’s art on the Urban Sketchers group. But no matter, it was a lovely day of painting, connecting with a lovely family from Thailand and remembering once again of a dear friend that I still miss. For me, it doesn’t really get any better than that.