December 25, 2020

2020 Christmas lights in my neighborhood, 12/20/2020 (POSCA pens on black Strathmore mixed media paper, vellum surface)

My lifeline of artist friends met again last Sunday for some virtual sketching. This time it was the LA Urban Sketchers group, which at this point has many of the same members as my other group. A happy occurrence for all of us I am sure. As urban sketchers we are charged with drawing people, places and things in the three dimensional real world, not from static flat photographs. Of course online virtual meetings are pretty flat these days, but we are still encouraged to go out in our community and sketch what we see. For this “almost winter” meeting we had been instructed to create a realtime holiday sketch that we would share online. Once we finished that we would have a portrait party and were encouraged to wear holiday headgear for that. At dusk the day before I went outside and sketched an adjacent neighbor’s house, highlighting the holiday house lights and Santa. I liked the idea that at street level the houses, trees and plants were pretty dark, with the only bright light coming from a few strands of white and light blue lights plus Santa and Rudolph. In looking at my rendering I’m not really sure if you can tell they are riding in a car. And of course if you can’t tell that’s a car then the understated blue outline of a real car on the street will not be particularly ironic. But that panoramic sky actually became an unintended star of the almost winter evening show, no? 

Sharing our sketches was interesting as there were several others who also used POSCA markers on black paper. Some captured outdoor light and some sketched indoor light displays. A couple did watercolor sketches of lovely old Christmas decorations, and a couple used various drawing programs with his or her iPad. Another did a wonderful monochromatic night sky showing a wonderfully graphic outline of a friend’s house with Jupiter and Saturn highlighted just above the roofline. And yet another went to the Descanso Gardens to capture what she called her winter solstice watercolor of a particularly lovely gingko tree. As always, it was terrific fun to see everyone’s idea of holiday art—so varied and wonderful!

Then came the portrait party. It was great to see the holiday gear people chose to wear for that. There were reindeer antlers, Santa hats, holiday sweaters, one Rudolph nose, a crazy white beard and one member sported a headband with a menorah. We’ve done sketching parties before and it’s great fun. It started by encouraging volunteers to let us sketch them for 1 minute. This can really get you in the mood and get the sketching muscle memory activated. Then, we moved onto 3 minute sketches of each other. It’s funny how a 3 minute sketch seems like such a long time, compared to a mere 60 seconds! I even had time to add some touches of red for gloves, a couple Santa hats, a red blinking nose and tasseled elf shoes for the friend who’d made a hat with a Trader Joe’s grocery bag. 

As we were about to adjourn one of our leaders reminded us to watch for the ultra-rare conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter the next evening. I made a mental note to do that. I envisioned a great view of that event as I can see the southwest sky pretty clearly from my front porch. I lost a huge pepper tree in a recent wind storm and with that giant shape now gone I have an unobstructed view of the faraway sky. In fact, the vista I would be watching is just to the left of the holiday sketch I have shared with you here.

As the sun began to set on Monday, I looked up at the sky where I thought the two planets would be visible. Sure enough, the sky was quite clear and there they were. It was very exciting to see. But although they miraculously glistened in the sky, they were very tiny. Based on what I was looking at there would be no sketching of this extremely rare planetary conjunction that evening. I don’t know what I was thinking. Had I imagined I would sit outside in my little camping chair and draw these sparking dots? Probably…

