My watercolor, ink and and marker sketches and illustrations from Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain, including notes with each
The Barcelona Cathedral,
Arizona Flags and the Far West
Everywhere I have been in Barcelona, I see the Arizona state flag.
Even as we drive up the coast of Catalonia, the Arizona flag is draped on buildings and homes everywhere you go.
This morning, I crawled out of bed while it is still pitch black, so I can work on a sketch of the Barcelona Cathedral before the crowds and marketplace tents overwhelm the place. This cathedral, which sits at the center of Barcelona's gothic quarter, is the city's gothic masterpiece. It may appear conventional framed by Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, but it is otherworldly in its own right, with its gargoyles and complex façades.
On my way to the cathedral, I see the flag again, and finally it dawns on me that this is actually a variation of the oldest flag of Europe, the flag asserting Catalonian independence.Once I recognize the flag for what it is, I cannot help but to see it everywhere, and I begin to ask the question. Catalans want me to ask the question, because they have draped their capital city, a mecca for foreign tourists, with this flag. I decide I need to ask, should Catalonia secede from Spain?
t is not the same country! We are a different people! We are not Spanish! We have a different culture! We have our own cuisine! We do not even have the same language!”
For me, this question - should a state separate from its country? - has been on my mind for years. Growing up, I didn't identify myself first as someone who was growing up in the United States; I saw myself more as somebody who lived in the northern plains of North America. It’s not that I didn’t understand or value the nation I lived in, but rather that if I could float in space above myself, I wasn’t seeing that line around my country, I was seeing somewhere cold, white in the winter, green in the summer, and flat. Places like mountainous Colorado, turquoise Florida or busy New York were...somewhere else.
Visiting one of those places many years later, I started to think more about my own childhood preferences about how I thought about place. I had just arrived in downtown Manhattan, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles, where I lived at the time. I was helping the company I worked for with their annual car show. The night before, I checked out the Museum of Modern Art and saw a painting depicting the City of Los Angeles burning.
Angelenos, dressed in bubblegum colors, were running frantically from the flames. For a moment, I thought, is this a statement about the West by an East Coast artist?
The next morning in Manhattan, I arrived early at the tradeshow floor, and my coworker quickly found me and asked if I would help her escort a real-estate personality, Donald Trump, around the tradeshow floor before the show floor opened.
As we walked around the floor together, looking at the booths, the real-estate personality kept placing his hand on my coworker’s behind, a behavior I had never seen in all my adult life.
Later, we stopped at a car manufacturer, and Donald Trump began to talk up the staff at the booth. His tone changed quickly as he studied the roof of the manufacturer's car. He became angry and started to shout as he slammed his hand on the top of the car. “These roofs need bulletproofing! This model is just asking for assassination!” He made his hand into a handgun and then fired several shots into the roof of the car. “Bang! Bang!” he said. His performance was completely Bruno Ganz.
He then began to berate the employees of the car company. While this happened many years ago, the part I remember most was not the real estate personality, but the way these employees took it. It was a weird sort of cowering; an immediate recognition of class, a grand and complete subservience.
Remembering the museum painting, something struck me immediately: the culture of the East Coast of the United States is very different than the culture of the West Coast. I knew that in California, behavior like that was completely incompatible in the professional world. A personality like Trump would simply flounder in the West. As I’ve now spent many years in California and Oregon, I realize how much this strange meeting played a role in how I continue to think of geography and place as being more important than political boundaries.
Over the years, I began to see the four far west states of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, as well as the two Mexican states of Baja and the Canadian province of British Columbia as a single place, much like I saw myself as inhabiting a place that included Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Manitoba when I was a child.
In many ways, the people of this place have more in common with each other than the rest of the countries’ they belong too. Out here, class hierarchy is devalued, and creative and technological ambition are cultivated. The result of this culture is the most robust economy in the world. In the far west, there is a common sensibility about cuisine, and an underlying easygoing nature that includes a form of tolerance desired across the globe.
