A Minute in the City 9-7-21: Back to School

As a kid, I secretly dreaded this time of year. As soon as the trees grew too dark and dense to hold their leaves, I felt the inevitable approaching.  Summer was over.

Well, it wasn’t over over. Technically, there was still that date on the calendar when the Equinox would do its thing. But after Labor Day, there would be no more swimsuits, no more vacations, no more long days to draw pictures from my imagination. There’d be no more meals at the picnic table. There’d be no more fun.

My parents were both educators, which made this time of year even more of an emotional hurdle, because they expected me to love school. In fact, they told me that I loved it. And, because I didn’t yet feel entitled to hold opinions of my own, I believed them.

When my own kids were school-aged, I took a different tack. In mid-August, I would treat them each to a full day of shopping and lunch and/or dinner out. In the evening, they’d model their new clothes and show off their school supplies. But I always felt like I was conning them. For these paltry gifts, they would be expected to give up their freedom for the next nine months.

If you think about it, we were all conned as children. We were given new wardrobes and crisp new notebooks, then cast into the unknown. We knew not what awaited us, only that our teachers were more likely to be dictatorial than not. And, by the time we hit middle school, we also had a pretty good idea that our social circles would morph into something unexpected before the year was out, earning us a spot at the wrong lunch table.

But we made it. We grew up. And we found out that uncertainty is part of the picture. The things we don’t know as we’re trudging into that classroom make us more open to learning something new.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been noticing that fewer people are talking about “returning to normal.” It’s almost as if they’ve given up on going back to something known. Instead, they’re going forward to something new. They’re like kids walking into new classrooms. New sneakers squeaking on just-waxed floors. New classmates watching every move. They didn’t ask for this. None of us asked for this. But we got it anyway. And we’ll get through it the best we can.

Actually, we all know how to find our way in the fog, because we’ve done it before. The post-Labor Day conditioning of our youth taught us at least that much. When we don’t know the way, we take note of our surroundings, we listen to ourselves and others, we search for the answers that make sense to us, and we keep looking ahead. For the moment, everything we’ve ever known isn’t enough. There’s no telling how much more there might be. And there’s no telling how great it all might turn out.

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Central Library was the September page in my 2019 calendar and has always been one of my favorite back-to-school images. One might argue that it doesn’t belong to just one season. But it does speak to the deep dive we do this time of year. Prints of Central Library are available – along with my new 2022 calendar – at ayearinthecity.com. Wishing all students, teachers, and parents out there a happy and healthy year.

A Minute in the City 7-13-21: Live and Learn


If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be around children, you have probably discovered as I have that all “play” is learning. It’s physics – Does a cat really land on its feet when dropped? And it’s creativity – Let’s pretend I’m the teacher and you’re the kid! And it’s testing the limits of the human body.

St. Louis is really good at encouraging play, as evidenced by institutions like the City Museum, the Science Center, and the Magic House. But think of the science behind all that play. St. Louis is really good at the science, too.

I worked in economic development for 6+ years, and I was pretty blown away by the expertise St Louis had in areas like genome sequencing, plant science, and battery technology. Many companies working in those sectors were working with the big kids at the universities while enticing the little kids at local museums. It was community outreach at its best, encouraging a steady stream of talent for the next generation. But it never looked like science to the little kids. It just looked like play!

In the case of The Magic House, practically every school subject you can think of can be covered in a three-hour visit. From its grand front porch – so sophisticated a place, one might expect to take tea there – to its 60,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, it’s one big science/civics/math lesson.

On a visit there several years ago, our then 3-year-old grandson sat at the resolute desk in the mini-oval office for 25 minutes, occasionally taking calls on the presidential phone and refusing to leave until his term was up. His little sister was more interested in the (toy) mousehole when she was that age, laying on her tummy to spy on the mouse family, which had been thoughtfully staged for the holidays.

Personally, I’ve always been partial to the doorbell exhibit where kids can stand and ring for an hour if they feel like it. And who can resist the wind maze that spits out scarves? Or the wooden track that plays Ode to Joy as a ball moves along its path?

