Week 21: Neighborhood Pets

Collage papers and drawings

This week’s collage is a playful exploration of the neighborhood pets and their relationships. As I walk my dog, Holly, around the cul-de-sac and up and down our quiet streets, we often encounter other animals, sometimes from a distance, and sometimes nose to nose.  As short barks or sniffs are exchanged, I wonder about their communications and understanding of one another.  Through many small drawings, I tried to capture the personalities of actual pets in the neighborhood, as well as drawing new characters of my own invention. My approach allowed for simple cartoon-like animals, as well as more realized renderings. I borrowed leftover paper elements from previous collages and combined them with new drawings. The process was fun, light-hearted and maybe a little bit silly at moments. Welcoming this attitude in my work felt great. Here is the final collage, followed by favorite details.

Neighborhood Pets, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Neighborhood Pets- The Nest, Olivia and the Mocking Bird

Detail, Neighborhood Pets- Holly and the Mocking Bird

Detail, Neighborhood Pets- A cat crosses the cul-de-sac

Detail, Neighborhood Pets- This is their neighborhood too!



A good sniffing spot

Holly walks beside me, the dangling leash a mere formality between us. We make our way along the usual route, occasionally stopping to watch a bird, finding comfort in our synchronized daily habit.  Suddenly the leash goes taut. Holly jerks me out of my daydream. A white-tailed rabbit hip-hops in a zig-zag pattern across the neighbor’s lawn.  An orange cat pounces after it. A little white dog lets out an affirmative yap and joins the parade.  Muffled barks come from the house down the street, as a wet nose presses against the glass pane beside the front door.  Holly and I observe the commotion. She looks at me as if to ask if she can join in the fun. But the leash stays on and we continue our walk. She stops to sniff a patch of grass with great interest. I remember reading once that for dogs, smells are like messages written in invisible ink. They may understand who left the message and how long ago, judging time and distances in way that is alien to us humans. But what does it say? She continues rifling nose first through the grass, inhaling the information, much like the way I approach the New Yorker when it comes in the mail. Wordless smells, tell me all your secrets…

Holly surveys the neighborhood from the hilltop, a galaxy of smells.


The daily activities of creatures in the neighborhood continue to fascinate me. While minivans come and go, children ride their bikes, and lawn mowers buzz around our lots, layers and layers of diverse societies carry out their own rituals.  Recently my husband and I witnessed a tiny ant dragging an old dried up worm up a steep stretch of sidewalk. It was amazing that he could haul this heavy load so many times his own weight. We saw him get stuck in the joint of the sidewalk, cleverly adjust his grip to leverage himself out with his prize, then continue on his way.  A study in strength, ingenuity, and perseverance.

Empty Robin’s Nest

Empty Robin’s Nest

I have been particularly interested in the nesting of the robins.  There are nests in many of the cherry trees that line our streets. Just last week I peeked inside the ones I could discreetly reach with a stretch of my arm and a camera, and discovered that many had single blue eggs. Today I checked two of the nests again and the eggs were gone. This was a bit upsetting since foul play may have been a factor.

Baby robins will stay in the nest for about  two weeks after hatching, so their sudden absence is not a good sign. In another nearby tree, I witnessed two robins frantically driving off a mischievous squirrel with high-pitched chirps and threatening swoops. Do squirrels eat eggs? The nest was too high up for me to see, but I hope their eggs are still safe.

With Mother’s Day just here, and the activities of the robins all around me, I have been moved to contemplate my own nesting behavior.  While I love to travel, I have always strongly identified with the idea of home. I am not the free-spirited type who travels the world with a backpack. I need to build a nest.  I see this nest-building as an extension of my creativity and imagination– an opportunity to create a special place for my family that both shelters and inspires us. My husband feels the same way, and our home has evolved into a reflection of us both over the last four+ years that we have lived here. We intend to stay here for at least the next ten years, and probably longer. This long term commitment to our nest allows us to invest in fully customizing it. Here is a picture of an outdoor space that has become our own backyard “nest.”

