The Nancy Who Drew Buildings*

9th St. upper half

9th St. Park Slope, Brooklyn

I got into rendering buildings because one night I drew a candleholder. A ceramic candleholder with a reddish-brown glaze and a braided handle, not the sort of thing you’d think would launch a career drawing Manhattan real estate. But I happened to be married at the time, and my husband’s cousin bought and sold buildings, and he was over at our apartment that night. While the two of them were watching the sports in the living room, I was at my desk in the dining room practicing pen and ink by drawing a candleholder. When the cousin was leaving they had to pass through the dining room, and they stopped to see what I was working on. The drawing was almost finished by then and it wasn’t bad. That was when the cousin said, “Can you draw buildings too?”

As it happened, he’d bought a rundown three-story building on First Avenue, and all the defects—the peeling paint and chipped moldings—were glaringly obvious in the photographs. He said he would pay me twenty-five dollars if I could draw it for him in pen and ink. I jumped at the chance. I had only recently taken up art again, and no one had offered me money before. Twenty-five dollars doesn’t sound like much today, but this was 1978, when it was worth fifty subway tokens—more like a hundred dollars in today’s money.

What luck, I thought. My first commission! He said the building was on the southeast corner, so the following afternoon when it would get the sun, I took pad and pencils, plus ruler and eraser, and sat on a little stool across the street from the building, away from all the people passing by. The building was painted white, and though it hadn’t seen much love in a long time, it retained the grace and charm of an earlier age. I shut out the noise of traffic and tried not to be distracted by all the movement on a busy corner in New York City. I was so absorbed in my work I didn’t notice the bus stop on the corner, or the sudden appearance of a mass of children coming off the bus, or the little boy coming towards me until he was standing next to me, asking innocently, “What are you drawing?”

I didn’t look up. I didn’t sense any danger. I thought he was just a curious schoolboy. So, I kept my head down and went on with my work as I answered, “I’m drawing that building across the street.”

I should have looked at him. Because before I knew what was happening, he was grabbing my hand, saying, “Can I help?” Pressing down hard on my hand, he forced my pencil to make an indelible black zigzag all over the paper. Then he let go, and laughed, and ran off down the street.

The lines were dark and heavy. Even if I could have erased them, the pressure of his hand had dented the smooth vellum. The picture was ruined. Such mindless destruction astonished me. I was more upset by such wanton damage than I was by the thought of having to throw away hours of work.

The following day I returned with my husband’s Polaroid camera and never attempted to sketch outside again. It was too risky. Working indoors with no distractions went faster anyway. As I steadily improved I raised my price, and over the years I found enough clients to enable me to quit doing office temp work and earn my living as a freelance artist. This was possible in the 1980s. Commissions dried up by the end of the decade when scanners came out, followed by digital photography and Photoshop. But I had it good for a while. For examples of my work at that time, please visit my pages HERE and HERE.

Still, drawing buildings was work, and however much I came to appreciate architecture and take pleasure in it, many years passed before I thought of drawing architecture for the sheer joy of it, adding my own interpretation, such as for the Philip Johnson building on 56th Street and Madison Avenue, headquarters of the AT&T building at the time.

Fast forward to the present in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I have lived now for a quarter of a century. I’ve had the occasional commission, but more often I’ve chosen subjects from my own neighborhood. Many are posted HERE. Then, a couple of years ago I had fresh inspiration to commemorate this landmark district when I joined The Sketchbook Project, an international yearly event where every sketchbook submitted finds permanent shelf-space at the Brooklyn Art Library located in Williamsburg. I will be teaching a drawing class there later this month, and another one in January and February. Information HERE.

Meanwhile, I think back on that ceramic candleholder with the braided handle that started it all. A candleholder with a base to catch the dripping wax as you carried it through dark rooms, lighting the way as it were. I no longer have the candleholder or the drawing I made of it forty years ago. But when I think of it now, I think of the lighted candle that was missing. The candle that even though it wasn’t there, the thought that it could be was. For what is a candleholder without a candle. And what is a candle without a light. So, even if it wasn’t there, it was lighting a new path. Setting the stage for a new possible. And I jumped at the chance.

7th Ave9th St 29th StThese are a few drawings done in October 2017. For more, please visit my FaceBook page, Painting Park Slope.

*The title of this blog, The Nancy Who Drew Buildings, is a riff on the title of my memoir, “The Nancy Who Drew,” the memoir that solved a mystery.

7th St. 2

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Filtering the World

PPW #4An art teacher once said each attempt to create an experience on canvas or paper, “is imagination reaching outward to filter the world.” This is true even if one is not seeking to ‘imagine’ anything but only ‘copying’ the entrance to the building around the corner and filtering out everything else.

