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… 

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