Scott Avett: The Mining of a Soul

“There is no question – God created me as an artist – do I know? No just suspect. But my suspicion is strong.” – Scott Avett

Before I made my way to my seat to watch The Avett Brothers perform, I was given clearance to go backstage and have an impromptu photo session with Scott and Seth. Whenever possible, I like to base my portrait painting on pictures that I take. We were led into a windowless room when Scott had the idea that we should go outside. The lighting would be so much better. I appreciated his understanding of the artistic process. My friend, Danette, was along for moral support and began telling the brothers what a fabulous painter I am. They were instantly curious about what medium I used. They acted as if it were understood that I’m no amateur. I liked the level of respect they gave me without ever seeing a stroke I had painted. Clearly, Scott and Seth had been raised right. They reminded me of my own boys, unfailingly cordial to their elders. The thought occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind being their mom. Then it hit me, “Is there such a thing as a ‘mom crush?’”

Even though the brothers are a duo, I am doing two separate profiles on them. I’m going to start by focusing on Scott in this one. He lives in rural North Carolina, adjacent to the farm were he was raised. He and his siblings all have land connected to their parent’s. To Scott the land is sacred. There is a kind of comfort born in knowing that your children roam the same woods that you did as a child. When he is not on the road, he has time to devote himself to what could be called the canvas of his home.

“I was just talking to my wife about that yesterday. Since we aren’t touring, I’ve shifted my focus into getting involved with the farm that we live on. I was seeing it just like I would see making an album. I was expressing myself with a piece of land, just like I express myself through music or art. It’s just another creative medium, another approach, another thing to work with.” 

Besides Scott’s family dwelling, there is a small ranch style home on his property. His art studio is housed in it. Painting is another medium he makes use of when he isn’t traveling. He is an accomplished visual artist. Now in his forties, Scott is mindful of giving time to each of his creative gifts. On the day we spoke, he had scheduled the hours between 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. to paint. Without discipline he admits he could easily be distracted with sound checks, phone calls and the like. Scott is training himself to concentrate on the job at hand. “It’s all about the efficiency of time,” he says. “It’s what I’ve got to do to make the space to let the magic happen.”

And his paintings are magic. Scott’s art comes from the depths of his soul. He creates from what he honestly experiences. “That is how God works through us. We have to trust that.”

His oversized portraits of the people he loves most (himself included) stop onlookers in their tracks. Scott’s most often painted subjects are his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Although documented in banal settings his brood looks anything but ordinary. I marvel at Scott’s ability to encapsulate energy with his brush strokes. And in the age of body obsession and plastic surgery I marvel at the vulnerability of Sarah to allow herself to be captured as she is. Not many women would permit their image to be on display without make-up, breasts exposed. The honesty of it is somehow comforting. If the real Sarah is enough we all are enough.

“Motherhood” 2012
“Fatherhood” 2013

In the loft of the ranch, is a recording studio. Plenty of magic materializes up there too. Recently the band released their eleventh album, “The Third Gleam.” The songs were written before the pandemic and unrest of 2020 but you’d never know it. The lyrics give voice to the collective struggle of humanity making sense of a world unhinged. The album does not leave the listener without hope. The chorus of track 4, “Back into the Light,” is a worthy mantra for anyone who feels overwhelmed. Listening to Scott and Seth sing it is a sure fire way to keep despair in check:

“Sometimes I don’t see love in anything

And just when I surrender to my shadow

I snap out of it, and step into the light

I step back into the light.”

Having crossed the threshold into the second half of his life, Scott has become an increasingly thoughtful man. He is deeply spiritual but not in the conventional way. Lately he has been immersing himself in the teachings of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. When I ask which religion he subscribes to he responds, “I think I would say what Woody Guthrie said when he was asked that question, ‘All of them.’”

Scott’s take on listening to the heart is that it’s the same as listening to God. He admits that he hasn’t always honored that connection with much discipline. “Getting involved in the general idea of following the inner voice, that’s a very recent endeavor for me. But I think that I have been nonstop dabbling in it forever. You know, for as long as I’ve lived.“

Having parents like Jim and Susie were the cornerstone for what would eventually become  heart-centered living for Scott. He was always supported in being himself. There were never any expectations for what career path he should take. Hard work was honored in their household. Scott and his siblings were encouraged to follow their instincts while their parents simultaneously followed their’s. The family attended church on Sundays. In order for their children to believe in themselves they needed to believe in something greater than them.

Scott is grateful for the stable foundation he was given. “We’re all so privileged that our folks loved us and said you are a sweet child of this planet. A child of God. You are. You are. And go be that.”

With that kind of support, Scott never had a need for a master plan. He was comfortable coming from his center and going through the doors that felt right to him. To many, not having your future mapped out, sounds counter productive. Not so for Scott Avett. He toured with his brother for the first time when he was twenty-six. He was in the midst of shutting down a gallery that he’d opened. He walked through the door of expressing himself musically without giving thought to how much time it would take from his career as a visual artist. If he had considered that he may have done things differently. 

“So I guess in that regard, not having a master plan and focusing on what was before me worked for me. I always needed to be free to know that I was following an instinct and creating for some purpose that I saw as sincere, that I saw as true to my inner voice.” 

In the 2018 documentary, “May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” viewers are given an inside look at the band from their origins to a collaboration with legendary record producer, Rick Rubin. At the closing of it, their father gives evidence as to why his sons are so grounded.

“They have a job; this job happens to be making music, and they happen to be fairly popular with it. That ain’t the end of the world. It’s nice to be successful at your job. I mean if you were an accountant, or you were a plumber, or you were whatever, it’s nice to be successful at it, but you can’t let that go to your head.”

When the end of my 30 minute interview was approaching, Scott’s publicist broke in to say it was time to wrap things up. Being reeled in always makes me nervous and I told him so. I had so many more questions I would have loved to ask him. Instead of ending the conversation Scott extended it. He said, “Don’t feel rushed. Let’s do another. Let’s do one more before you have to go.” I was touched. It confirmed to me that what I was told is true. Scott Avett is a kind man.

I told him, “Originally my final question was going to be, ‘Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?’  But talking to you made me wonder if our true calling is just being ourselves. Everything else stems from that. Does that make sense to you? Can you give me some feedback on that?” 

“Yeah it does. It does. I do think you are dead on, Sue. I think regardless of what my calling is I’ve got to be true to myself. I’ve got to be myself, and one step further, I’ve  got to go out there and try to do things that have love at their core. But make no mistake, I’ve got to serve me first, you know? I have to. And that doesn’t always look like love to the world, but it looks like love to me. 

