Eighteen months ago, Victoria Barlay held two jobs in Charleston, South Carolina: intern at an architectural firm by day, and server at a local eatery by night. Her hour-long lunch break from the internship was her own, however, and Barlay frequently explored the city with her sketchbook in hand, making elevation drawings of the local architecture. One day, Barlay forgot her sketchbook but found a spare guest check pad from the restaurant stuffed into her bag. It was serendipity: She relished the challenge of distilling the complex buildings she drew down to the 4” x 6” format of the check pad, choosing which details to include or omit, which stories and memories visible in the building to commit to paper. The project took shape rapidly, playing the permanence of historic buildings against the impermanent medium of a receipt designed to be discarded.
When Barlay arrived in Providence to pursue a master’s degree in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, she turned her sights to our city’s finest buildings, exploring the layers of memory, intention, and design choices that make up a structure’s facade. She drew corner markets, houses, storefronts, and restaurants, sharing the results with a wide audience on her Instagram account @GuestCheckSketch. Sketching in the middle of the sidewalk for an hour tends to draw attention, and occasionally building occupants would come out to ask her what she was doing, curious rather than suspicious. She enjoys these interactions, feeling that they help place her work in its larger community context, and loves when her followers suggest new buildings to draw or ask to commission a personal piece.
A window gallery of Barlay’s Guest Check Sketches has been on display at RISD’s Bayard Ewing Building on South Main Street in Providence. “I love that people are still visiting and getting a peek at some art in these COVID gallery restrictive times,” says Barlay.
Barlay has reached the last of her check pad paper. With many restaurants switching to handheld electronic point-of-service devices she’s not sure where the project will take her next, but it’s clear that her skill as witness and storyteller to the world around her will guide it forward. Her way of looking asks the viewer to slow down and appreciate the built environment, to absorb the hidden histories in the city we inhabit.
On her time spent in the restaurant industry working to support her architectural career, Barlay asks her audience to tip our service workers 20 percent. “It’s not just an essential investment in our local economy; tipping also supports the arts community that relies on the service industry for survival,” Barlay states. “As the pandemic endures, supporting artists who help us see the world in new and hopeful ways is more important than ever.”