Saturday, July 31, 2021

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Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 : Week 37

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 :Week 37 Sept 6-12 

Nature is just so awesome with a never ending supply of surprises ! Summer means there are so many insects in the yard singing away merrily- katydids, cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers …along with the chorus of chirping frogs. I have to often get  help at with identifying the insect songs and I have spent many hours during the pandemic stay-at-home year doing just that - though I may now be more confused as well ;) 

This cicada - Neotibicen davisa davisa (identified by insect experts in INaturalist ) was by the pine tree (alive) in the yard by the pine tree. It stayed around just long enough for me to photograph. I had misidentified it when I first saw and sketched it - hence the wrong info below the cicada. The photograph of the Rhinoceros spearbearer (Copiphora rhinoceros)katydid in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 paired nicely for the week.  Unlike the cicada I found in the yard, these awesome conehead  katydids are found in the rainforests of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. They have powerful jaws to feed on plants, other invertebrates and even small reptiles. Staying home during the pandemic though has helped me see  and document by either sketching or photographing so many different creatures in my own yard ! 


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 36

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 36 Aug 30- Sept 5 

Along with the dragonflies, I discovered there are a few different kinds of cicadas in our yard.  I usually go to the iNaturalist App to identify whatever I am not familiar with after I have taken a photograph. This is a Northern Dusk Singing Cicada Megatibicen auletes- largest of the N. American Cicadas. As the name implies these cicadas sing at dusk and are quite loud! Their  peak appearance is in August but are found July- September. Mostly I don’t see the cicadas unless they have dropped to the ground ( dead or almost) but hear them loud and clear somewhere in the Oak tree.  BTW, There are more than 3000 species of cicadas and they are members of superfamily Cicadoidea.

How cool is that Nick Cave’s Soundsuit is the photograph of the week of Aug 30 in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020? “This is a wearable art inspired by Nick Cava’s background as both a fiber artist and a dancer. Brightly colored yarn, found object, and thread woven together in a variety of patterns and textures to creates vivid disguise, shielding and protecting the wearer’s identity from the audience.” 

Northern Dusk Singing Cicada 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 35

Dragonfly in sepia ink  by Meera Rao 

It’s very far away, 
It takes a about half a day to get there.
If we travel by my, uh, dragonfly 
~Jimi Hendrix~ 

The dragonflies were everywhere in the garden week of Aug 23 2020. I spent many hours quietly tracking and following the beautiful creatures with delicate lacy transparent wings, multifaceted eyes and iridescent body. I was hoping for one good photograph !! They are strong fliers - my research says hawker dragonflies have been recorded going 20 miles in an hour. They can hover, fly backwards and have high maneuverability.  Once again I found a perfect subject to sketch in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020.  The photograph by Eric Long shows Grumman FM-1(F4F-4) Wildcat- World War II fighter aircraft. After Pearl Harbor, Wildcat pilots held the line and stopped the Imperial Japanese Air force when it seemed invincible.  

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 35 Aug 23-29 


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 34

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 34 Aug 16-22

Carmen Herrera’s  Rondo  graces the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar2020  for the week of Aug 16-22.   Cuban American artist Herrera sold her first painting when she was 89 and at 100 had her first show. In mid 20th century, she experienced blatant discrimination when a gallery owner told her: “ You know, Carmen, you can paint rings around men artists I have, but I am not going to give you a show because you are a woman”.  I did not know all this when we visited Washington DC on Aug 22 2020 and went to see the ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted on 16th street leading to the Whitehouse on June 5 in honor of  protesters who had assembled there peacefully earlier that week. The street with the sign and all the related protest signs around the ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’  gave me goose bumps. I always look up information about the artist and art for the week in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar. But this particular week I was especially astonished to see the connections. Please scroll down to see photos from that day.  Read about Carmen Herrera and interview with her at age 101 here

Black Lives Matter in front of White House sketch in ink and watercolor by Meera Rao 

Washington DC 16th street Aug 22 2020

Washington DC August 22 2020

Washington DC August 22 2020 

Washington DC August 22 2020

Washington DC August 22 2020

Washington DC August 22 2020 


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year week 33

Sketching the Pandemic Year Week 33 Aug 9-14 

Four O’Clock ( Mirabilis Jalapa) flowers true to their name bloom in the evening and spread a fragrance in the yard. As summer progresses, the plant is full of blooms. They come in different colors and even as ‘kaleidoscope wheels’ variety.  We planted these in the garden because they reminded me of my childhood  home in India.  But I have since learned that they are native to Peru and  have been naturalized in most tropical countries, Europe and Asia - it is a perennial in the tropics but grows as annuals in temperate zones. 

