Thursday, January 10, 2013



I wish I could give credit to the person who said, "Life begins at the edge of our comfort zone." , but can't find the source, which has something to do with a clogged memory.  I have taped it up on the wall as inspiration when doubt about a new direction or project looks me in the eye.  I'm often amazed, with all the experience and opportunities I have been given, at what a small comfort zone I can get in to.

Last week I started taking figure study classes.  They are the first in over 40 years, and as an artist, that is not something to be proud of.  The instructor is a well-known painter whose work I have admired for years.  I found out two things from the first class, in addition to figure study.  I am more comfortable teaching than learning. and the woman who is teaching spends an enormous time studying with artists that she admires. The last fact was a needed kick in the butt.
I do a lot of consultation with other authors and illustrators who are working their way into publishing, a lot of speaking at conferences and schools and I teach art lessons on the weekends.  It is easy to pass on what you already know or believe. It becomes easy to stay in the role of the teacher, but I need to be a student this year in order order to improve my own art and writing. So I will be taking classes on and off for most of the year ...both figure study and plein air, and always in writing. 

What I have ended up admiring over the last few years of teaching and speaking is how eagerly those who can leave their ego at the door embrace being taught.  When you are willing to take a class, learn a new skill, the first thing you have to do is come to terms with the fact that your world needs to expand, to become bigger, and a little uncomfortable as you start your learning curve.  But it also becomes exciting, and by the end of the class last Friday, I was happily exhausted, remembering that there is no where better to be than at the beginning of a steep climb to new skills and understandings.

For those who have studied with me, embraced things being thrown at you in large doses, thank you for squirming through your discomfort to constantly improve.  For  each  and every time I teach  or speak  I am allowed to strengthen what I know...or to sometimes explore it with you and make a change.     I am learning from you, not only what I know about my craft or don't know, but how to leave my ego at the door when I am the student..

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I was floating in my cousin's pool in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, after visiting her daughter's new baby, and I talked about how scattered my life feels. I recall saying something like, "I wish I had an assignment or a project that ties most of these facets together...writing, illustrating, consulting and editing peoples' work for them, etc. Family is a given, but professionally I can often be all over the map, between plein air painting trips, gallery work, book dummies and writing.

This is the umpteenth lesson that you get what you asked for, but not always in the form you envision it. Thanks to a professional friendship with a dynamic educator, I am starting a short term, intensive project, working with a wonderful Native writer in Anchorage on a history textbook that will explain Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to upper elementary students and to make it relevant and fun. As an ex-6th grade teacher, I know it has to have humour. My job will be to edit, illustrate and plan the format of the book.

So, as I head for Anchorage tomorrow for the first meeting on the project, I must say thank you for a job that is daunting but puts many parts of myself together. Like many creative projects, the deadline is formidable. I think we can do it,
but you may not hear from me again for another three months.

And I can't wait to get back to Alaska.

So, my message is this, I guess. We all lead complicated lives that seem more complicated the more we try to list all the things we do, but once in a while a project comes along that ties things together. When that happens, hope for an understanding family, dust off those tools of organization (I have few), and grab that ring.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


This morning a friend called to say she was going to do some photography at a local farm, 30 acres of row vegetables and orchards that supply one of Sebastopol's most popular restaurants, The French Garden. Did I want to go with her and paint while she was taking pictures?

My first response was that I had too much work to do, too many paintings from other outings that needed finishing touches as Open Studio weekends approach in June, as well as a long overdue storyboard for a book, etc. But, some lovely said, "Is it true that you are going to turn down a 70 degree day of painting and time with a good friend?" So I grabbed my pastels and headed out to join her.

My first reward was foxgloves...on of my favorite flowers, and
the painting you see is called FRENCH GARDEN FARM. It needs cleaning up, and I brought home another that needs finishing. Both are reminders that sometimes when we take time off we can do our most rewarding work.

