First African American : Wendell Scott

I thought I would do a portrait series called First African American for Black History Month. I'll essentially look for people who were the first to accomplish something in the US and draw their portrait as a way to learn a little bit more and practice on toned sketch paper. This annual observance, said to "honor the too-often neglected accomplishment of black Americans", first started as Negro History week back in 1926 and evolved into Black History Month in 1970 and was officially recognized by the U.S. government under President Gerard Ford in 1976. 

First off, is Wendell Scott, a car racer from Virginia who broke down many barriers in the car racing world. There's a quote on Scott's website by author and sport journalist, Peter Golenbock that states "Wendell Scott was to NASCAR what Jackie Robinson was to baseball. The difference was that Robinson played in liberal Brooklyn and had the backing of Branch Rickey and Scott raced in the segregated South and had... nobody".  He didn't get as much support as the other racers and often had to be his own pit crew and mechanic. He even had a sticker on one of his cars that said "Mechanic ME" making light of his situation. Despite his disadvantages, he pursued his racing career starting with the smaller league, Dixie Circuit. His racing career was not without its many trials and tribulations, but he worked his way up the chain, gain the respect of some fans and some peers over time and found a way to infiltrate the racial barrier of NASCAR at the time and went on to win a NASCAR race in 1963. 

Scott continued to race until he was forced to retire in 1973 due to a major racing injury. Four years later, Greased Lighting, a movie based on his story starring Richard Pryor, was released. Scott died in 1990 at the age of 69 from complications due to spinal cancer. He was recently induced into the NASCAR Hall of fame

Sketching The Index Art Installation at the AGO

AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index Urban Sketching

Last week, I spent some time observing an installation by artist David Altmejd called The Index. Located on the 5th floor of the AGO, it's a very elaborate composition of mirrored structures, birds, mutilated werewolves, plants, and more. Above is my attempt at capturing the scene. I added colours later at home. It was a little more complicated then expected but very intriguing to sketch. 

AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index Urban Sketching

I spent about an hour looking at all the details and taking pictures and another hour sketching. There's a lot to take in when you take the time to look at the details of this piece.  Here's what the description from the gallery states :
Human, animal and plant forms collide and intersect in this complex installation. Stuffed bids, squirrels and werewolves in mirrored crates are situated alongside quartz, glitter, mushrooms, pine needles, moss, flowering plants and bird-like figures in suits. The title of the work, The Index, suggests collecting and diversity, though Altmejd deviates from the neat and orderly structure we usually associate with indexes. Here he considers the relationship among all living things, exploring issues such as identity, sexuality, community and the cloning and mutation of species. Architecture and mirrors draw us into a maze-like work, inviting us to create our own narrative and implicating us in this biodiverse hybrid world and the natural cycles of life and death.

It interesting what thoughts come to mind when experiencing an installation like this. For me, it was like a complex visual puzzle to solve, wondering what does it all mean? What is it trying to say? What message I get from it. Below are notes from my observations and of my takeaways  : 

1. A Love/Hate relationship with Werewolves

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with werewolves in this piece. I see love from the fact that there is a strong presences of werewolves throughout the piece, almost like an obsession. I also see hate from the fact that the poor werewolves are gruesomely dismembered. There an interesting contrast between the mesmerizing look of the mirror clusters in the shape of crystal formations and the gruesomeness of these beautiful structures impaling at least four decapitated and dismembered werewolves, from which flowers and gold chains emerge. A strong contrast between beauty and ugliness.

AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
Not sure if artist loves or hate werewolves... Maybe a bit of both
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
A contrast of pretty delicate and violent gruesomeness 

2. Birds Everywhere

There's also a significant amount of birds in this installation. Some are cute, some are funny, some are weird and some are creepy. My favourite is the "Index bird" with its cartoony eyes and the word "Index" spelled out of it's head. There's also flying owl with a 6-pointed star painted on its for head. Religion symbol or sacred geometry? Many groups believe the owl represents wisdom. And what about the hand-made bird made out of hands. Pretty impressive. And the birds with no face but a large hole from which a red beak comes out seem to be coming right out of an eerie horror movie.
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
All kinds of birds with all kinds of messages
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
This peacock-looking bird has a very intensive stare. 
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
These creepy birds are pillaging through the skull of a  werewolf seemingly to get the gold.  