How on earth do these things work? I have no idea. But someday my grandkids just might figure it out, thanks to places like The Magic House.

Being there reminds me of a wonderful quote I heard once: A child enters school as a question mark and graduates as a period. The Magic House keeps that question mark stubbornly in place to remind the kid in all of us of the things we have yet to discover. We may look sophisticated on the outside, but, like the Magic House, we are messy whirlwinds of thought on the inside, learning new things every day. And the best way to learn is to play.

 

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The Magic House is the subject of the April page in my 2021 calendar. It is also available as a litho or archival print at ayearinthecity.com/products.

A Minute in the City 6-11-21: There’s No People Like Show People

 

Last week – after an 18-month hiatus – I set up my tent and sold my calendars in person. It was the thing I had missed most during COVID. After checking and re-checking my lists, after counting my inventory, after making contingency plans for weather, after packing the car, I got to be around show people again. It’s a wonder I got through 2020 without them.

Show people are a relaxed bunch. They are not out shopping as much as they’re out living the life. The food and live music and – in the case of Laumeier, the outdoor sculpture installations –  are more of a draw than whatever’s being sold in the tents.  And that makes shows a little less about selling and a little more about connecting with people.

Every show I’ve ever done has resulted in new insights for selling my work. Visitors to my booth suggest STL sites to feature OR they tell me how they shipped my work to Europe OR they share how they’ve grouped framed prints of mine in their guest rooms. I love hearing all their stories.  But last Sunday, a woman shared a first: how she and her granddaughter “reenacted” a YEAR IN THE CITY print!

This woman’s five-year-old granddaughter had been staring at my picture of Piazza Imo last month, insisting it was in California. Finally, the woman relented and offered to take the girl to “California”. Twenty minutes later, they were posing in front of the Piazza Imo fountain, as two women looked on from a nearby bench. And voila! It was A YEAR IN THE CITY LIVE!

It has always been my hope that people might identify with those in my pictures. And it has always been my aim to bring people out of their homes to experience something new. This is the way our “city of neighborhoods” can become a more vibrant and accepting community.

To that end – and inspired by my booth visitor last Sunday – I am introducing “YOU’RE IN THE CITY”, a quarterly contest for the best YEAR IN THE CITY staged reenactment. Visitors to my Facebook page will be encouraged to message me with their photos, and the winner will get a prize package and – get this – a cameo in the 2023 calendar!

It’s a “welcome back” to the great big world of St. Louis, where so much awaits us if we’re willing to be part of it. We don’t even have to go to California.

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“You’re in the City” will debut on June 21 on most social media platforms. Any A YEAR IN THE CITY image will be eligible for reenactment. To get inspiration for your staged photo op,  see the full gallery of images at https://ayearinthecity.com/product/a-year-in-the-city-archival-prints/

A Minute in the City 4-22-21: The 20-Month Calendar

Before I created my first calendar in 2017, I did everything I could to streamline the process. I researched packaging and shipping and framing to make sure my product conformed to standard sizes. I created templates for my illustrations to minimize inconsistencies from month to month. I inventoried things I already owned to cut show costs. I carved out time for social media and promotion. I even planned illustrations for the first seven years of the calendar, just in case my idea took hold.

The one thing I didn’t do was to start a second calendar before my first one had wrapped, figuring I might jinx things if I got too far ahead of myself. But since then, a natural rhythm has set in – owing mostly to production and show schedules. And I have come to accept the fact that, though each year starts on January 1st and ends on December 31st, my calendar business need not be constrained to 12 months. Time is a continuum.

April is a good month in A YEAR IN THE CITY land. This is the time that I nail down pictures for a calendar year that will start 20 months from now. For a few glorious weeks, I drive and walk the metro area in search of twelve perfect visual stories. Sites are selected for their coolness or their quaintness or their historical significance or sometimes just because they’re brand spanking new. I throw these ideas into the seven-year mix, changing things around as needed. In the end, I want to have mostly outdoor scenes with varied color palettes, preferably drawing from all parts of the city and county. Some sites may feature kids. Others, adults. Most of them need to appeal to people of all ages.

