November 11, 2010

Thank a Pre-Veteran through Military Connections

Make your portrait make a difference to soldiers and sailors overseas

Detail from Sailor Boys oil pastel portrait by Susan Donley

Mention “Veterans Day” when you order a portrait or gift certificate and I will donate 10% of your order to send a bundle of care to our service members overseas.

Military Connections, a worthy non-profit organization here in Pittsburgh, has been sending care packages to the troops overseas for eight years. Director Summer Tissue founded the organization when her brother was deployed to Afghanistan in the early years of the war. He is home safe, but Summer still spends here evenings and weekends putting together packages that let our fighting men and women know how much we appreciate them.

Even if you don’t plan to commission a portrait, you can help by sponsoring a Christmas stocking for just $10.35. Or donate leftover Halloween candy. Get details on the Military Connections website.

Contact me to commission either a portrait of either a person or a pet or find out more about portrait gift certificates. Don’t forget to mention “Veterans Day”!

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Honoring a Family of Veterans

Sailor Boys - Three Generation Portrait in Oil Pastel ©Susan Donley 2010

I’m always honored when someone asks me to paint a portrait, entrusting me with their memories of their loved one. I feel doubly honored when the subject is a veteran of the armed forces, police, and like services.

Recently, I multiplied that good feeling by three when my friend Chuck Lang asked me to help him bring a tribute he envisioned to life. Chuck, his father, and his son, all served our country in the Navy during wartime: World War II, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. Chuck imagined the three of them standing together on deck in front of the stars-and-stripes.

I could see them, too, in my mind’s eye and worked hard work to combine three boot-camp photos from the 1940s, 1960s, and 2000s taken in different light, angles, and color.

Navy uniforms have hardly changed in all that time, so folks who see it seldom get that it is a scene that could never happen in real life. Luckily, portraits don’t have to be constrained by real life!

Read Chuck’s reaction, view a larger version, and see the “before” photos here.

Thanks to the Langs and all veterans for serving our country!

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April 14, 2010

How Dogs and Cats Communicate

WebMD’s pet section has a fascinating slideshow of “Facts” and “Myths” about dogs and cats. As a dog and cat lover, I was interested in all of them, but as a dog and cat artist, I found several “facts” very particularly relevant. Several of the facts concerned dog and cat body language, especially facial expressions: A dog’s look of love; cats kiss with their eyes; dog grinning vs. smiling vs. snarling, two times dogs wag their tails when they aren’t being friendly, the sideways glance, and more:

Slideshow: Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Dogs and Cats.

Other non-visual animal communication topics include: cat’s purring and “chirping,” how much human language dogs understand, and more.

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March 20, 2010

Yappy Hour in Wexford

A special event for people and pets to enjoy together

Graphite drawing of Welsh Corgi by Susan Donley

Oh, the guilt I feel when I come from a feast of goodies to Rosie the Studio Poodle’s sad “I can’t believe you went without me” look! She sniffs my breath while I kick myself for neglecting to bring even a meager scrap home for her. Can you identify?

Well, here’s one event where your pup won’t have to miss! The new Huntington Bank in Wexford, PA invites both people and pets to its grand opening celebration on Saturday, March 27, 2010! Yappy Hour from noon until 2 p.m. features two local caterers: Your pooch can sample dog treats from Healthy Pet Products, while you enjoy the people food catered by Post Office Deli.

Other activities you can enjoy together include an Adoption Clinic and Pet Food Drive (Humane Society), Healthy Pet Demos (Healthy Pet Products) and (surprise!) Pet Portrait Demonstration (by yours truly, Susan Donley). I’ll be demonstrating graphite and scratchboard at my easel, so stop by to say hello and pick up a freebie and special offer.

Don’t worry about how temperamental March can be: It all happens in a large tent so that we don’t have to worry about the weather.

The whole day’s activities will benefit the Humane Society, which I think is a lovely way for a company to celebrate its grand opening!