3. Zoomorphic Beings 

The installation includes three "businesschickens" : Half businessmen, half-chicken. These beings have an eerie presence in the installation. Why are they there? What are they doing? The one with the grey blazer seems to be walking toward the second one standing above it all with a decapitated werewolf head in his hand, and the third one is hidden right above your head as you enter the mirror room, judging you ? Zoomorphic creatures are often depiction of deities and the suits adds some seriousness to their presence.  Could they be representing gods of the birds since they have human features? Why do they have white heads and black hands? So many questions :)
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index

4. The Golden Chain Network

There's a network of golden chains linking various creatures together. It seems like the chain comes from the dead werewolves and they are being pillaged by the birds. What do the gold chain represent? Life force? Wealth? Energy? They run through bones hanging from the ceiling and pour out of the various werewolves body part spread throughout the installation. Those little birds are not so innocent after all. Perhaps they work for the businesschickens.
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index

5. Indexing Body Parts

Certain words of various body part are also found throughout the installation. I assume they belong to the werewolves and that in a way they've been indexes in this installation. Some body parts are spelled out,  carved onto the trunk of trees. Could it be that the trees grew from the burying of the same parts? There's also what looks like veins above the door frame of the mirror room, that spell out the words "eyelid" and "liver".  
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
Words spelled out in the installation

6. Light and Reflection

 The way the mirrors and the lights have been installed create beautiful shapes and forms and give it a futuristic feel. I wonder if they shapes are meant to recreate certain symbols. Some even take on a 3-dimensional shape.
AGO Art Gallery of Ontario Installation David Altmejd The Index
Beautiful display of light and reflections of light

7. Hidden in Plain Sight

Somewhat hidden in the mirror room are display cabinets showcasing carefully arranged sex toys, mushrooms, minerals and leaves. Perhaps that's what the third businesschicken is watching over. You can also see them in various corners outside the mirror room with a couple subtle visual innuendos.

10 Ideas to Improve the Streetcar System in Toronto

Toronto Streetcar art Dundas TTC sketch
Public transportation in the city of Toronto consists of 700 subway cars, 1800 buses and 249 streetcars. Having previously lived in Montreal and Ottawa without streetcars, they were "new" for me when we moved to Toronto, a little over a year ago. Both Montreal and Ottawa got rid of theirs in the late 1950s, long before I was born, so it was a little weird to see them roaming the streets of Toronto. Now that I've used them quite a bit, I have noticed some room for improvement and, as an exercise in developing my idea muscles, I came up with the 10 following improvements:

1. Provide Sidewalks for Passenger Safety
One of the major issues I have with the way the streetcar system is currently laid out is that the tracks are right in the middle of the street. This means that pedestrians always board and get off the streetcars right in the middle of oncoming traffic. They have to rely on the diligence of drivers and cyclists to remember to stop behind the streetcars. In the short period of time I've used streetcars, I've seen quite a few near misses when drivers or cyclist forget to stop ahead of time and end up too close to passengers. One solution to this would be to move all the tracks next to the perimeter of the streets near the existing sidewalks. Another one would be to add more sidewalks in the middle of the street just like the ones on College near the Bathurst intersection. It's not ideal, but at least there would be a buffer between the passengers and oncoming traffic.

2. Make the Streetcars Wireless
In certain intersections like Dundas and Spadina, the sky is covered with  a messy web of electrical wires powering streetcars on both streets. This concept is not visually appealing and does nothing for the beauty of the city (quite the contrary!). Not to mention, the potential issues this concept brings during freezing rain condition. A better solution would be to emulate the design of the Bordeaux tramway or Reim tramway in France with their ground-level power supply system. Instead of being powered by outdated hanging electrical wires, they would be powered through the track system on the ground.  

3. Replace The Antiquated Rails System with a Modern Magnetic System
The current track system is such a pet peeve of mine. Not only are the tracks ugly, they are dangerous for people wearing heels that can get caught in them and for cyclists who's wheels can also get caught or slip on them as well. I'm pretty sure they're not good for car tires either and probably cause premature wear and tear for the ones who regularly ride along a streetcar route. One way to solve this problem would be to use a System of Electric Transport by Magnetic Attraction like the one in Trieste, Italy.  No more wholes on the street!

4. Make All Streetcars Accessible
Toronto's streetcars are currently not wheelchair friendly (except for the two new Flexity Outlook), which is not fair to all Torontonians. Perhaps refurbishing the current streetcars with the addition of ramps, like the one found in buses would help not only people on wheel chair, but also people with reduced mobility and parents with strollers. 

5. Increase the Mobility of Streetcars
Streetcars can only go in one direction along their tracks. So if there's an obstacle on the track, like a stalled vehicle, the streetcars cannot go around them. They can only stop and wait, therefore increasing traffic. This can be a problem in the case of power failure or an accident. A solution to this would be to replace streetcars with modern electric buses. They offer the exact same advantage of the streetcar without the issue mentioned above. Montreal is planning to start using electric buses this year. Perhaps Toronto should do the same.

