Eventful morning in Rocheport, Missouri

25 August, 2019.

Things began to go awry about thirty seconds into my first sketch. It was Friday night, and we were in Rocheport, Missouri to ride BikeMo – a cycling event that has become an annual tradition for us. Rocheport is a tiny little hamlet nestled along the Missouri River and – more importantly – along the KATY Trail. It’s a hub for cyclists, with a couple of esoteric eateries and a handful of bed and breakfasts operating out of nineteenth century houses. It’s the kind of place you wish was just a little bit larger than it is just so you can spend more than twenty minutes walking the sidewalks, taking in a taste of what Tom Sawyer must have lived.

Anyway, regarding my sketch … I turns out the pen I brought was almost out of ink. It began to fail me almost immediately and my sketch quickly turned into about a three minute affair as I shook the barrel and nursed what ink I could out of it. Having brought only one fine line pen and a single “fill” pen, I knew right away that my plans to sketch riders and the small towns I’d pass through in the morning had been dashed to pieces. Dammit!

Saturday dawned bright and cool. The forecast called for continued cool weather, and I planned to enjoy this very uncharacteristically beautiful August day as much as possible. With no sketchbook to carry in my back jersey pocket, I pedaled down the steep hill from Les Bourgeois Vineyards atop the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, and flew through Rocheport where the road flattened out. Although I wasn’t “feeling it” on the hills to come, apparently the pace was much faster than it seemed: the first twenty miles of rolling hills were completed in a little over an hour. Not Tour de France speeds, mind you, but respectable for an aging artist.

In fact, the ride itself was pretty enjoyable overall, excepting the numerous occasions when drivers “buzzed” cyclists by intentionally zooming past as close as possible. Climbing one exceptionally long and steep hill, I found myself engulfed in a cloud of diesel smoke when one yokel gleefully sprayed me with “rolling coal.” This is a perverse practice of modifying a diesel engine to increase the amount of fuel entering the engine in order to emit large amounts of black or grey sooty exhaust fumes into the air, usually to intentionally aim it at environmentally friendlier cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. It’s a stupid, stupid hobby, and it perplexes me to no end: I was deeply ashamed of my fellow Missourian drivers this weekend.

I’d completed a little over fifty miles when I realized I had a message on my phone. Cell coverage goes in and out in the river bottoms, so I pulled over to read the message. I was alarmed to find out out Kim had been struck by another cyclist and taken a hard fall. I was nearly spent and there was still one long and very steep climb left to get back to my car. Shifting into my lowest gear, I spun like crazy to reach the top, threw my bike into the back, and very quickly made my way down the hill toward the bottoms to locate her.

Pulling up at an intersection I stopped and waited for a car on my right to complete his turn. Suddenly I realized the SUV behind him was not slowing… or stopping. A young lady slammed into his car, destroying the entire rear of his vehicle and deploying her airbags. His car spun 180 degrees. Glass and twisted metal were sprayed around the ground everywhere.

I couldn’t believe it. I really needed to go check on Kim, but here I was, the only witness to an accident and, as it turned out, the person on the scene who needed to alert emergency responders, direct traffic around the mess, and assist those in the accident. The young lady seemed to be alright, but the man who was struck was very pale and I worried he was in shock. He absorbed one hell of a blow and it didn’t surprise me that he was eventually carried to the hospital on a back board. State Troopers directed me to stay and with first responders on the scene I got out of the way and waited. Cyclists from BikeMo were easing their way through the intersection along the shoulder and asking me if the accident involved other riders – it didn’t, fortunately. I found myself the unwilling center of a drama, though. Meanwhile, I kept trying to reach Kim but cell coverage on my carrier was zero. Many riders stopped to rubberneck; one astute lady noticed my dilemma – she had service and called Kim for me to explain what was going on. We arranged to have a SAG vehicle carry her back to the vineyard, and eventually I was able to extricate myself from the scene of the accident and drive back up the bluffs. There, I found her resting in the back seat of a truck, bruised and very, very sore. She advised me that our planned afternoon picnic was rescheduled indefinitely.

So… only very short one sketch this weekend, a long visit to the urgent care facility for x-rays (just badly bruised, thank goodness), and an evening in front of the television, hobbling around on crutches.

Kind of hoping Sunday is uneventful.

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He’s a singer-songwriter in a small town bar.

18 August, 2019.

He sits on an old, broken looking chair upon a makeshift stage strumming his guitar. The chords are right, but the rhythm seems somewhat random, somewhere between song and spoken word. His own lyrics stop and start again, woven between passages that cover Dylan and Lennon and Jerry Garcia: the music feels like a stream of conscious river of word soup. Even when a song is suddenly recognized, it’s difficult to sign along – the cadence varies so much from the familiar and the meter out of synch from the rhyme.

