Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why I Prefer To Travel With A Sketchbook

My son Harry and I had weaseled our way into the cloistered beauty of Oxford’s Magdalen College on May Morning, a few hours after gathering with 20,000 other revelers to greet the sunrise with a hymn sung from the medieval tower, a tradition dating back 500 years. The college had sponsored a jolly day of artistic expression and laid out a banquet of tools for our use: oil pastels, Staedtler pencils, Winsor and Newton watercolour sets.

We sat on the striped lawn and sketched the arcaded front of the New Building (c.1733), adding to the plump sketch books we carried everywhere on this father and son tour of England. Increasingly, our pens and black books were our go-to recording devices, cameras staying more often in the backpacks.

A window on the second floor had once been C.S. Lewis’s room. I made a point of detailing the graceful Georgian sash. “You should flog your sketches to the college,” suggested one observer. But we didn’t: it wasn’t about that. It was about imprinting the day on our minds and hearts, capturing the moment with a physical act. Even now, five years later, I can flip open to those pages and smell the clematis that wound around the solid columns, hear laughter and the crack of a croquet ball on the lawn behind us, see the radius of the Palladian arches, feel the warmth of the May morning sun as it fluttered through the dappled leaves of Oxford. One look at the sketch and it all comes back to life.

Sketching allows all this. Drawing is to photography what walking is to driving: it’s more work, it’s slower, it demands patience and it’s something we’ve increasingly forgotten how to do. And yet, it pays dividends: The work is a rewarding pleasure, the pace allows a scene to sink in and be appreciated, concentration breeds a patient contemplative mind-set … and it’s something that can be relearned.

And it’s not all about great art, or skill. Drawing is something everyone can do. I don’t use an eraser or straight edge when I sketch: misplaced lines, side doodles, quirky shapes are all part of it.

A Princeton study in 2014 demonstrated the advantages of taking notes long-hand, versus typing them into a laptop: more self-editing and more emphasis on certain words rather than just a verbatim recording. With sketching, these same things seem to hold true, and there is more. To sketch a scene is to truly observe it. As Sherlock said to Dr.Watson: “You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

That, and the physicality of putting pen to paper. There is a visceral muscle-and-nerve connection to the scene in front of you when your mind observes a shape and tells your hand how to bring it to a blank page. There’s a pleasure in it that gives the intellectual imprint depth and substance. The wide net of digital point-and-shoot is fine for a quick pass, but it’s largely a glancing surface treatment and the real work is left to the camera. To sketch a scene challenges our notions of what really matters as we move through a new city or react to the beauty of a great, windswept plain.

It’s heartening to see that sketching is gaining the respect it deserves. At the Rijksmuseum, an important arts and history museum in the heart of Amsterdam, visitors are encouraged to put down their selfie-sticks and cameras and use a sketchbook when they visit the museum’s displays, making small drawings of sculptures and paintings rather than snapping a photo and moving along quickly. “In our busy lives we don’t always realize how beautiful something can be,” Wim Pijbes, the general director of the Rijksmuseum, told the art blog Colossal. “We forget how to look really closely. Drawing helps because you see more when you draw.” The story ran with photos from this experiment showing wide-eyed children gazing at display cases with determined intensity, pencils poised above sketchpads, fully engaged.

To our three kids, travelling with a sketchbook is not a new concept: in cafés, museums, parks, sitting on a bus or on the brink of a gorge. Not only do they seem to gain a bigger appreciation of beauty, they see detail and nuance, entering into the experience of the place. They’ve been able to be truly in the moment, rather than living in some strange parallel world of constant screen time.

If this sounds like a Luddite fantasy, then yes, that’s part of it: a yearning for a pared-down mode of travel, a rejection of the superficial and instant. Sketching is, by nature, an old-fashioned way of seeing. Kids seem to understand instinctively.

Recently, in Rome, I set myself a challenge: no cappuccino without at least a full page in the sketchbook. I haunted the streets of Trastevere and made a painfully slow progression through the ancient Forum, taking increasing pleasure in the small moments afforded by sketching little pieces of antiquity, Ducati motorcycles and crowded markets. On Via Merluna I sat at a red café table, the foamy cappuccino disappearing from my glass at the same pace that a sketch of the street scene appeared on my page. The scene was actually pretty banal; just another street. But as I sketched, it became so much more.

A little crowd, including my excited waiter, gathered around, judging my vision against what they saw and curious about my approach. They wouldn’t have stopped for a selfie-stick. I had enough Italian to know that they approved.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fiction edition  Spring 2016

Roman Sketchbook

" Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”  "

Roman Sketchbook

PERSPECTIVES Magazine    Spring 2016

Leaves slopped into the gutters and crunched underfoot on the uneven streets of Trastavere. Night was coming on and the lights of Rome with it. Still no sign of her.

His sketchbook was filling in nicely. It would be a treasure for him, for his family. An heirloom for future grandchildren: a Roman Sketchbook. In his mind, he worked out the graphics for the cover of the published version.

