An unexpected turn of events presented the next subjects for my women portraiture series, ”You’re So Pretty.”
Last fall Dave and I were invited to dinner with some friends in San Miguel de Allende at Paprika, a popular restaurant with an outdoor courtyard and nightly performances. That night there was a group performing on drums accompanied with fire dancing. I thought it would be fun.
We found a table off to the side of the area to be used as a stage and watched several other folks come in to enjoy the evening and have dinner. We ordered and soon a group of three women and one man came in wearing jaguar headdresses and animal print costumes and began setting up sound equipment. They reminded me of the indigenous dancers that performed periodically at festivals in San Miguel.
Soon they stepped up in formation and began their synchronized drumming, thrumming together in a fast pace, the tonals of each drum blending with each other.
The women each had painted their faces and bodies with black tribal markings. They dressed in scant exotic leggings, scarves, and tops. Bangles hung from their hips, feathers from their earlobes. And while they had a male counterpart, he wasn’t the lead.
I don’t think I’ve ever listened and watched a group of women drummers. They mesmerized me with their intricate rhythms. It was only them and their drums, creating a melody that pierced me. I became part of the sound, part of the music that emanated from their drums.
And then there was fire added to the performance. A crown was placed on the smallest woman’s head and then ceremonially lit while she whirled and flew with this headdress made of firey feathers.
The whole evening was infectuous, powerful in the strength of its performers.
Maybe I was just carried away, but the performance felt so singular. I couldn’t remember seeing another performance with mostly women who drummed, danced with fire. Living in Chicago I was used to seeing young boys downtown drumming on overturned plastic buckets, performing for change. But this was different
Damn, they were good. They were mighty. They were women.
I’ve known Kelsie Gray for most of the time I’ve lived in Paducah. I’ve known her through a few transitions in her profession, first as a college writing instructor, then painting houses for a living after that gig disappeared, and then suddenly realizing that instead of seeing house interiors she’d painted posted on her social media page I was seeing a burgeoning window restoration business. It was sort of like watching a butterfly transform before my eyes.
I looked up and wondered how all of that happened.
I watched her make over a lot of historic windows, and saw her go to workshops to hone her craft. She made a crazy trip to New York City right during Covid to work on a restoration project there. She accidentally cut herself with all those sharp tools routinely, wore a lot of bandaids on her fingers, groused about comments she got at Home Depot from contractors as she stood in line to buy materials, and celebrated her victories as she got better at her job. All the while transforming decaying ugly windows that looked like they were ready for the junk heap into beautiful pristine pieces of history worthy of saving.
When I started this project I put together a list of professions I thought would be illustrative of some powerful things that women participated in. Window restoration didn’t automatically pop into my head, but Kelsie did. Because I couldn’t take my eyes off what she was doing and accomplishing. Every day there was something new on her feed about her latest job and some of the other things in her life. She’s single, owns her own business, is passionate about what she does, holds herself to high standards, and is as funny as heck. She also has a soft spot for animals which endeared her to me as well.
So I knew I had to include her.
Kelsie’s workshop is a short walk from my house in a nondescript storefront that has gone through several iterations, the latest before her endeavor being a hotdog stand and lunchette. You can’t see what’s she’s up to from the huge plate glass windows in the front because the mini blinds are always pulled all the way down. Inside is a place that brought back my childhood in my dad’s carpentry workshop down in our basement. Boards of various sizes, widths, and kinds lined the back wall while benches loaded with accouterments for her work hugged the sides of the room. On a pegboard above the workbenches hung saws, clamps, and miter boxes. A blackboard announced her business name, “Kiss My Sash” with the month’s work stats listed below. There was serious consideration going on behind the artistry. The place smelled of wood and glue and growth.
While I took pictures and she worked on a window destined to return to its former home, we talked about what restoring windows was like from a woman’s perspective. Kelsie being young, single, pretty (there’s that word), and fit makes her an easy target for comments from others who work in the trades. Some are surprised to see someone like her at a worksite deep in the weeds, so to speak, removing old windows and working on restorations. Her opinion isn’t always heard or welcome unless it comes by way of a male ally. Whistles and unbidden comments are common.
