Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

The Defiant One teaches me about courage
The Defiant One (aka. NASCAR Blondie)

The Defiant One (aka. NASCAR Blondie) #1

I found this quote on the morning after I had made changes to my painting The Defiant One for all the wrong reasons. It seems all too appropriate for a discussion I was having the day before with a friend about the importance or lack of importance concerning perfect drafting skills. I said I didn’t care about drawing correctly, that I thought the character of the drawing was more important. I don’t look for drawing errors when I look at art.  I look at the whole composition and how it works together. And I believe character is key. It is that which expresses the unique feeling whether one draws the cat correctly or not, and that expression of feeling is most important. It is character that turns it into a painting and not a photograph.
On Painter’s Keys the next morning:

​Limitations are an access point for focus, discipline, resourcefulness and the development of voice.

They’re clues to uniqueness and form-style and point of view — requirements of all works of art to communicate and connect. “In abandoning the vagueness of the sketch,” wrote Eugene Delacroix, “the artist shows more of his personality by revealing the range but also the limitations of his talent.” We fear our limitations will define us, yet they’re the hurdles necessary for refinement and courage. They’re the builders of character, and paintings need character. “The greatest progress in life,” said Yogi Bhajan, “is when you know your limitations, and then you have the courage to drop them.” ​

The night before, Blondie’s ears haunted me. I couldn’t sleep. I had already made many small corrections to this painting, but suddenly when I was looking at its enlarged version on my laptop, I saw that the ears were way too large for her head. I had drawn them incorrectly. They were too tall and too pointy. They looked like bobcat ears. Perhaps the devil’s ears. BUT they contributed to the character of her stance. She was excited, riled up, the hair on her rump standing up in anticipation. Blondie waited for her mom to do something, perhaps something Blondie didn’t want to do, and her fierce alert and defiant pose said so.  Okay Mom, take the darn picture, let’s get this over with, okay! I’ve got mice to play with.
Shamefully,  last night I decided to redraw and repaint Blondie’s large pointy ears that gave this painting so much unique character. Truth be told, I was afraid of failure. I’ve never been able to draw with ease. Always a struggle. And I didn’t want anyone pointing out that I was bad at drawing! I lacked the courage to believe in my work. This lack of courage rears its ugly head a lot with me.
Oh woe is me…what’s a gal to do?
I learned a valuable lesson last night, two lessons.
  • One, I am a hypocrite, I say one thing and do another. BAD. I don’t care about the drawing, yet I feel a deep need to make mine look right. What?
  • Two, I learned from the above quote that it is okay make mistakes because the errors work with the whole picture to create character and emotion and draw people in to experience something powerful —whether you as artist recognize it or not—an experience of connection and a wonderment. Oh look how those ears stand up so tall and pointy and don’t they add to the mood of that cat’s stance!
If courage and wisdom had not escaped me, I would have left the ears alone.
Here’s the altered ears. Smaller, shaped better, and more proportionate to her head.

The Defiant One with new ears #2 CORRECTED

They added very little to the total emotion of her stance. So I made the new ears appear more pointy by limning the edges and tips of the ears with white light. Now some of the pointy character is back, but they are not as big. Not as fierce!

​Next time I hope I will be able to control my urges to make it perfect. I claim to not care, but I lack the courage to live with my failures if I cannot do it. I’ve got to let go of that. I’ve got to let go of the idea that my bad drawing means failure—not only in my painting of cats, but also in my landscapes and papiér maché cats. It is, rather, about character and emotion.

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!

The Other Day…
January 12, 2013, 9:42 AM
Filed under: art, Confessions, Paintings -Inspiration, Paintings-stories | Tags:


Back in the days when I was an undergraduate studying art at Chico State University I did a series of three mixed media paintings on paper that I called “The Other Day…”  I used watercolor and gesso and some kind of resist, which, at the moment,  my memory resists bringing to the forefront.  I developed the concept for these paintings in a watercolor class taught by my favorite instructor, Ann Pierce.

One semester her class, usually full of  female students, included two young guys. Working close enough to their table to hear them talking among themselves, I overheard one guy say to the other, “You know, if there weren’t guys like us, there wouldn’t be guys like us.”

I laughed out loud. I immediately thought, Now isn’t that just like a guy! An ego as powerful as God’s peeking through and taking responsibility for the whole damn (male) human race. No matter the woman’s role! A couple of guys thinking they were god’s gift to humanity. And yet I thought, Yes of course! It’s so true. We couldn’t have men like them, and women like me, if man had not come together with woman to procreate. And only a man would have enough hubris to think he was the only source of that creation!

