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.
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’m getting ready to teach a beginners’ watercolor class that starts in a couple of weeks and goes through early August. This is a first for me to teach this many people at once. But it’s a good start since Dave and I hope to do more of it as we spend more time in Mexico in the future.
So I’ve spent this week putting together my “curriculum,” deciding on what concepts to include and what I want to demonstrate. How do you distill 30 odd years of experience into 6 classes that give people the basics and enough confidence to continue to try more? That’s the challenge.
Looking through our photos I found this guy from our trip to the St. Louis Zoo last year and thought what a fun subject he is.
I love him for so many reasons, not the least of which is he has sun-lit hairs that make me smile. So I’m deciding whether to put him on the menu. He’s a little challenging but he’s got a lot of elements to show what you can do with watercolor without getting too fussy.
My class is at Ephemera, our newest addition to the Lower Town Arts District. Kristin Williams, the owner, has been doing a super job with marketing, and the class is about full! Looking forward to starting this new adventure!
Fez, Morocco was our last stop on our world tour in 2005 before heading back to reality and our lives. If moving to Mexico could be considered reality. At that point it didn’t seem very real, or sane, for that matter. After two months of constant travel I was tired and weary of ever-changing landscape, customs, food, and trying to find cheap but decent lodgings. Morocco was a bit of a homecoming since we’d been there before, but we’d never been to Fez so it wasn’t familiar territory.
We managed to find a lovely pension on the east side of the Medina, recommended by a Moroccan we’d met on the train. He probably got a fee for finding folks like us but we didn’t mind. It was a nice place with clean rooms and friendly staff. Plus, it was just outside one of the bobs, or gates, to the souk. There was constant foot traffic of laden donkeys and streams of people going to and from the busy souk. It’s hard to describe such a place since the alleys snake endlessly through the old city such that it’s easy to get lost, and most foreigners like us are well advised to hire a guide. Which we did. My only regret, paradoxically, is that I wish we’d just explored on our own and not worried about getting lost. You can always pay some young boy to take you to the nearest bob and then hire a taxi to get back to your hotel.
The second or third evening we did decide to adventure out into the adjacent neighborhood to the east of us. This was reached by way of a winding street through neighboring storefronts that wound up a low hill into a nontourist area of the city. We like to find these spots to see how the locals really live and get a feel for the people. It was early evening, not yet sundown, with people out shopping in open air stalls and visiting. The streets were alive with people strolling and chatting, children playing, and they looked at us, these strangers with strange faces and dress so unaccustomed to their streets. We wandered into a small grouping of stalls selling produce and food to order. At one we stopped to talk with a man making some sort of flat bread to ask what it was, whether sweet or otherwise. He had only to give us a taste to convince us this was something we had to have! Yummy and warm, fresh off the griddle, it was the perfect thing to eat and stroll.
Further along the way we came upon a long line of local women, heads covered in scarves of various design, bodies clothed in kaftans, the traditional garb for women, seated along a sidewalk curb in serious discussions. This was obviously their social time, gathering in the evening to talk about their day or other topics. How familiar it felt, and yet I envied this connection they had with one another, coming together as part of their daily existence while we are stuck behind our computers, televisions, and endless schedules. More than anything else, this line of women spoke to me of community, family, and sisterhood. Though I could not understand their words or begin to know what they talked about, their story reached out to me of this ancient need to connect and share each others’ lives.
I’d lived in and around Chicago for nearly 15 years by the time September 11, 2001 came about. I worked in healthcare, managing a series of community health programs for a local chapter of a national nonprofit, all of them concentrated in the Hispanic and multicultural neighborhoods of Chicago’s west side. Most of my program’s clients were Latino, but Chicago being the cultural microcosm that it is, we experienced a much broader ethnic mix than just Puerto Rican and Mexican. We had blacks, some Polish kids, a smattering of Asians, and even a Palestinian teacher. I loved this cultural stew I found myself in, and I felt I was finally experiencing the real Chicago.