A lone television is mounted above the bar and preseason football divides the attention of a small crowd. The small town place is a “wine bar,” and some glasses appear to be exactly that. But the wine menu is limited and most patrons are actually drinking beers – none of that craft stuff, mind you, but Miller in a bottle and Budweiser and PBR, the stuff that pairs well with a singer-songwriter mumbling out fragments of songs.

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Duke 551 fude-nib fountain pen in Moleskin journal.

Squeeze box

17 August, 2019.

A pair of buskers bask in the heat of the afternoon, perched comfortably on the stone masonry of a short wall; the precarious balance of a pan: toss your money into it as a melody bursts forth from those squeeze boxes!

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Duke 551 fude nib fountain pen in Canson 180 sketchbook.

A sad day at the zoo

16 August, 2019.

Last weekend Urban Sketchers Kansas City met for our monthly sketch out at the Kansas City Zoo. I hadn’t visited in quite a while and discovered that many of the exhibits had changed or been relocated. And while I understand the value that zoos have, both from an entertainment perspective and from a conservation standpoint, I find zoos to be troubling. It’s difficult for me to look through a thick glass window at a tiny enclosed habitat and enjoy the limited existence these magnificent creatures are enduring. I imagine myself in their place and I’m overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and despair and sadness.

My day at the zoo provided me with an opportunity to observe and sketch critters I’d probably never encounter in the wild, but you know? I think I’d be good with that if I could be assured of their ability to live and thrive outside of cages. Thumbing through the pages of my sketchbook I certainly don’t feel as though they resemble the notes of a naturalist. Instead, I’m left with the sad realization that the art of reportage can sometimes be a joyless commentary on the condition of the world.

Open air

15 August, 2019.

The open air markets are teeming with people, some gawking in tourist-like fashion, wide-eyed and staring like the fish resting on a bed of ice, but mostly they stroll, purposefully, in search of those things that will eventually find their way into a pot, onto a plate. Greens of all sorts, and meats, and fish, and cheese of many varieties. Mushrooms! Strollers roll past, here in the open air, and I weave through the crowd, I am myself a gawker, enjoying the life taking place out of doors.

Tables and chairs are hardly – or not at all – separated from the river of people flowing past. They form an eddy of wine glasses and cheese and charcuterie. Relaxed, unhurried, thoughtful – each table is world of its own, yet at the same time entirely of the surrounding world as well.

I’m back from Holland, but not really.

A thousand ideas

12 August, 2019.

It was a busy week, last week. Travel, for the most part, has ended for now and the focus is veering toward a new school year, new students, new Art Department staff, and new ideas. The Urban Sketchers Symposium was an excellent bookend to the summer sabbatical – the event itself was energizing, and the atmosphere of pure inclusivity refreshing and somewhat healing.

So, a week of new teacher preparation and the occasional discussion around the importance of creative problem solving and design thinking was shored up by a sense of renewal.

A thousand ideas seemed to be on my mind all at once, and a long drive to the lake house and from there a long, hot, humid walk up and down the steeply inclined streets of Eureka Springs turned out to be an excellent recipe for pausing before the final reset this week as my staff and students return for another year of teaching art.

Eureka Springs is a small town of extreme ups and downs, where one might enter a single story house from the street and upon entering discover that there are four stories on the back of the structure, dropping down to the street far below. The town is peppered with springs and the occasional spring grotto, each with a small park and bench and canopy of lush foliage, large patches of wildflowers, tall craftsman-hewed walls of limestone and steps from the same, fitted together and climbing up and up and up. Or down. Walking these streets is tiring and a little rough on the knees, and absolutely mind clearing.

The day was thick and my shirt quickly drenched in perspiration. At one spring – a grotto, in fact – steps led down into a small cavern formed from carved limestone blocks. Walking down the steps, the atmosphere visibly shifted: there was a cloud where the cool, refreshing air from the spring within met that oppressive stuff outside. Standing in the semi-darkness one easily got lost in passive thought, those thousand ideas began to sort themselves, by themselves. And it took some effort to force my legs back up those steps, out onto the humid streets, and down the hill into the quaint Arkansas village below.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Canson 180 sketchbook.

Small groups everywhere

9 August, 2019.

Amid the hustle, bustle, and frenetic zipping past of bicycle after bicycle, one was bound to encounter small groups of sketchers everywhere in Amsterdam during the 2019 USk Symposium. Workshops and demonstrations were organized into groups of about a dozen or so, starting on the steps outside Zuiderkerk and radiating outward from there into the city.

