Portland Oregon, capital of weird…..and Powell’s City of Books.

Many cities around the world have slogans that they identify with for example Los Angeles is “City of Angels”…..although I’m not sure how angelic L.A. is. Portland has a rather strange one – it’s “Keep Portland Weird!” Actually I found Portland quite delightful.

There you have it… the weird side of Portland.

First of all Portland is a foodie’s paradise. The food is some of the best, by which I mean locally grown, freshest and tastiest that I have had anywhere on my travels. Secondly they revere the art of making great coffee….and thirdly they have some awesome boutique breweries. Add to this trio, scenic surrounding natural wilderness, parks and formal gardens, a farmers market, a huge weekly art and craft market on the riverside and a great range of boutique shops and department stores to satisfy the most demanding shopper and you would think that Portland has it all.

BUT the crowning glory of Portland has to be the ultimate in bookstores – Powell’s City of Books – which occupies an entire city block and houses around a million books displayed in 3,500 sections in 9 colour-coded rooms, over several floors. When I say rooms I mean massive rooms of warehouse size.

I am a huge book lover….not that I am large and overweight….nor that I like over sized books….but you know what I mean. I’m a bibliophile. You’d think therefore that a store like Powell’s would have been a delight for me to wander through – right? Actually I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the selection of books was mind blowing. It was sensory overload for book lovers. After a half hour of moving quickly – running like a headless chicken – with no real meaning or goal, I managed to calm down and slow down enough to start taking things in and having a proper look around. Up on the top floor…I think it was the top floor…was an amazing selection of books on photography, art, design and architecture. The phrase “spoiled for choice” doesn’t even cover it. Some of the prices were “up there”, but many were a lot cheaper than I’d be able to access at home in New Zealand. It was such a pity that having to fly home meant strict weight restrictions and so ruled out many of the large format picture books that I would otherwise have selected.

Powell’s have a computer screens and keyboards throughout the store enabling access to their huge catalogue of books. Key in the title of a book or an authors name and the computer will tell you the room and rack of books where they can be located. In the end I think I bought maybe 4 or 5 books from Powell’s, as did my wife. This sounds pitiful when there were a million titles at our disposal, but we’d already “shopped ’til we dropped” in the book stores of San Francisco so space, or more exactly weight, available for extra books in our suitcases was minimal. I’d love to take another trip there, this time with an empty case!

Unfortunately we were only there for one weekend, but if you read on you’ll see that we squeezed in quite a lot during our brief stay in the capital of weird.

One place we wanted to go to we pre-booked before leaving San Francisco. That was Stumptown Coffee Roastery. We’d booked in there for a guided coffee tasting….or coffee cupping also known as spooning….but not the cuddling kind.

We arrived early and were shown to a waiting area where we could sit on comfortable sofas and try hot coffee from a pumps….or iced coffees from the refrigerator. Wow what a choice there was. Also in the same area were a collection of old style coffee machines. All chrome and absolutely wonderful. By the time we were shown through to the “cupping” area I was already wired on caffeine.

We had maybe 15 people or so in our tasting group and the young lady who led the tasting was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. First of all she laid out about a dozen different coffee bean blends and we could examine the bean and smell it’s aroma. Next came the ground coffee…again to sniff at while dry. Then the hot water was added and we went along the line sniffing at each cup just after the water had been added and again after a few minutes…the difference in aroma was very noticeable. Finally we got to taste the various coffees. Some very mild…moving through mid range…to rich and strong. The tasting was done by taking a spoon – a cupping spoon…a little like a shallow soup spoon – and then slurping the coffee from it to make sure the flavour goes all around the mouth. You could choose to spit out the coffee or swallow….now where have I heard that before? We also got to know all about how they source their beans from all over the world – predominantly Africa and South America. It was quite a fascinating afternoon. My preference was toward the stronger, richer, chocolatey end. But having said that, I also liked a couple of the milder brews. The aftertaste flavours were almost peachy.

We hit a number of micro-breweries and bars to sample the amber nectar, and sometimes the almost chocolatey nectar too. One bar we went in, and I can’t for the life of me remember the name, had a deliciously rich chocolate Porter. Never have I tasted one so delicious. Another one called 10 Barrel Brewing had a tasting board where you could try all 10 brews. My son and daughter-in-law had a go at those while my wife and I settled for a pint. I must say, whilst in Portland, I didn’t meet a beer that wasn’t delicious.

The cafes were marvelous too – excellent coffees served at every single one we went to. Heart coffee/café was probably the best. But it would be a tight run thing as there were so many delicious cups of coffee consumed over the 3 days of our trip.

Another thing that Portland is famous for is donuts. If you want quality donuts try Blue Star Donuts, but if you want to put the weird into Portland’s donuts you have to go to Voodoo Doughnut. The choice of toppings for your donut is mind boggling. I went for the Portland Cream – basically a cream filled chocolate covered one. Very YUM! But you’ll see from the photo below that there are some odd toppings. They are very popular and we had to line up outside the shop for fifteen minutes or so before being served.

