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Spain, Part Two

After Avilés, Jorge arranged for our bus trip to Bilbao. We took a bus in the morning from Avilés to Olbiedo, where we caught our Bilbao bus. The service on the bus was better than traveling First Class on a US airline. We had fantastic cheerful service, headphones, movies, meals (including wine and beer), snacks and treats, hot towels and unbelievably comfortable seats. Plus, traveling on the ground, we got to see a lot more of Spain.

We arrived in Bilbao in the late afternoon. I had no real desire to see Bilbao’s most famous landmark, the Guggenheim Art Museum designed by Frank Gehry. I have little interest in modern art unless I’m using it to help describe aspects of a character when I’m designing a film (then I’ll use anything appropriate to the story). I met Gehry on a number of occasions when I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering. There are several of his buildings in the L. A. area (he’s based here), so I’ve seen a lot of his work. Most of it I like, although (like most of the people in Seattle) I can’t stand his Experience Museum. I concur with the local description of it as the Giant Purple Turd. So, I passed on seeing both the outside and inside of the Guggenheim.

We did have one of our best meals in Bilbao, however. There are no luggage lockers at the Bilbao train station, so we had to lug our stuff with us through town. The only thing we really had time for was a walk through the beautiful old part of Bilbao which was just a couple of blocks from the station. We had one of our most wonderful dinners at a small restaurant that we happened upon (I’ll get you the name as soon as find the itinerary with my notes on that place).

That night we took a red-eye sleeper train to Barcelona. If you plan to do this, book well in advance; the First Class sleepers sold out long before we reserved our tickets. We got into Barcelona on a Monday morning and immediately took a Metro to the station nearest our hotel, the ideally located Barcino 147. Ferran, the owner, gave us a spectacular room at an extremely reasonable price (which included breakfast and use of the kitchen at any time), giving me a discount because I’m an artist (I love Europe!).

The gregarious Ferran turned out to be an enormously reliable source for All Things Barcelona. His restaurant recommendations were right on the money every single time.

Barcelona is one of my favorite cities in the world: great food, great architecture, great people. It is rightly famed for its collection of architecture by the Catalan genius Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi’s extreme Art Nouveau (or Modernisme, as Art Nouveau is known in Spain) buildings look as if he was able to conjure stone, ceramics and iron to grow into whatever shapes and forms he desired. I had seen many Gaudi buildings on my first trip to Spain in 1970; this was my first real chance to explore them in depth. I was richly rewarded for doing so.

The first Gaudi we visited was just a few blocks from our hotel. Casa Batlló is a wonderment of iridescent color. It’s ceramic roof looks like the back of a storybook dragon. It’s on the “Block of Discontent”, so named because several great Art Nouveau architects tried to outdo each other with buildings on the same block. They are all pretty amazing, but there’s nothing comparable to a great Gaudi.

Not far from Casa Batlló is Casa Milá, also known as La Pedrera. This apartment building looks like a giant frosted cake, the iridescent white frosting of the roof all melting, dripping and sagging. We went inside (there’s a reasonable fee) and perused the interior. We took the elevator up to the roof and wandered through its M. C. Escher-like levels with its whipped cream ceramic mosaic spires. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The floor below the roof has a fascinating, informative museum on Gaudi and his works.

Gaudi’s masterpiece was to be his cathedral of the Holy Family (La Sagrada Família), which he began in 1882, but he died before its completion (he was run over by a tram on his way to the cathedral in 1926). Work continues on the completion of the cathedral (which from a distance looks like a gigantic drip sand castle) to this day. Barcelona took a wrong turn, though, in hiring a crappy Art Deco sculptor to sculpt the figures intended for the back of the cathedral. They are clumsy and awkward; they, quite frankly, look like hell and are completely inconsistent with the rest of the cathedral. The sculptor should be fired and his work should be removed. There are plenty of fine sculptors who would be much more appropriate for the job.

We also visited Gaudi’s Casa Vicens, Casa Calvet and the spectacular park that Gaudi designed, Park Guell (I recommend taking the city bus there; don’t try to hike it). With its mosaic crockery lizards, tilted stone archways, amazing views of Barcelona (the park is high on a hill overlooking the city), and serpentine elevated terrace, I prefer Park Guell to Disneyland.

