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A pastel morning


Linda working on her sidewalk pastelIT WAS AROUND 8:30 WHEN I ARRIVED IN ARCATA Saturday morning for Pastels on the Plaza, so I figured I'd be early, but by that time two-thirds of the chalked-in squares on the sidewalk surrounding the plaza were already spoken for. Fortunately, Bob Doran, my pastel partner for the day, had staked out a spot for us, and waved me over.

Now, I should admit at the outset that I'm not one of those altruistic local artists who have been showing up on the first Saturday in October for each and every one of the 16 years Northcoast Children's Services has been putting on this beloved annual fund-raiser. In fact, I've only participated once before and, to tell the truth, it wasn't much fun. There's the physical discomfort factor, of course, but that wasn't the main difficulty. The real problem was that pastels aren't exactly my medium and I couldn't get my drawing right. I kept trying to perfect it, spending six or seven hours on my knees obsessing about an image destined to fade away in a few days. It was nuts.

Nevertheless, I agreed to help Bob with the square the North Coast Journal sponsored this year because I assumed (wrongly) that I might obsess less about a shared drawing. The spot he staked out was about a third of the way down the block on G Street, across from Plaza Design, and by the time I arrived he had already begun setting up.

Our plan was to draw a fictional Journal cover featuring the Women in Black, who stand silent vigil on the plaza each Friday for peace. Bob would do the lettering and banners and I'd draw the women, using one of his digital photos for reference. He showed me several images and I picked the one with the most dramatic color.

Since Bob and his wife Amy (she had the square to my right) have been participating in the event for years, he came more prepared than I did. He brought thick gardening gloves for resting our non-drawing hands on the rough sidewalk, cushiony pillows for us to kneel on, and several old boxes of pastels, in case we ran out of a specific color. Some artists arrive with even more paraphernalia, strap-on kneepads and mini-studios complete with paintbrushes and secret blending tools.

Marie Foley, sponsored by the Westhaven Center for the Arts, where she teaches and keeps a studio, was set up two spaces to my left; she had brought a spray bottle with water in it. I asked what it was for and she told me (in that lovely Irish accent) that misting helps set the colors between layers. Ah, yes. Layers.

I got down to work. My plan was to finish the image in two hours, tops. No obsessing. I laid out the basic drawing with a neutral red chalk, and then started adding colors. It looked surprisingly good, right off the bat. I sat back on my heels and admired my handiwork.

"That's a weird one," said an old man's voice behind me.

"It's Women in Black," his companion explained. "You know, that peace protest thing they do."

"Still looks weird."

OK, so maybe my drawing needed more work. I added a nice intense chartreuse green to the grass, added more purple and black to the figures. Then I made the mistake of trying to blow away a chunk of pigment. When the cloud of colored dust settled, only about half the former drawing remained. I asked Marie if I could borrow her misting bottle. After I sprayed my drawing, the chalk settled right down. I kept working, adding more variety to the colors, spraying between "layers," sometimes adding too much water, then going back and adding more pigment. By now, spectators were saying nice things about our square.

Missy Fiedler set up her stuff next to me on the left, in a spot I was pretty sure no one would want since it had a crack down the middle of it. Missy said she didn't mind at all, since she really didn't have an image in mind and would just incorporate the crack into her design. Her sponsor was the Morris Graves Foundation, where she recently spent several days on a painting retreat. I explained to her about the misting bottle like I was some kind of expert, and she went to work on a drawing featuring the lake at Morris's former home outside Loleta.

By now, Bob had wandered off to take pictures, but I kept working, losing track of time and my two-hour limit. The tips of my fingers started burning from rubbing pigment into the rough cement and my fingernails became rough and shredded. I felt like a veteran.

I stood up to look at my drawing from a distance. Ouch. My knees screamed. I decided to stretch my legs by walking around the plaza and looking at other people's drawings, then come back and decide if mine needed more work.

It was around 12:30 or 1:00 by that time, still cloudy and gray, but the plaza was alive with color. Every single square was occupied and kids were everywhere, drawing with their families and on the sidewalks leading to the center of the plaza. Hundreds of spectators watched the work in progress, or shopped at the Farmers' Market, which was set up behind the artists. The Joyce Hough Band was playing and people of all ages were juggling and hula-hooping. I felt like a kid, happy to be alive and participating in the chain of color encircling the plaza.

I chatted with other artists, picked up some technical tips and studied a lot of fine images. I circled the plaza twice, then came back and looked at our square. It definitely needed more work, I decided. More saturated color, heartier outlines. Fortunately, Amy Doran talked some sense into me.

"I think you should leave it alone," she said, kindly. "It's beautiful, and you don't want to overwork it."

I noticed that Terry Oats, who had started before me, was still hard at work on her lovely, sultry portrait (which one passer-by described as "pimp-worthy"). Marie Foley was also still working, even though her drawing looked perfect to me. Missy Fiedler was considering stuffing whole sticks of chalk into that crack to cover it up. I looked at my drawing again, considered how I could improve it if I added just a little more purple, and decided to quit.

By tomorrow, I reminded myself, people would be riding bikes over it. It's not meant to be permanent or perfect, just a small piece of a big, colorful, inventive day in support of kids. Still, now that I have that misting technique down, I wouldn't mind trying again next year. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday morning.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via 




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