Saturday Sketchy: Vacation Artist

The weeks before Christmas were a flurry of packages arriving on our doorstep. Avoiding crowds and malls we’d done much of our shopping online, tho less shopping than usual overall. Not all those packages were gifts, however. I’d snuck an order of some sketch supplies into my incoming parcels, including a fresh moleskine watercolour book and a pack of new ink pens.

I had a plan and a goal for vacation. As the first trip out of the country in almost three years, I was determined to document it in art.

Now to be clear, dreams and ambitions aside, if anyone googles this post wondering “can you sketch in Disney” or looking for “urban sketching tips for theme parks” up front I’m going to suggest it is impractical… unless that’s why you went there.

If you don’t care about rides or are committed to be the guy who sits holding a spot on the curb for the fireworks or a parade, maybe you’ll have lots of time to draw.

My family never sat still long enough to do that. I had discussed my interest in doing this with my wife prior to our trip, but boots on the ground in the Magic Kingdom that first day, even tho I had my sketch supplies in my backpack, I would have had a couple sketches of her tapping her foot impatiently on the ground while reminding me how short the day was. Reality did not align with my vision.

Unlike a quiet travel holiday to a beautiful city, I would posit, vacation in a theme park is not about quiet contemplation while sipping a cup of coffee, pencil in hand.

Instead I opted to start looking for things to sketch later from a snapshot. Admittedly this was a bit cheating on the strict urban sketch rulebook, but I always drew stuff on the same day I saw it and I think in my “still just learning” mode that’s okay.

(On a side note, outside the parks, I did do some situational drawings live from a bench or table, so I’m satisfied with the chance for that opportunity at least.)

As it turns out I found strength in drawing a couple specific things: signage and wide scenes with people in them.

Signage is a curious thing in Disney World. There is a blend of actual and meaningful directional and informational signs on one hand, while on the other there are countless signs that are purely decorative and part of the theme for whatever “land” you happen to be in. This makes for some very geometrically interesting walls or signposts that are fun to sketch but also subtly unique to the place and space. For example, in one part of Animal Kingdom there are areas devoted to Africa and Asia where signage is designed to advertise make-believe tours through the jungle or made up vendors in a marketplace facade, but mixed in among that is a real sign for mobile food orders from the kiosk or directions to the washroom. A blend of fake and fun and real makes for a very Disney subject.

As far as crowds and people go, it’s fair to say it’s been tough to find strangers to sketch these days. I find myself very limited in the groups I’m around and for the last couple years lacking in opportunity to sit somewhere public and sketch real live humans. For better or worse, or whatever your opinion of the state of the world right now, Disney seems to blur the fear that many seem to feel about gathering these days. There were crowds in abundance. This added to the complexity of finding a rare seat from which a sketching opportunity might have occurred, but my photo-now draw-later approach netted a positive number of crowds in cool places scenes worthy of an hour or two of drawing back at the hotel.

Over the autumn I’d bought a book called “Drawing Expressive People” which offered some useful if somewhat vague, learn-by-example guidance and has let me leap into the rewarding realm of drawing people in public. As a result these are still rough but are among some of my favourite sketches from the vacation.

The results are the best part tho.

I’m back home with that moleskine notebook now three-quarters filled with vacation art, and in person holding it in my hands there is no comparison between the pics I’m able to share of that art folio and the real thing. It is a unique and beautiful souvenir of a weird and crazy vacation, created almost entirely as a result of being somewhere and finding moments to sketch and paint those things.

It makes me want to improve and repeat and keep creating more like it. Precious and priceless, perhaps just to me, but a perfect vacation artist effort just the same.

ohhhh … ‘merica

I’ve been thinking about our recent trip to (and back from) Florida and how it fits into the core context of this blog … because, frankly, it doesn’t much, really.

I mean, I ran. I raced in three official races with start lines and medals and free bananas at the end and everything. This, of course, is something I consider on topic for this blog.