Yep, it’s official. I have a “mom crush” on The Avett Brothers.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

*Coming up next: Singer-songwriter, Seth Avett, member of the American folk rock band, The Avett Brothers.

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Brandi Carlile: Coming From the Heart

For me, I started answering the call at such a young age that I’m mixed up with what I’m called to do and what I love. – Brandi Carlile

I have never known anyone whose parents approved of them dropping out of school until I talked to Brandi Carlile. No one in her immediate family finished high school. She explains it like this, “It was one of those familial things where it just happens, you know?” By the time Brandi was a teenager she was pretty much playing music full time. It was getting harder and harder for her to see school as an element in her future. So she left.

A lack of a diploma does not translate into Brandi being uneducated. It’s obvious when chatting with her that she is well read. Poetry is woven throughout the lyrics of her songs. I am so moved by the beauty of her music I admitted to being a little starstruck to her. “Oh my goodness, no need for that!” she said. “I’m just a boring old mom sitting here in my pajamas.”

There is truth in that. Brandi does make the case for ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. She was raised in rural Washington state and for part of her childhood lived in a trailer on a dirt road. Yet she was gifted with a scenario that many of us long for. She grew up surrounded by love.

The confidence born from being cherished made it easy for Brandi to move forward with her goal to be a performer. She never had to take the time to build up her self-esteem or dim her light. “My parents and grandparents treated me like an adult and like what I said mattered. They didn’t smirk or smile at my dreams or things that I couldn’t control in my life – like being gay.”

Growing up, Brandi assumed her love of playing the guitar and singing meant that she would one day be a rock star. She now sees sharing her music as just an aspect of her calling. “I’m more of an entertainer than I am a singer and I’m more of a singer than a songwriter. But they are all a means to an end, which is just to be with and love people.” 

The Looking Out Foundation is extension of that love. Brandi, along with band members, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, founded it in 2008 to empower those without a voice. Learning about Elton John and his Aids Foundation in a fifth grade book report made Brandi associate the heroic qualities of celebrity with activism. “Since then every artist I became infatuated with has had a heavy philanthropic angle.” Recently Brandi celebrated her 39th birthday with a virtual concert and fundraiser for two equality advocacy groups. Phil and Tim performed alongside her. They ended up raising over $100,000.

Attending one of Brandi’s concerts is like being in the center of the frequency of love. Her hope is for the show to open up parts of her audience that have been shut down. She wants to make them laugh, but also to make them feel comfortable crying. Her performance is a give and take kind of thing. “I’m absolutely being fed every day that I do this job. I need that, you know, to feel like a whole person.”

A big part of who Brandi is can be found in her faith. When I asked her what her spiritual practice is she said, “Well you could call me a Christian, but I don’t really need to use that word anymore just because I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s got a lot of baggage attached to it. I don’t think Jesus requires it. Brandi admits to having a problem with the box the Conservative Right has placed God into. She believes, “He is bigger than our holidays, bigger than our rules, bigger than our cultural slant, bigger than the color of our skin and all the things that we use to define God, you know? She has studied the bible and is disillusioned with how it has been interpreted. 

“There’s a whole movement of change around it. There’s a reformed ideology and a way to interpret the Bible that I feel is more authentic. But it requires context, and vision. And a love of language. When it’s tainted with a puritanical, Western lens it can become really militaristic. And that never was the way the text was meant to be interpreted. It’s much more poetic than that.”

Brandi knows first hand how biblical teachings can be used to hurt others. It happened to her was when she was 15. She was at church waiting to be baptized when her pastor refused to go through with it because she was gay. Pastor Tim waited until all of her friends and family were present before he made that decision. As painful as her pastor’s actions were, Brandi came to terms with the need for forgiveness. Today she shares her story to help other LBGTQ kids who feel shunned. Brandi addressed Pastor Tim on social media, “I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in God, not in humanity and not in myself.” Posting her feelings was just part of her healing process. She continued to work through her heartbreak in her 2018 Grammy award winning album, “By the Way, I Forgive You.” 

Right around the age of 27 another calling began to form inside Brandi. She realized that playing music was only a part of her life’s purpose. She was ready settle down and have a nest of some kind. “I just woke up one day and I was like, oh my God all I do is tour and sing.” She married her wife Catherine Shepard in 2012. They welcomed their daughter, Evangeline, in 2014 and their second daughter, Elijah, in 2018.

“Oh, I’ll never hit the big time without you, 

So they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine, 

‘Cause I am the mother of Evangeline” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

Brandi’s declaration of love in the song, The Mother is so beautiful it gives me chills when I listen to it. I told Brandi when her first born arrived she must have had a shift in focus. What was essential in her life had changed. She still wanted to share her gifts with the world but her ego didn’t require her to be a mega rock star.

“Yeah, you interpreted that perfectly. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I knew that if I were to take what I do to another level, there would be a separation required. Not just physical, but emotional, because it would take more focus and it would get more complicated. I’m not trying to sound complacent, but I’m extraordinarily happy with my life as it is.”

Based on a photo from Brandi’s Instagram feed, my watercolor of Evangeline.

“The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you

And when we chose your name we knew that you’d fight the power too” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

She and Catherine named their first-born Evangeline as a manifestation of Brandi’s Christ-centered faith. “I wanted to take the word back from the evangelicals and make it mean the good news again. You know, the love of people, the love of equality and the love of one another.”

They chose the name of the prophet Elijah for their second daughter.  Brandi says, “He was a truth-teller and signifies the returning of the light. I feel like the more we contemplate faith and God, the closer we grow to God, despite who you call God or who God is to you. And so, I like for my kids to be a reminder of that, you know?”

That made sense to me. I shared with Brandi that my daughter, Bridget, was pregnant with her first and had painstakingly chosen the name Bernadette for her baby because it means “brave as bear.” She wanted her girl to be a force to be reckoned with. 

“That’s so tough!,” said Brandi. “I told my wife I don’t want a cute name for either one of the kids. They’ve  got to have strong, powerful names. Where would Hilary Clinton be if her name was Candy? Or fucking Brandi?I mean I was given the most 80s pop-princess name and I’ve been fighting it my whole life!”

It was time to wrap up my interview. I had one final question for Brandi, “Is it possible for everyone to make a living by following their heart?” 

“Oh man that’s a good question,” she said. “I think that you can make a life by following your heart but not always a living. And I don’t think that you can be defined as successful if you’re not truly following your heart.”

