Pen Pals

Pen Pals

Most of the people waiting outside Pepe’s on a cold Sunday afternoon probably didn’t notice Julie Gordon. Settled on a folding stool on the sidewalk across the street, sketchpad on her lap, Gordon was observing cars cruising by and the hungry crowd jostling for position at the iconic New Haven pizza spot. “It’s a moment in time and a place, and I’m just trying to get it on paper,” she said.

Gordon was one of about 10 “urban sketchers” drawn to Wooster Street that day. Led by Haley Wulfman, a middle school art teacher and New Haven resident, the group meets at a different New Haven locale every month to make art—or, at least, practice making it—en plein air. They’re a not-yet-official chapter of the international organization Urban Sketchers, “dedicated to fostering a global community of artists who practice on-location drawing,” its website says. The organization holds an annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium—this year in Amsterdam—as well as workshops and other events worldwide. It also publishes a monthly zine.

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New Haven’s group got its start after Wulfman ran into some urban sketchers at a park in Pittsburgh. She came home and put out a call on the Middletown Urban Sketchers Facebook page for some fellow artists closer to New Haven. On a “very, very brisk November day” in 2017, five or six intrepid locals met on the New Haven Green. The group has been convening more or less every month since, usually on a Sunday afternoon, at whatever venue strikes their fancy: Grove Street Cemetery, Long Wharf Park, Union Station, IKEA, Broadway Triangle.

Though Wulfman may be drawn to a site for what she considers an interesting visual element, she finds people gravitate to their own subject matter. “If we come to a restaurant, somebody will be like, ‘I’m just going to draw a plate of pasta,’ ‘I’m going to draw the bar,’ ‘I’m going to draw it from the outside’… People find things that I would have never even imagined, and it’s a wonderful way to kind of see your city with fresh eyes.”

This January day, a couple of sketchers like Gordon were posted outside, but most had opted for one of the indoor options Wulfman had arranged: the bar at Consiglio’s restaurant, a bench overlooking the kitchen of Pepe’s annex The Spot and the cafe at Libby’s Italian Pastry Shop. That’s where Urban Sketchers regular Gail Hall staked a claim and got to work representing the pastry case in pencil. She debated how to add in some people; the real ones were passing through too quickly to be captured on paper. Hall, a retired New Haven teacher, dubbed herself “totally amateur,” then pulled two more sketch pads from her bag, suggesting she’s at least a little practiced.

At a table nearby, embroidery artist Alice Prael faced the bright window in order to sketch Tony & Lucille’s Little Italy Restaurant across the street. First-timer Prael, who works at the Beinecke Library by day, said she’d recently struggled to draw an idea for an embroidery design and decided she needed to “remind my hands how to do it.” Working in pencil like Hall, Prael glanced from building to book and back again. “It’s good to have a dedicated time, a chance to share out,” she said, referring to the gathering that happens at the end of every Urban Sketchers meetup. “It’s nice to have a community around.”

Down the street, the bench at The Spot had been abandoned, but Mary Herron was steadfastly working on a drawing at the Consiglio’s bar, where the bartender had agreed to be her subject. Herron was reminded of the Manet painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. “This is hard for me,” she said, examining her work at arm’s length. A retired preschool special education teacher whose usual medium is painting, Herron was also joining Urban Sketchers for the first time that day and finding herself “completely outside my comfort zone.”

Being uncomfortable and stretching yourself is encouraged at Urban Sketchers. So is simply playing around. Her own sketching process, Wulfman says, has taught her to worry less about the product and just enjoy the practice. “‘Sketching’ is a word that doesn’t carry the formality of a lot of other art forms, and so it allows people to enter,” she says, citing as an example a four-year-old who sat in with the group in December. All ages and all levels of experience are welcome to “just, like, show up and put yourself out there and try something.”

Wulfman herself spent a good part of January’s two-hour gathering wandering from location to location to check on participants before she settled at her own Libby’s table to draw. At three o’clock, the others made their way back to her. They laid out their books and pads on a pair of tables, creating a Wooster Street mosaic of sorts, and Wulfman stood on a chair to photograph them. One of Urban Sketchers’s core principles is sharing everyone’s work online. The accumulated effect is “really amazing,” Wulfman says—“people who have this similar thrust of what they like to do reflecting different environments” around the world.

The group stood around their creations, tilting their heads, leaning in, considering. Each artist talked about their experience. One pencil drawer was impressed that others had been working in ink and watercolor. It was cold outside, another sketcher admitted, but once his hand stiffened up, he found he loosened up and had “more fun.” They shared frustrations about inadequate pens and people who moved before they were finished drawing them. An intrigued Libby’s patron wandered over to ask what they were doing. Then Wulfman asked for February date and location suggestions.

The eight-point Urban Sketchers manifesto concludes, “We show the world, one drawing at a time.” Here, on the little round cafe tables, was a slice of our world: a boy considering the pastries in an Italian bakery case, a line of people under the orange awning of a famous pizza joint, the lines of a sidewalk, a bottle of liquor, a brick oven and a woman seated on a stool at a round-topped bar table, sketching.

Urban Sketchers of New Haven
Next meetup: 2/24 1-3pm at Union Station – 50 Union Ave, New Haven (map)
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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