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American Roadtrip #1 (Portland & Washington Coast)

Michael Kluckner

This is (hopefully) the first of a number of a roadtrips in the USA that Christine and I will make over the next few years. We used to travel a lot down the coast from Vancouver to California, especially to San Francisco, in the '70s and '80s, but stopped in the '90s because of the commitments of farm life and travelling a lot in Canada – the Canada book of 1998. I made one sketching trip in 1998 down the Washington Coast in the VW bus I had at the time but never did anything with the artwork (except, now, to post some of it below). Then came 9-11, the difficulty crossing the border and the siege/patriotic mentality that seemed to overtake even backwater parts of the USA, and we pretty much tuned out.

Anyway, we've gotten past that, and travelling in the States has resumed its appeal. The images below are a mix from 1998 and now. The first five pieces of artwork are from this June, from the window of our room in the Mark Spencer Hotel in the Portland's Pearl District – it's funny the way the hotel you stay at, like the one we had a year ago in Chicago, becomes so much a part of the memory of a trip to a city. In this case, the window looked down onto Stark Street and a building containing a grocery store and a tavern with sidewalk tables. I watched the street scene in different weathers and lights and ended up doing the watercolour and the black-and-white brush and ink drawing while we were there, then coloured the latter in sunny-day and nighttime colours in Photoshop. The other image that's out of the ordinary is the motel drawing/painting at the bottom of the page: it was done completely on the computer, drawing in Photoshop Elements using the "Bamboo Create" tablet I recently acquired; this style of thing maybe will lead me into some new artwork in a kind of graphic novel format. Who knows?

First, though, the Mark Spencer Hotel appealed to us because it was a bit shabby-on-the-way-to-becoming-chic. The owners are beginning to invest in it and in another few years it will be fixed up and unaffordable – to some travellers, that is! I liked the way it displayed photos in the lobby of its previous lives, as The Nortonia Hotel, built in 1907, and as affordable housing. I snapped them with the cell phone:

Images above from c. 1910, 1940 and 1966

Rainy afternoon – the tavern's tables piled up on the sidewalk

A chiaroscuro (brush-and-Chinese ink) of the view from the window

The chiaroscuro drawing coloured, using Photoshop Elements as the "painting program," and trying for the look of a silkscreen poster: just a handful of colours repeated throughout to give a flat comic-book effect.

Nighttime: a digital repainting of the chiaroscuro drawing using the Bamboo Create tablet and its pen/brush (and Photoshop Elements). It's an interesting effect, and demonstrates the way that the digital medium itself gives a sort of "plastic" look, a kind of glowing colour that I identify (not positively) with every bit of Pixar illustration and animation.

There's just a hint of 'noir' about these blocks of the Pearl District, of people down on their luck, of old hotels, of shops selling things nobody wants. Even the renowned Powell's Bookstore, the city-block assemblage of buildings nearby, is not at all flashy. Portland has a gentler seediness than Vancouver, more like the Vancouver of 40 years ago before the drug trade and closure of the Riverview Mental Hospital turned the old downtown streets over to the crazies.

Pencil in the sketchbook; street people shuffling by....

We drove west out of Portland to Seaside, which didn't inspire me to stop and paint, then went north along the coast to Astoria, a dramatically sited, historic and interesting small city. The light was very flat, so I chose inactivity and sightseeing over art.

(Left) This page from an old sketchbook, 1998, has held up fairly well. The Flavel House is a spectacular Queen Anne on the edge of Astoria's downtown.

We pressed on northwards, crossing the Columbia River on the spectacular Highway 101 bridge, checked out the little beach towns of Ilwaco, Seaview and Long Beach but decided to put off the drive out the long peninsula to Leadbetter Point for another visit on a day with more interesting light.

Shoreline at Astoria in brush and ink

(Above) A tiny island standing on the mud flats of Willapa Bay, Washington, 2012.

(Left) On that previous trip down the coast, in 1998, I was struck by the amount of fishing and oystering that occupied every nook and cranny of Willapa Bay and Gray's Harbour. On a foggy morning, workers in gumboots were raking clams out of the mud. We didn't see any of that this time, although there was the evidence of oyster netting all the way along Willapa Bay.

(Below) In 1998, Brady's Oysters had a picturesque set of buildings along the shore at Bay City. I wonder if it's still there. We didn't go that way – that is, out to Grayland and Wesport – this time. And I recall in one town a pile of oyster shells along the shoreline by a boat dock; can't remember where it was. It, the dock and the processing plant may have disappeared altogether.

(Above) a fish camp at Teal Slough on Willapa Bay in 1998, still there in 2012.
(Below) From 1998, a cottage on the dunes at Tokeland, and a freshly painted building at South Bend. Raymond, South Bend and Aberdeen all seem to have fallen even deeper into hard times ....

(Above) In 1998, I was amused by the number of tiny Espresso shacks – nothing like them exists in Canada, but they were everywhere along the highways in Washington then and remain so today.

(Below) Joe's Bar in Bucoda, Washington, in 1998. It was a quiet weekday evening with just a couple of guys playing pool in the back room and Shania Twain singing on the TV. "Bucoda Rocks" graffiti in the bathroom – rocks whom? Sue the bartender was cleaning up, getting all her chores done early so she could go home as soon as possible after closing time. She had to be up to drive the school bus the following morning!

The motel in downtown Olympia provided an overnight stopping-place and was just a few-block walk from a variety of restaurants. At first blush, it looked well-maintained and quiet ... always, with a motel, you're never really sure what you're going to get, as Janet Leigh discovered when she stopped at the Bates Motel all those years ago.

The manager took one look at us and said, "I'll put you here, right above the office." Okay, we said, although that room was closest to the road. "I always put the quiet people up above me, and you look pretty quiet." He left a half-expressed thought dangling in the air, but we thought no more of it.

A half-hour later, as we were walking out to look for a restaurant, we got an inkling of what he was talking about. Two very aged bikers, probably too old to control their Harleys, shuffled by on the catwalk. And, down at the end of the catwalk, staring over the balcony, there was a shirtless guy with wild hair, his pants halfway down his ass and a good few inches of black undies showing above the waistband. Thank goodness for the undies. He looked like he was waiting for more party animals to arrive. Men without shirts (anywhere but the beach) = trouble, or at least noise.

In the event, his party buddies didn't arrive, or we were so tired we slept through, but we spotted him at 9 the following morning, looking brutally hung-over, as we got into the car to continue the journey.

[As mentioned above, the image of the motel is a total digital painting; that is, there was no preliminary drawing on paper. The pen on a Bamboo Create takes a bit of practice to manipulate and, like all the Wacom tablets except the most expensive one, you're drawing 'blind' – looking at the image on the screen as you draw on the tablet, rather than looking at your hand and the pen moving over a drawing. It's interesting because you can switch modes and fill in blocks of colour fairly easily, then draw over them to highlight or add texture. A challenge is the inability to turn (rotate) your "piece of paper" – the tablet itself – the way most people do when they're drawing on paper. You can move the tablet only a little to make it easier for your hand to move along difficult angles. Interesting technology, but I found I wanted to go back to the visceral sense of a pencil making a mark on paper, of ink or paint from a brush, as soon as I could.

Two pencil drawings from the food court of a shopping mall, killing time....

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Artwork & text Michael Kluckner, 1998-2012