November 11, 2010

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!

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.

November 8, 2008

Tagged: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Me

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:

  1. 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!

  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.

  3. 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 >

  4. 9D69150E-44A5-4E51-A515-D48BDE72AC0E.jpg 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.

  5. 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! ;-)

  6. I’m grateful to be an 11-year survivor of endometrial (uterine) cancer! After finding absolutely no resources for women with gynecologic cancers (the cancers that hit below the belt) compared to breast cancer, in 2000 I teamed up with nine other women I met on an early cancer listserv to create, an all-volunteer web-based support community for women with gynecologic cancers, that is still going strong.

  7. 84C03BEC-3FF7-438C-9B41-C48AFA74E274.jpgI’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:

Ball’s in your court, Twitter friends! Follow me on Twitter.

October 27, 2008

Artist avatars: The 50-pixel self-portrait

Lisa Stewart, a Net-savvy artist and designer has posted an excellent blog entry “Brand YOU: Your Avatar (Part 2)” on the art of the avatar, how important these tiny self-portraits are to online branding for artists, and how to improve artist avatars. Check out part 1 also!

Prompted by Lisa’s call for examples of creative avatars, I combed my Flickr contacts for some that I thought expressed their owner’s art and make you want to click through to their photostream:

944A2F16-538A-44E8-8F3F-D9197EC40C20.jpg 2C4CEBB9-ADDC-4BBD-9F0B-CD5F2CF78F2F.jpg 01D50560-DAF4-49AB-A5F3-FCB575A7CBF9.jpg 8B0DE435-5EE6-48CE-8AE8-5C41206DEF69.jpg C2761314-9ACE-4FC4-9E87-C92AEB42B09D.jpg

donley_sq_icon.jpgMy avatar is a simple reduction of a normal-sized (8×8 inches) graphite self-portrait I did a couple of years ago from a candid photo. After reading Lisa’s excellent blog post about taking, choosing, and creating a creative avatar, I’m going to be re-thinking mine. All that detail doesn’t reduce well and I’ve been told the pose isn’t the most flattering to me (heck, I liked it because it didn’t look “fat”! ;-) Another project for January, after the holiday rush!

July 24, 2008

USAToday: Attention to lighting can make a huge difference in your photos

Jefferson Graham’s article “Attention to lighting can make a huge difference in your photos” yesterday in USAToday’s Tech section summarizes some great advice from Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Book. (There’s also a video on this page of Graham showing how to get the best lighting for your photos in the summer sun.)

After sifting through hundreds of photos people send me as references for pet and people portraits, I couldn’t say it better than the headline of this article: If you want to vastly improve your people or pet shots, pay attention to lighting. Don’t just “Point and Shoot”, in spite of what the camera manufacturers say, instead: “Think, Look, Point, and Shoot”!

Among my Top Five Tips for Taking Portrait-Worthy Photos, two involve lighting: Turn off the flash and avoid direct sunlight by taking your subject in bright shade.

The USAToday article includes these among Scott Kelby’s five concise tips for improving your photography by improving the lighting. As far as portraits go, I’m not sure I agree with his tip “Shoot into the sun” though. Even when using fill-flash, this can be pretty tricky to pull off. Try it, for sure — backlighting can be very dramatic — but hedge your bet by taking some other shots in bright shade, which is a sure thing.

I have several of Scott Kelby’s many books (does the guy ever sleep?) on photography, Photoshop, and Mac OS X and I highly recommend them for their practical approach, clear instruction, and great tips spiced with humor. The books that were the source of USAToday’s advice are The Digital Photography Book and it’s companion The Digital Photography Book, Volume 2. More of Scott Kelby’s books here.

I’m not a photographer, but I offer a free email mini-course “Taking Portrait-Worthy Pet Photos” that offers tips I’ve learned the hard way by taking my own pet photos and depending on my client’s photos to draw and paint pet and human portraits. Free free to sign up and learn along with me!

March 24, 2008

Mow Work for Mom – Women’s Work is Never Done #3

My third painting in the Woman’s Work is Never Done series of “work portraits” is of my maternal grandmother Doris Elliott Garlock, which was my mom’s Christmas gift for 2007. The painting, from a faded family photo c. 1945, shows my grandmother, mother of seven at the time (eventually eight), taking a break from washing diapers, raising toddlers through teens, preparing meals, and all manner of other “wifely” chores, to cut the grass with a push lawnmower: “Mow Work for Mom.”

“Mow Work for Mom,” Susan K. Donley, 2008. 15×11 inches, colored pencil on paper. Collection of Janice Donley.

