The Cinematic Missions

In this post I will cover the three cinematic missions: San Francisco de Asis, San Juan Bautista and San Fernando Rey. Two missions are in Northern California and the other in the Southern part of the state. All three missions where featured in classic films, one film representing a master filmmaker at his height of his powers and the other a  director’s promising start . Missions San Francisco and San Juan Bautista were both featured in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958). Jimmy Stewart as Scottie, follows the mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak) to Mission Dolores (the 6th mission and San Francisco’s oldest building) , where Novak visits a grave. The grave of “Carlotta Valdes” was a movie prop and was left over after the film but was eventually removed because it was deemed disrespectful to those buried at the mission.

San Juan Bautista 2

The climax of Vertigo was filmed at the 15th mission, San Juan Bautista. (Spoiler Alert!) Many fans of the film visiting the mission ask to see the tower where Novak plummets to her death is located . Did this tower get destroyed in an earthquake? (The San Andreas Fault is less that 100 yards from the mission). The tower is another cinematic ghost because it was really a matte painting added on in post production. Two objects used in the film still exist. Theyare in the stable across the square from the mission. There you will find the buggy and the plaster horse replica where Stewart gives his “there is an answer of everything” speech.


The southern Mission, San Fernando Rey, was the stand in or stunt double,  for the Alamo in Tim Burton’s first feature length film: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). “Basement? There’s no basement in the Alamo!”I guess it’s no surprise that this mission is linked with show business because Bob Hope is buried here.

San Fernando

This spread was the last in my Mission Rally.The final field sketch was of the rather creepy statue of Father Serra walking with his arm around a scantily clad native boy.


Mission #1

My first post from  Mission Rally 2014 is the first mission in Alta (Upper) California: San Diego de Alcala. This mission has a classic campanario (bell wall) and a brilliant white facade which is now iconic and says “California Spanish Mission”. This is a stool sketch, which means that I sketched it from a portable REI three legged camp stool. The benefit of using a stool is that I get to choose the perspective whereas general speaking, the perspective is already chosen for me with the placement of a bench or picnic table.

I also sketched an odd Father Serra statue. Father Junipero Serra is the founder of the California missions and while he did not found all twenty one he raised the cross at this mission on July 16, 1769. Serra’s name is all over coastal California and every mission has a statue of this prominent figure. The statue at San Diego is an odd duck. I named the statue the “Kung Fu Padre Serra”, because he looks to be in some sort of early martial arts pose. Think Chuck Norris in a robe and without hair.

While I was at this mission a group of four college students were at the first stop in their own mission rally. After visiting this mission I had four more to go. On the way out to get mission #17, I wished them luck.

Foot note:


The Kung Fu Padre Serra reminds me of another goofy Serra statue. This one is on Highway 280 at the Crystal Springs rest stop. To some people, the priest looks like he is at the local bowling alley after releasing the ball and to others they wonder what he’s pointing at. I heard that the artist wanted to donate the 26 foot tall statue to Stanford University but they didn’t want it so it was donated to Caltrans instead. I have seen many images and statues representing the famed friar and none of them look like they are of the same person. In reality there are not that many period likenesses of Serra. This bowling alley version is perhaps the strangest.


Mission Rally 2014

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. -William Butler Yeats

As a fourth grade teacher, I am charged with teaching my students about California history. The text book is good at presenting dates, maps, and a summary of events that shaped the Golden State. But for many students this approach leaves our past lifeless and seemingly nontransferable to their everyday lives. We learn better about the past by making it come alive: by seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. How can you understand what it’s like to pan for gold if you haven’t done it? Do you really know how to make an adobe brick until you try it yourself? I have always been a practitioner of living history. And I also need real world experience when I learn about our history. This is very much true for me when it comes to our 21 Spanish Missions.  To understand a mission I needed to visit a few. To have a look around and kick the tires. I first started with the local missions: San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Jose. Then branched out to the ones farther afield: Santa Cruz and Carmel. I then knew that seeing five was not enough, I must see all 21, and sketch each and every one of them. And Mission Rally 2014 was born!

I sketched my first mission (San Francisco de Asis) in December of 2013 and I just finished my last mission (San Fernando Rey) in August 2014. Over the eight months of the Mission Rally I developed a style and layout for each spread. The anchor for each drawing was the mission, which I always sketched in the field. Too often the church is considered the “mission” when in reality, the church was part of a much bigger compound. The reason for this is that the church is often times the only thing left standing. I headed the page with the name of each mission, using the font: Puritan, of course. In a mission icon I showed the number of the mission and its founding date. I supplemented the anchor field sketch with a smaller drawing, sometimes from one of my photos.

