Lookout’s Laurel Bushman wasn’t sure how her return to drawing random humans along Main Beach would go. Now she knows — and at least there are relationships and learning lessons that she will take with her on her journey into the writing world.
I felt a little rush of terror my first day back at the Boardwalk this summer. Would I remember how to do it after more than a year of dormancy? I wasn’t hawking aloe for toasted tourists or deep-frying questionable foods — I was back drawing live caricatures for Cali Caricature in our stand at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
My friend and sometimes co-worker there, the phenomenal comic book and caricature artist Christian “Meesimo” Meesey (who answers to Meesey, Meesimo or just Chris) described live caricature as “the pressure-cooker-gauntlet of drawing.”
Unlike a portrait that can take hours or even months to complete, live caricature is a skillful summary of someone’s essence drawn on the fly in a matter of minutes. It’s jazz soloist vs. concert pianist — and it requires immense skill, practice and confidence to do well.
My boss and the owner of Cali Caricature, Emma Tipping, compared it to live comedy or tattooing: “It’s an interactive experience that the artist, customer and spectators all enjoy and create together.”
There’s definitely an element of stage fright every time I draw at the Boardwalk because it is a performance, both of my skills in front of a crowd, and also answering the same questions over and over again with a cheerful grin. “How did you learn to do this?” and “You must really love your job, right?”
I feel like I should love my job, even though the swirl of emotions I experience at the Boardwalk is much more complicated than that. I like parts of my job. I like interacting with the kids who hang on every pen stroke and tell me about what they like to draw. I love working with our guest artists who inspire me, and my local co-workers who are so committed to their craft.
And hanging out at the beach all day is great, especially once my house turns into a sauna in late summer.
But I struggle with anxiety, and the Boardwalk is over-stimulating to say the least. The work doesn’t let up for more than a couple of minutes between customers for hours at a time. I feel guilty that I feel out of place there. And my guilt is compounded by the knowledge that as live caricature gigs go, this one’s seriously cushy.
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Many caricature artists travel fair circuits and draw at Comic-Cons and events all over the world, driving hundreds of miles and working much longer, harder days than we do in Santa Cruz. But caricaturing means the financial freedom to focus on their own projects during the offseason. The money, despite the difficulties, is ridiculous.
This year, Arie Monroe and Candy Briones are slated as guest stars from July to mid-August. Monroe is a Kansas City native who is an illustrator, cartoonist, and animator in addition to her caricature work. Briones hails from LA and is also a comic book artist and creator of Taco El Gato Comics.
Tipping, Cali Caricature’s owner, started as a caricature artist at the Boardwalk before buying the business in 2012. Since then, developing new talent, bringing in guest artists and offering enrichment training for staff has been a priority. Caricature makes art accessible, she says. “Anyone 16 years old with basic drawing skills can caricature at an amusement park. From there an artistic career can take off that lasts a lifetime.”
Veteran caricaturists like Meesey, 44, and Kelly “KO” O’Brien, 28, are some of the many great artists who have called Santa Cruz their home in summer seasons past, dazzling customers with their virtuosity and helping us locals sharpen our skills.
Caricature has taken Meesey all over the world from Paris to Dehli to Auckland, drawing at fairs, festivals and comics conventions, where he’s always trying to push himself. “Part of that challenge is to have as much fun drawing and stretching someone’s face as possible,” said Meesey, “while still keeping the drawing appealing enough for the person to happily cough up the money to buy it.”
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For O’Brien, live caricature started as a summer job at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, about 11 years ago. After four years of drawing, she attended a caricature convention where she won awards for her work. Then opportunities snowballed.
She designed Cali Caricature’s marquee and the posters that decorate the stand, and although she’s moving away from live caricature toward her own online pet caricature business, Santa Cruz still calls. “I’ve worked for a lot of caricature companies, and without hesitation, working at Cali Caricature on the Boardwalk has been one of my absolute favorites.”
For other artists, Cali Caricature is home. Santa Cruz native and local artist Cassandra Bryce, 34, has been honing her craft at the Caricature stand for over a decade. Like every live-caricature artist, she has learned on the job through long hours of drawing and years of experimentation, melding her anime-inspired style with classic caricature.
Bryce has been able to make a career out of her art and earn a steady paycheck — a rare thing in art — plus, she loves the work. Her customers come for an experience as much as a portrait. “You see yourself through someone else’s eyes, and capture a moment, usually with loved ones,” said Bryce. “It’s a memory, but also it’s worth celebrating who you are. And no Snapchat filter will ever be the same as having an artist draw you by hand.”
My journey as a live caricaturist is coming to a close at the end of July. Sometimes, caricatures get a bad rap as a supposedly lesser art, but you only have to watch a master at work to know that’s pure, unfounded snobbery. I’ve never been challenged as much, or been as nervous, or grown as much as an artist as I have at the caricature stand.
But my big takeaway from 2020 was that there’s simply no time in life to do things you’re on the fence about. And the artists I’ve worked alongside at Cali Caricature have taught me that you gotta work at what you love and shoot your shot. So I’m shifting to writing. I’ll keep drawing too, because I love it, just not quite enough.
And I’ll try my best to follow Meesey’s advice to get out of my own way, in art and also in life. “Don’t think, just look and draw,” is his mantra. “Draw faster than the speed of second thought.”
Cali Caricature’s stand is located between the Looff Carousel and the Haunted Castle ride on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Hours mirror the Boardwalk’s hours.