Evening dining saw us dining in a couple of restaurants. My favourite was Besaw’s. It was kind of 50’s style with high backed green leather booths. Excellent food…tasty and ample sizes…and the staff were attentive and friendly. I hate going to restaurants where you order your meal…a steak maybe, along with the several items that come with it…only for it to arrive at the table to look small and lost, sitting alone in the middle of a plate with swirls of ‘Jus’ around it and 3 little cubes of something, artistically placed to one side. The waiter comes along and asks “How did you find your steak sir?”….the reply – “I moved a pea and there it was!” They then sting you extra for ‘sides’ of potatoes and veg. Not here at Besaws. You order a meal and you get a meal. The bottle of 2014 Pinot Noir to accompany the meal, from Angela Estate in Oregon, was rich and delicious. And takes the award for best wine I tried whilst in Portland.

We never made it to the Farmers Market, but did get to the Saturday arts and crafts market by the riverside. Lot and lots of stalls to wander around all selling hand made items…plus the usual buskers and food stalls. Some of the prices were ‘up there’ though, due to the poor exchange rate with the NZ Dollar.

I was also very impressed by some of the murals on the side of buildings. Excellent quality art. And there was a wide range of architecture….the old and new sitting side by side.

The only thing that let Portland down was the weather. One day was sunny but two days showery and cloudy. I guess that’s what you get in the Pacific North West. Fortunately it was a fine day when we explored Portland’s parks and gardens. The Shakespeare gardens with it’s Rose Garden was beautiful, high on a hill overlooking the city….and would have been even better if the roses had been in bloom! We were maybe a month early. Afterwards we had a wander along a little trail through woodland back down to the city…..eating Blue Star Donuts along the way.

Weird or not, Portland Oregon is a great place to visit for a weekend…..but be warned, if you’re a book lover, you need a week to explore Powell’s Book Shop.

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Photography gallery at Pier 24 – San Francisco.

Those of you who followed the blog of my backpacking trip around the UK and Europe will know that I usually have no luck at all when it comes to visiting photography galleries. I either visit on a day that they are closed, are between exhibits…or in one case… had moved premises. However thanks to the internet and Mr Google….and making an on-line booking I was able to visit and view photos at Pier 24 Photography.

Pier 24 Photography is a non-profit art museum located on the Port of San Francisco directly under the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The organization houses the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation, which collects, preserves and exhibits photography. It’s free to visit and view the exhibitions here, but to limit overcrowding they only allow a restricted number of visitors each day, so an on-line reservation is needed. See their website for details –
https://pier24.org/visit/

The current exhibition is called “This Land” which is a snapshot of life in the USA. The exhibition’s title is drawn from Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” (1940) and features work by some of the best and most well known photographers around – such as Bruce Gilden, who is not only one of America’s best street photographers, but he is also a member of the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency.

The exhibition is housed in a collection of around 18 different rooms, is very well lit and displayed, but still left me feeling a little flat. There were very few photos that I thought were extraordinary…in fact I thought the majority were very ordinary indeed. Bruce Gilden’s contribution was a wall of faces – portraits – of the…and I hate to be unkind here or to be seen to mock the afflicted, but it seemed like he wanted to highlight the freakiest people he could find. He claims that the photos were taken “to try to capture the souls” of those who were captured by his camera.

I’ll pause here and post a few photos of the exterior of the building, the general area, and of course the exhibition and exhibition space its self. Pier 24 is directly underneath the Bay Bridge – I’d hate to be in there during a big earthquake.

Even though they were not -in my opinion – exceptional photos, they do give an insight into the people and places of ordinary America. I’m glad I took the time to visit the gallery but hope that next time…if there is a next time…that I visit, there will be something more inspirational. I am glad and grateful that such a place exists that is dedicated to photography.

I also paid a visit to the galleries at 49 Geary Street – there are round 2 dozen free to visit galleries of various sizes – many of which have the kind of art that I just don’t understand at prices I understand even less. BUT 2 of them have photographic displays. Robert Koch Gallery featured a number of black and white photographs from across the years and by numerous photographers. They were just in the one smallish room but of really good quality and content. The other photo gallery is Fraenkel Gallery currently featuring coloured photos by Alec Soth. They were OK but nothing marvelous. I just wish we were going to be in San Francisco in July for the Lee Friedlander exhibition.

On a mission in the Mission District. Mural Central!

Murals are on just about every building in the Mission District. It’s a bright and colourful, if somewhat run-down part of the city. There are a cross-section of people living here, but it’s a predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood.

There are a few homeless people on the streets and a few “crazies” or people down on their luck talking to themselves. Some of the alleyways have a strong aroma of urine, but over all we felt quite safe walking there and chatted to a few friendly locals along the way. We took the bus from 22nd and Iowa Streets in the Dogpatch to 24th and Bryant Streets in the Mission. Each bus ride costs $2.75 if you pay cash, or you can buy a “Clipper Card”, load it with money and use that on the buses, trains and trams at a discounted $2.50 per ride.

The mission District got its name from the Roman Catholic Mission and Church – the oldest in San Francisco – which can be found on the corner of Dolores and 16th Streets. There is a suggested donation of $7 per adult to take a look inside the original mission building, the gorgeous church next door and the garden and cemetery…..end exit via the obligatory gift shop of course. Photos of the Mission and Church are below.

