30 years ago today, I drew my first portrait. I know the exact date because it’s written in large, tidy letters, on that lined manilla paper you use to practice writing in elementary school. With carefully rounded “o”s, curved “r”s, and very straight “t”s, the 6-year-old Mollie wrote: “A Special Birthday Today is January 15, 1987. It is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” MLK has had more of an effect on my life than I’ll ever really know. My mom’s high school was desegregated in the 1960s. Her brother was bused off to another school, while kids from the black school came to join her high school. Because of that desegregation, she gained a lifelong friend named Keith.We still keep in touch with Keith and his family. I got to meet his wife for the first time last summer when we were all at my grandparents’ house in Virginia. Keith is a joyful, honorable, faith-filled man. I’ve gotten to visit with him many times through the years and have always looked up to him.
Growing up in suburban Virginia, skin color wasn’t something I really thought about. The friends that I ate lunch with, played basketball with at recess, sat next to in class, invited to my birthday parties…were a mix of black and white. Schooltime memories are filled with color. I accidentally hit my friend Jackie in the back of the head with my flying loose tooth in kindergarten. Naomi was the quirky friend who loved to crush her potato chips before eating them at lunch. We all prayed for my friend J.J.’s family when his dad died tragically in a fire, trying to save the family dog. Elisabeth was the first friend my dad threatened to take home in the middle of a sleepover birthday party…she was a bit on the noisy, rambunctious side. Tharrin was a big and tough kid, (my hero) who was always standing up for me if boys tried to exclude me from playing basketball. These friendships, and countless memories, would never have been mine if not for MLK and others like him.
The drawing above was done in Mrs. Spence’s 1st-grade class. Even Mrs. Spence is someone I can thank MLK for. She wasn’t tall in stature (perhaps that’s why 1st-grade was a good fit for her), but she taught us respect and honor. And, I can think of at least one major instance where she showed me great grace. A few weeks before this drawing was completed (Christmas holidays of 1986), she gave each kid in class a hand-made ornament to take home and put on their tree. Mine was a styrofoam mouse with a curled pipe-cleaner tail, beady black eyes, whiskers, and red plaid ears. He has hung on my Christmas tree every year for 30 years and is still one of my favorites to hang on the tree today. Now, I teach in a fairly diverse district, where kids of every color, race, and religion come together to learn on a daily basis. As a teacher, I look back on the example set by Mrs. Spence and the classroom atmosphere she created, endeavoring to foster a similar environment of respect and grace with my students.
The same week that I drew the portrait of MLK, we used his “I have a dream” theme as a springboard for discussions on what we’d like to become or accomplish when we grew up. I’m only slightly surprised that at the age of 6 my life’s goal was already set in concrete (or crayon). Notice that the portrait of MLK was much more realistic than the proportions/accuracy of my hands, feet, and table legs. Students, this is why we always tell you to work from a reference photo rather than drawing out of your head/imagination! It was true when I was 6, and it’s true today. Anyway, the point is that MLK’s portrait was an intriguing foreshadowing of my life now. I have always been interested in faces. Shapes of ear and nose and eyes are puzzle pieces that (when fit together properly) can tell the visual story of a life…or if the subject has passed away, trigger memories of a life well-lived. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’m neither ignorant enough nor idealistic enough to say that MLK’s dream has completely come true. Unless the world becomes colorblind, I’m afraid there will always be undercurrents of racial tension this side of Heaven. Newspapers, TV shows, and other media remind us of the broken ideals on a regular basis. But I am ever thankful that he dared to dream. That dream trickled down into the cracks of society, crumbling walls, shifting courses, and expanding into a river whose current continues to erode racism. The more you and I cultivate classrooms, hallways, lunch rooms, office spaces, churches, and neighborhoods where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the more his dream becomes a reality. Each doing our part in the process of erosion, we can help fulfill another lesser-known line from his speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
From my 3rd-grade yearbook, here is part of the crew I hung out with growing up. Note: my older sister liked to circle faces with pencil…
For years my mom has wanted to bring the entire family together for a week on the beach. Last week we finally pulled it off! Most of my siblings, nieces, nephews, Mom and Dad were there, sharing one of the huge beach houses in Corolla. Though we all live near each other, my siblings and I rarely get to spend extended time together other than at family weddings and funerals. We’re blessed to have a family that truly enjoys each other, works together, and are patient with each other. Living under one roof for a week can test that, but I think we all left Corolla with highlights and great memories. Personally, I loved being goofy with my brothers and sisters; playing Canasta and Settlers of Catan late into the night; playing billiards with my nephews; holding my baby niece as we splashed our toes in the pool and tossed rings for my nephew to dive down and fetch; a long drive to the airport with my sister and her oldest daughter, chatting along the way; an overload of Krispy Kreme donuts…my brothers and I not realizing that each of the others had already bought a box or two. One of my favorite memories is an early morning beach walk I took with my niece, Abby. While we walked, we combed the surf for shells. And I would pause to sketch while Abby searched the sands nearby. Today’s sketches are from that walk.