Each page was site-specific, a loosely rendered line drawing of a place and a moment. He thought often of her as he drew. “The historian in her will love these drawings” he thought and the thought kept him going as he walked the darkening streets alone. “She has to love them.”

Still no sign of her. “Pick any ancient ruin and I’ll be there,” he’d said.  She’d been silent.  “Just look for the guy with the sketchbook, getting all Etruscan,” he’d joked. But maybe she hadn’t looked and maybe she never would. He didn’t know that she drew a blank on Etruscans. On Romans for that matter. It wasn’t her era.

He tried to remember where they had parted. It had been while sipping prosecco in Pizza di Santa Maria, hadn’t it? Or maybe it was long before that. He couldn’t remember. “Let’s split up for a bit and explore,” he’d said, his eye on an architrave.

She’d looked tired and hadn’t enjoyed the prosecco, the day or the view, but he hadn’t noticed that. Her hands were empty and she had a certain look on her face. She’d walked off without glancing back, down via Della Lungaretta, towards the Tiber. But his mind’s eye was on a broken pediment, something from 160 BC the guidebook said.

His phone was not ringing. The problem with smart phones is that they tie you to other people, to deadlines, to hassles, to the office. You can’t be in the moment, you can’t be really present. But he’d take those problems if it meant being tied to her at this particular moment. She’d stashed her phone because one between them (just for emergencies and airline check-in) would be enough. His sat like lead in his pocket, lifeless and refusing to vibrate.

He took a tiny street-side table; maybe he could think and try to remember what they’d agreed upon. “Vino rosso,” he told the waiter who looked impatient and queried him further: “Red wine?

 “Yes, si,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to say. Grazie.”

He wasn’t doing well with his Italian. Or, he thought further, with anything much. His sketches were actually crap. They were stilted and controlled, scratches on a page. They were all the same: frozen upper bits of ruined classical architecture. There was no life in them.

Still no sign of her.

It had been hours now. He couldn’t remember how many. Months really, he mused. Years. He sipped his wine, thought of the endless pediments he had drawn and how he now hated them all. They were heavy lumps of stone, burdening him by a gravity older than Rome.

He watched the Trastavere night fold in on itself, and with it his world.

Published in PERSPECTIVES magazine
Spring 2016       see:

Friday, February 5, 2016

Stay in a spectacular monastery in Venice for what you can afford
The author's sketch from his balcony overlooking Piazza San Marco, Venice
DAVID GILLETT, VENICE     —     Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published in print  Saturday January 30, 2016   On line Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 12:16PM EST

                       The curious instruction that bookings could only be made by fax should have been our first clue.
                       Our stay at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice would be one to remember, akin to sleeping in the quiet eye of a tourism hurricane. And when I asked Dom Paulo, who met us at the thick oaken door in his brown monk’s habit, how much they might expect us to pay for a night’s stay, he bowed ever so slightly and replied: “As you wish.”
                       San Giorgio is one of the world’s longest continually operating Benedictine abbey, offering hospitality in this location since 982. It sits on a tiny island of its own directly across the Giudecca Canal from the famous square Napoleon is said to have dubbed Europe’s drawing room, the iconic Piazza San Marco. It has unparalleled views of this mother-of-all tourist draws, one it shares with the exclusive Belmond Hotel Cipriani on an island next door, scene of George and Amal Clooney’s wedding party. But rooms with a view at the Cip start at an eye-watering €1,650 (more than $2,500) a night. Our room? About €1,600 less, plus we had a hands-down better view from our first-floor balcony. And no zoom-lens paparazzi.
                        That master of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio, designed what would become arguably his finest church in 1565. It is a cool, neo-classical dream in this very un-Italian city where ancient Oriental and Gothic architectures collide in a tumbling cascade of competing styles. Like a marble escarpment of pediments and pilasters, the church is the prow of a much larger ship that is the Monastery of San Giorgio, occupying most of the island with its cloistered mystery. Our private room, one of only five in the monastery’s hostel, was suitably spartan, with two single beds, a crucifix, a desk and a book for our reading pleasure: The Rule of St. Benedict. The floors were terrazzo, the ensuite bathroom was well equipped with shower and bidet and a large antique armoire served as a closet. This was not Cipriani luxe by any means, but spacious enough, cool and quiet; a room for contemplation and rest. It is also an undiscovered gem: During our five-night stay, we met only two other guests, and the hallways echoed with an eerie silence late at night, broken only by the sound of lapping waves and the occasional passing boat. It felt like a world apart – dreamlike. One morning, we flung back our wooden shutters and strolled out onto the balcony to find our building the subject for a group of painters from Florence – that is an experience not to be missed.
But this oasis of calm sits uneasily in a city that is a victim of its own success, a place literally sinking under the weight of an estimated 22 million yearly visitors. Massive cruise ships deposit as many 30,000 tourists daily at the height of the season, causing Silvio Testa, spokesman for Venice’s anti-cruise ship campaign to say a few years ago, “The beauty of Venice is undoubted, but the city pays for it like a prostitute that is too beautiful.”
                        Tourists outnumber Venetians by a ratio of 20-1 in high season, and the locals (an ever-dwindling population), grumble. But this is Venice, the Serene Republic, a city thick with art treasures; a city without cars, floating like a vision upon the Venetian Lagoon, supported by wooden piles made from millions of dead trees, pounded deep into the silt. So to discover this quiet place, one designed for contemplation and yet so close to the centre of action, is extraordinary. I spent an afternoon just sketching, drinking in the atmosphere and the surreal watery light of Venice. In the hushed nave of the church itself, a contemporary sculpture exhibition (part of the Venice Art Biennale) brought the ultramodern into the womb of the sacred and serene. Outside, attached to the church, is a bell tower that seems yet to have been discovered by tour guides, strikingly devoid of lineups for the quick elevator ride to its top. It offers breathtaking views out over Venice, the Lido and the Dolomite mountains that loom in the mainland distance. Unreal.