With my camera full of pictures, I tear into the illustrations, which can take up to 30 hours apiece. I space these out over a nine-month period – usually completing one or two a month. When I’m finally happy with all twelve, I create the calendar itself, checking and rechecking dates and holidays, tweaking colors, editing blurbs. And then it goes to print, one full year after I started it.

In the months that follow, I bind, package, promote, and sell my calendar – all while creating the next one! Today, for example, I am blogging from the kitchen, where my 2021 calendar hangs on the wall. And I’m getting ready for Laumeier – the first art fair of the year – where I’ll be selling my new 2022 calendar. And I am creating illustrations for 2023.

With the snow we got this week, I’m not entirely sure we’re in the month of April. And I really couldn’t tell you what year it is. But I’m not sure any of that matters. Time, after all, is a continuum. And, in the calendar business, that’s a very good thing.

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A YEAR IN THE CITY is now in its 5th year! The new 2022 calendar features the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, the sunflower fields at the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, and the Katy Trail. For calendar details, please visit ayearinthecity.com.

A Minute in the City 4-5-21: A Moment on the Bridge

Is it just me, or is everyone vowing to reorder their lives right now, pledging to live life differently on the other side of COVID? It feels like a pivotal time for all humanity.

But this illustration of the Clark Bridge was a pre-COVID endeavor. I took my reference shots in August of 2019 and completed the artwork the following January. My aim was to capture the bridge and the town of Alton in a single shot, because I found Alton every bit as interesting as the road to get there. Alton, with its brick streets so steep they seemed to rise right out of the river. Alton, with its grain elevator, century-old row houses and modern-day casino – all in a single block. Alton, with its eagle-sightings and legendary hauntings. I was really going to have to get into the weeds to tell that story.

And I did. My photos of Alton were taken from the banks of the river on the Missouri side. I had to actually climb down to the shore line to take them. But when I uploaded the pics to my computer some time later, I realized there wasn’t much “there there.” No one was going to see Alton in this picture. They were never going to get past the bridge.

Here’s the thing about bridges. You really can’t see much when you’re on them. What’s behind you is behind you, and there’s no looking back. What’s ahead is often obscured by the bridge’s arc. And that’s where I feel we are right now, standing in this place between the recent past and near future, trying to figure out who we’ll be when we get to the other side. What should carry with us moving forward? What should we leave behind? For once we’re aware of the magnitude of our decisions.

In many ways the pandemic has been like a bridge between two lifetimes, and I expect the memories of this time will always be poignant ones. For me, the pace of life has slowed, and I’ve come to savor that. Interactions with others have become rare, so I’ve found them even more joyful. The uncluttering of my personal space has given me a renewed sense of value. The loss of life has given me reason to appreciate those I still have.

As much as I long to return to a pre-COVID world, I am grateful for this moment. No matter what awaits on the other side, I don’t think I’ll ever get past the bridge.

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The Clark Bridge is the subject of my March 2021 calendar page. It is also available as a litho print. For a full listing of products, please see ayearinthecity.com.

A Minute in the City 1-10-21: Looking Up

I spent the last several months of 2020 like many people did…willing the year to be over. I even teased visitors to my social media pages with questions like “Want to make 2020 magically disappear?” and “Want to leave 2020 in the dust?” and “Ready to ride 2020 out on a rail?” I truly believed we were all in for better times ahead.

And why wouldn’t I think that? 2020 had been the worst year most of us could remember, and things had to right themselves eventually. So I tried to use my time wisely, clearing the clutter, resetting my compass, sharpening my vision for the new year.

In dark times, I suppose it’s only natural to look ahead. And frankly, when you’re in the calendar business, you have to. But, as my new calendar reminded me when I hung it up last week, it’s not always enough to look ahead. Sometimes you have to look up.