I guess they can’t see her work, that beauty of her craft, before them.
I had such a great time interviewing Kelsie and seeing her work firsthand. I loved getting a peek into her world. As far as I’m concerned she’s a rising star and someone I’m not only happy to have included in my project but a woman I’m proud of for all her strength, perseverance, and the beauty she creates.
If you’re not a woman you haven’t experienced it. The unwritten beauty code. It entails more intricacies and detail than the Magna Carta but is known by women throughout the world by the time they reach puberty. The need to smile, to be nice, to be thin, young, sexy. In short, to be pretty. Whatever else we might become in our life, that last requirement, to be pretty, sits atop everything else. If you don’t believe it, try being of the female persuasion.
I finally got tired of this ridiculous bar that we women must meet after seeing one too many “You’re so pretty” comments on Facebook of women posting pictures of praise-worthy achievements. Being pretty has nothing to do with earning your doctorate or technical rock climbing.
Being an artist, my brain switched to its creative side to find out what good trouble I might get into that could address this inequity. While going off on a tirade with David about how offensive and belittling this need for women to be pretty beyond all else, I had a flash of inspiration. Fifty portraits of 50 women doing something they loved or were passionate about. I needed to find those women and paint them, show them in action, tell their stories. Whoever they were, whatever they looked like, young or old, regardless of race (especially), they needed to be seen for what they have done or what they do. Because that is the bar that all humans should be measured against, whether they are men or women.
I am well into my third portrait of my series of women that I’m painting for my project, “You’re So Pretty.” Somehow it’s escaped my thoughts to blog about this until this morning when a calendar notice sounded on my phone for me to publish a blog post. Evidently at some point in the year I’d scheduled that task for myself, committing to posting blog entries at least quarterly. Dave ventured that what with all my painting, photographing, and interviewing women I surely had lots to focus on.
Oh, yeah. All that! I guess I do have a lot of progress to talk about.
The project logistics are still working themselves out as I proceed. I’ve sent out some grant applications, been awarded one from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, received a nice write up in The Paducah Sun, and I’ve posted a bit on FaceBook. Yet there’s a story in the making as this project moves along, and I want to make sure I’m documenting it, getting those details down. So far it’s been both fun and amazing. And, wow, are there some really incredible women out there!!
To date I have received permission from 10 women to be included in the project. Most are local and all are dynamic people. Covid has slowed me down from getting together with everyone because I want us all to feel safe together without masks, and some of the portraits may be in interior spaces with more than just my subject. So it’s a little complicated. But I have photographed half of those women and completed two portraits and am well on my way to finishing the third. Not a bad start nor way to end the year.
Our time here in Mexico is drawing to a close. Two months has slipped by effortlessly, one day after the next. Cold nights have turned to cool and are trending to warmer. The air has become even drier as central Mexico heads into the zenith of its dry season. We will be home during those punishing months of April and May before the blessed rains start, God willing, in June.
But what a time these past two months have been! Construction on our outdoor sala and shower began in earnest back in January, soon after we arrived. We have finally been able to move to completion a project seven years in the making. Our dream of a modest place for more outdoor living, perfect here in year-round moderate temperatures, as well as a place for art workshops, morphed into something more elaborate with the added bonus of an outdoor shower space. But then things rarely turn out the way you plan.
One question we get is, Why an outdoor shower? Well, that was a dream since staying at a small hotel on the north shores of Bali back in 2005. Our modest room, that was more like a north woods cabin complete with high rafters and plank built-in closets on one side of the room, had a small bathroom with sink and toilet at the back with a door that opened to an enclosed area open to the sky. It’s “floor” was the ground covered in small river rock, and on the outside back wall of our room was a shower head with a squat stump of wood just below for you to stand on while you showered. In that little courtyard open to the sky there were a few tropical plants and overhead were trees and the blue tropical Pacific sky. Dave and I fell in love with it and vowed we’d make something similar some day if we had the chance. And so we do, and so we have built our own rendition.
During our time here in Alcocer I’ve completed a commission that I obtained back in November. This from a dear friend who has always admired my work. I enjoy doing commissions, but this one was special to create something as a treasure for my friend, something that she had envisioned from one of her many trips abroad.