Backyard Nest for Humans

Sketchbook page with nests

Week 15: My Neighbor’s Garden

This week’s collage was inspired by my neighbor’s garden, a special place that I pass by regularly on my daily walks with my dog, Holly. After several years of admiring this yard from the sidewalk in front of the house, I was lucky enough to get a close-up tour from its generous creator.  I wanted to capture the distinct sense of place this garden has achieved, mediating between the wooded natural landscape around it and the careful orchestration of plants by human hands. There is an emphasis on structure over flowers and frills: evergreens, handsome shrubs and small trees of many colors and textures define the garden. At the same time, there are exquisite blooms thoughtfully placed at specific moments: the clematis “Josephine” entwined on the lattice by the mailbox, and the unusual grafted lilac that displays its fragrant purple flowers in the form of a small ornamental tree, centered in the front yard.

I began this piece by first painting a varied ground onto my panel, allowing the free flow of colors to guide the composition. I then gathered my drawings done earlier in the week, copied them onto translucent Gampi paper with an inkjet printer, and began placing them in the collage. I also brought back some drawings of small dogwood trees from Week 14, since my neighbor uses dogwoods to great effect on the edge of the woods.  One advantage of scanning and copying my drawings is the ability to use them again in new ways, either in hand-made collages or in digital illustrations or patterns.  In addition to using ink drawings as collage elements, I also drew directly on the panel with archival ink pens. More paint was worked in around the drawings to develop the atmosphere and bring out details like the deep pink blooming cherry trees on our street.

I combined aerial map-like views, traditional landscape vistas, and close-ups of interesting details to create an experiential montage of the garden. My layered experience of this place is a combination of all these perspectives. The garden has different meanings for me in different contexts. It has a place in the physical neighborhood as well as in my own memory and imagination. My love for this garden merges with my love for all the gardens of my past, present and future.  Each tree merges with all the trees that grew up through my history: the towering tulip poplars from my childhood home, my grandmother’s elegant red maples, the golden fringed Japanese maple we got as a wedding gift, the weeping cherry we planted when we bought our first house, the patio peach tree from the summer when I was pregnant, and the young Black Gum with its promising horizontal branches that will one day hold a swing for our backyard.  This collage is as much about all these moments as it is about my neighbor’s garden. I am grateful for them all.

Here is the finished work:

My Neighbor's Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Gardens are Meant to be Shared

Shrub Envy

There is one yard on our street that is my favorite. I always admire it when I walk past with my dog, trying to suppress my shrub-envy. It belongs to a nice retired couple who brought many of their mature trees and shrubs along with them from their farm when they moved here five years ago. As a result, their property has the look of a much more established garden, unusual in our newer neighborhood. There are lush Japanese maples with an amazing variety of fringed textures and colors. A huge thriving Japanese Andromeda blooms by the front door, a plant that is notoriously finicky but richly rewarding with its long spires of white flowers framed in red and green glossy foliage. A very rare weeping juniper anchors the front corner of the house, draping itself in deep green swags. There are raised beds along the side of the house for vegetables and cut flowers, and a handsome Hawthorn that is decorated with red berries in the late Fall. Centered in the front bed is a novel new lilac, grafted onto a standard like a small ornamental tree.

View of My Neighbor's Garden

Recently I happened to be walking by when the older gentleman who created this showplace was out front with some new azalea bushes. I stopped to say hello and took the opportunity to exclaim over his shrubs and let him know how much I enjoyed watching his garden throughout the year. While we had often exchanged greetings and short conversations in passing over the four years we have lived here, I had never really gotten to know him. As soon as I showed an interest in his garden, his face lit up and he began telling me stories about each plant. Fascinated, I learned about his wife’s favorite flower, the climbing Clematis vine “Josephine”, that she purchased at the Somerset Garden Show in England. It’s tendrils were weaving their way through a lattice against the mailbox post, heavy with buds, preparing to display their unusually ruffly double flowers, much showier, he told me, than the regular flat-petaled single varieties.

After we had covered the front yard, I felt bold enough to ask for a full garden tour of his place, something I had wanted to do since we moved here. Without hesitation, he took me all around the house, pointing out his favorite new additions as well as the special trees he had moved from his former property.  He pointed out a pair of enormous evergreens in the backyard that had required heavy machinery to dig five foot holes to accommodate each root ball! Behind the house was a lovely broad patio, a koi pond, and a spectacular blooming vine of yellow jasmine climbing up a lattice against the deck.  The woods out back had been carefully cleared of scrappy underbrush and planted with native understory trees and shrubs: azaleas, rhododendrons, redbud, and dogwoods that blended seamlessly into the natural patterns of the forest beyond.