My illustration this month features Tom Friedman’s sculpture Looking Up at the entrance to McDonnell Planetarium. The 33-foot figure is made of stainless steel and has an anvil-shaped head tilted back almost 90 degrees to take in the entire night sky. But what I love even more than the statue itself are the kids standing underneath it in the January print. The kids are more interested in that tall skinny guy than they are in the moon and the stars, because that’s how children are. Literally and figuratively, they look up to us.

While looking up to others is not a quality that is unique to children, it does seem to lose some of its virtue as we get older. When I look up to others, I do so with full knowledge of the many ways I am failing to measure up. I am not just looking up in wonder. I am looking down in shame for the qualities I lack.

But there are a few people in my universe who seem to have the ability to return me to a childlike sense of awe. These “easy heroes” illuminate my path instead of darkening it, because they are not focused on their own achievements, but on the greater good. Like those gathered at their feet, these people continue looking up.

I created the planetarium artwork exactly one year ago, before COVID and political unrest descended on our country. But I must have had a premonition, because I felt strongly about including the yellow traffic sign, designating the planetarium as a safe place to go for help. In the past year, so many of us have been searching for such a place, a place where we might find protection, reason, guidance, care. Isn’t that where we want to go in 2021?

I was reflecting on this last week as I hovered over my birthday candles, formulating my most earnest wishes for the year that lay ahead. I can’t tell you what I wished for, though – if I did my wishes wouldn’t come true! – but I can tell you that I made wishes for all the people I look up to – those in the room with me, those in the neighborhood, those in the community, in the country. Those who light my path and make this world a safer place.

 

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McDonnell Planetarium is the featured subject of my January 2021 calendar page. It is also one of four images on my Forest Park Gems notecards. For more information, see ayearinthecity.com/products.

A Minute in the City 12-24-2020: Walk a Mile in My Neighborhood

Fifteen years ago, I took a job marketing the state of Missouri for new business development.  I toured dozens of towns during my first few years on the job, learning about different industries, universities, and attractions. It was always my goal to be able to highlight the one thing that made each community special, that one word or phrase that captured the very essence of the place. Chillicothe, for example, was the birthplace of sliced bread, and therefore “the best thing since…!” Columbia was College Town, USA. Hannibal was all about Mark Twain.

And then there was St. Louis, which, for all its educational and industrial assets, was primarily known for its 630-foot arch. But St. Louis was also known as a “city of neighborhoods.”

I am reminded of this often as I create art for A YEAR IN THE CITY. I’ll let my feet take me down a new street, around a new block, and come away recognizing that I’ve crossed some kind of invisible boundary. I am now on someone else’s turf, if only as a casual observer. And I love it.

I enjoyed the documentary America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill which debuted as part of The St. Louis International Film Festival this year. But it is the experience of dining and walking through The Hill neighborhood that I find really enriching, knowing that the culture of the Italian immigrants has remained largely intact.

I feel the same way when I walk through University City late on a Saturday alongside orthodox families on their way to temple. Or when I feast on cuisine that is totally new to me along South Grand. Or when I visit Soulard Market with restauranteurs and weekend chefs and casual shoppers standing side by side. Or when I duck onto Washington U’s campus just long enough to share space with citizens of the larger world.

It is my right, I tell myself, to walk alongside others, just so long as I respect them. And if something about them stays with me, if some memory is etched… well then, my universe expands just a little bit.

Like all of you, I will end this year a different person than the one who started it. My feet have taken me down some new streets, around some new blocks. Last week, I walked down Candy Cane Lane and was reminded of my last visit there on foot two years ago. I was finishing up the 2020 calendar at the time and needed some good shots of the sign, the carolers, the giant Santa sculpture. I was standing on the sidewalk with my camera when a homeowner asked if I’d like to see the street from her porch. I thanked her and went up her front steps to take a few pics. But, before I could return to my group, the woman invited me to sit with her for a while.

This struck me, because I’d always imagined it a bit of a drag to actually live on Candy Cane Lane. Every year you’d have to practically kill yourself stringing lights on every gable, then your electric bill would go through the roof. And to top it all off, you’d have people traipsing through your front yard for a solid month. I couldn’t imagine that this woman – or any of her neighbors – would have the energy left to actually engage visitors. I mean, these were real people. This was a real neighborhood. There were boundaries.

