Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Sister Died on Thursday

She was a respected fine artist, a beloved wife, sister, friend, mother and grandmother, and a beautiful soul. It's been about seven years since she was diagnosed with stage 4 sarcoma, and she and her husband, who was in it with her the whole way, put up a hell of a fight.

Ordinarily I think it's tacky to drag your griefs around in public, and I wouldn't even post this, except that Liz and her daughter Kelly worked up an obituary she liked before she died and I wanted you to see it. We're putting it in various newspapers as well. It costs an arm and a leg. Did you know that? Newspaper publishing is going to finance itself on the backs of the grieving. (Yes, I'm angry that my sister is dead, as you can see, and I'll attack anything that comes within range. Newspapers, the governor... may he rot...) Anyway, here it is.

Mary Elisabeth "Liz" Donovan, renowned artist and beloved wife, mother and grandmother, died peacefully on February 24, 2011 at her home in Melbourne Beach FL after a long battle with cancer. Born in Philadelphia PA, Liz was the author of Painting Sunlit Still Lifes in Watercolor, published in 1997 by North Light Books, which has influenced a generation of still life artists. A resident of St. Michaels MD and Melbourne Beach FL, Liz moved to Ellicott City MD in the late 1960s. She began studying graphic design and fine art at the Corcoran School of Art and Maryland Institute of Art. She later studied oil painting and drawing with David Zuccarini and has taken the workshops of Don Stone, Jeanne Dobie and Alex Powers.

Liz Donovan earned the special honor of being selected as a Signature Member of the National Watercolor Society and formerly served on the Board of Governors as a Signature Member of the Baltimore Watercolor Society. As a Signature Member of the Washington Society of Landscape Painters and Plein Air Painters of the Treasure Coast, as well as many other artists' societies, Liz's work has received numerous awards in juried exhibitions. Three of her paintings have been honored with awards of distinction and featured in Rockport Publishers' volumes, The Best of Watercolor 2, Painting Texture, and Painting Light and Shadow. Her paintings are also included in Rockport Publishers' books The Best of Watercolor and Flowers in Watercolor and Quarry Publishers' Watercolor Expressions. Liz Donovan was named a finalist in competitions of The Artist's Magazine and American Artist. The April 1999 issue of American Artist magazine presented her work in an article titled "Still Lifes and Sunlight." More recently, Liz Donovan won "Best in Show" at the 2006 Local Color plein air exhibit in Easton MD.

Liz was preceded in death by her parents Herbert and Georgena Gallison. She will be greatly missed by her husband of 48 years, C. Richard "Dick" Donovan, her sister Kate (Harold) Dunn of Lambertville NJ, her children Kelly (Brian) Anderson of Santa Rosa Beach FL, Karen Donovan (Bob Aydlett) of San Francisco CA, Tim (Heidi) Donovan of South Riding VA and her adoring grandchildren Maiti and Cedric Donovan.

Private family services will be held, memories and condolences can be shared at
Memorial Donations can be made to the Sarcoma Foundation of America or the Corcoran School of Art.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brain Freeze

I woke up in the middle of the night Saturday night, or I think I did, with an idea for today's blog post. I was going to talk about adoption, a topic close to my heart. I'm starting a new book, in which one of the main characters is a grown adoptee. In the course of researching it I had a long talk with a friend who is an adult adoptee, about the problems of finding one's birth parents once one was grown up.

As I lay in bed, awake, asleep, who knows, I blocked out an interesting and cogent essay on the adoption dynamic, on how dreadful it must be to have no idea where you came from or who your people might be, or where your child has gone. I was going to call it "Where Babies Come From." That was sure to pull an audience.

In the morning the whole brilliant piece was gone, if it had ever been there. What can I say? I had taken an allergy pill before I went to bed. They usually shave a good twenty-five points off my IQ. I'm still feeling the effects. I sat down just now to write another post on the subject and came up with nothing but pompous drivel.

