Creative Versatility: Having several Strings to your Bow

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Having Several Strings To Your Bow

Some days it is easy to write, other days it isn’t. You know, when you have other things on your mind that are taking up time. At the moment I am trying to work on a song for a ukulele group performance and need to practice. Music is something that is really important for my creativity and I have not being doing enough lately.  Having more than one creative passion is stimulating but also means that you often neglect one to concentrate on another and can feel torn.

When you work at one thing for a long time you will become really skilled in that area but you can also at times get bogged down and lose your freshness and inspiration. When this happens it can be very disheartening.  That is the moment to switch and take a new direction or work on another creative activity that you love.  Versatility can be an asset.

If you like to pursue several art forms it is fulfilling to be able to devote time to each and not feel that you must give one up.  When I was at art school I can remember a teacher saying that he had to choose between a career as a classical violinist or a painter.  He chose the latter.  Maybe he thought that he was not good enough to become a violin soloist.  Seems like he was only looking at a narrow field and could still have performed on a smaller scale while pursuing painting.  I wonder if he ever regretted the decision. Not everyone needs or wants to be a “star” and there are other ways to pursue a passion. I play the ukulele and perform at a grass-roots level for the joy of making music and that is enough reason to give my time to this medium.

Having more than one string to your bow is definitely advantageous.  Being able to use another medium as your circumstances change can lead to new opportunities.  There are many musicians who initially went to art school then returned to their art after a music career (e.g. Reg Mombassa [Chris O’Doherty] from the Aussie band Mental As Anything). Or writers who do spoken word performances as another way to showcase their poetry (Melbourne Spoken Word).  You can be an artist–writer-musician-actor-juggler all at the same time, whatever you want if this makes you happy.


The ability to adapt to an ever-changing art scene is also an essential survival skill.  Last week I read a newspaper article that really made me think about how important it is for an artist to be versatile.  The article spoke of how musicians are now performing at private house parties as a way to increase their income in an industry where most struggle because of dwindling CD sales with the increase in Internet streaming services and high performance costs at venues.  Websites (like Parlour Gigs) have popped up to make it possible to book well-known musicians for home performances and to sell tickets to your friends.  Venues are no longer confined to the local Theatre or Pub so performers must be prepared for all types of locations. There are now many new ways to find an audience and while modern technology has led to some areas drying up it has also opened up inspiring new avenues.

I realize that dividing your attention between different creative activities can be rather distracting at times and does not work for everyone.  But if you are the type of person who needs variety there is no need to feel guilty when you jump between areas.  It will keep you creatively stimulated and adaptable.


I have linked a couple of videos : one of a local house party performance by The Grapes (Ashley Naylor and Sherry Rich) and the other of Melbourne’s Vance Joy playing his hit Riptide on a Melbourne tram as part of a program (Tram Sessions) that puts local and visiting performers on trams to promote their music.  Travellers suddenly find themselves sitting or standing beside a well-known musician or small band.  How great to have such terrific acts in you living room and tram journeys would be much more enjoyable if they were always like this.

Visual Inspiration: When it is OK to Hoard

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Shrine, Collage from Magazine Images by Kat

As artists and writers we get inspiration from many sources.  Being a visual person I find that I often need pictures, not to copy, but to stimulate my imagination for painting, drawing, poems or blogging.  I collect different types of images for this purpose and have amassed quite a collection.  To avoid hoarder chaos I have organized these so that they are easy to find.

Images of artworks, figures, nature, patterns and textures are all helpful resources and are good things for the creative person to have at hand when a bit of inspiration is needed.  It can be quite expensive to buy art and illustrated books, especially those that contain a lot of colour reproductions.  Ellie and I do have quite a good library but if we do not have a particular image it is easy to find an example on the Internet.  I download those that I like into my computer’s photo library so that I can refer to it at any time.

Many designers and artists pin paper copies of all kinds of images on pin boards in their workrooms for visual stimulus.  Printing out copies from the computer can use a lot of costly ink so for this purpose I have a large collection of postcards and greeting cards, either bought on holidays or from friends and relatives.  These are less expensive than buying books and are easy to find when travelling.  Advertising cards that are free in your letterbox, found at movie theatres, art galleries, museums and other public venues often have interesting depictions and are worth grabbing.  So that I can easily access these individual images I have put them into photo and postcard albums, display books, plastic pockets in ring binders and small boxes.  If you keep your reference material organized it is less likely to be accidentally thrown out by someone else.

