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
Deborah 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.
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!)!
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:
This 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!
Yesterday I got tagged twice by two new Twitter artist friends, Lisa Stewart and Tara Reed, to tell you seven things you never knew about me (for the sake of my readers, I’m choosing not to interpret two tags in one day as a mandate to right 14 things you never knew about me! ;-) By the end of this post, I have to figure out seven other people to tag — I hope I have that many friends who blog…
Here we go, in roughly chronological order, Seven Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Me:
I first learned the healing power of art when I did my first memorial portrait in fifth grade — of President Kennedy shortly after his assassination. Our teacher wisely realized that we needed to do our own grieving and devoted a bulletin board to our class memorial to him. The artists of the class drew portraits, others wrote or decorated. I still remember laboring proudly on that portrait to get everything just right. It was a pretty good likeness, so I kept practicing, which I’m still doing.
By junior high I was already a “professional” portrait artist, selling a set of four portraits of the Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Nolan, and Mike Nesmith, for those of you too young to remember or too mature to care) to my classmates for $2!
My first art job out of college was washing you-know-what out of raw sheep fleeces, which really made my parents wonder about that hard-earned education! I later advanced to being a weaver (one of a dozen) producing of artist-designed woven pillows to be sold in department stores all over the country (that summer the song “Dreamweaver” came out, appropriately). We had our own anthrax scare in 1976, which shut us down while all the wool yarn from Pakistan (literally tons of it) was trucked off to be sterilized.
The project was a brainchild of Elizabeth Raphael, who envisioned The Sociable Workshop as a sort of craft WPA for the 1970s. Its parent organization, The Society for Art in Crafts, where I continued to work as Education Director until 1985, was in the fore-front of the Modern Craft Movement in the 1970s. It continues its work today as the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania Art Education Association (PAEA) honored me as Pennsylvania Art Educator of the Year for Museum Education for my work developing curriculum to help teacher integrate historic architecture and local history primary sources into their regular curricula. < soapbox >I advocated (and still do!) taking museum education strategies of learning from primary sources out of the museum and into school communities. Neighborhoods are open for investigation all year-round, not just at the annual museum field trip. When students trained to look for primary sources as clues do make the museum pilgrimage, they are primed and totally engaged. No snake line tours of bored kids!< /soapbox >
In 1991 I wrote a viewers guide and teachers guide for the official White House Video Tour, titled “Within These Walls: A Visit to the White House.” Yes, THAT White House! What a thrill to go there several times to tour and lunch with the White House Curator! The White House Historical Association (WHHA) hired public television station/producer WQED Pittsburgh to produce the film and they hired me because of my historical preservation experience. The WHHA showed and sold the film in the White House Visitors Center. Later we did a sequel called “Upon These Grounds: Exploring the White House Gardens.”
My career took an unexpected turn when the same WQED hired me full-time and suddenly I was a multimedia educator and producer instead of an art and museum educator. There I was, an artist-feeling-like-imposter writing materials for national productions in science and math, as well as my more comfortable zones of arts education and local history. I was there in the front-row when the interactive multimedia hit full-force, helping to produce its first (and only!) CD-ROM called, Next Step Mars. No, it never hit the big-time, but I went on to produce a CD-ROM for National Geographic called GeoBee.
My iPod’s playlist spans over 300 years!. I’ve always had eclectic musical tastes: Glenn Miller, Andrews Sisters, Mass Gospel Choirs, Stephen Foster, and roots music of all kinds, as well as the music I grew up with, the folk rock of the 1960s and 1970s. But when I worked on Voices Across Time: American History Through Music, a great curriculum supplement using songs as primary sources for studying American history, my playlist expanded to three centuries! Be forewarned if I ever put my iPod on shuffle when you are around! ;-)
I’m the author of a fourth grade social studies textbook titled Pennsylvania Our Home for Gibbs Smith Publishers (whose textbook site is down or I’d link), my last major curriculum writing project before returning to my artistic routes, which brings us back full-circle to the topic of this blog…
OK, so now I’m going to tag seven artists who I follow on Twitter (who haven’t yet been tagged to my knowledge), who I’d like to know better:
Today is my Standard Poodle Rosie’s sixth birthday! I can’t believe she’s been with me so long. Wasn’t she just a puppy?
We just came back from the pet store where she picked out her own treats from bins that they conveniently locate at nose level! She’s definitely partial to those little fake bones filled with fake marrow. Then we bought a ball to replace her loved-to-death ball.
Tonight she gets a hotdog for dinner! I also thought I’d celebrate by posting a few of the many sketches and finished portaits I’ve done of Rosie, but I don’t think she’ll appreciate it as much as the hotdog.Happy Birthday, my sweet Rosie O’Donley!
A visitor to my booth last weekend asked a very interesting question: “When you draw, do you have to concentrate, or it is automatic for you?” I answered her then, but have continued to think about it since: Meta-thinking about thinking while drawing, I guess!
My answer to my visitor’s question:I concentrate, thinking harder at critical points, like sketching in all the features; not as hard during more repetitive tasks, like texturing and shading. But its not verbal thinking: “Now its time to draw the eyes: first draw a circle for the pupil, then the iris, now the eyelid…”
Rather, I think visually, following a line with my eyes while my hand tracks the same line on paper. I look for the shape of “empty space” between parts of a face. I compare the lightness and darkness of colors to match them with my shading pencil strokes. None of this happens with words, which often get in the way.
