I talked with New Day Northwest host Margaret Larson on KING 5 television, about You Are Here Too, the map show I co-curated with Annie Brule at the Good Arts Gallery. In a strange twist of meta-mapitude, the KING 5 studios, where the show is taped, happen to be located on the exact spot where I had a studio in the 1990’s. The Atlantic Street Studios were in a tiny two-story 1920’s building attached to a loading dock that took up the entire block and overlooked the Kingdome. Our building has been long wiped from the landscape, and unlike the Kingdome probably forgotten by most people. Atlantic Street is now known as Edgar Martinez Drive, all of which plays nicely into one of the show’s themes: how ephemeral and slippery are the names, mental constructs, and visual representations of places.
I have just finished curating, organizing, and hanging a new show with Annie Brule, artist, book designer, and cartographer extraordinaire. Artists love maps. We invited a bunch of them to create artwork using maps & mapping as a jumping-off point, and they jumped. The result is You Are Here Too, a wide-ranging and totally fun exhibit of paintings, works on paper, assemblage, ceramic bowls, crochet, and embroidery.
It starts at the Good Arts Gallery, inside Cherry Street Coffee House (my downstairs neighbor in the Good Arts Building), and winds upstairs to ’57 Biscayne Studios at 110 Cherry Street on the second and third floors. The show, and the studios, open Thursday May 3, with a big, building-wide open house during Pioneer Square Artwalk. The fun starts at 5 PM; perennial favorite Victor Janusz will serenade us on the piano from 7-9 in the second floor lobby.
Above: Detail, Les Demoiselles d’Illinois (in progress), maps, ink, glue, paper
Time to fess up: I became a painter partly to escape the clutches of an anarchistic theatre collective which had come to resemble the authoritarian structures that it mocked. The idea of spending hours and hours alone in a studio mixing paint seemed preferable to spending hours and hours in meetings arguing about who resembled which authoritarian structure. That was thirty years ago, and I still prefer the alone-in-the-studio scenario. About twenty years after parting ways with the theatre and a cross-country move, I started teaching life drawing to set and costume design students. Neither they nor my colleagues were aware of my shady thespian past (until now!). What makes this teaching gig a delightful one, among other things, is that I get to escape the visual art world, which I find a bit stuffy and to which I’ve never really acclimated. The irony of course is that I’m now hiding out in the theatre department, bringing my creative life, and my habitual contrariness, full circle.
One thing I’ve learned from all this genre-hopping is that visual storytelling is visual storytelling. Sometimes it’s on a stage, and sometimes it’s on a canvas (or maybe just on a napkin in a bar). In both the visual artifact and the live performance you have, basically, characters in some kind of a setting. How they are arranged and posed in their places tells you some, most, or perhaps all, of their story. Playwrights and novelists will undoubtedly quibble, but even words are just a version of a canvas, leaving spaces in between the words for you to fill in from your own imagination.
Every year my drawing class spends most of our first quarter learning how the character, the person part of the story is constructed, how to separate what we think we know about people from how they actually look, studying human anatomy, learning to discern the shapes and forms and lights and darks. After about ten weeks of this we begin to venture out of the studio, plop a person in a setting, and see what stories arise from the collision and collaboration of model, place, artists, and even passersby.
What I’ve also learned from years of teaching this class (and other plein air classes), is how many fabulous underutilized spaces there are in a city, open to the public, with unexpected views and sometimes even tables and chairs. At the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, we had most of two food courts to ourselves, ensconced in majestic corporate modern architecture and interior landscaping, and overlooking freeway interchanges, parks, and city streets. Most people didn’t even notice the model posing perfectly still across the room from us.
Just outside the capitalist Convention Center is a socialist-brutalist-style wonder, the pragmatically-named Freeway Park. A person dwarfed by the massive gray geometry evokes a narrative of isolation, of a cog in the bureaucratic machine, or perhaps a defector.
A few weeks later, it was onward to the toxic monument to Seattle’s industrial past and hippie present, Gasworks Park. Our lovely model chose a floor-length gown for the occasion.
The passersby who do notice that someone in their path is holding perfectly still perhaps ask themselves the same questions we ask as we compose our drawings: Why is this person in a long black dress standing on yonder green hill? Did she walk out of a formal occasion that went bad? Is she coming, going, lost? From the future, from the past?
The colors and compositional and material choices all put different spins on the answer.
Not all of our model/actors are human. We spent one morning among the creatures of the Woodland Park Zoo, some of whom obliged us by posing out in the open where we could draw them; others lolled like lumps in trees or ponds.
At the Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake is more like an opera set. The rusty undulating behemoths dwarf the human subject but also lend her a bit of their monumentality. One could squeeze more narrative out of the situation if the model were able to interact more closely with the piece, i.e., touch it, but the Seattle Art Museum frowns on that. I have it on good authority that the artist would disagree with that policy.
