Tag Archives: Panama

Too Many To Count

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Too Many To Count

Panama City is sprawling and modern with amazing architecture, stunning tropical vistas, and a lot of history. Panama City also has an alarmingly high stray animal population. With lazy, unkempt dogs visible in every part of the city, I knew there had to be stray cats, but where?

I’d seen a single, sneaky cat in an alley near a grocery, one under a car near the fish market, and a couple of scrappy cats in the old part of the city. But, it wasn’t until our final night that I found the lair.

Alley cat, cat under car, cat on wall

Grocery, fish market, and apartment dumpster cats in Casco Viejo, Panama City.

We were strolling in the linear park along the Pacific Ocean looking for raspa when I saw a petite, mewing white and calico kitty perched on the seawall, along with at least 20 of her friends! There were feral cats sneaking in the bushes, lurking on the rocks behind the wall, and many just out in the open. They were looking for handouts, endeavoring to be approachable in hopes that someone would toss an edible morsel. Some of the cats were people-friendly and would scruff on someone’s leg or take a pet on the head. Most were dubious, and darted a safe distance away upon being approached.

Cat on the sea

A collection of the sweet, feral cats I bonded with at the marina in Panama City.

I discovered that these cats are part of a managed colony run by kind people at an enormous city marina. When I asked the night guard how many cats he thought lived at the marina, he laughed. Too many to count.

Too many to count. That basically encapsulates the stray population, in general. Too many dogs. Too many cats. A problem that humans created, and are now trying to manage through education and sterilization, while struggling to provide basic food and care for the uncountable.

Watercolor sketch of cats

Drawings in my sketchbook of just a few of the feral cats I met. 

And yet, help comes. Of all of the cats I encountered, I could tell they were being fed, as evidenced by piles dry cat food scattered on the pavement. Almost all had a clipped ear, the sign of having been spayed or neutered. A cat here or there needed serious personal grooming, but mostly they seemed adjusted to their lives in the tropics, resting on a seawall, enjoying the cool ocean breeze.

I’ll Never Look At Tourist Art the Same Way Again

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I’ll Never Look At Tourist Art the Same Way Again

If you live in a tourist area, you are familiar with shop windows rife with ubiquitous images of whatever the local icon might be. Where I live, it’s lighthouses, beaches, cherries, sand dunes, a seagull, the quaint main street with it’s charming buildings. “Real” artists often poo-poo the tourist art as not Art (you know, of the capital “A” variety.) I am guilty of this thinking at times, dismissing that 100th lighthouse painting as not interesting enough. 

Tree sculpture at Arte Cruz

Arte Cruz in Volcan, Panama. Awesome artist!

However, I recently met an artist in Panama that changed my thinking of how I view the artists in my own back yard. His name is Jose de la Cruz, and he is a wood carver and proprietor of Arte Cruz. On the day we visited, Cruz not only welcomed us into his shop and showed us around his wood working studio, he also introduced us to his little dogs, and politely tolerated my hacked-up Spanish until he told me I could ask questions in English.

Cruz studied art in Honduras in the early 70’s, then trained in Italy carving marble. Eventually, he settled back in his home town of Volcan, opened his own studio and has been carving every day for the last 38 years! He gathers and dries his own wood that is sourced locally, and works in a variety of ways from sculpture-in-the-round, to bas relief, to elaborate inlaid furniture.

Cruz is part craftsman and part showman. As proof, he carved my name and a few flowers in a piece of red cedar. He used tools he made himself, without pre-drawing or measuring, and carved decisive, confident marks in the wood with a flourish, all the time explaining his process. He made it look SO easy! This demonstration of his skill was impressive, and inspired me as an example of how true practice of craft yields excellence.

Carving CollageYes, technically, he made a cute plaque with my name, for which, he only took a donation, since it was “for demonstration.” And, yes, it’s exactly the kind of thing you might find in a tourist shop. But, here’s where I started to think differently. Why can’t artists also do work that is the bread-and-butter stuff that appeals to travelers, and also make more elaborate, personal pieces? I mean, Jose de la Cruz is a classically trained master craftsman! He didn’t have to take any time with us, and could have had an assistant pawn his work to us in the already well-stocked gallery.

I guess my rambling point is this — I now look differently at the paintings of seagulls and cherries that I see in my own hometown. Good for those artists if their work is inspiring or brings joy to someone. Isn’t that the point of making things anyway? To elicit emotion from others? I love my Panamanian red cedar slab carved with my name and flowers. It has a special place in my studio and represents an amazing day, spent with people I love, made by an artist — in person — in a place I may or may not never visit again. That is true art.

The Journey’s the Destination, Especially in Your Sketchbook

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The Journey’s the Destination, Especially in Your Sketchbook

I used to write in copious detail about the events of my travel day, inserting flowery adjectives, and composing play-by-play explanations. I do not poo-poo that kind of journaling. People write for many of the reasons that artists art. Now, however, I tend to take a more visual approach. Sometimes I pre-divide pages with shapes, not really knowing what content they will hold. On other pages, I respond to a scene, or, just draw things that inspire me on the journey. For the first time on this trip, I included some of the thoughts of my travel companions, and discovered that by doing so, the story became more complete.

Sketchbook Pages from Panama Trip

Left: I designed this page in pen without knowing ahead of time what the squares would contain. Right: Special things I wanted to remember after the trip.

It’s not as hard as you think to make full pages of drawings when you’re traveling. I tend to block a few things in, or throw a few words on a page, and then, when when I’m waiting for a meal, in transit on a plane or in a taxi, or back in the room for the night, I fill in with more drawings or bursts of text. Sometimes, I use photos I took during the day as reference. My travel kit (see this post) allows me a lot of flexibility so that my supplies are easily at hand.  When I get home from vacation, I continue to add color and detail until I have a complete collection of pages from the trip.

Sketchbook Drawings

Left: An unfinished page inspired by molas, fresh avocados and a cat. I’ll paint this in now that I’m home. Upper Right: A quick sketch of the skyline from a photo I’d taken earlier in the day. Lower Left: Memories, impressions from traveling companions, and a description of our hike written on the leaf shapes I’d encountered on the trail.