But now, back to the murals. Our walk took us along 24th Street past Alley Cat Books – which of course we felt the need to explore – and purchase a couple of books. From there we went in and out of side streets and alleys until we turned into Valencia Street. We then followed Valencia all the way down to a small park sandwiched between 19th and 20th Streets. I chose this route because it took us past another two bookshops – Dogeared Books and Borderland’s Books…..but this post is meant to be about the murals. Almost opposite Alley Cat books is Balmy Alley which is literally wall to wall with murals so here are a few of our favourites. There’s even a motorbike that’s covered in paintings.

Here are a few more of the murals from along our walk. Click on the individual photos to expand the photo.

After trudging around the streets and alleys in search of murals, we needed a break to recharge our batteries in a nice green space known as Mission Dolores Park – often shortened to Dolores Park. Bounded by 18th and 20th Streets, we entered off 19th and climbed up the main pathway that divides the park in two. Boy was it steep! The park is very popular for locals and tourists and has views over the central business district. It’s also a popular hangout for the homeless so be on your guard. Most of them are harmless and only looking for somewhere to lay their heads for a while.

We had prepared a picnic lunch, so sat on one of the many benches in the park, ate lunch, enjoyed the views, the occasional aroma of weed wafting by on the breeze and read our books. I will do a separate post about the bookshops in this area and books we bought. Weed, cannabis, marijuana – although still illegal in the USA by Federal law, IS legal in some states (including California) by State law – so plenty of people take advantage of that and use the park to get “mellow”. Here’s a few shots of the park to finish off this post.

The Dogpatch – no longer a dog of a place.

This is the first of what will surely turn out to be many posts about the City of San Francisco featuring photos and hopefully interesting information taken/collected by me and my wife on our recent visit to this amazing city. I have been here before, firstly in 1986 and more recently in 2012. Now that our son and daughter-in-law have moved here and SF is their new home town, we’ll no doubt be visiting more often. I hope so anyhow.

Why choose the Dogpatch as my first area to blog about here in this very interesting and beautiful city? It’s where my son and daughter-in-law live, and where we’re staying, so it makes it a natural start point for our investigation of the city. So let’s have a quick look at the history of the Dogpatch and that of San Francisco its self.

The first people to live and hunt in and around this area were the native American tribes – Miwok, Wintun and Wappo. This was prior to San Francisco and indeed most of California being under Mexican control from the early 1700’s until after the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, when Mexico ceded California to the Americans. Two years later in 1850 it became part of the Union. It wasn’t until 1847 that San Francisco came into being – before that it was called Yerba Buena by the Spanish and Mexican settlers. So I guess that when Mr Trump talks of throwing the Mexicans out of “our country”, he’s overlooking the fact that the Mexicans were here before the USA officially existed and so, the USA kicked the Mexicans out of what was part of THEIR country…(Independence day wasn’t until 4th July 1776)….and before California became part of the USA (1850). But he’s still hell bent on building his wall.

So, why call this area Dogpatch? Truth is no one is quite sure and there are several thoughts….1) The area was originally covered in a plant called Dogfennel….2) The area had slaughterhouses and so used to attract packs of dogs searching out scraps of meat and offal….and 3) It was named after Dogpatch, the fictional middle-of-nowhere setting of cartoonist Al Capp’s classic comic strip, Li’l Abner (1934–1977)…..Dogpatch is also a colloquialism describing an under developed backwater, which I guess San Francisco’s Dogpatch was. It was an area mostly taken up by warehouses, industry and shipyards. Part of the land here used to be marsh and has been reclaimed. Only the poorest of workers used to live here by choice as it was a very low rated, low rent area. This later attracted the “art community” so set up studios here, in old warehouses, which in turn brought the “hip” and “trendy” who converted warehouse space to fashionable lofts. It’s now an up and coming neighbourhood but still has the benefit of slightly lower than normal San Francisco property prices and rents…..but it’s catching up fast!

There was little redevelopment up until quite recently, as this was one of few areas to escape damage from the huge 7.9 San Francisco earthquake of 1906 so, from an historical viewpoint, the architecture is worth checking out.

Within a few blocks of where we are staying there are bars, cafes, art galleries, breweries, the waterfront and of course dog parks…..San Franciscans just love their dogs. There are a lot around, all being pampered and well loved by their mostly apartment dwelling owners – maybe another reason why this is called the Dogpatch?