I can't write today. Luckily I'm not a journalist on deadline. Nobody is paying me to do this. I'm going to take a pass. Here's a picture of the cover of my next book, due out on August 16 of this year. Have a look. It's moderately entertaining. I'll be back next week when my head clears.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Birth of the Movies


Tomorrow evening at seven o'clock I'm going to the Ewing branch of the Mercer County Public Library and do my illustrated talk on the birth of the movies, where I show people how the first American moving images were produced in Thomas Edison's studio by his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, and where the movies went from there. It's quite an interesting show. Like a lot of things, cinema wasn't shaped by the intentions of the people who first put it together, but by its inherent possibilities.

Edison--no surprises there--saw his movies as a way to make money by selling Kinetoscopes, his patented peep-show devices. He was always a hardware guy.  When his people told him that the public wanted to gather in theaters and watch movies as a group, up on a screen, he was outraged. He figured the most you could sell would be one projector per city, whereas a good kinetoscope parlor offered at least ten peep-show machines, sometimes as many as twenty.

After he finally understood the potential of the nickelodeons, Edison still didn't get it; for a long time the films he made were suitable only for cigar-chomping men. You've no idea how low Edison could sink until you've seen his offering of a girl on a trapeze taking off her long black dress with its leg-o-mutton sleeves, then her petticoat, corset cover, garters, and stockings, all the while flinging these items at a pair of dirty old men in a nearby balcony. In the end she's dressed only in tights and a trapeze artist's outfit. Revolting.

And I'm going to show it at the Ewing Branch Library, yessir. Along with The Great Train Robbery, a later Edison Studios offering that was a huge hit because it appealed (finally) to everyone. And an early one-reeler from D.W, Griffith, which he made while he was still honing his craft (not that he ever stopped). Then I'm going to show the last half of C. B. DeMille's The Cheat, the half with all the sex, violence, and shameless racism. It's wonderful. Sessue Hayakawa was an exceptional actor all his life, but when he was young he was also a handsome hunk.

Drop around if you're in the neighborhood of Ewing, NJ, on Tuesday evening, or if you'll be in Robbinsville on Saturday, February 26, come to the Robbinsville Library at two in the afternoon, where I'll be doing the same show. Or get your own library to drop me a line and get me to come there and do it. I have a couple of other gigs lined up later. They're listed on my website (

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tear it Down

One of my side jobs is as a docent at the Marshall House, where I talk to the folks about the life of James Wilson Marshall, finder of the first gold in California, and about the life of the house where he grew up. The story of the house, built by James Marshall's father in 1816, is fraught with drama. It sits next to the Catholic church, which used to own the house and a whole row of little houses much like it. They're all gone now, crushed under the bulldozers of the 1960s to make a parking lot for the faithful.

The Marshall House would be gone, too, if not for the efforts of a parishioner, Mrs. Alice Narducci, heroine of the Lambertville Historical Society. It is said that she stood in front of the bulldozers and screamed at the drivers to make them leave the Marshall House alone. The church deeded the house to the state, the state leases it to the historical society, and you can come and tour it on certain festal days and any weekend afternoon in the tourist season.

When I tell this story to the visitors, many of them turn pale. How could the church be so wicked? Then I have to explain what things were like in the 1960s, since many of them weren't yet born. The PBS presentations that explain those years to the young are focused on the war, the counterculture, the civil rights movement, and all those social upheavals that pitted one group against another in this country. They don't mention the bulldozers. But people in that time, as I remember it, had no idea that anything old was good, much less irreplaceable. Look what happened to Penn Station. It's dirty! Tear it down. There's plenty more where that came from.

Nearly everybody thought that way. Nearly everybody with money sought to modernize whatever they had control of. Every now and then an Alice Narducci would pop up and fight to save a part of the past, but mostly it went down the drain. Nowadays the pendulum has swung the other way. Everything must be saved. Antiques Road Show has shown us the way. Most of of us never did know the difference between our trash and our treasure. Instead of throwing away the treasure, though, now we save all the trash. And so it goes.