I also have envisioned a new series which I will begin in earnest once we are back in Paducah. I’ve submitted a couple grants to assist with the series as it will be a long-term project which will need some outside backing. Wish me luck. Watch for previews as things progress.
I love taking walks on nature trails in the woods, parks, or desert scrublands. I recently was in Tucson, Arizona and had the good fortune to explore some of Sabino Canyon, an arid natural area on the northeast side of the city replete with trails for walking, biking, and hiking. I was visiting with friends who likewise enjoy getting out in nature, though they aren’t looking for artistic inspiration. I love the fresh air, the trees, the play of clouds across the sky. I love being out in all of it strolling along looking for whatever new or exciting thing awaits me. I’m not looking for big vistas. I’m looking for the details, the color changes, the unusual. I’m trying to find what others might have missed, or if not, at least provide a different perspective on the ordinary.
It was a beautiful sunny day as we meandered along the dry walkway through the canyon. Cactuses were just beginning to bloom and the snow melt from the Santa Catalinas were providing a torrent of water through the arroyo, cascading over a spillway that usually formed a trickle. The air was fresh and warm. My mind was half tuned to the conversation while trying to explore the images in front of me. The Palo Verde trees cast shadows on themselves from a rising sun, thin elegant branches shaded onto their smooth olive green bark. Saguaro pointed skyward and outward, people in disguise. I wasn’t used to their playfulness so I kept smiling at their poses. My friends caught the mood and we posed in front of several to become saguaros ourselves.
Being creative doesn’t have to be serious.
The cactuses seemed like natural subjects. Beyond the saguaros there was so much variety – a host of chollas, prickly pear, bunny ears, teddy bears, Arizona fishhook. Their colors and shapes dotted the otherwise barren earth, providing food and shelter to a whole cast of characters, mostly unseen, there in the desert. We saw unidentified birds flitting about in the Mesquite and Palo Verde, and others like the common Road Runner scuttling about the underbrush. But there was a lot in hiding, like the mountain lions and bobcats we’d been warned about. And rattlesnakes. Low lying signs at the edges of the paths cautioned us to beware. I kept watching but I never saw one. I’m sure they knew better than to show themselves with all the daytime hikers and bicyclists about. But a girl can dream.
Before we left I heard an insistent cascading call from a clump of trees. Sitting on a high branch at the top of the mesquite was a thin shiny black bird with a pronounced crest and skinny long ebony tail. He kept up his calls and seemed unfazed by my slow movement in his direction. He looked nonchalantly upward and side to side in apparent disinterest at my close proximity. A quick search on my phone told me he was a Phainopepla, a northern representative of the mostly tropical silky flycatcher family. They feed mainly on mistletoe berries, which we had seen in abundance. I lacked the right kind of camera and lens to get a good close up of this fascinating little bird, but I noted his name, delighted to have added him to my list.
These are the kinds of experiences I long for to feed my creativity. Even if I don’t get a lot of pictures, as happened this day, I feel renewed by the presence of so much wonder and beauty around me. Especially in those places we least expect it.
It’s been a while since I taught a watercolor workshop, but a couple weeks ago I sat down with 8 willing and eager participants at Ephemera Paducah to help them navigate the idiosyncrasies of all things watercolor. Thanks to Kristin Williams’ superior market skills at Ephemera, my two-day class was full with a small waiting list.
This workshop, like the ones I’ve conducted in the past, was for anyone with an interest in learning more or trying their hand at this challenging media. I’ve been at this for nearly 40 years, and I still learn new ways to make watercolor work its magic. Even I have my challenges, one of which is becoming a more adept teacher. I lean heavily on my experiences with past teachers who taught me in workshops and classes as I was starting out. And then I’ve picked up some tricks that I found to work well for me.
We started the first day with practicing wet-on-wet washes to get the hang of handling brushes and how much paint to apply versus water. The key is learning that balance – too little water and the paint won’t flow, too much and you either lose your color or produce “blooms,” thin areas of color with ruffled edges. Both extremes are things you want to avoid.
