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Now I am Eating my Cat!

Sunday, October 1, 2023

 I remember many, many years ago, when I was a baby illustrator, reading a piece about the New Yorker cartoonist and beloved children's book author (creator of Shrek!) William Steig, reminiscing about his first paying job. He had sold a drawing of a cat, and took himself forthwith to a café for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Maybe it was in Paris. Maybe New York. I don't remember the details. But I remember this:  He savored the moment, smiling, saying, "Now I am eating my cat!"

Steig's words were an epiphany for me; the scene I saw in my head made real the direct relationship between sold drawing to money in the pocket. Such a heady concept for someone just embarking on freelance art!  That someone would pay for art he'd created was a delicious concept for a young Steig, as it still is for me so many years later. I love getting paid for my art, writing, lectures,'s the ultimate validation for living a creative life. I think about it a lot, as the WarblerFall continues to sell briskly, 15 months after its official launch. (Now I am eating my bird fountain!) Gratitude fuels me, keeps me going.

I want to share a little story about a recent commission, a peculiar one to be sure, and the Steig moment I have every time I look at the gift I bought myself with the money I earned.

While Liam was working at a gift shop in town, he was approached by the former owner of a restaurant and wine shop where he had once worked. She knew he was an artist. Could Liam, or his mom, perhaps--wasn't she the bird artist? draw some ducks for a wine label?  The message took a little while to filter to me, but when Liam told me about the exchange, I replied, "Sure. I've done wine labels. Bring it on." 

A few days later, a mysterious email arrived with two photos of a wine label, and no message attached.

I responded, asking what this was about, and was given a number to call. Pamela's daughter had emailed the photos for her mom. I was intrigued, but I still didn't know what the job entailed. When I reached Pamela, she explained the unusual nature of this request. What she wanted was not art to be reproduced on a wine label. She wanted me to draw ducks directly ON this wine bottle. Oh. Oh! I was intrigued!

You see, Pamela's son and daughter in law had this wine, Paraduxx, served at their wedding. It's a very nice wine. And now their anniversary was coming up, and in the interim they'd had two children. Pamela wanted to mark the occasion by having someone (me) add two more ducks to the label of a bottle of Paraduxx, to make a family of four, and she wanted to present it to the couple this Friday (it was Monday).

Once I understood the nature of the job, my wheels started turning. How to make it happen? Could I draw that small?  "How many zeroes are we talking about?" Pamela asked. I burst out laughing. "Not many. Maybe two, if that. I won't really know what I'm getting into until I start the job, but I promise it won't be too expensive for you."

Truth be told, I loved the challenge of this commission. The ducks on the label are small. Tiny! Maybe no more than an inch and a half long. I'd have to draw super small. I wasn't sure my eyes and fingers would be able to do it. How could I even place the eyes? Draw the bills that small? Eek!

I went to the wine shop to pick up the bottle. The pintails were not only tiny, they were embossed. Still, I thought I could make something believable out of it.

It was September 11, and it would have been Bill's and my 30th anniversary. I hadn't done the math; I didn't mark it in any way, didn't announce it. But as I left the wine shop with the bottle to be painted, I passed Greenleaf Nursery. There was a hand-lettered sign propped out front. 


I took that as a sign. Oh, it was a sign, all right. I knew just what I was looking for. I executed a hairpin turn, parked at the left side of the lot. I was looking directly out my windshield at some red dogwood trees.
The tree I'd wanted for...forever. The first three I looked at weren't so hot. Withered leaves, no buds. No wonder they were 25% off. Maybe this wasn't going to work. An employee came out to help me and led me to another section where there was one tree that looked like just what I had in mind. The variety was "Cherokee Brave." It is supposed to be cold-hardy and have dark red flowers, fading to pink, then white. Yes. That's what I want. This tree.

                                            A Cherokee Brave dogwood in full flower. Swoon! 