I vaguely remembered from basic genetics class in college that they had some peculiarities regarding passing of traits. Wikipedia helped out: “Around 1900 Carl Correns used Mirabilis as a model organism for his studies on cytoplasmic inheritance. He used the plant’s variegated leaves to prove that certain factors outside the nucleus affected phenotype in a way not explained by Mendel’s theories. Correns proposed that leaf color in Mirabilis was passed on via a uni-parental mode of inheritance. Also when plants with dark-pink flowers are crossed with white-flowered plants, light-pink-flowered offspring are produced. This is seen as an exception to Mendel’s Law of Dominance because in this case, the dark-pink and white genes seem to be of equal strength, so neither completely dominates the other. The phenomenon is known as ‘incomplete dominance.’

FourO’Clock watercolor and ink by Meera Rao 

More wonderful oddities about this flower from Wikipedia: “ Usually the flowers are yellow, pink and white, but a different combination of flowers growing on the same four o’clock plant can be found. Another interesting point is a color change phenomenon. For example, in the yellow variety, as the plant matures, it can display flowers that gradually change to a dark pink color. Similarly, white flowers can change to light violet. Despite their appearance, the flowers are not formed from petals - rather they are a pigmented modification of the calyx. Similarly, the calyx is an involucre of bracts. The flowers are funnel-shaped and pentalobed, they have no cup (replaced by bracteal leaves) but are made of Corolla…. The flowers are pollinated by long-tongued moths of the family Sphingidae, such as the Sphinx moths or hawk moths and other nocturnal pollinators attracted by the fragrance.”

The glass and ink ‘Our River’s Ancestors’ by Marvin Oliver is the featured photograph for the week in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar2020. I had concentrated mainly on the colors when deciding what to sketch for the week. But I found a different connection while reading the explanation of the piece in the calendar: “In ‘Our River’s Ancestors’ , Marvin Oliver uses glass to evoke the rivers and salmon that have intertwined Quinault lives for millennia. The etched image is from a photograph of Native fishermen at Celilio Falls on the Columbia River.  This piece is a part of ‘Ancestral Connections’ an ongoing exhibition at National Museum of American Indian in New York which explores how contemporary artists draw on aspects of their heritage to create new and compelling works of  art” 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 32

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 32 Aug 2-8

Grey Hairstreak Butterflies Strymen melinus were all over the garden. I was trying to photograph at least one. It was a very windy day and nothing stayed still long enough for me to photograph. I was really surprised when I slipped my hand to steady a leaf hoping for a shot and the butterfly did not fly off :) It was thrilling when seconds later the butterfly crawled on to my hand. I stayed still - I did not want to scare off the butterfly by trying to take a photo! 

It was pure serendipity when weeks later I discovered that the photographfor that week in the Smithsonian Engagement 2020 was of Herpetologist Doris Mable Cochran holding a live frog, c1930s.  “Cochran (1898-1968) started as an aide at the National Museum of Natural History in 1919 and had advanced to become curator of reptiles and amphibians by the time of her retirement in 1968. She was known for her expeditions throughout Latin America as well as her artist contributions as a scientific illustrator and textile weaver.”


Monday, July 19, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 31

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 31 July26-Aug 1 

Do the caterpillars and the Lone star tick ever tell themselves ‘Let’s see what’s out there’  (Captain Picard) or ‘Change is essential for existence’ (Spock)  as they go foraging for food ? The black swallowtail caterpillars had eaten the dill plant bare and Spock’s declaration ‘Highly illogical.’ rang true.   They were there out in the open for the birds to pick out and feed the hungry chicks. The Lone star tick was boldly crawling up my leg as we ate lunch on the deck when I flicked it off - fortunately for me it had not bit me and not lodged its stinger in! As for the caterpillars, I brought 3-4 indoors and fed them store bought organic dill ( they refused parsley from the garden) till they cocooned and waited for them to emerge as butterflies. 