The workshops were about three hours long. I’d frequently watch the instructor speak to the group and perhaps demonstrate ideas for the first half hour or so, then sketchers would fan out into the immediate area to try out a new idea or technique.

Those excursions were usually kept short enough to allow participants to reconvene and discuss what they’d observed, what they’d sketched, and any insights they’d had. Speaking to participants later, nearly everyone was thankful to have had such immediate feedback and to be able to put it to use right away by being sent again and again back on site.

Widdle cars.

6 August, 2019.

I just want to interrupt the Symposium narrative for a moment to marvel at the size of cars in Europe.

I’m an avid cyclist so I experience first hand the volume of traffic common in the United States. I also am hazardously aware of the size of our vehicles. Our roads are filled nearly to capacity with big, huge, enormous, great big SUVs. Semis are everywhere, often with two or three trailers in tow – long enough that I refer to them as “highway freight trains.” And don’t even get me started on the idiots who think that the practice of “rolling coal” is somehow funny/smart/ecologically sound.

Since my return I’ve cycled every day. On Sunday morning – a truly beautiful day for riding – I road 48 km and counted three other bicycles.

Contrast this with Amsterdam: I heard an astounding figure: A population somewhere around 800,000 with somewhere around 1.2 million bicycles, the vast majority of which are in regular, daily use. There are cars, but they are typically minuscule in comparison to the average American vehicle. I sketched the pink car in this post simply because it was tiny and bright pink, and where the heck are you gonna run across anything like this Stateside? But it was not the smallest vehicle I saw. That would be the tiny little two seater I saw parked on the sidewalk outside the hotel in Amsterdam. It was so small that I could easily have lifted one end; two stout people could probably lift it up and over a low wall.

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Uni-ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” for solid black fills; color added digitally in Procreate on my iPad.

What secrets lurk within?

4 August, 2019.

The entrance to Zuiderkerk was blocked, a sign barring entrance to all except those wonderful behind-the-scenes volunteers who put together so much of the 2019 USk Symposium. But what was going on back there? The promise of secret wonders was tantalizing!

As one of the three international correspondents, my press pass provided me with access, fortunately.

Inside, our crew of local volunteers were checking in the army of workshop instructors. Their bright red shirts were everywhere, darting about, stuffing packets, answering questions.

With only hours to go until general check in begins, there are still many last minute decisions to be made. The instructors gather for their final briefing.

Immediately above and overlooking the gathering of instructors, vendors of art supplies are busy preparing their booths. Theirs is an interesting collective of wares that are specific to Urban Sketchers and plein air painters.

Outside it has begun to heat up. In fact, we will experience the hottest temperatures on Amsterdam record over the coming days. I’ve been told that sketchers will line up to register hours in advance. Right now, people are milling about, hovering in the shade wherever possible. The crowds after lunch began to grow, and with regularity sketchers were entering the courtyard from streets and alleys, filling the brick surface.

Half an hour before registration and I finally began to get an inkling of the size of this event. The crowd was staggeringly large: it looked like they were waiting for a rock concert. I sat just inside the entrance to Zuiderkerk, peering out as I drew the masses patiently standing in line. They came from every corner of the globe, a truly international representation. But even this view didn’t prepare me for the sheer volume of sketchers who would pose in a group photo a few days later.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn sketchbook. Color added digitally on my iPad using Procreate.

A taste of things to come.

3 August, 2019.

Leaving Leiden was difficult. It’s an excellent hub for exploring nearby cities via train, and Leiden itself is a pretty wonderful, clean, and very walkable city. I had just gotten to the point where the pathways had become comfortably familiar.

But Amsterdam was the destination, and the Urban Sketchers Symposium the entire point of the journey. It was exciting to be a part of something like – like what? Frankly, I had no idea what to expect.

Along the way I’d run across a couple of other Urban Sketchers during my visits to the various cities and places of interest. Arriving in Amsterdam and settling into a hotel room, the next immediate step was to do a little recon. I followed my map to Zuiderkerk, the historic church that was to be the base of operations for the Symposium.

It was Monday afternoon; registration was still two days away but there were already sketchers milling about. Most were parked on benches, necks craned in order to draw or paint the impressive tower. Knowing I’d be sketching furiously over the coming days, I mostly took the day off from drawing and wandered on in continued exploration.

Tuesday morning dawned, a beautiful day. The courtyard outside of Zuiderkerk was starting to buzz. Groups of two, three, and four, all carrying backpacks or shoulder bags overflowing with art supplies were milling about. Many more sketchers had arrived a day early to chat and draw. I had little idea, however, how the following day would change the face of these quiet groups into a teeming throng.

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Uni-Ball Vision pen and Pitt “Big Brush” in Stillman and Birn sketchbook. Color added digitally on an iPad using Procreate.