My Suburban Life: The Book

I am thrilled to announce that my new book, My Suburban Life: A Year in Words and Pictures, is now available for sale at the Blurb online bookstore! The book includes edited text from the entire year of blog posts chronicling my collage-a-week project, including the final Reflections essay, as well as professionally photographed, high quality images of all fifty-two collages. Sketches, drawings, and images of my process are also shared. The book is printed on gorgeous premium paper with a lustre finish that highlights the rich colors and textures of the artwork. It has a hardcover and dust jacket, presented in a large 13″ x 11″ landscape format, perfect for your coffee table!

Many thanks to my father-in-law, Deak Wooten, who designed the beautiful page layouts and took me through the process of converting a blog into a book. Thanks Papa!

MSL Book Cover

Interested? Please click here to preview the book and purchase your copy!

Week 52: Endings and Beginnings

I have reached the end of this journey, and my 52nd collage is complete. For this final work in the series, I decided to pull together some of my favorite imagery from throughout the year, and create an essential distillation of My Suburban Life. This is my place and the things that I treasure. There is the map of the neighborhood, and images of the surrounding landscape where we live. I included the dogwoods, the rose bushes, and the pear tree in the front yard where the mockingbirds sing. The wild geese fly overhead, while seedlings sprout in the garden. There are themes of growth and flight, both appropriate metaphors for the work of the past year. My husband and son walk close by while I lean over my drawing board, secure in my place in the world, my love of creating, and my commitment to my work. This is a very different feeling from when I began the project, with that strange ambivalence and unease of living in the ‘burbs. Now things are different. I have not only made peace with my suburbia, I have made it my own. My identity as an artist is not defined by where I live, but how I live a creative life.

The Lego Spaceship was featured in the very first collage, and makes a final appearance here as well. This was from a small drawing that I made back in January 2012, when I first began the project, and had saved to use in a future work. Ever since my son Max flew his Lego Spaceship into my studio last January, it became a symbol of Art meeting Life. The spaceship hovers above the earth in the realm of the imagination, while simultaneously being a tangible domestic object, embedded in the material world. This magical child-like ability to bridge the gap between imagination and reality became my inspiration. My previous body of work had conspicuously avoided the realities of everyday life, preferring the escapism of imaginary lands. One year ago I asked new questions: Can I come down from my Ivory Tower and welcome the Lego Spaceship into my creative domain? Can I take the stuff of everyday life and transform it into art? Can I move freely between those two realms, with an openness and receptivity to both my own imagination and the intricate details of My Suburban Life? These questions led me to a place of greater awareness and compassion towards myself and my world, while continuing to challenge me to strive towards my best, most authentic work.

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

Week 38: Holly’s Escape

Our corner of suburbia is perched on a high hill overlooking woods, farmland, grassy expanses, and a distant sliver of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On my daily walk with our dog, Holly, we enjoy this view from the safe confines of our quiet cul-de-sacs and “no-thru” streets. Despite the fact that we are only five minutes away from Target, Wal-Mart, and Lowes, the drive home might leave one with a pleasant, if perhaps fleeting, feeling of a pastoral escape. The half mile section of country road that connects our neighborhood to the main highway may present a deer crossing, a glimpse of the Rivanna River through the woods, or an open field with a pond. I experience these things from inside a moving car, and depending on the day, they may quickly bounce off my consciousness like a commercial on the television, or slowly seep in like a long, beautiful poem.

One day the front door was left ajar as children ran in and out of the house, and Holly escaped. This is normally no cause for alarm. She will sprint a few laps around the adjacent yards, then come running back to me as soon as I can say, “Come get your treat!” But on this day, Holly had bigger plans. Maybe it was the band of six little boys chasing her down the street and over the hill. Or maybe she just kept running and running and it felt so good she didn’t want to stop. She ran past the last house on the cul-de-sac, through their big back yard, all the way down the high hill to the road, crossed a treacherous stretch of traffic, scooted under a fence, and burst onto the open field and out to the pond. Our boy ran home crying to me, “Holly crossed the big road!” In a moment of panic, my husband and I grabbed the leash, jumped into the car, and drove down the hill, crossed the road, and pulled up along the fence in front of the field. There she was, sniffing around the pond, happy and free.  I was so glad to see her alive, I forgot how mad I was. Part of me even envied her a bit… what was it like to run beyond the familiar boundaries of your world, and feel the exhilaration of escape?

Holly’s Escape, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Holly sleeping

Detail, Map of the Suburbs

Detail, Holly’s Escape

Detail, Holly’s Escape

Week 34: Flashlight Tag

Flashlight tag is one of the great joys of summer for the neighborhood kids. Just last weekend, my son hosted a sleep-over with six of his buddies. As soon as the sun went down, flashlight tag was the game of choice! This week I had fun creating a collage that aims to capture the thrill of being a kid let loose on a warm summer evening, sneaking around in the dark, running and hiding, laughing and hollering. The result has a bit of a madcap Scooby-Doo-mystery vibe that I find very amusing.

Flashlight Tag, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Detail, Flashlight Tag

Week 27: Balloon Landing

Panel with under-painting of the balloon.

In this week’s collage I tried to capture the odd occurrence of a hot air balloon landing in our neighborhood. This was an actual real life event, although the collage depicts an imaginative version of it. The balloon landing has become a part of my own personal mythology, serving as some sort of proof that strange, wonderful, and even magical happenings can enter our reality.  The balloon holds all of my dreams, and I know that it is real, even when it is drifting high above and out of reach.

Paper elements ready for collaging.