I realize, with reminders like this morning, how many of my best ideas, my most pleasurable writing, starts with "time off". I think one of the joys of being an artist is that we are always working with our minds. The more disciplined part of our jobs...the cleaning up, the editing, the revising may feel like work, but most good ideas start with pleasure.

In this economy it is tempting to try to create what we think will sell instead of what pleases us, and we feel guilty (or at least I feel like I'm not trying hard enough) when work feels like time off.
So, at schools and conferences lately I have been asking teachers and administrators if it is possible to create a time in the day for unfinished start something that doesn't have to get done, to experiment, so that the students can experience the exhilaration of starting on a new idea and the freedom of a little time off in a creative environment. Schools have authors,, like myself, come and talk to the students about our finished projects, which I love to do. But I also talk to them about how much fun I have had with unfinished, or as yet unpackaged ideas. It is my wish for them as well, that there is time in their day for this, for it is the place where good work comes from.

Friday, April 30, 2010


We went out painting a couple of weeks ago. I packed my pastels and we were graced with a windy, but warm California afternoon at a sheep barn. I remember when my grandparents had a copy of a painting of sheep in the pasture over their couch. When I was little, I thought it was delightful..the sheep were in the distance and the hills behind them made it complacent scene. It was a land I wanted to walk through. But, by the time I was an adolsecent, I thought it was the most boring painting I had ever seen. Sheep, for heaven's sakes, just following what life had to offer.
But here I am looking at things from a more childlike view and I still love sheep. I love the way the sun hits their backs, the shadows on their dirty wool, and the fact that they move like clouds across the pasture. We make fun of sheep. They seem to have no thoughts in their heads, but when you watch them they are contented clouds floating across the land, like cartoon balloons, that change with the light, making them ordinary or dazzling. And then if you stand and watch them or paint them long enough you will suddenly see them moved as if by the same wind running guessed it...the next piece of grass. We can fill those cartoon balloon sheep with whatever thoughts we have that might be complacent... they become vessels for our most peaceful thoughts. But the best part is that I think they are content with being who they are.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Spring may not be officially here, but the calla lillies are coming up and our new granddaughter, Gracie, arrived last Friday. And, like the calla lilies beginning to open , there is so much hope and promise in that beautiful package. Grace is simply beautiful, all 8 pounds, 20 inches of her, crowned with a head full of black hair. And like a good caregiver, on the way home our grandson, Jack, said, after giving it sober thought, "I will be a good big brother. I take care of Gracie." It is his first chance to watch something grow, to teach, to be patient, and to help this little girl make her way through life.
And, of course, he will soon decide how she "should be" so that she fits into his life well. But if Gracie is like her mother, she will have a mind of her own. For those of us who write and illustrate we know that in the course of allowing those budding ideas to grow up, we have to sometimes just watch and tend them until they are ready to bloom. There is nothing more exciting than a new idea, but sometimes, stories and art have an idea of their own. The painting above was started a year ago about this time, but I kept trying to make it into something else, something calmer (actually I tried to tame it down to make it look like a pastelist's work that I admire). After a while I put it away, and when I took it out to look at it again, I remembered what it was all was not just about the beauty of the flower but also the energy of spring. So I quit trying to tame it, and let it be what it wanted to.
The same thing has happened with many of my stories, of course. I have to keep getting them out and asking them, "Who are you? What are you made of?" instead of "What can I turn you into?"
So, I could probably learn a deeper meaning to Jack's serious words and apply it to my own work. I will take care of you. I'll let you sleep when you need to, and when you are ready I will help you grow into who you are meant to be.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


