New Work: Suburban Sprawl (the McMansions)

Suburban Sprawl, 2019, Artist Book, Hand Embossed

Before I get into why I made this piece I will give my definition of a McMansion.  A McMansion is an excessively large home on a lot that is way too small and contains an over abundance of architectural features that often compete with one another.  I do not know anyone who lives in this type of housing but there seems to be a great deal of it being built in “up and coming” areas; therefore, I am bound to meet someone sooner or later who lives in one and piss them off if they ever read this.

SS Detail
Suburban Sprawl, detail

Though I have long been aware of the McMansion (see this early post), it was not until I lived in a suburban area where there is a serious shortage of affordable housing and I could witness first hand the destruction of important habitat, that the McMansion really made a serious impact on my thinking.  So the McMansion became a scapegoat as my way of raising concern on the issues of over development and the shortage of affordable housing.

ss Sketches
McMansion sketches

I choose the format and the medium very deliberately.  First and foremost is the house shape, something I use often in my work. But the look of the house could not be the standard few windows and door that I often depict. The features had to be exaggerated so I made several sketches based on things I had seen.  Then there was the number of houses, which I decided to be 25 for no reason except it seems like enough to create the “sprawling” I felt was necessary to convey the loss of land (and I knew I could reasonably make 25 houses without pulling my hair out).  I connected the houses to emphasize the lack of a suitable plot of land for such a large house.


Lastly, I choose to use blind embossing to emphasize the absence of any personal

SS Template
Blind embossing plate

ornamentation, interesting garden or yard features. Ironically, blind embossing is often a medium I equate with elegance and simplicity but it seems to work more in this case within the context of banality.   A blind embossing is made with a cardboard plate. Paper is places on top of the plate and hand scored along the relief shapes.   It is an underused medium and I do intend to write up a bit more about the medium itself in the very near future.

So I “feature”, or more accurately poke fun at, the McMansion as  my newest piece relating to home, housing, and community.

More Cookie Cutter House Artwork

Little Pink Houses, 2017, Acrylic & Graphite on Panel, 12″ x 12″

This first painting, Little Pink Houses, was the first piece I finished for this project.  I have posted the image before but never wrote anything about the work and there is a good reason for that.  Often, it takes time before I realize why I made something.  When I first finished this painting, I thought it stood for suburbia, something I was not really familiar with until recently.  Well it does stand for suburbia, but not the suburbia of today where the HOA oversees your life (you can read my thoughts on this topic in my post No Pink Flamingos).  This is the suburbia of the past, when you could enjoy your yard, hang you clothes out to dry, and do the other types of activities that make home ownership a pleasure.

Ghosts of Neighborhoods Past, 2018, Acrylic & Graphite on Panel, 12″ x 12″

The work above, Ghosts of Neighborhoods Past, is about neighborhoods that have seen better days. Unfortunately, this is my old neighborhood.

Artwork in Progress

All the houses in progress
Yet to be Names Work in Progress

Early in the winter of 2018, I set out to make 60 small houses to fit in a particular box.  I did not know what the end product would be like but I set a goal to finish them before April of this year and here they are.  Now they are not “complete, complete” yet, it is still a work in progress, meaning, the houses still have to be strung together and I have not yet decided whether that will be a more vertical format or a more horizontal format. And this is a poor photograph to top it all off.  (John if you are reading this, I will eventually get that camera!)  In any case, I had decided originally that the piece would be called suburban sprawl but the more I worked on it, the more they reminded me of the urban row homes I lived in most of my life so felt that the use of the word suburban seemed wrong.  I am still going to make a piece called suburban sprawl but it will be different from this.   I plan to complete this piece very soon and will post the final project then. You can read the original post related to this entry here. 


What is Home to Diane Podolsky

House sm format
Diane Podolsky ~ Home

Diane was born in Philadelphia, PA and currently resides in North Carolina.

Home for me is a connection to my physical surroundings which not only encompasses visual stimuli but smells, sounds, etc. But since we are dealing with images for this project, I will talk about visual stimuli. My favorite story about how sensory stimuli live deep in our subconscious was when a student asked me what all those “funny cross things” were in my artwork. The student was not familiar with TV antennae. From riding the El (elevated train) on a daily basis with a rooftop view of the world, these shapes etched themselves deep in my subconscious and made regular appearances in my artwork along with street lights, hanging laundry, church steeples, fire escapes and row houses.  Then my landscape changed.  My new landscape is a strange mix of rural, suburban, and small towns. The air and the light in the sky are different.  My new landscape has left its mark on me enough to say it is familiar enough to feel somewhat comfortable and will be added to the images my subconscious has stock piled. So my house that I completed shows the landscape I have known most of my life faded out in the background and replaced by the new.

Diane is the curator of the Cookie Cutter House Project, has enjoyed a long and varied career in the visual arts, and currently works on a vegetable farm in North Carolina.  She plans to start printing again in the near future.

What is Home to Amy Danford

Amy Danford ~ Home

Amy Danford was born in Cleveland, Ohio and currently resides in Havertown, Pennsylvania

When I think of the word “home”, I am unable to pinpoint one location or thing. Home has been the Midwest, New York City, New Jersey, and now Pennsylvania.  However, home doesn’t necessarily mean a brick and mortar building to me.  It’s both physical and emotional – the world I live in, the cities I’ve lived, my body, community, and so much more.  Home has sometimes meant living amongst millions of people or living quietly and on my own.  At times, it has felt chaotic, confusing or unknown.  Mostly, home has helped me understand my place in this world, where I explore and feel inspired, and where I rest my head at night.  Home is being at peace, which leaves me feeling whole.    