6. Do Not Deploy More Flexity Outlooks!
I repeat. Do not deploy more Flexity Outlooks. They might look nice and modern but it's only at almost 100 feet long, they will most likely be more of a hassle than anything else. An 18 wheeler is about 70 feet long. Imagine replacing the current streetcars with 18-wheelers with an 30-ft trailer attached to it, roaming the streets of Toronto with limited mobility. Sounds like a traffic nightmare. 

7. Redesign the Bus Stops Signs 
Another frustrating things about the public system transit in Toronto is the fact that the stops are not all clearly marked and very confusing. If you're not familiar with the area, it's like a scavenger hunt for your stop and it's not a fun thing to do at night. There's no consistency in the way they are designed and little to no information as to which bus or streetcar is on that route and which subway station it's connected to. The solution would be to take some clues from place like Mississauga with their clearly visible logo above their poles, a list of bus and their directions. Also, simply painting all the poles bright red would be a good start to help people locate them quickly. 

8. Clean the Streetcars More Often
I imagine the TTC cleans its streetcars on a regular basis, but they could use some extra cleaning. If it was up to me, I'd implement daily power-washes and I would add a small  trashcan in the front. That way people would  have a place to throw their garbage as opposed to leaving them on the seats or on the floor. This would make for a more enjoyable ride for everyone.

9.  Modernize the Interior
The interiors of streetcars definitely need a makeover. There's nothing modern about tired red velvet seat, faux dark wood panels and dirty vinyl floors. They look tired, they're depressing, they lack vitality. If it was up to me, I'd hire industrial Karim Rashid to come up with something a little more sleek, easy to keep clean and colourful. Not only would it be better for regular passengers, it would also attract tourists and perhaps become a landmark in the city.

10. Retire All the Streetcars  
By removing the streetcars from the city streets and redirecting efforts and money toward the better bus and subway car, a lot of the issues mentioned above would be solved at a much lower cost by simply getting rid of streetcars altogether. Removing streetcars would also increase the amount of available space on the streets and perhaps allow for wider sidewalks more trees and better designed bike lanes.

Sketching at the AGO

Toronto Urban Sketchers Art Gallery of Ontario AGO African art sculptures and masks
A couple of us went to the AGO to sketch some of the art on display from one of their permanent collections. There's quite a lot to see at the AGO, so we mostly focused on the artwork in the Henry Moore Sculpture centre and the "African room". For some reason, there's no name associated with this room on the map but it looks like most were donated by Dr. Murray Frum.

The results from this little sketching session are quite fabulous. Most stayed in the area and created great renditions of the what you see inside and outside the AGO's second floor. Some also ventured into other floors and discovered great little gems throughout the gallery. (Check out the Toronto Urban Sketchers blog for a sneak peak at their sketchbooks).

Toronto Urban Sketchers Art Gallery of Ontario AGO African art sculptures and masks

I decided to stay in the African room and drew three of the sculptures and masks exhibited. Since we're not allowed to use watercolour in most room, I used an Derwent Inktense pencil (introduced to my by a fellow sketcher not too long ago) and added colour later on at home. I love using this pencil. They are water-soluble and lately far I've been using a black ones to created the shaded area almost like an under painting, and added watercolour after that on top of it. There wasn't a lot of information on the sculptures and the masks other than the material they were made out of, where it came from and what it was. I guess I've been spoiled touring some of the museums and galleries in DC, but it would be great to know what was their purpose was and what they represented at the time the were made. 

AFROPUNK Fashion Illustrated

afropunk fashion unique alternative style colourful Finally, portrait number 2 is completed! I really like how unique and colourful this girl's style is. She was great to draw. Her outfit has a lot of interesting details to draw. I particularly liked to draw her jewelry and Mehndi art. 

I did another time lapse video and I'm learning a few more tricks as I go, experimenting a little more here and there. This time I took a lot more pictures, so it's a bit more interesting and a little less choppy. 


10 Ideas

10 ideas, James Altucher, sketch portrait

I discovered James Altucher's podcast through Ice-T's podcast last year and, since then, I've been following his podcast as well and subscribed to his newsletter. He has great tips and advices on various aspects of life and one of the tips that resonated with me is his "10 ideas" exercise. Basically, every morning he takes the time to write 10 ideas on various subjects as a way to exercise his idea muscles. I always write ideas down, but I never thought about doing it on a regular basis. (He has an article that talks about it in more details here).

It didn't take too much time for me to find myself writing 10 or more ideas in my journal on a regular basis, which sparked the idea of moving this concept to my blog. I thought "Why not write a blog post on a weekly basis about one of the ideas that came to mind and see what happens?" According to him, doing this exercise can significantly improve your life and it sounds like a fun thing to do, so I'm going to try it for myself this year as another Challenge for 2015. It's also a great way to force me to produce quick sketches to go with the post, like the one above. I tend to take a lot of time to produce portrait and feel like I could benefit from posting quick sketches as well. 

