Post Election: What is Mine to Do?

Art at Mary's Place

Art at Mary's Place

A few days have passed since the political landscape was turned upside down. Many of us are still having difficulty wrapping our heads around the political “winner takes all” reality we now find ourselves in. I had to take a break from social media because the sense of collective angst was at times, overwhelming. Besides my feelings as a woman in this shifting landscape, wondering if women will retain their reproductive rights and disturbed by the misogynist rhetoric. I cannot stop thinking about the people in my life: my friends of color, my kid’s undocumented friends who have been here since they were young, and LGBTQ friends who are more like family. I can’t imagine how difficult these days must be for them as the disturbing implication settles in; that this country is not truly interested in empowering them to share equally in the American Dream. We cannot let them stand alone.

So, what’s next? Something came across my Facebook feed on election night from my former Atelier teacher, artist, Mark Kang O Higgins, which expresses the challenge before us; “With the results of today, it is tempting to retreat even further. But if anything, the lessons of this election should lead us all to realize the danger of apathy and non-engagement with the public sphere. This should be a clarion call for all of us to get up off our couches, stop watching crap and advocate for what we believe in.”

I’m a very practical person. I have a habit of asking a simple question when life brings uncertainty, unexpected circumstances, even pain or chaos. What is mine to do? It’s a very useful question to cut through to what really matters within the context of my life at the moment. The answer to that question for me lies both in continuing to do some things that I am involved in, but more importantly, to look for other ways to expand my involvement in making this world, more specifically this country a better place.

I haven’t had to look far. Seattle, along with most cities on the West Coast are experiencing a homelessness crisis of unprecedented scope. I have witnessed this worsening situation through my years of volunteer work at Mary’s Place. (a group of shelters for homeless women and families) It’s humbling and puts your own worries in perspective to get to know folks for which the very real necessity of food and shelter drives each and every decision every minute of every day. Now, I teach Art to the children of the shelter and my husband helps the kids with their homework after school. I have seen first hand, the power of art in the hands of homeless children: it not only brings joy to their world and but nurtures their spirit. My husband’s time with the children provides absolutely critical one on one attention to support their learning. I am quite sure that every shelter in every city has a true need for volunteers of all sorts. You will find that you can never give as much as you yourself receive from the incredibly amazing people that you meet.

I have also found it helpful to get out of my neighborhood and out of my box, so to speak. In August I participated in a potluck with Muslim and Non-Muslim women at Idris Mosque here in Seattle as a part of artist’s, Ann-Marie Stillion’s project, Unfurled. I had no idea what these women’s daily interactions in a Non-Muslim world looked like and deeply admired their grace and strength in dealing with the America which they encounter. By the end of the evening, we discovered that indeed a sisterhood among women still exists regardless of our very different experiences.

As an artist my world includes many other artists. As artists, history shows us that art has always had an important place in reflecting the culture and creating the scaffolding for new ideas to take root. I invite my colleagues; artists, curators and gallerists to join me in looking for ways to further expand the platform beyond the regular audience; let the artwork inspire difficult conversations and remind people of the beauty of creativity and the possibility to inspire change.

I can only share from my own experience, but you only need to take a glance around in your own community to find a place to make a difference. It will look different for everyone and that is part of the beauty of this diverse society we live in. If life already feels too complex, too busy or too overwhelming to think about these things right at the moment, do something simple; join the #safetypin movement to let those who are feeling unsupported know that they have an ally on the bus, on the train or in line at the grocery store. The new political climate serves as an open invitation to step up in specific ways in order to form a more perfect union, a democracy which works for everybody, grounded in acceptance, respect, and compassion. I will keep asking the question, “What is mine to do?” Will you join me?

