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.

March 5, 2009

Play and Rest in Peace, Dear Hutch

One thing I love about my job is getting to know so many wonderful pets vicariously after looking into their eyes for the 10 or more hours it takes to complete a portrait! The flip side of that coin is bittersweet: To know them vicariously is to also feel a loss when they pass away.

This week I received this message from Nancy Roach about her beloved dog Hutch, whose portrait I did in the summer of 2007:

Hutch in the Meadow - Watercolor and colored pencil painting by Susan Donley

… I had Hutch put down last Sunday. She developed an aggressive form of lymphoma and was not feeling well.

She had a last day of eating snow, slept with me and Greg, had beef and bacon for breakfast and was scarfing down a tube of liverwurst when the vet gave her the sedative. My heart was breaking, but I know she left this world very loved, and with liverwurst on her tongue.

Your picture of her is a huge comfort to me.

Hutch hostesses the retreat

I haven’t met most of my subjects personally, but I had the pleasure of meeting and spending a few days with Hutch in May 2003. We were having a nonprofit board retreat at the Roach home in Hood River, Oregon and Hutch joined us as unofficial mascot for the weekend. She was good about sharing herself with anyone who needed the endorphin release of a good dog petting. We thanked her for her hospitality with the gift of a big ceramic treat jar (and advising her mom to keep it filled!).

If I hadn’t seen the incredible meadows of the Oregon Cascade Mountains with my own eyes that spring, I would have doubted the photos of Hutch sitting amongst the wildflowers near Mount Hood. The colors were so saturated that I had to keep checking that I wasn’t making them too bright. But, no, that’s how vivid the flowers really were up there drenched with sunlight in the clear mountain air!

I like to think of Hutch romping right now in the meadows (click for a larger view of the painting) on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge, waiting happily for her family. Play and Rest in Peace, Dear Hutch!

November 7, 2008

Memorial Portrait of Jack, a Rottweiler from the Shenandoah Valley

Now that Jack the Rottweiler’s human dad’s birthday is over, it is safe for me to post his memorial portrait. Katie Warner of Harrisonburg, Virginia commissioned Jack’s portrait for her boyfriend Allen, who grieved the loss of his hiking buddy earlier this year.

Finding good photos for memorial portraits can be a challenge, since there is no going back to take new portrait-worthy reference photos for me to work from. Doing it in secret for a gift can double the challenge! Over time Katie snuck me several photos, each showing a different side of Jack’s personality.

The photo we finally chose showed Jack taking a hiking break on the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, over-looking the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The 11×14 inch size allowed me to include enough background to set Jack in the mountains plus his massive chest. Oil pastel captured the vivid greens and blues of the Blue Ridge and the velvety black of Jack’s coat.

I received this lovely note from Katie after Jack’s portrait arrived:

I just got it, and it is absolutely beautiful. Thank you, thank you. I can’t wait to order another. Thank you so much for being so patient with me over the past few months, I know it took me awhile to get the ball rolling.

You are a truly talented artist, and I can tell how compassionate and caring you are. Thank you for giving us a memory of Jack that we will treasure forever. I look forward to working with you again soon.

By the way, none of the photos showed a hint of the supposedly aggressive side of Rottweilers that has landed them on some communities ill-concieved Least Wanted Dogs list. Such “breed profiling” is an ill-concieved way to control aggression in dogs. The real problem isn’t aggressive dogs, but people who don’t have control over their dogs because they don’t bother to train them to be good citizens.

Anyone looking into Jack’s sweet face can see the true nature of this noble breed! For a closer look into that face, visit Jack’s page on

Did you know Jack or another lovable Rottweiler who defies the stereotypes? Please share your memories in the comments!

October 22, 2008

Memorial Portrait of Sassy, Boxer Dog

Sassy, Boxer - watercolor/colored pencil painting, copyright 2008 by Susan Donley

Mary Horning of Pittsburgh commissioned this watercolor/colored pencil portrait of the Hornings’ late Boxer, Sassy, as an anniversary gift for her husband. Because Mary lives nearby, we met in person a few times instead of the usual emailed approval scans I send to distant customers.