Michelangelo at the AGO

Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO Michelangelo

As a result of looking for new ways to learn and grow, over the holidays, I bought a one year membership to the AGO. I had partially visited the gallery only once before during a sketching event, and found out through peers, that people could sign up to become members of the AGO which gives them unlimited access to the gallery's permanent collection and a free ticket to special exhibitions. 

My first visit as an AGO member was to go see the Michelangelo exhibition on the last day.... This is where I learned my first lesson : Avoid going on the last day, especially during the weekend. The place was packed despite the fact that we had to sign up to visit at a specific time during the day. Fortunately, I got to see a couple sketches and sculptures here and there. It was nice to see some of Michelangelo's architectural drawings and notes. Here is my top 5 takeaway from this exhibition:

  1. Michelangelo was a workaholic. He was quoted saying "I work harder than anyone who has ever lived. I'm so pressed I don't have time to eat."
  2. Michelangelo was very competitive. He never sold his drawings as he considered them trade secrets. He is said to have guarded his drawings and sketches and tossing many in the fire before he died to prevent others from stealing his ideas. I guess he probably would not be happy to see the surviving sketches them exposed in a gallery for all to see. 
  3. Michelangelo was an obsessive sketcher, he couldn't stop drawing and drew on everything, even old drawings. Perhaps he couldn't stop the flood of ideas. 
  4. Michelangelo never got to finish most of his projects.
  5. Michelangelo worked with the pope on an intriguing secret triangular shaped library.

It was great to get to see some of the details of Michelangelo's work, shown above. I really like his hatching. It looks very precise and meticulous. On the right, the shading of an architectural detail shows very straight lines to showcase depth. It looks to me like he added the shades before drawing the detailed ornaments on top of the shaded sketch. 

There was a lot of geometry involved in the his floor plans. Above are the plans for the Church of San Giovani dei Fiorentini on the left, and the plans for the Small secret Library of the Laurentian Library. Notice how symmetrical the floorplan on the right is. You can fold it in half on the horizontal and vertical axis and again across the diagonal and everything mirror each other. The triangular shape of the secret library is very intriguing, for some reason it reminds me of the Great Seal of the United States.

Up next : Basquiat

The next exhibition I'm really looking forward to is the one about Jean-Michel Basquiat. There were a couple teasers at the gallery including an original painting and a picture of Basquiat. Apparently the photographer was pissed that he came to the studio with his clothes covered in paint and someone gave him a clean jacket so that he would be more "proper" on the photo. I get the impression from his body language in the portrait  that he was not amused, specially considering the fact that he was not a fan of following rules.  

Sketching at The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar

Urban sketchers Toronto, Urban Sketching The Rex Bar and Jazz Blues Restaurant live band

TOUSK started 2015 on a musical note by having its first sketching event at The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar. It's a great little restaurant, walking distance from Osgoode subway station which is perfect on a cold winter day, especially if you're not a fan of the cold.

Urban sketchers Toronto, Urban Sketching The Rex Bar and Jazz Blues Restaurant live band

15 of us gathered in the restaurant to sketch the live bands. The place was surprisingly packed for a Saturday afternoon. I had never been there before and wasn't sure what to expect, but thought it would be a great way to start the sketching year.  It was the perfect location to sketch in a warm and fun atmosphere. While we were there, the very entertaining Danny Marks and Friends were playing various classic oldies, including some songs from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It was great to see them interact with the audience, making jokes and taking song requests. It really added to the experience.

The second act was from bassist  Olivier Babaz and friends, who played cool jazz music and create a nice relaxed atmosphere. Everyone did a great job illustrating the musicians and the happy audience. All and all it was a great session and I suspect we'll be back.

I sketched in pencil on location and did the inking and colouring later, below are my sketches for that session. 

Urban sketchers Toronto, Urban Sketching The Rex Bar and Jazz Blues Restaurant live band Urban sketchers Toronto, Urban Sketching The Rex Bar and Jazz Blues Restaurant live band

Playing With iMovie

I've been meaning to play around with the iMovies software for a little while and it seems like 2015 will be the year to do so, learn new skills, and make better use of my YouTube Channel. Above is a video time lapse of a portrait I did last year of Jim Carrey, using iMovie. I find him to be a fascinating person with great insights. I was able to incorporate a portion of one of his speech I found online in the video. It was relatively easy and fun to put together, and I'm getting the hang of it. Perhaps I'll find time to do more of these this year. We'll see. 

AFROPUNK Fashion Illustrated

Portrait by MJ, Fashion, Afro, Afro Punk, Illustration, portrait

I recently found out about the Afropunk festival and was inspired by the fashion style of people attending the event. The portrait above is an example of the some of the very creative styles of people attending in the past. I also created a little timelapse of the the process shown below.