i paint i write

Live boldly, laugh and make art

How to approach the creation of art: transform and exaggerate reality

When Dorothy walked out of her church at eleven a.m. on November 21st, 1982, on Crescent Road at 1st Street North East in Calgary, Alberta, she might have been surprised to see five identical black and white photographs of mice lined up against the Calgary skyline. The mice, five feet eight inches tall, part of an environmental art project called Mice Are Nice, were an exaggeration of reality.


Dorothy didn’t see real mice in front of her. She saw exaggerated mice. Dorothy was the only person from the church who came over to meet the photographer. Me. Mice are Nice was my senior art project when I was a photography student at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary in 1983.

Create Art That Transforms Reality

Annie Weatherwax, an artist, writer, and author of all we had,  in a June, 2016 article for Ploughshares at Emerson College, said, “The purpose of art is not to depict reality—it is to transform reality into something more interesting and meaningful. And the only way to do this is to distort, exaggerate, or in some way embellish what is there.”

Maybe Annie Weathermax was friends with my art professor from 1976? They both approach the creation of art from the same perspective.

Advice from an art professor from 1976

In 1976 I was a first-year student at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. My art professor gave an assignment to paint an ordinary object. I painted the thermostat in the hallway where I lived on Avenue K. A small gray thermostat.  The size of the thermostat in my painting was slightly larger than the real object. Slightly. 

My professor told me the painting was boring. He didn’t want me to just imitate life, but to make a statement. He told me to make it huge. Be dramatic. Be bold. If I wanted to paint the object bigger, then make it really big.

The image of him holding my painting,  gesturing wildly, speaking emphatically, is a short one-second clip in my mind. His exact words are forgotten, but his challenge to create art that makes a statement remains.

I listened.

I listened and made large mice. Very large mice. I made the mice for Mice are Nice, my senior art project when I was a photography student at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary in 1983.

Here is a photograph of the mice in front of the Calgary Tower at Center Street and 9th Avenue, on November 15th, 1982.


The art was not only the enlarged photographs of the mice, mounted on plywood and cut out, but the photographs of how people responding to the mice.

Advertisements were taken out in the local paper, The Calgary Herald, for the week before the mice started to appear, telling people that Mice Are Nice. This newspaper was from Monday, November 8th, 1982. Can you find the advertisement for the mice in the photograph of the newspaper? I still worry about Petra.

The five mice were mounted to the top of my car as I drove them around the city of Calgary to various locations. The photograph of each mouse was glued to 4×8 sheets of plywood, that had been cut out to the shape of the mouse. This is a photograph of my car when I had to get it back from the city pound. The photograph of my car was taken with a 4×5 camera at 1:00 PM on November 17th, 1982. The city of Calgary gave me permission to photograph the mice on city property. Perhaps I should have asked for a parking pass as well.


How Do You See Your World?

When you draw, or paint, you are creating how you see your world. Your interpretation of reality.

If you were in a still life class, and everyone was drawing from the same display, each drawing would be different. The differences would be because they were from a different perspective, but they would also be different because the artist interprets what they see differently.

My Latest Project

My latest art project is enlarging the illustrations for the book my cat wrote. How To Be a Cat. I used an overhead projector to get the proportions right. The illustrations are painted on 3/4 inch plywood, cut out, and then painted with acrylic paint.



stencil-22What are you working on now? What are you creating?

Please let me know in the comments. I love to hear from you.

About Pamela Hodges

My name is Pamela Hodges. I am a writer and an artist. I write to encourage and to bring laughter. I paint cats, draw cartoons and write books for children and grown ups.

You are an artist. Yes, you are. Really.

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Get the FREE illustrated, sort of a comic book, “You Are An Artist.” Believe in yourself and your ability to draw. xo Pamela

  • Susan W A

    What a great project ! Thanks for opening the lid to the box so some of the rest of us can see outside. Heehee

    • Hello Susan,
      Nice to see you! Sharing what we have learned and what we have done, helps me see how the past continues to the present even only as a small thread.
      All of what we have done helps us be who we are today. If we listen. If we remember.

