Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

Escape from the Night

This is how I defer cleaning my apartment for the coming inspection. The year of this story was 1997.  A small coastal town north of Mendocino, Calif. called Fort Bragg.

 Rooftops behind my Apartment

Rooftops behind my Apartment

With an oblique view from my bedroom window overlooking the parking lot behind Paul Bunyan’s thrift store, I stood just out of sight, watching the parade of night people coming and going. Some came to drop off donations; many came to pilfer. A sense of desperation and greed and wrong-doing pervaded the scene with people scurrying about in the dark under cover of dark clothing and hoodies. They didn’t want to be seen. They didn’t want to be recognized.

The thrift store provided employment and financial support for developmentally challenged and disabled people. After a night of thievery, it’s a wonder the worker volunteers find anything left in the morning that is worth selling. But the night people didn’t care that it was a community nonprofit organization created to help people, even those people who were stealing from the organization. For them it was a first-come first-serve help-themselves-buffet-of-goodies game. It was free and up for grabs, and that’s what counted.

People used the parking lot to dump their trash to avoid paying their own refuse fees.

After a night of pilfering and damage, the thrift store had to pay to clean up the area. They had to pay to haul damaged goods to the refuse site. As a consequence, they had few good donations left to sell for profit. All in all, it cost them precious monies used to help community people.

Every night, one by one, all through the night, people crept into the parking lot searching for the better donations—clothing, children’s clothes and toys, stuffed animals, a large stuffed purple Barney, electronic equipment, furniture, bicycles, exercise equipment, televisions, bed frames and old mattresses, and even stoves and refrigerators.

Dressed in big coats with hoods and carrying tiny flashlights, they scurried around in the dark. They tossed items from one spot to another, good items to good piles and the rest, just tossed. When they were all done it looked like a tornado had ripped through the parking lot – the concrete floor littered with junk, clothing, old toys, everything now dirty, wet from rain, or broken and unusable. Worthless. Profits for the thrift store transformed into scattered bits and pieces.

Some people tossed their own garbage in the bin behind the building. PB’s eventually put a lock on their dumpster, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. It only served to intrigue. The first night, two wily hooded gentlemen hammered for an hour to break the lock. Perhaps in their minds the padlock meant the bin was full of jewels. When they got it open, I heard them say, Shit, it’s nothing but garbage!

From my bedroom window every night, I spied a one-legged man waiting across the alley behind my apartment in his black Volvo with its darkened windows. When a person dropped off a donation, he moved his car the short ride from one parking lot to the other, got out, hopped on one leg around to the trunk, pulled out a wheel chair in which he sat and wheeled around while rummaging through the piles and boxes of donations. He found and took all the electronic equipment – radios, cassette players, TVs, stereos – and stuffed it all in the trunk of his Volvo, stuffed his wheel chair behind the front seat, and hopped back into the driver’s seat. He drove back to the other parking lot to wait again, waiting, night after night after night, sitting like a spider on the edge of his web ready to catch the next fly that flew into his sticky trap.

At the time I assumed he had an electronics repair business and was gathering material from the donations, making an illicit profit from items that might well have brought money to the organization. It dawns on me only now as I write this that maybe his purpose was altruistic, to collect the valuable equipment, clean it up and repair it for Paul Bunyan’s so they could sell it for a tidy profit. Maybe, just maybe he was a good spider, if there is such a critter!

Awakened bright and early one morning by a loud screeching sound, I got up to see a young man dragging a refrigerator down the alley. He was alone. All he could do was drag it, the metal scraping and screeching in protest. Someone called the police. They came, talked to the man, and left. They may have called the director of Paul Bunyan’s and received permission to help the guy move the refrigerator, for very soon they returned with a dolly and a truck. They loaded the fridge and the young man into the truck and took off. I thought it was the most kind and generous act of compassion I saw on that alley the whole two years I lived there. Kind to him, and kind to my ears and my night’s sleep. And the benefit to Paul Bunyan? They didn’t have to haul it to the dump or worry about little kids getting trapped inside an abandoned fridge.