Two other structures merit note. If you visit Barcelona, you shouldn’t miss the Hospital de la Santa Crue i Sant Pau or the Palau de la Música Catalana. The hospital (a working hospital) is a wonderland of beauty and color, designed to make the patients’ stay there as pleasant as possible. The Music Palace is a riot of tasteful fantastic color and images with gorgeous columns and stunning mosaic murals. Nearby the Music Palace is an atmospheric tapas bar with incredible creative food (boasting “tapas atípicas”) prepared by its Danish owner. Her bar is called El Bitxo (“The Bitch”). She is the bitch herself and is proud of it. We loved her and her food.

Locals consider Ciudad Condal the best tapas bar in Barcelona. We agree. The bread they use in their long sandwiches is unbelievable.

If you walk the length of La Rambla from Plaza Catalunya to the sea harbor you get a real feel for the rich diversity of Barcelona. There is street entertainment, pickpockets, bird markets, an erotic museum, great architecture, sculpture and one of the most amazing markets I’ve ever seen: La Boqueria. I could spend a whole day just inside the market. There are food bars inside the market that cook up the most flavorful dishes from the market’s readily fresh ingredients.

More to come, my friends…

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SPAIN! Part One

Still catching up, blog-wise…

In early September my wife and I flew to Madrid. I was invited as a guest to a comic book convention in Avilés (a small town on the northwest coast of Spain). Because there’s no airport in Avilés, it was much easier to arrange to fly in and out of Madrid. I bought Spanish Eurail Passes prior to our leaving the United States.

My wife, Kent, had never been to Spain. The comic book convention was a great excuse to get her over there. I visited Spain (Barcelona & San Sebastian) during Franco’s reign in 1970, then lived in Madrid in 1980 while designing the “Conan the Barbarian” movie. So it had been 28 years since my last trip there.

A lot had changed. In 1970 Spain used to be sort of like Europe’s Mexico; a cheap and sunny place to head for your vacation. Not any more! Since joining the EU Spain has changed dramatically. It is now a first rate world class nation. Its travel infrastructure (airlines, trains, buses, highways, subways) is much better than that of the United States. The treatment we got on our bus trips was better than treatment in First Class on any American airline. Free movies, meals and drinks on a bus! Nicer seats, too! Everywhere we went it felt like the decisions the Spanish government made were based upon the question, “What would be the best thing to do in regards to our people?” (as opposed to the US, where the question seems to be “What would be the best thing to do in regards to our corporations?”).

The Atocha Metro Station in Madrid is a good example of what I’m talking about. As you walk up some steps to access another part of the station you face a gigantic wall. Here, it would probably remain just a wall — maybe with some paint if we were lucky. At Atosha Station this wall is a mass of soothing blue. It looks as if water is constantly dripping down in vertical streams all over the entire wall. It’s not water, though — it’s lights. They’re soft blue lights designed to look like water dripping down a window. It’s hard to express the overwhelming feeling of peace you get when you face this colossal wall.

Elsewhere in Atosha Station is another surprise — a huge, tall rainforest oasis with lots of live turtles in its surrounding ponds. In a metro station!

Honestly, after being in Spain, coming back to the US was like returning to a Second World Nation. Hopefully, President Obama can repair the damage of the previous eight years and steer us back on to the right course.

After a couple of days in Madrid we took off for Avilés. Or, we tried to. My ignorance of and carelessness in regards to the fine Spanish rail system nearly stranded us. Fortunately, our Avilés liason, the amazing Jorge, talked us down out of our tears, depression and panic and facilitated our getting to Avilés in good time. We arrived very happy (which Jorge said should be our only goal).

Now, I’m torn here. I have never enjoyed a convention more than the one in Avilés. But I worry that if I tell everyone how amazing this show is, that it will be flooded with mobs of conventioneers and ruined. Our generous hosts gave my wife and I such a great time, though, that I’d feel guilty not thanking them publicly for their hard work to make the convention in Avilés such a fantastic experience.