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Display Books with Paintings, Decorative Arts, Nature and Textile Images

Inexpensive visual reference books can be found at op shops, garage sales, and markets. Vintage books that were designed for children often have clear, simple images of nature, science and other subjects that can be really helpful for creative work.  Second hand magazines are also invaluable for doing collages and for pin boards.   If you had to buy these new it would cost a fortune.  It also pays to ask your friends and relatives to pass any old magazines in your direction.  Good quality advertising catalogues can be used as well.

A creative person needs to learn to be a scrounger but be selective.  I do have favorite subjects and have quite a collection of the works of Australian women artists for motivation.  I love paintings from the Medieval to contemporary, all kinds of textile works and fairy tale illustrations and have a bit of an obsession with butterflies so will keep any image that possesses these.  Only store what really grabs you so that you do not end up suffocating under piles of paper.  You can add new images and discard others as your library evolves.

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Post card Album with Australian Women Artist Cards (Margaret Preston Prints, Clarice Beckett Oil Painting and three Joy Hester Water Colour Paintings).

You will be surprised at how often you refer to these visual resources once you have your own personal collection. You can use them in many ways to trigger all kinds of original ideas and images.


I’ve been on a bit of a Paul Kelly binge lately.  He is such a great songwriter and I have his Memoir How To Make Gravy that is an inspirational book with all its helpful advice to songwriters.  The following live performance of his beautiful ballad Midnight Rain was recorded on his Stolen Apples Tour in 2007.  His nephew Dan Kelly (on the left of screen), a terrific guitarist and performer, plays lead guitar on this song.

May in the Garden: Autumn Creativity

In Melbourne, the month of May means late autumn when much of nature is starting to shut down and winter plants are awakening.  With the chilly mornings and shorter periods of sunshine it is good to make the most of any opportunities to spend time outdoors.  Walking around our garden I noticed some small details that I thought showed the seasonal changes and delights of the colder weather and decided to record them with my camera.

Autumn has often been seen as a season devoted to loss, remembrance and regret.   Memorial services for war casualties are held in the Autumn months.  It has also inspired many creative works of art and literature such as O. Henry’s short story, The Last Leaf (1907), Emily Bronte’s poem Fall, Leaf, Fall and the classic jazz song Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma/Johnny Mercer).  I particularly like Eva Cassidy’s version.  There is so much that is beautiful about this time of year that it is not hard to find inspiration in nature.

In Autumn you never know when a mushroom will suddenly appear.  I saw some small mushrooms (probably toxic) coming up between the concrete and the lawn.  I was surprised that they had survived because of our dog’s tendency to flatten anything.  The next day they had fully opened and were showing signs of damage and by the third they were withered and black.  This cycle gives a good lesson in living life to the fullest before you exit like a dried up mushroom.


More plants are displaying the wonderful colour of autumn leaves.  Rather than looking at the whole shrub I focused in on one segment of wisteria leaves, with the golden colour spreading into the green.  Soon the whole plant will be yellow and the leaves will quickly fall and cover the surrounding ground.  Once bare the twisting structure of the trunk will be revealed.

I photographed a curly leafed variety of Nandina (sacred bamboo) in early April.  Now the other Japanese Nandinas bear lots of red foliage as well as some small red berries.  The nandina does not lose all its leaves and fruits in autumn, but the old leaves turn red before they fall.  Interestingly the berries and leaves are highly poisonous, except to some birds.  The delicate red leaves and shiny berries look very dramatic in close-up, especially against green foliage, complementary colours that stand out in the soft light of autumn.

DSCN4638The weaker sunshine highlights the wonderful texture of a tree-fern trunk.  The stumps of the pruned dead fronds create a sculptural pattern that is not always noticed when hidden under the shade cloth needed for summer sun protection.  During the colder months trees may be stripped bare but you can enjoy details that are exposed when dense foliage disappears.