The format, the cropping, the scale, the feeling of air or claustrophobia, even the shade of red can be interpreted in wildly different ways.
Of course, no tour of Seattle is complete without the Jetsonian kitsch of the Space Needle. Being just downhill from it, most of us were able to fit the whole thing into our drawings from the low angle. It is itself a character, giving the human character someone to play off of.
Last summer, I started a project: drawing the Alaskan Way Viaduct in its final years. This highway from the fifties is a loud, ugly, overbearing monstrosity that blocks the waterfront, drowns out conversations, spews tire dust everywhere, dominates the cityscape, and reminds us of a less enlightened age when freeways obliterating the human-scale landscape seemed like a good idea.
Well, here’s the thing: I kind of like it. I mean, I’m still looking forward to the party we’ll have when the viaduct is finally demolished, but by drawing it I’ve gained something like an aesthetic appreciation for the damned thing. Susan Sontag observed that photography favors traditionally “ugly” subjects, conferring on them a kind of beauty. I’d add that a century and a half of looking at photographs has made us all appreciate the ugly a bit more in person, too.
Looking at it so much made me realize that it actually has a design, something I’d not previously been aware of. Someone at some point had to think up those giant blocky arch sections that recede into the distance; they’re not completely accidental. It has a color, too, closer to burnt umber than to grey, which I think is the color that everyone assumes it is.
It has an uneasy but nevertheless affectionate relationship with its surroundings. This little Frankfurter stand sits nestles so cosily in its shadow, while the shiny glassy blue and coffee-colored post-modern office buildings behind it tap their toes impatiently as they wait their turn to finally face the water.
Landscape painting came into its own when rural life was beginning to disappear. Pining for the soon-to-be-lost is sometimes a shortcut to aesthetic appreciation. I can’t say I will be sorry or nostalgic when the viaduct is demolished, nor when the automobile era finally grinds to a smoky, smelly halt at that final traffic light. But for now, I’m taking the time to appreciate the charms of the ugly and embarrassing while it’s still with us. I’ll be back under its deafening canopy next summer, too, with my sketchbook. (If I miss your call that’s probably why.)
This spring my University of Washington drama grads and I went on a whopping five field trips around town. Seattle abounds in outrageously draw-able scenery, even more so if you explore past the typical tourist sites and find those gems that are hidden in plain sight. Since this is a life drawing class, we are always accompanied by one of our fantastic models, who enjoy showing up in outfits apropos of the location. Drawing the model on location puts the life back into life drawing. Advanced students need the additional challenge of spatial relationships, scale, and changing lighting, but beginners respond well to the change of scene, too.
A day intended to be spent in Freeway Park was too chilly and rainy to hang around outside, so we moved indoors to the nearby Washington State Convention Center. It’s a public facility with lots of tables and chairs, very convenient for drawing, looking (to me at least) as if it were intended for that purpose. Suspended above the freeway on the third floor, surrounded by skyscrapers, the model seemed to be in an abstract environment that isn’t immediately discernible in the drawings. It’s a little disconcerting how outdoor space bumps up visually against indoor space, with unexpected vertiginous elevation changes. Kind of like an avant-garde stage set.
The concrete forms (which abound in the park next door) have a sort of soviet-union feel to them, something the workers might spend their allotted leisure time picnicking on. Present-day capitalist workers enjoy a smoke beneath us.
The weather was more cooperative a few weeks later for our trip to Seattle Center. Home of the iconic Space Needle, it also has lots of interesting courtyards tucked away on its mid-century futuristic grounds. The International Fountain is a favorite hangout of locals, but we got there in the morning before it was overrun by children (or even water).
A much smaller fountain and wading pool is hidden around the corner, surrounded by Flintstonesque walls and dotted with big flat rocks. As with the other fountain, one should get there before the kids for ideal (and dry) drawing conditions.
A few weeks later, we were back to shivering again, downtown at the Harbor Steps, another great public space and exercise in three-point perspective. When we got too cold, we ducked into the Seattle Art Museum for warmth, where we drew, and even painted, unmolested in the lobby.
But wait! What’s that bright yellow thing outside the window? The sun! Time to go back outside . . . to a top-secret location on the scenic and underused roof of a nearby office building, where it is also apparently acceptable to draw and paint.
The following week it was unambiguously sunny for our final class, which was spent at the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union Park. The setting is almost like a mini-landscape lesson, with the horizon line conveniently delineated along the other side of Lake Union, nearby large ships looming red in the foreground, and distant trees receding into handy bluish atmospheric perspective. Flat lawns, water reflections, even a shady side of the building for when it gets too hot. Amanda looked so authoritative in her nautical garb, some tourists asked for information while she modeled.
