Catskills Sketchbook #3

There’s a lot of magic left in this world. There’s magic in love of course, and in religion if that’s your kind of thing. There is magic in the first words and steps of an infant, and in an old man’s dying breath. There are magic people (I’m looking at you), magic words, and magic places. For me, one of the most magical places is the Catskill Park in New York.

The banks of Mongaup Pond

Floating By A Tree

The beginnings of the park were more mundane than magical. The land that was called “Esopus” by Dutch settlers became the County of Ulster in 1683 under control of the Duke of York. In 1708, Johannes Hardenbergh was granted most of the land that was to become Catskill Park. By 1885 the County of Ulster was up to its ears in delinquent property taxes owed to New York State. One of the county’s assembleymen, Cornelius Hardenbergh (great-great-great-grandson of Johannes) was elected in part because of his opposition to payment of the taxes, even though the County had lost its lawsuit against the state. At the Constitutional Convention of 1894 a deal was struck to forgive the taxes and establish New York’s Forest Preserve including all public lands in the Catskill and Adirondack Parks with Article 14 specifying that they were to be kept “forever wild.” These lands have a higher degree of protection than wild lands in any other state. The 287,000 acres of wild land in the Catskills (and 2.6 million acres in the Adirondacks) cannot be transferred without an amendment to the state constitution.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

In the southwest corner of Catskill Park is a 120 acre lake called Mongaup Pond. It’s the largest body of water in the Catskills other than the three New York City reservoirs. Surrounding the lake are 154 campsites that are available May-October for $22 per night. Try to get a site on the outside of the loops to have direct access to the water and can you dock your boat on the site for the night. The campground rents kayaks, rowboats and canoes.

Is there a better way to begin a day than by paddling a canoe across the rippling surface of a misty pond, or a better way to end one than by sharing libations and conversations around a crackling campfire? Only one, in both instances.

Crackling Campfire

Shenandoah Sketchbook

One hundred years ago today, August 25, 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed The Organic Act which created the US National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. There were 35 National Parks at that time, beginning with Yellowstone National Park, which was established on March 1, 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Stone and log fence

The National Park Service now includes 59 parks among more than 400 public areas that cover 84 million acres. The largest, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, has over 8 million acres. The smallest, Hot Springs, Arkansas has 6 thousand. California has the most National Parks, with nine. Virginia has just one.

Shenandoah Valley through the blinds

Watching the Olympics

On May 22, 1926, the 18th National Park was authorized and on the day after Christmas in 1935, FDR fully established Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Last week my soulmate, my sketchbook, and I paid a visit. 

The Appalachian Trail runs the entire length of the park, part of the 500 miles of hiking trails in the park. We hiked to the peaks overlooking Compton Gap and to one of the highest peak at Stony Man Point. We also tubed down the Shenandoah River. But my sketchbook only came out in two places: in our room at the Skyland Resort where we  viewed the Shenandoah Valley through our blinds and watched the Olympics, and in the bar where we drank and watched the US women’s water polo team defeat Hungary.

Most of the sketches are supplemented with photographs taken during our time in the park.

Exotic wildlife in its natural habitat

Bleecker Street Sketchbook

 The first place I ever lived in Manhattan was 4 St. Mark’s Place, above Trash & Vaudeville. One day we came home and the locks had been changed. Maybe we should have paid the rent. It was a good place to get a foothold. The second place I lived on the island was 203 Bleecker Street.

In the second half of the 1980s, Bleecker Street was the epicenter of my world, and there was nowhere else I wanted to live. There was a Banana Republic on the northeast corner of Bleecker & Sixth – the first one I’d ever seen, with pith helmets and mosquito netting, that was their branding then – and our apartment was next door. It was a dark, tiny, first floor apartment with a terrible floor plan. It was heaven.

We lived there for three years and I don’t think a dinner was ever cooked in that kitchen. The refrigerator mainly held pizza and beer.

The toilet had its own tiny closet of a room. The sink and shower were on a raised, tiled platform. There was another bathroom with a shower in the hall. If we were getting ready to go to the Ritz or the Cat Club we had to take advantage of all available bathrooms.


It was the place we hung our coats. In other words, it was home. There’s no place I’ve ever lived that felt more like home to me than Greenwich Village, especially Bleecker Street.

In the words of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros:

Home. Let me come home.
Home is wherever you’re with me.

Brooklyn Sketchbook

A long time ago, when the earth was green, I lived in Brooklyn, on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets. It’s probably a nice place to live now, out of my price range, but it was neither back then. This was the view from my bedroom window.