While some plants are starting to go dormant others are blooming.  An interesting lily popped up in a neglected corner of our garden.  We did not plant it so it must have come from a neighbor’s place.  It is now has a white flower with a green tip that looks like it has been painted on with a small brush.  We used to have some pure white Arum lilies and it is another variety.  Lilies are often used as symbols of death so it is an appropriate that it flowers at this time of the year.  I think that they are poisonous as well and this may be one of the reasons for their somber associations.

Along our drive is a hardy creeping plant that has tiny pink flowers (Polygonum Capitatum, Pinkhead Knotweed).  It came from our grand parents garden.  Looking closely the ball-shaped flowers are actually made up of multiple delicate flowers.  They maybe small but the flowers are prolific.  Nothing will kill this plant.  It has tenacity and even spreads over the concrete if there is a small amount of soil.  Apparently it is a Himalayan plant.  No wonder it is a hardy survivor.


The glamour plant of our garden in the cold months is the camellia.  We have several in the front garden although there have been some losses due to drought over the years.  Only the hardy ones have survived.  Most of the camellias now have buds but the first to flower are the sasanqua varieties.  I zoomed in on a lovely pink flower with yellow stamens.  The flamboyant camellia is to winter what the rose is to summer.  Full of the colour and energy of life despite the darker days.

This energy can be also seen in the activity of the bees while they collect pollen from our Japanese Aralia flowers.  These are white and grow in groups (umbrels).  The bees love these autumn flowers and many are attracted to them.  It drives our dogs crazy and while I was taking the photos, they jumped up and tried to catch the bees.  Not a great idea if you don’t want to be stung.  I managed to get some close-ups of the industrious insects, who always manage to find some type of pollen bearing plant in the autumn.  We should be like bees.  No matter how bleak we may feel there is always something that will generate our creativity.

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Life is still all around us in autumn.  Sometimes you will see it in the life cycle of a mushroom or the activity of a bee.  At others it is a splashy bright camellia flower.  Plants that are losing their leaves are just having a respite.  Nature makes the most of this time and so should we to recharge our batteries.  It is a good time to be contemplative and concentrate on creative projects when there are no distractions from summer activities.   There is still plenty to keep you active, motivated and inspired as the days grow shorter and remember, spring is only four months away.


I wanted to include a song about May in Australia and remembered local legend and singer/songwriter Paul Kelly’s Leaps and Bounds (1986).  This song has become something of an anthem for Melbourne.  It mentions two iconic buildings.  The most famous is the M.C.G (Melbourne Cricket ground) with its “fly swatter” lighting towers, venue for the 56 Olympics, Aussie Rules football and local and international cricket.  He also sings about the “the clock on the silo” which is the neon light clock on the old Nylex factory that can be seen from the Punt Road hill on the other side of the Yarra River.  The video shows Kelly and his band playing on top of the silos in 1986.  Pay attention to the skyline of the city, the lone Arts Centre spire and the surroundings.

In the following short video the same area of Melbourne was filmed by a drone last year. A lot has changed in 30 years. (The Nylex factory is to be converted into apartments and there was a fight to preserve the silos and the clock after the developer was going to destroy them. After a lot of protest, assisted by the video of this song, it was announced in March this year that the silos and the clock will be incorporated into the design).

Before there were Emoji

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Washi Ningyo (paper dolls)

I was looking at some of our Japanese doll collection and noticed that the simplified faces were like emoji, first used by the Japanese in mobile phones. These traditional dolls have been around for a long time so maybe this type of art inspired the creators of emoji.  The following photos demonstrate the similarity.  But whether there is any relationship or not it is still fun to speculate and to enjoy the skill and creativity of Japanese doll art.

The paper dolls above are tiny examples of the art of using origami (folded paper) to make beautiful paper dolls.  The boy on the left has a thoughtful expression while the girl’s face is blank so I would liken them to questioning emoji faces.

The above traditional wooden kokeshi dolls are from the mid-twentieth century.  The girl and the older woman with a child both have a very typical calm expression but the little boy is smiling brightly to indicate youthful happiness.

Love the look on the face of this Japanese pin knitting doll that I bought to use for my textile work. She seems to be really pleased and content with the world like she has just eaten chocolate.


Vintage Daruma Doll

The fabric Daruma doll is a depiction of the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, who meditated for nine years so that his arms and legs atrophied and fell off (for more info on these dolls go here).  His eyes seem to be looking inward like he is in a trance and his mouth seems very determined.  Maybe this expression would indicate quiet reflection if it were an emoji.


