Still More Portraits

It’s been a year since I started my portrait project, ”You’re So Pretty,” and in that time I’ve completed six portraits, most of them women from our community. They already show the variety of things that women do. And there are a lot more women out there that I’ve yet to call on that I want to include. Women are involved in so many entities, many we are barely aware of.

Joanna Hay at her office in Frankfort, KY

Last Fall I travelled to Frankfort to meet with Joanna Hay who runs her own production/media company. She describes herself as a storyteller who uses film and video to record and transform pictures and audio into stories, most of them about interesting places here in Kentucky. I met Joanna several years ago when I was on the board of local arts organization that needed some direction in strategic planning. We got a grant from KPAN, and Joanna came to Paducah to guide us through a weekend of exercises. I felt a connection and was impressed with her knowledge and wide range of expertise and interests. Besides her media production business and arts consulting, Joanna is also a violinist who plays in in two groups, Stirfry Musette from Kentucky and Coq Au Vin out of Nantucket.

Joanna Hay, watercolor on paper

As I said — women do a lot of things.

Her portrait includes her installation, “Rivers that Talk and Bridges that Sing,” a sound recording of river sounds and violin music played by Joanna and her brother. Housed in an upright canoe on the banks of the Kentucky River in Frankfort, it is inspired by childhood memory, the threat of flooding and the desire to care for the river.

Back in Paducah I sought out Brandi Harless, the former mayor of Paducah. So, a former politician. But I was interested in what she’s been doing all along, even before she embarked into politics. Brandi is a fellow alumni of Boston University where she received a Master’s Degree in public health. Like me, she’s a healthcare enthusiast and is interested in finding ways to make our healthcare system better. I’ve done that through existing healthcare and policy organizations and providing direct patient care. Brandi is the co-founder of Prevent Scripts, a company that works with primary care providers to improve quality of care of patients with chronic illnesses through a web app. The app helps both patients and physicians monitor patients’ key wellness factors such as intake of fruits and vegetables, amount of water intake, weight, and blood glucose, to help them develop healthy lifestyle habits. Improving health indicators in patients means fewer people developing chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, to begin with. And that means lowering healthcare costs.

Brandi at her Prevent Scripts office

Brandi also became a first time mom recently, putting her into that special category that so many women today are in: working mother. It’s an added stress on women to try to juggle both jobs — because being a mom is a full time job. Having a partner to support you in trying to achieve a work-life balance is key, and Brandi has that in her husband, Adam.

I met Brandi in her home where I also got to meet little Emmett, nine months old at the time. We went to her home office where there was plenty of evidence that Emmett is a presence in Brandi’s daily work life. Puddles of various toys congregated on the floor to keep him occupied while his mom engrosses herself in her business.

Brandi H, watercolor on paper

My composition choice for Brandi’s portrait portrays this juggling act that so many working women struggle with. It’s a testament to their achievements and the dual roles they play in becoming both mom and professional woman.

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