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

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.

Quick Draw

Chaplin and Dove

My two cats have always spent a lot of time together, sleeping curled around one another, sitting side by side on the chair in my studio looking out the window, or playing, running wildly through the house. They’re mother and daughter, whom we rescued soon after we moved here. They groom each other adoringly and adorably, pushing my repressed maternal button something terribly. They’re the cats I always refer to when people ask if I have children. No, two cats — which always draws a laugh.

Shadows

So, this past week I put them to good use, as more than my surrogate children and unruly minions, and used them as creative inspirations. Maybe they’re my muses. I’ve always said, “I should paint them.” But I’ve never gotten around to it. With nothing else on my plate and feeling less than inspired, I decided to look at them as a challenge and try to draw and paint them freehand and without much thought, giving way to the looseness of my preferred medium.

Dove Sleeping

None of these are meant to be polished or complete as a formal painting. They’re just quick little sketches that took me no longer than a half-hour at most. My biggest challenge was to draw fast enough to complete the pose before they stretched or turned a head in response to a truck rumbling by. Only the first was done from a photo. The rest are from life, catching them in the moment.

Lump 'a Luv

They’re perfect models; their only fees are a few crunchies each morning and evening and lots of love and kisses. Those are my kind of prices.

This post is dedicated to my friends who inspire me with their encouragement. What else are friends for?  Thanks, LeeAnn.