Mansions and Tents

I enjoy sketching old houses, they have so much character! A few weeks ago I was in the Irvine Park neighborhood of St. Paul, looking at old houses. I decided to park on Exchange street and sketch a side view of the Alexander Ramsey house. Alexander Ramsey came to Minnesota in 1849. “Here he prospered, eventually serving as the state’s second governor, mayor of St. Paul, a U.S. senator, and Rutherford B. Hayes’ Secretary of War” (from the website https://www.mnhs.org/ramseyhouse). I was struck by the beauty of this large house and had to sketch it! I also sketched a turret of another house in Irvine Park…

As I left to go home, I drove south along the river and past Sibley Park. In contrast to these huge houses I had just sketched, I saw a tent encampment of homeless people along the river…. It got me thinking…”I should sketch that…”

I did a virtual meetup with Urban Sketchers Chicago last weekend. Our sketch prompt was to think about what scared us and then take the challenge and sketch that particular thing, using materials, locations, etc… that took us out of our comfort zones. I would like to do more reportage, where you sketch events and write about them. I have had the opportunity to sketch at the Women’s March in 2017, and later, March for Our Lives. Both events were powerful for me to attend and document in sketches. Lately, due to COVID and unrest, I have not been as courageous. But I remembered driving past the river in St. Paul, and the encampment of tents housing the homeless. I remember looking out my car window at colorful tents, piles of garbage, a Sheriff’s canopy set up that appeared to have bags of items and hanging coats, a Porta-Potty, and I remember my thought… “I should sketch that.” A week or so later, after a snow storm, plunging temperatures, and better weather, I found myself thinking that again last weekend. So I swallowed my discomfort and drove back in chilly and windy weather to sketch another type of home–not mansions, but tents.

I kept my sketches quick and loose. I was in freezing wind and had cold fingers. I sketched a few tents, whose occupants were probably fast asleep on that Saturday morning.

I noticed a couple men in sweatshirts near other tents who had a fire going in a large metal barrel and they were tearing up pieces of cardboard and throwing them in the can. Trash was everywhere. Piles of belongings and more bicycles than I could count were laid around one of the tents. After completing the pen sketch, I walked down the sidewalk to another group of tents. These were against a concrete wall and near a busy intersection. Above them on the concrete wall, was a train track. I sketched two people sorting through belongings and folding tarps.

After coming home, I colored the first sketch with watercolors, but left the other one black and white. This sketch outing taught me many things. 1. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and sketch things that you don’t normally do. 2. Sketching a subject brings you closer to that subject. I have thought countless times now about the people I saw and wondered about how they can be helped. How can I help? 3. Sketching allows you to see and feel the humanity of the world. It brings you a little closer to the world of someone else, and that I believe, is where true change can happen!

Some people live in mansions, some don’t have homes or live in tents, but we are all important, and we all have a story to tell. And sketching can capture that!

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