Just in that moment’s musing of the good things we humans do for each other, a man teetered in a drunken stupor into my vision and urinated on a wall below my window. Damn! Why doesn’t he just go home to pee? Or find a gas station? He may have been homeless, or more likely, too drunk to know he had a home. At that time I wasn’t feeling too compassionate. Just don’t pee on my building! Oh, the indignation.

The alley was a convenient place for all kinds of odd and nefarious human and animal activities. It was dark and hidden, not patrolled by the cops, a no-man’s land on the baby-scale of no-man’s lands. And, as always looking for cheap rentals, I had landed in the middle of it.

I had moved to Fort Bragg on the California coast to find peace and quiet after my mother died. After having lived in hot valley towns like Chico, where it was often over 110 degrees in the summer,  and San Jose for eight years while I was a student, I longed for cool light and the majesty and power of the ocean. I wanted to paint the ocean and beaches and bridges in all their grandeur.

I soon discovered I had rented an apartment smack-dab in the middle of the movie Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef. Although Fort Bragg was not a city prison as was New York in the movie, the events of the movie take place in the future and that future was 1997, exactly the year I had moved to Fort Bragg and discovered my nightmare neighborhood.

In the movie, the prisoner scavengers and rival gangs scurried about like rats during the day in the sewers and subways, living underground in the great maze of New York’s underbelly that WW III had left almost in tact. By night, they were above, out in full force, lawless, pillaging, killing, raping and torturing. It was a raging battle for survival and political power among the inmates. They controlled the night.

Like in the movie, the Fort Bragg night people came alive under the shroud of darkness and their hoodies, while I stood at my window watching it unfold, the light of flashlights flickering on the dark screen in the dark places of my mind. During the day, I looked out that same window, gazing over the rooftops into the distance to the ocean’s white light, the glare almost too much to bear as it returned me to sanity.

I must leave this place, I remember thinking.

Bridge Bones (1)

The act of imagination is the opening of the system so that it shows new connections. Every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike. (Jacob Bronowski)


Bridge Bones, Acrylic on Canvas, 30×40

I like the above quote and believe it applies to much of my work. I look for connections, not while I am painting, but after, when I am sitting and looking and wondering what it’s all about. Why is this painting important to me? Why did I want to paint it? And should it matter to the viewer, or just to me?

Okay, I have to admit it. Man-made constructions set against a natural environments fascinate me. In my mind, what we build isn’t always ugly, and it isn’t necessarily unnatural, for after all we humans are a part of a natural system. We are alive. We live the natural world all around us.

I enjoy juxtaposing the natural with the man-made in my paintings. I find the contrast exciting, even though I don’t always like what we do to our landscape and not all buildings are beautiful, not all changes, natural or man-made, in our landscape are beautiful, but the two things work in conjunction with each other, creating a foil for composition and concept. The contrast of man-made and natural environments provides a built-in subtext to my landscape painting—it is more than just a landscape.  I admit, this is a subjective view.

Bridge Bones is a painting of a small part of the Siuslaw River Bridge overhead structure (in Florence, Oregon). It is a span from one arch to the other of crisscrossed beams that create triangle and parallelogram shapes, allowing the sky to fall through. Structure is important because it holds the bridge up, and in that sense this painting reminds me of a spine, the part that gives it strength to survive since its completion in 1936. Seventy-eight years and more to come, most likely. More than I will ever see. Born ten years later than the completion date for this bridge, I am now sixty-eight years old, and though my spine has crumpled and hunched a bit, I am still held upright by it. It gives me the strength to move around on my feet, to bend over and pick up items that I’ve dropped on the floor in my new-found clumsiness since my chemo treatments. Items like spoons, forks, paint brushes, pots and pans and really big sharp knives just seem to fly out of my hands these days. Considering all that danger of sharp things flying around, not of my purposeful volition, the bridge will certainly outlive me!