We’ll start with the two breweries we have called into so far. The first of which was Triple Voodoo Brewery on 3rd Street, who have a rotation of 16 boutique beers on tap – and are dog friendly (the brewery, not the beer), what would you expect here in the Dogpatch? They offer a flight of beers to taste – you can have a flight of 4 or of 6 of beers of your choice from their menu. Or you can have a glass of beer served in a choice of glass size and this is reflected in the price. My wife and son both opted for a glass of Czech style “Anxiety Pils” where as I opted for a flight of 4 consisting of – “Inception” – a Belgian style golden strong beer of 8% alcohol rating, which was one of the nicest tasting beers I have had for a long time. Strong but smooth and very drinkable. Next up was “Season of the Boch” described as SF Giants IPA. SF Giants are the local Baseball team and this is a big hitting 7% IPA with very nice fruity citrus notes. If I hadn’t already tried the “Inception” I would have been totally won over by this beer. Next came “Summerwood” described by the brewer as Grisette aged on wood – it’s brewed using the “wort” from pressed grapes. This was my least favourite beer – and at 4.5% the weakest – as I just didn’t care for the taste at all. Call me weird if you like, but as far as I am concerned, grapes are for making wine, not beer. My 4th and final beer was “Corpse Paint” – described as a black common lager – at 5.3% alcohol it’s a nice seasonal dark beer with flavours bordering on a stout but without the heaviness. The brewer says it’s his favourite and I can see why….but for me it came in at number 3. Back home in NZ, MOA brew a very similar product…..equally tasty. Anyhow, below is a photo of my, already partially sampled, flight of four.

The flight was priced at $11 and the small glasses of beer at $5 each but the very nice lady bar teller only charged us $17 all up….so got a nice $3 tip. We win and she wins.

The other brewery we tried was Harmonic Breweries on 26th Street – just a few blocks down the street. Walking distance there and staggering distance back! Here they also offer tasting flights, but instead I opted for a full sized glass of beer and tried the “Harmonic Kölsch”. I had no idea what a Kölsch was so thought I’d try it. According to Wiki – Kölsch is a style of beer first brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is unusual because although it is warm fermented with ale yeast, it is then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. It’s a 5.8% lager and is a smooth easy drink…..maybe a little too easy! My second beer here I went for an oatmeal stout – “Cold-Press Stout” – at 5.3% it still tasted full bodied enough to be a stout, but I thought it was fairly similar to the “Corpse Paint” I’d tried at Triple Voodoo, and that was a black lager, not a stout.

Harmonic is another Dogpatch, dog friendly brewery and there were a couple of dogs sitting patiently under the tables while their owners imbibed and even one at the bar hoisted on its owners shoulders. I’m not sure what the prices were as my son and daughter-in-law kindly bought the beers.

Just 8 minutes walk away at 1275 Minnesota Street is the “Minnesota Street Project” – a collection of 13 art galleries in a warehouse space. The galleries are spread over 2 floors and are of various size and content with a large open space in the middle of the building which is very industrial like. Art of course, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and I’ll be honest about this – there are somethings that people call art that I just don’t get at all. For example the short videos where nothing at all happens, or you get flickering light across the video screen so you can’t really see what’s going on. Conversely I really enjoyed visiting the Rena Bransten Gallery which featured, in one room, paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in celebration of his 100th birthday. Ferlinghetti is best known as a poet of the beat generation and also as a publisher and owner/founder of City Lights Bookstore. His paintings are somewhat childlike but I still enjoyed them.

In the other room was a display of photos – all but one in black and white and the centre photo on the walls was in colour – by photographer Louis Stettner (1922-2016). Coinciding with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective Louis Stettner: Traveling Light, curated by Clément Cheroux’s, the works in this exhibition represent fifty years of Stettner’s prolific career and illustrate many of his most frequented subjects: people in pairs, workers, bodies in transit and rest, and cityscapes. Again, art is in the eye of the beholder and I am a photography nut so loved this exhibition. The photos below show the outside of the gallery building – as I said it’s very industrial both outside and on the second photo showing the open space in between the galleries. The individual galleries are either side of this open area over two floors. The third photo is of my wife standing outside the Rena Bransten gallery with one of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s paintings on the wall behind.

Scattered through a number of the galleries were works of Iranian artists now living in the USA. Many of the designs look like Persian carpets and are offered in a variety of colours – for example with an emphasis on the colour yellow or the same picture but in the colour red. They are quite beautiful. The galleries are free to visit as they are there to promote the artists and to sell their wares. Some of the gallery staff are more friendly and welcoming than others.

Along Indiana Street in the other direction is a small open area outside a nice little cafe – where I am told you can get a very tasty brunch. This open area for better or worse is called the Dogpatch Arts Plaza. They have in the past held some outdoor music events here, but looking at their website – last updated in mid 2018, it doesn’t look very promising for anything happening during our visit. There is quite a nice sculpture occupying space in the middle of the plaza though. See photo below

As you can see it looks like a cross between Centaur meets the Terminator. I quite like it.

Just to round off our Dogpatch experience this far I should also mention Piccino restaurant just around the corner from the apartment on the corner of Minnesota and 22nd streets. It’s located in an old weatherboard building painted bright yellow on the outside, but with an open and modern interior. It’s obviously THE place to be around here as it was very popular on the evening that we dined there. The food was divine. I am usually a very predictable eater in that I know what I like and usually stick to it. BUT for once, encouraged by my son and daughter-in-law I decided to try a few things that I wouldn’t normally try and much to my delight, enjoyed everything put in front of me…..including the raw fish and the cooked octopus. The food is presented on shared plates so it’s easy to try different things. The highlights in my opinion were the Octopus (which was far from the rubbery experience I expected), the Short Rib (that was melt in the mouth delicious) and my dessert – which the menu describes as “zeppole, huckleberry, white chocolate pudding”. I had no idea what zeppole or huckleberries were but was attracted by the white chocolate pudding. It was a taste sensation of light and fluffy mini-doughnut like balls of yumminess with the semi-sharp, semi-sweet fruity berries and the smooth creaminess of the white chocolate pudding. The wine list is what I would describe as being on the expensive side, but accompanied the food perfectly. The staff there are knowledgeable about the food and wines on offer and very attentive. And of course the company my son and daughter-in-law, plus my lovely wife made for a wonderful evening. Sorry – no photos of the food or the restaurant – I was too busy eating!