After having visited and sketched all of California’s Spanish missions, I certainly feel like I know them much better and I understand the differences in size, geography and architectural style. So when a student asks a question about a mission, I can answer with a sense of knowing, because I do know. I’ve been there and I sketched that!

Rally Route

Over the next few weeks I will be adding pages from Mission Rally 2014.



Ten years ago, August 4, 2004 to be precise, I opened a Canson all media journal to a 9 inch by 12 inch blank page. I had been inspired to start what I titled a “Nature’s sketchbook”. The genesis for this journal was an experience I had as a substitute teacher in a kindergarten classroom in San Rafael. During the “centers” part of the morning I sat at the painting station where I took up a watercolor brush for the first time in many years. The kinders were fascinated. “Wow you’re good!”, “Are you a painter?” They watched as I drew and painted cartoonish characters with a ragged haired brush and a muddied pan of children’s grade paint. Shortly afterward I bought some pens, a Windsor & Newton watercolor set, and a Canson journal. Since that time in early August I have never stopped journaling. All events, both profound and mundane, have become fodder for my journals.  In the past decade, so many of my life’s experiences have filled up journal pages to become a chronicle of a moment, an observation, a place, or an epiphany. While the desire to journal has not waned, I have traded the big 9 by 12 journals for the smaller Moleskine watercolor journals that can be easily transported in a backpack or a vest pocket. I originally went with a smaller journal for a 2008 trip to Japan. I needed something both portable and able to take watercolor washes. In the past ten years I have filled 32 journals and I currently average about three a year. My most treasured possession is whichever journal I am working on at the moment and I rarely leave home without it.

Back to the blank page that faced me ten years ago. It now holds a self portrait titled “The Artist as a Young Man Sketch’in”. I point out the various features of a sketcher like Peterson pointing out the fieldmarks of a warbler: adventure hat and pants, sketchbook, man purse, sturdy hiking boots, and a peaceful, slightly glazed look. This page gives me the strength to journal for another ten years and more, both because it shows me that I have come along way in my vision, design and skills, but also because I am essentially the same sketcher that I depicted ten years, just a little wiser and still continuing on the same journey to illustrate my life in the pages of my journals.




Bike City U.S.A.

Sketching is about slowing down and seeing and stopping to draw the metaphorical roses.

So I did the ambulatory version of sketching: I rode a bicycle. I have been in the Bike City: Davis, California. What better way to see Bike City than from the saddle of a bicycle. I must admit that I was never very impressed with Davis, its flatness, its distant proximity to a body of water, and its extreme temperatures. The campus of UC Davis was also flat and lacked an architectural cohesiveness of say a UC Santa Cruz or Berkeley. My impressions all changed when I saw Davis from a bike. I set off on my brother’s bike, early one morning at 6:40 (the predicted high for the day was 101 degrees). Davis is really made for bikes. It’s flat, every street has a bike lane, bicycle only paths flank major streets, loads of bike racks and bicycle traffic circles. The freedom of self-propelled motion was exhilarating. I was seeing campus for the first time, in the way it was supposed to be experienced. My senses were alert, I heard the scrub-jays, saw the passing cork oaks, and smelled the undefined smell of a day heating up. I passed Robert Arneson’s Eggheads, finding Stargazer in a quiet courtyard. Nearby I stopped and sketched the side of the bookstore as the shadow of a cork oak slowly stretched along the side of the building. The campus was slowing waking up. And I was also waking up to the pleasures of Bike City.



Thomas Starr King

Another Moleskine journal, another first page; Sometimes I start with a self-portrait or a poem, but this time I begin with a sketch of a statue of Thomas Starr King. Drawing a statue has its benefits. It doesn’t move, providing a good opportunity to practice the human form. But on a greater level I wanted to sketch this statue because of the man it represents. Starr King is often described as a “fiery orator” and “the orator who saved the nation”. He is credited by Lincoln for keeping California in the Union during the Civil War. Starr King, unlike Lincoln, is far from a household name. And that is exactly why this statue was created in 1931 and placed in the National Statuary Hall collection as a representative of California (along with Father Junipero Serra), just so future generations would remember his name and deeds.  The statue remained in Washington D.C. for 78 years until he was usurped by a stature of Ronald Reagan. A congressman from Orange County pushed for Reagan’s statue to be installed, no doubt unaware of Starr King’s importance to California’s legacy. One argument was that Starr King was not born in California; he was born in New York. Following that line of reasoning, the Serra statue should be removed because he was born in Majorca, Spain. And where was Reagan born? Oh yes, in the state of Illinois. Isn’t politics lovely?

This statue now sits outside on the east side of California’s state capitol building in Sacramento.  How many visitors stroll past this statue and stop to read the plaque about this important California figure? Sketching has taught me to be aware, to notice small details, to explore the backwaters, and to look at statues representing some forgotten someone.