I think that may be the best answer I’ve ever gotten for that question. After I hung up the phone, I felt buoyed up. It occurred to me that Brandi Carlile is more than a dose of positive energy. She is a light.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

*Coming up next: Singer-songwriter, and fine artist, Scott Avett, member of the American folk rock band, The Avett Brothers.

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Dolly Parton: Dreams Begin in Books

 

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“Inspiring kids to love to read became my mission.” – Dolly Parton

I waited over six months for my phone interview with Dolly Parton. When we finally spoke, it felt surreal when she said in her familiar twang, “Is this a girl named Sue?” Talking to this American icon was like having a conversation with someone that I intimately knew but had never met. When she asked me what book I was reading, I told her I would get to that at the end of the interview. With only 15 minutes allotted to question her, I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of time.

Most people are familiar with Dolly’s multifaceted career. Truth be told, she is almost as well known for her looks as she is for her singing and songwriting. She jokes that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Her fans have always seen right past the superficial and connected to her heart. And she has a huge one. 

One of Dolly’s proudest accomplishments is one of which many devotees are unaware. Inspired by her father’s inability to read or write, Dolly established her Imagination Library program for children living in the county in which she grew up. Her vision was to foster a love of reading among preschoolers by mailing them a specially selected book each month. Today that program spans four countries. Since its inception in 1995, it has given away more than 133 million books.

Dolly’s love of books began with her mother reading her the Bible as they cuddled. She was the fourth child born to her parents, Avie and Robert. Dolly and her eleven siblings were raised in a one room cabin in the hills of East Tennessee. What her family lacked in material things, they made up for in love.

Knowing of Dolly’s spirituality, my first question to her was whether she thought her childhood was illustrative of the Bible verse, Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God.” On the surface, her father’s illiteracy denoted adversity, but it could be looked upon as a gift in disguise. I wanted to know, had he been able to read, would there be an Imagination Library?

“You know what? That is a very good point! And it is so strange that you quoted that scripture. I swear to you that today I was looking out the window and I was thinking of that very scripture, and for you to repeat it is very odd. But you’re right – if Daddy had been able to read and write, the Imagination Library probably would not have happened.”

Watching her father struggle deeply affected Dolly. She remembers her mother having to sign her school papers because her father was too embarrassed to try and scribble his name on them. Creating a program to support literacy was the best way she could honor him. Robert Parton was prouder of Dolly’s Imagination Library than of any of her other accomplishments. He loved that children referred to her as the “book lady.” 

“We thought Daddy was the smartest person in the world, and he was! That’s why I think the Imagination Library meant the world to him. It gave him an outlet. He really had wonderful ideas and input for me because he knew how it felt not to be able to read. We were never ashamed of Daddy. He was sometimes ashamed that he couldn’t read and write but we never made him feel like that ‘cause he was the best.” 

Her father’s illiteracy wasn’t the only thing working together for the good in Dolly’s life. In many ways, growing up poor was the perfect setup for her to be the “book lady.” The struggles of her childhood made her keenly aware that not having books in the home often translated into feelings of unworthiness. A child may be brilliant, but without being read to, they will be behind in school. Part of her Imagination Library’s mission is for all children to know that they matter. One of her most famous songs, The Coat of Many Colors, is about her experience of not fitting in when she was a grade schooler. She feels fortunate to have been surrounded by a love that softened the blow.

“Having such a loving, accepting mother made us all feel special. All little kids were special in our world. If I hadn’t had the good mother I did, ‘The Coat of Many Colors,’ and all the things that we do for kids probably wouldn’t have happened. So I do think that life can be part of a pattern for good for those that do believe.”

Because she is such an advocate for children, it is a little surprising that Dolly and her husband, Carl, never had any of their own. Although, if you look at it from a higher perspective it makes perfect sense.

“I have thought about that often through the years. If I had had children of my own, I probably wouldn’t have been able or willing to be as devoted, and spend as much time with other peoples’ children. So I really do think that was meant to be as well. That, you know, we didn’t have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine.”

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I painted this in 1999. The girls in it were supposed to represent a young Dolly and Oprah. I knew that, like me, books had been the launching pad for their dreams.

Without being exposed to books, it’s hard to say if Dolly’s career would have unfolded as it did. Books fueled her imagination. They showed her a world that she wouldn’t have known existed without them. She credits them for helping her to dream a bigger dream.

“As a child I loved books. You know, I don’t ever remember learning to read. It just seemed like I always could. Because we were poor and there were so many of us, we didn’t have books outside of the Bible. I used to love the smell of books, the touch of books, and the pictures that I saw in books. I was so fascinated about the world beyond the mountains and just what all that was about. I think books really trigger the imagination of a child. I mean, what could be more exciting than the things that pictures and words can create in a child’s mind?”

Over the years, Dolly has learned that books do more than educate and entertain her. Reading makes an opening for the light to come in. By absorbing the author’s creativity she fuels her own.

“When I read, I think, ‘Oh my gosh! How did they ever think of that?” I’m just amazed at the gift that God has given them. When something they’ve written touches me I think, ‘I hope I can do that with my writing.’ I really try to get into what they’re thinking and where their heart is.”Dolly-Parton-Childrens-Album450A big part of Dolly’s success is her ability to see life through the eyes of a child. In 2017 she used that gift to make a children’s album, “I Believe in You.” All of its proceeds benefit her Imagination Library. On the cover she is pictured in a blue gown with butterfly wings. Butterflies carry a special significance for her. She still recalls wandering off and chasing them in the fields when she was young.

“I always loved butterflies! They were so beautiful and seemed so harmless. They’d just flit around, and I kind of related to them in my own personality, I think. Just trying to be colorful and gentle, and curious. You know the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is something I identify with. Come out of your shell and shine. Be all the colors you can be! I’m a girl of many colors.”

With that last answer, Dolly was being summoned by her team. My fifteen minutes with her were up. Before disconnecting, I answered her question about what I was reading, “Right now the book on my nightstand is a biography of Joan of Arc. She was a true, true badass. Her connection to God gave her the strength to do what she felt called to do. Kind of like you, Dolly.”

She laughed, “Lord, I’m no saint! I’m a scoundrel and a saint. I don’t claim to be anything other than a person that’s trying to do as much good as they can. I’m more like the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ I thought I could. I thought I could, and I did!”

That must be all it takes. One little, colorful person sharing their light with another and then another and then another…. And before you know it the whole sky is lit up.  

*Watch Dolly read “The Little Engine that Could” on “Goodnight With Dolly.”

