Over the last nine years, I have been doing acrylic paintings of the things and places I know best, usually from my own photographs. Ninety percent of my art comes from photos that remind me of the place where I started life, Clayton, New York.
In August 2020, I was working on a 16X20 painting of the Rotary Park docks, viewed from the water. I was having trouble with the perspective, and thinking that I might have to start over, so I set it aside and began working on a sketch of a barn photo. After finishing the sketch, which ended up being quite detailed, I decided that I would use the watercolors I had recently purchased to make it come to life. I set aside the Clayton painting, to come back to it another day. Then, I discovered something else. Working with watercolors is so much easier and more fun than I thought! As a beginner, I am making mistakes. But as an artist, I know that mistakes are how we learn. My first barn was not what I had hoped for. So I sketched it again, in ink. I’ve used many styles, but doing an ink drawing on paper, photographing it so the drawing is preserved. So for now, watercolor is the only painting I’m doing.
After a few lessons I learned a major part of the technique is in the details; as in “don’t concentrate on them” and as in “do not lose the forest for the trees”. You can spend hours making sure the details are perfect and get writer’s cramp doing it with a pencil or a pen and give up. Or you can sketch in the rough outline of things you want in the picture and fill in details as you go along.
I thought, “This is so easy, and so much fun, what if I started drawing things on a 5x9 inch sketch pad designed for ink and watercolors, and eventually, because each of the reference photos used has a memory connected to it, use the sketches to make up a book?”
So, as a trial balloon, so to speak, here are some sketches, all done in less than twenty minutes. The question is, can I tell a short story with each, and could it illustrate a book someday?
This is the Eutarde. She hit a shoal off Clayton in the winter of 1945, limped into the Consaul Hall coaling station, starboard side to, and sank. She was raised, refurbished, and ran the Great Lakes until the late 50’s, when she sank again. My father, Robert Charles, came to Clayton in 1944 as principal of the new school, and to centralize all of the rural schools in the Town of Clayton and surrounding area. He was a River enthusiast, and the sinking of the Eutarde was something that captured his attention. He spent many summer evenings on that dock, fishing. I found the photo in an historical file from the Watertown Daily Times. I’m not sure who the photographer was. In December of 1945, I was only three years old, but since then, the story of the Eutarde has been with me all my life.
This is the E. A. (Ted) Streets office as it was in 1959, when this photo appeared in the 1960 Clayton Central School yearbook, the Calumet. Ted and my dad had a special relationship; Mr. Streets was a member of the CCS school board, and as such was my dad’s boss. The district superintendent, Mr. Earl Chismore, was his supervisor, but Mr. Streets was a great influence. I remember them as friends, and until we got a boat, he often took my dad out fishing. It was the only opportunity dad had to fish, other than on the splintered wooden coal dock, casting pike lures. He actually caught one, standing on the spot from which the photo was made, casting a pike lure with a green steel fishing rod. I think my son still has that rod somewhere. Probably not coincidentally, my career for 30 years was in the insurance business.
Growing up, the stretch of water between Washington Island and the Clayton shore was a reedy and mysterious place to me, possibly infested with water snakes! In winter, you could walk out on the ice, but I never did. I promised my dad I wouldn’t, and my dad was not someone with whom you broke a promise. He always had a reason for exacting such a promise, and in this case, it was a solid one. A good number of people have drowned after falling through the ice on the St. Lawrence River. He did not, he said, want to lose a son that way. We almost lost our Collie, Mike, to drowning. I have forgotten who they were, but two brave men pulled a boat out onto this stretch of water and rescued Mike, after he was trapped in an open lead. Had they not come around, he would not have survived. I took the reference photo for this sketch from the beginnings of the causeway. The curve of the road and the stormy sky behind the Island caught my eye enough for me to stop the car and get out to capture this scene in a few minutes.
I shot the photo of St. George’s Cathedral, Kingston Ont, in 2017 when we were there for lunch. We have visited Canada often over the years, sometimes more than a couple of times a sum-mer. We cross the bridges, and then turn left for Gananoque or Kingston, or right for Rockport or Brockville. This is a routine I inherited from my parents, who often did the same. The last time we visited, in 2019, the customs officer thought it quite strange that we would want to drive all that way for lunch in Kingston. “We do it every year,” I told her, and she laughed and told us to have a good day, and enjoy our lunch, which we did. On the day the photo was taken we were blessed with a clear blue-sky day and temperatures in the high seventies. Quite often when we’ve done this, it was rainy or cloudy on the American side. Even if it’s the other way around, we still go. Except, of course, the summer of 2020!