For those of you have joined my blog after August and watching Julie and Julia, you will know that it has only occured to me in the last few months that blogging is just another form of writing, and I am a writer. At first, a year or so ago, it seemed like foreign territory. I was a picture book writer, not a blogger for an invisible audience of adults.
But a couple of weeks ago I went to a local SCBWI event and listened to Annie Fox speak. One of her main messages in a talk that was so informative about use of the internet..the tweet, the blog, the fan clubs, etc, was that we shouldn't separate one type of writing from another.
I'm still thinking about this, with full knowledge that I am the first to put a label on myself for the sake of having some kind of identity. So, when I started a novel a year or more (I'm sure) ago, I felt my heart beat faster and some kind of grade school mentality creep in that said, "You can't do this. You are a picture book writer, not a novel writer, or a chapter book writer." The voice didn't think to say, "You're a writer, you can do this." And I have decided that if we make each change in our work a bigger step in our minds, filled with fear, our ego has a chance to say..."Wow, look at you. You are trying to write a novel!" When, in truth, I'm just writing in a different voice about a different subject.
So, something in my brain keeps saying for the sake of my ego that writing in different genres is a brave leap, instead of saying, "You're in the same house, for heaven's sake...all you have to do is go to another room and look out a different window."
If you want to know how ridiculous this can all be, I have been a book illustrator for almost 20 years, and moving into gallery art has felt like a big leap. It is just a change in packaging, and getting to know other editors (gallery owners) and other critiquers (buyers). Some of my visions come out in books, and some come out in "wall art", but they are still art, and whether they are landscapes or folk art, they still tell a story. And I think that is one of the basic goals of tell their story.

Annie's talk was a breath of fresh air in a time when we have been taught to claim our identity with a label of what we do, who we work for, and how "successful" we are. I am finding a great admiration for those who do not walk a straight line into fame, but let themselves head into different arenas, even if they feel like they might not be on a path any longer. Steve Jobs has a great talk hosted through, in which he speaks about how we cannot connect the dots in our life looking forward, only looking back. I think it has been, along with Annie's talk, one of the most inspiring talks I have listened to.

And, speaking of being on the path, do you remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood. She got in big trouble getting off the path. She met the wolf, picked flowers, etc....and that all gave her a great story to tell. so for those of you who have strayed off the beaten path, not pigeon-holed yourselves, I say have a most interesting story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Ok, so this my memory of the Yellow Submarine and, to those who know me, it is no surprise that is my grandson's trip underseas. The picture came about because he was part of the first crowd to see the new Aquarium in San Francisco. For a short period in his life that I hope repeats itself, his joy came from seeing life, octupus, turtles, etc. I love the excitement that comes when he moves to a new interest, partly because I still have a kid in me that moves from one fascination to the next. I often feel that this feeling is immature, that I should stick with a set of interests for a while. But the truth is that I want that same fascination all over again and I head for it. I am a fascination junkie.

Last night the gallery I belong to had a reception for one of our plein air painters. He finds his fascination in local scenes, and the ever-changing light and color of landscapes everywhere. But as I get to know him I know his paintings are appealing because he is happy when he is creating them....the whole process, standing in changing weather, painting fast and by instinct after years of practice and always finding something new that he can add to the process. It is this happiness and energy that we feel when we see his work.

In a conversation last night, a supporter of the gallery said my art makes him happy because it makes him feel like a child. He also said that one of my prints from the north reminds him of Chinese art. He had lived in China when he was younger. He did not evaluate my art, just told me how it made him feel, and picked a logical reason why he liked it. I think what he could feel was that I was happy and somewhat full of childlike abandon while creating the art. There is something inside of me that believes others can share the feelings we have while creating someting when they see it.

I admire people who spend as much of their time possible doing what makes them feel full of energy. Often when we do things that make us happy, we refuse to feel like we have done any work. When I wrote one of my picture books, I kept trying to find things to improve in it because it wasn't as hard to write as some of my others. My editor finally said, "Not everything needs to be hard to be good." Somehow we have equated work and quality with sacrifice, and if things are easy, we feel we should be "working" on something harder. I would like to think that working on our own happiness is the best career we could have, and while it may take energy, it is good energy, a chidllike energy that other people can enjoy as well.