Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Morocco or Bust: 1

Installment One

by Ali-Baba

Poor wi-if has prevented me from posting during my journey. But I think I can finally get some of this posted – insha’Allah (as they say here.)


Marrakech. The narrow street is a never ending tide of robed and sandaled humanity. Bicycles and motorbikes career through the crowds, threading their way in fits and starts, the sharp smell of exhaust clouding the air and blending with the smell of urine, a blunt smackdown of the rich scents of various spices that tinge the air that resonates with the Adhan as muezzins through loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer. Merchandise is ubiquitous, splayed upon the street, hanging above and piled into small storefronts. Lanterns of meticulous and intricate metalwork, clothing, hats, shoes, slippers, wooden boxes, whistles, tajines large and small, fly swatters, necklaces, bracelets, spices, musical instruments, tiles, fruits and vegetables, on and on and on. To the left and right small vendors cooking pastries or cookies, live chickens in and out of cages awaiting their doom. Eye contact with any of the sellers is an invitation for them to try to get you to buy something and then haggle a price from you, or be lead somewhere (usually someone’s shop they have an understanding with) to then look at some other kind of merchandise. They are incredibly persistent and we’ve finally learned how to be firm and say, “La Shokrun!” (No Thank You!) Even then we have to repeat it several times, shaking our heads and moving on through the press of humanity. And not looking at people here is a crime, really, because there are so many wonderful faces to enjoy! Marrakech is a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, aromatic and tactile textures, and throngs of people all jostling and sharing the stark heat of the day.

John Singer Sargent Watercolor 

My fascination with Morocco was sparked by the watercolors of John Singer Sargent when he visited in the 1880s. In 1981 I was in art school in New York City by way of Beaumont, Texas and those stunning watercolors hit me as extremely, powerfully exotic, filling me with a wanderlust I’ve barely been able to scratch the surface of. Morocco became my Grail, the destination that nestled and burned in my heart demanding that I get there someday. It was the allure of the traditional garments, the robes, the burnooses, the camels, the architecture, the Arabian Night stories. Time had other plans, but here I am now.

John Singer Sargent Watercolor


John Singer Sargent oil

 Other artists have also piqued my interest and stoked those fires further. Frank Brangwyn’s oils when he traveled through Morocco, as well as his traveling mate Arthur Mellville and his extravagant watercolors.

Frank Brangwyn Oil

Frank Brangwyn Oil

Frank Brangwyn Oil

Arthur Melville Watercolor

Arthur Melville Watercolor

Arthur Melville Watercolor

There’s Delacroix, Gerome, Matisse, Lord Leighton, Mariano Fortuny, and on and on. Each adding another stent opening that space in my heart until finally I could wait no longer. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been awarded a sabbatical from Ringling College of Art and Design, where I’ve been teaching for the past ten years. Everything aligned perfectly and during my teaching with the Illustration Academy I hit Jon Foster up with the possibility of joining me, and here we are.

Gerome Oil

Fortuny Watercolor

Fortuny Watercolor

Fortuny Oil

Fortuny Etching

Jon Foster

Ali Baba

Jon’s asleep right now and I’m up finally taking to the task of starting my blog entries. There’s a fan in the room with us circulating hot air. It makes a difference, but only *just*. I’m working by the dim bathroom light that’s spilling weakly into the room, sitting on my bed hammering away on the iPad.

It’s hot. 108˚F. I live in Florida and grew up in Texas on the Gulf Coast and I don’t remember being this hot. Brutal. But the heat gets pushed to the back of your mind and you get blown away by the sheer weight of the layering of people, the close quarters maze of hallways and textures and smells of this place. It’s sensory overload. Endlessly fascinating and draining all at once!

We’re staying at a nice Riad, The Empty Canvas, and the hosts are wonderfully pleasant and engaging. Jamal and his mother are sincerely nice, warm individuals. We feel totally welcome here and it’s a great place to come back to each day and night. We awaken to a nice breakfast of a hard-boiled egg, Moroccan bread with fruit jam, orange juice, mint tea and coffee. Perfect!

Jamal with my daughter’s Pusheen – Kitty in a teacup that she wanted me to take and photograph during the trip.

I left from Florida and Jon from Rhode Island and we connected in Madrid and were on the same flight to Marrakech. After landing and getting through customs we went out looking for a cab that was supposed to pick us up. Apparently there was some kind of confusion on the part of the driver and we never found him. We ended up sharing a different cab with a nice girl from England, Janice, who was here for a yearlong study abroad program. We were going in pretty much the same direction and she filled us in on things while we blew through traffic, our lives flashing before our eyes. The streets were crazy! Traffic from every direction! Cars, bicycles, trucks, donkey’s pulling wagons, horses pulling carriages, motorbikes, you name it! All jostling for position, cutting each other off, crisscrossing each other at crazy speeds. Our driver was first rate and handled it with ease. A real feat!

We were dropped off at the street that was listed in the communication with the Riad, but we didn’t know what we were really looking for and the phone call I made to the Riad connected me to Jamal’s mother who doesn’t really speak English (of course the real problem is that I don’t speak Moroccan Arabic). There was a group of guys there and they wanted to walk us to our destination, but we didn’t have a solid address. One guy got a little surly, but we eventually just left and walked to the Main Square, which was quite a walk. I was dragging along my luggage — a rolling duffle filled to the brim, a backpack also filled to the brim, and a smaller rolling case that had my Ala Prima Pochade Box in it. Jon had his backpack and a large duffle. Janice also had a few pieces of weighty luggage. The streets are uneven cobbles and, as mentioned earlier, are rife with motorbikes and bicycles and people and cars and donkeys and horses! Crazy.

Pusheen getting around!

 We walked for what seemed like forever through the maze of the medina and finally found the Café de France. There we sat down and had big bottles of cold water and piping hot sweet mint tea, the national beverage. I finally got through to the Riad and someone came to pick us up. Janice was on her own at that point, but I lent her my phone to make a call and she also finally got through to someone.

That first day Jon and I did no drawing whatsoever, just wandered and ogled at the kaleidoscope of colorful clothes, the press of humanity, the bustle, the cacophony. We took lots of photographs and muddled our way through the day trying to get a handle on what little bits of the language we can pick up and parrot back to people. We were wide-eyed at the number of people that crowded the narrow walkways. We were consistently called Ali Baba (which we were beginning to think was directed at me because of my beard. This proved to be true.). Everywhere was an interesting sight and it was hard to take it all in. Our jet lag got the best of us and we came back and took a little Spanish pause that lasted roughly four hours of sleeping like the dead. We went back out and got dinner and wandered a bit more. Jon had gotten up earlier than I and had met a guy named Mustafa who said he could get us to places. He seemed like a very nice guy and off we went.



More to come!

One response

  1. Randy Mohr

    Wow! What a great 1st installment! I’ve been to Cairo once (and am familiar with the feeling of imminent death whirling around our taxi! It’s a curious mixture wide-eyed wonder at your surroundings and terror of willy nilly traffic!),Israel many times and Morocco is another on my own “art/music” bucket list. Can’t wait for further installments (and pics of Jon and your work while you’re there!)

    October 13, 2016 at 12:06 PM

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