Features & Columns

New Exhibit Features Paintings,
Sketches of Vintage Signs

Suhita Shirodkar's works pull her back to a Silicon Valley she never experienced for herself. Art by Suhita Shirodkar

Originally from Bombay, India, Suhita Shirodkar stands on corners, sits on benches, or infiltrates any San Jose locale to paint watercolors of old-school signage. A graphic designer by day, she sketches urban scenes wherever she roams, carrying a notebook, pen and ink, and watercolors to capture vintage components of the landscape as they fade away. Many of her discoveries happen by accident.

"It's a cross between journaling and plein-air painting, but it's much more urban-focused and more about documenting, and sort of visual reportage," she says. "And watercolor just happens to be a very portable medium. I like the idea of accidentally finding stuff. Anything that catches my eye is worth drawing, to me."

More than 50 of Shirodkar's watercolors will hang from walls in the Leonard & David McKay Gallery in the Pasetta House at History Park, starting this Sunday. The exhibit features sketches of vintage buildings or signage, some under threat from real estate developers, and some already lost to time. A free, self-paced, family-friendly "sketchcrawl" will also unfold across the park.

A book of Shirodkar's sketches will also be available at the exhibit. Signs of the Times: Urban Sketches of Vintage Signs by Suhita Shirodkar features at least 40 pages of her watercolors along with historical liner notes about the signs or the buildings. Almost all the signs still remaining in San Jose are included in the book. We get beautifully decrepit roadside motels along Monterey Highway, neon signs of suburban liquor stores and paint stores, plus abandoned buildings like Zorba the Greek and the Mexico Theater. We even get facades of legendary still-active institutions like Original Joe's, Falafel's Drive-In, Western Appliance and the Flamingo Motel.

Seeing a bountiful variety of local classic signs in one book is not only important for longtime dwellers, but also for transplants who just moved here. In a strange way, it almost functions like archaeological research, digging into a San Jose that only barely still exists. As real estate developers continue to smash, gentrify and poison the few aspects of native culture San Jose has left, these types of projects serve as primary historical documentation. They provide a sense of place for the naturally displaced.

What's more, it took an artist from India to come here and do this. Shirodkar arrived in Silicon Valley 20 years ago during the first dotcom explosion. Back home, she worked in traditional print and the advertising industry and figured she'd come to the U.S. and get a two-year web degree of some sort, but she got married and stayed here instead. She never saw the previous generation of Santa Clara Valley, before vast landscapes of orchards were cannibalized by suburban sprawl. She became fascinated with vintage signage because it threw her back to an era she never witnessed.

"I'm still a first-generation immigrant, and it catches my eye, to see things that are obviously from here, but not from the time I know Silicon Valley," Shirodkar says, reflecting on when she first came to San Jose, back when the city's agricultural past was mostly razed and paved over. "The signs link back to stuff before I knew it. I do find it very strange that you read about all the old orchards, but I find nothing about it 35 years later. The signs put us into a time that's hard to imagine for somebody that didn't see it."

In addition to the art opening at History Park this Sunday, the sketchcrawl will serve as a way for families and kids to observe the park environs and take their time drawing what they see. Urban, or this case, suburban sketching, is about the slowness, rather than a two-second experience like one gets via social media. Sitting down and taking one's time to observe, draw and understand the subject matter is a fantastic, almost meditative escape from the brain-dead insanity of Snapchat or Instagram.

"To sit and draw, it's such a slow medium," Shirodkar says. "It's really slow compared to taking a photograph. It gives you a good feel for a place. When you're drawing, you're following contours, like making your way down, looking at something, very slow, and I really like that slow seeing. I miss it in my everyday."

Sign of the Times: Urban Sketches of Vintage Signs by Suhita Shirodkar
Opening March 18
Saturday and Sunday 12-5 pm
[ http://historysanjose.org/ ]http://historysanjose.org