Here is an entrance out of context, unrelated to the noise and rush of the city, the shifting light, the passersby. Here are only lines and shapes, crevices and protrusions. The grand flourishes and ornate details circa 1900 as they appear on a six-story apartment building in Brooklyn that overlooks the park.

You will find it on Prospect Park West between 8th and 9th Street. People go in and out or walk by it, cars and bikes whizz by. Who stops to stare and marvel at Brooklyn in the Beaux Arts style? I never did until the other day, and I only live around the corner.

The art teacher also said: “Perception is not passively given us; it is a continually expanding interaction and engagement, both mental and physical, with the world… What a writer or painter undertakes in each work of art is an experiment whose hoped for outcome is an expanded knowing.”

Exactly. By following the lines and measuring them, leaving the lights and filling in the darks, familiarizing myself with details as I seek to copy what has already been created, I’ve expanded my knowledge of what was once just another apartment building around the corner. And somehow made it my building too. It’s called filtering the world, one drawing at a time.

PPW #3So I drew the one next to it too, because they’re similar and look like a pair, and take me back to a time of grand flourishes and needless decorations of the sort that Howard Roark would have loathed… But he needn’t have worried, because who looks or notices them now but an artist who happens to live around the corner…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Personal Items: Desk

my deskNow that I’ve settled on calling the sequel, The Nancy Who Drew the Way Home, I started to think about what the concept of home means to me now. In the book it’s a metaphor for soul consciousness. It took place thirty years ago, and it’s where the story ends, in 1987.

1987 was a long time ago! The story is about how and why I became I an artist, and what happened then. In the years since then, as well as entering into motherhood, I became a writer. I live with memories of what “home” meant when I was growing up, and what it meant when I was married and raising a child of my own. Now, after spending the better part of two decades writing about the long ago past, it feels refreshing to look around me and draw and describe particular objects that represent “home.”

The first that came to mind is the secretary desk that’s followed me about for the last 40 years. It’s where you’ll find me first thing in the morning with coffee, and last place at night with tea. I will be seated on an old chair with a new cushion at this beat-up secretary desk made of yew wood.

The glass doors of the bookcase are gone. The back has fallen off too. It lies behind, gathering dust on the floor against the wall. From this drawing you can’t see the nicks or the missing pieces of molding, but it makes no difference to my writing or typing, sketching or scribbling, reading or dreaming, streaming movies or music, sometimes eating, texting, or talking on the phone.

The drawers under the drop-leaf hold treasures from the past. The framed photos on the top shelf of the child who grew up are from the past too. And in between are books and staplers and paper and envelopes and a multitude of writing instruments lounging about in their canisters. Because I’ll always remember the day long ago when the desk was new and shiny and I sat before it with a tear-stained map trying to figure out a route to the coast where I could drive my car off a cliff into the sea. And then a week after that when I sat down to write out a dream that made me realize I knew things inside. But the only way I’d ever find out what that knowledge was, was through writing or drawing. So I always made sure I had plenty of paper and the tools to mark it up with. And though I found other desks and easels for drawing and painting, the writing has mostly been done here, at this very desk that has witnessed it all.

Yew wood. Because I would. I would live and express and describe and perceive and wonder and despair, and then not despair. And wonder and express some more. Seated at this silent, stable pile of wood first seen gleaming fresh and new under a spotlight at Harrods.

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Drawing Leaves

red leavesFor this lover of fall, October can never come too soon. But alas, after only one chilly week, summer has asserted herself once more with warm humid days we haven’t quite seen the end of yet. So, though not many leaves have fallen, I managed to catch a few.

Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale. ~ Lauren DeStefano

leaf drawingAutumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. ~ Albert Camus

 

 

 

 

 

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. ~ L.M. Montgomeryleaves

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Notes on a Sequel

dense growth

The Thicket by N. Wait ~ representing the density to penetrate in order to awaken my own ‘sleeping beauty’ within. 

It might have begun as wishful thinking, naming the sequel, “The Nancy Who Drew the Way Home,” but I will be keeping it. It started out as a working title, one I thought I’d have figured out by the time I reached the end. And now that I’ve actually reached that end, what can I say except that to draw and paint is to find “a way home.” It doesn’t preclude an arrival, but it doesn’t promise one either.  And yet, to draw the way—that is something in itself. Something to celebrate, or at least remark upon. Especially if you’d been as lost as I was then.

The sequel begins where the first book left off, when I returned to New York after seven years as an actress in England. I’d given up the acting life and was resolved to learn secretarial skills and have a regular job. In the late seventies, even with the low pay of secretary-receptionist I could afford my own three-room apartment in mid-town Manhattan. Less than two hundred dollars a month it was, and New York still resembled the city I had grown up in. But that’s all by-the-by.