From there my eight charges followed along as I demo’ed a tropical beach scene with a rocky outcrop just off shore with waves crashing behind it and three palm trees in the foreground. I love this picture because there’s a lot going on in terms of technique. Apply some salt at the bottom edge of the blue sky wash and you get the effect of wild spray. Crumple a piece of Saran Wrap into the wet wash in the foreground and you have gentle beach waves once the paint dries.
The second day I introduced a more challenging subject to learn more about painting wet-on-wet as well as how to paint reflections. Again, I provided the step-by-step demo as they followed along, guiding them through the process.
It really is true that when you teach something if you’re doing it right you come away learning as much as your students. Demonstrating forces me think about the techniques I’m teaching, and giving them voice helps to reinforce them in my own mind. At the completion of the lesson I also love seeing my students’ results. It’s always amazing to me to see their interpretation of the image I start with. Each painting has its own style and feeling. The tonality, movement, expression, in spite of starting from the same vantage point, are all unique. That’s one of my favorite things about doing workshops.
Stay tuned for more – I’m planning my next one for early Spring 2019.
One of the places I insisted on going to for our European trip was Groningen, Netherlands. If you’ve never heard of it you’re excused because it’s not well known to those of us in the States. But I had a reason to go there. To visit my friend, Deniz, whom I hadn’t seen since we met in 2002, when I was one of her subjects for Med El cochlear implant research that she conducted for her doctorate. Deniz’s and my backgrounds couldn’t be more different; she grew up in Ankara, Turkey in a somewhat traditional though nonpracticing Muslim family with one sister, still in Turkey, and several close cousins living in the States. I’m a product of the Midwest with a Protestant upbringing and quite a few years older than Deniz. Yet we hit it off during my five days at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, realizing we were simpatico in our views on women’s rights, our hesitance to marry, and our drive as professional women.
We kept in touch over the years, mostly through Facebook. In 2005 I emailed her when Dave and I were in Istanbul to ask about a dessert made of chicken breast that we’d had to see if she’d heard of such a thing. (It’s a real thing, called tavuk gogsu.) She got married a few years after we met and moved with her husband to Groningen soon after Continue reading “Catching Up In Groningen”
Coming to the end of our first week in Europe, we find ourselves in Bacharach, Germany, a quaint medieval village from the 1100’s. We’ve managed three countries in this first week, though it seems a lot longer than that. Starting in Paris I began to adjust to the travel life like Dave and I managed back in 2005 when we rounded the globe in 70 days. Like then, we planned and are managing the trip on our own. It can be hectic and stressful because you figure the details out for yourself, and sometimes as you go. So train connections, like getting here today, take some patience as you find the track and figure out the system the particular country uses. Humming along in the train always brings me back to those past trips and I feel that connection to the groove of our previous times on the road.
We stayed with our artist friend, Corinne, in Vevey, Switzerland, which took our breath away. The beauty of the towering mountains that came down to the edges of Lake Geneva, enveloping it in their embrace was indescribable. We’re already thinking about how to make it back there and experience more of Lake Geneva.
On our first day in Vevey Dave and I took the Vevey lake tour which rounded the eastern part of the lake into Montreux and beyond and then back to Vevey. The day was cloudless with a cool breeze as we skirted the lakeshore. A group of high school students on a trip lounged on the ferry deck with us, laughing and being boisterous as teenagers are wont to do.
Grand hotels and houses from the Bell Epoch period lined the shores at each city, throwbacks to the early twentieth century when excesses were all the rage. With life as it is more than a century on, I wondered if anything had changed.
Driving north out of town the second day we realized that besides being an area prominent for wine (and stunning landscape), we were in the land of cows. Lots of them, and all looking not very much like the ones from home.
Swiss cows come in cinnamon brown and dusky tan with charcoal markings. Their bodies and heads are blockier. The rolling hills, bordered by mountains, were a patchwork of corn, wheat, and pasture with cows grouped in clumps looking decidedly bucolic. I wanted to hug them.