The jacket pictured in the Smithsonian Engagement 2020 for the week is from communications Officer Uhuru in the series of the original Star Trek - and reason for all the quotes from the show ;) Nichelle Nichols who played Uhuru ‘was one of the first women in a television series to play a prominent supporting role that was not a servant.’ The jacket is displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars and A Lone Star Tick  sketch in ink and color pencils by Meera Rao

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 30

Box turtle watercolor and ink by Meera Rao

We have at least a couple of resident turtles in our yard. We see them early morning or in the evening walking across the yard probably looking for food. I don’t know what they eat but the most surprising thing I discovered over the years is finding one turtle eating an egg ! They do not tolerate high temperatures and during mid day they will hide under bushes or leaf piles. I read that they lay eggs sometime in June/ July, so no wonder we see them around more often in those months! From my research I know that we have at least one male (red eyes) and female (dark eyes) and drab smaller juveniles in the yard. Our yard must be in their home range :)  Sheltering at home during during covid days, we often cross paths  in the yard !

The photograph in the Smithsonian Engagement for the week 30 is a bird wine container from c500-450 BCE Middle Eastern Zhou dynasty, State of Jin, Houma foundry, China from the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC. “A hidden hinge allows for the beak to open as a spout. Inscribed in gold in the back of the head are the words ‘a gentleman’s esteemed bird’ suggesting this vessel was a treasured possession”  Well, the turtles in the yard are our treasured awe inspiring co-habitants!  

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 30 July19-25 


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 29

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 29 :July 12-18 

The egg and Moon on this page have more in common than meets the eye ! I read in NASA website that even though from our planet’s vantage point the Moon appears perfectly round, it is actually egg shaped ! According to the study, “ The lopsided shape of the Moon is one result of its gravitational tug-of-war with Earth. The mutual pulling of the two bodies is powerful enough to stretch them both, so they wind up shaped a little like two eggs with their ends pointing toward one another. On Earth, the tension has an especially strong effect on the oceans, because water moves so freely, and is the driving force behind the tides. Earth’s distorting effect on the moon, called the lunar body tide, is more difficult to detect, because the Moon is solid except for its small core. Even so, there is enough force to raise a bulge about 20 inches (51 centimeters) high on the near side of the Moon and similar one on the far side. The position of the bulge actually shifts a few inches over time. Although the same side of the moon constantly faces Earth, because of the tilt and shape of the moon’s orbit, the side facing Earth appears to wobble. From the moon’s viewpoint, Earth doesn’t sit motionless but moves around within a small patch of sky. The bulge responds to Earth’s movements like a dance partner, following wherever the lead goes.” 

And once again my pairing for this page has connections I could not have imagined when I selected the nest and egg to sketch for the week. I had been wandering in our garden and came across a few eggs broken and scattered by our shed. Upon investigation I found a damaged nest hidden in barrel of leftover mulch.  It still had one intact speckled egg which I identified as belonging to Carolina wrens.  I never figured out who raided the nest. After checking it for a few days, it was clear the birds had abandoned the nest. I  made sure the birds were not coming back before bringing the egg indoors to add to my basket of curiosities to show my grandkids. (The egg is still intact a year later ! ) I am pleased how the watercolor with pen & ink sketch of the nest with egg turned out. 

A little more about the ‘High Noon On the Moon’ Wide angle camera mosaic by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in the Smithsonian Engagement 2020 : “The sunlight on the Moon at noon, minimizes shadows but enhances subtle differences in surface brightness. The dark material is volcanic rock that formed when lava erupted and flooded large impact basins early in the Moon’s history. The brightest features here are evidence of relatively recent impact craters.”

Carolina wren nest with one egg watercolor, pen&ink by Meera Rao. 