  • jesspetersonart

    I bet it was interesting to see how people responded to those giant mice!
    I like seeing all your photos from the 80s, life was different back then.
    It seems unfair to not tell a student “paint an ordinary object but exaggerate it” or “make a statement” if that’s what you really want from a student. “Your painting is boring” -ouch, that would hurt. Do you remember if any of the other students did something more abstract? I like how you came back with these huge mice though, you really thought outside the box there. Because people are usually afraid of mice…(my mom is anyway) so blowing them up would be funny. I like your giant cut-out illustration for How to be a Cat! What are you doing with those? Those would be great to display when you sell your book at venues.

    • Hello Jess,
      Somewhere I have a video of the mice project. I will look for it and get it made into a DVD so I can put clips of it on my blog. Some people walked right past and never even looked.
      The illustrations for the book will be in a gallery when I have an “official” book launch party in February at the gallery I volunteer at.
      An artistic land devoid of rules, a happy place to create. Would you please show one of your paintings here in a comment? I would love to see what you are doing.

  • Berdeane Bodley

    Now I have a new computer so here I am again. I remember when you did the “mice are nice” drawings when you were in Calgary. I remember all the work you do & I love you.

    • I love you mom. So nice you can comment again with your new computer.

  • EmFairley

    Pamela, I love your story and I love all your work. As artists, either visual or word based, artistic license is such a blessing. I for one, wouldn’t know what to do without it. It lets me be me.

    As for what I’m working on right now: Yesterday I finally began to write the next book in the series. I’m not writing chronologically at this point, but instead focusing on any scene that screams at me the loudest. I’ve gotten the one chapter finished and have written another scene

    • Hi EmFairley,
      Being you is a good thing. The freedom to create and be who we are is an amazing gift. I wonder why some people hesitate to open the gift?
      Your new book sounds great. I like the idea of writing the scene that is screaming the loudest first. I will try that.

      • EmFairley


        I wonder that too, but can also see the other side, because I tend to wear a mask with most people. There are very few who know the me beneath the mask, but you’re one of them 🙂

        As for writing the scene that screams the loudest, it’s my go-to method of avoiding or combating the dreaded writer’s block. I mentioned in reply to another of your articles that it’s a key scene in the story, and from that initial scene I’m now midway through my fifth consecutive chapter. Even in this section, I skipped ahead a bit to some dialog, and then worked to fill in the gap.

        Let me know how you get on.

        Em xoxo

  • Carrie Ott

    Pamela, I loved this story. I saw the large mice and IMMEDIATELY thought of your large cat cut out! 🙂 And, Petra, oh dear Petra, I hope she saw the ad and trusted her dad that no one at home was mad.

    This was such an inspiring post. I love making art and, today, you made me think about making art differently. You also made me think about the art of writing. Do you think it’s true that when we take a moment, a slice of our life and write it well and loud and tall and wide that we are doing that same wonderful thing? Enlarging and transforming life? Not that it becomes too big to be true, but big enough so we can see without squinting?

    You sure got me thinking today.

    I so appreciate that.

    I bet Dorothy was a curious and generous person in her life. I hope I am like Dorothy.

    • Susan W A

      lovely = ) comments, Carrie Ott!

      Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm, your insight, and your praise of Pamela. Sounds to me like you are like Dorothy.

    • Hi Carrie,
      So nice to see you here. How fun that you thought of the large cat cut out when you saw the large mice.
      I love how you applied the concept of making art to the art of writing. Yes, I agree it is the same. Writing enlarges and transforms life.
      You are like Dorothy. Curious and willing to be brave.

  • I’m working on my first novel. It is about a blind teenage martial arts expert, which sounds like an exaggeration already. I’m having fun writing it.

    Thanks for the article!