Retro America: Tacoma edition

Tacoma artist is leading a watercolor-sketch renaissance

Staff writerJanuary 24, 2014 

Chandler O’Leary, “You’ll Like Tacoma.”


Chandler O’Leary isn’t originally from Tacoma. She isn’t even primarily a pen-and-ink artist. And she only started blogging and using social media six months ago.

But those components together have created a mini-renaissance in the art of watercolor sketching. Over the last six months, the Tacoma-based letterpress artist has seen her old-fashioned, place-based drawings take off in the online world. Her work can now be seen offline at a new solo show at Brooks Dental that captures Tacoma’s vintage neon signs in all their former glory.

“I’d been sketching since I was a teenager, and it got serious when I studied in Rome (in 2001) and started … turning them into paintings,” says O’Leary, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who runs Tacoma letterpress studio Anagram Press. “But I was never sure how it fit in with the rest of my studio work. So I didn’t tell many people about it. I just put it away.”

The art O’Leary was “just putting away” was the kind that most people would love to replicate. Armed with pencil, ink pen, a squirrel mop brush and a tin of watercolor paints, O’Leary travels America, recreating quaint buildings, retro LP covers, frozen rivers, bemused cows and diner cooks with soft lines and sympathetic, creamy pastels. You can almost imagine her work as an Instagram filter that transforms contemporary photos into a 1950s-era sketch.

Her show, “You’ll Love Tacoma,” captures vintage Tacoma neon signs (most long gone) in both day and night versions on white and black paper, lovingly rendering every curve of neon tubing and stylized lettering. “Happy Days” (a diner formerly at 1302 Broadway) highlights the name in beer-bottle green, with the frothy, post-Prohibition mug shimmering electric blue in the night version. “Top of the Ocean” gives the Ruston Way nightclub sign O’Leary’s signature vintage feel, with just enough wobbles in the ocean’s stripes to keep it interesting. Some, like “Flying Boots,” would work better with more perspective and architectural context, but some are really original, like the famous “You’ll Like Tacoma” giant waterside sign, illuminated in reflection with hundreds of tiny light bulbs like a stage diva’s mirror.

Close friends knew of O’Leary’s sketching habit – how she takes book and pencil wherever she goes, and has created hundreds of pages documenting her much-traveled life (born in South Dakota, she grew up as a military kid and doesn’t really call any place home) and the last five years in Tacoma. One of those friends suggested she make a website out of the drawings. So last July O’Leary created Drawn the Road Again, a sketch-based travel blog updated with astonishing frequency (every few days) and fed by accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

The success has surprised her. Within two days it had been featured on the well-known art blog Colossal. Soon after, Drawn the Road Again was featured in the Fast Company blog, Australian design magazine Frankie, South Sound Magazine and the Spanish version of Condé Nast Traveler. She has a respectable following of 406 on Instagram, 485 on Pinterest and 988 Facebook likes — not bad for a self-confessed social media late adopter.

“It has this bizarre following outside the U.S.,” says O’Leary. “Turns out a lot of people in Europe and Australia love the idea of a retro America road trip. Who knew?”

But it’s not just the online community that loves O’Leary’s intimate, old-fashioned sketches. It’s Tacoma, too, which has supported the artist’s letterpress work by commissioning steam-roller prints (King’s Books Wayzgoose), offering storefront displays (Spaceworks), nominating her for awards (Greater Tacoma Community Foundation) and setting up exhibitions (Collins Memorial Library, PLU gallery).

Now, her sketches have their first solo exhibition at Brooks, with another to come at the Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery.

“This is a community that responds to me, even if I do something in a different medium,” O’Leary says.

And it’s a city that offers a retro sketcher a lot of visual opportunities.

“I’m so, so glad we chose Tacoma,” says the artist, who always wanted to live in a northern town that was near the ocean and mountains and moved when her husband got a job here. “I like the small-town feel ... and there are all sorts of beautiful things on every corner – enough interesting architecture and quirky places to keep me occupied for a long time!”

One thing that’s missing from O’Leary’s career, though, is cutting-edge gallery shows – and that’s not something she’s expecting any time soon. Making old-fashioned figurative sketch art is definitely old-fashioned, and selling the concept is hard work.

“I’m an illustrator,” O’Leary points out. “Historically, they’ve never been considered artists. Think of the controversy about putting Norman Rockwell into the Tacoma Art Museum. I love Rockwell, but you’ll never find him in an art history book. And (fancy New York galleries) would never speak to me in a million years.”

“It’s harder sometimes to get shows because people dismiss (figurative art) as not the most technological, advanced thing,” says Margaret Bullock, curator of collections and special exhibitions at Tacoma Art Museum. “But whenever we’ve shown illustrators, people love it, like Rockwell. If you’re doing an interesting take on it, then it’s a really approachable way of making art. People get it.”

O’Leary’s hours of careful lines and blurred colors do feel a little underappreciated on the walls of dental rooms but she is realistically humble about it.

“If ever I get a show in a gallery or museum, great. If not, so be it. I’m happy that people like (what I do).”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@

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