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 28

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 28 July5-11

Although not considered true lilies, Calla lilies are beautiful. We get to enjoy the yellow and pink blooms  only for a few days. Before long, the plants - leaves and blooms end up as tasty meals for the shiny Japanese beetles, caterpillars and other creatures! Seems like these bugs create their own art work of lacey design on the leaves and flowers as they raid and devour the plants. I was moaning over the tattered plants even as I took a photo of the hole ridden flower - seeing a different kind of beauty in its altered state.  Later, it occurred to me that the  bug eaten flower was the perfect subject for the week’s sketch :) 

The China white Porcelain with the cobalt under colorless glaze Ming dynasty vase pictured in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 dates back to 1400. :  ‘Here the motifs of lotus and grain stalks form a visual pun : the Chinese words for lotus and grain are homophones for the words for peace and year, respectively. Thus the imagery on this bottle expresses a wish for “peace year after year” 

For the calla lillies though it’s ‘piece year after year’ :( 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 : Week 27

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 27 June 28-July 4

I was out with the Water Quality Testing team - of course,  masked, social distancing.  I missed the car pooling from site to site, exchanging news and laughs as now we drove separately in our own vehicles. We went down from testing seven sites to just four to accommodate quarantine regulations. But being out in the nature, by waterside was just the thing I needed during sheltering at home. When I saw this boat, I knew what I wanted to sketch for the week. It is serendipity when it paired so well with the photo in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020. Sonya Pencheva’s ‘Human-tower builders(castellers)’  was taken on the National Mall in 2018. 

Anchored by Meera Rao 


Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 26


Beach : Best Escape Anyone Can Have by Meera Rao 

I don’t know who came up with this expansion for Beach: Best Escape Anyone Can Have but the week my grandkids came to visit  after carefully taking all the precautions was the best escape from the pandemic blues ! For me, that visit was more precious than the 1927 baseball signed by NY Yankees pictured in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020.

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 26 June 21-27

Friday, July 9, 2021

'Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 25

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 25 June14-20

About 40 years ago, Osprey was considered an endangered species but is now on the rebound protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I am grateful to be able to watch an Osprey nest from my backyard. The Osprey pair have been using that nest for many years now. I eagerly await their return in March/April every year.  Once they return, they waste no time in rebuilding/ reinforcing the nest. The male brings the sticks to the female who makes it just right. After that, nature takes over and once again we wait to see when the egg/eggs will hatch.  Hectic feeding activity ensues when the eggs hatch and then we hear the unmistakable insistent chick calls for food as the babies grow! Ospreys only feed on fish. They hover, dive and plunge into the water catch their prey.  It’s exciting to see the chicks on the dock poles or on the tree branches once they start to fly (about 55 days after hatching) and slowly learn to be independent while still under parental supervision.  Adults leave the area and migrate back south around end of July once fledglings can feed themselves. The juveniles fly later in August.  My binoculars get a lot of use as I try to catch the Ospreys in their nest. The past two years there is a Bald eagle family living close by and often they clash in the airspace, each defending their territory. 

The Orangutan pictured in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 is a critically endangered species.   I hope just like Osprey and Bald Eagle these great apes too will be saved and thrive in their natural habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia - not just in zoos like the baby photographed at the National Zoo in DC. 

The Osprey In Nest with Chicks by Meera Rao 


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 24

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 24  June 7-13 

“…..Because none of us are free
Until all of us break our chains.
We owe it to the fallen to fight, 
But we owe it to ourselves 
To never stay kneeling 
When the day calls us to stand together.
We envision a land 
That is liberated, not lawless;
We create a future 
That is free not flawless.
Over and over, again and again,
We will stride up every mountain side,
Magnanimous and modest.
We will be protected and served 
By a force that is honored and honest.
This is more than a protest—
It’s a promise!”
~ Faith And Fury by Amanda Gorman 

The nation and the world have been rocked by the Black Lives Matter protests after video of George Floyd’s death/murder went viral. Amanda Gorman wrote the poem in response to the protests that erupted all over the world. She read/performed the poem Faith and Fury at the Bach Virtuosi Festival’s Virtuosi Virtual on Aug 16, 2020. To watch and listen to the full moving performance and poem, click here.

The bridal ornament with chains and pendants photographed in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 is Diadem (taounza) from the Southern Morocco and is a symbol of honesty and purity.  