My thoughts since then:I easily get totally absorbed in doing art, to the point of not being aware someone is talking to me. Or that several hours has passed.When demonstrating drawing in front of a class, invariably my voice trails off partway through. It’s nearly impossible to maintain verbal communication while focusing [ahem] intently on producing art. Betty Edwards noted this phenomenon 25 years ago in her classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
I’ve had entire classes of elementary kids go totally silent 15 minutes into a art lesson while working intently on their art. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “noisy artroom” philosophy, for the very reason that it’s impossible to focus, but never found it necessary to enforce silence if students were motivated and engaged.
Yet I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts while working on my art, just as I enjoy listening when I drive. But when it comes time to do something tricky, like parallel parking or driving through an unfamiliar city, I turn off the audio, so I can concentrate.
Similarly, if I’m several hours into a drawing and things are going well as I repetitively build up texture and shading, I can listen in on a conversation and even mumble a few words. But for a full-fledged conversation, I have to stop — I can’t pay close attention to someone talking and drawing at the same time. No wonder — what’s the most important thing we do to show someone we’re listening? Make eye contact! Can’t do that while drawing!What do you think about when drawing? Any chance of doing art on autopilot?
Last Saturday, I pitched my tent in the middle of Allegheny River Boulevard for my third outdoor art sales booth. The event was the Oakmont (PA) Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Street Sale.
I live a whole seven blocks away, so some of the typical pressures of setting up a booth sale were minimal: If I forgot something, I could run back home and get it. If my Subaru couldn’t hold all my stuff, I could ferry back and forth to schlepp it all “downstreet,” as we say in Pittsburgh.
Someday, this may get to be routine, rather than exhausting, but it sure isn’t yet! Undoubtedly, that is partly due to being middle-aged and out-of-shape! ;-) But admittedly, it is also due to my constant experimenting with my goal and, consequently, my booth design. Am I trying to sell low-cost goodies featuring my art, a la sidewalk sale? Am I promoting my pet portraits and my PetsPictured.com Cafepress merchandise? Or should I promote myself as a portrait artist, who happens to enjoy portraying pets, as well as people?After trying to do all of the above in one crowded 10×10-foot square — with marginal success — this time I tried marketing myself as “Susan Donley, Portrait Artist” to focus on the art.
Instead of actively selling merchandise, I exhibited a sampling of my best portraits, demonstrated (graphite and scratchboard, visible on my easel on the right in the first photo above), and collected names for my mailing list. Plus, I “outted” myself as a portraitist of people.
The forecast on June 28 predicted rain all day with 60-70% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. Perfect day for a booth at Maggie’s Organics Farm Festival, eh? ;-)
Well, despite a lot wind on top of the mountain and in between several short downpours, it turned out to be a pretty nice day after all. Too bad the crowds listened to the weather forecast and (apparently) chose other ways to spend their Saturday!
It was nice to meet the other vendors, enjoy wonderful organic, vegan fare, and get a chance to work out in the fresh air. Here you can literally see over my shoulder the two pieces of art I demonstrated that day. On the top is a graphite portrait of mixed breed dog Smokey.
On the bottom I’m beginning to engrave a Sun Conure (parrot) onto Claybord Black. It’s a technique in need of an image consultant: The usual term “Scratchboard,” unfortunately conjures up artwork rescued from the trash or elementary school art projects using crayon and tempera paint! The grown-up technique, however, allows tremendous detail and vibrant color. I’m just starting to work with it.
Stay tuned for some finished examples — I especially love doing birds this way.
I got some nice press coverage today from the Baltimore Sun’s “Mutts” dog blog. Monday February 4 – Wednesday February 6 this week reporter John Woestendiek has been using my drawings to illustrate a series of a articles called “The Dog Lover’s Guide to the Presidential Elections” in which he asks the question, “If the Presidential candidates were dogs, which breed would they be?”
“Survivor Reaching for the Light,” Susan Donley, 2007. Colored pencil and Neocolor II on 9×12 inch Pastelbord.
I’ve always been a dandelion fan, from the days when I picked bouquets of them for my mom. The very thing I love most about them — their ability to grow and thrive anywhere — is exactly what puts them on lawn fanatics’ “Most Wanted” list. Give them a tablespoon of dirt and they’ll put down roots, send up shoots, and push their sunny blossoms skyward! Every time I see a dandelion making a go of it from a crack in a sidewalk, I can’t help but smile at their optimism and determination.
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer at the height of dandelion season. From the moment I heard those words, “It’s cancer” to my surgery three weeks later, my heart never left my throat. My bone-chilling fear eased only when I took walks around the neighborhood. The neighborhood birds reminded me that “His Eye is On Sparrow.” The neighborhood dandelions were in full bloom, the perfect parable of survival, growing in lawns, through weed-smothering mulch, and out of cracks in the road. They not only survived, they thrived!
One particularly determined survivor spoke to me from our neighbor’s steps. Growing in dense shade in a crack in the mortar between the bricks, its profuse blooms reached out to the sunlight that only appeared a short few hours out of the day. What a symbol of hope! I took several photos of it, though I hardly need the photos to conjure its image from my mind, it has become such a part of me by now.
When Ann Kullberg announced that dandelions were the theme for her Member Theme Show this year, I had to honor my dandelion co-survivor! I took the opportunity to try the new technique of working with colored pencil over an underpainting with Neocolor 2 on Pastelbord.
During the close observation that drawing demands, I realized this dandelion, was actually two different plants of different species. I think there’s a potent lesson to be learned in that, as well!