Train Sketching


Before Christmas I took a trip to Sandpoint Idaho on the train, the Empire Builder. Alone. In winter. It had been a pretty great trip. Coming home, the train was 5 hours late, which turned out to be a good thing. Instead of boarding at midnight, I got on about 5 a.m., slept soundly to Spokane, and daylight came soon after, so that I was able to see most of Washington, a rare treat. I spent all the rest of the trip in the lounge car, contentedly reading, sketching, watching the world going by.

On the train was a film crew I really hadn’t paid much attention to. Near Wishram, they asked to film me sketching, and so I was introduced to Albert Maysles, quite old, a distinguished documentary filmmaker. (I didn’t know!) As he filmed, we talked a bit, or the woman and I continued our conversation, or nothing.

I spent about 2 hours with Albert; after he finished filming he just sat with me and visited, both of us watching the scenery, the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Hood, and soon, the entrance to Portland. He told me he has been working on a train documentary and was interested in how lives intersect on a train, a time out of time between strangers.

Since then, I’ve done my homework. Albert and his brother David filmed many documentaries, including “Gimme Shelter” of the Rolling Stones, “Grey Gardens” about Jackie Onassis’ eccentric relatives, and the Beatles first visit to the US in 1964. I ordered this film to give my sister-in-law for Christmas, and we’ve both since watched it. It was reissued 10 years ago with an interview of Albert; his smile twinkles as he remembers “the boys.”

The part that I keep coming back to is how unself-conscious I felt. No big deal. And he speaks to this aspect of his work: to allow his subjects to feel real. He said they had travelled from New York, would be spending just a few days in Portland to rest up, and then back on the train for more filming. A daunting task for such an old gentleman, dead of winter, up against the holidays. Maybe some day I’ll catch a glimpse of my sketchbook – this page – in progress, because you know I recklessly showed it off to the camera along the way.


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