The writer's wife approaches the Monastery beside Palladio's Church
                     Food in the monastery is strictly DIY. (The monks keep to themselves and eat elsewhere.) A tiny refectory kitchen, stocked with basics such as dried pasta and olive oil, is available 24/7 if you are attempting Europe on €10 a day. The guest book tells of visitors from all corners of the globe who have cooked up their own Italian feasts, which can be eaten in an adjoining barrel-vaulted dining room, hung with portraits of eminent Benedictines. But the Venice of restaurants and cafés is temptingly close, so when it beckoned, we waited at the Giorgio vaporetto (waterbus) stop at the monastery steps for a quick ride to the action. We could take the No. 2 water taxi in one direction to the James Bond-movie set world of San Marco with its inflated prices, Prada shops and trinket hawkers, or in the other direction to the Zattere promenade and the much more interesting and less crowded Dorsoduro precinct with its crooked calli (alleyways) and hidden campis (squares).
In the maze of Dorsoduro, cozy restaurants, often with canal-side tables, abound. Fresh seafood is never hard to find. Al Casin dei Nobili, a lovely trattoria just off Campo San Barnaba, serves a mouth-watering tagliatelle with Adriatic shrimp in a nonna-friendly setting. Or just across the campi, beside the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) and next to one of the last fresh produce barges in Venice, which serves as a floating open-air fresh food market, is Pasta & Sugo. This restaurant is a welcome departure from touristy and overpriced “Olde Worlde” eateries with its bright, contemporary interior and menu of Italian street food. Mix and match the pasta of your choice with one of the mouth-watering ragus prepared at the open kitchen counter. A plate of pasta and glass of wine for a mere €8 ($12)? The city that invented inflated prices still has its bargains.
                             In the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, describes the many cities he has seen to a mesmerized Kublai Khan. But in fact, every city he described was actually Venice. It is still like that, a city that is the compact culmination of a thousand years of explosive creativity, a city with a thousand faces. And, in one quiet corner, still available to contemplative visitors, a city of dreamlike peace.
                             Our no-strings-attached monastery stay was refreshing and inexpensive. One does not have to be devout, or even male, to stay in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, or sit quietly in the shadowed church and drink in the ancient music of echoing chants. But a hunger for peace and quiet in the eye of the Venetian storm is a must. That, and a fax machine.
If you go 

   Venice is always busy, but the summer months of July and August are the worst and best avoided if possible. We went in October and had nice weather, fewer crowds and plenty of restaurant choice. If you avoid the crowds at the Rialto Bridge and Piazza san Marco, you can even find some deserted squares and quiet alleyways.
Getting there
   Fly into Frankfurt and then to the compact Marco Polo Airport. From there it’s a quick bus ride out to the main island of Venice via the causeway, but take the Alilaguna water bus if you’ve never been. Arriving by water is the only way to approach the city for the first time. E-mail
Getting around
   Since Venice is made up of more than 100 islands, ACTV, the public-transportation authority, operates vaporetti and other water buses around the clock, with routes that extend out to many of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. A single trip is expensive at €7.50 ($11.50), but a three-day travel card for €40 is a great deal, and you’ll use it a lot.
The monastery
   Inquire about a room by sending a fax to 39-041-520-6579. Or try calling calling 39-041-241-4717. The monastery has no e-mail or website. The monks offer rooms as part of their mission, so make a cash offerta of what you can afford upon leaving.
When you arrive on the main island of Venice, take vaporetto No. 2 along the Grand Canal to the San Giorgio stop (one past St. Mark’s Square). When you arrive, ring a buzzer marked Monaci Benedittine (Benedictine monks) on the heavy door to the right of Palladio’s church. There’s no checking in; you will simply be led by a monk up some worn stone steps to your quiet room. Rooms have no telephones, TVs or WiFi.

(Online see:  ) or Google David Gillett Venice

Domini Clark - Travel Editor