The Naked City

Stripped of people, cars and color, Dennis Bylo’s streetscapes tell a story of a Sacramento that we rarely see, even when we are staring right at it.
Dennis Bylo's pen-and-ink illustration of the California State Capitol.

Dennis Bylo’s pen-and-ink illustration of the California State Capitol.





On a sunblasted Wednesday morning in April, Dennis Bylo approaches the Memorial Auditorium and prepares to work. He travels on foot, deceptively light, setting down a shoulder bag from which he extracts a folding nylon stool, a thick cardboard tube, a mesh pouch of drawing implements, and a weathered portable desktop he made himself from slats of chipboard. Seated, he affixes a 14-by-17-inch sheet of paper to the board with four pieces of masking tape. Bylo exchanges glares with the white surface from beneath the brim of his floppy straw hat. He has been trying to kick coffee. Today, however, as the verdant renewal of spring teases out the hot fatigue of summer, he wishes he had a cup.

He looks up at the Elliott Building on the corner across J Street—what he can see through the leafy elms, anyway, from his vantage point against the east wall of the auditorium. (In the finished drawing, he’ll strip the leaves from the tree limbs.) Bylo has wanted this subject for a while—ever since Gov. Jerry Brown became its resident in 2011—and he begins to feverishly pencil its contours with his right hand.

Bylo lurches and lunges for perspective. “Rotten trees,” he quips. “I wonder how many floors are on that thing? Three or four? One, two…” He gives up counting. “I guess I’ve got to walk up there.”

He trundles across the lawn for a closer look, evoking the attention to detail that has helped define Bylo’s singular vision of Sacramento for almost 20 years. But counting floors is the least of it. What begins with faint gray bones from a dollar-store pencil will take definition through thousands of black-ink pen strokes—a dance of bricks and branches and words and white space that Bylo, 68, has choreographed since he first undertook these drawings in 1996. Today, more than 170 drawings later, he produces massive, folded art maps that blend cheeky riffs on local history with his painstakingly wrought glimpses at Sacramento’s architectural legacy.

“I like to say my stuff looks like steel wool,” Bylo explains, a characterization that could just as easily apply to his blunt demeanor. “When you [stand] back from it, you can’t see what it is a lot of times because it’s a lot of lines. It’s hard to tell. They’re line drawings: no shades, no shadows. It’s very clean—precision within a free-flowing line.”

Through these lines and years, Bylo has channeled support from former Sacramento mayors like Burnett Miller and Anne Rudin, local business leaders and other patrons, nurturing such proposals as overhauling Capitol Mall as a vibrant cultural district and crafting his California House—a striking new governor’s residence downtown. His eccentricities (Bylo has never owned a computer or cell phone, and he parted ways with his TV and radio years ago) and quixotic fervor are matched only by the intensity of his drawings, all of which tend to intoxicate with their ambition and abstraction.

Artist Dennis Bylo has crafted more than 170 pen-and-ink drawings of Sacramento since 1996. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Artist Dennis Bylo has crafted more than 170 pen-and-ink drawings of Sacramento since 1996. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

The West Hollywood native studied art and environmental design at UCLA before joining the Air Force in 1968; he eventually earned an honorable discharge in 1972 as a conscientious objector. Bylo laid roots in Sacramento in January 1976, when he was an intern for the state architect’s office helping develop the city’s Capitol Area Plan and studying for a master’s degree in architecture at UC Berkeley. In the decades since, Bylo has rallied for affordable housing in Sacramento while struggling to develop his own projects. When times got especially tough, he began seeking meals alongside Sacramento’s hungry and homeless at Loaves & Fishes downtown. Bylo soon approached the charity’s former executive director LeRoy Chatfield about drawing Friendship Park and other parts of the premises for a small fee. Chatfield commissioned 10 illustrations for $30 each, then 10 more for $50 apiece, and dozens more that the nonprofit organization eventually sold to the Center for Sacramento History in 2007 for an undisclosed amount.

What began as straightforward drawings of Loaves & Fishes’ property grew into increasingly meticulous tableaus of a deserted Sacramento landscape. “The idea is what the city would look like at night, when everyone is gone,” says Bylo, sizing up the Elliott Building one glance and one pencil stroke at a time. (The artist estimates that each drawing takes between 10 and 20 hours for him to complete.) He sketches the bulbous cap of a parking meter, an outdoor dining enclosure, and a crescent moon snoozing over the city—the lone remnant of night ceding to the blazing, bustling morning that engulfs J Street. “It’s just the homeless person who walks up and sees nobody there—no cars, no people,” he continues. “That provides the viewer with a real feeling of solitude, because you’re not threatened by someone standing in the picture. It’s just you. It’s all yours.”

Bylo works with individuals as well, charging between $100 and $700 for commissions. One day in 2010 he approached the owner of a Colonial Revival mansion at the corner of 18th and N streets about drawing his impeccably renovated home.

“Oh my God, I loved it,” says Jon Stevenson, founder of the Sacramento-based international children’s apparel brand Trumpette, who now keeps Bylo’s drawing of his house among an art collection that also includes original works by Wayne Thiebaud and Andy Warhol. “I thought the detail was incredible. Just pen and ink. He did it freehand, and there was no Wite-Out or anything. There were no mistakes on it. It was flawless.”

Bylo works on his drawing of downtown Sacramento’s Elliott Building, where Gov. Jerry Brown resides on the top floor. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

That drawing is printed among scores of others in Bylo’s architectural art map of midtown, one of four annotated Sacramento guides he began selling in May for $10 each. The other maps comprise the Capitol and its surrounding blocks, as well as other local landmarks like the Tower Bridge, the Elks Tower, City Hall, the Leland Stanford Mansion and newer structures like Raley Field and the U.S. Bank Tower. The complete set—a monochrome push-pull of vintage and modern, prologues and progress—can be purchased for $30.

The work seems ready-made for postcards, posters, calendars and other ephemera, but the immediate marketing plan for Bylo—whose tech abstinence hinders selling his art online—involves placing the art maps in hotels and colleges while canvassing retailers and even legislators to advertise themselves and their buildings on customized maps. “I would think that anyone who has an office [at the Capitol] wants to show their constituents where they work,” Bylo says. “The idea is to make Sacramento look good.”

Next up for Bylo is the pursuit of his dream project: the California House, a stately 6,500-square-foot, seven-bedroom, 10-bathroom governor’s residence that he would like built downtown on the land next to the Stanford Mansion near 9th and N streets. The conceptual drawing is featured on two of his new art maps—its façade topped off with the shape of the state on its side, the building’s jagged coast rising heavenward as if to court the sapphire Sacramento sky that would lap at its horizontal shoreline. Bylo cites $4.5 million already sitting in a state bank account, earmarked for construction and awaiting just the right confluence of timing, vision and design to reestablish a legitimate home for the governor in the capital city.

“California governors should not have to live over a Chinese restaurant,” Bylo says, referring to the P.F. Chang’s outlet on 16th and J streets, several stories below Gov. Brown’s loft. (The restaurant figures prominently in Bylo’s finished drawing of the Elliott Building.) “It’s an important thing that the people of California should be able to bring their kids and say, ‘There it is! You want to be governor? You want to make something of yourself? There’s the governor’s house.’ ”

For now, there are his drawings of the residences past, present and future—the Victorian Governor’s Mansion, the Elliott Building, and his concept—the 19th century holding fast against the 21st. The real city and the imagined one, by the only artist of his kind, sketching in the sun, waiting for his moment.