Ceramic Toy Bells (Left to Right) Benzaiten, Ebisu and Daikokuten, three of the Seven Lucky Gods

The Seven Lucky Gods are popular figures in Japanese art.  You often see depictions of Ebisu in Japanese stores and restaurants because he is the god of prosperity and wealth in business.  Daikokuten is also a god of wealth and a demon hunter while  Benzaiten is the goddess of music and beauty (based on the Hindu Goddess Saraswarti).  Ebisu and Daikokuten have very happy contented expressions, as you would if you always caught the big fish or had a bag of  valuable objects and a mallet for killing demons.   Benzaiten has a wistful look as she plays her instrument.  Useful emoji characteristics.


Kaibina Dolls (Clamshell Dolls), Omamori Amulets

This pair of kaibina dolls made from clam shells are good luck charms (omamori).  They are covered with Kimono fabric.  The pair are supposed to represent a united couple.  While the female doll looks very happy her male counterpart has quite a sour look on his face.  Maybe this is supposed to be an expression of strength and seriousness but it’s more like he has eaten a bad clam.

Japanese dolls are made from all kinds of materials and display a variety of facial expressions and emotions in a simplified manner.  There is probably a lot of tradition involved in these choices, especially with the vintage dolls.  The pin knitting doll that I purchased new a few years ago seems to have a more modern exuberant face than the older dolls like many emoji.

Whatever the origin and influence of emojis, our brain can make all kinds of visual connections between these and Japanese dolls.  The past appears to influence the present and the present adds to tradition.  That’s the way creativity often works.


Sticking with the Japanese theme I have included a traditional Japanese piece Sakura Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) played on the ukulele and a Japanese animation with the crocheted duo U900 playing the Beatles Twist and Shout on the ukulele.

A Window to the Past


An old book can be seen as a window into the past and is a way to learn about the lives and interests of previous generations.  In our household library we have an original copy of The Universal Self Instructor (1883) that was a popular book for the home in the 19th century in Australia and America.  In it’s day this book would have given anyone who had basic schooling some kind of further education.  What I find fascinating about this book are the sections related the to the visual arts and crafts, particularly with regard to women.

The frontispiece depicts a goddess figure holding a torch with the words “knowledge is power.”  It was a way to improve your life whether you lived in a city or the country.  This book contains all kinds of information about business, law, agriculture, the domestic domains, leisure activities and general knowledge on many subjects, as well as social etiquette.  It is full of detailed black and white illustrations and is very much a depiction of the ideal life more than a century ago.

There is a whole section in The Universal Self Instructor devoted to handwriting.  It was considered important to be able to write well.  The cursive script is beautiful and would have taken pains to master.  Flourishes and images were added to documents so it was a real art.  Today, unless you are a calligrapher, many people’s handwriting has definitely deteriorated probably due to the constant use of keyboards and the ballpoint pen.  Inside the Self-Instructors cover is a beautiful example of handwriting done by it’s first owner.


The book is all about rules and shows how restrictive it must have during that period. There are whole sections on social etiquette.  Life was a minefield of manners that included etiquette for introductions, visiting, conversation, public places, clothes, marriage, birth and death, the carriage trip, riding, debuts into society and entertaining. Nothing was relaxed.


The situation that amused me was the visit to an artist’s studio or gallery exhibition. Artists had reception days when ladies could “pay their respects” to artist friends and were to be on their best behavior.  Pushing in front of others to view a work (something that is really annoying today), talking loudly and laughing were all considered extremely rude and you must never ask if a work is for sale unless you wish to buy it, which seems a bit stupid given that artists are not always great at selling their creations.  In galleries negative comments about the works should be kept to a low voice in case the artist is nearby and you should not linger in front of a work for too long.  Adherence to such etiquette today would make visits to crowded exhibitions a lot more enjoyable and artist’s would feel more comfortable if they did not have to listen to any uniformed criticism.  So not all etiquette is obsolete and without merit.

By the look of the accompanying illustration it was assumed that the professional artist was a man.  Women and girls were expected to keep to the domestic circle.  Girls were to be discouraged from being idle. To quote:

“Girls are very apt to fall into a habit of lounging about doing nothing, gaping out of the windows or napping on the sofas.”