I went inside and began looking online to see if and where I would find a better view, with somebody who actually had a telescope. The first thing I came across was a 2 hour prerecorded Youtube video that had been made by a very excited astronomer in Rome. (As Rome is 9 hours ahead of LA, it was all over and I would just be watching a recording.) His English was pretty good, and his computer simulation of the event was very impressive. But I wasn’t sure I could handle two hours of his rapid fire blow by blow description of what was happening. I decided if I couldn’t find a realtime viewing I would come back to this recording. I soon found that Griffith Observatory was projecting and recording the planet’s conjunction in realtime LA. And, there wasn’t an excited person talking non-stop. There was just “planetarium” music playing softly in the background. From the moment I started the live streaming I was overcome with so many thoughts and emotions. I mean, you could see the bands of color on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn so clearly! This particular Jupiter and Saturn conjunction experience was going to be perfect for me—just enough SoCal laid-backness. Every now and then I went out to my front porch to see the actual planets in the sky above the mountains across the way. And every now and then a Griffith Observatory astronomer would check in. He told us to look for the bands of Jupiter and some of its moons. It seems that Jupiter has 53 named moons and 26 others that are awaiting official names. Our LA astronomer told us that two of the moons could be clearly seen, but to be sure to watch for a third moon that came into view every now and again. I was stunned to see those 2 moons, not caring one bit that there were so many I couldn’t see. He shared with us the reason the image fluttered a bit. It seems there was some wind up there and it caused things to move about some. With all I was seeing and hearing I felt so insignificant—but in a good way. I mean, who cares if I can’t see all of Jupiter’s moons? Who cares if the image fluttered some because of the light wind? What did it matter? It was just so grand and thrilling to stare at our solar system’s two largest planets with 50,000 other people. All the while I knew this was such a fleeting vision and it would soon be over. There was mention that it had been 800 years since this astronomical vision had occurred. That was really meaningless to me, I couldn’t wrap my head around that. With one of the last astronomer’s check ins he told as the planets began to “set” they would become distorted as they got lower in the sky. He said this was because we would be looking at them through Earth’s atmosphere and that would alter their appearance until they weren’t visible at all. But they would be there even though I couldn’t see them anymore. I did a sketch when all the heavenly bodies were distinct and clear, but it doesn’t really look like anything—just some whitish blobs on a black background. Just before the planets dropped further into our atmosphere I went outside once more to see them in realtime. I was surprised to see something so wonderful above the mountains and equally surprised that I also smelled a skunk. I decided I was not interested in any conjunction with such a creature that evening and went back in for good.

Once it was all over, I tried to put into words what I was feeling, and maybe feeling insignificant was only partly of it. Actually, it was more like a feeling of wonder, something I haven’t felt for a while. With our difficult times and so much bad news, I hadn’t felt any wonder in such a long time. It felt great! It was great to realize that the silly humans around me couldn’t do anything to screw this up. And I loved that our atmosphere, which eventually made the viewing impossible, makes life here on Earth possible. I’m not sorry there’s an atmosphere, it’s a wonder of our smaller blue planet. And I am glad that I did my little sketch because every time I look at it now it reminds me of the feeling of wonderful insignificance. And it made me happy for the first time in a long time. Wow… 

December 19, 2020

Peters Inn, Fells Point, Baltimore–virtual tour 12/13/2020 (POSCA pens on grey-toned paper)

Last Sunday my sketching group was treated to a virtual tour of Baltimore. Our intended host could not actually join us that morning, but as is our usual, we rallied round and made do. He posted some photos of what he described as special views of the city for us to draw. He also provided some very interesting detailed historical background of the city. I knew that Maryland was one of the original 13 colonies, but for me that was it. Thank goodness our invisible virtual host shared lots of other interesting historical facts about Baltimore, including the Battle of Baltimore—a land and sea battle fought during the War of 1812. 

As I have already said, I don’t really know anything about Baltimore and have never had the opportunity to go there. However, I have been to Philadelphia and it’s just a mere 100 miles northeast. In fact, you can travel between these two historical cities by water if you use the Chesapeake and Delaware canals. While I was in Philadelphia I really enjoyed learning about the historical buildings and the famous Americans who had lived there at the very beginning of this country. Hearing about the history of Baltimore was also very interesting to me. What I think I really liked was our virtual host’s personal story about living there in the early to mid 2000’s. He told us he was there for 7 years, but didn’t much care for it his first year. But he said he grew to love it when he decided to immerse himself in what he called Baltimore’s “great community of cultures.” He also added that it was during his new found attitude of “Baltimore” joy that he met a woman who later became his wife. Such a great story, right? Very romantic too! And to help introduce us to some of the cultures he explored while living there we first went to Baltimore’s Little Italy to sketch. (I didn’t include it here as I only got a basic pen and ink sketch down on paper in that first 30 minute sketch-a-thon. As we had the photos, I later started to add color, but did not get past laying down the initial shades of red brick. Oh yes, Baltimore is loaded with brick houses and buildings. This is something not at all common here in CA as it is not safe to be anywhere near a brick building during a earthquake.) 

So, then we moved onto a smaller and more intimate view of a couple dining out at Peters Inn in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. It was interesting to learn that Waterside Fells Point was founded in 1732. It seems that now it is a trendy place along the waterfront where you will find cool pubs, taverns, and art galleries as you walk along the cobblestone streets. There is even the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myer Maritime Park Museum in what was once an industrial building. This museum is dedicated to African-American nautical history. I’m thinking that all those early American cities are made up of communities of different cultures, right? And it makes me wonder if everyone of us wanted to travel to such a city, we should be able to find something or someone there we like, right?