‘Black Lives Matter’  sketch by Meera Rao


Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Window to the world : Sketching the Pandemic 2020 week 23

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 23: May 31-June6

When my Dad turned 95 we held Zoom gatherings on 2 days to celebrate the occasion- to accommodate his kids, grandkids, siblings, nieces and nephews and more ( we counted over a hundred!) who are spread out all over the globe:) The sketch is a composite of few ‘windows’ I sketched as we chatted excitedly and in some cases met each other for the first  time :)  Because of the pandemic lockdown,  the Zoom meetings made it possible for many to be part of the celebration who otherwise would not have been able attend in person. My Dad was very happy to see, talk to all near and dear and celebrate his big day. 

The window featured in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 for week 23 tells a different story - an important piece of recent history.  It is the cover of the sheet music from 1916 composed by Alfred Bryan and Herman Paley from the collection of National Museum of American History. The write up on the page goes on to say : ‘the decades-long effort to secure women’s right to vote in the United States began at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. It finally succeeded with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution in August 1920, which granted American citizens the right vote regardless of Gender’ 

Zoom celebration By Meera Rao 


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 22

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 22 : May 24-30

It’s nesting and incubation time for this little flyer -soon the mama will be grounded for a few weeks! Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus couple built a nest in our thyme pot - right by the kitchen window.  That gave me a great spot to watch the birds gather sticks and build the nest ( well hidden at first glance), the male feeding the female while the eggs were being incubated, and then the hectic activity by the parents bringing in worms & insects for their babies. It was indeed amazing to watch the dedication of the parent birds and the steady growth of chicks to maturity. The competing beaks of the chicks were a sight to see! They kept me entertained and in awe for days.  In the end I really missed them once the chicks learned to fly. I only saw them a few times after that while the parents still fed them as the chicks perched on near by branches with practically their mouth open as they waited for the parents. By the time the birds were done and the babies flew the nest though the thyme plant was long dead !!!

That flight jacket in the photo for Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 week of May 24-30 belonged to Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American Woman in space when she flew on the STS-7 shuttle mission.  The caption for the photo explains : ‘Shuttle astronauts wore flight jackets to work and for public appearances, and the decorations told the wearer’s story. The round patch on the right side of the jacket signifies that Ride was one of 35 astronauts selected for the first space shuttle program in 1978. The patch on the right arm is the mission patch for Ride’s second trip to space STS-410 in 1984, the first mission to include two women:Ride and Kathryn D Sullivan.’

Carolina wren building a nest by Meera Rao 

Friday, July 2, 2021

To The Possible Limit : Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 week 21

Sketching the Pandemic Year 2020 Week 21: May 17-23 

In June, I plunged into the #30x30DirectWatercolor challenge (please check my Instagram or Facebook posts) and could not keep up with my blog :) So already late postings of my sketches in the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar 2020 are now very late.  The excitement of that week in May 2020 was the anticipation of the cocoon/chrysalis changing to butterfly and completing the cycle.  Amazingly, the sketches paired wonderfully with the photo of Jose Bedia’s art work in the calendar:)  Titled ‘To the Possible limit’  in acrylic and conte crayon the artwork pays homage to the balseros -Cubans who take the perilous ocean journey in homemade rafts looking for a better life and yet feel a bond to their homeland.  

I found dot like Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on the leaves of the parsley I had asked my husband to bring in from the garden to garnish the sandwich for lunch.  I put those cut branches in a  bottle with a bit of water and decided to nurture the caterpillars providing them fresh leaves everyday :) A few weeks later,  I was rewarded handsomely as the caterpillars grew and eventually turned into chrysalis. I waited and watched them closely until one night I saw the chrysalis turning darker and the dots on it beginning to glow a bit. Next early morning I sat next to it with my cup of coffee and camera waiting eagerly. I had read the butterfly emerges as the rays of sun warm the chrysalis. The emergence took less than a minute but the butterfly took about 2 hours to open the wings and warm up before flying off.  For a couple of the caterpillars that were in my dill plant I even had to buy organic dill from the grocery store as they had demolished the plant in no time ! But this was an amazing experience to see the butterfly emerge ! 

Parsley Seallowtail Butterfly and Chrysalis by Meera Rao 


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