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*Coming up next: Grammy award winning, singer-songwriter, Brandi Carlile

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Gordana Biernat: #ShineOn

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When you are tapped into the unconditional love of ‘All That Is’ you are tapped into your true self. And when you know that, nothing in this world can touch you.

Gordana Biernat makes her home in Sweden. Her preferred method for an interview to the States is Skype. No phoners for her. She wants to look into your eyes while she talks to you. When our session began, I couldn’t help but blurt out that she is even more beautiful than in her photographs. She thanked me and said, “ So are you! I do feel beautiful from the inside, and I think everyone that is connected to their core are experienced as beautiful people. That’s why I say ‘so are you.’ I can sense it. There’s something in the energy coming from you.” 

I set my sights on profiling Gordana after I became one of her Twitter followers. She has close to 375,000 of them. Her tweets are sound bites on the perception of reality and consciousness. Although simple, they resonate with the heart as truth. Just ask Oprah. She included Gordana in her SuperSoul 100 Teachers – a group of awakened leaders and visionaries who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity. Her book, #KnowtheTruth was published in 2017 to wide acclaim.

Oprah and Gordana

Oprah and Gordana

After talking to her, it was clear that she was not raised to be the empowered women she is today. So many of the people I’ve interviewed for this series were launched by beautiful, supportive families. Not Gordana. She was brought up under the regime of a harsh father. He believed the only role for a women was to be in service to the patriarchy. When she was four months old, he pressured her mother to give Gordana to her aunt in Serbia to raise. That abandonment turned out to be a blessing for Gordana. Her aunt was a beautiful soul. “She was amazing. I loved that woman because she knew exactly who she was. She was a strong woman. She was my father, my mother, my everything. When my parents came to take me back to Sweden, when I was six, I really didn’t want to go. I couldn’t fit in with my parents, I didn’t feel them.”

Thus began the dark years of Gordana’s youth.

“My father was a very dominant man. He thought that his way of seeing reality was the only way of seeing reality. I was a girl. That meant I shouldn’t have an education. I should be in the kitchen. I had to do exactly what he wanted me to do.” In her spare time (which she didn’t have much of), she read. She loved wondering about metaphysical things. Where do the stars come from? Who am I? Why am I here?

One of the most misleading beliefs we have in our society is that our thoughts do not matter. The truth is that thoughts become matter. – Gordana Biernat

One crisp, cold winter night when Gordana was eleven she lay in her bed pondering.

She couldn’t fall asleep so she allowed her imagination to take her to the outer rings of the Universe. “I wanted to see where the night sky ended. If I pushed my mind, could I see what was beyond it? The more I pushed, the more galaxies and stars popped up.”

She thought the ‘real’ night sky may give her a clue. She looked through her window, over the rooftops, but there was no ending in site. “That’s when it hit me! The stars out there and the stars in my mind are made of the same stuff. There is no difference between the thoughts inside my head and in the reality outside it.”                                                                                                                                                               

That realization sent a tingling through Gordana’s body. Everything in our physical existence was a thought first. Everything. She knew what she had experienced wasn’t safe to share with anyone. It must be her secret. Grasping how powerful her mind is helped Gordana survive those dark years. Even so, growing up under her father’s regime left her exhausted and disheartened.

When Gordana was 19, her life took on a new direction. Seeing her future husband, Gregor, standing in a doorway changed everything. “When I first saw him, I could feel my heart jump. I heard a voice in my head say, ‘It’s him!’ which means I must have recognized him. We both felt a connection on a soul level that remains to this day”

Even a bad childhood is a treasure because you can always use it in order to help others. – Gordana Biernat

Feeling loved and appreciated by Gregor gave Gordana the space to let go of the anger she had for her father. To keep the bitterness at bay, she had to distance herself from him.  When she moved out of her father’s house, he was furious. She was no longer alive to him. Gordana now sees his reaction as a gift. “I think that the years of silence from his side were one of the best things that he could have done. It gave me time to heal.”

Gordana gives Gregor much of the credit for who she is today. “He has been like an angel watching over me. Every single day he has reminded me of my beautiful soul. When I talked to my husband about what I grew up with, and he saw it, I could release it. I didn’t have to keep it anymore.”

Gordana and Gregor

Gordana and Gregor

Making the shift from the worldview she had been indoctrinated with under her father’s rule to who she is today happened over time. Gordana eventually came to the realization that by absorbing her father’s belief system she was creating his reality. Not hers. She decided she must begin to trust the “soft inner voice of her soul.”

Do not pretend. Because in the end, being YOU is what you came here to do. – Gordana Biernat

At 31, another person came on the scene that pushed Gordana’s healing to an even higher level. Her son, Hubert Maximilian, was born. She remembers the first time she held him in her arms and looked into his eyes. “I saw the best version of myself in his eyes. I felt that if I don’t know who I am, how will I help this child know who he is in the world? I made a sacred vow to myself that I have to be authentic. And that’s when I started this journey back to finding who am I and why I am here.”

Going from being a new mother to becoming a thought leader took years in the making. When Hubert became more independent, Gordana began a career working as a facilitator of leadership workshops. Although her job was lucrative, she could feel that she had strayed from her true self. All the material she had to write and memorize was stifling. She longed to speak from her heart.

One day, while sitting in their garden Gordana told Gregor of her frustrations. His response was for her to share her truth with the world on Twitter. Revealing her soul on social media was a stretch for her. It was a chancy move, but she was ready to take a leap.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God! If I tweet my unfiltered thoughts then I won’t have a job anymore.’ But I did just that, and it actually set me free. Now I’m doing exactly what I want to do. My purpose has become to help people realize how powerful and unique they are. I don’t need to memorize things. I can just allow my truth to flow through me. Following my inner guidance, following my passion is what lead me to this.”

Another one of Gordana’s passions is her family. She has never questioned that spending time with her husband and son are part of her soul’s purpose. “My love for for them is primary. For me there is nothing in this world that comes before that.” Nourishing that love adds to her energy. It leaves an opening for even more creativity to flow through her.

Thinking is a brain activity; knowing is a gut feeling. – Gordana Biernat

Gordana believes that we all have an inner guidance system. It is our connection to our Source. Coming from our center is what allows our light to shine. No matter how disconnected we are we can all learn how to rekindle that flame. In her book she says, “Every time you deny a desire, ignore a passion, neglect a true calling or silence a truth within you, your spirit fades. Follow your bliss!” Taking our cues from the outside is a slow death. We miss our life’s purpose when we do.