Dave and I lived in a large condo building in Berwyn, a west side suburb adjacent to Chicago, at the time of September 11, 2001. Berwyn is a working class neighborhood with a larger percentage of Mexican immigrants, but there are other groups that live and work there as well. Every morning I’d walk to the gas station next to our building and buy a Chicago Tribune to start my day. The gas station was owned and run by a couple Middle Eastern men. They were efficient, kept the place clean and orderly, and quietly dispensed change to me and standard pleasantries on my daily trips to their business. I never asked them where they were from. It never seemed necessary. They blended in with the rest of my experience.
I began to wonder about the two men after September 11 and hearing reports of incidents of harassment of people locally who looked Muslim. It concerned me that regardless of the atrocities in New York we would indiscriminantly turn on others just because they appeared to be Muslim. A few mornings later, as I handed my money through the safety window at the gas station to one of the Arabic men, I asked him if anyone had given him any trouble. He looked at me ,perhaps a little startled, and said,” Pray for me.”
I told him I would and wished him good day.
He and his partner left several weeks after that, turning the gas station over to someone else. I never heard of what had happened, why they left. But I still pray for him, and all of us, that we look beyond appearances and seek out what lies within each others’ hearts.
To give you one small update, I didn’t get awarded the featured artist for the up-coming Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital Arts Ability show which will be this Fall. I consider it an honor to have been invited to submit just the same. There have been other things, however, that have come along that have been even more rewarding.
Sometime shortly before the Lower Town Arts & Music Festival I received a call from Easter Seals West Kentucky art program manager, Darlene Davenport, asking if I’d be interested in providing a workshop for their adult clients sometime in June. I have a soft spot in my heart for Easter Seals having worked at the Chicago Metro Easter Seals for six years about a decade ago. It remains one of my most memorable and rewarding jobs. So in spite of my trepidation I gave Darlene an enthusiastic YES! and scheduled a time to come tour the studio and discuss my eventual workshop.
The Easter Seal adult program here serves adults of all ages from early 20’s and up. Their disabilities run the gamut from cerebral palsy to autism to traumatic brain injury. They participate in special activities such as the art program, as well as attend adult day care. The facility is bright and open with caring, capable staff. It’s a happy place in spite of what one might think given the seriousness of the disabilities seen among their clients. The art program is managed by Darlene and her assistant, Hope Boone. They’re both friendly, welcoming and infuse the small room with a sense of fun, color, and contagious creativity. When I visited, Hope was working with about 8 clients on a project drawing trees with colorful crayons and paints on muslin to be turned into wall hangings. The pieces were tremendously individual, each with its own strengths and personality — tall, skinny trees, trees with movement, trees of every shape. I went around the table and talked with each of the clients, and I knew immediately that the workshop would be a lot of fun if I could come up with a way to accommodate my watercolor style to their abilities.
The workshop I’d been asked to do is part of a grant program through VSA Arts, an international organization where people with disabilities learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts. (I happen to be a member and participate in their registry due to my deafness.) Artists are selected to provide workshops with clients developing a collaborative piece of artwork that will then become part of the Easter Seals West Kentucky 5th Annual Heart and Soul Art Celebration. This annual fundraiser features art from clients and local artists, as well the collaborative pieces created through these workshops.
I decided, after a lot of deliberation, that I would simply sketch out the painting I had in mind and then begin working on it while the clients began painting their own “practice” pieces using watercolor paints that I supplied. My choice of subject was a pool of koi because of their colorful nature and fluid, flowing shapes and movement. I figured everyone could related to these fun fish that don’t rely on a lot of detail. The painting would be all about color and movement and hopefully reflect the fun of the workshop.
Once I’d started the two main fish in the composition, and with the six or so clients busy painting their own fish at the main table, I called individuals up to my easel one at a time and asked them to paint sections of the painting on their own.
