In the Beginning

August 1992

Welcome to the 2013 City Guide — an annual Memphis magazine tradition that provides our readers with plenty of information about where to go, what to eat, what to do, and Who is Who.

But let’s face it. Because annual can sometimes mean monotonous, we decided to splash color throughout our pages by including dozens of sketches of the Mid-South area. The pictures were created by Memphis Urban Sketchers, a group of artists who meet monthly and have joint sketch sessions all over the city.

It all started in September 2010 when Elizabeth Alley, a Memphis-based artist, went to her first sketching symposium in Portland, Oregon, and decided to bring the idea home.

She explains that the Portland group was an offshoot of a national organization that is called Urban Sketchers. “I had the experience of sketching with other people and sharing that interest with other people,” she says, “so I brought it back to Memphis.”

The group started small with Alley creating an Urban Sketchers Facebook page, but it has now expanded to more than 100 members. Their enthusiasm stems from the common interest of exploring new techniques and learning from one another.

“Drawing is a solitary practice, so when you do it with others you have a break from the monotony,” Alley says. “Especially sketching, because it’s such a specific thing to want to do, so doing it with other people is fun and a learning experience. It’s always interesting to see how people approach a subject, so basically we just kind of learn from each other.”

Nancy Mardis, a professor at the University of Memphis, says she enjoys the monthly meetings because they provide her with an incentive to explore different places in and around the city. “I just like to sketch all of it.

It’s a good outlet for me,” Mardis says. “Sketching is a really right-brain thing to do when I have a left-brain job.”

The Memphis Sketchers meet the first Saturday of every month, and men and women with all levels of skills are encouraged to join. Some members’ work is displayed on their own blogs, while others have made a profit from their passion of sketching.

“Martha Kelly is in our group and she does a lot of watercolor sketches,” says Alley. “She did a whole series on Memphis and actually made it into a calendar and has been really successful with it.”
Mardis also benefited from her hobby when she was commissioned to sketch a wedding in Savannah, Georgia.

“More and more I’m getting into enjoying sketching people and groups,” she says. “I sketched at the Levitt Shell on Saturday night and enjoyed it.”

The group can often be seen all over the city huddled together, sketchpads in hand, patiently interpreting their subject. The Cleveland Street Flea Market, The Peabody, and The Dixon Gallery and Gardens are just a few places the sketchers have conquered. Some places still remain favorites, such as the Memphis Farmer’s Market.

“Every September we go there because that was the first one we ever went to,” says Alley. “It’s always fun because there’s so much activity and life going on. There’s lots of opportunities for really interesting sketches.” Another favorite haunt, so to speak, is Elmwood Cemetery because the juxtaposition of “nature and history make for the perfect subject matter,” Alley says.

Future urban sketching sites include the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Sears Crosstown building. When asked what site the group has not yet sketched, but is intrigued by, Alley replied, “Graceland. We haven’t done that one yet.”

If interested in joining, visit the group’s blog page ( and remember Mardis’ advice: “I’ve never used a pencil because it makes you worry about perfection. A pen just lets you be free and you just sketch away.”

photograph and sketch by lindsay overbey | memphis urban sketchers


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