Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #5: The Backyard

The backyard, both figuratively and literally, is an area that we consider part of our “turf,” or neighborhood, which makes it optimal territory for creative exploration.  While a backyard can be a little slice of nature on your own property, it can also be the area on the other side of the block where your favorite pizza shop is.  In this week’s Summer Creativity Challenge, we will explore our figurative and literal backyards for a wealth of creative riches.

A few months ago, in an exercise to introduce a little more play into my world, I made a mind map of all of the things that I loved to do as a child.  As the mind map unfolded, more and more of the activities recalled beckoned me outside to the backyard of my childhood in Connecticut.

Even then, as I know now in retrospect, I sensed that it was a wonderful backyard.  It was long and deep, its depth allowing for a sense of independence and adventure.  From out the backdoor, I would escape the house heading past the picnic table and the lilacs; past the detached garage with its flat roof from which we would stand and pick cherries from the branches of the old cherry tree; past the potting shed on which my mom had stenciled three white sheep with black faces on the grey wood above the square windows.  Here the yard narrowed, sloping down to a rusty wire fence thick with the tangled vines of concord grapes.  There was a tire swing in the cherry tree and when you swung out over the slope, the ground would drop away and you’d feel like you were flying.  A gate in the fence led to a narrow back road lined with bungalows, their backyards a common area that paralleled our property, which was not out of bounds for exploring (the large rock rising out of the ground in the far corner, making it especially attractive.)

The yard widened out again after the potting shed to an area bordered by a stone wall on one side and the trees and fence on the other.  Here my parents had planted a large vegetable garden, and raspberry and blueberry bushes.  There was also a big curved flower garden that in the summer was vivid with the orange blooms of Tiger Lilies.  After this garden was the apple tree, with its low and crooked branches, perfect for climbing, and an old chicken coop that my dad had renovated into a playhouse for me, complete with a large tree stump and two smaller cuts from the same tree to make a table and chairs. 

The far back of the yard ran up to the train tracks and was shadowed with a thick growth of tall trees.  One Memorial Day, after the town parade when our extended family and friends came back to the house for brunch, the kids gathered outside.  The game we were playing took us deep into the area near the tracks.  A train approached and we paused to watch, but rather than the usual commuter trains heading into New York, this train was different.  The cars of the train were painted with bold and curling letters, images of tigers and lions, horses and acrobats, and the smiling faces of clowns.  It was a circus train and, as one, all of us began screaming and waving, running up to the breaks in the trees to see the train better.  By the last few cars, the members of the circus had seen us and they stood at the windows and on the spaces between the cars waving back at us, a group of kids just playing in the backyard.

All of this is inspiration for the fifth Summer Creativity Challenge: The Backyard.  My backyards have changed over the years, from the big backyard in Connecticut, to a patio and pool in Florida, and also to being able to say “Fenway Park is in my backyard” during my time in the Fenway area of Boston.  It is interesting to remember the backyards that you’ve experienced during your life and to also ask, “what’s in my backyard?” now.  This challenge can be interpreted in many ways, from taking a simple hour to explore the microcosms that is the little piece of land behind your house, or walking out the door and around your neighborhood to see what buildings, shops and restaurants make up your figurative backyard.    

With this as your touchpoint, plan an artist date, take a walk, write or paint with the inspiration of exploring and remembering your backyard.  Record impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass. 


  1. Thanks for the wonderful memories so beautifully written. It was a magical yard and a magical time for all of us - such a special way to raise you 3, with Dad's store, the school, the library, the park and your Grandparents all within walking distance. I loved the front porch just as much. Weren't we lucky? Loved this piece!

  2. Brenna, Found your blog through Colleen Bulger, another OG "alum". Your piece brought back flashes of memories of when I used to babysit for you all and we would play in your backyard. I'm so glad you have such vivid, wonderful memories of it. Thank you so much for sharing and zooming me into a time warp to a fantastic place. Hope all is well.
    --Roni (Bealer) Widmer

    1. Hi Roni,

      It is great to hear from you and to know that you discovered my blog! I had a great time writing the post.

      I was telling someone, just the other day, about the time that you were babysitting for us and told me that your boyfriend (who you were speaking with on the phone) had video calling. You had told him what I was wearing, so that when I didn't believe you, he then told me what color pants and shirt I had on. I remember being floored at such a cool invention! (Even if it wasn't real). I thought it was a pretty good joke that still makes me laugh :-) I like to think of that when I am on Skype meetings all day with the video going--it's come true.

      My Mom always shares your Christmas cards with us every year and I enjoy hearing them (and the designs). I hope that you are doing well!


  3. Hi Brenna,
    Thank you for this wonderful challenge. I fondly remember living in Chicago, while having Lincoln Park as my backyard. In this special urban park evironment, people and nature co exist, creating an ever changing rural landscape within the city. You might think of it like a backyard shared by millions, in which everyone could experience their own creative place. A simple walk in the park could do wonders. This challenge allows me to look back and relive many creative moments. Thank you for letting us be a part of your beautiful backyard experience.