This week, The Five-Year-Old and I had the opportunity to meet Susan Angevin, the artist who painted Not So Silent Spring. Local readers can find the bunny sitting outside the Dedham Public Library at 43 Church Street.
In developing the design for her rabbit, Angevin first considered its location and probable use. “I knew it would be outside in a public place for kids to see and climb on. So I thought why not put something on it that you can see and learn about, like the birds you would see in Dedham. That way you can walk around and see birds you want to learn about.”
Although Angevin developed the vignettes in which the birds appear herself, she consulted Audubon and other bird guides to be certain that she got details such as the orange speckling on the goldfinch eggs and the posture of the sleeping red-headed duck right.
“Did you know that most ducks sleep with one eye open?” Angevin asked The Five-Year-Old. “They do that so they will see someone coming.”
Astute readers of a certain age have probably also picked up on the fact that the rabbit’s name refers to Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking 1962 work Silent Spring, which documented the devastating environmental effect chemical pesticides were having on humans, animals, and especially birds. Carson had been speaking out about the harmful effects of uncontrolled pesticide use since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until Silent Spring was published that her work caught national attention. Today, Carson’s still highly controversial book is widely regarded as a seminal work of the environmental movement and credited with paving the way for the 1972 ban on the agricultural use of DDT in the United States.
“The rabbit is my homage to Rachel Carson,” said Angevin, who used to work in conservation herself. “But I called it ‘Not So Silent Spring’ because with all those birds it would get pretty loud.”
The Five-Year-Old, who is far more familiar with the Kratt brothers’ brand of conservation than Rachel Carson’s, wanted to hear more about why Angevin had chosen these particular birds for her bunny.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Angevin feels a personal connection with nearly every bird on her rabbit. The flicker perched on a hollow tree near the tail of her bunny is modeled after a flicker that lives in a hollow tree behind Angevin’s house.
Angevin calls the trio of bluebirds making funny faces on the other side of the rabbit the Three Sisters, because they remind her of the three sisters in her mother’s family.
Meanwhile, the crows pecking at the ground under the Three Sisters recall some of Angevin’s earliest painting projects.
“I first started painting with crows,” Angevin told The Five-Year-Old. “I painted buckets with crows around them. So when I painted the rabbit I simply had to include my crows.”
As for the catbird…
“Did you know that you can tame a catbird to come eat raisins out of your hand?” Angevin asked The Five-Year-Old, who was suitably inspired to try it for herself at home. “A friend of mine trains one to do it every summer.”
The Five-Year-Old: “Did you mess up at all?”
“Yes,” Angevin said. “After I painted the swan, I wanted to add the duck, but the first time I painted it, it was too small. The scale was wrong, so I had to paint it again.”
Adapting her design, which had initially been conceived on an 8″ x 10″ sheet of paper, to the realities of a three-dimensional rabbit was also a bit of a challenge. Originally Angevin had planned to paint the owl soaring over a village modeled after Dedham. “But when I began to paint the buildings I realized that it would take too long and detract from the overall design.”
So Angevin scrapped the village and painted the owl flying over a heron instead.
Completing the project on time was a critical concern for Angevin, who had only two and a half weeks to paint her rabbit. “The bunnies came late and I had to go somewhere. To finish the rabbit on time I basically had to say goodbye to my family.”
Like Martha Taylor and SarahJane Cassie, Angevin painted her rabbit on a table in her house. “The cats were so curious. They would climb on the back of the rabbit. Every morning I’d come down and find a new scratch or two I’d have to fill in.”
Angevin put up a child guard to try to dissuade her cats from going into the dining room where Not So Silent Spring was housed, but “You know cats.”
“It’s funny,” Angevin said. “That rabbit looked much bigger on a table.”
- See The Five-Year-Old’s entire body of work on the Dedham Public Art Project (Caterpickles)
- Online and iPhone-friendly Map to the Dedham Bunnies (everytrail.com)