Here’s a typical day. We rise in the morning, get dressed and go down to our hotel’s first floor dining room where there is a breakfast buffet for the artists. After that we are free to wander. We could wander about Avilés or wander up the town’s incline to a large white tent., on the way passing a huge sculpture devoted to comics and reading (the sculpture gets added to each year). During the day there are about twelve dealers set up inside the tent. They primarily represent bookshops that sell comics. At the end of the tent is a table set up for interviews, press conferences, etc. Nearby the tent is a large building that houses an auditorium for the more formal presentations. In the auditorium lobby is a beautiful display of framed original comic art.

At lunch time the artists are collected and taken to a nice restaurant. After lunch we’re free to do whatever we want. The convention is designed to be small so that the fans can truly meet and interact with the guests and that the artists can hang with each other, too, if they’d like. I had fans of mine show up from several countries. In Europe fans are not accustomed to paying for sketches drawn at conventions. There is no obligation to any of the guests to draw for their public, however. It is entirely the artist’s own decision. If the artist decides to do drawings, fans will wait politely and patiently for hours and hours to get one.

Knowing that none of these drawings would end up on Ebay the next day (the Spanish fans are far too respectful to pull something like that) and with no pressure whatsoever to produce, I decided to sit and do drawings. It was fun, because I could do this almost anywhere. I usually sat with other artists at cafes or sketched inside the convention tent. While I was drawing fans would buy me food and drinks and other treats (I never had to pay for anything to eat or drink in Avilés! I became quite the connoisseur of Spanish beer). I did lots of drawings; I drank lots of beer.

Speaking of which…in the evening the artists would be rounded up once more and taken for dinner at a nice Avilés restaurant. Now, normally, I’m not a big seafood eater; I rarely touch the stuff. But the seafood throughout Spain was SO GOOD that I ate practically nothing else.

After dinner we’d usually return to the tent. The amazing Rita, a bar owner from Bilbao, has a long bar set up in the tent. Sometimes she brings musician friends in to play. All manner of drinks are available from Rita’s bar and Rita herself (as well as several other fans) are generous sources of other pleasures (Did I mention that Cuban cigars can be purchased legally in Spain?). As long as people are drinking, the bar stays open (usually until morning — this is Spain, after all!).

You might ask what my obligations were to the convention in Avilés. They were:
1) Show up.

2) Do a one hour Q & A in the auditorium. An astounding translator, Diego, was provided and the convention itself put together an amazing variety of images representing every aspect of my career (I have no idea where they dug up all that stuff of mine).

3) Meet the Mayor of Avilés and his fine staff.

4) Be there for the closing ceremonies (where I received the George Perez “Coolest Guest” Award).

5) Have fun.

That’s it!

I made it a point to speak Spanish everywhere I went. My decision to do so became a testament to the patience of the kind people of Spain. Whatever I couldn’t say I would draw or gesticulate, all with a healthy and infectious sense of humor. The Spanish people seemed to happily put up with my apparent lunacy and the mangling of their beautiful language. Slowly but surely (and with my wife’s help; she speaks pretty darn good Spanish), my Spanish started coming back to me — even some of the verb forms!

My hosts in Avilés could not have been more gracious, as evidenced by my wife’s reaction to attending the show. My wife Kent almost never goes to conventions, mainly because she can’t stand them (no interest, really, and a lot of the people who turn up at the shows just creep her right out). But the second day in Avilés, she turned to me and said, “I’m REALLY having fun here! These people are SO NICE!” (So nice that I volunteered to give an impromptu talk at the local art college one afternoon. The students were incredibly bright and receptive and we all had a good time).

Indeed, everyone we met in Avilés was unbelievably friendly and nice. We made so many good new friends; fans and fellow artists alike. Thank you, city of Avilés! Thank you, Jorge! Thank you, Diego! Thank you, Rita! Thank you to everyone involved with the convention! Thank you to all of the artists, friends and fans who showed up for this terrific show.

Other projects involving Spain are now in the works. I am really looking forward to my return (as is my wife). Next, I’ll tell you about some of the other Spanish cities we visited.