The content of this series is the absurdity of their statement and yet the absolute truth of it.  I was clearly dumbfounded by their conversation and couldn’t resist using their words in my painting process, so I incorporated some of the text in each painting. The meaning of these works is not obvious, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew the story. I enjoy the contrast of visible text in artwork as part of the design and surface texture, whether or not it is legible or the meaning of it is clearly understood. 

A few weeks ago I began rereading, again, one of my favorite books, Art & Physics, Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, by Leonard Shlain (1991)In it he explores the idea that much of art, particularly visual arts, down through the ages explores and/or reveals many of the basic  ideas subsequently discovered in the science of physics.  According to Shlain, there is a binary or complimentary relationship between art and physics, such as with Mind and Universe. Art is subjective and physics has not been, at least until the 20th century.


I write this because, in the very first chapter Shlain quoted something from the Talmud that struck a chord with me and added a whole new dimension to the series I call “The other day…” as seen above, although I didn’t read Shlain’s book until after I did these three paintings in 1991-1992.  It was one of those Ah Ha moments for me.

Shlain writes, “According to John Wheeler, (student of Niels Bohr) Mind and Universe are inextricably integrated. The Talmud expresses this subtle relationship in an apocryphal story of a dialogue between God and Abraham. God begins by chiding Abraham, ‘If it wasn’t for Me, you wouldn’t exist.’ And after a moment of thoughtful reflection, Abraham respectfully replies, ‘Yes, Lord, and for that I am very appreciative and grateful. However, if it wasn’t for me, You wouldn’t be known.’ 

You’re probably familiar with the adage, “Behind every great man there is a great woman”? Or in other words, there is a woman who makes his achievements possible, who makes him known, who provides the egg without which his sperm cannot become a guy like himself. And don’t most women feel powerful in achieving this incredible feat?

It’s All Black and White

The Senator's Stairs, Collograph print

 In 1992, I was fortunate to be in a printmaking class where my teacher, Marion Epting, Professor of Art at California State University, Chico, encouraged me to experiment with black and white print images. With his encouragement to do as I pleased with the Intaglio (etching) plate, I discovered an appreciation for the spontaneity of monotypes and collographs and the inherent simplicity and unity of a black and white image. After I graduated, I continued with the black and white image making I had enjoyed while making prints, but instead, painted with black and white Gesso directly on printmaking paper.

The complexity of value changes in the interaction of black ink on white paper left so much to the imagination of the viewer, yet at the same time, because of its association with newspaper photographic images, black and white could carry the weight: the importance and truth of reality. It connotes a documentation of real life.  Somebody once told me that photographs always tell the truth, but the truth is they don’t. From the beginning the photographer’s eye and mental process influences his/her process and product, just like painting a painting. The “manipulation” used to happen in a dark photo lab developing process with chemical solutions and expensive photo equipment, but today it happens in the camera with the artist’s ideas and touch, and on one’s home computer.

New Monterey Pines, CA - Painting

In the sense of black and white photos, my black and white Gesso landscapes of the Fort Bragg and  Monterey Bay area document a local landscape as seen through my eyes and influenced by my moods and skills. I manipulated my images. They are not truth.  They are illusions. They give a glimpse of a truth within me. I like the confluence of truth and illusion signified by the black and white in these paintings.

Guided by my penchant for simplicity and aversion to detail, I honed a landscape out of black and white Gesso and tried to express the image that first caught my eye, focusing on light and dark shapes, patterns, and large simple flat shapes juxtaposed against a sense of distance and atmosphere. I enjoyed the inherent contradiction of push/pull created by the flat shapes against deep space.

Black and white Gesso satisfied my need for simplicity: it was easy to manipulate and was transparent or opaque depending on how I applied it. It still entices me away from color. I use it on paper or canvas.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur, CA painting
Collograph print, Lighted Doorway

The DogWalk (a.k.a. The Dogs of Florence)


The DogWalk  (a.k.a. The Dogs of Florence)
© 2006-2012 Susan Canavarro. All Rights Reserved.

