On a Saturday morning, Grasshopper Sparrow and I went down to Stanford University to do some urban sketching.
We parked near the Oval and headed towards the Center of Visual Arts. A red-tail hawk was very vocal from above and we soon found out why as a much larger golden eagle flew low over the museum, circling up on rising rounds and then disappearing to the south. This had to be a great sketching omen!
Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone River (2001) is a touchstone in my sketching world. As I have written before, a touchtone is subject that I return to again and again. Usually a touchstone is a building, a bird, or a piece of sculpture; something that is not going anywhere, anytime soon and can be sketched from different perspectives. This was my third time sketching this outdoor sculpture on the Stanford campus and I was excited to share the experience with Grasshopper!
After about a 20 minute sketch I called up a fellow teacher from my school who lives on the Stanford campus. She was Grasshopper’s favorite 3rd grade teacher and rumor has it, that I was his favorite 4th grade teacher. She was home and invited us over. She happens to be one of my favorite people.
We walked through campus and had a lovely time in Mrs. Fayer’s backyard, from ten feet of course! To see the care and love Mrs. Fayer had for her former student was inspiring! This was no idle, simple conversation here. She challenged Grasshopper and asked about his hopes and dreams. When he answered, she dug deeper. It reminded me that all good teachers are also students that never stop learning; about their students or former students (there really is no difference) and life.
On Sunday I wanted to sketch another Goldsworthy touchstone in the Presidio. This was the wooden sculpture called Spire (2008). Goldsworthy has four pieces in the Presidio and I have sketched them all. The last time I sketched Spire was in December 2010.
I parked at Inspiration Point on Arguello Boulevard. I looked up at Spire against the gray summer skies of San Francisco and when I saw some of the trails barricaded off, I should have known something was wrong. Perhaps just another closed area during the ongoing pandemic.
It was a typical gray day in western San Francisco at this time of year, when colors are drained of vibrance and contrast is muted. Spire looked just the same as ever before. Then I noticed that the area around Spire was fenced off and people were milling about as if before some somber memorial. Not a spire then but a funeral pyre.
I found out from one of the visitors that Spire had been burned in an act of arson on the morning of June 23 (2020). It is unclear if this fire was part of the recent protests in the City or if it was set by illegal fireworks. At least the piece is still standing in a somewhat altered and charred state. Andy Goldsworthy, often the creator of ephemeral works, commented on the burning of Spire:
The burning of “Spire” goes too deep for my own words. Besides “Spire” has always spoken for itself and will perhaps now speak with an even greater eloquence after what has happen. If anything, its epitaph will be better written in the memories, thoughts and words of those who have lived with it over the past twelve years.
I would also add that it is also “written in the memories, though, words, and sketchbooks“. This response from the artist to what could be viewed as a tragedy is, well, very Goldworthian. His pieces are always subject to the elements and time, whether from the wind and rain or at the hands of an arsonist.
“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” ~Andy Goldsworthy
During shelter-in-place I made some time in the evenings to rewatch some of my favorite movies.
These consisted of independent films, foreign language films, and documentaries. Here is a short list of some of the films I have watched recently: Amelie, Being There, Butterfly (La lengua de las mariposas), Chariots of Fire, Cria Cuevis, Delicatessen, The Fog of War, The Lives of Others, Odd Man Out, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Third Man, Spirited Away, Sunset Boulevard, and Rivers and Tides.
The last is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen about the artistic process (and a profile of an amazing artist.) This 2001 documentary was filmed, edited and directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer and it’s full title is Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time.
The English sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy, is an artist I am familiar with because I have sketched many of his pieces in the Bay Area. His medium is nature and his sculptures are often ephemeral, being destroyed (he would say altered) by the wind, rain, and the rising tide.
Rewatching Rivers and Tides, made me want to go out into the San Lorenzo watershed and make a sculpture out of nature. To do that, I needed river rocks and there was no better beach for this than Rocky Beach.
I headed upstream from the beach to Upper Rocky Beach, to gather stones. I tried to “shake hands” with the place and the stone and I worked on making a stone cairn, a pale imitation of Goldsworthy’s work.