Perhaps there is some truth to the saying that in order to find yourself, you have to keep losing yourself. Because to begin to “draw the way home,” I would have to leave Manhattan and move to Brooklyn where I didn’t know anyone and the terrain was so completely different it might as well have been a foreign country. Isolation and loneliness may not sound appealing, but it was being thrown back on myself that allowed for those stepping stones of painted canvases to come into being. It was a journey down, not across, and when I reached the bottom it wasn’t drawing or painting that would take me up again. It was writing. I had to put down the brush and pick up the pen. And learn to write about what I had drawn. For I had gone to the depths of my subconscious, and only more consciousness would bring me back. The kind of consciousness that for me could only come from writing down the specifics of thoughts and feelings, and what led up to them. And what happened afterwards. The truth as I experienced it then.

Art allowed me to enter into those non-linear, non-rational states of consciousness to explore the unseen worlds of my imagination. Then ‘people’ looked at what I had done and had their own thoughts and interpretations, their own likes and dislikes, which is fine and to be expected. But for me, writing the story behind the pictures, what caused this one to come into being and why I painted that one, was to take charge of my interior life in an entirely different way. And to own it.

Life can strip you of everything. What it cannot do is take away your inner being. For that is yours and yours alone.   

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July 2017

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See Ding! Hear Dong!

Painter 1980I have not been the same since the eclipse last week. I stayed inside, though as I was working I kept looking out the window to see if there was any change in the light. There wasn’t much in New York, but you could feel the atmosphere changing. It wasn’t until I saw the photos and videos—specifically the ones where the moon completely covered the sun and there was a halo of light around the darkness, and then a light popped out…like a diamond ring, and something about that popped out at me too. Something went DING! So, in short, I’ve been playing out the DONG! part of the “ring” “tone”—this whole past week, hearing the 2nd part of the bell, ever since. The sound when the dinger comes back for the dong.

In this upswing, upsurge of energy we’re experiencing, everything seems magnified—because it is, actually. Positive as well as negative emotions come through in greater intensity, “flooding” the system in some cases…

But, since I am currently writing, i.e., my “current” is a highly focused stream of consciousness, (has been more or less for the past 20 years) I’ve learned the lesson of moderation. But, I’ve needed outside help, and thankfully it’s there on YouTube in the sounds of the sea and my favorite horn player. (Right now I’m staring at this screen, but listening to the screen on my right playing “Gentle ocean waves” while the tides roll in on a sandy beach in Wales…)

And what popped out at me most recently was this photo from 1980 when my “sitter” turned the tables on me. I was the portrait artist—he was the sitter. I was the one in charge of doing his picture. It was me giving the commands. Me holding the brush in one hand, the palette in the other, duplicating his form and presence. And how I gloried in it, this former actress who for years had been bossed around by her Directors—move here, now there, now say your line this way, and on and on… “Can you give it more *?#%!*” and so on and so forth, and I was happy to oblige because it was for the good of the ‘show.’ For the pleasure of the audience. And we were there to please/confront/explain/suggest/tease/titillate/entertain – and everything else you expect when you come to a ‘show.’ But I’d switched. Instead of being on the stage, I was behind the easel—watching you/them/the models/the sitters. And what a relief it was. “Don’t look at Me, let me look at You now…” And they did. And so, here I am/was, wearing a green tee-shirt with the word Freedom and in the middle was/is a cross. I’m not religious, and I’m not sure how I came by that shirt, but I know I liked Freedom blazing across the front. And if it came with a cross—Fine. I thought I was free now. In charge, and all that…

So along comes this man, this sitter, this man who also happened to be my teacher and gave a lot of talks sitting in one of those canvas Director’s chairs. And he had commissioned me to paint his portrait. When I said, “Can you bring your director’s chair? I’d like to paint you sitting in your chair,” it was no sooner said than done. Ah-ha! thought I. I’ve got the Director sitting in his director’s chair—in My studio, under My crystalline gaze. And I got on with my work, painting and painting away, when suddenly he pulls out his camera and starts clicking the shutter.

I ignored him and went on with my work. Men and their cameras! (&%#*$?+)

A few weeks later he gave me this 8×10 glossy. And all I could think of was Wow. Legs apart, feet firmly planted on the Floor, palette thrust in front of me, arm hidden behind the canvas, and me not looking to please him. Me, with focused passion and total commitment. What a gift he gave me. But then, his name was Gavin. I gave in to his giving. And he showed me this side of myself. Oh, Men and their cameras…and what they shoot… I can see it more clearly now, now that I’ve developed my own two lenses. With the help of my glasses. (“Four-eyes,” they used to call me –when they weren’t calling me “bug-eyes” or “pop-eyes.”)

Well, I’m glad I stuck around long enough to see the light pop out of the dark moon on a bright sunny day across the Americas.

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