Here is a map for Huntington National Bank, 11940 Perry Highway, Wexford , PA 15090 (Phone: 724-933-7888):

View Larger Map

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February 17, 2010

The Squirrels’ Birdfeeder Breakfast Buffet

Two squirrels eating sunflower seeds at the base of a tree in the grass
The Squirrels Birdfeeder Breakfast Buffet. Susan K Donley, 2009. Engraved clayboard with ink (scratchboard), 14×11 inches. ©2009 Susan K Donley. Backyard Wildlife Series

No bird feeder is complete without a clean-up crew of squirrels sifting through scattered hulls for the occasional sunflower seed. I saw these Eastern Gray Squirrels feasting under a bird feeder early one spring morning last year. The low, raking angle of the sunlight caught their fur coats and made them positively glow against the shadow cast by the trunk of the tree right behind them. Very soon, the sun moved on and the effect was gone leaving the squirrels to finish their breakfast in the shade, but not before I grabbed my camera to record the dramatic lighting. It inspired this painting in my Backyard Wildlife Series.

Squirrels are a perfect subject for scratchboard with their coats of gray variegated with black and brown. Click on the image here to go to a larger view. Then mouse-over to reveal a close-up of one of the squirrels showing the fine engraved lines depicting his fur. The white clay’s high reflectivity (compared to paper) really makes the glow, which pops them forward from the background.

Learn more about scratchboard here. See more artwork from the Backyard Wildlife Series.

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February 9, 2010

Peace in the Storm: Eastern Screechowl

Peace in the Storm - Eastern Screechowl sleeping in tree - painting ©Susan Donley Left: “Peace in the Storm: Eastern Screechowl,” Susan Donley, 2008. 14×11 inches, ink on engraved clayboard (scratchboard). Backyard Wildlife Series

The calm between two storms

As I write this post, our town (Oakmont outside of Pittsburgh, PA) is bracing for its second blizzard in less than a week. Last Friday and Saturday we got 23 inches of snow, instead of the 6-10 inches predicted. School has been cancelled ever since, as municipalities have yet to clear all the streets. Thousands are still without power. Humvee-equipped National Guard soldiers is helping emergency services reach people still trapped in their homes.

Now another storm is bearing down on us! The National Weather Service predicts the same 6-10 inches as last week and we are all hoping they are correct this time! Six inches would seem like a mere dusting at this point, though just a week ago we cowered at the thought!

Though I’m a fan of winter in moderation, these back-to-back storms have me bouncing between worries: power going out, trees toppling, cars getting stuck, milk running out, wild birds starving, and all manner of things I dream up. I tend to forget that the same God who created the seasons and the elements, also created me and all the people and critters I worry about. He’s not likely to suddenly forget us!

A lesson in faith

At times like these, I find the natural world full of lessons in faith. Several years ago, I looked out my bathroom window to see wonderful surprise guest sleeping in the hole in the sycamore tree: An Eastern Screechowl with red coloring (they also come in a gray version). I was thrilled that he stayed there off and on throughout the winter, though he was often down inside the hole where I couldn’t see him.

One late afternoon as the sun was going down, I looked out at the snow that was beginning to fall. Lo and behold, the little owl slept soundly, the snow piling up on top of his head! I imagined a cartoon balloon above him saying “What? Me worry?”! I took a photo to remember that perfect picture of peace in the middle of a storm.

Last year I dug out that photo to serve as a reference for this scratchboard painting titled “Peace in the Storm.” (Learn more about scratchboard here.) I decided today was the perfect time to unveil this painting and remember the lesson this little owl taught me that day.

May you have peace in whatever storm you face today!

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February 2, 2010

Art for Groundhog Day

Groundhog sitting up eating with its paws to its mouth with fall bushes behind
Groundhog Bulking Up for Winter, Indiana, PA. Susan K Donley, 2009. Engraved clayboard with ink (scratchboard), 16×12 inches. ©2009 Susan K Donley. Backyard Wildlife Series

Like all my fellow Pennsylvanians, I find it hard to ignore Groundhog Day (February 2, for those who don’t track this major holiday). This is, of course, because our state is home to the Official Groundhog Day Groundhog Punxatawney Phil. Phil slumbers all winter long waiting for his big day in the sun when he, according to legend, peeks out of his burrow to check on the progress of winter. If he sees his shadow, the legend tells us, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, well, there won’t be six more weeks of winter, but it was never clear to me whether that meant there would be less than six weeks or more than six weeks of winter!

The state lottery has capitalized on Phil’s fame to introduce us to the Second-Most Famous Groundhog in Pennsylvania named Gus. This endearing little fellow tries his best to part us from our hard-earned money by playing the lottery’s very bad odds. But Gus is cute, no doubt about it!

