BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When Steve Rugo—architect of Chicago’s Alinea, Next, Roister, and other top of the line restaurants around the country—and friends first drew out their sketch pads to try a new medium, little did the five architects know that they had discovered a wonderful way to . What began as some sketching on guys’ trips to Surrey, England, and India has evolved into the Whisky Watercolor Club: painting takes place during the week, culminating in a Sunday afternoon Zoom, where the friends show their work, critique, and learn from one another while raising their glasses in toasts.
“It was March 15. Ankie Barnes, Michael Imber, Thomas Kligerman, and I had all just gotten back from our trip to India and went into immediate pandemic lockdown. Our other member, Douglas Wright, hadn’t been along on that trip but had been on previous ones. It was a brave new world out there, and we had to find our way through,” Rugo recalls. “Our group started talking to one another on a regular basis: ‘What’s going on in your office?’ and the like. We just needed to figure things out. As architects, we spend so much time duplicating reality. I have done a lot of hand drawing but always as an architect. We decided to do something different that lets you shake off some of the worries of this terrifying time and remembered the fun of our sketching together. The Whisky Watercolor Club was born.”
The five architects are members of the Design Leadership Network and contributed photographs of exotic locales to a stunning new book Travel By Design edited by Michael Boodro. Rugo’s photo of the Oculus at the Hive at Kew Gardens adorns the back cover. Both Rugo and Barnes included photos of Cape Town, which Barnes considers “the most beautiful city in the world.”
Through their brushstrokes executed at home workspaces, the friends continue to travel to beloved places like Cape Town, Venice, Province, and the Caribbean, while studying watercolorists who earlier captured these global destinations. Mists, shadows, and the varieties in what they thought was just one color are to be explored: “Is that white skim milk or cream?” they sometimes ask.
When we spoke, Rugo had been working on a foggy bridge for today’s meeting, an assignment he described as “not easy”: “Several in our group are wickedly talented, and I sometimes feel like second string. But it is good for all of us at this time to think of our mental health and not just be caught up in all the frightening things that are going on but to find ways to express yourself.”
Each week one of the group shares a watercolor by a master such as one of Rugo’s favorites, John Singer Sargent. “When you see his magnificent work and think that he probably spent maybe 20 to 30 minutes on each! Amazing. We have learned to look at things differently, seeing highlights and shadows and the way light reflects,” he says.
“For example, if you look at someone’s eye, it is not all one color. Perhaps it is blue, then green, then hazel, then there’s the milky part and the black part,” Rugo continues. “You see things with a new level of detail. Having this hour or hour and a half to take you away from business to the world of abstracts is like a fantasy.”
Rugo thinks that this weekly assignment and virtual gathering has made the group even better friends: “Our society tolerates zero mistakes, and kids unfortunately learn that. We have learned to fail sometimes in our watercolor attempts without liability. These are great guys to share and learn with—I think we built trust week by week. We congratulate one another, make suggestions, and we really learn something.”
Travel by Design may be purchased directly through its publisher, Assouline, by clicking this link, or at other fine retailers.