Next up is our “Mission” to find murals in the very colourful Mission District.

Art for art’s sake….a slight detour.

I apologize in advance for some of the puns and some of the pictures. But please bear (or is it bare?) with me…..please continue in good humour (or humor if you’re in the USA) – I don’t mean to offend anyone.

Have you ever started off writing a blog post and then been reminded of something else along the way, so have taken a detour instead? It happens to me all the time. I just started writing a post about Nice in the south of France where, among other things, we visited the Marc Chagall gallery – or to give it its correct name the Musee National Marc Chagall….and it sent me on a tangent or a detour to blog about art, or my own attempts at art, instead.

Some museums don’t allow photography at all and others allow it as long as you don’t use the flash. The Marc Chagall museum fell in the latter category which was a good thing as my wife loves his paintings – they are very colourful, bright and child-like – and she wanted me to photograph a couple of them with a view to getting large prints made when we went home, to display on our lounge wall. Here – below – are a couple of Chagall paintings to give you, who haven’t seen his work before, an idea of how he paints.

Long story short – since we’d decided that they would look better printed on canvas than on paper – it was going to cost us around $300 to $400NZ for a print. So I rather foolishly suggested, as an alternative, that perhaps I could buy a blank canvas and produce my own “Chagall look-a-like painting”. My wife surprisingly agreed. So that’s what I did and here it is below…..it’s colourful anyhow.

The problem with that is that I’m not much of an artist. I loved to draw and paint as a kid (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth), but since then have only dabbled now and then when I liked a painting by a famous artist but didn’t have the money to buy a print of it….never mind the millions of dollars for the original. So I’d have a go at painting my own in a similar style…..or as similar as I could manage.

I started off with one that even I couldn’t fail at (or so I thought) – a Jackson Pollock style abstract splatter painting. I used some old acrylic house paint and felt it was coming along quite well with blue and green splatters of paint, but when I needed another colour, to contrast the blue and green, all I could find was a creamy-white…..so on it went one “whoosh” of a splatter at a time. It didn’t quite have the effect I was looking for and looked more like……er….well, it looked a little like….how can I put this tactfully? Actually I don’t think I can think of a polite description – I titled the piece “love comes in spurts.” Enough said.

What a load of “pollocks!” – my attempt at a Jackson Pollock splatter painting.

Needless to say, it didn’t stay on our wall for too long before it was consigned first to the garage and later to the rubbish dump.

Another attempt slightly more successful was my version of Pablo Picasso’s picture of an artist, his model and for some reason a yellow bull and a pink horse….trampling on a light blue horse which was laying on the bed of the artist and model. I know…I know…..I thought the same thing. Why do I do bother?

Pick Ass Oh! – my attempt at Picasso’s “artist and model” series.

My friends are no help either, in fact they push me toward my artistic endeavours….or should that be artistic follies? This is almost 20 years ago, but one of my co-workers, with whom I usually discussed books we were both currently reading, told me that she had recently started going to “life drawing” classes and that I should go along. Initially I thought she meant “still life” classes – you know bowls of fruit, flowers and the like. I was quite taken aback when she explained that what it actually entailed was to sit in a circle around a model and draw or paint that person who would be sitting, standing or laying there completely naked.

After checking if the “model” is usually male or female and getting the reply that nine times out of ten it was a female, and she’s usually someone from the art teachers yoga class, I said “yeah, okay….I’ll come along and give it a go” trying my best not to sound too keen.

I wasn’t actually sure if I could, for want of a better term, handle it. I mean sitting there in front of a completely naked woman and to be expected to draw her without allowing my nervous, trembling hand holding the pencil to tear big holes across the paper as I quivered, stared and drooled! I know…I know…right now you’re probably thinking “for F##ks sake how old are you FIVE?” I’m pleased to report that once I was there, in the class, I was perfectly well behaved, totally in the moment and fully concentrated on my attempts at capturing the model on paper…..as opposed to kidnapping her in the carpark afterwards! ( I write this very much tongue in cheek….my cheek that is).

I really enjoyed the lessons. I know, you’re thinking – “Who wouldn’t?” But once you’re there you don’t actually see “a naked woman….or on one occasion….naked man” – you’re too busy trying to get the angles, curves and shading right. Our tutor got us to try different media and styles of drawing/painting. Sometimes we’d use a pencil, sometimes charcoal or chalk or pastels or poster paint or water colour. Other times we’d try to paint by using something as simple as a piece of cardboard dipped into ink. It was all very interesting.

By now, having seen my Chagall, Pollock and Picasso attempts you know not to expect too much of my “art” – a few of my attempts from the life drawing class follow…..you have been warned! Some of these we had to produce in a few minutes, others we had a longer pose to get onto paper…..he said, trying to come up with excuses.