After the tour, I thanked my host and told him I would keep an eye on the clematis “Josephine” by the mailbox and be sure to enjoy its bloom time. His reply was, “Gardens are meant to be shared. Blow a kiss to it when you walk by– that will help it to grow.”

Gardens are Meant to be Shared, ink on paper

Week 12: Be Here Now

We had a hard rain last night.  This morning I anxiously walked up the street to see the cherry trees again and knew what I would find: all the petals had fallen. And so it ends, at least until next year.  My father once told me that the one thing you can always count on in life is change. Time rolls onward, and there is always something slipping away, while something else takes its place.  I only had one week to enjoy the cherry blossoms, but I walked under them twice a day, photographed them, drew the clustered trees and the individual flowers, scanned the drawings into my Mac to create a floral pattern design, and finally painted them today.  This year I did more than notice them in passing. So now I will let them go, knowing there are Dogwoods to look forward to…

This week I really wanted to paint, so I mixed up some juicy pinks, reds and oranges. I was also inspired by the fresh Spring green that is coming out everywhere in the neighborhood, on lawns and in the new leaves. I did a simple landscape painting of the cherry tree-lined street, then added collage elements into the blooming canopy.  I was most interested in the billowing texture of the flowery boughs, and how the shapes of the trees frame the pieces of street and lawn behind them.  While the trees are painted thickly with heavy gel medium, the background is painted very thinly, collapsing the distance into flat shapes that fit in and around the trees like a jigsaw puzzle.

Cherry Trees, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

I also took on the Rainbow Challenge from my last post. I wrote, “Why is it that the representation of a rainbow has become such a cliché, synonymous with Care Bears, unicorns and everything trite?  When seen in real life, there is nothing more grand, more magical, more intensely pure.  Would it even be possible to put a rainbow in my artwork without being either ironic, sarcastic, comical, or naive? I might try that.”

Since I did, in fact, see a real rainbow in the neighborhood this week, I felt I had full rights to include it in the painting. Does it look silly or trite, or ruin the whole piece? I am smiling and thinking to myself, “Does it matter?”  All things are transient: the cherry blossoms, the rainbow, this painting, my life. Rather than worry about embarrassment, or anticipate the end, let me just be here now.

Week 8: Winters Past and Present

While this project began with the intention of embracing the present moment, I have found that confronting the here and now often pulls me back into the past. Understanding who I am today has a lot to do with where I came from, how I got here, and what I learned and came to value along the way.  Watching my son rejoice in the snow brought back so many memories of my own childhood: the big slope in the front yard, my old wooden sled, and building a snowman in the shape of Winnie the Pooh with my father.  For this week’s collage, I created a montage of two places– the home I live in now, and the childhood home of my past, coexisting in the same space as they often do in my consciousness. Here is the collection of small drawings I began to work with:

I take extreme delight in recalling the specific details of my childhood: the snow sliding down the slate shingles of the cottage roof, the soaring poplar trees in the yard, the feel of the wooden sled and the crisp sound of the runners in the snow.  It was a time in my life when everything made sense, there was no uncertainty, and all I knew was wholeness and love. There is a slippery slope to this reverie, and the fear of falling down the rabbit hole of nostalgia with all its mixed emotions… clinging too hard, wanting so desperately to remember something that was once perfect, then prying loose the fingers to let go. If there could possibly be a disadvantage to having an idyllic childhood, it would be the difficulty of growing up and letting it go.  One of my biggest challenges as an adult has been learning to balance that yearning for security and safety with the rewards of facing uncertainty and mustering the courage to take risks. Here is the finished piece:

Winters Past and Present, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

I love drawing with fine tip ink pens, the way this medium allows me to dig into every corner of a memory, or explore the finest details of a subject observed. At the same time, I love painting loosely with thick paint and sticky gel mediums, smoothing and scraping the snow down the hill, or layering the light into the trees. Acrylic collage allows me to combine these two modes of working.  I enjoyed juxtaposing my old wooden sled with my son’s contemporary snowboard. Two parallel universes?  I hope my son will one day look back on his own childhood with the same fondness I have for mine, while at the same time having the strength and courage to say goodbye, and live fully and joyfully in the present.