Big estates like these two houses are set firmly in my memory of times spent on the River. As a kid passing by in my family’s boat, I wondered about the people who lived there. What were their lives like? Were they there all year? How expensive it must be to maintain these homes! In 2018, my wife Carol and I took the Thousand Islands Museum’s tour boat ride to Casa Blanca, the first of these two sketches. The host, Phil Amsterdam, was there to greet us as we disembarked and climbed the stairs to the large veranda, where a light meal was waiting. Carol and I sat in wicker chairs facing the River to eat. I took a photo that would illustrate what one would see from that peaceful setting, looking downriver. This sketch was based on a photo I took as we approached the Island.
The second sketch is of another, similar, big home on the foot of Cherry Island. I posted it online, hoping to get the name of the house, but though I got answers, I am still not sure of the name. Back when gas was less expensive, we used to motor down to Alex Bay and back, usually returning by way of “Millionaire’s Row.” So these storied houses are etched in my memory … mysterious, unobtainable, and memorable.
These two sketches are similarly linked in memories both present and past. The first is the old Waldron Jewelry Store Building, later a private home on the top floors with the gift shop and ticket office for Uncle Sam Boat Line on the ground floor. It’s next door to the open area that is now a riverside park in Clayton. Further down Riverside Drive, to the left, was McCormick’s Res-taurant, where I worked for four years while in high school. To quote a story I wrote in 2015: “It (McCormick’s) was the place which fed, watered and liquored up tens of thousands of tourists and locals alike . . .”
When we moved to Clayton in the summer of 2004, Carol worked at the gift shop, selling boat tour tickets and gifts. For four more summers, we lived at French Creek Marina, in the Jayco travel trailer we had brought with us from Tucson, AZ. In the sketch, you can see that there is a 20 foot by 8 foot screened deck that I started in 2004. Jim Schnauber finished it for us in 2005, after open-heart surgery left me unable to build things for a while. I worked at Antique Boat America, and in 2006 Carol moved to the Magical Swan in Alex Bay when the store in Clayton closed. There are a lot of good memories locked in that sketch!
I was surprised and startled by the appearance of a photo in the Atlanta Journal Constitution of the Lynx, sailing into a coastal Georgia port, because we were used to seeing her sailing the St. Lawrence or docked in Clayton. I have painted her in acrylics twice in those locales. I used the newspaper photo to do a 15-minute sketch of her, without the photo’s background details.
I was batching it in Clayton for a week in 2002, taking lots of photos of old memories. I packed a lunch and took my rental car to Thousand Islands Park, where I sat and ate lunch in the pavilion. I got this shot of one of the Antique Boat Museum’s Gar Wood replicas cruising out of the Gut, loaded with delighted passengers. When Carol arrived the next week, we took the same boat ride, and this sketch carries me back to the several times we have done that, seemingly sur-rounded by the sparkle of the wake on each side of the boat. After so many years on the River, those have been my only real speedboat rides.
It’s hard to believe how a 15-minute sketch can evoke such clear memories. I’ve had people tell me after I posted them online that they experienced the same thing. I am always gratified to know that the sketches are at least clear enough to be recognizable to other viewers.
I guess that means I’m doing something right, even without all the details. The fun of doing these sketches, and the time it passes, is what counts most to me. A gentleman called the other day, promising to sell my art. All I had to do was hand him a hefty fee up front, and work hard to market my art. I said no. That makes it into a job. I promised myself at the start that when art became a job, I would quit. I probably won’t quit, but I started out creating art for fun, and it has stayed fun, over many years.
I hope to be able to spend time in Clayton next year. We really missed it this summer, and I missed painting in front of the Scoop.
By Joel F. Charles
Joel Charles graduated from Clayton Central School, where his father was Principal for 17 years. He graduated from Syracuse University. He was active with the Boy Scouts for 25 years and Rotary for 20 years. Joel holds the BSA Silver Beaver Award and the Rotary Paul Harris Fellow Award. His career spanned teaching and working in the insurance industry. When he retired to Tucson, AZ, he took up acting, directing, painting and building sets for several Tucson theater companies. He has continued his painting and writing with articles appearing in the “Thousands Island Sun.” He has been a photographer since high school, with his favorite subject being the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands. See his article "It Started in School with Prof…" October 2017, TI Life.
Answer from the Editor:
Yes Joel, I would love to see more of your memory sketches... the sketches are great fun and the memories remind me of my memories too! Keep it up!