A California road (illustrated by Chandler O’Leary for Drawn the Road Again)
Part of any exploration is observation, and while most of us impulsively reach for phone or camera to preserve new views in our memory, Chandler O’Leary pauses to illustrate travel scenes. With sketchbook in hand, she chronicles these moments online at Drawn the Road Again. At Atlas Obscura we appreciate alternative ways of experiencing the world, and from roadside attractions to people met along the way, O’Leary has a unique perspective on the sense of discovery in the journey as well as the destination. We asked her a few questions about Drawn the Road Again:
When everything is so easily photographed, why draw your travels?
There are many, many travelogues in the world — in blog form, in books, on social media. And the vast majority of them are told through photography, in varying amounts and quality. Photography has been one of my hobbies for over 20 years — but for me, a hobby is all it is. My real strength is drawing, and it’s the best way I know how to respond to what I see.
The biggest reason I draw my travels is drawing teaches me how to see, how to think. I know that when I’m drawing, an act that takes so much longer than snapping off a quick photo, I’ll never “see” as much as I might otherwise. But when I rely solely on my camera to document my travels, or when I don’t take the time to do as much sketching as I’d like, I don’t do much actual seeing with my own eyes. Afterward, my memories are one big blur, and my photos feel more like items ticked off an impersonal list than a record of a real experience. Even when I only have a couple of minutes to jot down a quick sketch, I’m really studying what I’m looking at.
There’s a fun reason for all this, too: my sketchbooks are the absolute best travel souvenirs I could ever ask for. And they contain many, many memories in one small, compact package.
Marfa, Texas (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
Dust storm west of Albuquerque, NM (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
Does illustrating places change anything about how you experience them?
I think it does. Sketching has gotten me interested in a lot of things that I might not have noticed in the past. For example, when I first learned about Muffler Men (a midcentury series of mass-produced, fiberglass statues found around the United States, often in the shape of Paul Bunyan, but sometimes converted into completely different and strange things) by sketching one, I was suddenly on a quest to find and sketch them everywhere. Or many times I’ll breeze past something, but then my sketching sense (Spidey sense?) kicks in and I’ll stop, double-back, and take another look.
Almost every time, that second look prompts me to pull out the sketchbook. Drawing has made me much more aware of what’s around me — and much more selective about what I’ll spend my time seeing. There are only so many hours in the day, and I’ve learned to make the best of the time I have in each spot.
Gorilla holding a VW Bug in Leicester, VT (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
Do you have any travel-drawing idols who inspired you?
I started when I spent nearly a year living in Italy. I had a friend and mentor there, an artist named Tom Mills. He’s a professor at my alma mater, but I never actually had him as a teacher. I did get to spend a lot of time drawing with him in Rome, and seeing him fill his own sketchbooks. He never seemed to get tired of drawing, and was always excited about everything around him. He was in his fifties at the time, but was incredibly childlike in his enthusiasm — and man, the guy can draw. I can’t think of a better introduction to that art form, or that place where I lived — and I hope I can feel that enthusiastic about the world for as long as Tom has.
I also love the sketchbooks of historical artists; my studio at home is stuffed floor-to-ceiling with art history books, and many of them are about drawing. My favorite historical travel sketchers are John Singer Sargent (you should see what he did in Venice!), Lewis and Clark, and Charles M. Russell. Russell, in particular, used to add little watercolor sketches to his postcards and letters. I think that’s just so charming.
Sunrise Point, Mount Rainier National Park, WA (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, NM (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
What’s the strangest destination you’ve drawn ?
I think that because I draw so many weird things on my travel, and am drawn to them (no pun intended), I kind of stop seeing them as weird. But some of the stranger things I’ve drawn are: an old set of gas station restrooms shaped like giant cowboy boots, the inside of a water tower that I got to sleep in for a night, freak storms — like an absolutely blinding sandstorm, and drive-through trees. They’re so awful, so guilt-ridden, so fascinating, and so odd. I think they’re the perfect, concise illustration of everything that’s wrong with American culture — and yet I can’t help but love them, too.
Maritimes lobster statue (illustration by Chandler O’Leary)
Follow more of Chandler O’Leary’s travels through illustrations at Drawn the Road Again.