Mission: ImpossibleSan Diego, and El Camino Real, CA

California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Remember earlier this year when I took my big California trip? Well, a work event made it possible to get down there, but my real goal for the trip was to visit all 21 Spanish missions along historic El Camino Real. Ever since my first mission visit two years ago, I had been dying to see them all in one fell swoop. It took me a little over a week to get to them all (which was actually very difficult—especially when you’re trying to allow enough time for even unfinished sketching; I’d have loved to take two weeks instead), and it felt like a real accomplishment to travel every inch of the old King’s Highway. Each mission is so different—unlike the National Parks system, these properties are affiliated with each other only in the historical sense (more on that later). So rather than try to choose a representive few sketches to show you, I thought I’d recreate my journey here. Since Memorial Day typically marks the unofficial start of summer, today seemed like a good day to start a series of Mission Mondays for the season ahead.

Before I begin in earnest, though: a couple of disclaimers. I’m not Catholic, so on my mission trip I was merely a secular tourist, not a religious pilgrim. However, to this day almost every mission is still an active, functioning church; so I did my best to be respectful of the sacred spaces I was visiting. Sometimes that meant refraining from going inside while a mass or other event was taking place—so I didn’t end up seeing the interiors of every single mission. Still, you’ll get the idea.

Here’s the other thing: I am well aware that as an area of interest, the Spanish missions are problematic. After all, these are the places where an encroaching culture subjugated and indoctrinated the indigenous peoples of California. Thankfully, most of the missions now have updated interpretive exhibits that address this part of their history; if you’re interested in learning more about these places, I highly recommend seeking out that information. But since that story exists elsewhere, and is only one narrative of many, it’s not the one I’ll be telling here. As an artist, I’m most interested in the architecture and setting of these places—so that’s the story I’ll be telling through my sketches.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Okay! Here we go. When visiting the 21 California missions, you be tempted to go chronologically, in the order in which they were built. However, that’ll have you doubling back all over the state—most people just start at the bottom and work their way up. So let’s begin in San Diego, at the southernmost mission in modern-day California.

Mission San Diego de Alcala sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Diego de Alcalá also happens to be the oldest of the missions in “Alta California” (Upper California; the name dates back to when Spain controlled the southwest. Alta California was the northern half of the territory; Baja California is still intact as a state in Mexico, with 30 more missions of its own.). It’s also the one I was most looking forward to, since I’d never been that far south in California before.

Mission San Diego de Alcala sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It turns out I picked the right season to see it. It was mid-February, so it wasn’t hot yet (though still a pleasant 80 degrees), and the courtyard was ringed with blooming hot-pink bougainvillea.

Mission San Diego de Alcala sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The place had all the hallmarks I had come to recognize in most of the missions: high, white adobe walls, a pitched, wooden-and-tile roof, and at least one interior courtyard.

Mission San Diego de Alcala sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This one had a surprise extra, though: a modern chapel built with much older elements. This choir stall was originally built in Spain, seven hundred years ago—somehow it made the whole place feel like a slice of old Mexico City instead of San Diego.

Mission San Diego de Alcala sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I wandered through the complex as thoroughly as I could, but in the end I just kept coming back to the bells. Not every mission has a campanario (or campanile), but it’s the bells that I think of when I picture any mission. The bells are what inspired me to take this trip in the first place—and it felt good to have the image transformed from one in my head to one on paper.

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Desert welcomePalm Springs, CA

Palm Springs sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Well, since I posted my sketch of “The Palm Springs of Washington” the other day, I think it’s only fitting to show you the Palm Springs of…uh, Palm Springs. I have to admit, I don’t like this welcome sign quite as much as the charming ho-made white lie in Yakima, WA, but I guess the real Palm Springs requires a gateway with a little more polish and panache.

I was chatting with someone who grew up in Yakima the other day, and these signs came up in conversation. He said, “Maybe one day Palm Springs will call itself ‘The Yakima of California!’”

It could happen, right? Well, I can at least picture what the sign would look like…

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Blown awayMount Saint Helens, WA

Mount Saint Helens sketch by Chandler O'Leary

At precisely 8:32 am local time, 35 years ago today, Mount Saint Helens erupted. I wasn’t around for it—I wasn’t even quite born yet. But I’ve had a thing for volcanoes ever since I moved to the Northwest, so St. Helens has never been far off my radar.

The funny thing is, it’s taken me years to get a decent sketch of it.

I visited the St. Helens for the first time just weeks after I moved to Washington, when I got to tag along on a geology trip. I was all excited to sketch at the top of Johnston Ridge, to peer down into the massive crater. This is what I saw:

Mount Saint Helens (in fog) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Yep, welcome to the Pacific Northwest.

After that it became sort of a running gag. I kept trying to find a time to get back to Johnston Ridge—but it’s a trip that takes commitment, since it’s a very long drive, it’s not on the way to anything, and the mountain roads are closed for much of the year. On every day that might have worked out for my schedule, the weather was bad or the way impassable.

Mount Saint Helens sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I did see St. Helens from a distance plenty of times, but even then it didn’t usually cooperate. More often than not, even on a bright sunny day, the volcano would be shrouded in its own private weather system.