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Edmonton, Canada

Oh, Man! I’ve got so much blog catch-up to do!

Today I’ll travel back a couple of months to my trip to Edmonton, Canada. I was invited there by the Royal Alberta Museum via some kind words from my friend, comics artist Ken Steacy. The Royal Alberta Museum was hosting an exhibition from Paris on the historic perception of dragons all around the world. To support the show, the museum invited speakers of a variety of disciplines relating to dragons. My slide lecture was entitled “Painting Dragons in Their Natural Habitat”.

My talk primarily consisted of images of fantasy art I had created over the past forty years. The end of the lecture was a step-by-step series of slides (does anyone out there remember slides?) showing the process and development involved in the execution of two dragon pictures. They were identical in design and content, but one was an oil painting, the other an ink & watercolor illustration.

I was really pleased to see that my friends Eva & Phil Currie showed up for my talk. Phil is one of the most important paleontologists in the world as well as being a fellow fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His wife Eva is as smart as she is beautiful, which means she’s very smart indeed.

My talk went over very well and I’ve been asked to return in the near future. I have agreed — primarily because of how amazingly I was treated by the Royal Alberta Museum and its staff and because Edmonton is one of the best kept travel secrets in the world. I’d like to talk about both factors.

Prior to my arriving in Edmonton I received a series of enthusiastic e-mails from Chris Robinson, the Director of Communications, Marketing & Education for the Royal Alberta Museum. Chris was outstanding in his organization, making sure all of the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed. He facilitated getting me everything I needed for my presentation, including a slide projector (which is no easy feat in today’s world of PowerPoint).

I researched Edmonton prior to my arrival and discovered that if you’re a music fan, there’s probably no better place to be during the summer. I’d swear that they have a music festival for a different kind of music every week there. The weekend I was there they were hosting the Edmonton Folk Festival. I expressed a wish in an e-mail to Chris that I’d like to fly in a day early and visit the festival. I had no idea that the Edmonton Folk Festival sells out very far in advance.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at my hotel, there was a ticket for that evening waiting for me from Chris. Chris had even given me a map and instructions on how to get there. After my plane trip I felt like walking. It was a decent walk but I got to see a lot of Edmonton on foot both that day and on subsequent days. Edmonton is a beautiful city. I especially liked the architecture and sculpture of the government buildings.

The festival itself was far beyond what I thought it would be. There were seven stages with acts performing simultaneously on all of the stages. The largest stage was reserved for the major headliners. There was a food court with a great variety of local and international foods and, being Canada, naturally there was a beer garden. I enjoyed several pints of some outstanding local brews. I was invited to sit, eat and drink with complete strangers. If you don’t know this already, Canadians have a worldwide reputation of being the most polite people on the planet. My festival experience bore that out. Another couple invited me to sit with them on their tarp (you reserve your spot on the grassy hill facing the main stage by laying a tarp down). I watched all of that night’s headliners with them, including Jonny Lang (in addition to folk, there was world music, blues, reggae, zydeco, cajun music, Celtic music and much, much more). I plan to return to the Edmonton Folk Festival, next time bringing my family, hopefully.

The following day I visited the Royal Alberta Museum (first class — don’t miss it!) and met its visionary Executive Director, Bruce McGillivray. Bruce invited me to his home that evening for an incredible dinner — cooked by Bruce himself. We were joined by Ken Steacy and his wife, Bruce’s wife and a couple of other family members. We shared a wonderful evening together, discussing art, science, politics and our plans and visions for the future. Bruce made an inquiry/proposal to me in regards to a future museum project. I expressed my keen enthusiasm over such a possibility. When I can talk about it, friends and fans, you’ll be the first to know what it is.

Knowing my love for comics, one afternoon Chris Robinson shuttled me (and Ken) over to an incredible comics shop (Happy Harbor) where I did a sketch for the shop and an impromptu signing.

All in all, my trip to Edmonton was one of the highlights of this year. I heartily recommend including Edmonton in your travel plans. Stay for one of their incredible music festivals and by all means visit the fine Royal Alberta Museum (and Happy Harbor comics).

Thank you, Canada!