Two years ago, Ken and Roberta Avidor ditched the car and traded the house for a condo in St. Paul’s historic Lowertown neighborhood.
It’s a decision that now allows the Avidors, both professional artists, to walk, bike or hop the light rail to get around town and take life at a slow enough pace to capture the world around them — not with a lens or iPhone, but with pens, pencils and sketch pads.
“It’s amazing what you notice when you just slow down,” Ken Avidor said recently.
For the two East Coast transplants and avid urban sketchers, slowing it down has made all the difference.
As part of a growing Twin Cities and national urban sketching movement, the Avidors have sketched Mississippi River flooding, commuters waiting at bus stops, the changing streetscape of the Minnesota State Fair and, most recently, the diversity of life on St. Paul’s Green Line light-rail trains.
They draw what they see as they see it. They take no photos. There’s no going back to the condo and brushing up memories later. All the materials necessary to make the drawing they carry with them.
It means that Ken, who sketches courtroom scenes for work, and Roberta, who sketches art for Target, stay on task for anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours — until the sketch is done. It’s all for hobby, all done in fun.
“That’s why we’re not in a car,” Ken said. “You get a real feeling for what you see.”
“It’s easier to stop and turn around when we see something that interests us,” said Roberta.
The Avidors didn’t always live or draw like this. When they moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s, they owned a home in south Minneapolis and had a car. But when their two daughters got older and left home, they decided to opt for a car-free lifestyle.
“After about a year of rolling around our house without the girls there, it just occurred to us that this is ridiculous,” Roberta said of living somewhere that required a car. The Union Depot condo, at the center of a multimodal transportation system, was a perfect place to relocate, Ken said.
And it wasn’t hard to get rid of the car. After all, the couple, who met in art school in New York, lived car-free in Manhattan for years before moving to Minnesota. Now, they can take the interstate bus, city bus, Amtrak, light rail and even an Hourcar from their Union Depot base.
“We’re not proselytizing,” Ken said of their car-free lifestyle. “It’s a choice. It just works for us.”
And it works for their art.
The couple has sketchbooks filled with vivid, detailed drawings in color and black and white, peppered with descriptions of sounds, dialogue and circumstance. They do much of this work, they say, to help exercise their professional muscles. Ken says he likes to practice sketching fast. Roberta enjoys drawing footwear.
They’ve sketched Flamenco dancers and a firefighter museum, Renaissance performers and cops checking fares. Sketching the Irish Fair on Harriet Island is one of Roberta’s favorite exercises.
“How often do you get to draw men in kilts?” she said.
Once a month, the Avidors meet up with other urban sketchers to draw the lives and scenes they see at various spots throughout the Twin Cities. Recently, they donated a pile of their sketchbooks to the Minnesota History Center. Their work — and others’ — appears online at a number of sites and blogs, including their own travel blog, a blog for Urban Sketchers in the Twin Cities and on a number of Facebook pages.
All that sketching, they say, fuels their artistic fires.
Roberta Avidor has been a regular illustrator of maps for the St. Paul Almanac. Ken is working on a graphic novel. And they both are frequently contacted by aspiring artists who see their work.
“The Internet has transformed sketching from solely something private into a public thing,” Ken Avidor said.
Not all the sketchers are professional. There is a growing cadre of amateurs who simply love the medium, Roberta Avidor said.
“The more you do, the more confidence you get,” she said. “There is some amazing work out there.”