So this year, I decided enough was enough. I cleared my calendar as best I could, and then just waited for a sunny day (at this time of year, one can wait a very long wait). Just a few days ago, the forecast offered up a perfect day—so I got up extra early and jumped in the car.

Mount Saint Helens sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This time, St. Helens rewarded my effort. And as a bonus, I got there a full week before the tourist season starts, so I had the mountain entirely to myself, for a whole morning.

It’s entirely possible the mountain will erupt again in my lifetime. I dearly hope it won’t…but at least I have some good “before” documentation, just in case.

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Pea-cocktailDavenport Hotel, Spokane, WA

Peacock Room sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’m not generally into bars, but the Northwest is full of vintage cocktail lounges that are often a hoot in the theme-decor department. The Peacock room at the Davenport Hotel might just take the kitsch cake. The stuffed albino bird and sensory-assaulting wallpaper greet you at the door, but that’s just the beginning. Not pictured: the peacock-feather Tiffany chandeliers and the giant stained-glass backlit peacock ceiling over the bar (hello, future return visit). Built in the nineteen-teens, it was the sort of jazz-era place where our lack of flapper dresses and cloche hats made us feel underdressed. So the only thing to do was order a Sidecar and raise a toast to the previous century.

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Milking itSpokane, WA

Giant Spokane milk bottle sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Remember my post about Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle? Well, it might be the best giant milk bottle in Spokane, but it’s not the only one. Built in the 1930s, the bottles served as neighborhood satellite stores (read: ducks!) for the Benewah Dairy Company. After Benewah folded in 1972, the bottles came to serve different purposes. This one might not be as fun or picturesque as Mary Lou’s—in fact, it’s downright head-scratching that it now holds a chimney masonry business. But it the end, that doesn’t matter: I’m just glad there are still two giant milk bottles in Spokane, and that they’re both being lovingly cared for.

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Rose bowlVictoria, BC, Canada

Lawn bowling sketch by Chandler O'Leary

In my travels over the years, I’ve stumbled upon (and sketched) a lot of games and sporting events in public places. Pick-up hockey games in Minnesota. Bocce tournaments in Italy. Hula hoop contests in New York. Surfing in California. Boat races in Seattle. Ice skaters in Boston. Golf in Nova Scotia. Even a game of street chess in Montreal. So I guess there really isn’t anything so unusual about lawn bowling (other than the fact that it’s not a popular sport where I come from), but these ladies just stopped me in my tracks that day. I can’t make heads or tails of the sport itself, so I think it must have been the setting that caught my eye. There was just something so appealing about a bunch of gals dressed in white, a perfectly manicured green lawn, and hot pink roses bordering the pitch. It was like the scene composed itself for me—or a snippet of some story from a bygone area, already written down for me to find.

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Mountain morningsNear the California-Oregon border

Mount Shasta sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I love coming back to a place I’ve already sketched, and giving it another go—I always end up with completely different results. These two drawings, for example, were done from precisely the same spot, almost exactly two years apart.

Mount Shasta sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Even though I’d been there before, and already spent a good amount of time studying the scene last time, I never seem to get bored on the return visit. Between changing weather, a different sketchbook, and whatever frame of mind I might be in that day, it always feels like I’m seeing the place with new eyes.

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Dinner with ShiroShiro's Sushi, Seattle, WA

Shiro Kashiba sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Note: I think this might be a first on this blog—showing you a drawing I did only in (gasp!) pencil. But the night I did this sketch, I only had a regular notebook with me, and I needed to work fast—there wasn’t time to dig around in my bag for a pen, so I reached for the stubby sushi-menu pencil. Hey, whatever works, right?

I did this sketch more than a year before I moved to the Northwest. I was in town for a vacation, and a friend took me for omakase (a chef’s choice meal) at Seattle’s famous sushi restaurant, Shiro’s. Shiro Kashiba emigrated from Japan in the middle of the 20th century, and spent decades honing his craft in Seattle as a chef. When he opened Shiro’s in 1994, he was a pioneer: long before the sustainable food movement swept the country, he built his business around specializing in local, responsibly-harvested fish. The notion made him famous, and made his restaurant a Seattle icon.

I had been told Shiro rarely came in anymore, but I was just excited to be there, and to have local Northwest fish prepared in a hyper-traditional Japanese method. But I got lucky on that first visit: the man himself prepared and served our meal. That night was so special: my first visit to Seattle, a lovely evening with a friend, and an unforgettable meal made by a master chef—who was in point-blank sketching range. It was my version of a scrapbook moment.

Shiro's restaurant sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Now that I live here, I still pop into Shiro’s on occasion—usually when a guest is visiting from out of town. I’ve been lucky a few more times since that first night, and have caught a glimpse of Shiro on several occasions (though never in the same way as I did eight years ago). One time I even took a moment to do a follow-up sketch while he was working behind the counter. It was as fun to observe the folks at the sushi bar as it was to watch the chef—I imagined they felt like I did on my first visit.

After 20 years, Shiro “retired” from his namesake in 2014, but rumor has it he’ll be back this summer with a new eatery in the Pike Place Market. I think it’s a safe bet I’ll be there—chopsticks in one hand, sketchbook in another.

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