In her early years, Gordana viewed the world through a portal of fear. She believed if she wasn’t afraid that meant she was happy. She has outgrown that philosophy.“Today I understand that life isn’t about dodging fear. Life is about actively seeking joy.” Following your bliss and following your inner guidance are the same thing. Living from the heart puts your life on a whole new trajectory. The clouds part to reveal a future without limits. #ShineOn

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*Coming up next: Grammy award winning, singer-songwriter, Dolly Parton.

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Valerie June: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

IMG_7281-Editmoth_edited-2I feel called to share light and to shine through my art.” – Valerie June

I was delighted when Valerie June’s rep told me that Valerie was on board to be interviewed for the series of profiles I’m writing. I am a big fan of her music. Her lyrics intrigue me. They are a sure sign that she is connected to a higher power. I wanted to learn more about that connection and how it moves her through life. She is a stunningly beautiful woman, but her soul easily outshines her physical appearance. Talking to Valerie is like having a conversation with your favorite guru in funky packaging. She is an evolved soul. Her sweet southern drawl reveals someone who has no pretenses. She has worked hard to overcome her doubts about who she is.

Born Valerie June Hockett, Valerie June, is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Memphis, Tennessee. Her sound encompasses a mixture of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian and bluegrass. She is signed on with Concord Music Group worldwide.

Valerie was raised in a loving close-knit family. Her parents encouraged her to dream. They advised her to put her energies into something that lit her up. At the same time, to be safe, they nudged her in the direction of college. 

“They never really pushed us to become anything in life other than just good people. I feel like my parents always followed their hearts, and so then that was my earthly start to it.”

Valerie is the quintessential artist. Not only does she play a multitude of stringed instruments, she writes songs, poetry and loves to draw and paint. Before her career as a musician unfolded, she found many less creative ways to support herself. Even so, Valerie found contentment.

“I’ve had so many jobs in my life. I tried to do all of them from an inner place. I just feel like you’ve gotta have a lot of heart, and a lot of spirit and soul in what you do, or else what’s the point? So even when I was cleaning toilets – it was like, you know, this is my heart right now. I gotta give it everything I’ve got.”

Cleaning houses is where Valerie developed a spiritual practice that she carries with her to this day. She needed something to occupy her mind while she worked so she began using affirmations to keep herself in a positive place. 

“As I would go dust a house, or vacuum, I’d be saying, ‘Thank you Goddess for I am now beautiful. Thank you Goddess because I am now confident. Thank you because I’m now respectful. Thank you because I’m now mindful. Thank you because I’m now gentle.’ I felt everyday I’ve got to have something to keep me rising, keep lifting me up because discouragement is always waiting.”

Valerie uses those affirmations to this day to fortify herself from the challenges that come her way. She has learned that you have to protect your dreams. When she and her ex-husband first started playing in Memphis in her early 20’s, somebody ripped up a dollar bill, and threw it in their tip jar. 

She laughs, “My ex-husband took it out, and taped it up and put it on the wall and said, ‘Not everyone is going to like what you do.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ So what’s going to get you out of it? You need to just keep quiet and tell yourself things like those affirmations to build yourself up.”

Valerie in Memphis

Valerie Playing for tips in Memphis.

Fifteen years later, Valerie’s career is on a steady rise. In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed her album, The Order of Time, to be one of the 50 best albums of the year. Surprisingly, Valerie says she never made a formal decision to play music professionally.

“Well… I think that’s an everyday decision really, you know? Everyday I wake up, and I look at the world, and there’s so many things to do and to be. I’m interested in so many things because I’m such a huge dreamer.”

Valerie is a believer in the value of living in the now – to a certain point. Owning that she is a romantic, she sees the importance of setting goals in her career, although, she believes there comes a time when you have to let go and allow the work that you’ve done to work for itself.

“I think that you have to do the physical work within the physical realm, working with the physical laws. Because that’s where we are – on Earth. There are other realms where things happen easier and faster. But part of our lesson here, in this school, is to go through that process of planting the seed, watering the seed, giving the seed enough light and nurturing the seed. That can be looked at as pushing, or it can be looked at as just part of the process of growing and just part of dealing with time on Earth and the limitations of this realm. You know, it’s not really a limitation either. It’s just a law.”

Valerie was raised in the Church of Christ. As the years go by, her faith in God deepens and broadens.

“I’m a very doubtful person, which is why my practice is important. It’s the only way I can stay in line. But I don’t have doubts that there’s a power greater than me. I can feel it in the earth I walk on and in the music I get into. I can see it in the skies and in the plants I watch grow and in the people that have come in and out of my life. I can just see it! It’s so visible to me.”

Valerie considers the songs she writes to be living things. She allows them to come to her at their own pace. For her, writer’s block is a near impossibility.  

“The biggest thing I can do is not put any pressure on them and go about my daily life and let them come whenever they want to. I’ll be washing dishes or watering the plants or walking through the airport and they will come into my head. I keep them in my head on repeat until I can right them down. When I don’t get the whole song, I call it a skeleton. I have all these books filled with skeletons.”

Valerie looks at each song she is given as a doorway to another existence. Some of her songs she sees in colors. She describes the place she visited when she wrote, Astral Plain as being “colorful, etherial, otherworldly and iridescent.”

“They have other worlds these song do. My songs are like a portal. When I play for an audience, I hope they get to go to the world they originated in through me. I hope they get to sit in that world where the song was when I wrote it.”

Interestingly, Valerie doesn’t give every song she writes to her fans. The same goes for her poetry and the pieces of art she creates. She believes that no matter what size the audience, beauty shared raises the consciousness of humanity.

“Not everything that you do for your life’s purpose is for everyone in the world. Sometimes it’s just for your best friend or your mom or your dad or your loved one. I feel like every song creates something in the world, whether it’s heard on the radio or not.”

Valerie is grateful for being raised in the church. Her robust spiritual life is her foundation for feeling safe. Even so, at times she falls back into uncertainty and worries about the future.

“How are you going to survive in the physical form is always on a person’s mind, you know? When I do my daily budget, I can get scared and think what happens if…? If, if, if! I remind myself not to get carried away with the future. Be here right now. Calm down. Having people in my life, like my 93-year-old grandmother, who does so many things, gives me confidence that I’m going to be just fine. I’m going to make it. She made it! We have elders in our lives that can guide us when we start to get scared.”  