Sounds a lot like teenage boy behavior as well but there is no mention of this.


To keep them busy, Girls (and boys) were encouraged to learn drawing and painting for pleasure.  It was also a way to decorate the home.  Suitable activities for girls were to paint china, greeting cards, furniture, book covers, and silk for clothing.  Many ordinary women must have produced some beautiful creative artworks, often as a way to save money.

One of our female ancestors was a talented painter who took oil painting classes for young ladies at an artist’s studio in the 1880s.  She did some large paintings of landscapes.  I have included a photo of a small oil painting that she did on glass and a large seascape of Cape Schanck in Victoria (my photo does not do the latter justice as I was teetering on a ladder and kept wobbling).   Unfortunately after she was married and had children she did not continue with her art.   She was probably not taken seriously or encouraged to become a professional artist.  There are a couple of tiny painted china plates in the first photo that were probably considered a more acceptable pursuit for women in that era.


Needle point items, pressed flowers and moulded bread dough flowers would have been typical crafts of the period

There are all kinds of suggestions for appropriate craft activities for women and girls. Of course there is embroidery, lace work, knitting, crotchet, patchwork and dressmaking, all  popular textile crafts.   There are also crafts such as creating scrapbooks, molding coloured wax flowers and fruit and the making of trifles (not the dessert).  Trifles were attractive but fairly useless little novelty gifts made to pass the time.  Inside the Self-Instructor, which is quite a tome, I found some dried flower petals pressed by a previous owner.  I wonder if they were for the creation of some “trifle.”


Pressed flowers found in our copy of The Universal Self-Instructor

Another craft mentioned and probably long gone is “wall pockets,” decorative baskets lined with odds and ends of fabric, filled with dried flowers and foliage, tied with ribbons and attached to the wall (more like dust traps and spider homes to me).   Such gentille activities would have only been possible for middle class women and girls who were not forced by their circumstances to work long hours in underpaid jobs.


A beautifully illustrated poem by Longfellow

Poetry is included in the book.  There are a few by women poets, like American Magaret E Sangster, and this would have been an inspiration to young girls who loved to write poetry and demonstrated that they could also become writers.

The Universal Self-Instructor conveys an idealized view of the period, but for ordinary people who did not possess many books or have the means for further education, it would have been a valuable asset.   It was like having access to the Internet in its day and opened up a world of possibilities in all kinds of fields for many people.

It’s a fascinating book and I hope it inspired some girls, as well as boys, to pursue their dreams in the arts despite the social restrictions.   With all our modern freedoms, resources and technology there is nothing to prevent us from living an artistic life.


An Artist’s Best Friend

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Our Two Fox Terriers

I had just written the first draft of this post and showed it to Ellie.  She read it and said, “no one wants to read about someone’s dog. It is too personal and boring.”  Of course she is right.  Anyone who has a dog thinks that theirs is the smartest, funniest dog in the world and they don’t want to hear about other people’s dogs unless it is an interesting story.  Taking on board what Ellie said I had a rethink and decided to write about dogs as a source of inspiration for artists and writers and how they have influenced my own creativity.

Dogs have inspired many works of fiction.  For example Jack London’s The Call of The Wild (1916), about the adventures of the Alaskan Klondike sled dog, Buck, Eric Knight’s 1940 novel, Lassie Come Home and Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel the 101 Dalmatians to name a few.  And who can forget one dog’s life story in Marley and Me (2005) by John Grogan.  These books were all made into popular and enjoyable movies.

Dogs as companions have produced entertaining characters like Scooby Doo from the cartoon TV series and Snowy in The Adventures of Tintin by Belgium cartoonist George Remi (Herge).  Generations of children have loved reading about the dog Timmy in Edith Blyton’s Famous Five books.  The French movie The Artist  (2011) benefited from the wonderful antics of the Jack Russell, Uggie and Eddie (Butch) provided many hilarious scenarios in the TV series, Frazier.

True stories about the incredible feats of dogs are also inspirational.  The Maremma Sheepdog used to trial their use for guarding Fairy Penguins against predatory foxes on the coast of the Victorian town of Warnambool, inspired the Australian film Oddball (2015).  There is also the successful Australian movie Red Dog (2011) based on a true story with a sequel in production.