  • Weeeeee, this is more fun than riding in a car, Max!
  • No, Monty, it is not fun and you know it.
  • It is too. It’s fun, isn’t it Dox?
  • You can be sure it’ll be even more fun when the wind comes up, Monty.
  • Oh, boy! Can’t wait! His rump and tail wagging like crazy.
  • Dog, if you don’t watch out you’re gonna wag yourself right off the edge. Now stop it!
  • Geez, every gall dern Tuesday we gotta take this darn dog walk. What’s it all about Max?
  • Challenge, Kiddo. It’s about challenge. Like when we try to eat snowflakes or when we try to follow the cat Scrwuffy up a tree.
  • But still…every week?
  • Yup. You gotta challenge yourself, Monty, fill up your dog years with learning and insight and adventure. Besides, every Tuesday is Dog Show Day across the river. We may live in a small town, Kiddo, but we still gotta keep up with other dogs, how they’re grooming, what commands they’re paying attention to, what they’re eating, how well they’re running, you know, that kind of stuff.
  • Gosh, Max, lighten up, will ya? This is simply an adventure. All it is. Nothing more. Sky is blue. Gorgeous day. Stop trying to turn it into something educational, for cat’s sake. It’s a heck of a lot easier today in the sunshine than it was last week in the wind and rain. So lighten up!
  • Who said that? Pipsqueak?
  • Yeah. What of it? Don’t be such a sour-puss, Max.
  • Hey, Did you just call me a puss? I aint no puss. And I sure as heck aint no sour-puss. I’m pure hound. Pure bloody hound dog is what I am. Everybody stop! Shut up!
  • Why? What is it?
  • What’s wrong Max?
  • What happened?
  • I think I see a bird, Monty.
  • A bird?
  • Oh for goodness sakes. Not again with the blue bird thing, Max?
  • Yeah, a blue bird.
  • A blue bird?
  • Geez, Monty, would you stop repeating everything I say.
  • Repeating?
  • Yeah, REPEATING!
  • Be careful Max. Remember what happened the last time you thought you saw a bird?
  • Shut up! Will ya?
  • But Max, the last time you thought you saw a bird it turned out to be a porcupine with long sharp quills. You got your nose all stuck up, remember? And your tail bit off.
  • Grrrrr.
  • Hey?
  • Yeah, Monty?
  • Does this bridge structure remind you of anything?
  • Hunger. It reminds me that I’m hungry.
  • Hey, Max?
  • Yeah, Dox?
  • Do you think they’ll be serving dinosaur bones and fish hors d’oeuvres at the dog show?
  • Most likely, Dox, and escargot.
  • Yea! Let’s car go!
  • No, Monty, we’re on a dog walk, remember? You’re such a silly cat!
  • I am not.
  • You are too, just a plain silly cat.
  • I’m not a cat. I’m a dog! And I’m not silly. Hey look, Max, I can turn around up here! Uh oh. Oops! Maaaaaaax! Dog overboard! Dog overboooaaaaard! Maaaaaaax?
  • Oh MONTY! A belly flop?
  • Paddle, Monty, paddle. You’re really close to the other side. You can make it. Just move your paws like crazy and keep your head above water. We’ll meet you over there.
  • The dogs of Florence ran over the bridge beam and skidded down to the water’s edge on the other side.
  • Come on, Monty. You can make it!
  • Yea! Monty!
  • Monty climbed up the bank, sloppy with water-soaked fur. He shook himself in a ripple dance from head to tail. Water flew everywhere.
  • Hey, cut that out. You’re getting me all wet.
  • Boy, Max, that was sooooo much fun!
  • For cat’s sake, you are incorrigible.
  • What’s corrigible, Max?
  • The word is incorrigible, Monty. And you are.
  • Come on Dox, let’s go for another dive.
  • No way, Monty. Not me. Let’s get outta here, Max. I’m starved.

This fence belonged to the motel where I stayed one week when I came back to Fort Bragg for a painting vacation. The Beachcomber Motel located on the bluffs at the mouth of Pudding Creek River overlooked the river and beach, the rocks and ocean, the trestle bridge, and the foggy trees on the bluffs that I painted so many times. The motel was also adjacent to the walking and bicycling path that ran for seven miles up the coast starting at the old railroad trestle that crossed over Pudding Creek. The path followed the railroad tracks that had been ripped out years before.
Standing there on this morning, on this side of the fence, looking between the fence boards, I saw the mouth of the river and the beach. I watched the river shimmering its way around the sandbar. A misty white-light haze hovered over the distant bluffs. A few rooftops of houses and buildings on the bluff shimmered here and there. The dark fence, a perfect foil, set off the magnificence of the light on the bluffs and houses. 
I liked the idea of looking over the jagged top of the fence and seeing a sliver of bluffs and buildings emerge from the white mist. The focus of this painting is ambiguous. You don’t really know whether to look at the fence or at the distant bluffs. I liked the push/pull effect of this ambiguity and the contrasting edge created by the dark fence against the light of the bluffs: the man-made structure juxtaposed against nature, one enhancing the other. That’s what caught my eye and inspired me to paint it.

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