View a larger version of this painting and read more about Mom’s experience minding her New Jersey homefront during and after World War II at…

ToteOr check out gifts and gear featuring this image at Cafepress.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series — another down on the farm — later this week…

March 21, 2008

Aunt Hazel at the Telegraph – Woman’s Work is Never Done #2

My second painting in the Woman’s Work is Never Done series of “work portraits” is of my great-aunt Hazel, a telegrapher at the East Palestine, Ohio Postal Telegraph office: “Aunt Hazel at the Telegraph.”

“Aunt Hazel at the Telegraph,” Susan K. Donley, 2007. 11×15 inches, colored pencil on paper. Collection of Janice Donley.

View a larger version of this painting and read more about the Hazel’s experience as a “girl geek,” circa 1915…

t-shirtOr check out gifts and gear featuring this (Morse) coder at Cafepress.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series — one of my grandmother — later this week…

March 19, 2008

Aunt Teen on her Tractor – Woman’s Work is Never Done #1

As promised, in honor of Women’s History Month (March), I’m unveiling a series of “work portraits” called “Woman’s Work is Never Done.” First in the series: “Aunt Teen on her Tractor.”

“Aunt Teen on her Tractor,” Susan K. Donley, 2006. 15×11 inches, colored pencil on paper. Collection of Janice Donley.

See a larger version of this painting and read more about the story behind it…


Just for fun I’ve added a Woman’s Work section to my Cafepress store to create some fun gear honoring our hard-working foremothers

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series later this week…

March 17, 2008

Woman’s Work is Never Done: Honoring the Labor of our Foremothers

When I browse our family albums, I skip quickly though the dressed-up holiday line-ups with carefully combed hairstyles, but stop to linger over the “good stuff.” For me, the good stuff are the candid shots that capture a slice of everyday life. Give me wrinkled clothes and tussled hair every time! Those are the shots that transport me to another time to glimpse the lives of my ancestors, revealing moments they thought were important enough to record on precious film.

Rarest among these slice-of-life photos are those that picture folks working. When I run into those shots, I zero in for a good, long look! Teams of horses pulling wagons, sawmills, tractors, yoked oxen, feeding chickens — bring them on! I love these images and never miss the chance to ask older relatives what they remember about these chores to reconstruct the story behind the photos with the help of my mother and brother, my co-conspirators in this genealogical quest.

Woman’s Work is Never Done

Among my favorite workaday photos are those showing women at work, driving tractors or oxen, feeding livestock, manning the telegraph, as well as more traditional household chores. How arrogant are we to proclaim the late 1900s as the era of the “Working Woman”! Women have always pitched in whenever there was work to be done.

teen-tractor-photo-300.jpgA couple of years ago, I decided to use one of these photos as the basis of a painting for my mother for Christmas: my Great Aunt “Teen” in overalls riding a tractor in the 1920s. The tiny black-and-white snapshot was beat up and faded, so the first task was scanning and restoring the photo as well as I could. Then I gathered other photos of Teen, since her face in the tractor photo was heavily shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat.

At first I planned to do the painting in full color, thinking that would bring the scene back to life. But the color sketch just looked fake — I liked the black-and-white better. Maybe I could duplicate the illusion of faded color that I often experience when I look long enough at an old sepia photo print? I decided to try using Prismacolor’s three different hues of gray colored pencils — warm gray, cool gray, and French gray — to apply subtle coloration to a monochrome image. I loved the effect and, more importantly, I loved working on the painting, a kind of narrative portrait. My respect for Teen grew as I drew and learned more of her story of helping out the family during very difficult times.

telegraph-office-photo-300.jpgBefore I finished the painting, I already knew I wanted to honor the other women caught working in my family album in a series called (naturally!) “Woman’s Work is Never Done.” Next Christmas, I gave my mom the second in the series, a work portrait of her Aunt Hazel, a telegrapher in East Palestine, Ohio.

mom-mowing-phot-300.jpgThis past Christmas my mom’s gift was a painting of her mom, taking a break from washing diapers to mow the grass with a push mower. Just in case raising seven kids wasn’t enough work!

Women’s History Month

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m unveiling these first paintings of what I hope are many in the “Woman’s Work is Never Done” series. This week, I’ll post the paintings, along with the stories behind the women and their work. I don’t know where this series is headed, but invite anyone who has intriguing photos and stories of their foremother’s labor to get in touch with me at

What do the paintings look like? Stay tuned!

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Random peek into my sketchbook