I am embarrassed to admit that I did not take the woman’s invitation to sit with her that night and watch the goings on down Candy Cane Lane. Rather, I let my rules about neighborhoods dictate how much I was willing to belong to hers. I have since learned that boundaries are only there until both sides are willing to step over them, and that we need each other far too much to ignore the invitation to connect. My hope for St. Louis in the coming year is that it grows from being a “city of neighborhoods” to being a “city of neighbors” as we learn to walk alongside one another in the best of places. This is what St. Louis could be known for.

 

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Candy Cane Lane was the featured subject of my December 2020 calendar page. It is also available as a holiday card and print. For more information, see ayearinthecity.com/products. 

A Minute in the City 12-9-2020: Take Note

In 2017, I had a few dozen notecards printed to send retailers who’d agreed to carry my YEAR IN THE CITY calendars. One of those retailers called me the following week to see if I might make the cards available for purchase. Three years later, notecards account for a nice little slice of my business the whole year through. But with notecards, as with everything else, it’s what’s inside that counts. I’d like to thank my customer Valery Welch for sharing her inspiring story of writing notes in the time of COVID. -jm

“I live in a condominium community with many retirees, some of whom live alone and struggle to get outside – even when there’s no pandemic to worry about. Now, some of our retirees are totally isolated, fearful about stepping outside their door to even collect the mail. Not all of us will make it to the other side of this pandemic, whether or not we get COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean we have to be alone.

My heart cannot bear to imagine this degree of utter loneliness, people going through their days thinking no one knows they exist. This summer, I began wondering how I could safely reach out to my neighbors. And then I started writing notes. I ordered cards from A Year in the City with images of St. Louis—Ted Drewes, the Gateway Arch, the Missouri History Museum, Candy Cane Lane. What better way to reach someone than with cheerful and artistic images from the past, with the places we all shared before the pandemic?  In each card, I wrote inspiring quotes, cheering my readers on, letting them know that I believed they could make it, assuring them they were not alone. With each card, I stapled a small bag containing a facemask lanyard that I had made by hand. I just wanted each person to know that someone knew they were there.

So far, I have quietly set out more than 75 cards at my neighbors’ front doors. I do not know their names; they do not know mine. I address the envelope simply, “To my dear neighbor…” I am so grateful to have this beautiful way of reaching out to others.”

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VALERY WELCH, BS, is Executive Assistant & Communications Director for Bette J. Welch, CPA. She has experience in marketing communications, rental property development, and neighborhood development and is serving on the board for the Webster Groves/Shrewsbury/Rock Hill Area Chamber of Commerce. Valery also chairs the Architecture Committee for Kenrick Parke Condominium Association and was Past President of the Webster Groves chapter of Toastmasters.

Valery graduated from New Mexico State University with a degree in Earth Sciences/Physical Geography with an emphasis on City and Regional Planning. She is a life member Phi Kappa Phi. Prior to the pandemic, she was a motor scooter and small camper trailer enthusiast, and she played trumpet and emceed for a community concert band. Since the pandemic, she has learned to make hard cider and has become an official urban red wiggler worm farmer!

 

A Minute in the City 11-17-2020: Let’s Take This Outside

I’ve had 10 St. Louis homes – 14 if you count my dorm rooms and apartments in college – and each one has opened up new worlds for me. When I lived in Olivette, for example, I had neighbors from around the world who had come here to study or teach. They were from Russia and South Africa and Romania. They worked as chemists and inventors and pilots. Their life stories and their intellectual curiosities created a community unlike any I had ever known.

Then there was the Holly Hills home, where my husband and I rediscovered the magic of our youth. We would get on our bikes on a Saturday morning and ride to the Y or Mom’s Deli or one time to Lowe’s to buy a new washing machine! We quickly assimilated into this community, because our neighbors made it clear that we belonged there. We talked over fences and yelled midnight greetings up and down the street on New Year’s Eve. We cared for our neighbors like they were family, not because of the people we were, but because of the people they were. We were simply following their example.