This idea of immersing yourself into the various cultures of various communities reminds me of a couple instances where my son and I moved to larger cities in CA, with his initial and final reaction to new people and places. After he graduated from high school we found ourselves moving from small town Grass Valley to Sacramento. Before going he told me he knew he wouldn’t like living there. Duly noted. But as time went along, he went to a community college there and quickly found some peeps of a like mind. As you might imagine, that was great for both of us. Then I found myself moving to Los Angeles. He put his foot down about going to La La Land and stayed in Sacramento. Duly noted. But in between quarters at UCSC, he found himself joining me here. I have heard lots of people say they would never live in LA, and yes the traffic can be pretty awful. But I will say, there is really nothing quite like a beautiful Southern CA day—truly noted. Guess what? He came to visit between quarters anyway. And before so many things closed down last March because of COVID, he was working as a research assistant at UCLA. He had finally connected with his peeps here and finally admitted that it wasn’t so bad after all. Duly noted!

Final note about my “art” geekiness

Ok, I have to make mention of the materials I used for the Peters Inn. The minute the photo popped up on my computer screen, for our second 30 minute sketch, I knew immediately that I wanted to use my POSCA pens on grey toned paper. I was almost giddy with my impending challenge of using the red and orange pigment on that grey background. As I’ve said Baltimore, is loaded with brick houses and streets, so if you want to sketch there you will need lots of shades of red for all those bricks. I knew I would want to use red in a saturated way, with spotty bits of orange and red, and then with red and orange used closely together. All of this color manipulation was calculated to be used with the grey paper showing through just the right amount. Your eye to brain connection can then facilitate the mixing of those colors to great effect.

Once that bit of pigment geekiness was unleashed in me I found myself reading a TIME story about PANTONE colors. If you know of the Pantone Color Institute you will know that each year a very specific color(s) is featured. The Pantone Color for 2020 was PANTONE 19-4052 (Classic Blue). This color was chosen as an enduring color that was to evoke a stable and dependable foundation on which to build a new era. It was meant to instill calm and confidence. Yikes! Not sure I would I describe 2020 with any of those words or sentiments. But, Pantone colors for 2021 speak to a different year and time ahead for us. Their 2021 colors are PANTONE 17-5104 (Ultimate Gray) and PANTONE 13-0647 (Illuminating). The grey is meant to bring to mind stable and concrete foundations, and calm beaches covered with pebbles. Illuminating is a bright yellow. It is meant to evoke sunshine and instill cheerful spirits. I don’t think the grey toned paper I used here would be considered PANTONE’s ultimate grey color. No matter. I don’t know about you, but I could definitely get behind a bright and stable 2021. Can I get an Amen?

December 12, 2020

Warm up continuous line sketch, Descanso Gardens 12/6/2020 (black ink and Inktense pencil on Mix Media paper–Canson)

For this week’s blog I had planned to share art of my CA bunny rabbits, past and present. But as the week plodded along, I just couldn’t find the energy to go there. It all seemed such a silly notion. So, I had resolved not to present anything this week, hoping I would feel better about sharing my many and varied bunnies and bunny stories next week. BUT as the week progressed I found myself thinking again about the wishing tree at the Descanso Gardens. In fact, if you have been following my blog, you may have noticed that I also shared their wishing tree in my November 21, 2020 post. So, what’s so special about that wishing tree?

Let me set the stage for this week’s main attraction and the thoughts that finally grabbed my attention. Last Sunday I went to the Descanso Gardens as I thought it might be closing again for a time. If you live in California you may have also been wondering when the imminent “stay home” order text would be sent to you. (I got mine on Monday.) However, I was trying not to think about all that as it was so beautiful that day. As is my usual I went first into the rose garden. There I did the continuous line “warm up” sketch you see here. Then I hiked around and under my beautiful oak trees. I found myself at a bench in one of the oak groves and it just so happened to be where the wishing tree still stands. We have only had a scant bit of rain yet, so the cardboard tags still flowed freely. Because of this dry weather I suspect the wishes written on the cards are not smudged or even washed away. I wasn’t really worried about whether or not the messages had been messed up because we don’t read each other’s wishes, do we? Well, I guess I don’t read other people’s wishes or diaries. You just shouldn’t talk about such things. Like, you don’t share a wish you made on a star, talk about what you were thinking when you threw a penny in a fountain, or say out loud the wish you have made just before blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. Right? 