Besides holding us up and giving us physical strength, the spine is also a metaphor for emotional and mental strength. I learned during my cancer experience that I am emotionally strong. And I had a great support structure of friends which gave me more strength. They had my back the whole time. I had spine.

I also like that once I am crossing a bridge, I see more. I see more of the beauty I may not see behind the roadside trees and mountainsides, and behind the buildings. A new world opens up, like when you are traveling by train or boat, suddenly great vistas are open to you. Riverbanks reveal pastures,  farm lands spotted with sheep, cattle, horses, barns and fences, and urban interiors. Mountains divide and open up their deep canyons and rivers. Mountains you’ve never seen, appear before your eyes. Have you ever walked or driven across a bridge and expressed awe at the sight of a magnificent view suddenly opened up? First there is light, then the sea and crashing waves on one side, then steep gullies and canyons, reaching deep to the river beds. I’ve seen it. And there’s no better experience that brings a reverence for our natural world than crossing that bridge, being one with that bridge, and feeling as if there are no boundaries between me and the rest of the world.

Looking through the railings, posts and beams of a bridge defines humankind and nature in a whole new perspective. We are not opposed. We are nature, and in that sense, we are beaver builders, bees building beehives and spiders spinning webs. What we build is just as much a part of nature as that which the wild creatures build. (Maybe that’s why spiders, shiver, haunt me so often!)

The simplicity of it for me is that I enjoy the geometric designs and patterns of bridge structures. Set against the backdrop of a clear dome of blue sky, or shroud of dense fog, or floating cumulus clouds high above, or distant muted rocky mountainsides, or crashing ocean waves, the bridge bones make my experience more intense. It’s the bridge juxtaposed with the natural. You can’t have one without the other.

Roadtrees Evolution


Out of the corner of my eye one afternoon as I was driving north on 101 from Coos Bay I saw Road Trees. I imagined the focus to be on the trees, and not have a definite background subject for this painting. Road trees are those trees left along the road by the clear-cutters. I understand it was an environmental conciliatory effort on the part of the logging company – trees left standing to hide the devastation. It doesn’t work. The devastation remains evident.

I enjoy the dark and light juxtaposition of the dark shore pines against the light alders, and the background light. Small marks in the background give the feeling of logging detritus afloat in the slight wind created by cars and trucks zipping past the road trees…dust, twigs, leaves jumping with afterglow of the setting sun.

I worked this idea into a painting back in 2008. I was living in a small damp and drafty trailer, but I managed to find room for my easel and a big 36 x 36 stretched canvas. I painted this image in 2 or 3 versions, and was still dissatisfied with it. I now think I was bereft of confidence in my abilities, style, and image concept. I was afraid. I never showed it to anybody. I covered it with white gesso on which I painted two successive images, neither of which met with my approval, probably due to the same fear of failure and the same lack of confidence in my work.

Recently, as I looked through digital files of my work, I saw those old images of paintings that no longer existed. Wow! Fortunately,  being savvy enough about something, I took photos of them as I worked. At this time I liked their digital reproductions and couldn’t believe I had destroyed these paintings. In my estimation now, they were not bad compositions, not bad paintings. Neither were they perfect, but different enough that they might have stirred up some action, maybe good, maybe not so good. Many times, after the fact, my feelings for the paintings surprise me. I ask myself, did I do that? Wow.  And to hear people say they like them when I was sure they would not be received well is a surprising and pleasant experience.

I am now trying to repaint these ideas. Road Trees is the first. I am making a concerted effort to not paint over it. I will show it. I will wear it a year or so and if nothing happens I’ll use the canvas for another project!

The following images are examples of these unsuccessful past paintings. They were done in oil.


