‘Hmmm, there’s a lot going on here,” Kit Leffler said, mostly to herself, as she walked around the open-air observation deck of the Foshay Tower.

Within minutes, she zeroed in on an intersection in downtown Minneapolis. Seen from 32 flights up, the lines of the crosswalk formed a geometric pattern that she found intriguing. She quickly found a perch in the morning sun, flipped open a sketchbook and went to work.

Leffler, 32, is an administrator at a science lab at the University of Minnesota and an artist on the side. Five years ago, she founded a drawing club, the Minneapolis Plein Air Coterie, in part to meet like-minded people, in part to relax.

“Sketching makes me feel calm,” she said. “I go into the zone. I’m not concerned about anything else in my life.”

Every other Sunday, Leffler and a dozen fellow members of the coterie (the motto of which is: “Make something. Eat something. Keep breathing: maybe enjoy breathing slightly more than usual.”) meet in a public place and spend an hour drawing.

It’s a solitary activity made social. At the end of each session, they come together for a show-and-tell, which is often followed by a communal brunch.

“We’re all in the same place, but everyone comes up with something different,” said Rachael Adams-Bliss, 37, a pet portrait artist and coterie member who also works for a housecleaning service. “This lets us be tourists in our own town.”

On-location drawing (formally called en plein air) was made into an art form in the 19th century. Oddly enough, the practice is experiencing something of a resurgence in the 21st century, when most of us walk around with high-resolution cameras in their smartphones.

Those same phones have also made it possible for artists — whether amateur sketchers or pros — to connect quickly and easily online. In addition to Leffler’s Plein Air Coterie, there’s a Twin Cities chapter of the international Urban Sketchers, which has hundreds of members, as well as several local meetups that connect people looking to practice their drawing skills with a group.

Modern day sketchers say there’s something unique, something so human about documenting their day with a pencil — or pen, brush, chalk or charcoal — that even the most high-tech lens can’t capture.

“We spend so much time on screens, detached from the world. Sketching connects us to our surroundings,” said Steven Reddy, a Seattle artist, lifelong sketcher and author of “Everyday Sketching and Drawing: Five Steps to a Unique and Personal Sketchbook Habit.”

Despite the instant gratification offered in the digital era, Reddy said he’s seeing more people who want to take the time to create their own narrative-rich drawings to illustrate their journals and their travel diaries.

“It literally takes a split-second to take a photo,” he said. “When I draw, I’ll sit for an hour and become acquainted with the sights and smells, the conversations around me. That traps the moment and you capture not just the visuals but the experience.”

While the appeal of sketching crosses generations, it seems to be particularly strong among young adults who have come of age in a photo-saturated era.

“As much as we see them texting, pinning and posting, they grew up with Harry Potter, reading 900-page books,” said Ann Fishman, president of New York-based Generational Targeted Marketing. “They crave a balance to the immersion in the digital world.”

Creating community

Four years ago, Archana Shankari moved to Minnesota from her native India. The newlywed arrived with her husband, but not a single acquaintance. She found the Urban Sketchers online and attended one of their monthly get-togethers, joining a diverse group of art school students, retirees and artists.

“I was craving company and it helped me meet like-minded people and settle in here,” said Shankari, 30, of Eden Prairie. “Race, sex, gender doesn’t matter. We are sharing something we love.”

Shankari is now a curator of the Urban Sketchers’ Facebook page, which alerts its 330 members to scheduled gatherings and impromptu events and hosts pictures of members in action at their recent outings.

Usually just a fraction of the members show up for the monthly sessions, which are typically held in parks in the warmer months. In winter, they draw at places like the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the IDS Center Crystal Court and the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis or Union Depot in St. Paul.

“We jump in, without setting up easels and canvases,” said Pam Leur, 58, a graphic artist and teacher from St. Louis Park. “It’s like yoga. This is my practice; there are no critiques, it’s not competitive. It’s joyful.”

In the past decade, Urban Sketchers has established 49 chapters in the United States as well as hundreds of chapters in cities all over the world.

That has allowed Cris Franchevich, an architect and watercolor artist from Apple Valley, to plan her international vacations around drawing.

“When I was in Paris, they took me to a place in the heart of the city that I never would have found in a tourist guidebook,” said Franchevich, 50. “I was shy at first, but I’ve met so many nice people who’ve given me a sense of belonging to the community of artists.”

Some artists use their on-location sketches as the basis for a more elaborate painting. Others keep books filled with their sketchbooks, illustrated journals and travel diaries. But for some, the work is ephemeral.

At the end of the session atop the Foshay Tower, Rachael Adams-Bliss took a picture of the soft vista she created with pastels, then threw it away.

“I went to art school and I have 26 portfolios at my house from all my years as an artist,” she said. “You can’t keep everything. Besides, it’s about the experience, not the piece of paper.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.