My groundhog is not at all famous, but he is a resident of Pennsylvania, just the same. He lives under my brother’s tool shed in Indiana County, PA. I would call him Indiana Jones, so he didn’t feel badly being a Pennsylvania groundhog without a name, but I’m suspect that name is trademarked. My painting shows him on the other side of winter from Groundhog’s Day, fattening himself up for his long fast during hibernation.

This painting is one of a series that I’ve started celebrating Backyard WIldlife. These are the critters we share our lives with everyday. Though some are considered pests, I enjoy them all, and have undertaken to do their portraits as time permits. I’ve chosen scratchboard (engraved clayboard and ink) for this series, as it excels at depicting the tiny details of these small creatures and the colors and textures of their environment. Learn more about scratchboard here.

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December 30, 2009

Year-End Media Review

This year my blog has been in mothballs while I devoted my energies to on-the-ground local networking. Next year I hope to strike a better balance in minding both my online and local business. But in the meantime, due to my neglect, I missed a few important things that I should have duly noted here.

So, in the spirit of year-end retrospectives, this is as good a time as any to catch up on some media attention that I received earlier this year — just for the record.

“Pittsburgh Today Live” interview, KDKA Pittsburgh TV

First back in July, there was the KDKA Pittsburgh Today Live interview, which I did report here.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review article, “Career Change is Picture-Perfect for Oakmont Artist”, August 12, 2009

Susan Donley demonstrating scratchboard at her home studioDeborah Deasy, a Trib newspaper staff feature writer did a phone interview and then came out to my house to chat for another couple of hours and see a demonstration on a hot August day. Trib photographer Justin Merriman joined us and recorded my hot, frizzy self at work on our deck in the shade of one of our old sycamores.

Debi conducts interviews like she’s chatting with an old friend, so the time went by very quickly. So quickly that we were totally caught by surprise by a thunderstorm that blew in so fast that we had to just start grabbing artwork, interview notes, pencils, and paper and run for cover inside! Later she contacted several of my clients who were very kind with their comments. Read the article, “Career Change is Picture-Perfect for Oakmont Artist”, on the Tribune Review’s site.

Pittsburgh Business Radio interview, WMNY/AM, December 2, 2009

My alert business coaches at Volunteers of America’s Working Order learned of Pittsburgh Business Radio’s plan to highlight pet-related gift businesses during the holiday retail season. They told host Suzanne Caplan about my pet portraits and connected me up for a live interview on December 2. The interview was about 10 minutes long and shared with a woman who owns a pet bakery. Pittsburgh Business Radio archives all of its programs as podcasts, so you can listen to it here:

Thanks to KDKA, the Tribune Review, and Pittsburgh Business Radio for spreading the word about my artwork and taking love for pets as seriously as we crazy pet-people do (or at least humoring us!)!

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November 9, 2009

Tribute to Mary Travers 1936-2009

8 Art Lessons from Peter, Paul and Mary

Portrait of Mary Travers, 3-color pencil on toned paper
Memorial portrait of Mary Travers. Susan K Donley, 2009. Colored pencil on toned paper. ©2009 Susan K Donley

The real grief I felt when I learned that Mary Travers had died on September 16 caught me by surprise. A few days later, I confessed to a couple of friends that I felt silly still feeling a strong sense of loss about someone I never knew. “How can you say you never knew Mary when you’ve been listening to her music for 45 years? Of course, you knew her — you just never met her!” my friend replied. Of course! If an artist reveals a piece of herself with every piece or performance, which I believe, I did get to know the gifted artist Mary Travers bit by bit with every song she sang.

Since getting “permission” to grieve, I’ve been pondering this peculiar relationship with a friend I never met and her trio-mates in Peter, Paul and Mary. In honor of today’s official memorial service honoring Mary Travers in New York, I offer memories of my PPM history and some of the insights I’ve gained in the last month as I’ve indulged in watching vintage PPM performances and interviews on YouTube. It’s my personal tribute to a group that has influenced me more than I realized.

Fan for forty-five years

I’m old enough to remember PPM’s earliest hits playing on the AM radio we listened to getting ready for school in the morning. I reached the age of wanting my own transistor radio, buying records, and other rites of passage into 1960s adolescence in 1964 when Beatlemania hit. That’s when I got my first album “Meet the Beatles”, soon after I added Herman’s Hermits.