It was covered in buds. BUDS! and it was tall and well-branched and strong. With 25% off, the tree came to $120, a very fair price for a tree maybe 9' tall and covered in BUDS! Sold, to the artist in olive drab! I couldn't believe the perfection of this moment. Kismet! Did somebody set this up? Kinda seemed like it. Bill?

But how would I get it home?
We turned it on its side and slid it into my Subaru. 

It fit perfectly. Like it was grown to fit in my Forester, grown to live on our sanctuary.

All the way home I talked to it and told it I loved it and that it had just won the dogwood lottery. It would grow up surrounded by friends and conspecifics, planted in dogwood-friendly soil and watered and fed. It rattled its curled leaves in response. This was the Curtis Loew of trees. Rescued from another winter in a too-small plastic pot, to be set free in the wild.

When I got home, I put my new tree on the patio and set right to researching flying pintails.  The anniversary was Friday, and it was Monday. I drew a couple of tiny ducks and used my ca. 1991 reducing Xerox machine to bring them down to label size.  The next day I transferred the drawings by coating the back with soft graphite, taping it onto the label, and re-drawing the birds.

As I'd anticipated, I was unable to draw that small, but I could take a very fine brush and paint that small. 
A valuable lesson! I suddenly understood how people paint cameos and the like. Tiny brushes. One has ever so much more control with a brush than with a pencil or pen.

I added some splash tracks to the subtle water lines printed on the bottle, to place my juvenile bird in the foreground.

Then I painted a second juvenile pintail taking off, and layered its wings over the printed drake's tail. 

The finished label, impossible to adequately photograph. It looked pretty cool! 

I wrapped the bottle in kraft paper and wrote an invoice on the wrapper.  It was easy to decide what to charge for my work. $120.00, a fair price, I thought, for maybe three hours' total work, plus two drives into town and back (72 miles). It was the price of the red dogwood.

I drove the bottle to town and left it for Pamela at the wine shop counter.

It took me about a week to decide where to plant the dogwood, but I knew I wanted it somewhere I could watch it grow, flower, leaf out, turn gold and red...I wanted it outside the new lean-to greenhouse, and I wanted it backed by wild white dogwoods. Oh, I can just see them now.

To my surprise, the nursery wouldn't give me a warranty on it--they said they don't guarantee dogwoods to live. Huh. Eep. OK. I still want this tree. I kind of held my breath until I unpotted it and saw the gorgeous healthy white roots! I scored them with a knife in four places as instructed on the tag, to stimulate side growth. 

Planting it was a rather bigger deal than I'd figured on--digging the hole 2x the diameter of the pot; hauling manure and sand, filling it in, watering it down, then staking it with wooden stakes and a bunch of old landline phone cord, wrapped in vinyl, which wouldn't cut the tender bark. Yep, I'm one of those people who has a hard time throwing potentially useful things away. Knew right where I'd coiled that phone cord and hung it in the garage.

 It took several hours to plant the tree and I was tired afterward!

I have so enjoyed watching its leaves plump out, uncurl and turn a gorgeous golden maroon since I planted it September 16. It works well in the landscape, I think.

I added a couple of big tomato cages to the stakes, to keep bucks from rubbing on it this fall.

Did I say it was full of BUDS? Yes, I believe I did. Pamela and her son and daughter-in-law were thrilled with the embellished Paraduxx label. She sent me a check with a nice tip, too! Everybody was happy in this interaction! It was a win-win all around.

I can't tell you how long I've wanted a red dogwood tree. Maybe all my life. They were always so expensive, and later in life I found out they are extremely fussy. Well, I'm ready for that. I feel good about our budding relationship. If a red dogwood can succeed anywhere, Indigo Hill is the place. 

Every time I look at this beautiful tree, I say to myself, "Now I am eating my cat!" It's a tree of gratitude.

I thought you would enjoy this epic story of rendered wine labels and fat little ducks and dogwoods and kismet. You need tiny ducks on a label, you know who to call now. 


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