Then we moved out to the county and discovered a new and unexpected wonder less than a mile from our front door: Castlewood State Park.

Castlewood. It sounded so magical. But we soon learned that the park was as tough and gritty as it was beautiful, with trails that challenged the daringest of mountain bikers. You could walk the wide banks of the Meramec in Castlewood, you could climb to the cliff’s edge for a bird’s eye view. You could venture miles into the forest until you found yourself in neighboring Lone Elk Park.

When I choose sites for A YEAR IN THE CITY, I always make it a point to represent as many parts of the metro area as I can – city, county, Illinois – because, regardless of where we live, it is our shared spaces that bring us into community with one another. And I’ve learned that, in order to be part of that community, you have to open up the door and walk outside.

Of the 48 illustrations I have created to date, 42 take place outside, which means they can be enjoyed safely during COVID. And for every one of those places, there are dozens more waiting to be discovered. Even during stay-at-home, St. Louisans have a long and meandering leash.

For all our wandering, my husband and I are finally settled in our home, having put down roots as the trees – and the neighbors – have. But we’ll never forget how Olivette brought us the richness of a diverse community or how Holly Hills brought us into its family. And we’ll never quite get used to the majesty of the natural world right outside our door.

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Castlewood State Park was featured in my 2020 YEAR IN THE CITY calendar. Signed prints are available in St. Louis shops and online at ayearinthecity.com/shop. You will also find the 2021 calendar on my site with 11 new outside prints, suitable for framing.

 

A Minute in the City 10-6-20: Keep a light on

In May of 2018, my husband and I treated ourselves to a night at the Fox to see The Phantom of the Opera. It had been awhile since I’d set foot in the place, preferring smaller stages like the Rep. But once I stepped into the lobby, I was overcome by its…well, opulence. I turned to my husband and said, “This has got to go in next year’s calendar.”

But it wasn’t until I toured the theater six months later that I realized just how over-the-top it was. One of the three remaining movie palaces built by the late William Fox, the Fabulous Fox was designed in the dazzling – one might go so far as to say unsettling – Siamese-Byzantine style. There’s not a square inch of the theatre that escapes decoration, not a moment of the theatre experience that fails to overwhelm, and not a penny spared in its construction, renovation, or expansion. A trip to the Fox is a trip.

Here are a few takeaways from my bookend visits in 2018:

First, that carpet! The Fox’s carpet has an elephant motif woven into it, and each trunk is raised for good luck. That’s understandable, right? But did you know that each of those elephants must face the stage to wish the actors well? That means lots of extra carpet had to be ordered to keep all those trunks in alignment as they wound through the theatre and up the stairs!

Second, the Fox has ghosts. I chose William Fox’s widow, Eve Leo, to grace the October page of this year’s calendar, because it was her taste that dictated the theatre’s gaudy decor. Ms. Leo, who died in 1962, still pops in for a visit now and then, usually wearing a blue suit.

Finally, I learned that the Fox, like most theatres, keeps a “ghost light” burning, even when the theatre is dark. It stays lit to keep the ghosts happy between productions and to keep the living safe before the rest of the lights are turned on.

I’ve spent my theatre-going years on the “house” side of the stage, so the ghost light was a new concept to me. And in this dark year, I find that concept comforting. For the cast and crew members who rely on the theatre for employment, for the businesses that rely on a thriving economy, for the quarantined who rely on both business and the arts to keep their spirits aloft, it is critical to keep a light burning.

For seven months now, I’ve kept the lights on at A YEAR IN THE CITY, creating artwork for new cards and calendars, binding and boxing the products I already have, believing that somehow someday we’ll be back. Some mornings I feel like Eve Leo walking into the theatre when it’s dark. But as soon as I start working, my mood brightens. Creativity always lights the way.

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The Fabulous Fox Theatre is featured in my 2020 YEAR IN THE CITY calendar. Signed prints, calendars, and cards are available in St. Louis shops and online at ayearinthecity.com/shop.