The following year, in seventh grade, I got a guitar for Christmas! A few lessons at the Y and I was ready to join some of the neighbor girls to sing together just for the fun of it (though of course we planned to start a group if we got good enough!). What should we sing? Somebody had the chords for “Well, Well, Well” and “Oh Sinner Man”. They pulled out their parents’ Peter, Paul and Mary albums and we listened, sang along, then sang them ourselves with a couple of guitars and a tambourine. OK, so we didn’t sound JUST like PPM, but we thought we sounded pretty good! And who cares? We were having fun and we were making music ourselves, not just listening to it.

I got the big PPM songbook and practiced that guitar like crazy. I couldn’t read music, so I borrowed the albums from my friends to learn the songs. I bought my first PPM album “A Song Will Rise” and learned to sing harmony. Thankfully, Mary was an alto, just like me — I could never sing along with Joan Baez!

By the time “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” came out, I was a bona fide fan of PPM, as well as many of the folk rockers of the time: Mamas and Papas, Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Donovan, et al. I went to my first PPM concert in about 1968 and was blown away that all that music could come from three people, two guitars, and a bass (our little group didn’t do nearly so well with five voices, three guitars!)! And they invited us all to sing along with them. I was hooked — for life, as it turns out! I’ve seen them live about five times since then, and never ceased to be amazed at the energy of the performance, how much they enjoyed what they were doing, and the obvious affection they had for each other.

Contrary to the concerns of the folk music purists who looked askance at PPM’s styling of traditional music for the “pop market”, I became a life-long fan of folk and roots music, delving deeper into the traditions that inspired the songs I sang along with. My iPod spans 300 years of American music!

My other career as an arts and museum educator often dealt with folklife and traditional arts in the classroom. Several years ago, I finished a huge, multi-year curriculum project called Voices Across Time: American History through Music for the Center for American Music. Somehow, I don’t think this would have happened if I had stuck with Herman’s Hermits!

8 art lessons from a trio of musicians

In the last few weeks, I’ve come to see parallels between the beliefs behind my own professional art (now visual art, not music, to everyone’s relief) and Peter, Paul and Mary’s work and philosophies over an incredible 50-year career. I pulled together eight lessons anyone in the arts can stand to learn from Peter, Paul and Mary:

1. Art is for everyone, not just the elite

The arts do not belong in an arts ghetto of professional artists, critics, and collectors. Art can and should be accessible to everyone! That doesn’t mean everyone must like the same kind of art, in fact, it means just the opposite: If art is for everyone, than it must be as diverse as possible. It is indefensible to say something isn’t art because it deals with a certain subject matter (say pet portraits or “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog”) or medium (say colored pencil or electric guitar).

Mary once remarked that she wasn’t worried that folk music isn’t on the radio much anymore, because it is alive and well around campfires. Personally, I don’t worry much about gallery representation: I’d rather have my art hanging in someone’s living room.

2. Artists aren’t in competition with each other

Peter, Paul and Mary boosted the careers of Bob Dylan, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro and other young songwriters by bringing their songs onto the pop charts. In a 1968 interview, Mary took on a reporter who kept asking her if the Mamas and Papas, Byrds, and other folk rockers were eroding PPM’s audience: “[paraphrased] I don’t pay any attention to the numbers — that’s our manager’s job. My job is to create art. I’m not in competition with anyone.”

I’ve often wondered why non-artists think artists are in competition. I’m friends with several other portrait artists, including those doing pets. Our styles are so different that we appeal to different people. The more diversity in art or music, the more appealing to a wider audience, expanding the market for all art. A rising tide lifts all boats!

3. Do what you love with people you love — others will go along for the joyride

Peter, Paul and Mary’s sheer joy of singing with each other was infectious.

Most groups I’ve seen perform face the audience. PPM usually face each other, but ironically, the audience feels included rather than excluded. As Mary tells it in one interview, – her contribution to the trio included “an ability to connect with them emotionally and focus our attention on having a musical conversation. I believe that if we can have that conversation, then the audience will feel included.” And indeed, they do!

4. The arts aren’t spectator sports

Attending a PPM concert was very different from most. Don’t expect to sit back and wait to be sung to. From the very first song, you will be enlisted to sing, clap, and stomp along. Unfortunately, most everywhere else, public singing has given way to private, passive iPod listening via earbuds.

One of the worst side effects of the communication technologies of the 20th century is the polarizing of stars and public, artists and audiences. People have come to think of the arts as something to consume, not something to create. In the 19th century, if you wanted music, you created it yourself with family and friends. You made your own quilts, painted your own china.