In 2012, a book by Colin Woodward brought cohesion to the argument that had been floating in the backwater of my mind. In American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Woodward placed North America not into states and provinces, but into geographic regions. He writes, “Since 1877 the driving force of American politics hasn’t primarily been a class struggle or tension between agrarian and commercial interests, or even between competing partisan ideologies, although each has played a role. Ultimately the determinative political struggle has been a clash between shifting coalitions of ethnoregional nations.”
You could say that there are many similarities between the far west states of North America and Catalonia. For one, we are both provincial and far from the political center of our country. We are both coastal, and our coastal cities are lively and distinctive. We are known for our artists and for our food and for our lack of formality. Most importantly, Catalonia, like our far west, has the highest GDP of all of Spain. While as a region both Catalonia and the far west contribute more taxes to the nation than any other, we are giver states, and our tax dollars go on to benefit other regions.
There are many separatist movements in Spain; about nine or ten are relatively active, including the Basque separatist movement, whose violent tactics for fifty years caused a thousand deaths. But the peaceful and progressive Catalan movement is the one gaining the most steam, and it is particularly worth raising eyebrows in the context of trends we are seeing in the rest of Europe. On one hand, you have the cringeworthy Brexit, and you have the Scottish Independence movement, and then you have the rise of social conservative dictatorship in Turkey, and the rise of separatism in Belgium, and the rise of nationalism throughout Northern Europe.
But Catalonia feels the closest to being the next Brexit, and Brexit makes us look at Catalonia harder. What benefit would come out of a balkanized Europe; a faltering European Union, splintering micro-states? Catalonia may be among the very closest to an independence vote, but there are more than 90 separate, active separatist movements in Europe. What populist spark might Brexit and Catalonia light?
Catalonia has legitimate reasons to be sour on the rest of Spain. Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain for four decades, was vehemently Anti-Catalan and envisioned a uniform Castilian culture for Spain. He forbade the use of Catalan names, culture, dance and even the language itself.
That repression itself has been one of the key factors in Catalonia asserting its culture after Franco was gone. Now, ninety-percent of Catalans know their historical language - a sort of Spanish with French words mixed in. But is animosity toward past repression reason enough to secede? Sometimes, past repression of culture becomes its modern lifeline. Case in point might be the way Hawaii asserts is historical culture after years of the U.S. attempting to subjugate the culture of its Pacific colonies.
Some scholars have argued that by separating from Spain, Catalonia would actually lose the bright spots of its culture; that it is actually Barcelona's competitiveness with Madrid and other parts of Spain and the rest of Europe that fuels its creativity. Separating and isolating itself would dull its uniqueness.
Here in the far west, we are often as disconnected from the politics and pervading social cultures of the nation at large as Catalonia is from the rest of Spain. In the far west, our jaws are often dropped at the weird social and economic politics of the East, South and Midwest. Hawaii is famously apathetic to the politics of the East, and the other Pacific states often feel a deep resentment of alienation from the political center of the East. In Canada, there is term for it: Western Alienation.
There are independence movements in the far west as well. The Cascadian Independence Movement is the most enduring of them all. But active members of this pacific northwest and western Canadian movement will be the first to say that they are not actually interested in secession. Rather, they are mostly about asserting their common culture, their common interests in local economies, and predicting a warmer, post-peak oil future that would require stronger northwestern bonds.
In the far west, we know that secession would be economic devastation. All western states derive their economic success from being part of a much larger economy. In fact, this is the difference between Catalonia and the far west. Here, our jaws have dropped to new lows as we see East Coast politics being played out to new lows. But perhaps unlike any time in the past, it is making us assert ourselves politically like never before. The challenges to Trump's policies, for example, are coming from Western state judges, and the so-called national resistance seems to be fueled from the streets of the far west.
If Catalonia would secede, there is no guarantee the new state would be allowed into the European union. In fact, Spain holds veto power that they would likely use. Secession could crush Catalonia's successful and vibrant economy.
Being different, or being bitter about your past differences, isn't reason enough to secede. It is, however, reason to assert your interests nationally, and provoke change from within.
Below are my Barcelona and Catalonia moleskine sketches. I brought two inks with me to Barcelona in addition to Sepia Micron pens: Nut brown and Burnt Sienna drawing inks by Winsor Newton. For this journal, I experimented with using restaurant dinner napkins to create washes on the panels.