Once I finished my Apprentice-piece, I sat down and sketched the work, much like Goldsworthy does. I do love sketching rocks, attempting to get the lines, contours, and textures onto paper.
Many of the train stations I had sketched recently were designed and built in a Spanish Mission Revival style: Burlingame, Salinas, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Truly the best way to understand an architectural style or architect is to sit in front of a building and sketch it.
And so, on a Friday afternoon, I headed to the Presidio, in the northwest corner of San Francisco, to sketch one of the finer examples of Spanish Mission Revival in the City of Saint Francis. I was also getting back into the habit of doing an after work sketch, which is a great way to decompress from the week’s work.
My subject was Fort Winfield Scott and the buildings that lined the parade grounds. These were the army barrack buildings built between 1910 and 1912 as the headquarters for the Coast Artillery District. I walked around the semi-circle of buildings until one spoke to me. It really wasn’t too hard because it was the only building with a hawk at its height.
I set up my sketching chair on the parade ground and started to sketch building 1202. This was a former Army barrack built in 1911, and housed up to 95 to 109 soldiers.
I framed in the lovely lines of the barracks and added the red-tailed hawk at the top of the curve. The raptor flew to the field, this time coming up with only grasses in its talons. The hawk flew off only to appear later at the top of the flag pole at the edge of the grounds.
Building 1202 now houses the Presidio Graduate School and the World Economic Forum. Both sound a bit mysterious. People kept coming and going from the building. Some where getting on their bikes to ride home. A young woman bikerider stopped and asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was drawing the building and noted that that it was beautiful. She replied that she was “spoiled” to work in the building. These are the nice little conversations you frequently have when urban sketching, it really seems to take out the threat and the isolation of being in the city when people see your sketching.￼
The British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy seems to like creating work in San Francisco and he shows a fondness for the Presidio. In all of its 2.3 square miles, the Presidio is home to four of Goldsworthy’s works.
The Presidio, which is nestled into the northwest corner of San Francisco, is a former military post going back to the very birth of the United States. In 1776, it was built as a military base for New Spain. It later transferred to the United Sates in 1848 and on October 1, 1994 it was decommissioned as a military post and transferred to the National Park Service, ending 219 years of a military presence.
What to do with a former military base in prime real estate? How about some art?
I first became aware of Goldsworthy’s work by looking through his monographs at Green Apple Books. I later saw the documentary Andy Goldsworthy Rivers and Tides (2004). This is one of the best documentaries to capture the struggles and passions of the artistic process. Around this time he was being commissioned to do works in San Francisco, the first that came to my attention was Drawn Stone (2005) at the entrance to the new de Young Museum.
So on one Wednesday I headed out to the southeast corner of the Presidio to do an After-Work Sketch. My subject was Wood Line (2011). This Goldsworthy piece sinuously snakes through a eucalyptus grove in what the artist defined as a piece that “draws the place”. I set up my camp chair and started my sketch in the golden fading light. This was my second attempt at sketching this piece. The first time I fitted Wood Line into a vertical spread, this time I decided to go landscape. I used a bit of sketcher shorthand as I kept the sketch to the simple form of the piece and the eucs in close proximity. In other words: I had to leave a lot of information out.
This sketch was much more serene and peaceful than the previous time I attempted to draw the sculpture, which was on a Saturday afternoon when hordes of families and couples taking engagement photos filled the grove. There were few people around and there were no interruptions like my previous sketching experience at Stanford. To add a new layer, a great horned owl started to call at 4:35 from the eucalyptus trees off to my right.
Tree Fall (left) and Earth Wall (right) are two new recent Goldsworthy pieces right off Main Post. Tree Fall is unusual because it is inside a Civil War era powder magazine and is only open on weekends. Earth Wall is in a courtyard of the Presidio’s Officer’s Club.
Spire (2006) was Goldsworthy’s first piece in the Presidio. This is a sketch from December 29, 2010. I have sketched all of Goldsworthy’s permanent works in San Francisco, but the epicenter of Goldsworthy in San francisco will always be the Presidio.