Wishing tree continuous line sketch, Descanso Gardens 12/6/2020 (oxblood ink in Fude nib fountain pen, graphite, pink Prismacolor colored pencil on Mix Media paper–Canson)

Seeing the wishing tree again made me realize what I should have wished for the last time I was there. As I previously said, I wasn’t comfortable going too close to the wishing installation as there were too many people around. So, no wish that day. But if I had, I would have wished that we would all agree to follow the shared safety rules with regards to the coronavirus—wear a mask and stay away from people. Wondering what’s so different today? I found out on Wednesday that one of my brothers tested positive for COVID. Thankfully his symptoms have been mild and he will be quarantining at home for the agreed upon days before going near anyone. 

When I asked him about his symptoms and how he was feeling he said he didn’t really have a fever, but he had aches, a dry cough and had lost his sense of taste. This may sound like an outlier to you as I’m sure you’ve heard that people loose their sense of smell, not taste. However, my brother was born without a sense of smell and he always seemed to have a heightened sense of taste that at least for now was gone. Even as a little boy he was always adding hot, sweet or strong flavors to his food. I mean, what 6 year-old adds a fair amount of Tabasco to his or her grilled cheese? And he was always eating, or attempting to eat, strange things. He once ate the center of a calla lily which promptly made the little girl down the street throw up as she ran out our back gate. There were several other such instances. My dad liked to tell the story that he had warned my brother not to eat the ant poison he was about to put around the foundation of our house in Santa Clara. But a little while later my dad saw my brother getting ready to lightly dip his finger tip in the liquid so he could taste it just a bit. My mom remembered that he often popped rocks into his mouth. She said that sometimes he wouldn’t swallow food he was served for dinner and somehow chewed it round and round until it was some kind of fibrous ball that not even a cud-chewing cow could swallow. On those occasions she would ask him to spit out whatever was rolling around in his mouth before going to bed. There are two other “tasty” stories I can tell here, one that I personally witnessed and one that was seen by my youngest brother. When the smell deprived brother was around 5 years old he came upon a hunk of freshly chewed bright pink bubble gum on the street in front of our house. I saw him get down on his hands and knees and try to lick it up off the asphalt. Yup, you can’t unsee such things, even after all these years later! My mother must have been looking out the kitchen window. She came running out the door and grabbed him, but not before he had actually made contact. Who licks the street? Of course he could have been hit by a car, but instead he got trench mouth. Did he finally learn not to attempt to eat strange things? Of course not! When he was in middle school, he and my youngest brother were walking though a huge drain pipe that was near our house. It seems they did this on a pretty regular basis back then. But one day, they came upon a Twinkie and my number one brother ate it. He ate it all. Number 2 brother shared the story at dinner that night. Number 1 looked around incredulously at all of us and said, “But it was still in the wrapper!”

Thinking about my brother eating a Twinkie he found in huge drain pipe always makes me laugh. And the moral of this story is I am glad he will be OK. I love my weird and “tasteless” number one brother and want him to live a long life because I’m very selfish. This is because if his life were needlessly cut short by our current preventable illness I don’t know if I would ever laugh about that Twinkie again. Of course, I’ve never thought his licking gum on the street even remotely amusing. Oh, I forgot to say that I had also witnessed him taking the bite from the calla lily center in our backyard all those years ago. I can still see the strange and disappointed look he had on his face—that’s hard to unsee as well. Not very amusing at the time. But as I got older, and I would remember to retell the story to members of my family, it became hilarious. And this is because the little girl who got sick from watching him eat the flower had never really been a good friend to me. In fact, she was one of two mean little girls on our Santa Clara block. One of those girls stole the one and only Barbie doll I got. She got what she deserved. My dad used to call them “the two shits.” Now that’s funny!

December 5, 2020

Virtual tour of Cuba, 11/29/2020 (pen and ink, Prismacolor colored pencils on grey toned paper)

I traveled to Cuba last Sunday morning to sketch. Given that we of Los Angeles County currently have a curfew and are almost back to complete lockdown, it was a nice diversion. I have to be honest, Cuba has never really been a destination for my bucket list radar. But the woman who took us on our virtual tour certainly convinced me to pencil it in. She told us that she was there in the 80s and then again in 2019. I guess in recent years it has gotten easier for an American with a passport to visit. But as the US is still engaged in an embargo with Cuba, it seems a very odd arrangement, to say the least. She told us the average person who lived there had difficulty obtaining all kinds of things. For example, it was not uncommon to see old 20th century cars driving around the streets as new cars were not available. She said they made do with parts they could find/exchange to modify and make their cars run. She added that they sometimes adapted motor boat engines to power these old clunkers. She said they were called “Frankenstein Cars.” (I wonder if that translates to “coches de frankenstein” in Spanish?) Our tour guide also said that new construction was almost unheard of and they again tried to fix/repair what they had. It seems that the building you see here was only inhabited on the first floor, and the upper 2 stories were facades only, with no way to repair or rebuild them. 