I also did a lot of sketching in my off hours. I’ve written a bit about sketching in the past, and so again, that’s something that is mostly on topic as well.

But then the rest of the time I spent in and around a theme park. I didn’t cook. I didn’t camp. I didn’t season a single cast iron pan. And to be completely honest, what we did wasn’t so much “travelling” as it was “vacationing.”

Or, to be fair, the trip was split about ninety-ten vacation to travel.

The travel parts? Well, for example, we made a couple trips to Florida grocery stores to stock up on quick breakfasts and race fuel and cheap drinking water.

For the most part, shopping for food in a foreign country is pretty routine. But I’ve been in food stores all over Europe and the UK, Iceland, and multiple places throughout North America.

And it’s the little things that throw you off.

Like, for example in the UK, eggs are not refrigerated.

No big deal, but it’s just enough jarring to remind you that you are in a foreign country.

In Florida (albeit I took the photos attached to this post two days before New Years Eve) I could have loaded up my basket with as many fireworks as I could carry. Back in Canada fireworks are treated like Grade A contraband with (I assume) thirty seven pages of government paperwork required to even discuss buying fireworks, let alone actually exchanging hard cash for explosives alongside my blueberry muffins.

As my daughter pointed out, mostly because we wouldn’t let her buy any, there were also a lot of doughnuts to be had among the shelves and aisles of the two markets where we shopped.

One particular Publix where we bought our first round of groceries was an anchor store for a cluster of smaller stores, one of which was a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. Yet, fear not, those same doughnuts could be purchased inside the grocery store saving busy shoppers a five minute stroll to the stand-alone doughnut store.

None of this is judgemental, by the way.

I mean, I’ll take a fried egg and some sourdough toast over a glazed doughnut for breakfast every time. Ten times out of ten. Not interested in chocolate frosting with my morning coffee. But then that’s how I was raised and what I like, and that’s why we travel … to see those little cultural differences, no?

Back inside the park there was a cultural uniformity that comes from existing inside the boundaries of a massive corporate juggernaut like Disney World for nearly two weeks. One tends to forget for a bit that it takes effort to actually leave the park, when even back at one’s pirate-themed hotel room, one is still in Disney, enveloped by the intellectual property and profit-driven fantasy world of such a vacation.

Yet, even in that, snippets of travel are possible, and as simple as exploring a more real part of the country and culture surrounding that park with something as simple as a trip to buy fruit and cheese at the grocery store.

Travel Tuesday: Magic Kingdom-ish

I’ve been a terrible daily blogger, but if you read my previous post a little over a week ago you already know that I just spent the last two weeks in Florida.

We’re home.

Fifteen hours in transit yesterday. Two flights. Three airports. Two COVID-19 tests. Virtually no food (thanks to supply chain troubles at the airports.) And a couple hours of jet lag, to top it all off.

Ahhhh … remind me again why I missed travelling so much?

I joke.

Mostly.

Traveling during a pandemic was a choice we made late last month with very heavy hearts. I don’t want to appear cavalier about it. We didn’t know even up until the departure morning when we woke up at 4am and got on the plane southbound that we were still going. We had a bailout plan right until the Orlando flight boarded. Ultimately came down to balancing personal risk, losing a lot of money if we cancelled, and setting some lowered expectations around the trip activities overall.

But. I have just spent the last two weeks wearing a medical grade N95 mask every time (no, every time) I was in public … and oh boy, were we ever in public. My face is chapped. My hands are raw from sanitizer. My mind is blurry from cognitive dissonance of immersing myself in that for so long and then coming back to almost-lockdown locally at home. I’m not sure I want to turn this post or blog into a rant about the mixed narratives being woven in Florida (and Disney World itself to be honest) about the severity of the pandemic, personal accountability, a culture of individual liberty, and the politicization of health care, but I just Jungle Cruised through the epicenter of pandemic insanity and survived to tell the tale.