Read article and see all images at Huffington Post




Nature's Abstractions: Gifts from Glacier National Park

I have to admit, this was my first experience camping in a National Park. I always felt spoiled by the bounty of natural beauty here in Pacific Northwest and spent many camping trips exploring the region with my family. As the kids got older it was more of a push for us to find the time and the energy to put together a camping trip. Camping with three kids gave a different meaning to the term, “working vacation”. Now that the kids were out of the house, my husband and I decided to reclaim and redefine our camping experience by leaving the Northwest to camp in Glacier National Park in Montana.

I had not spent any time in Montana or visited any other National Park so I had vague expectations of mountains, streams, lots of trees, yada, yada, yada. I had no idea of the native, undefined and undomesticated beauty that awaited me. I found myself thinking that I could be on another planet. This was a place that reminded me of a work of art created by a masterful craftsman assisted by the tools of time, geology, and weather. I was not only in awe of the incredible vistas of mountain, meadow and river unfolding in every direction, but was equally drawn to nature’s minutiae. I started looking down as well as out and up. I was propelled to look beyond the panoramic views to what lay beneath.

Literally, with every step taken in Glacier I took notice of a myriad of objects which appeared as living vignettes of abstract art. I found shape, line, repetition, value and color embedded seamlessly in the geology and the botany of the forest, meadow and mountaintop. Surrounded by these small refinements I began to frame abstract work as a metaphor for nature. I realize this is no news flash to the art world but there was something magical about personal discovery.

I came away with a deeper understanding of abstraction, new inspiration for my own work and an incredible appreciation for nature’s gifts. Most of all, I am grateful that places like Glacier National Park still exist and am hopeful that there is a will to insure that these national treasures are protected for generations to come.



Artist Block Meets the Zen of Picking Blueberries

It had been three weeks of walking past the half-finished painting on the easel.  My time in the studio was spent on anything but that painting.  I was instead practicing my finely tuned avoidance and procrastination skills and began to think that this painting might never be finished. I usually painted my way out of “artist’s block” bybreaking into my “just keep going” mantra. Instead, I walked away.  

As a painter, I like to think of myself as an artist with an adventuresome spirit.  After the completion of a major series, I would spend the next few weeks playing with surface, media, subject and techniques. I have always found these forays into experimentation to be valuable.  I had just completed a series of studies and was ready to start translating some of these new ideas to a large canvas.  Somehow, the scale changed the stakes in my mind and I now attached unrealistic significance to a 40 x 60 flat plane in space.  This work was a completely new direction and I was not at all confident that reality could match my vision. I was barely satisfied with what I had done so far.  Worse, I was fairly confident that from this point on I would probably screw it up, a reflection of my own unease about heading into the unknown.

Stuck, and not feeling good about it I decided to set Saturday aside, a usual painting day and pulled my husband with me to a Snohomish blueberry farm.  It was a perfect Seattle summer day: bright sun, mid 70’s, the kind of day that is so appreciated after a week of rain in the middle of July.  I grabbed a bucket and joined the others spread among the rows and rows of the 7-foot tall blueberry bushes. Grandparents worked alongside grandchildren. Mother’s were joined by toddlers at their feet, enjoying the shade and picking up the blueberries that had dropped on the ground.  After walking several rows I spotted the one that was mine to harvest.  It was heavy on top with plump, purplish berries in repeated clusters from the top to the bottom of the bush.  Immediately I realized that just grabbing a bunch would not work as more ended up on the ground than in the bucket. Gathering blueberries required concentration, picking one berry at a time, working slowly and deliberately. Concentration on a simple task and repetition lead to a quiet repose for my mind. Ah . . .  the perfect zen recipe for getting out of my own head.  

At the risk of sounding a bit corny, I had a moment.  The truth is artist block is most likely entangled with other more urgent concerns of life.  Everything we do exists within the context of our life. We all have our list running endlessly and noisily through our heads. In a moment, my complete focus was on the task, choosing the ripe, leaving the green, choosing the ripe, leaving the green.  The chatter in my head stopped and I looked past the branches to the clearest and bluest of skies and simply felt grateful.   I was overwhelmed by how wonderful the world was in this moment.  How lucky I was to be standing under a bright sun on a warm day on this beautiful little patch of the planet. 

