Arts & Culture

Watercolors showcase the weird and wonderful of roadside America at Tacoma’s main library

It takes a certain kind of artist to draw a 38-foot fiberglass cow’s backside with sensitivity and love, but Chandler O’Leary is that artist. A lover of roadside retro, as well as a skillful sketcher and watercolorist, O’Leary has been filling sketchbooks with soulful renderings of her many road trips for years , and for the last year or so has been filling her blog, website and social media sites with their soft palettes and tongue-in-cheek humor.

Now, 30 of those sketches (in reproduction) are up on the walls of Tacoma Public Library’s Handforth Gallery in a solo show that, while blandly hung, is a joy to dive into.

The biggest problem with the show is what you’ll see when you walk in: small works hidden on big, carpeted walls. The works, all around 6 inches by 8 inches, stretch horizontally at eye-level, dwarfed by the rest of the blank gallery. It’s possibly the least-inspired installation I’ve seen in that room. Get closer, though, and you’ll be mesmerized.

O’Leary has an eye for the bizarre, the quirky and the retro, and she has the skill and sensitivity to render them in a kind of perfect world of their own. Sketching (and watercoloring) from the shotgun seat of a car during North American travels from 2006 to 2014, she had hundreds to choose from. For this show, called “Drawn the Road Again” after her blog title, O’Leary chose those oversized, cheesy roadside attractions that are weird enough to be fascinatingly delightful.

There’s the giant ear of corn atop a watertower in Rochester, Minnesota; it actually holds 50,000 gallons of water and touches the sky with bright yellow kernels. There’s Salem Sue, the world’s largest Holstein cow: 38 feet high and made of fiberglass, her giant udder looming protectively over the soft, green landscape. Next to Sue is, appropriately, Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle, the tower of a soda fountain in Spokane that reaches upward from the diner’s shingled roof.

In every sketch, O’Leary renders details like street signs and menus with delicate care, right down to the font and character.

It’s hard to know what to focus on: O’Leary’s work or the sheer number of wacky things human beings can come up with. There’s a giant potato in (yes) O’Leary, Canada; a giant egg in Winlock, Washington; and a super-size axe in Nackawic, Canada. There are sharks, wrens, elephants, gorillas, haystacks. And then there are the purely human additions to the landscape, like the billboards on Wall Drug, South Dakota, or Tacoma’s own Java Jive, looking spruce and remarkably similar to the Teapot Dome Service Station in Zillah, Washington.

It’s worth visiting O’Leary’s blog to get more background information and different angles in her very entertaining posts, but with either gallery or blog you come away with the same contented gratitude that someone has bothered to visit all these crazy places and preserve their quintessential nature for the rest of us.