Of course she spoke of Ernest Hemingway living in Cuba. Hemingway lived there on and off for thirty years during the late 30s, 40s and 50s. He had a permanent residence in Havana and went there in the winter months when it was just too cold to be in Idaho. He is credited with writing “Islands in the Stream,” “A Moveable Feast” and “The Old Man and the Sea” while there. But when Batista was deposed in 1960, Hemingway left Cuba for good as the American government had asked US citizens to leave the country. But Cuba will always have a connection with the US, even more than the fact that one of the greatest 20th century American authors lived and wrote there. You can’t argue with the way the Cuban culture has affected American culture, specifically in areas of Florida. Key West is only 90 miles from Cuba and there are reportedly over a million Cuban-Americans in Miami. As I said, you can’t argue with the affect numbers like that can have on any culture.

As we finished and shared these sketches we all decided it would be a great adventure to go there as a group to sketch and paint there someday. I know I’m in! 

Virtual tour of Cuba, 11/29/2020 (Prismacolor colored pencils, white POSCA pen on grey toned paper)

Our virtual tour guide of Cuba warned us that we may need to think outside the box to capture the photo she took of the lovely little Cuban dancer with the green fan. As I decided to do this one with just my Prismacolor colored pencils on grey toned paper, I hoped I might channel Degas for this one.

Thinking of her as a dancer reminded me that many dances we do in the US originated in Cuba. Salsa dancing, a kind of Afro-Cuban style, has it’s origins in Cuba. The rumba also comes from Cuba and according to Wikipedia Danzon is the official musical genre and dance of Cuba. And it is also a dance style you can see in Mexico as well as Puerto Rico. 

And of course if you are going to mention all things Cuban, you can’t stop with just dancing. What about their music? Anybody out there a fan of Gloria Estefan? Of course, yes! She’s a Cuban American. And my dad loved listening to the Buena Vista Social Club music. They were a group of musicians that got together in 1996, and were dedicated to bringing back the music that could be heard in Cuba before Castro. Check it out on YouTube. I dare you not to love it and want to get up and dance!

Speaking of my dad, he liked to smoke cigars. And when he could get them, smoking Cuban cigars were his absolute preference. When he traveled to Quebec on business in the 60s and 70s he often brought back Cuban cigars. Many of his fellow engineers were of a like mind and often took requests from anyone traveling to Montreal or Toronto. Canada had no beef with Cuba and probably imported extra hand-rolled cigars with gusto for that unspoken US market. I’m not a fan of cigars, especially the smell of one being smoked in my proximity. But I remember listening to an interesting story on the radio about the people who hand rolled the cigars in Cuba. It seems that there are people known as Lectores (readers) in the workrooms where people toiled long hours, hand rolling cigars. These Lectores sat in a prominent place in the room and read to the workers. They read the newspaper and any kind of book they had available. I remember the person who was reporting the story said that he had heard of someone reading Don Quixote. He said that sometimes the workers would stay on longer just to hear the end of an article, story or book. 

I remember my dad smoking cigars in the little family Volkswagen on our way to visit my grandmother (his mom) in Pacifica (near San Francisco). It was often very windy and cold on that windy road. So, all the windows were rolled up with just my dad’s tiny wind wing cracked to let out the smoke. I don’t remember actually seeing the smoke, but the smell was unmistakable and almost gives me a sick headache thinking about it now as then. I didn’t care then, or now, if they were expensive hand-rolled Cuban cigars. In my opinion they all smelled bad when lit. I guess my only favorite memory of his cigars was when he smoked them outside and on the beach in Santa Cruz. It was his favorite way to light fire crackers and cherry bombs. I don’t remember the terrible smell at all. I guess if I have any smell memory from that time it would be a slight whiff of gun powder. But I do remember his smile and all of us laughing hysterically with every loud bang and puff of smoke! Don’t miss the cigars dad, but I do miss you.