It is so rare that I allow myself to be fully present to the moment that I had forgotten the power of a moment to reset your mind and soul.  It reminds me of how a spinning top finds its perfect balance between the wobbling of time and space. In an instant, it spins in perfect stillness before gravity once again assumes its ascendancy.  It can be a great relief to find that moment: it expands your frame and helps you recognize that you are a part of a bigger world.  An openness of heart and flexibility of thinking returns.  

After collecting several pounds of perfectly sweet blueberries I started to think of that unfinished canvas as I was walking back to the car.  I had the simple yet very freeing thought, “it's only canvas and paint.”   I reminded myself that I have made my share of bad paintings. I know there will be more and honestly they are actually the best teachers.  Being afraid of making mistakes has not served me ever. I realized it was time to go make some more on that unfinished piece, or not.  Who knows?  It was time to stop caring so much about the outcome, get back to taking risks and to go get unstuck.  Somehow and a bit magically, my time in the blueberry patch provided the catalyst to confidently return to the studio and my life.

I'll meet you there

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.    


Last Sunday night I had the pleasure in participating in a project and documentary by artist and photographer Ann-Marie Stillion.  Ten Muslim and non Muslim women met for the evening at the Islamic Idress Mosque sharing our favorite foods and a night of conversation, questions and enlightenment.  It was a time to simply get to know each other and learn from each other.  

I sat with a woman from Syria and although she immigrated as a teen, much of her family remains there.  As we talked I thought about the worry and grief that must be a part of her daily life.  How are there any words to describe what that experience of life must be?  We heard of the challenges that these women face in light of the the recent effects of political rhetoric against Muslims.  These good, compassionate women carry a daily burden which shows itself as an elbowed bump from a stranger or a racial slur directed towards them.  

At the end of the evening I think we all realized that we had all been enriched from our time together.  We also recognized our bond as women and voiced our hope and belief in a peaceful planet. 



the way around

the way around

As early as I can remember my father told me, “You can be whatever you want to be.  Your gift is art and you should be an artist.”  He was a rare one for his time and did not follow the parenting playbook that I was sure hospitals passed out to new parents in the 1960s.  I, like most young adults, did the opposite of what my father suggested and took a more practical approach to vocation. I earned my degree in education and became a teacher. Although I loved teaching,  I found what most of us eventually discover about discarded parenting advice: it turned out my father knew what he was talking about.  If there was such a thing as a “calling”, for me it was art. No matter how much I enjoyed teaching, “the road not taken” was always there like a chirping bird sitting on my shoulder. It was a reminder that I wanted to be doing what I was truly passionate about. Family and financial obligations made it seem like a real long shot.

Eventually, I decided to do just one thing as a nod to this dream, an attempt to simply walk towards it.  I was married with a small child and working as an elementary teacher while taking one night class at a time at a local art school.  Four years down the road and three classes short of graduation the marriage ended and so did my art education.  One very distraught and tearful, “Mommy, don’t go.”  was all it took for me to send the babysitter away.  As a newly single mother the world shifted drastically and I quickly realized I needed to supplement my teacher’s salary. I was trained in design so I started doing freelance illustration. But the fast and firm deadlines for major projects proved difficult to manage with a full time teaching job and motherhood.

The saying, ”necessity is the mother of invention” was never more true.   One night I put someillustration board on the floor and painted two rose-filled still life paintings. I had no money for art in our new place and I could not bear to look at blank walls anymore.  People seemed to like them, so I created more paintings. Another teacher purchased one for what felt like a lot of money which led to my first exhibition.  Once, after school, I set the framed paintings up against the back of chairs and invited the staff.  It was a successful day, which led my work being carried by a small art gallery. I started working larger and on canvas and watched my artwork become an actual source of badly needed income.  Five days a week I rose at 4:30 am and painted until it was time to wake my son at 6:45 and then off to school for both of us.  I kept up this pace for three years and stopped out of pure exhaustion but with a bit more confidence in my financial stability. This was the humble but exciting beginning to my new career.

