City as Studio: Working onsite in Mexico City

George Rue (MFA 2016)

When I first came to the New York Academy of Art, one of the things I was most excited about was having my own studio. For the first time, I had a little space where I could work and display all the stuff I made during my first year at school. Having that studio made me feel professional – I woke up in the morning with a sense of responsibility and discipline. But as the year came to an end, with finals safely behind me, I got itchy feet. After all, sudden instances of wanderlust are a part of my personality. So as cozy as my studio may have been, I knew it was time to move on – but not before doing a memorial sketch of my beloved workspace.

And so, to my good fortune, I was given the chance to travel to Mexico City this summer. One month of near-complete freedom in one of the cultural capitals of the world. I am a fairly experienced traveler, but I’d never done something quite like this. But an adventure is an adventure, so I threw my sketchbook and easel in my backpack, and headed south of the border.

My first impression of the city, as my host Stephen Henderson predicted, was “overwhelming.” The dense crowds, noise, and even the smells topped even Canal Street back in NYC. But as I got acclimated, I got the courage to go out and explore – sketchbook in hand. And thus, Mexico City became my new studio.

For the first 10 days I didn’t wander very far from the Centro Historico – the neighborhood I’m staying in. In fact, I estimate I was rarely more than a mile from my apartment. Fortunately, I really didn’t need to go much further than that. The Centro Historico is packed with museums, restaurants, churches, and monuments. Every turn yields a surprise. For the compulsive sketchbook-keeper, there is almost too much to draw, but the subjects around here almost seem to choose you.

Working onsite here is an experience as unique as the city itself. In a way, you become a part of the street life – the shoe-shiners, buskers, beggars, cops, and pedestrians. But with my bulky easel and giant backpack, I attract quite a bit of attention from passers-by. I probably spoke to 50 different people (in my very broken Spanish) while doing a sketch of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Many more came by to look over my shoulder as I worked (in my characteristic cramped, fussy, and overworked style). Observing the Cathedral, on the north side of the big city square, over a period of several days was fascinating. I saw military marches, protests, kite-fliers, and local sanitation workers napping in the shade of the giant flagpole. Perhaps my small sketch doesn’t quite capture all that excitement, but at least I have the memory of that space preserved in a drawing.

I have also started a sketch of the church behind the Plaza Loretto – a small park next to my apartment building. I have more solitude on the rooftop, although the local kids often come up to visit me as I work. But this sketch, as well as many others I have done so far, has been a challenge due to the weather. The days are sunny for the most part, but thunderstorms come along almost every day during the rainy season in Mexico. The light in my painting is perfect at noon on a clear day, but clouds on the horizon mean I need to be ready to pack up my easel at a moment’s notice.

But despite the sunburn and tricky weather patterns, every second I get to work from life down here is priceless. Those little moments, preserved in my sketchbook, tell the story of my travels in Mexico City, a story that is still unfolding. And with 15 days left before I have to go back home, there are plenty of new places to explore in my studio.

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