Detail, Winters Past and Present

Snow Day

We woke up Monday morning to a wonderland of snow.  The sun was sparkling and the trees were frosted in white. My son rolled out of bed at 8 AM, pulled on his snow pants and ran out the door to play.  I clicked on Holly’s leash, grabbed the camera and soon followed him.  There was no giddy anticipation of school closing because of the snow since there was already a scheduled holiday for President’s Day. Nonetheless, the thrill remained. I still had to go to work, but I work from home, and there was time for a short walk. It was the perfect snow: the roads were mostly clear but there was just enough for sledding, snowballs, snowmen, and some winter cheer.

The quiet stillness of the morning soon gave way to the sounds of neighborhood children romping and hollering in the snow. There was snowboarding, giant snowballs, and an impressive igloo smartly constructed in the deep shade along the side of a house to prevent premature melting. My son Max and his buddies played outside the entire day, with just a few short breaks for lunch and hot chocolate.  While we have experienced some inconvenient blizzards over the years, we usually only get a few light snow days each winter, so it always feels special.  While enjoying the beauty of the snow and the sounds of children playing, I indulged in a few fond memories of winters past:

Max's First Snow Man, 2006, Age 2

Me and My Snow Bear, 1978, Age 6

Winters Past and Present, ink on paper, 2012

One Month of My Suburban Life

I have completed the first month of my 2012 project. Some curious things have happened.  I had anticipated more cynicism and wry humor from this project, as an artist marooned in suburbia, trying to make sense of my identity and my place in this often ill-fitting context.  But in the process of drawing, writing, and making art about the simple things in my daily life, I have been overcome by a tidal wave of gratitude for all the good that is around me.  I have surprised myself.  The daily habit of scribbling on bits of paper, accumulating small creative acts with a focused intention, and holding myself accountable each week to observe and respond to what is happening in front of me has yielded unforeseen rewards.  In the spirit of physics formulas (happily re-discovered last week while reminiscing about my Dad helping me with my science homework,) I have discovered a natural law for my life:

(a + g)c = H

a= Awareness, g= Gratitude, c= Creative action, H= Happiness  

In words: Awareness plus Gratitude, multiplied by Creative Action equals Happiness. 

In the process of writing this blog, I have reached out to old friends, and made new ones. I have something positive to talk about when I meet new people.  With a creative structure in place in my life, I wake up knowing I will have a creative day, instead of regretting all the unfocused, unfinished, or undone projects of the past.  I remembered how much I enjoy writing, and find myself saying things I have always wanted to say. (See Ode to My Father.)  When I have ideas, I have somewhere meaningful to put them: in a new post, on a piece of paper destined for a new collage, on a painted panel.  I am discovering there is always enough time for these things, and the old excuses and imaginary barriers have crumbled away.  It is not always easy or comfortable to maintain this flow, and sometimes there is a tricky balance between just living my life and creating things about living my life.  But so far, it is working.

Week 3: The Snowy Walk

This weekend brought a wintry surprise to the neighborhood landscape.

Glittering ice coated all the trees and a light snow fell. Just enough to create some winter beauty without the hazardous road conditions.  It made for a chilly but beautiful morning walk with Holly. I was very excited for the opportunity to include snow in this week’s collage. I envisioned the collage as a kind of pictorial map of our walking route. I wanted to include a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood, while also offering a more intimate view of our experience together when we stop at her favorite spot, listen to the birds, allow the world to fall away, and watch the woods come alive in the unfolding present. Here is the completed piece:

I was so enthralled with painting the snowy landscape, that I chose to use fewer collage elements this week.  The trees and landscape are all painted with acrylic paint and gel mediums.  I experimented with thick layers of gel, then scraped into the paint with stiff brushes, creating an engraved “drawing” in paint. The houses were again created by using my son’s Lego piece as a stamp.  I used collage elements to populate the landscape with birds and woodland creatures. Many small drawings of mice, squirrels, deer, birds and owls were tucked in among the trees and branches. I also included Holly and myself in the form of a tiny ink drawing that was cut out with a blade and glued onto our special place on the map. Here is a detail of my favorite part:

Sneak preview of Week 4: A special visitor is coming…!