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Urban Sketching – End of Story?

Street artMembers of the Rutgers University community in New Brunswick had a lot of fun in Fall 2020 by documenting their campus and daily life via Urban Sketching. This sentence, which may end up in one of the countless reports we write in these day, sums it up, one would think. Well, there is more to it. To each his own. Here is my story. (Alert: amateur visual content!)

Following the schedule with prompts provided by art librarian Megan Lotts, even those of us with no discernible talent in art felt encouraged to grab a pencil to sketch places nearby. I must admit that I cheated. Rather than committing it to my failing memory, I snapped a photo of the admin building by the Rutgers Stadium on Busch campus during a morning run. It looked like a good choice, a square building with large windows, a few trees, a single lamp post, and a huge empty space in front of it. A piece of cake, right? Then I remembered those pesky dimensions, or better to say, the struggle, back in art class, to illustrate them in a sketch. I also tried to draw the bridge at DeMott Lane on another run, with way too many trees along the canal. The Little Free Library for Dogs came out much better: a bunch of sticks with a note “Take one, leave one!” Megan, ever inspiring and non-judgmental, kept encouraging me to go on. Moreover, she added one of them to her slide show. If only my mom could see that!

Feeling all empowered next week I decided to tackle my lunch. Seriously, Megan, who has time to even doodle at lunchtime? I ended up drawing my breakfast, which is a disgusting-looking but very healthy mix of nuts, seeds, fruits, and cottage cheese. Not to ruin anyone’s appetite, as I chose to add color with a few sharpies, the still life features the ingredients instead of the finished product. How about lunch? After a Zoom call got hijacked by the participants’ InstantPot experience, I turned to mine.

The sketch shows the pot cooking, rather than the meal itself. I leave the rest to the imagination of the recipients, not to be bugged for Hungarian recipes modified for InstantPot. But, I added one more trick: the high-tech cooking gadget deserves high tech solutions, right? I downloaded a doodling/sketching app to my iPad, and so wound up using the latest in modern technology to approximate kindergarten finger-painting: I drew all kinds of lines, thin and thick, as well as colorful, shapeless patches, with the touch of a finger. A whole new world. If only my mom could see this!

The third week brought peeping through windows (my own!) and a sketching event led by Megan. I had a blast drawing what I could see out the window by dragging my index finger on the iPad. I am confident that the neighbor won’t file a lawsuit for presenting his company’s red van, it’s unrecognizable. I don’t mean the company name is unrecognizable, I mean the van. Or the fact that it’s a van. But I got the colors right, which made me feel content for about five minutes––a new record in pandemic times.

Inspired by my success (that is, my husband recognized the neighbor’s house), I made another pathetic attempt to sketch our own house. It’s difficult to look at the place without noticing a cat or two, but that’s next week’s prompt, so I drew a dogless-and-catless version. But the bricks came out really nice with the index finger touch-and-go method. To invoke a favorite book, Professor McGonagall would be proud to sit on the windowsill in her cat animagus state.

6 line coffee mugMegan hosted a workshop, where the thirty-odd very active participants learned about Urban Sketching as a form of art and had the chance to experience how easy it could be to sketch. First, she made us draw six-line images. Yes, I spelled it out correctly, six lines: that’s all one was allowed to use to sketch. I bet she got the idea from six-word stories (such as the one Hemingway allegedly wrote: Baby shoes for sale. Never worn), a trick we used at Chang for stressbuster activities and then for online events later. I sketched my coffee cup.

Six-line sketches and six-word stories teach us a few really important lessons, such as to focus on what’s important to tell a story or to provide a decent representation of the chosen object. In these convoluted times it’s no small feat to separate the wheat from the chaff. Keeping my eye on the ball often helped me to get to the finish line, just like seeking a deeper meaning in all these clichés I have used. Clichés, albeit overused, still grasp the essence of a situation, of the context, or (in the worst case) of the person who uses them. Sketches seem to follow cultural conventions in visualization. Like it or not, we first need to get familiar with these to break away from them. Drills before running, finger exercises before playing the piano, pencil sketching before graphic design on a computer. Baby steps.

Megan also used another trick, an instructional method that can be adapted to any learning environment: limiting  time for the activity. In my ESL teaching days, I used this routine to teach time management during test taking. One component of the language proficiency test required answering 50 multiple-choice grammar questions in 30 minutes, a task no one can complete at first. Making students practice answering 10 questions at a time for 5 minutes, forbidding them to brood over the ones they don’t get right away, is a trick I had used successfully for decades with my medical students. As speed improved, so did results. Try it! Instead of dragging your feet for your next unwanted task, set up your timer. Dust the bookshelf for 15 minutes. Walk around the block for half hour. Clean up your inbox for one hour.

Megan gave us one minute to draw something, which is reasonable, after one figured out how to see what’s relevant to depict the object. Some of the drawings were fairly recognizable, but I must say, thank God that sketching is a silent activity! Can you imagine listening to a total amateur sawing that poor violin with a fiddlestick for a whole minute?

I drew the line at the prompt to sketch a pet for that reason––I love my pets too much to subject them to that. But I did one to promote our workshop: graphic design with Canva. It was the chicken or pig conundrum: two legs vs. four legs, so primitive that, instead, I share the also-primitive version remastered with Canva, intentionally of amateur quality. It’s not a bad idea to try sketching; one will learn to appreciate the pre-drawn elements in graphic design software even more.

Enough of my own piteous sketches! In my heightened state of self-awareness I refrained from uploading any of my masterpieces to social media like many others did, tagging them with  #Rutgersurbansketching and/or #ruusk2020.  See also Megan’s selection of the best sketches submitted by Rutgers community in the virtual exhibit.

The project is over, however, this is not the end. Instead, it might be a new beginning to get creative in any way we can enjoy the process itself while building communities as we go. We don’t need to make mom to feel proud of the result, although I am sure mine would be if she had the chance to follow Books We Read.

Now I just need a good cliché to conclude my reflections. I need to check in with some friends whether I’ll still be welcome in Urban Sketching circles if I stoop to “That’s all she wrote… or should I say, sketched.” Until then, here is Megan’s Urban Sketched version of my Titanic Dinner: roast sirloin of beef forrestière with château potatoes, minted green pea timbales, and creamed carrots, served properly on dinner plates with silver trim, along with silverware and a flute of Eric Bordelet Poiré Granite discreetly hiding. Megan even got the pattern of my mother’s old tablecloth right!