Carried Away

Fire and Drums: Marcella Cruz, Jenny Salas, Chiva Lira; Watercolor on paper, Artist: Stefanie Graves 2022

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 performance begins

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.

Chiva Lira, Jenny Salas, Marcella Cruz

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.

Marcella Cruz drumming and singing

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.

Jenny Salas, fire dance

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

Marcella Cruz dancing with fire

Damn, they were good. They were mighty. They were women.

What’s it like to be a woman in a “man’s” profession?

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. 

Kelsie Gray, Window Restoration, watercolor on paper

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.

Using the heat gun

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.

Kelsie’s business “Kiss My Stash”

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.

A piece of history

You’re So Pretty!

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.

Julie Zickefoose, naturalist, artist, writer

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.

Amy Baker RN, APRN, Oncology Nurse Practitioner

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. 

Kelsie Gray, window restoration extraordinaire

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!!

Marcella Cruz, Jenny Salas, and Chiva Lira
Dancers, Drummers, Performers from Mexico,

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.

Kelsie Gray, in progress

Another Form of Telephone

Story Line
"Story Line"

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.

“Story Line”

Watercolor on paper

$500 unframed

Pray For Me

Pray For Me
"Pray For Me"

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.

Title: “Pray For Me”

Medium: Watercolor on paper

Size: 8.5″ X 6.25″

SOLD

Mexican Flowers

October Flowers
October Flowers

We love Mexico during the Fall, especially at the end of October when they begin preparations for Day of the Dead. Offrendas begin to go up around town, commemorating deceased family and friends, and the flower vendors around the jardin, the town center, go into full swing. The vendors who sell dried flowers year-round now have a greater variety and more fresh-cut flowers. They especially like marigolds and cocks’ comb, two of the most traditional for the celebrations.

The flower vendors are one of the first people that you notice as you come into the jardin from the west side. They sit on low stools with buckets and buckets of flowers surrounding them and spend the time making intricate baskets filled with dried flowers. The colors and the tableau they create doing their work is unforgettable.

October Flowers

Watercolor on paper

4.5″ X 5.5″

SOLD

Taking a Break

Los Globos
Los Globos

This week marks the final preparations for a new beginning, getting a second cochlear implant (CI) so that I’ll be able to hear bilaterally for the first time in nine years. I had my original CI replaced three years ago after it unexpectedly failed ( a very rare occurrence I’m told) and that made me realize how much I really needed a back up. In spite of rarity, things do happen, and we have two ears for a reason.

So this Thursday I’m going under the knife again to give myself a spare and also a means of improving the hearing I get with one CI. As I said, you have two ears for a reason, mainly because it gives you better hearing and better sound localization. Call my name and I probably won’t be able to tell where it’s coming from, especially if you’re not in my field of vision.

So this exercise and commitment to daily small paintings will be on hold for about two weeks while I travel to Chicago and have this procedure done and recuperate. I’ll have my computer so I can still keep in touch with those of you who’d like to leave comments on existing blog entries or send me emails. Soon enough, I’ll be back making these fun little watercolors that reflect my wanderings.

I’m posting a small painting today from our first trip to Mexico, a study for a larger painting of the balloon vender in the jardin, the center square of San Miguel. This is also one of the free and loose paintings without a lot of preliminary sketching. My main concern was how to execute the balloons so that they looked fresh and unworried. The big painting sold but I still have the study, a great little gem and rememberance of this gentleman who we no longer see.

Los Globos Study

Watercolor on paper

10.5″ X 6.25″

$50

Contact me for purchase

Flight of Fancy

Winged
Winged

I rarely, rarely do anything that’s fantasy. This image just spoke to me from the first moment I saw it, and I had to make it mine. The original picture is a white moth taken through a window at night. Thanks to my fellow artist friend, Melissa, for graciously allowing me to use her photo as my reference. She has a great blog to match her wonderful art — artist books and paper sculpture — and this was taken during her artist-in-residency at I-Park in Connecticut through her studio window.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll do the actual moth, but I wanted to turn it into what I saw when I first looked at the photo, which was a ballerina. Of course it wasn’t, except to me. I just thought it was so cool. My lady has no discernible slippers, and she has some fanciful antennae. She’s really some kind of lady turned moth. You can decide what she is to you.

Winged

Watercolor on paper

4.5″ X 5.5″

$50

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Fellow Travelers

The Guide
The Guide

Whenever you travel you can’t help but notice other people out on the road with you, cameras slung around their neck, that vaguely lost appearance, and the map or guide in hand trying to figure out where to go or what to do next. Sometimes you meet some really interesting people that way. I met three women on Windjammer cruises back in 1986 and 1989 who are among my closest friends today and are like sisters to me. Other times the people you see simply make up part of the interesting backdrop of where you are. And I love to people watch.

This lady, reading a guide or maybe a map, we saw in Perugia, Italy resting in the square just outside the university. It was a beautiful day in March and one of the warmest we’d experienced since coming to Europe from the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. Students were basking on the stairs of a nearby building and everyone seemed to be enjoying this early Spring day. I cannot say what she might have been doing or looking for. Maybe waiting for someone. Perhaps on a tour on her own. We were happy to rest with her in the sun along with our other fellow travelers, gathering energy for the second half of our world trip that extended through southern Europe, culminating in Morocco.

The Guide

Watercolor on paper

5.5″ X 4.5″

$50

Contact me for purchase