“Is there a light you have inside you can’t touch? A looking glass can only show you so much.” – Valerie June, Astral Plain

Valerie is a constant reader. She recently came across a book that supports a theory of hers. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry she read that each and every one of us is light. We all shine if we don’t dumb ourselves down. In fact, if an alien with evolved vision looked down on our planet it would see that every human being shines their own unique color of light. It’s like a chemical fingerprint.

“That just blew my mind that we all have different lights! I was like,‘Wow, how beautiful!’ If it’s true that everybody’s light really is different then we definitely have a reason to come and be fearless about shining. Just giving it our all and loving the hell out of it. The world would just get so bright. We would be so elevated. Maybe there would be things in the universe that would open up to us. Answers that we need. Answers that have always been there, but they would become clear to us at a higher level of consciousness, you know? Sometimes I feel like we’re not ready to receive all of the information that’s available. So shining is the only way to get to it!”

And shining is about being yourself.

“Mmm hmm. It’s about being individuals and being fearless about it. Tapping into your inner light is the true reason you came to Earth. If that color is already out there, why do you need to shine? I’m telling you that no color is the same. I don’t care if we got blue, if we got purple, it’s not your shade of blue or purple. So come on out and shine, you know we need it!”

Valerie herself is a colorful person. These days she admits to wearing shiny cloths to remind people to tap into their inner light.

“I feel like we should be a little kinder to each other and live in a beautiful light. If you fail, get yourself together, so you can go back out there and shine. Your light gets stronger every time you dust off and get up. It’s the true reason you came to Earth. You don’t have long here, you know?  You got to keep moving forward. Everyday you wake up just go for it. Just be like, okay I’m the star of this show. I’m going to make it happen today and shine. It is your life.”

All of us being made of a spectrum of colors of light is a beautiful thing to ponder. That lead me to my final question for Valerie, “What color of light do you shine?” 

Looking at the rings that adorned her fingers, I shouldn’t have been surprised when she responded, “Turquoise.”

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*Coming up next: Thinker, writer, speaker and wisdom keeper, Gordana Biernat. She is one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 teachers,

Text and images © Sue Shanahan and Valerie June

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Kirsty Mitchell: A Wonderland of Her Own

Kirsty Mitchellmoth_edited-2“For me being an artist is getting out what is inside of me.”- Kirsty Mitchell

I first heard of Kirsty Mitchell when a friend invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and was sure I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s fine art photography, I dismissed her offer. I already had put Kirsty’s work in the same category as some of the digitally altered, fantasy photographs that I’d seen on the web. Finally, at Mary’s insistence I looked up Kirsty’s website. I was awestruck. Her otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland floored me. She had begun the project in 2008 after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in its creation was Kirsty’s way of working through her grief. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. Absolutely no Photoshop was used to fabricate the magic in her pictures. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.

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The next month when Mary asked me to take a road trip to see an exhibit of Kirsty’s art at the Paine Museum in Wisconsin, I was immediately in. The museum was also hosting a dialogue with Kirsty the evening the exhibit opened, and we planned to attend. I had fallen into the Wonderland series headfirst. I had to see the photographs in person, meet the artist and get my book signed. 

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An awestruck viewer at the Paine Museum

At the question and answer session, I soon realized that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is totally transparent. There are no details of her life that she won’t share. I felt a deep connection to her personally. I understood how she used her art to work through her difficulties. I had done the same thing my whole life.

“I was doing something because it was coming out of me and I just had to follow that calling to see where it would lead me.”

After losing her mother, Kirsty became consumed with making something beautiful in her memory. She confessed to being shattered. That vulnerability is what endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When Kirsty began the series, she was in the midst of a successful career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. For seven years, she worked tirelessly creating sets and costumes to photograph. She had no idea why she was driven to bring this alternative existence to life or where it would take her. All Kirsty knew was if she didn’t express her grief in this tangible form, she could’t go on.

During the journey of making of Wonderland, she had the good fortune of a friend putting her in touch with an “old school” gallery curator. It was a pivotal point on her artistic path. He wanted to know if the photographs Kirsty brought to him were her best work? He made it clear that he didn’t believe so. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small group of images.

“And so I did it. I went cold turkey. I was really frightened that no one would remember me. In that year away I made what is known as the ‘White Queen Trilogy.’ When I came back and I released those pictures is when everything changed. Everybody just sat up and was like, ‘What the hell is this? This is something totally different.’ You know, you have to labor over something if you want people to trust and believe in it and see who you are through it. That’s why following your passion is so important. If your heart’s not in it, how are you going to give it all you’ve got?”

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The White Queen Trilogy

“Nature is intrinsic in my work, inseparable. It’s my inspiration. The woods are my church.” – Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty admits to being an “insufferable perfectionist.” Shooting outdoors meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. She and her production team took days off of work whenever a photoshoot was scheduled. Rain or shine, there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that no matter what the day brought weather-wise, it always gave an unexpected beauty to her photographs. She links this to the energy of her mother. Amid all the little glimmers and changes in the atmospheric conditions, they always felt an undeniable presence with them.

“There is this thing. I worked with a very tiny team of people. There is my husband, Matthew, Elbie the amazing make-up artist and hairstylist, and Katie the model. And then there’s this other person – my mum and she does the weather. I have this mantra, my mum does the weather and we embrace whatever is sent to us. There’s always a reason.”

Kirsty’s spiritual leanings evolved through her mother’s illness and came into focus after her passing. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

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Gaya the Birth of an End

“There is one picture in the series where I tried to put that into an image. Gaya the Birth of an End was about me trying to create an image that explains the power of the release of the human spirit, how we are this wheel, these vibrations. If you throw a stone into a lake, the stone is gone, but the vibrations continue. In the same way the circle of life has sort of vibrations that go out, but come back into somebody. People may leave you physically but not in other ways.”

Behind the scenes, Kirsty is certain she had help creating every aspect of Wonderland. She sees her mother’s love as an equal partner in the venture. If Maureen hadn’t taught her daughter to dream and embrace who she was Kirsty may have never become an artist. That same love was the alchemy required to transform the biggest tragedy of her life, the passing of her mother, into a masterpiece. 

“When I lost my mum, I had nothing to cling too. I felt like a kite whose string had been cut. I just felt weightless and lost for so long and then suddenly one day I began just walking in the woods. I just can’t explain it. I began to feel this kind of vibration from the land. I remember the day that it happened and I remember sitting on the forrest floor with my back against a tree trunk, just sobbing and crying. I guess that’s why creating the series became such a therapy for me. I felt like I was in my mum’s arms every time I was in the woods creating this stuff.” 