There is no “Here’s How It Goes 101” when you become a visual artist.  From those first small steps it became a never ending balancing act between making artwork, sustaining an income and a maintaining a personal life.  All three remained fluid over a span of many years with an ebb and flow which didn’t always feel under my control.   In reality, this journey hasn’t been a smooth trajectory. It’s one marked by starts and stops, doubts, grit, failures and successes. On many occasions life embedded itself in the most inconvenient ways. Life is life, its not personal and its what we do with whatever comes our way that matters. I learned that no matter what life brings, make peace with yourself and the situation, and move on.

When one of these significant crossroads appeared I developed the practice of asking the question, “How can I keep doing art?”  I developed small rituals and routines related to my art which nurtured what was to become the one sure thing that survived through changes of people, circumstances and places.  I learned I could build the momentum of a career in spite of teaching full time, teaching part time, experiencingthe challenges of being a single mother, becoming a stepparent, the deployment of my soldier husband,  taking care of a sick child, caring for a terminally ill parent, struggling with my own illness and all of the other small hindrances along the way.  Ilearned to pack my studio up in a suitcase, take twenty minutes at the beginning and end of day to draw if larger blocks were not possible and I learned to write when I physically couldn’t paint.  Nothing heroic, just playing the cards no matter how the deck was cut and most importantly . . . to just to keep going.  

If you are an artist its worth it because, on some level, it feels as if you don’t really have a choice. Without art making life would just not be the same.  I’m sure the same goes for any musician, actor, performance artist, writer, poet or filmmaker. You may work at another profession full or part time to pay the bills but your thoughts and dreams are propelled by the object of your true passion . Observing the circuitous route my career has taken I am only left with gratitude for how all of it, even the most difficult of days, taught me and enriched me.  On this journey I am the lucky one, I am an artist. 

the healing power of art

The women of Mary's Place led the way

Next month, an autobiographical exhibition, "Terrible Beauty | under the canopy" opens in Seattle.   This exhibition is grounded in a childhood experience of sexual assault by a group of teenage boys. A few people have asked why come forward now in this very public venue for such a personal subject.  Of course, art can be an incredibly powerful vehicle for expression, but in reality, this series has been years in the making. At the time, the assault was so far beyond my understanding and I lacked any sort of context to make sense of it.  Complete confusion, trauma and a vague sense of shame followed me from that day on and led to my decision before I even got home that day to never tell anyone.  I kept that promise to myself for over twenty years.  The death of my father seemed to be the trigger that washed away that cracked and broken wall. Grief for my father infused itself with sorrow for what was lost that traumatic day several years earlier.  The secret became an overwhelming burden that had to be let go of.  I chose to break my silence and thus began the long and cumbersome journey to healing.  

A few years later in 2006 I was sitting with a group of homeless women from Mary’s Place, a day shelter for women in Seattle.  I grew to know and love these women through my weekly volunteer work teaching art.  I came to see them as some of the strongest and most courageous women I had ever met when I saw how they handled the daily grind of life in the streets.  The subject of childhood sexual assault came up innocently enough in conversation one day while we were painting.  Each one had their own heartbreaking story.  I sat in silence and was not ready to share mine.  It bothered me a bit that I could not speak up.  That was the day that I made up my mind that someday I would take that step into the wider world.  I would do art about this very personal and difficult subject. This process of returning to the day of the assault has been neither short nor easy.  Returning to that very dark space and time demanded honesty, a certain kind of fearlessness and compassion for one's self.  After an initial and difficult self reckoning, the physical experience of getting words and ideas out proved strongly cathartic.  In addition, the repetitive nature of completing certain pieces became a deliberate meditative journey to healing.  Frankly, it stunned me that after completing the workI was left with the sense that a tremendous weight had been lifted,  This mental, emotional and artistic journey had been well worth it.  Going back and giving that small girl a voice has made all the difference all of these years later and I will always be grateful to those women of Mary's Place for showing me the way.

