Joshua Boulet and I hurry past the Golden Gate visitors center together on a windy Tuesday morning. He is stopping in San Francisco as a part of his "Sketch the World," a solo journey through time and space that has become his lifestyle. Without a permanent home, job, or direction Boulet follows a path of his own making, paved by friends, bus routes, and geographical curiosity.
Today he has permitted me to follow him to his chosen sketching location of the morning so I can lob impertinent questions about his childhood and bank account at him. Afterwards he will walk the bridge in both directions and then wander the City. This is his modus operandi in his travels. "I can spend all day on a computer trying to make a plan or I can just walk the city and see what I run in to," he says.
There is just one problem: the bridge is gone. True to form, the mist over the bay is not the swirling special effect of a panoramic shot of Middle Earth, but an impenetrable whiteness that obscures all before us barely revealing just a hazy scarlet suggestion of the architecture underneath.
There is nothing for Boulet to sketch.
We stand for a moment on a slab of cement overlooking where the bridge should be, two people apparently engaged in the act of staring into space. Then Boulet sits down and begins to sketch.
He uses a pilot ballpoint pen and a black sketchbook, the 30th, by his count, the he has used since he embarked on his tour of the world. His idea to sketch the world emerged organically several years ago as he found himself visiting different cities for comic conventions and staying later in each to try to capture them on paper. Originally fascinated by film, found his passion for sketching later in college. "Once I realized it was art there was no turning back," he adds.
The project started in earnest when Boulet read about the Occupy movement and became determined to document it. "I realized it was something important that should be documented, and I knew I could do that. I crowd-funded a ticket and slept in the park 8 nights. Then I met someone who became a friend and stayed for months." In a mismatched sweat-suit, towing vague artistic ambitions, Boulet initially seems like a harmless stoner and comic fiend. From stories like these emerges a different Boulet, one with the vision to recognize an intersection between anthropological and artistic opportunity and the organizational skills necessary to present himself at that junction.
In his travels Boulet has carved out a niche for himself that is part sociologist, part comic artist, part poet, and part storyteller. I ask him his views on the Occupy movement, expecting to hear him quote some literature on Wall Street greed. He surprises me.
"I more observed than participated in the revolution." He adds, "There was a lot of chaos."
After Zuccotti Park, Boulet's journeys took him to Seattle, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Toronto, Dallas, London, and Copenhagen, among others. A recent story on his website chronicles Boulet's journey from Colorado to California with the enigmatic Sarah. It begins:
"She looked at me and said, 'I see you. You are one thousand different points of light and different colors.' And I let her get away. Looking back I'm not sure there's anything I could have done. I was in love from the start and she would leave me at a bus stop in Bakersfield, CA. This would be my Colorado."
This is followed by a series of loose sketches, watercolors, and rich comic-style pieces accompanied by occasional phrases and patches of text, detailing Boulet and his manic pixie's adventures sleeping in the forest, dropping acid for the first time, climbing through cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, and eventually parting, as promised, at a Greyhound station in Bakersfield.
As Boulet and I speak, the scene around us changes. The Golden Gate Bridge emerges from the fog and the tip of his ballpoint almost simultaneously, the brilliant rust colored metal in sync with the black ink on his page.
Many of his pieces deal with themes of anxiety, love, and relationships. He acknowledges that in making himself and his surroundings the center of his work he has strayed from the traditional comic focus on heroic antics and curvaceous female companions.
"There is not a line between my personal life and my art. That's what makes it good." He adds, "If I hide that I miss the soul of my story."
He depends on the hospitality of strangers and friends made in his travels, and says that he ingratiates himself as a house-guest by doing dishes, offering to help, and gifting personalized sketches to his hosts.
"People are open to me, especially when they find out I'm an artist," he notes. "I'm generally pretty sharing with my gift. People are super nice and more willing to help out than is assumed. I wouldn't be able to do so much if not for the kindness of strangers."
As if on cue a woman in a headscarf and long dress approaches and asks him if she can take a picture of his "beautiful art," indicating his drawing of the once incomprehensible bridge, which now spans his open sketchbook. When she leaves he says, "I don't usually mind pictures -- I like to think that I'm kind of a street entertainer. People watch me and take pictures and ask questions, I even give demonstrations."
Around our bench tourists stream towards the bridge, tipping iPads and digital cameras at odd angles to capture their families with the backdrop of the swooping metal. I stand up to take picture of a family of four in matching Adidas tracksuits, and by the time I return to the bench Boulet has flipped to a page in the back of his sketchbook and produced a recognizable sketch of my profile, holding an Apple device up to the sky. He says that his drawings aren't static; when he sees activity around him he jots it down to see if it will fit in the final scene later. "I'm just trying to capture life," he says.
Boulet is doing what he calls "guerrilla art": setting up in a public place, drawing the scene, and interacting with the people around him. He came to San Francisco to artwork for the festival High Times, for which he produced posters of cartoon-ish festival goers leering out of psychedelic backdrops. This and other images will go on his website which he curates from the road using a laptop and a hand scanner. His comics and sketches are often married to oblique statements, like "Art will break my heart" and "Milkshakes are momentum killers. (The Exhibitionist has found both to be true.) School girl-ish scrawling in rainbow cursive "Love, Love, Love, Love" exists just a scroll above full color cover art Boulet has done for Seattle Weekly. He also sells self-published books from his website.
I ask Boulet what he would say to a person who thinks comic books are a waste of time for people who don't fit into their Spiderman onesie anymore. His glasses steam as he emits a very un-Boulet-ish sigh of exasperation.
"That's a common perception. I would tell people to pick up a comic and read it. That's how it's viewed in America, but in Europe and Asia it's considered a fine art. In France it's called 'The Ninth Art'. I try not to let it stab my soul but it usually does. I would argue that Egyptian hieroglyphs are a form of comics, cave paintings tell a story. The American people, man."
He shakes his head morosely.
A sketch deep in the vaults of his online Sketch the World epic depicts a woman in a turtleneck and severe bun holding a pug, captioned "Boulet loves his mom." Underneath the sketch is written, "But not necessarily her dog." He says his parents, who still live in his hometown Dallas, are very supportive: "All they demand is that I send them postcards."
Staring at a seagull that has swooped to inspect our viewing platform, Boulet says:
"I hear a lot of people say, 'I wanted to draw but my mom and dad wouldn't let me,' and here they are as an adult and they're not happy. Well maybe they are. Maybe they're just passionate about something else. But I would tell anyone whose kid wants to do art to encourage them. Is it bad that I'm giving parenting advice?"
I assure him that he is as equipped to dispense parenting advice as any other world-traveler guerrilla artist I know.
Boulet isn't sure what tomorrow holds, let alone the future. He'd like to sketch the rest of Europe, Japan, China, and Russia, and work on his likeness of the human face, "the hardest part," he says.
I ask him what he will do after he finishes sketching the world, and he quickly turns his eye-roll into something more gracious. I forgot that idealism does not mean that Josh Boulet wishes to be patronized.
"I don't know if that will ever happen, but maybe if it does NASA will let me go into space and sketch something there." He adds cheerfully, "I do have a plan of sketching while skydiving, not in the free fall but after, when the pull the shoot."
By the time Boulet and I part ways the fog is just a memory and the aquamarine water below is illuminated by the illusive San Francisco summer sun. Later his website reports an exchange he had with a concerned police officer on the bridge, who identified him as a potential jumper. Boulet sums up the interaction: "Bummer." Before I return to the City he explained his life philosophy: "I figured I could do good or bad, so I chose good. I have a unique opportunity so I try to spread a positive message."
Boulet sang his way across the rest of the bridge.