Kirsty’s Wonderland book was published to huge acclaim in November 2015. Since that time, its popularity has snowballed. In 2018, the first major museum show of Wonderland opened at one of the world’s most important museums of contemporary photography, Fotografiska in Stockholm, Sweden. The exhibition will continue to tour at Fotografiska’s sister venues in London and New York over the next two years.71GRjTMBMQL71hZymDy1wL

Since her monumental book was published, life continues to take Kirsty down unforeseen paths. On Christmas Eve of 2015 she gave birth to their son, Finch. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through treatment and today is cancer free. It seems like a natural for her to, once again, turn straw into gold.

“I’m so excited about being able to connect with people again through turning my personal story into something beautiful. In this new project, I am a completely different woman. I’m now a mother. I gave birth to my son, and then faced my own mortality all within eight months of each other. Where Wonderland was a kind of escapism, in my new series I want to stand with feet firmly planted on the ground and face all the emotion I went through.”

Today Kirsty is immersed in the production of a new series of photographs. Once again she has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines these images will take two to three years to complete. She envisions producing 45 pieces versus the 75 that she did for Wonderland. “I want to make the most beautiful, extraordinary, costumes and sets and bring the quality level up again, raise the bar again.”

There is not a doubt in my mind that Kirsty won’t bring her intention to fruition. Look out world. Prepare to be wowed. Again.

*In my painting the pink magnolias woven around Kirsty symbolize beauty and perseverance. The forget-me knots signify love and remembrance. They are, of course, for her mum. The greenfinch represents her son, Finch. Kirsty recognized its significance immediately.

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*Coming up next: American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, Valerie June

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. Wonderland photographs ©Kirsty Mitchell

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Lori McKenna: Song Chaser

Lori McKenna_edited-1moth_edited-2“Before you knew me I traveled around the world

I slept in castles and fell in love because I was taught to dream.”

– Lori McKenna, Fireflies

The first time I heard the name Lori McKenna was in 2006. Faith Hill had brought the stay-at-home mom with her to perform on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Four of Lori’s songs were on Faith’s newly released album, “Fireflies.” As a homemaker, sandwiching in time at my drawing table between household chores, that show ignited hope in me. If Lori’s music could be plucked from obscurity, perhaps my artistic gifts could be found too.

Lori’s songwriting didn’t come to Faith through the usual channels of the Nashville music scene. It was more like a friend, of a friend, of a friend brought them to Faith’s attention. Lori laughs, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There were years of hard work on Lori’s part before any fairy dust was sprinkled her way.

Since Faith discovered her, Lori has gone on to have her music recorded by country stars like Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and Hunter Hayes. In 2016, she  won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year for the second year straight thanks to co-writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and writing Tim McGraw’s number one hit “Humble and Kind.” Both songs also clinched Grammys for Best Country Song. In 2017, she became the Academy of Country Music’s first female Songwriter of the Year.

Despite living far from the music mecca of Nashville, Lori’s gifts have certainly found a place there. She grew up in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from her childhood home. Many of her songs were penned in between cooking and carpooling. 

Her mother died of a blood platelet disease when she was only seven. Even so, Lori considers her childhood a happy one. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her. Their love protected Lori from being overcome by a sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mother, “I was the youngest of six and my mom was sick a lot. I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I recall are just stories that somebody told me that I’ve made into a memory.”

Growing up, Lori’s family was a musical one. Her brothers were obsessed with James Taylor, Neil Young and Carol King. Her brother Richie played guitar and is the reason she took it up. “He was a songwriter as well. I was sort of always copying whatever Richie did.”

Mimicking her siblings musical leanings meant that Lori spent a lot of time alone. 

“I was not a kid that couldn’t be alone. I was sort of good at it,” she laughs. “I remember one day overhearing my Grandmother in the kitchen saying, ‘She’s so strange. She just stays in her room.’ It wasn’t like I was left alone or I didn’t have friends. I was not lonely being alone in those years. I think I spent a lot of time just writing poetry and listening to music.”

At thirteen, she composed her first song and hasn’t stopped writing them since. She was 27 when she finally found the courage to perform them in public. She was leery about putting herself out there. She had seen too many people who were disillusioned because the music business hadn’t turned out the way they had hoped. 

“They seemed a little broken about it, and I knew I didn’t want to go in that direction. When I had my kids, I knew that they were my purpose. So if music wasn’t my purpose, I could stay in my kitchen. I thought, ‘well my kids are my job, and I can try music and see how it goes and not expect anything out of it.’” 

Without her family Lori, acknowledges she wouldn’t be where she is today. Gene’s job as a master plumber supported them in the early years. It allowed her the freedom to hone her craft. Immersing herself in the lives of those she loves is what feeds Lori. Plus, an ordinary day often supplies a starting point to build a song around. 

“My songs always have a little piece of my life in them. Sometimes I think they’re going to be 100% about me, but then they end up going somewhere else. If you’re limited to just yourself then it’s going to be harder to write the song and maybe the song won’t be as good. It might be a little boring. If the song suffers from being true, I’m not going to be true. I always take the song’s side first.”

Taking from her world is a good thing when Lori is writing songs like “Humble and Kind” for her children. But there are also songs that could put her husband in a negative light. Songs like “Stealing Kisses” and “The Bird and the Rifle” seem to point to the quiet desperation of a disintegrating marriage.

“Life is hard. You have to go full force.” – Gene McKenna

“The thing about Gene that’s interesting is he never, ever questions anything that I write. He knows the way my brain works. He knows how dark the roads will become in the song to get the point across. Gene has never asked me not to sing something or to change anything, even if it sounds like it’s about him. In some ways, putting my songs out there is more brave for him than it is for me because he will get the blame.”

Most would assume that the poetic insight in her lyrics means that Lori is an avid reader. But not so. She writes from her instincts and confesses that she is not a conventional learner.

“I’m not a good reader. I rarely finish a book. I can’t absorb them or digest them the way other people do. I learn differently. There is some sort of visual thing going on with what my eyes see and what my brain processes. I just feel like I’m simplified in those ways.” 

But beneath what Lori’s refers to as simplicity lives a brilliant mind. For her lyrics, she draws ideas from sources other than the written word. “I’m an idea puller, and I do reach to other things for inspiration, like going to live shows or listening to podcasts.”

Lori confesses that some of her best ideas come from television and movies. The song “Witness to Your Life” came from a conversation in the Susan Sarandon movie “Shall We Dance.” “My Love Follows You Were You Go” was taken from a line she heard on the “The Real Housewives of New York.” The song “The Bird and the Rifle” had a similar inception.