I chose the colors and dipped the brush in the paint to ensure the right amount of paint and water, but each person was free to paint their area however they chose and to their level of ability. Lines and detail weren’t so important. Dribbles and drips were allowed and not fussed with. The colors washed on and the painting began to come together in a delicious way. I was touched by each person’s concentration and enthusiasm to be part of the painting. I sensed that something more than a painting exercise was going on. A shift in energy within me had transpired as the painting came to life, as it most assuredly did.
My worries had been that something meaningful wouldn’t result from my workshop, that I’d lack the ability to communicate or integrate my experience with that of the clients. Would they be up to it? But I needn’t have worried as each of them approached the work with a calm self-assurance. I was the one who was scared, not them.
So, I made some friends who helped me paint some koi in a way that I would not or could not have done on my own. I had one of the best creative days ever and more than anything felt so lucky to have participated. Afterall, it wasn’t just my painting. It became theirs as well, and that’s reflected in the signature I affixed, “Stefanie Graves & Easter Seals Clients.”
If you’d like to see the finished painting in person and be part of the Heart & Soul Art Celebration, mark you calendar for Thursday, September 16, 6:00pm at Maiden Alley Cinema. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling 443.1200 or 444.9687. I can’t think of a more worthy cause or a better way to spend a Thursday evening this Fall. All proceeds from the art auction benefit Easter Seals Western Kentucky.
This week has been hectic to the point of having to let something slide, and then ended up being the daily paintings. What painting I did was to finish a commission I’ve been working on for over a month now. Some commissions come with the idea and images laid out, making the whole process easy to get under way and complete. Others, like this one, require planning out the composition with the client, a more conceptual approach. There was a whole phase of trial sketches done for approval before the final composition was decided upon.
When you’re putting together a composite picture made up of several elements from a variety of sources, it takes quite a bit more effort to makes sure that they all work together, that light falls in the same direction and that the perspective is right.
This particular commission is to be a retirement present for a women who has worked for the last 30 years advocating and lobbying for children’s healthcare policy in Washington, D.C. for a national children’s health organization. The children are at play doing what healthy children do naturally, a tribute to her several decades of work on their behalf.
Besides changing from Daylight Savings Time, there are a number of signs in Lower Town that Autumn is here. Grass is cut only sporadically these days, the leaves are falling faster than I can keep track, and a lot of people have decorated their yards for Halloween or Thanksgiving. I’ve seen pumpkins and fake spider webs. Lots of mums in bloom and a few orange lights strung across porches. The apartment house on Madison where Linda lives didn’t have its usual fright face in the windows. I missed that.
But just down the street from me Rex and Anita have festooned the entryway into their yard at the hedgerow with an arch of cornstalks and a bright little pumpkin that almost goes unnoticed as it cowers by the base of the arrangement. I thought it would be an interesting composition to focus on the dried stalks to show how something so drab can actually have its own beauty from light reflections and the fun curves that come with the drying process of the corn plant. The pictures I took showed both the structure and the stalks up close. Today’s painting encompasses a part of the arch and the lonely pumpkin in shadow. He’s sporting a little dappled light from the sun peeking through the hedges.
I’m back in town after a quick trip to Chicago to have my CI processors adjusted. Part of the post-op rehab that is part of learning to hear well with your new implant. Things are moving along nicely there, and I’m well pleased.
Today was catch-up because of my two day absence from my studio. Looking through a gazillion emails and answering phone calls. I also did a good bit of work on my second commission that I’ve been planning out for over a month. Finally, I was able to get down to work on the daily painting in late afternoon.
The pumpkins across the street in one of my neighbors’ yards shine brightly at me in a nice tableau as I look out my studio window. Some of the arrangement she’s made is too much for me, but I love the pumpkins next to the squatty ceramic pot. I honed in on what I liked to make a tight composition of the pumpkins and the pot. The boxy shape is a bit of a wooden wagon that’s too cutsie for my tastes. The yellow flowers add a touch of brightness and provide an additional play of color. Rather makes me think of Halloween and autumn.