The first is a gesture sketch of Abby picking up shells. A gesture is a quick sketch, done to capture the basic action of a figure. It’s a snapshot, not a detailed study. With Abby turning and stooping, standing then moving away, I only had a few seconds to study the lines, angles, basic shape of her movement. When teaching, I have my students start with a 3-5 minute study of the figure. Then we progress throughout the period, shortening allotted time for each pose, until we attempt one in 30 seconds near the end of class. It’s a fun exercise to try if you never have before! And, it’s a great way to train your eye/brain to process what you’re seeing then spit it out onto paper in a few lines.
Fishermen line the beach, particularly in mornings and evenings, casting into the surf. When walking, watch out for the invisible lines! Don’t try to walk between the fishermen and their ocean or you may get tangled in a line with them cursing you in frustration. We knew better than to get in their way. I’d say standing in cool water, with the ocean breeze on your face, beats bobbing in a boat on the lake with stifling heat any fishing day.
Stairways line the dunes – hundreds of them all alike. On a long walk, it’s easy to lose your bearings and struggle to find the staircase that leads back to your street! So, I studied ours, sketching the concrete wall and lines of sand fencing (not sure what you call it) that keep the dune sand from drifting when winds are high.
I often tell my students, “photos are great, but you really notice details when you take the time to sketch something.” Looking back at these sketches will remind me of our time in Corolla and the memories made there.
I’m currently in the middle of a couple of larger paintings, which will eventually be posted on the blog. In the meantime, here are recent excerpts from my sketch journal. The first was done in red crayon on our winter youth retreat. The second and third are from a summer sailing day in Chicago. Though I’ve seen and photographed Buckingham Fountain dozens of times in the past 24 years, many of the sculptural details went unnoticed until I took the time to study and sketch it. If any of my drawing students are reading this blog, you’ll notice that the ballpoint pen shading is done with a hatching technique. For those who don’t speak “art”: hatching is a series of strokes in one direction, used to create a range of values. More marks, closer together, makes the shading darker. The direction of a section of marks can help define various facets or planes within an object.
This winter I’ve been working on a mural for our church. Yesterday evening I finished touch-ups and officially signed it, so will take photos soon and upload them here. Instead, today’s post will be a glimpse into my sketch journal. Long ago (when I had the chance to travel in England) I began sketching during trips/vacations, rather than simply taking photos. It’s a good exercise, forcing me to study the details of a scene and simplify them down to a few lines. Looking back at these drawings later, I remember what I was doing, who I was with, what memories were being made that day. Yesterday afternoon was a bus-ride with 34 middle-school kids, coming home from our winter retreat in Michigan. As several of them honed in on a game of “Truth or Dare” (ah, the joys and predictability of middle-schoolers!) with their friends, I pulled out my journal and pen. Interest in the game waned as the subject of boys and “who likes who” became theme, and the handful of kids surrounding me suddenly took interest in my sketches. Elena offered to pose for me. Capturing a quick likeness is tricky, especially with the added difficulty of drawing in pen on a bumpy highway! Thankfully, Elena was patient. While the lines, measurements, and symmetry aren’t perfect, I was pretty happy with the likeness.