I decorated the balloon with collaged paper torn from patterns that I designed in Illustrator, as well as leftover motifs from previous collages. Many of the digital patterns are based on scanned drawings that were originally created for my collage projects, so there is a closed loop of recycled and adapted imagery that propels both my fine art and design work. Using elements from my patterns seemed appropriate, as so many of my dreams right now are wound up in launching my fabric designs. As the balloon makes its descent, the little houses look on with varying expressions of shock and delight. The balloon is landing!

Hot Air Balloon, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Week 26: Made in the Shade

Drawing with ink, oil pastel, and charcoal

Seeking relief from the 100 degree temperatures outside, I made a collage this week about shady places around the yard.  Our sun-soaked patio is hot enough to burn your feet, but there are small pools of shade to be found beneath the trees and tall shrubs. The arching stems of the red twigged dogwoods create a shady cave-like retreat, where we discovered a turtle had taken up residence. My aim was to contrast these areas of light and shadow and capture the sense of place of our backyard in the heat of the summer.

Detail of foliage: pencil, charcoal, and india inks

I decided to shake up my process a bit this week and experiment with some different materials. I embellished my usual ink pen drawings with colored india inks as well as oil pastels. I allowed the drawings to remain open, loose and sketchier than usual, just right for a lazy summer afternoon. I also worked out the shady shrubbery with pencil and charcoal, adding watered-down india inks on top for color. I enjoyed the broader strokes and messier outcome of the charcoal drawings, which seemed to work well for this type of subject matter.

Placing torn charcoal and ink drawings onto the panel

Next I tore out sections of the drawings and began placing them on the 12 x 12 panel, which had been prepared with a background of acrylic paints. As I built the collage, additional layers of paper and paint were added, including tiny portraits of my dog Holly and the turtle. The perspective changes across the panel from a bird’s-eye view at the top, to a more intimate view inside the turtle home at the bottom. The final piece depicts our small corner of the world, in the hot sun and the cool shade.

Made in the Shade, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sun-drenched Patio

Detail, Holly rests in the shade of the maple tree.

Detail, foliage

Detail, Turtle

Week 23: The Anniversary Collage

This collage is in celebration of our 11th Wedding Anniversary. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull imagery from many of the previous collages to create a montage of our journey together in life. I used motifs from our garden, home and neighborhood, but also added references from our travels and other important life passages. It is a difficult task to create a visual summary of eleven years of marriage! So rather than being too concerned with hitting every highlight, I allowed a free-association of favorite memories. The sprouts and garden imagery suggest the idea of personal growth and the beautiful rewards of a carefully tended relationship.  I wanted to explore the idea of ‘home’ as being not just one defined place, but an evolving experience that may find its physical reality in our own backyard, or in faraway lands. Home is not a place, but how we feel when we are together, and connected to our most authentic selves. Here is the finished collage, followed by favorite details.

The Anniversary Collage, 12 x 12, acrylic collage

Detail of The Boat, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Garden at Home, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Hawaii, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of Max’s Lego Spaceship, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of an adventure in Spain, The Anniversary Collage

Detail of the Big City, The Anniversary Collage

Pets

A good sniffing spot

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

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

Nesting

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

Empty Robin’s Nest

Empty Robin’s Nest

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

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

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

Backyard Nest for Humans

Sketchbook page with nests

Birds

Neighborhood resident perched in a tree

There are layers of secret sub-cultures in our neighborhood that will reveal themselves to the patient observer. Deer roam the forests behind our houses and sneak up into our yards at night to nibble the shrubs and flowers. A red fox flashes across the ravine at the edge of the woods. Squirrels chatter away, chasing each other through the tree tops and then disappear into a small round hole in an old birch tree. Worms and slugs do what they do in the low-down unseen realms of grasses, mulch and mud. Whole societies coexist side by side on every block, as we come and go, largely oblivious.

Hatched Robin’s egg found on the ground.

And then there are the birds! They are harder to miss. If only I could know all their secrets. I have been listening to their songs and observing them closely this Spring. I found a tiny blue egg-shell on the ground, discarded by its inhabitant, hopefully in birth and not death. (My cat, Olivia, slinks under the rose bush, avoiding my eye.) After I found the egg, I began noticing that robins are building lots of small nests in the cherry trees along the sidewalks. One day I was lucky enough to have my camera with me when I saw a Mother Robin sitting in her nest. I snapped a quick picture before startling her into flight.  Guiltily, I stood on tiptoe, raised my camera above my head, leaned into the branches and took a blind shot of the nest from above. The photo revealed one perfect blue egg.

Mother Robin in her nest

Robin’s nest in the cherry tree, moments after Mother flew away.

“Chuh” surveys his kingdom from a rooftop.

We have a favorite grey bird that we often see around our yard, one of whom entertained us once by swooping down from the pear tree and dive bombing our menacing cat.  My son nicknamed the bird “Chuh.” Not the most charming moniker, but this is the sound that it makes, “Chuh! Chuh! Chuh!” as if furiously admonishing someone. Then, in sudden forgiveness, it breaks into more varied and lyrical cries, as if it had so much more to say. One early morning I saw Chuh perched in my neighbor’s birch tree. I crept in very close, til I was only a few feet away. He didn’t move, but began to sing. I was astounded by the variety of beautiful sounds that he could make. What does it mean? I stood very still, watching and listening for a long time, until he finished his soliloquy and flew away.

I decided I had to identify Chuh. After some online research, I discovered the fantastic website, WhatBird.com.  It has a search database that allows you to plug in different characteristics to identify your bird. It turns out that Chuh is a Northern Mockingbird. I had to laugh when the description said, “The Northern Mockingbird voraciously defends its territory, attacking intruders including house pets and even people.” So homeownership in suburbia does not preclude other creatures from making their own claims.  Look out, Olivia!

Olivia and the Mockingbird

Mockingbird Sketches