 About Amy: I took my first art class at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1980.  I was five years old and remember thinking what a wonderful, safe place the museum was.  I think I knew then I would someday work in museums.  For the past 18 years, I have worked as an art therapist and museum educator in New York City, Cincinnati and now Philadelphia…dabbling in my own art whenever possible.  I’m inspired every day by my students, my husband and two boys (ages 11 and 7), and the world around me.

How are We Defined by Where We Live?

Fireman's book

Although I knew this all along, my friend Claudia defines herself as a life long resident of suburbia.  The profoundness of this did not strike me until I read the statement on the back cover of her latest collection of poems. How could I have been so blind as to the meaning of this?  The majority of Claudia’s art, both written and often her visual art as well, are somehow intertwined with suburban living.

On the other hand, I have pretty much always been a city dweller. Maybe that is why Claudia’s world as a suburbanite was not apparent to me. I have also realized that not only do the landscapes of suburban, city, and rural residents differ but the way in which people behave also vary greatly.  I can think of countless examples of behavioral differences but will spare the readers such details and bring up one that very recently came to my attention.

Last week I received a book from my friend Nellie.  The book is titled A Firefighter’s Journal: Thirty-Seven Years on the Firegrounds and in the Firehouses of Philadelphia. My father was a Philadelphia Fireman.  One of the things that the author, Robert John Marchisello talks about is how, as a child, he recalls making the sign of the cross whenever he heard a fire siren.  It occurred to me, after reading this, that I, too, often find myself making the sign of the cross when I see an emergency vehicle. I never thought why I did this or even thought much about it at all until reading this book. It occurred to me that this is not only a behavior of city people, but a very specific sub-set of city people:  Roman Catholics.  Possibly only Roman Catholics of Italian descent (that I will need to check).

What types of things and behaviors characterize where you live?


No Pink Flamingos


On our walk last week, we passed a dilapidated shed with a pink flamingo gracing its space.  One of the members of the group commented that yard ornaments were not allowed in her neighborhood.

Because I lived in a very old house in a very old neighborhood, it was not until I moved to a very new area in a very different part of the country that I encountered this peculiar entity that now comes with home ownership:  The HOA.  For those of you as clueless as I was, HOA stands for Home Owners Association.  The HOA was created as a way to assure residents that a certain level of standards are met to maintain housing values and quality of life.



At first, this idea had some appeal to me.  In old city row housing, you are connected up close and personal with your neighbors and I was plagued with quality of life issues. Weeds over 7 feet high, stagnant water collecting and attracting mosquitoes, neighbors sneaking illegal dumping into your trash can (always be aware of who is breaking up concrete as you are bound to find it in your trash),  garbage thrown into your yard, used condoms and drug paraphernalia on the other side of your yard (if you were lucky, if not, this would be in your yard too), illegal businesses and questionable activity going on in the driveway, and, the thing that really got to me most, neglected pets (fortunately, other neighbors would often also rally to help in this case).

Laundry 2
Yards attached to row housing

So if there is an organization that can prevent all of that, sign me up!  But as I learned more about HOAs, the less appealing they sounded.  First, many HOAs have strict regulations about what you can and cannot do with the outside of your home. That may include something as innocent as a vegetable garden.  My old yard, which was a native plant and bird habitat, would be frowned upon in many HOA communities.  Hanging out laundry is a big no no.  Also, there are fees that go with HOAs and those fees may go to pay for things that you may not use or may be morally against.  For example, many HOA fees go to pay for lawn care.  Lawns and the care that goes into them are one of the biggest environmental problems we face.  This is a great surprise to many homeowners and I am not going to get into the reasons why here, but I do know that I will not support such fees.   The other thing, if you are buying a property in a community that has an HOA, the seller is not obligated to disclose the HOA agreement to the buyer, which is often hundreds of pages long anyway.  How do you know what you are getting into? Lastly, there is the irony of the HOA as a potential infringement on the glamour associated with home ownership and individualism.

My former backyard, Philadelphia, PA


Right now, we are renters so such questions can be put aside.  But at some point in the future, we may have to decide if we want to live within the rules of an HOA or take our chances elsewhere.  The real deciding factor will be whether or not we can put out a pink flamingo.


Thoughts on McMansions and Suburbia


When going through an old sketch book, I came across some notes from March of 2000. The notes basically talk about an experience I had in a printmaking studio on one day when, strangely, nobody else was using the press.  I had made two small etching plates of these goofy looking houses.   The reason I made the goofy looking houses was because this is around the time that McMansions were being built at a record pace.  These houses always looked so strange to me because they were over sized homes on way too small lots.  Nothing like the big beautiful stately mansions you see with lovely grounds and mature trees that can be seen on the Philadelphia Main Line and other areas of the country.

March 2000 journal
Sketchbook Notes from March, 2000

So with the press all to myself, I embarked on a frantic pace of inking and printing these etching plates on pieces of very tiny paper.  The irony of this mad printing session was how I was banging out these etchings  as quickly as developers seemed to be building them and the very small pieces of paper sort of mimicked the very small lots on which these houses were being built.  I no longer have the plates, or any of the prints that came from this session as they were very poor quality (and I also have to wonder about the quality of those homes!)

Suburbia the future
Back of Sketchbook Notes from March, 2000


Anyway, the other part of this story is how suburbs have become more than just bedroom communities.  As more people moved out of the city, companies soon followed as well as recreational activities and shopping.  It seems that the suburbs became more crowded than the cities.  The above sketch was my interpretation of where the suburbs were headed.