On our first visit, Mary mentioned that she had commissioned portraits of her pets before from other artists, one she had been very happy with, but another was a disappointment: the pet’s likeness wasn’t convincing and the spark of life just wasn’t there. Gulp! The pressure was on!

What a relief to see in Mary’s eyes that I had captured Sassy’s likeness and expression when I delivered the portrait. She warmed my heart later by sending me an actual snail mail note after she gave the portrait to her husband:


I want to express how much we love the painting you did of Sassy. The painting is life-like! You have a special talent. You did such a perfet job in capturing her personality as well as the personality of the Boxer breed. We truly have the most precious memory of our girl now.

It was a joy working with you and I’d like to thank you for your hard work and kindness. It was money well-spent. Please consider me a forever client.

Mary Horning

Such nice feedback really keeps me going! Thank you, Mary!

October 21, 2008

In Memory of Reef, Australian Shepherd

Reef, Australian Shepherd oil pastel portrait by Susan Donley

When my Aunt Anita heard that her brother and sister-in-law (my Uncle Bill and Aunt Hazel) had lost their dear old dog Reef, an Australian Shepherd, she wasted no time contacting me. She and her kids decided to go together to commission a portrait of this special family member to comfort the grieving human companions he left behind.

Thus began an interstate race and conspiracy to commit art! Anita and Melinda from Oklahoma City planned to hand-deliver the portrait to Bill and Hazel in Santa Barbara, California on October 1. It was mid-September and I am in Pennsylvania. Neither of us had photos of Reef, so Anita let Hazel in on the secret and enlisted her to sneak some photos into the mail to me. First challenge met! In light of Reef’s beautiful coloring — a tri-color red — we decided oil pastel was the medium of choice.

I worked quickly, sending scans to Anita and Hazel along the way to make sure I had captured Reef’s likeness, especially his coloring (always a challenge, since every photo of any pet or person seems to show different coloring). When it was done, Anita and I decided to send it directly to California (to Hazel’s office to maintain the surprise for Bill, but with strict instructions forbidding her to open it) to make sure it arrived at the same time Anita and Melinda arrived.

I’m told the great unveiling — a complete surprise for Bill — was an emotional time of remembering Reef, celebrating his life while mourning his loss. I wish I had been there, but felt blessed to be part of this special gift of consolation.

See Reef up-close on his portrait page. Roll your mouse over Reef’s portrait on this page to see an enlarged detail.

August 18, 2008

Bully Portraits: Nikki and Allie, English Bulldogs in Graphite

Memorial Portrait of Nikki, English Bulldog

Nikki, English Bulldog. Memorial Portrait by Susan DonleyWe have two bully new members of the pack, a pair of English Bulldog sisters from Ohio, whose portraits were commissioned by their mom Cynthia…
Sadly, poor sweet Nikki died of cancer at only two years of age. By the very nature of memorial portraits, photo selection was limited. Thankfully, one of Nikki’s photos had both a delightful cocked-head expression and soft indirect lighting. What a sweet face! She must be sorely missed.

Graphite portrait of Nikki’s sister Allie

Allie, English Bulldog, Graphite Portrait by Susan DonleyAllie, Nikki’s sister, is still with her human family. Having the luxury of taking new photos, Allie’s mom kept snapping pictures, trying to capture one where Allie’s teeth weren’t showing. That never happened — those lower teeth are just part of Allie’s look! They stayed in her portrait.

Reference photograph of AllieAllie taught me a great tip to pass on to my clients trying to capture portrait-worthy photos: I wondered how they managed to get such wonderful lighting, combining the best of indirect and direct lighting. Here’s the secret: It was taken in the car!

Of course! Nice indirect light coming in from all sides eliminate deep shadows that hide details in sunlit photos. But the light is strongest from the window near Allie, so there is enough directional light to create highlights and shadows to create depth– the kind of 3-D shading that camera flash totally obliterates. What a lovely find!

I now recommend this trick to folks who are having a hard time taking well-lit photos without using the flash. Thanks for this bully new strategy, Allie!

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…

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