Flipping through my journal brought me back to several sketches from this summer’s travels. Below are studies done during my trip to visit friends in Connecticut over July 4th. The clock is actually an old time-stamp machine from a factory that my friend’s grandfather worked in. The view of back steps was sketched while relaxing on their patio one evening. And the airport sketch is a pretty typical scene…seems like today’s teens must be texting or entertained at all times!
I came across these pencil sketches while rummaging through papers tonight. They’re rough and incomplete, but I love the loose quality of the pencil strokes. We artists are prone to becoming tight, precise, overworking details as we strive to “perfect” an illustration…Sometimes a simple sketch captures more beauty than the finished piece. I remember walking through the Norman Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts several years ago, seeing his oil studies next to the finished paintings. The same held true even for Rockwell – some studies consisting of a few strokes of color (almost gesture paintings) captured much more emotion than the refined, finished work.
Perhaps some day I’ll turn the above sketches into a finished watercolor illustration. Perhaps not. Either way, they seem to tell a story. I’ll let you read between the lines and decide what that story might be.
Today’s post was inspired by my adventures during last week’s flood. Trying to drive to school, I kept hitting road-blocks and small lakes (where once roads had been). Eventually I found myself a block or so from my friend’s house and decided to seek refuge there. As we waited out the worst of the storm, she checked her basement and found that the sump pump couldn’t keep up…water had begun to creep across the basement floor. Thankfully, it hadn’t reached the finished area yet. Her kids (elementary and middle-school age) sprang into action, quickly turning what would have been drudgery into some sort of adventure. Max (a very prepared and practical boy) appeared with rubber gloves up to his elbows, and swimming goggles, to run investigate the sump. Elena joined me in the basement with beach towels and a trash can. We immediately started sopping and wringing…trying to keep the water from getting any further. Max and his mom, meanwhile, found the wet-vac. Max exchanged his goggles for ear plugs, tore off the rubber gloves, and spent the next 40 minutes like one of the heroes from Ghost Busters! Elena, never short of energy herself, ran back and forth with towels until her feet were frozen and stomach was grumbling (all of this happened before breakfast). An hour or so later, we collapsed upstairs to enjoy a much-earned breakfast and hot tea, grateful to hear the storm lessening outside. Our story ended well…we managed to hold off serious flooding until the sump could catch up. Many friends’ stories (and homes/basements) didn’t fare so well.
So, this post is in honor of Towel Ninja and Sump Buster (aka Elena and Max). In this world of grown-up responsibilities and natural disasters, their childlike enthusiasm made my day!
I’ve been working on revisions to the portrait I posted last month. However, summer travels, a recent mural opportunity, and other responsibilities have kept me from finishing that portrait. So, today’s post consists of a couple of sketches from my summer travels. As you can see, I’m quite happy to study architecture if there’s nothing else around that catches my eye! I’ve sailed past the Shedd Aquarium many times each summer, but had never noticed the detail within its roofline or facade until I took the time to draw it. The sun was just beginning to set and cast smooth shadows across each facet of the building. As for O’Hare airport…I had never realised how spoiled we Chicagoans are with non-stop flights. I can get a direct flight almost anywhere – including London – and usually enjoy plane travel. Most of my out-of-state friends have quite a different experience. Baggage claim seems to be a universal meeting spot where everyone stands around for 15+ minutes trying to look nonchalant while waiting for their belongings to appear on the magical snake-like conveyor belt. Personally, I’ve always wanted to take a ride on that conveyor belt but figure security guards would snatch me up before I had a chance to even think the word “fun!”. I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Bullseye who took the ultimate airport conveyor belt ride in Toy Story II.