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Adelaide Urban Sketchers: A lesson in art and awareness

Arts & Culture

Adelaide Urban Sketchers are a group of local artists mapping the city’s urban landscape – ‘one drawing at a time’. Reporter Angela Skujins joins them to try her hand at plein air sketching and being present in the city.

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With my head buried in my iPhone. I often miss what’s immediately around me. The shapes of clouds or facades of buildings go unnoticed as my tether to the World Wide Web strengthens.

But sketching one Sunday with the South Australian chapter of a global arts movement which aims to chart cities through illustrations forced me to take stock of Adelaide and where I sit in it.

“We’ll remember the breeze on our face, the shadows, the sunshine, the people walking around,” says Anita Bentley, primary administrator and co-founder of Adelaide Urban Sketchers.

Anita Bentley’s Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Source: Facebook

“We will remember our discussion within the environment that we’re sitting in.”

Bentley is one of 12 artists collected at the steps of North Terrace’s Elder Hall at 1pm for the chapter’s third meeting that month.

Founded in January 2017, the group operates under the umbrella of the international Urban Sketchers – which includes chapters in cities such as New York, Berlin and Paris. Urban Sketchers, according to their Facebook page, are attempting to offer a view of the world, “one drawing at a time”.

The international guidelines centre on eight rules, including that the illustrations be drawn on location, be derived from direct observation and tell a story.

The Adelaide group lists 214 Facebook members, but Bentley says a smaller core group of sketchers attend regularly. Participants on this particular day are mostly older, retired and female, and all are eager to quickly disseminate around the University of Adelaide courtyard and take their pick of perspectives.

The artists have two hours to sketch Elder Hall, Bonython Hall, Scots Church, or the minutiae in-between, before they reassemble for show-and-tell at 3pm.

“They can choose anything they want, from a window, doorway to a whole building or half a building or two buildings, statues, whatever takes their fancy,” says Bentley.

“With urban sketching, too, you don’t just sketch a thing – it has to have context, it has to have a story; that’s the requirement.”

Bentley co-founded the group after retiring from a 30-year career as a project manager of an engineering team.

She values urban sketching for its ability to transport her as an artist: “It requires a lot of concentration, so you escape for the hour or two.”

Anita Bentley. Photo: Angela Skujins

In terms of telling a building’s story, Bentley makes a point to include stylistic architectural features. She uses the “little leaves” hanging off Elder Hall as an example.

“They’re acanthus leaves, which are on historical buildings throughout the world, particularly in the UK in the cathedrals and the churches.”

She then points to the building to our right and the “niggly things coming out from the sides” of Bonython Hall.

“They’re called crotchets.

“If you put a few of those in as an indication, it will pick up the age and time it was probably constructed.”

Although urban sketching builds on Bentley’s existing architectural knowledge, it’s taught her a new skill – “to look up”.

“If you take the time to stop and move out of the way of pedestrians, and look at some of the old shops on Rundle Street East and the Mall and Pirie Street, there are some fabulous facades.”

Co-founder of Adelaide Urban Sketchers Stuart Jenkinson agrees: “It makes us go outside and see what’s going on.”

Stuart Jenkinson. Photo Angela Skujins

Jenkinson, now retired, has previously worked in computer and hospitality roles, but has always had a “creative bent”.

His sketching diary is filled with far-away scenes – he has captured Vietnam’s “1000 motorbikes” and Morocco’s general “chaos” through splashes of watercolour loosely contained by black fountain pen lines. He also plans to venture to India and attempt to record its colours and characters through his journals.

Jenkinson believes urban sketching offers creative freedom. “There’s no real stress. It’s just sort of like, do what you want.”

Anne Swan. Photo: Angela Skujins

Sitting under a Jacaranda tree is Anne Swan, who has been an Adelaide urban sketcher since early 2018. Although she also takes part in other watercolour and life-drawing classes, she says urban sketching enables her to artistically respond to the city around her.

“I think it’s the opportunity… to wander about Adelaide – or sometimes the suburbs, the beach or wherever – and observe it with new eyes by sketching it, and seeing what buildings and what colours there are, and what you can do with it yourself,” she says.

“I suppose it’s creating your own version of what you’re looking at.”

Swan believes a lack of spare time or flexibility may explain why there aren’t more younger members of Adelaide Urban Sketchers.

“I think it’s much nicer to do it all your life, and I wish I had because when I lived in places overseas, it would have been lovely to have [those sketches].”

It’s an hour before we rendezvous and I pick up my pen and begin to trace the outline of Elder Hall’s main entryway for an hour. I notice the shadows falling to the right of the structure, and how the brass staircase wraps around the building. With a ball-point pen, I outline the plants in front of the sandstone facade, and the hundreds of bricks which support the century-old building.

As a breeze brushes my cheek, I note: “Can hear chatter from the other side of the courtyard” and “rustling of leaves in trees” and “sun on shoulder”.

My final note is: “A lesson on being present”. Adelaide Urban Sketchers is a lesson on being alive.

How Urban Sketchers Adelaide captured the University of Adelaide North Terrace courtyard. Photo: Angela Skujins

Head to Adelaide Urban Sketchers for more information.


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