Living rubbleWashburn A mill complex, Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis mill ruins sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Visiting the ruins at Mission San Juan Capistrano reminded me that at least in this country, it’s not the sort of thing one can see every day. Living in Europe for a time gave me a taste for ruined architecture, but it’s not something you often find in the States.

One could argue our civilization isn’t old enough to have archeological sites around every corner, but I don’t think that’s it. For one thing, there has been human culture here for thousands of years, and in some places, like the Southwest, there is plenty of archeological evidence to tour and visit. For another, the Civil War, natural disasters, isolated acts of violence, and countless ordinary accidents have given us plenty of rubble of our own. No, here it’s more of a cultural mindset: when buildings are destroyed, we Americans have an instinct to rebuild, restore or replace them. It really goes against the grain to let architectural remains stay in their ruined state, and learn to appreciate them as they are.

Minneapolis mill ruins sketch by Chandler O'Leary

That’s why I love the mill ruins of Minneapolis. Beyond being simply beautiful in their own right, the shells of destroyed buildings are also steeped in stories. Rather than putting up some plaque to commemorate the city’s past as a flour milling town, you can actually stand in a remnant of that past. Instead of repurposing every scrap of real estate for modern, practical use, this parcel of land has been preserved as a museum, just the way it is. And best of all, the ruins sit among specimens of both restored historic buildings and brand new ultra-modern architecture—and they fit in just fine, part of the fabric and story of the city as a whole.

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American ruinsSan Juan Capistrano, CA

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This is the third installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

San Juan Capistrano is the jewel of the missions—seriously, it’s hard to think of a more beautiful place in all of California. I ended up finishing off the whole rest of my sketchbook there, because every time I blocked out a rough composition, I’d look in another direction and see something else I just had to draw.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Founded in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano contains the oldest building in California still in use. But the thing everyone comes to see is the large portion of the complex that lies in ruin.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If you come to the mission from the north, the first thing you’ll see is the relatively brand-new mission basilica. The building is gorgeous, but was only built in 1986. Still, it follows the design of the original mission church—

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—which is on the the other end of the property, and looks like this. The church was built in 1806, and flattened six years later by an earthquake. The ruins are where the famous swallows nest and return each year—though these days, that’s not so true anymore. I was there a month too soon anyway, so I saw a grand total of one swallow. But thanks to recent factors like increased development in the town and possibly climate change, the huge flocks just aren’t coming anymore. In the past 20 years or so, only a few birds have been coming home to roost each spring.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hearing about the swallows was certainly a disappointment, but I was too enamored of the buildings themselves to be sad for long. What they most reminded me of was my time living in Italy. The cloister archways were one thing, but seeing the ruined stone church transported me right back to the Roman Forum.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other thing that reminded me of Rome was the light—it was the kind of place where the “magic hour” seemed to last all afternoon.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I picked a good day to visit, too—despite the perfect weather, I was there in the off-season.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So even though I’m sure the place is packed to the gills during swallow season, there were only a handful of visitors there with me that day.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So that allowed me to choose whatever vantage point I wanted, and spent plenty of uninterrupted time sketching—just me, the mission, and all that Mediterranean light.

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Goonie weekendAstoria and Cannon Beach, OR

Old Clatsop County Jail sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’m a bit of a movie nut—especially for anything shot on location. I’m a sucker for films that center around real places—and Astoria, OR has featured prominently in so many movies that the entire town has become a cinema icon. This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the 1980s free-range-kid classic, The Goonies, so I thought I’d celebrate by posting my Goonie sketches from a few years ago.

First up is the most well-known location in town, and the one that’s easiest to find: the old Clatsop County Jail from the hilarious jailbreak scene. This building is so iconic that it’s now home to a museum centered around the movies filmed in Oregon.

Goonies house sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Next up is Mikey and Brand’s house (with a glimpse of Data’s place next door). This house looks almost exactly the same as it does in the film—at least from what I could see below. I have a feeling the current owners put up with a lot of well-meaning trespassing from Goonies fans, so I wanted to be respectful of their property and stay on the sidewalk below. Oh, and incidentally, this house is literally around the corner from the school featured prominently in Kindergarten Cop (yes, I’ve sketched that, too—that’s a post for another day).

Cannon Beach sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Finally, no Goonies pilgrimage would be complete without a side trip to Ecola State Park, about a half hour south of Astoria. This is the spot where the gangster hideout was, where the kids entered the underground path to pirate treasure. From here you can spy (through the holes in a 1632 Spanish doubloon, of course) Cannon Beach below, and the silhouetted bulk of Haystack Rock—which you might recognize as the seastack that looms above the final scenes in the film.

This weekend Astoria is having a big 30th anniversary celebration, but I won’t be able to get down there for the event. So instead, you can bet the Tailor and I are going to pop up some popcorn, fire up the DVD player, and have ourselves a blast from the past.

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Googie fairytaleOld Colorado City, CO

Sno-White sign sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I’m utterly amazed that this sign is still here; that I can refer to it in present tense, rather than with “Once upon a time.” I’m gobsmacked that it’s been so lovingly maintained; that (with the exception of switching from white to its current blue) the lettering is completely unchanged; that the façade is still white as the name suggests. I remember passing this sign a million times as a kid, and being attracted to it even then. I have a sneaking suspicion that this sign may be the reason I ended up becoming a lettering artist—that Sno-White taught me to love a slab serif and a good old-fashioned script.

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King of the missionsOceanside, CA

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This is the second installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

I thought my travel itinerary allowed myself plenty of time to tour and sketch each mission—but I was proven wrong almost immediately. They don’t call San Luis Rey de Francia “King of the Missions” for nothing—the place is absolutely huge. And of all the missions, this one might just have the most details, the greatest number of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. So not only did I not sketch everything I wanted to—I didn’t even see it all. Oh, well, it’s an excellent reason to return—and I did get enough sketching in for a very good start.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Luis Rey (named for King Louis IX of France, who died 500 years before Marie Antoinette’s husband was crowned) is the second mission in geographical order. Chronologically, though, it was one of the last, the 18th of 21 to be built. It’s also one of only a handful of missions located very close to the shore (most of the rest of them are inland by a fair piece); its location brings El Camino Real into nearly overlapping proximity to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It’s the kind of place that brings to mind the quintessential idea of California: white Spanish stucco against a jewel-bright blue sky.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The exterior is stately and beautifully designed, though for the most part it has all the elements you might expect at a mission.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The inside is where most of the surprises are. My sketch here just barely hints at it, but the interior is almost entirely covered with detailed, hand-painted frescoes. Once you step one foot inside, it’s so easy to forget you’re even in the New World.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The Padres who built this place might have been primarily men of the cloth, but they were also incredible designers. Yet they didn’t design everything in this place—there’s one more surprise here that they did not intend. See that little skull-and-crossbones above the cemetery entrance? That little detail was added by Walt Disney, if you can believe it, when his studio filmed the Zorro television series here in the 1950s. It might be something of a cardinal sin to add a Hollywood touch to an historic structure, but I absolutely love that it’s still here!

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Mission San Luis Rey has been impeccably maintained, so it’s absolutely gorgeous from every angle. Which makes it hard to choose a vantage point when you’re trying to sketch and you have limited time: to quote a tourist I overheard in a completely different place once, “Everywhere you look there’s a picture!”

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Words with friendsLawrence, KS

Scrabble game sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This was the day I got to play Scrabble with a master. Good thing I was more absorbed in sketching than winning—because even if I didn’t have a sad collection of letters all game, I never would have stood a chance against these guys. Triple Word Score isn’t worth much when you just have a bunch of ones.

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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’ll 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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