Early Pen & Ink sketch for RoadTrees


The First Roadtrees


The Second RoadTrees

The second image was a continuation of the first after I decided the first wasn’t good enough. When I look at the first painting now, I enjoy its simplicity and color. Sad to say, I think the composition was a bit bold for me at the time. I also fell in love with the continuation of that painting in its second image. I wanted to recreate it.

Before the road trees, on the same canvas were the following paintings:


Spider Mum

I didn’t know the name of the plant I had painted: It looked too much like a spider for me. With my spider phobia, I just couldn’t let it hang around. I painted over it with gesso. Much to my chagrin, I later learned that this plant was a Spider Mum. I wanted to kick myself in the butt for destroying this work. I really liked this painting but it was soon painted over with the blue image below. Oh well…onward and downward….

subject two

Abstract twigs on blue sky; film simulation

I can’t remember what triggered this painting except that I wanted to have a simulation of film tape going across the bottom and top so I could do a horizontal image in on a square canvas. Yeah, I know…but hey, I didn’t have enough spare change to buy new canvases!

after the storm_blog

After the Storm, Before the Next (Horizontal bars remain from the previous painting.)

The last painting I did on this same canvas had reincarnated through four generations due to my fear and ignorance. It turned out to be the one I saved and the one that sold immediately at a show. It is now hanging in a friend’s house. Every time I see it, I can’t believe I pulled that one out with my brush! All that torture paid off.

I kept the horizontal bars of the previous incarnation and used the horizontal format to recreate a scene I witnessed one winter morning just as the sun rose low in the eastern sky. A flock of Seagulls were circling en mass above the beach for miles looking for bits and pieces of food washed up on the beach during the storm. As the sun rose, light caught the birds wings causing them to flicker and sparkle like god had thrown a handful of glitter into the air above the ocean. It was magical. I failed to catch that magic in the painting, but I realized later that I had done something magical with the composition by leaving the horizontal film strips top and bottom. They created a border and for some reason with a few of the birds flying towards the viewer, towards that edge, it creates an optical illusion as if the birds are going to fly right off the canvas, right through the screen. Like a 3-D movie.

The moral of this story is: don’t paint over your paintings until you have lived with them a while and/or shown them at least once to someone, anyone! Oh, and finally, TRUST YOUR JUDGEMENT. I know… it’s hard!



© Roadtrees, Acrylic on Canvas 36×36,  Susan Canavarro

Road trees I saw out of the corner of my eye one afternoon as I was driving north on 101 from Coos Bay. I wanted the focus to be on the trees, and not have a definite background subject for this painting. Road trees are those trees left along the road by the clear-cutters. I understand it was an environmental conciliatory effort on the part of the logging company – trees left standing to hide the devastation. It doesn’t work. The devastation remains evident.

I do enjoy the dark and light juxtaposition of the dark shore pines against the light alders, and the background light. Small marks in the background give the feeling of logging detritus afloat in the slight wind created by cars and trucks zipping past the road trees…dust, twigs, leaves jumping with afterglow of the setting sun.

Bodega Bay Buildings

Bodega Buildings on the edge of Bodega Bay tidal flats. I painted this back in 1988. Recently, I found an ancient slide in my archives. Unbelievable!  Scanned it.  I wouldn’t take a magnifying glass to the image – probably covered in dirt specks from the old slide!

This is one of my favorite paintings from those days. My little sister Wendy bought it when I had a show at my step-sister Bobbie’s family gallery in Duncans Mills – a gallery started in 1988 which she still owns after all these years. Amazing that it has survived and stayed open since then, all due to Bobbi’s efforts to keep it going, arranging, hanging and hosting shows for local Sonoma County artists, throwing receptions and musical events.  She always managed to come up with new ideas each year to keep it interesting.

There is a review of that show buried in my pages on my website

1988 was the year I moved to Chico to go back to college as a reentry student. Five years later I earned my BFA in painting. When I graduated I was a different person.

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