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Pen and Ink

Supervisor's cartoons bring board meetings to life.

It may look as if Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) is busy taking notes at Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meetings. But look closely — she might be practicing her secret career as a cartoonist.

Aside from her 17-year career on the Board of Supervisors, Bulova is also a self-described "doodler" who once dreamed of becoming a children's book author. According to her colleagues, most of her artwork comes from closed session meetings. She derives inspiration from the faces of people in closed meetings as well as public hearings, from fellow supervisors to county employees to journalists.

"Every once and a while I'll be in a meeting, sitting by Sharon, and see her doodling," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). "It can be anyone in the room that happens to catch her eye."

Drawing is almost a reflex, said Bulova, even though her tendency to draw on everything has gotten her into trouble in the past. While attending a Catholic elementary school in Pikesville, Md., Bulova came into school one day and found all her schoolbooks had been confiscated by the principal, an "intimidating" nun who later called her out into the hall and chastised her for drawing on the pages of her books.

In the 1970s, Bulova signed up for a cartooning class. She learned the basics of caricature, capturing basic facial features and line drawing.

"It exercises the right side of the brain," said Bulova. "Even when I was a little kid I would draw on everything."

In fact, Bulova credits cartooning with her participation in local government. As a young mother living in the Kings Park West neighborhood, Bulova said, she wanted to become more involved in her community. She began drawing cartoons for the neighborhood newsletter, basing her illustrations on her own children. "Then there turned out to be a lot of other interesting things in the world, like local government," she said.

Today, Bulova's family still informs some of her work. Last Christmas, she wrote and illustrated a book for son David's two children, based on their adventures in an imaginary boat called the "Thunderblast."

Bulova's artistic talent was a relative secret until about two years ago, said Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly (D-At-large). When former board chair Katherine Hanley (D) retired in 2003, Bulova drew a cartoon of all the board members around the dais and presented it to Hanley as a parting gift.

"Sharon has a great eye for people, their quirks, eccentricities, mannerisms," said Connolly. "And it is all done in a very gentle way, there is no hard edge to it at all."

THE MOST important part of drawing a good cartoon is picking out a distinctive characteristic of the subject, said Bulova — whether it is a catch phrase or a physical feature.

"People fascinate me and faces fascinate me," said Bulova. "Some people have such interesting faces. It's fun to capture it."

Among Connolly's favorite drawings is a cartoon of Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield). Bulova sketched McConnell wearing her trademark rings and nail polish, and because McConnell likes to begin comments with "my people," said Bulova, a thought balloon next to the drawing says "My people won't be happy about this."

Next to a sketch of Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) are the words, "Gerry Hyland, doing the right thing!" "Doing the right thing" is a favorite phrase of Hyland's, said Bulova.

Connolly has been the subject of a number of sketches. "Gerry Connolly is great to draw," said Bulova. "His mustache and dark eyebrows. He has such prominent features."

As budget chair in the upcoming budget season, Bulova has to stay on the alert. But rather than being an activity of distraction, she said, drawing is a way for her to focus. It forces her to pay attention to speakers' body language and facial expressions.

Smyth agreed, saying that drawing people is another way to think about them. "When you get down to it, people are the most important part of the meeting," she said.

County attorney David Bobzein is the unofficial curator of Bulova’s drawings. "I'm sort of her repository," said Bobzein, who, according to Bulova, has been known to fish through the trash to retrieve drawings after closed session meetings are over.

"I think it’s a very interesting thing to do, and I've got to admit, I've been at some meetings where it was more fun watching Sharon doodle than whatever was going on in the meeting," said Smyth.