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

Watercolor Workshop!!

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.

Painting in progress in an earlier workshop

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.

From an earlier workshop

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.

Tropical beach demo – with salt, masking, and applying Saran Wrap, this demo has it all!

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.

Mermet Lake Blooming – finished painting

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.

Making A Splash

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!

When a Quilt Isn’t a Quilt

Design detail sketchA couple weeks ago someone asked if I could paint a 4′ X 4′ quilt on a piece of plywood to hang on their barn. Not what I usually do, but I’m always up for a challenge and I figured this would be pretty straightforward. We worked out a deal, and I started on the piece last week.

My first task was to paint the entire board, front and back, several coats of the background color, cream. That’s probably the easiest part of the whole exercise. Kind of like painting a barn. When that looked smooth I begged some help from a true quilter, master fine art quilter, that is, Caryl Fallert, one of my neighbors and a good friend. I needed the use of her overhead projector to get my 5″ X 5″ picture of the quilt to the 4′ X 4′ size I needed. She converted the file to grayscale using some Photoshop magic, and after printing it out on acetate we went to work aligning the image to fit with my panel. A couple hours later I had my outline complete and was ready to start the actual process of painting.

The painting begins!
The painting begins!

So far, I’ve completed the vine that coils around the border, a meandering undulating cord with loopy leaves and tulips and bud stems. The little isolated yellowish ovals you see are the centers of the roses that make up the middle of the quilt.

You can see more of the vine and tulip detail here:

A tuliip and bud stem on the border vine
A tuliip and bud stem on the border vine

Stay tuned while I add in rose medallions and fine tune.

Special Talents

Crowds at the 2010 Lower Town Arts & Music Festival
Crowds at the 2010 Lower Town Arts & Music Festival

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.

Starting the main fish
Starting the main fish

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.

A client adds her touches to the painting
A client adds her touches to the painting

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.

The finished painting and me
The finished painting and me

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.”

"Koi of a Kind" watercolor on paper, 21" X 30"
"Koi of a Kind" watercolor on paper, 21" X 30"

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.

Unexpected Invitation

An interesting letter greeted me yesterday in my mailbox. The folks from Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital just keeping it comin’ it seems. A big envelope showed up yesterday from them, giving me hope that they’d sent my check for the painting I sold from the Arts Ability 2009 exhibition. Wasn’t that, though something just about as good. They’ve invited me to submit artwork for the 2010 Arts Ability show as the featured piece for show promotion. I must have touched a nerve with them since they kept my other painting for continued exhibit in their new gallery on campus and now have chosen me as one of the candidates for consideration of this honor. I can submit up to 6 paintings. Gotta start some new work to have at least one hot off the palate for them.

I’m realizing, too, in looking back at my archives that I’ve been at this blog for a year now. Wow, a lot has happened since then – certainly a lot of paintings and new energy in doing this. Thanks to all of you who check in to see my work and what I’m up to. You’re a valued part of my process.

The Sparrows Continue

Sparrows Developing
Sparrows Developing

The little fluffy sparrows are filling out on their limb. I’ve created a composite composition from a couple of the photos I took when they were all feeding during the cold snap from a week or so ago. The two at opposite ends create a nice pair of bookends of action for the two still sparrows in the center. There’s less detail in those two, creating small ovals of quiet that want to fade into the grays and browns of the bare tree and the solitude of winter. The detail in their fellow sparrows creates a nice counter weight.

I’ll post the final outcome tomorrow of this winter scene in miniature. In the final stretch I’ll do the tree branches and add a little more color and details to the birds to bring the composition together.

Out On A Limb

Sparrows in Progress
Sparrows in Progress

The days have been cold, really cold, for over a week and have just today climbed above 40 F. I’m a sucker for the birds who are here during the winter, especially if I’m suffering from the extremes. So I’ve been religiously adding food to their feeder almost daily from the beginning of the cold snap. The sparrows are the most frequent visitors, with cardinals, juncos, and a few titmice and black capped chickadees every now and then gracing my presence. The feeder is just outside my studio window so it’s a constant distraction, source of entertainment, and for today, inspiration.

I took pictures last week of the sparrows sitting on a distal limb to the side of the feeder, waiting their turn. They line up in a plump row, little balls of fluff. I’m not particularly a sparrow fan, but everybody’s got to eat. And they’re kind of endearing at this time of year, so round and fit so well with the browns, grays, and sepias of winter.

Sparrow Detail
Sparrow Detail

I sketched out a composition and am in the middle of putting in the sparrows. The only one facing forward has come to life today. The background is a very direct wet-on-wet wash of French Ultramarine Blue, Indigo, Sap Green and Windsor Blue with a tiny touch of Permanent Rose. While it was drying I added a strategic sprinkle of sea salt for effect. Look for the little sparkley circular flares as the taletell sign. Come back tomorrow for another progress report.

Signs of Autumn

Rex and Anita's
Rex and Anita's

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.

Rex and Anita’s

Watercolor on paper

5.5″ X 4.5″


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Never Say Never


“I never use cobalt blue.” I owe this post to Bill, who I said that to today as I looked at one of his small watercolors that he does regularly, “Like candy,” he said. The sky in that particular painting was a wonderful soft blue gray that looked like he’d swiped a piece of the real thing. I’d stopped in for a visit at his studio after I took a picture of the pot of geraniums on his front porch. It seemed only right to at least have a word.

Since the subject of the day’s painting came from the Renzullis it made sense to use cobalt blue for the background, Bill as my inspiration. But I wanted the saturated blue that you get with full strength, which is what I used. With the flowers being the main attraction I wanted just color in the background for them to bounce off of. A little sprinkle of sea salt while the blue was drying gave some interesting effect. To keep things consistent, I decided to use the cobalt for the pot as well, adding some burnt sienna to form a warm gray. I did that in several layers, and I’m loving the effect. Actually, the whole painting was really fun and quick, with some surprises along the way, having not used cobalt blue for so long I’d forgotten how wonderfully it combined with the sienna. I can see I’m going to be adding cobalt blue back onto my palate more regularly.

Thanks, Bill.


Watercolor on paper

5.5″ X 4.5″