As an art educator, my mission was to roll back the notion that you needed talent to make art. Really, you only need an idea to express visually and some basic practice using line, shape, color and the other visual tools. Everyone should feel as comfortable sketching out an idea as they do tapping out an email. That almost no one does is a great failing of arts education, in my opinion.

5. Beautiful art doesn’t require fancy tools

PPM were the real deal, real musicians who didn’t need fancy recording studios to make their full sound. In fact, they were better in person when they could feed off the enthusiasm of the audience who could see all this music came from just three voices, two guitars, and a bass. A prime example is video from around 1968, where Peter, Paul and Mary perform “If I Had my Way” — just three voices and one guitar.

Likewise, my favorite medium is plain old graphite on paper. Without the distraction of color, I can better focus attention on my subject’s expression and recreate textures that make seem touchable. All with the humble pencil.

6. Honing your craft matters

Of course, the simpler the means, the more skill and work required to make it work! PPM notoriously argued hours over each song’s arrangement and rehearsed it to perfection before performing it publicly.

Likewise, many more hours go into a drawing than most people can imagine wielding a pencil. But only practice can make artists comfortable enough to relax and perform their best. No amount of inborn talent can bloom without hours of training and rehearsal.

7. Shrug off the critics, stay true to your vision: Art can make a difference

If any of the dismissive purists of any persuasion doubts PPM’s impact, consider that top hits of 1962 included “Johnny Angel” and “Louie, Louie”. Then imagine “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” hitting the airwaves! In that context, I doubt if the harmonies sounded saccharin or the lyrics simplistically sing-along (criticisms of PPM I’ve read recently from writers who should know better than to judge art forms outside of their context).

PPM’s carefully constructed arrangements drove their songs’ messages home while you sang along with the radio. What role did “sing-along” play in winning popular support for civil rights in the 1960s? When you sing along with Mary’s passionate delivery of the lines “It’s the hammer of JUSTICE! It’s the bell of FREE-EE-DOM! It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land!” how can you fail to grasp the importance of justice, freedom, and love for everyone? I know I did! We sang it every single week at the Young Life group I attended (where I eventually played guitar and lead the singing). Their songs’ singability made them much more effective agents of change than music meant just for listening.

8. Your life and your art are of one piece

The most important lesson of all: Art grows out of your values. Live your message if you want it to be heard. Witness the passion of these singer-activists as they sing their pro-hope, anti-Apartheid song “No Easy Walk to Freedom” at a rally in 1986:

If you would like to explore further the messages-through-song of this exceptional trio, treat yourself and explore performances throughout their career captured on video over nearly 50 years. Sadly, we’ll never see and hear them together again in person, but we can relive the experience here.

Good-bye, Mary

You will be sorely missed, but you’ve surely given enough for one life and then some. Be at peace.

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July 30, 2009

Pet portraits on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live

screen shot from videoThis week is Pet Week on KDKA-TV’s daily morning show Pittsburgh Today Live, which airs Monday-Friday at 9am. Each program this week features one or two interview segments with guests who are pet experts of one sort or another: a vet, pet store owner, pet bird sanctuary, dog trainers from a local shelter, and ME! I never was able to find out exactly how they found me, but was delighted that they did.

Nothing like the pressure of live TV with only one chance to get it right! But hosts Jon Burnet and Brenda Waters were pros at setting guests at ease and keeping the conversation flowing. I had some trepidation that I might be subject to “can you believe people actually do this with their pets?” (like pet spas, birthday parties, and fashion shows tend to inspire). But the tone was just perfect — that portraits are a very special way to remember a dear pet. Brenda had recently lost her dog JoJo, so no one minimized the pain of losing a pet.

The day before, I agonized over what art to take with me, when time would be short and video the medium. I settled on the two commissions I’m working on right now and a few key pieces of work to show the differences in my three media — graphite drawing, oil pastel painting, and scratchboard engraving.

Aside from a quick demonstration to explain what on earth scratchboard is, there wasn’t time for them to see much art in action, so the producer came up with the idea of my working on a portrait during the rest of the show, so they could check on my progress at the end. That certainly made the point that this wasn’t just a sketch and that detailed drawings take hours to finish! I just hope the audience could see any change at all, since it was less than 30 minutes of work! :-) A nice bonus for me to have the extra few seconds of air-time.

Oh, every day this week, the show also features a homemade pet treat (as of Wednesday, birds, dogs, and hamsters), so check out the recipes online!

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Random peek into my sketchbook