A drawing class given by Michael Jackson? It sounds at first like the journalist coup of the century: not only is Michael Jackson still alive and kicking, but he is in fact living in San Telmo in Buenos Aires, giving travel drawing classes to English speakers and selling his artwork at the market on Sundays.
With baited breath, I arrived for the 5pm class at Sótano Blanco, an art school situated in the heart of San Telmo that, over the past 15 years or so, has cultivated local illustrators’ talent. A young man in a short sleeved shirt sits opposite three girls in a sparsely decorated white room. He stands and offers a hand as I enter, “You must be Hugh, I’m Michael”. Of course, this isn’t the moonwalking, pale faced, Shamone shrieking scoop I was looking for. I hide my brief disappointment and get ready to draw.
I learn that the other students heard about the class when they stumbled across Jackson’s stall at the San Telmo market on Sunday. Situated on Defensa in between the streets Chile and Mexico, the artist sells calendars and posters of his work, and has done for the last three-and-a-half years. His impressive pencil drawings tend to depict various historic sites in the San Telmo neighbourhood and he explains that “people can use them as a walking tour of the area.” It is from his stall, that Jackson recruits pupils for the drawing classes, an initiative aimed at those who keep travel diaries and hope to document their adventures with sketches as well as words.
The lesson begins with a lengthy explanation of art materials. Turns out there is more to drawing than a pencil and paper – at least that is what Jackson’s endless spiel about 4H and 2B and paper thickness and erasers and sharpeners leads you to believe. For those perhaps more interested in drawing than Straedler’s red series, I suggest you switch off for this part. In fairness, I now fear stationery shops much less than before.
Our heads bursting with facts about lead, we proceed to our first drawing task. Jackson arranges a wine bottle and box on the table and tasks us with representing it. I stare at my blank piece of paper in abject fear. But Jackson’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for drawing his surroundings is infectious and soon all four students are happily destroying the page, yours truly in particular. Fortunately, ability is not what matters. According to Jackson, “everyone can draw a box and a line and with that you can draw the city.” It’s just a shame that his lines and boxes tend to be easier on the eye than mine.
For the second part of the lesson, having swallowed all we can about shadow and perspective, the class takes to the streets of San Telmo to attempt to depict a nearby cityscape. Today the plan, as is the norm with beginners, is to go to Parque Lezama to allow people to draw what Jackson refers to as “a scene that is relative to them.” However, a sudden downpour forces a last minute change of plan and we veer into El Federal café.
We settle at a table, order a beer, and once again begin collectively doodling objects – imaginary and real – at the instruction of Jackson. Participation is obviously encouraged, but some people draw more than others, and the class certainly feels as though it is as much about socialising and sharing ideas as it is about churning out artwork. The charismatic Jackson entertains with tales of how he learnt Arabic merely by writing down words phonetically while working on a documentary project in Egypt. He explains that he prefers Argentina to the Middle East since here in the cultural-whirlpool of Buenos Aires he is not defined by race. He complains of the homogenous nature of youngsters in the United States, and describes how he felt uninspired by his hometown in California. He also raises an interesting point that a slow pace of life, characteristic of Argentine culture, is well suited to those who wish to spend a long time looking and reconstructing the view presented before them.
As someone who keeps endless notebooks and travel journals, and ruins them with terrible handwriting and messy scribbles, I appreciate the opportunity to learn how to make them into something slightly more aesthetically pleasing. Lots of us like to doodle, but as Jackson points out, drawing is “like learning a language – you need a little bit of a grammar.” And that is certainly true in my case; the doodles were never going to improve without a bit of direction.
Jackson poses the question: what is more appealing, a mass-produced Quilmes T-shirt that screams “I’m a tourist” or a haphazard sketch in your journal of Argentina’s most popular beer bottle? Why buy the stereotypical postcard image of San Telmo’s cobbled streets when you could sketch your own impression? There are a lot of English-speaking, journal-scribbling travellers, who undoubtedly would be keen to hone their doodling skills. With that in mind, Jackson might well be onto a winner. I will certainly be going again.
The classes will run all summer, but schedules and prices fluctuate, so for more information write to Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org or go and speak to him in person on Sunday at the San Telmo Market.