We drove to Gruyere where there’s a castle and a walled city. Lots of cheese. I’ll let you guess which kind. We had fondue and a special kind of Swiss dried beef that was like heaven. Paper thin and with a creamy, smooth taste. More like a mild ham than beef. Dill pickles and pickled pearl onions to accompany it all.
After lunch we strolled around the town’s main street looking at German tchotchkes and signs with cranes, the city’s symbol. It seemed a fitting place since it was a symbol on our wedding invitation.
From Gruyere, Corinne took us to Mont Cheseause, which is little more than a restaurant at the end of a winding country road overlapped with trees and studded with a delightful farmstead here and there.
At the restaurant, we got two different tarts topped with creme, one with raspberries and the other a condensed apple that was the color of apple butter and the consistency of a firm custard. Nothing like it in the world!
We ate at a small covered outdoor terrace in the back overlooking a grand sweeping valley with the Alps rising across the way into jagged peaks. A bit of the sublime.
We drove back toward Vevey, coming into the upper winding streets, high on the hill above the lake. Corinne found a parking spot near one of the grand hotels so we could go in and look at the view from their restaurant terrace.
Walking down some steps we noticed an older woman, perhaps 70, waiting by the outdoor elevator with her rolling bag. Standing next to the railing there, overlooking the lake and mountains beyond, we began talking about our day and what we’d seen. She suddenly spoke, saying it was so unusual to hear English and asking if we’d been to the monastery on the hill above. No, Corinne told her, we’d not seen it. “I just happened to see the sign. You should go there, it’s so peaceful.” When Corinne countered that we were running out of time, the woman said, “You have to follow your own way. I’ve been all over and would do much more, but my body isn’t what it once was. My mind still wants to, but the body has its limitations.” I stood next to her as she spoke, looking at me and over my shoulder to Corinne and Dave. Her eyes were an intense blue and her voice a soothing alto. Beyond reason I instantly felt drawn to her and realized I was on the verge of tears. Her words flowed over me like a balm, and I sensed something in the moment that went beyond mere words or language or even logic. I restrained myself from hugging her, though that was my instinct. She bade us all goodbye and strode away down the stairs, saying I had beautiful eyes. Or so Dave and Corinne told me. I had not heard that part, stunned to feel the tears rolling down my cheeks and wondering what had just occurred. “It was beautiful,” Corinne assured me.
Our little town has recently become embroiled in a discussion about the importance of the arts and what impact they have on our community. Specifically, does the designation of a UNESCO Creative City benefit its citizenry, or is it just an excuse for officials to junket to far-off lands, enjoying the perks of travel and cuisine offered at these host cities? There was lots of weigh-in from our local television station, a few visitors, and many others in the community involved in the arts. Among those comments, I was most surprised by one from the president of Paducah Economic Development, who stated that there are not a lot of “art companies” targeted to relocate here and he considered that the arts make up a minuscule part of our economy.
Paducah received the coveted designation as one of three UNESCO Creative Cities in the U.S. back in 2013 for the City’s important role in the connectivity of cultures through creativity. We were the 7th city to receive the UNESCO designation of City of Crafts & Folk Art, a prestigious honor for any city but especially for one with a population of 25,000 like Paducah. But what does it mean? And maybe more importantly, what does it get us, especially those who live here who aren’t part of the arts community. Why should they care?
Paducah has the same struggles of many small towns in rural areas – attracting businesses, unemployment, aging infrastructure, retention of youth. It sits in an area of high poverty and unemployment with fewer economic resources and opportunities than more populous urban areas, such as Nashville, Tennessee or Louisville, Kentucky, a mere 2 or 3 hour distance, respectively, from Paducah. Its officials work to ensure quality schools and healthcare, opportunities of higher learning through a local community college, a growing business presence, and a vibrant city to attract businesses for growth and opportunity.