I feel like I could write a few things worth reading.

At the core of our vacation, however, was doing the right things in the middle of the big wrong one. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, even having tested negative and made it home sans COVID, I think we probably should have cancelled. But we made a hundred choices each day about masks, touching surfaces, where to eat, how to transport from hotel to park and back again, when to be around other people, and when to pull the ripcord and just go back to the isolation of the hotel no matter how much fun it seemed like we were missing.

I’m going to let it all settle in a bit first, and over the next days and weeks I’ll likely write a lot about the recent travel experiences and opinions before getting back into the food and cast iron posts.

I had these dreams of writing great missives about our adventures directly from Florida, but in the blur of everything else, the days filled with theme parks and food and sketching (I did do a lot of sketching) sitting down to blog about it all just … fell by the wayside.

Plus, announcing that I wasn’t at home online didn’t seem like the smartest choice for many reasons including both home security and seeming to flout restrictions.

Turtle Power

Sunday runday and on my solo five klick shakeout I paused beside path to watch a turtle the size of a football basking in Florida sunshine.

Also, it was nearly fifty degrees celsius warmer than the last time I ran oudoors a little more than a week ago. I haven’t been that sweaty from running five kilometers since the heat of last summer. I could have taken a dip beside that turtle and …

The runaway train of vacation planning never actually found a means of slamming on the brakes and the next thing I knew I was boarding an international flight to Orlando with my face wrapped tightly in a N95 surgical respirator and wondering, sometimes aloud, at the bounds of my own sanity.

Back in the summer, when all things virus had seemed to be packing its bags and getting ready to move out of the basement like all uninvited houseguest should eventually do, we registered in a series of Disney World Marathon run events.

Then we eagerly booked a vacation around that … and waited.

It all went great from there, right? Well … no. We watched anxiously as a viral variant named Omicron washed a new wave of panic all across the world. Triple-vaccinated and packing a smuggler’s haul worth of PPE, we warily tracked the news and tripped over ourselves justifying taking the trip versus the stupidly high costs of cancelling it and just wallowing in pity at ourselves from the safety of our frozen house. A dozen times we came a turtle’s breath away from calling the whole thing off, swallowing the thousands of dollars of lost travel spends, and buying a big bottle of bubbly for new years eve to forget the whole thing and …

And.

And yet, here we are.

And here I am on a Sunday morning, looking out at a resort swimming pool after a five klick shakeout run, sipping a six dollar cup of takeway coffee, having spent the last four days wandering through the densely packed, pandemic-oblivious theme parks of Disney World and giving myself blisters and aches and pains and overwhelming anxiety and exhaustion in the process.

There are a number of smooth and flat walking trails just out the front door of our hotel, winding around lagoons and restaurants and wire-suspended gondolas, leading into and around and between Epcot and a make-believe Star Wars lands. As thousands of racers congregate here over the next few days for races starting later this week, I saw dozens of fellow runners out on the boardwalks and asphalts. I even saw some of the race crew flagging locations for aid stations and mile markers and marshalling points.

We have a couple days to cool off. A few more days of park-hopping and pool lounging. We pick up our race packages mid-week and run before the weekend starts in earnest. I’m wondering how I’m going to tackle a half marathon I didn’t really train for, on which I’m banking on residual fitness and sheer determination, plodding along at a turtle’s pace to finish the thing on pure willpower.

This morning on my tour of the hotel trails, weaving around families walking towards the park gates, and as I trotted by wearing my 2014 Disney Half Marathon running shirt, one of the race setup workers looked up, pointed and snapped a photo of me from his phone. I smiled. It was probably the only time I’ve been out in public this week without a mask so it took a moment to remember how. I guess if you see a sweaty forty-something guy smirking akwardly on the runDisney socials this week … maybe it’s me?

Or maybe I should have posed with my new friend the turtle. I’d bet we have more in common these days than we realize.