an artist's long journey to healing


TERRIBLE BEAUTY : under the canopy

A young girl making her way home and a carefree bike ride near the woods become an irreparable encounter with a group of teenage boys. In that moment, her life shifts for years to come.   Amy Pleasant, the artist, creates a body of work rooted in personal experience as a survivor of childhood sexual assault.  The result is an exploration of trauma, healing and the nature of memory; the adult looking back as an observer applying visual language to a life changing event in the woods.

In the moment, the mind’s protective detachment created distracting innocuous snapshots which morphed into iconic visual images of that day’s horrible events.  The physical details of the terror and trauma yolked with the victim’s perspective, laying in the dirt under that tree.  These images became visual metaphors which marked the day the world became a dangerous place. The psychological carnage left in its wake led to a long and complex journey all survivors must take to reclaim their dignity and power.

Installation artwork, paintings and media reflect a personal exploration of the memory of trauma and the imagery which lingered through the years.  The exhibition creates a microcosmic visit to that day in the 1960's embedded with the suggestion of the passing of time, restoration and integration. The closure of a decades long journey giving a voice to the young girl without a voice. The exhibition will run June 2 - July 3, 2016 at Gallery 110 in Seattle.  Opening: First Thursday Art Walk, Thursday, June 2, 6-8pm.  Artist reception:Saturday, June 4,  artist talk @ 7:00 (6-8pm)  Gallery 110 hours: Thur. -  Sat. 12-5.


Exhibition made possible byArtist Trust.

a way back

A Grand Entrance

difficult to remember,

only a suggestion of a memory,

life before illness,

a faded spot on the wall

slightly evident from a distance,

the shrunken world which followed

this house; half cocoon now.

is there courage enough to step outside into the sun?

among those who have been going about their lives,

while i have waited

sitting here with my argumentative companions; hopefulness and hopelessness.

shall i put them both out of their misery and go out for a walk?

a bird's magic

With illness and recovery from surgery comes lots of firsts, including a car trip over 30 minutes for the first time in three years.  My friends took me to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia.  The most amazing natural beauty is complemented by those creatures who use the delta as their stop on the way to other lands.   We saw dozens of bald eagles, swans, two great horned owls, a variety of ducks, finches and one tree filled with nine cranes.  My euphoria of being out in the world, in this most beautiful corner, could only be matched by the visual metaphor of the birds provided. The world is a beautiful place.

an invitation to grow up

As an artist, I was drawn to the visual and allegorical exploration of family and generational transition. Perhaps I saw the handwriting on the wall in my own family back in 2010.  My first series, “Family Album” resulted from my mother’s desire to hand down the family albums and the stories that accompanied them.  My aunt was equally interested in passing down what was left of memories of a life fully lived.  The idea of transition was all theory then; that was before the care taking, the witness of the deterioration of the body,  the prolonged goodbye.

Both women died in 2012 just two months apart. My father had passed years earlier. I found the final moment, although expected, was followed by grief that seized the heart like a vice only to slowly loosen over time.  The grief supplanted by a shift in perspective, an openness towards those who have passed and a confirmation in my own belief that we really are all doing the best we can with who we are.  

Families are a messy business.  It is the most common and the most intimate of all human experience.  Our experiences range from love, anger, joy, frustration, jealousy, ambivalence, compassion.  Its all there.  We can’t run from who we are and a large part of who we are lays at the feet of these experiences.  The death of our parents are an invitation not only to grow up, but an opportunity to look at it all through a different, more objective lens.  Perhaps these writings and paintings serve as a vehicle for remembrance, closure, redemption or forgiveness, or simply a way to make peace.