One of the things Paducah decided on many years ago was to bet on the arts. They looked to the arts as a way to make their community stand out, as a way to enrich the lives of its people. From that support came a local symphony orchestra, a regional performance center that attracts national musicians, performances, and traveling Broadway musicals, an expanding theater group active in the community and schools, an independent cinema with an annual international film festival, and a national quilt museum with two week-long festivals annually attracting participants from around the world. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of other arts related organizations with a prominent presence that impact the community artistically and add value to this area. I think that conscious decision is what makes this city I adopted more than 10 years ago stand out from others of its size. It’s devotion to the arts was one of the major attractions for me and David when we came here in 2006 to check out the Artist Relocation Program, designed as an economic jumpstart for a blighted historic neighborhood on the fringes of the downtown. Had Paducah not had that emphasis on the arts we wouldn’t have given it much thought as a potential place to transition to as a base for our art careers.
As the arts grew in our community, especially with the Artist Relocation Program, Paducah’s presence as a creative place attracted national attention. It was featured in a number of national journals and publications, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Condé Nast Travel. People traveled here to see its Lower Town Historic Art District, home of the Artist Relocation Program, the National Quilt Museum, its historic downtown, the newly opened Paducah School of Art and Design. Artists, such as David and I, contributed to the community, starting arts-driven organizations that produced annual award-winning festivals and artist-in-residence programs that garnered both national and international applicants. With each new activity, each new program, we attracted people to Paducah who became enthusiasts and champions of our community, marveling at the richness of our little river town, this gem on the Ohio River.
So it was not by accident or fancy writing that UNESCO awarded Paducah its designation. The Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, CVB, knew well the role of the arts in the community and its economic impact on the city. The CVB recognized how the arts elevated us as a creative place worthy of recognition, that attracts others, and that had value for other like-minded communities of culture and art. That vision sparked the opportunity to invest in a wider community that would likewise enrich our citizenry.
Art is all around us. It is in our building design, our home furnishings, the plates we eat off of and the utensils we use. It shows up on our phones, our cars, our clothes. Our cityscape and parks spring forth from its vision, and our monuments stand in recognition of its presence in our lives. Art is more than some extracurricular fluff to fill up our time; it plays an intrinsic role in our lives. After all, we could just as well sit on a plain wooden box if utility was all that was required in a chair, or wrap ourselves in cloth if we only needed warmth and modesty. Art and design speak to something quite basic to who we are as humans. The impulse to embellish, to record our existence, to create is proof through the millennia of human life as evidenced through archeological artifacts.
Because community is more than economics. Community is derived from quality of life, and the arts have everything to do with that. People and companies tend to gravitate toward communities with not only good schools and jobs but also those places with rich culture, a deep involvement in the arts, and activities that enrich their lives. The arts help us to define ourselves, enrich us beyond our means, and bring joy to our lives. Paducah’s place in UNESCO’s Creative Cities, I would argue, benefits everyone by sharing with the world what makes us unique, attracting interest to our creativity, and using that creativity as a strength in building our community. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I believe UNESCO is a tide that has the potential to make our ship sail.
I work two sides of my brain and sometimes it feels like neither functions very well. At this certain age I suppose that’s to be expected. They say doing complex activities keeps the dimentia at bay, and if that’s the case I should never have to worry. To help feed my creative side, at least until I’m “discovered,” I work as a nurse a couple days a week. In spite of the work being extremely stressful and sometimes down right impossible, I love what I do.
Nurses don’t always get a lot of credit. Doctors are canonized and are portrayed in heroic parts in movies and TV shows. But those of us in the trenches know it’s absolutely true that you better have a good, smart, savvy nurse when your body starts sending signals it’s trying to check out early. So this Spring I thought it might be nice to do something a little special for my fellow comrades-in-arms. Something more than a carnation (one hospital I worked for in the past gave all its nurses a carnation on Nurses’ Day) or the hospital-wide activities that aren’t specific enough to let each of those I work with know how special they are.
So I did what I do best with the side of my brain that “relaxes” when I’m at work as a nurse. I painted a picture that could be turned into a banner with each of their names on it. It didn’t take a lot to sell the idea to my manager, and I’m happy to say that if you come to my unit, one of the first things you’ll see when you step off the elevator is my banner. People notice and I like to think it’s made a difference.
Nurse for all seasons, which is exactly what we are.
I love my job because I love the people I work with. They’re an incredible group of people who care desperately about the patients who find themselves on our unit.
I hope you’re never “lucky” enough to meet us there.