My University of Washington Drama students and I went on a little drawing excursion this month to a train station that isn’t really a train station, with stone walls that aren’t really stone. No passengers have embarked upon their adventures from Seattle’s Union Station since 1971 when the last train stopped here. This 1911 beauty had stood vacant and unloved for thirty years until a local developer restored it to its former glory. But you still can’t get on a train; you have to walk across the street to King Street Station to do that. I brought along a suitcase anyway, for our model to use as a prop.
On previous drawing visits, I had struggled a bit with the color of the stone walls in the Great Hall. They were kind of creamy, kind of yellowy, not quite sandstone; and several different variations of this non-color in a random pattern of big blocks. As it turns out, I might have just consulted Sherwin-Williams for the color numbers.
On this day, a tall scissor lift was set up in the corner, with a couple of men doing some kind of work on the walls. I assumed they were masons making repairs to the stone.
When I got closer, I saw that they were actually just painting.
Well then. I touched the lower part of the wall and finally figured out that the large blocks stone were actually textured plaster. The “grout” lines between the blocks had been carefully taped off, rendered smooth, and painted yet another shade of off-white.
I’ve done some faux painting in my time and this looked like the job from hell: a boring palette, a labor-intensive-yet-subtle finish that barely registers to the casual observer, a confusing rotation of annoyingly similar colors, ceilings and arches guaranteed to permanently disable one’s neck, and, of course, the absurd sisyphean nature of the task.
The irony that I had taken a bunch of scenic and costume designers to draw a giant room full of scenery was lost on no one.
Our next drawing destination of the day was a little-known historical site neither ironic nor fake. Yes, I’m talking about the Birthplace of United Parcel Service. The 1967 plaque on the sidewalk outside is delightfully cold-warry and totally unironic:
In August 1907, in a 6 by 17 foot office under the original sidewalk here, a few messenger boys began the business which their many thousand successors extended throughout the vast regions of our country covered by United Parcel Service today. Exemplifying the opportunities open to private citizens under the Constitution of the United States of America, this plaque was placed in January 1967, with the cooperation and appreciation of the Seattle Historical Society.
Take that, Commies, with your inferior state-run parcel services. As if you could order any stuff in the first place.
Inside the imposing gate is a lovely and very loud courtyard enclosure, a private park open to the workers during workdays, filled with blooming plants, waterfalls, and, on this day, a horde of children who, like us, were out on a field trip.
My UW Drama grads and I made our annual pilgrimage to the spectacular Seattle Central Public Library in November, accompanied by the ubiquitous and always-stylish model Amanda, dressed to match the architecture in a pattern of multicolored trapezoids that referenced the steel grid covering the building.
We met up at nine and had an hour to kill before the library opened its doors, so we engaged in a bit of guerilla urban sketching in a large office building across the street. Usually this sort of thing goes well for me, attracting generally positive attention and curiosity. This time it got me in trouble with the building manager. Talking fast yet amiably, I managed to successfully convince her that we were harmless, and by the end of the conversation she was dragging chairs out of the cafe for us to sit on. The epic Henry Moore sculpture in front of the building had apparently given me a falsely arty impression of the building; like many corporate glass and steel towers, it boasts an impressive, artfully furnished, and utterly underused lobby. Heck, we were doing them a favor, “activating the space” as they say in urban planning parlance.
At the library, by contrast, we were warmly greeted by event services manager Cara Cronholm, who has been welcoming my classes there for the last several years. We began in the fourth-floor shiny red organically undulating hallway, where the utter strangeness of the space forced everyone to actually look at their surroundings rather than fill in from whatever is in their head. You can’t make this stuff up.
For the second pose in this area, Amanda stood down a narrow side hallway from us, backlit by the capricious Seattle winter light projecting through the harlequin grid of the library’s exterior. Everyone had to sort out and filter the cacophony of colored light, reflections, and reflections of reflections to interpret the scene for themselves, resulting in a great variety of compositional and material choices.
We were joined by my pal Jeff Scott, a painter and scenic artist who will be teaching these same students theatrical set painting this winter. Claiming to be rusty at drawing, he nevertheless came up with this forced-perspective stunner:
Onward to the tenth floor to visit the Reading Room , although I don’t know how anyone can get any reading done surrounded by that visual feast of geometric pattern, light, and encompassing views of the city all around you.
While there’s plenty to be said for the time-honored practice of academic study of the human form in a controlled studio setting, humans exist in historical times and physical places. Judging from the work done by even the least-experienced drawers among us, inspiration for theatre, painting, and any other visual art can be had in abundance just by getting out in the world and drawing them there.