If you’re looking to do a Canadian Stereotypes tour of the Trans-Canada Highway, you’ll be happy to learn there’s no shortage of moose statues, Tim Horton’s or poutine shacks along the way.
Shocker, I know.
You might remember Salem Sue—she was the first sketch I ever posted on this blog. I have a deep fondness for just about any roadside attraction, but I might just love Sue best of all.
It’s not just that she’s freakishly realistic (just out of frame of this sketch: the big scary veins on her udder), and at 38 x 50 feet, absolutely huge. There’s also something about her location, perched on a butte, with an endless plain stretching below her in every direction. It’s impossible to be that big and not have some serious presence.
Probably what I love best of all, though, is that Salem Sue looks great from every angle—from far below, close-to, underfoot, and even from above. The residents of New Salem seem to know this, and have made it easy to get up there and reach her.
Good thing I had plenty of pages left in my sketchbook.
Normally this would be the part where I tell you all about the souvenir shop with the giant shark’s head I found on the Washington coast—but I think I’ll just let the pictures do their job. Instead, I wanted to let you know that Sharky here has joined 29 more of his roadside brethren on some good old-fashioned gallery walls—in my new solo exhibit that has just opened! If you’re local, here are the details:
Drawn the Road Again: Roadside Attractions sketched by Chandler O’Leary
On display through October 25, 2014
Handforth Gallery, Tacoma Public Library
1102 Tacoma Ave. South, Tacoma, WA
Reception: Thursday, October 16, 4 to 5:30 pm
Since I know many of you are not local, and won’t see the show in person, I thought I’d turn this blog over to the theme of roadside attractions, from now until the end of the exhibit. You’ll see a lot of what’s in the exhibit—plus a few extra goodies that are only online. I’ve been saving some of my favorite sketches for the occasion—I hope you’ll like them, too.
So grab some popcorn, and get ready for some serious concrete n’ fiberglass. Tacoma folks, hope to see you in the flesh—just look out for sharks!
All cities grow, shrink or evolve over time—but as Seattle is in the midst of yet another building boom, the place is changing so rapidly that I can’t keep up. Landmarks and local mom-and-pops disappear in a puff of smoke—while presto-change-o, mammoth condos and office blocks pop up, seemingly overnight. Painted plywood fences mask building sites the way a magician’s red velvet cloth covers the lady sawn in half. Whole arterial exchanges get picked up and moved elsewhere, my shortcuts and well-worn paths shuffled like a deck of cards. Not only can I not begin to record all the changes in my sketchbooks—sometimes I have to erase huge swaths of my mental map and completely redraw them.
The sweeping changes are disorienting, but small tweaks are everywhere, too. The big plans misdirect our attention while the little things shift by sleight of hand, well beneath our notice. This prestidigitation happens so often that I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one still peering closely, trying to discover the magician’s trick. If I’m the only one whose heartstrings are tugged with every posting of a land use permit.
So revisiting the Hostess Cake Factory, which I sketched last year, seemed like the perfect symbol of how I feel about all this. The structure is an empty, faceless shell now, awaiting a makeover, or a tear-down, or something else entirely. The only remaining identifying features are the building’s rounded corners and its location on the map.
Saddest of all, the red hearts the building wore on its sleeve are gone—which feels suspiciously like a metaphor for the whole neighborhood. Maybe the magician will surprise us and make those hearts reappear at the history museum down the street. Until that day, I’ll keep their memory safe in my sketchbook.
Some cities have inner pockets that feel like worlds unto themselves—little enclaves that are either well-hidden, little-known, or inaccessible to the general public. The perfect example is Seattle’s numerous houseboat communities. I’d been dying to sketch the houseboats ever since I moved here, and on Sunday, I finally got my chance. Every two years the Floating Homes Association organizes a public tour of a handful of properties—but doesn’t exactly broadcast the event. After years of missing it, I finally scored tickets—which, to Mary-Alice and I, felt something like passports to Narnia.
Not only did we get to see the sights and meet friendly folks—
—but we also got what felt like a slice of a parallel universe.
There’s been a crispness in the air here all week—the first sign that my favorite season is well on its way. Autumn in the Northwest isn’t quite the spectacular show of reds and golds that you might find in New England or, say, Wisconsin, but I love it for its own qualities. Instead of huge swaths of gold, you get foggy watercolor washes of indigo conifers (they really should call them everblues around here…)—which are the perfect compliment to the pops of orange that appear in pockets along the hillsides.
Before I moved to Washington, my travel watercolor set had fifteen colors in it. I’d already been doing the travel sketching thing for years by that point, so I figured I had my system down. (And besides, fifteen seemed like an incredible luxury, when I could potentially have made do with five or six.) Well, within two weeks of moving here, indigo became my sixteenth color—and I’m pretty sure I’ve used it in every single landscape sketch I’ve made here.
It’s a good reminder that no matter how much I think I know from experience, and art school, and all of that, I need to keep observing what’s actually in front of me—because nature knows a heckuva lot more about color theory than I ever will.
Continuing on the whole fake farm theme, the ones that make me giggle the most are those that don’t try very hard in the ambience department. When my friend Elizabeth and I went to PEI together, our whole trip was centered around our childhood (and adult!) love of Anne of Green Gables. But even we were hesitant to visit Green Gables Heritage Place, because what could it actually offer? There’s no real Green Gables farm—Anne is a fictional character, the 1980s miniseries that everybody knows so well were mostly filmed in Ontario, and even the author’s home is now only a ruined foundation, located on a different site nearby.
Well, I’m sorry to tell you our fears were well-founded. The “Green Gables” house is just a replica farmhouse, filled with random period furniture and staffed with somewhat bored university students in Edwardian garb—all with the aim to give the busloads of cruise ship tourists a misplaced feeling of nostalgia, rather than information about the author or a detailed recreation of anything tangible. If it had been irredeemably hokey (you should have seen our reaction to the Green Gables post office in Cavendish!), we probably would have loved it—instead, we found it vaguely depressing.
Until we got to the barn, that is. The shiny fiberglass Jersey cow gave us a bit of much-needed comic relief—while Rachel Lynde’s imagined voice echoed in our heads.
You know I have a real thing for farms—as evidenced by all the sketches that have cropped up here (no pun intended) so far. But I also have a fascination with fake farms—you know, the odd sort of agricultural replica that you sometimes see at museums, tourist traps, or—as in the case above—private property.
I love them because just like any roadside attraction, they range from the hokey to the poetic, with every variation in between. Just like the sort of thing you might find at Wall Drug, you get a scrubbed, glorified, romantic version of farm life—without having to muck out any stalls, fight brush fires or take out crop insurance. Yet both the places themselves and their visitors (including little ol’ me) are remarkably earnest in their enthusiasm.
This replica barn, with its replica mural and (probably) eBay-acquired vintage feed plaques, is much more than lawn decor—it’s a careful homage to the agricultural history of the entire island. While most of Vashon is still rural and dotted with farmland, you’re more likely to find beach homes than egg cooperatives these days. So while I’d still rather have the real thing, I’m glad, at least, that somebody wants us to remember how things used to be.
Here’s what you do: you go to the Minnesota State Fair with at least four or five people in your party. Then everybody chooses one or two things to eat and shares with the group—that way, you get a small sample of a lot of different things. (Added bonus of sharing small bites: not suffering a coronary by the end of the day.)
Don’t worry if you don’t have enough butter for your roasted corn on the cob—
I know where you can find more.