So there you have it…the bare facts about life drawing. Click on any of the pictures to enlarge it. They have been automatically cropped by the computer to fit nicely side by side in the gallery above. As I said, various media and various styles. And yes, one of the drawings is of a pregnant lady. She was wonderful to draw….very curvy and very patient with the class….and it was extremely brave of her in that late stage of her pregnancy, when many women would have body image issues, to bare all. All in the name of art. Art for art’s sake.

It must be BARCELONA! – home of Picasso, Gaudi and Olympic Gold Medalist Pickpockets.

Kind of a weird title, but it will become clear as you read the post.

Travel, from my own experience, has always been a very positive experience. I have met some wonderful people from all around the world, seen some marvelous sights and had some very positive, at times life-changing moments. In all my years of international travel (I first travelled overseas when I was 14 so that’s 45 years of experience), I have only had the displeasure to experience either muggers or pick-pockets three times. 

The first time was way back in the mid 1980’s in Harlem, New York City – partly my own fault as I was still a bit green and didn’t have much in the way of street smarts – when I encountered a couple of guys who wanted to relieve me of my bag – containing my camera, wallet and passport among other things. Fortunately I was young and fit and managed to turn heel and out run them….almost bowling over a railway security guard in my haste to get away.

The second and third times involved pick pockets or, I should say, attempted pick pockets. Once in Nice in the South of France and, yes you guessed it once in Barcelona and both within a month of one another….but we’ll get to that event later.

I had visited Barcelona very briefly over 40 years ago as a 16 year old and remember being propositioned by the prostitutes along the main street through the centre of Barcelona called las Ramblas. Other than that and the statue of Columbus at the sea shore end of las Ramblas along with the flower sellers stalls in the middle of the street, I can’t really remember much about it.

Columbus statue at the end of las Ramblas.

For our recent visit though I had a reason to be there, or two reasons to be exact – one being Pablo Picasso the world famous artist, and the other being Antoni Gaudi equally famous for his fantastic architecture…..or at least equally famous here in Barcelona.

I had bought a book “Gaudi – the Complete Works”- by Juan-Edwardo Cirlot, with photos by Pere Vivas and Ricard Pla –  on arrival in Barcelona and flicked through the pages in awe of the genius of the man.

But first Picasso. Picasso was born in Malaga, southern Spain in 1881, but in 1895 moved to Barcelona where he thrived. He looked upon Barcelona as his true home and it was here that he was accepted into the School of Fine Arts at the tender age of 13. At 16 his father and uncle decided it would be best for him to go to Madrid and attend Spains foremost art school the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando. He hated the structured regime there and quit soon after enrolling. He remained in Madrid though for a time visiting the museums and galleries for inspiration.

In 1900 he made his first visit to Paris and it was love at first sight…..as it is for many of us. He then divided his time between living and working in Paris and Barcelona. However in later years he lived prodominantly in France, which became his new adopted home.

It’s here though, in Barcelona, where you will find the museum completely dedicated to Picasso – The Museu Picasso – which opened in 1963 and houses over 4,000 pieces of Picasso’s work. Although he’s most famous as an artist and was a leader of the cubist movement, he was also a sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, collagist, stage designer, poet and playwrite. A busy and versatile man!

entrance to the Picasso Museum.

The museum is very much worth visiting to view the range of his work. It is housed in 5 adjoining medieval palaces in Barcelona’s La Ribera district – a haven for artists, artisans, designers, tradesmen and merchants – on Montcada Street. The museum is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays). For full details of opening times and ticket prices see their website. http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en

Even though Picasso is an artist of world renown, who’s works sell for millions of dollars, he is not my main reason for being here in Barcelona. The focus of my trip is another artistic genius, Antoni Gaudi. The difference being that his artistic genius manifests itself in architecture – amazing, imaginative, magical and almost mythical architecture.

The buildings he designed were highly individualised one off designs – very much stand-out buildings and a feast for the eyes. Having visited a number of his buildings in Barcelona, as well as Park Guell – a public park composed of gardens and architectural pieces – I can confirm the genius of this man. The park and the buildings he designed in Barcelona have been given USESCO World Heritage status. His most famous building, mainly due to the size and difficulty of building it, is without a doubt the still unfinished, massive church known as the Sagrada Familia.

To view many of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona we went on a “Free” walking tour with Runner Bean Tours. The tour is, as it says, free of charge…..but you can make a donation at the end if you thought the guide and the tour itself was good value. Some people take the tour and give nothing. Others, myself included, chipped in around $10 per head as a thank you for the almost 3 hour tour. Well worth at least $10….probably $20 would not be out of place. They also do paid tours for groups and for individuals. Website link is:  https://runnerbeantours.com/

Our guide was wonderful. Very clearly spoken, amusing, patient and knowledgeable. Our tour began at the meeting place just off las Ramblas, at the Placa Reial, by the water fountain. We were asked to look around the square and see if we could see anything that Gaudi may have designed. It was pretty obvious that the guide was referring to the ornate lamp posts – complete with serpents and winged helmets – so brightly coloured.