So was this. I’d be very surprised if Joe’s Pizzeria is still there. Nope. Just checked Google Map’s street view and it’s gone but the jewelry store next door is still there. I used to buy whippets in that jewelry store.

The living room had a wall of square mirrors but since the wall wasn’t very even, neither were the mirrors. The boxes of albums on the floor made a nice hiding place for the occasional mouse.

Now that Brooklyn is hip, I live in the Bronx but still have some nice memories from that other borough. It may not have been the finest place I’ve called home but it had its charms. And a little old black-and-white TV.

Sicilian Sketchbook #2 – Taormina

From Taormina, Sicily, you can see the mainland of Italy. In the other direction you can see the smouldering volcanic giant, Mt. Etna. You can see a lot of things. It’s difficult, in a place like that, to not see something beautiful. As you might expect, the people who live in such a place are happy, and inspiring.
It’s always a good idea to have a sketchbook handy in a place like Taormina. I’m a sucker for the Moleskine 5 x 8.5″ (13 x 21 cm) plain cahier journals – 80 pages of unlined potential. Rumor has it they were used by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Hemingway. Pretty decent company. Also, they’re designed in Italy.  
The Ionian Sea is bordered by eastern Sicily, the bottom of the boot of Italy, the west coast of Greece and even part of southern Albania. It’s one of the most seismically active areas of the world. So it’s wise to keep sufficiently lubricated if find yourself in, on, or near the water. You might even see a 5-masted schooner in the waters if you keep your weather eye peeled.

There’s a beautiful island there named Isola Bella, for obvious reasons. You can walk down from Taormina, as we did once, or you can ride the trolley up and down, as we did many times. 3 Euros each way and it runs every 15 minutes.

Taormina is such a romantic place that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spent both their honeymoons there. If you’re getting married, or divorced, or ready to consign yourself to a lifetime of solitude, you could find many worse places to go.

Sicilian Sketchbook #1 – Cefalu

The first stop on my recent trip to Siciliy was the sleepy medieval village of Cefalu. It hasn’t changed a lot in the last 500 years. It wasn’t built for cars and it’s an unpleasant place to drive one. Ever since it was founded, centuries back into BC, people have laid on the sandy place where the Tyrrhenian Sea kisses the island, soaking up the sun and going for a swim.

I compacted the view of the town from the beach to fit it into this drawing. I had to demolish five or six fine buildings so I could get the wall that reaches into the sea in my sketch. The beach is a great place to sketch because the brilliant sunlight allows the artist to see details of the subject with an unusual degree of clarity.

In 1131, the Normans began construction on the cathedral that stands at the center of Cefalu today. I sketched it at night, after a few drinks, so the clarity isn’t as pronounced as in the previous drawing but there’s a fluidity to the lines that might be more appealing to some, what with beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all.

Any artist seeking inspiration can find it by the boatload in Sicily. The natural beauty of the mountain and the seas (in two weeks I swam in three – the Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Mediterranean) is matched by the monuments of man. Then there’s the food.

Next stop, Taormina.


“It gets worse the older that you get

There’s no escape from the state of confusion I’m in.” – Ray Davies

It must be hard for even an egotist to look too closely at his face in the mirror, and I’m no egotist. Some people find it helpful to ask another to take a hard look at them and offer advice. I’ve been told more than once that I might benefit from therapy but it always makes me think of the old joke:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

As painful and confusing as my life sometimes gets, I don’t want to change. Also, what if I take a hard look at myself and find out I’m a dick? I don’t need that kind of aggravation. Or what if I find out I hate my mother? That would suck because I love my mother.

Great visual artists from Vincent Van Gogh to Norman Rockwell have dabbled with self-portraiture. Most, but by no means all of them, keep their ears attached to the head.

It’s a form of therapy that’s almost the opposite of meditation. Instead of clearing your mind you fill it up, with yourself.

Here are some of my experiments with the form: 

The sketch on the left is from the fall of 1982. I was taking a painting class in SUNY Oneonta. The mirror that hung over the toilet in our off-campus house was in rough shape. Seven years bad luck and so forth. The painting on the right is from 1983.

The 80s were a good decade for self-portraits. The one on the left below is from 1984 and the one on the right, from 1985, is titled “Gettin’ Drunk,” for obvious reasons.

The one on the left below is from 1987, titled “Trouble in Paradise” and in the other, from 1989, I’m wearing the requisite Ramones T-Shirt. It’s written backwards, of course, because of the whole mirror thing.

I don’t know what happened in the 90s. Even in the 00s I didn’t do any sketches of myself. I guess I got it out of my system in the 80s. In 2004, on a trip to Costa Rica, I snapped the picture of my shadow on the left.

And last night I did the one on the right. What can I say: it was a rough day.