Google songs about dogs and there is a long list.  Often they are used as metaphors that are not always flattering to dogs but more about human nature.  From old classics like Hound Dog (Elvis Presley) to anthems like Who Let the Dogs Out (Baha Men), these songs have kept our feet tapping.  Some beautiful songs have been written about dogs.  Cat Steven’s I Love My Dog, and Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog from the 1970s are just some of the many.  I have written a couple of songs about my dogs.  They are very personal and were a way of dealing with their loss.

There are so many stories, television shows, movies, songs and about dogs I could go on for pages and I have only mentioned a few.  But you get the point.  Dogs are popular subjects because they trigger strong emotions, whether in a story or as a symbol, that can generate creativity.

Our connections with dogs makes it hard to resist drawing and painting them.  Visual artists have created wonderful depictions of dogs to illustrate books.  I have a couple of early twentieth century children’s books with some lovely illustrations of dogs.  Tattine by Ruth Ogden (circa 1901) is full of sweet black and white paintings of a little girl, many with her puppy.  The frontispiece has a lovely watercolour of some puppies pulling at her night-clothes that has used typical behavior.  In Country Favorites (circa 1901) is a charming colour picture of two terriers watching a hedgehog.  As the owner of a terrier, I know this is in the realm of fantasy as they are hunting dogs and would not be leaving the poor thing alone.  But then again the hedgehog’s spines could be a deterrent and a realistic image would not be great in a children’s book.


Greeting Cards Clockwise from top: Hide and Seek by Arthur Elsley (1869-1952); Dignity and Impudence by Edwin Landseer (1839); To School Well Fed on Grape Nuts, advertisement lithographed on tin (1917); The Girl With the Dog, Theodore Robinson (1852-1896).

Amongst my greeting card collection, I have several with images of children and dogs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  A dog is a popular subject because anyone who has owned or loved dogs can relate to these works.  There is nothing like having the devotion and loyalty of a dog.  In fact in Medieval Flemish paintings dogs were included as symbols of faithfulness.


Detail Justice of Emperor Otto III (1470-75) by Dirk Bouts

The actions of our own dogs have given both Ellie and me ideas for artworks.  We both like to do drawings of our two Fox Terriers.  Usually you can only get them to pose when they are asleep as they are in constant motion.  Ellie did a watercolour pencil sketch of her current dog that I really like and have included it below.


Ellie’s Watercolour Pencil Sketch

You hear all kinds of stories about dogs rescuing people from dangerous situations.  One day when I was upstairs, our previous two Foxies started barking furiously at the side gate.  I went down to have a look and got to the front of the house only to see that someone had broken a window and the door was ajar.  The intruder must have heard me coming.  I saw a leg disappearing around the corner and yelled some rather strong language before calling the police.  I had not heard the door knocker and if the dogs had not barked so loudly and in such an agitated manner I would not have known there someone was breaking in to our house.  This episode became a tapestry design and I have included one of the working drawings in this post.


Drawing for Tapestry Design by Kat

It is obvious that I love dogs.  Dogs have always been important in my life and I could not be without one.  I think it is essential to have a dog (or cat) if you work at home. Talking to your pet is a good way to work through an idea.  Better than talking to yourself which can look strange if someone catches you doing this.  But with a dog it is perfectly normal because they listen intently. You just know when they think your idea is rubbish.  Dogs do sneering well.  But when your enthusiasm for something is conveyed to them they take up the good feelings and go with it.  You know you are on a winner when your dog smiles and wags his tail like crazy.

Dogs can be heroes, counsellors, entertainers and best friends amongst their many traits and this makes them perfect subject matter for creative work.  If you work at home and spend a lot of time on your own it is so easy to get caught up in your work and a dog keeps you connected to reality.  We benefit in so many ways from our relationship with our dogs and should never take them for granted.  Dogs are always an inspiration.


The following video shows a compilation of clips from 1930s films starring the wired-hair fox terrier Skippy.  Skippy starred as “Asta” in The Thin Man films with William Powell and Myrna Loy, as “George” in Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and as “Mr. Smith” in The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  This delightful dog’s actions are put to the song Who Let the Dogs Out performed by Baha Men.