The tour took in several of Gaudi’s buildings – the first stop being Palau Guell – a building designed for The Guell family who were Gaudi’s primary patrons – very wealthy. As we were standing on the footpath opposite the building and our guide was giving us the spiel of all the facts and figures relating to the design and build of this amazing building, I noticed that 3 extra people who were not on our tour had tagged on to the back of the group. Two men and a woman. But, instead of looking at the building they seemed to be concentrating on the other people in the group. Naturally this was a signal to me that something wasn’t quite right. 

I had a rather expensive camera with me, but other than that only had a few euro’s in a zipped cargo pocket down by my knee. Of course our three tag alongs had no way of knowing that. As the tour guide wound up his talk and motioned for the group to follow him to the next destination we turned into a narrow alleyway and it was here that they made their move. I had hung back, at the back of the group and as soon as I entered the alley, the bigger of the men cut in front of me and immediately bent down as if picking something up that he’d dropped. It was such a sudden movement that I couldn’t stop myself from bumping into him and coming to a halt. The instant I bumped into him, the other two – the man and woman – “accidentally” crashed into me and the guys hand went straight into my my pocket. Although this was obviously a practiced move of theirs it was clumsy. I grabbed his wrist, spun around and started yelling obsenities at him to attract attention and hopefully that someone in our group would hear and come to the rescue. Pick pocketing is so common in Barcelona that no one even blinked at the incident unfolding in front of them.  Passers by just kept on their merry way, minding their own business. Three on one are not good odds and there was no way I could contain all three of them. As it turned out, once I had rumbled their plan they simply put up their hands in a “Woops OK you caught me” gesture, smiled and shrugged apologetically and turned and left in the other direction.

Once I had caught up with our tour leader I took him to one side to explain what had just happened and to suggest that maybe he should issue a warning to the rest of the group – just in case. During his warning speech that he gave at our next stop he commented that pick pocketing was so rife here in Barcelona that if it was to become an Olympic sport, Barcelona would become the undisputed Gold Medalists…..hence the title of this post. He also said that most pick pockets are not violent and unlike muggers will not resort to force…..and if caught are usually good natured and walk away.

Our tour continued taking in a number of Gaudi works and buildings of architectural merit of some of Gaudi’s competitors. All very interesting and beautiful to see unlike a lot of todays modern monstrosities which have cost as their primary concern. The building I was most interested in seeing though was Casa Batllo – with its dragonlike roof. It’s been called a number of names including “the fairytale in stone”, “the house of yawns” and even “the cat house”. You can see from the photos that follow how it got those names.

I was very keen to see inside this amazing building, but entry to the buildings is not included in the tour. Each Gaudi Building, being privately owned, cost pretty decent money to get in to do a tour of the interiors. My wife and I decided to come back the next day and pay whatever it cost to view the inside.

The tour concluded at the Sagrada Familia. Again only viewed from the outside. It’s amazing that when Gaudi died in 1926 the church was only about 15% to 25% completed. The building work began in 1882 and is not expected to finish until around 2026…..although the expected finish date has been pushed back several times already so don’t hold your breath.

If you’re wondering what the literary connection is in this post…..other than the Gaudi book I mentioned earlier – the Sagrada Familia was commissioned by a book seller named Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph).

The next day we visited the interior of the Casa Batllo – and marveled at it’s hand carved staircase that looked like a huge curved spine as if it was made from bones, were frankly amazed at the amount of thought that went into this building particularly when it came to bringing daylight into the various rooms on each floor. There was a sort of central courtyard….just a few metres across that went from roof level all the way down to the ground floor. The walls of this “courtyard” were tiled in blue and white tiles and topped by a glass roof allowing light to enter the interior. The top floor was closest to the light, so this section of the courtyard walls were tiled mainly in dark blue tiles as the top floors were well lit and didn’t need to receive a lot of reflected light from the courtyard walls. As we travel downwards toward lower floors, more light is needed so the next floor down has a mixture of both blue and white tiles on the courtyard walls….lower still you see more white and less blue. There was also a ventilation system bringing in air from the outside and carrying it throughout every room of the house. These things may seem straight forward now but remember this building was built back in the early 1900’s.

There really are too many features to mention here, except to say that Gaudi was not a fan of the straight line. In his own words “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature, therefore there should be no straight lines or sharp corners in architecture”…and….”The straight line belongs to man, the curve belongs to god”. One feature that I will quickly mention – the roof – is said to be a nod by Gaudi to Catalonia’s saint, Saint George (also the saint of England). This is represented by the dragon-like roof and the turret with a cross on top. Said to represent the dragon killed by St. George – his sword being the cross on the turret. We don’t know for sure if this is correct as Gaudi refused to either confirm nor deny the speculation.

Our final place of interest in our search for everything Gaudi is Park Guell. Again commissioned initially by the wealthy Guell family. Actually Gaudi pretty much bankrupted them with his outlandish style and his habit of redoing work over and over again until it was absolutely perfect. Every job that Gaudi did, he blew the budget wide open. It is free to enter the park and to look at the gardens and architectural features created by Gaudi, but there is a small area that is reserved for paying customers. You can see into this area from the “free” area, but you don’t get the tactile experience of touching Gaudi’s creations or seeing them close up.

Words don’t really come close to describing the wonder of Gaudi’s creations so again I am putting here a gallery of photos to show the variety of his work within the Park Guell.

Just a couple of final observations. Within the park, officially you are not allowed to set up stalls and sell tourist merchandise – there are police patrols to enforce this. It doesn’t seem to stop dozens of entrepreneurs form laying out their wares on blankets along the pathways in the park. as soon as the police are in sight, they gather the corners of their blankets and disappear like smoke on the breeze – to return moments later when the police have gone by. It would seem also, by the grafitti on one of the picnic tables in the park that the locals are not 100% behind having tourists invade their space. See photo below.

Not exaclt a welcoming message.

We were in the great city of Barcelona for a week, so obviously saw more than the Picasso Museum and Gaudi’s buildings……so I may take another look at Barcelona in another post sometime along the way. Meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you liked it, please do click on the “Like” button and I have many more articles to share with you, so please feel free to also hit that “Follow” button. As usual any comments or constructive criticism are gratefully received. Adios for now.

William S Burroughs – beat writer, junkie, revolutionary, philosopher.

The heading above (almost) tells it all. Some would claim that Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg were the better known of the Beat Writers, but Burroughs was for me a more fascinating person. He outlived both Kerouac – who died young, only 47 years old, in 1969 and Ginsberg who died in April of 1997….Burrows passing on four months later in August of the same year.

Left to right – Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Burroughs in New York 1944

He was indeed all the things listed in the heading. A Beat Writer who was hooked on drugs, who had revolutionary ideas but also, as reflected in a number of quotes attributed to him, he was very philosophical in his outlook on life. In addition to all these things, he was also a killer. He shot his wife in 1951 while under the influence of drink and drugs. Someone, either himself or his wife Joan Vollmer (who incidentally was also a writer of the Beat Generation), suggested a game of “William Tell”. You know the story, William Tell shoots an arrow to knock an apple off his sons head? William S Burrows used a gun to shoot an apple off Joans head….but his aim was a little suspect even when sober, and Joan ended up stone cold dead. 

Burroughs loved to shoot guns…despite his experience of accidentally shooting his wife.

He admitted to the crime, received a 2 year suspended sentense for manslaughter and returned to his life as a trend setting writer. He wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. In addition to this, five books have been written from interviews he gave. He also collaborated on recordings made by a number of musicians and performers. Yes he was a Beat Writer, but his work over the years crossed boundaries into many types of popular culture.

Patty Smith and Burroughs.

Singer/musician/poet Patty Smith is attributed to once naming him “Godfather of Punk”. Something Burroughs later denied – saying he had no link to the punk movement at all. But it stuck.

It’s not as though Burroughs was an uneducated, down on his luck junkie. He was a Harvard educated English student, later doing post-grad studies in anthropology and later still attended Med School in Vienna. He came from money….his family were wealthy. He was born with a silverspoon in his mouth….and later a silver spoon in his nose – experimenting with various drugs.

He applied to join the military in 1942, was turned down and this is when he started to experiment with drugs, meeting up with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1943.

Although he had written a manuscript earlier with Kerouac called “And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks”, his first published novel was “Junkie” in 1953, subtitled “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict”. Although it was a novel it was also semi autobiographical account of his life as a drug user and a drug dealer. His most famous (or is it infamous?) book however was published in 1959 – “Naked Lunch” was a very controversial book which was subject to a court case as it was claimed to be in violation of the U.S. Sodomy laws.

That was a trade mark of the Beat Writers – they were out to shock the public. (Ginsberg did it with his outragious poem “Howl”, which featured both hetrosexual and homosexual sex – again falling foul of the lawmakers. The court case for this was in 1957).

Burroughs was most famous as a leader of the Beat Writers. He was lauded by many famous people including Norman Mailer who said he was – “the only American Writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”. Kerouac called him “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”. But, he dabbled in many areas of the Arts. He was a writer, film maker, performance artist and a painter/drawer. His drawings and paintings didn’t see the light of day until 1987 and he exhibited them for the next decade.

He was one of the first writers to publish a book of cut-up text. A manuscript would be written as normal and then pages cut in two lengthways. One of the two pieces could be moved up or down a few lines and taped together again creating a whole new manuscript. Other ways of producing cut-up text was to just move certain words or phrases into another part of the manuscript. Sometimes the result was nonsensical, sometimes it was meaningful – either way it was lauded as a breakthrough in writing. I guess it’s a little like the avant-garde art works of the time.

Later in life Burroughs kept cats for companionship and held them in high regard. Some of his quotes reflect this. “My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance”.  And “A cat’s rage is beautiful, burning with pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing an sputtering.”

On the system and government control – “Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind”. And “How I hate those who are dedicated to producing conformity”. And finally  “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. And on gun control “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military”.

As for his quotes on drugs – he’s quite direct on how he views drugs and users/addicts. “Junk (drugs) is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”  ” An addict never stops growing….stupider”. “I’m getting so Far Out one day I won’t come back at all”.

And a couple of quotes to finish off…..reflects the way that Burroughs and the “beats” lived their lives…..”Nothing is true…..everything is permitted”. “The only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do”.