“I wrote that with Troy Virgus and Katelyn Smith. This makes it sound like I watch so much TV (she laughs), but that title was from the television show ‘Modern Family.’ It was the punchline of a joke. I just loved it. I thought, it’s five words and everybody sees a picture in those five words.”

As of right now Lori is still based in Stoughton penning songs and raising the tail end of her brood. She travels to Nashville once a month to compose with other songwriters. For her the toughest thing about life is being tugged in so many directions.

“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds. Really the hardest thing is balancing. I’m still trying to figure out when to put it down and pay attention to my family and when do I chase a song all over the house?”

At first glance, it doesn’t seem possible that Lori’s background could be the springboard for all she has accomplished. But it was. Evolving into a mega-hit songwriter is a byproduct of being fully herself. At the same time she knows she didn’t do it alone.

“I have this career now that I never dreamed I could have. Now that I know how the music business works, there is no way there wasn’t a Higher Power guiding me and helping me along. If I’ve proved anything it’s that crazy dreams can come true.”

Assistance from above would explain a lot about Lori’s success. She never tried to force any of her hopes or ambitions into being. She played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that presented themselves to end up where she is today. It’s been said it’s good to hang loose with how your goals will manifest. Letting go leaves space for God to out-dream you. Lori McKenna’s career reminds me to keep the faith. If she can be out-dreamed, anyone can.

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*Coming up next: Award winning fine art photographer, and author of the record breaking Wonderland Book, Kirsty Mitchell.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Sheri Salata: You Are What You Dream

Sheri Salata-2

“A person who inspires is a person who changes the world in a million ways they will never know.” – Sheri Salata

The first time I met Sheri Salata would be considered a chance encounter by many, but not to me. I know it was a matter of divine timing. The moment I ran into her at a hotel coffee shop, I felt like we were old friends. The day before I had been a part of a conference where she had spoken with authority about re-envisioning your life at any age. Formally co-president of OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) she had recently stepped down to form her own company. Her humor and candor made everyone in the audience feel like she wasn’t a fancy CEO. Sheri was one of us. 

Waiting in line for a soy latte, Sheri was leaving soon for her flight. I took a chance and asked if I could schedule an interview with her. She had her hair up in a knot and no makeup on. I wanted to know if I could take a picture of her to create a portrait to go with my interview. To my delight, she readily agreed.That response confirmed to me that Sheri is the real deal. What she projected on stage was no act.

I felt the same genuineness when I spoke to her over the phone the following week. We talked about all the twists and turns she took to get to where she is today, After college she went from a typing pool, to managing a 7- Eleven, to moving into her parent’s basement to regroup. Her job record back then could have made her look like she lacked direction. Sheri assured me that wasn’t the case. 

“I was always a seeker but I don’t think I felt at home in my own spirit until I begin to understand what I was really looking for in a job was meaning. No matter what kind of work I was doing I would try to do my best. I wanted to feel like what I contributed was important.”

Today Sheri’s most direct route to finding significance in the workplace is through connecting to her inner light. In her twenties, she had no idea how to make that happen. “When I was younger I was taking the very long way around in terms of living in the light and in terms of trying to anchor myself there. I was trying to contribute and extract meaning from every experience. I was very driven to walk in the light but didn’t really having the spiritual tools to do that.”

In 1995, Sheri got the call to work at the Oprah Winfrey Show. She immediately plugged into her new environment. For the next twenty years, she worked 80 to 90 hours a week. She was happy to do it. During that time, she moved up to executive producer and then to president of Harpo Studios. Then in 2010 the Oprah stopped production. After The Oprah Show Sheri moved to California to become co-president of OWN. Working under the tutelage of the of the “Queen of Dreams” served her well. She learned much about doing what she loves, trusting her gut, and unlimited potential. “Watching tapings of the show is where my understanding first began about how life really works. I soaked up all that information on how we are all energy and how we move through the world. That’s when I began to see who I really am and why I’m here.”

I believe we all have an inner compass, a directive that lives quietly behind the scenes and really is the mastermind behind most of our life decisions. – Sheri Salata, The Beautiful No

The year Sheri turned 56 she knew it was time to move in another direction. All that insight she gained from the Oprah Show had brought her to a turning point. “I had woke up to the truth that anything is possible and if not now when?” Sheri made the decision to part ways with OWN. Her heart told her it was time and she listened.

Sheri was ready to stop working at such a frantic pace. She wanted to do what she felt prompted to do. She could see that “doing” ruled the day for her at OWN. She was ready tp transcend to the place of “being.” “That meant that I was gently letting go of that doer, even though at times I still felt like that doer was super successful,” she laughs.

Sheri left OWN and never looked back. “After so many years of being filled with all the love, support and grace, leaving felt like a natural evolution. It was a beautiful launching and also a time of completion. You have to let go of one thing to hold out your hand for another.”

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Sheri Salata and Nancy Hala

Along with her BFF, Nancy Hala, she cofounded a media company called, The Pillar Life. Because both friends were intent on manifesting the life of their dreams, they created an eight pillar life-guidance system to help keep them on track. Sheri credits them for completely changing her life. “We use the pillars as guideposts to keep us in alignment with our true heart’s desires. We are sharing them because that’s what you do with your tribe. The fact that the pillars completely connect to what we believe spiritually just makes them more powerful.”

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The pillars are a frequent discussion on their popular podcast, The Sheri + Nancy Show. Guests like spiritual teacher, Deepak Chopra, interior designer, Nate Berkus and author, Elizabeth Gilbert, are brought in to discuss how to live a more joy-filled existence. Sheri says that when she joined forces with Nancy they didn’t have a detailed business plan. “We wanted to be intuitively guided to the things that we want to create and to the people we want to partner with. Sometimes I feel like I’m just having a conversation with myself about what I most want to hear in midlife.”

The best advice Sheri can share with women is the same advice she gives to herself daily. “The story you’re telling yourself is the most important story you are going to tell. What you are telling yourself about what’s possible, about your worthiness, about your ability to manifest joy, and about the power of love, is really going to determine everything. It will dictate what you look like, how you feel, and what kind of ride you create for yourself over the next 30, 40, or 50 years. Are you just beginning or are you done? Is the world your oyster or did you already have your spot at the fair?” 

Anyone who knows Sheri knows how she’s answering those questions. At her age, most women are winding their lives down. Not so for Sheri. She is amping hers up. Through her memoir, The Beautiful No, and her podcast, she is shining a little light onto the world. 

Sheri Salata is doing what most of us loved best about the Oprah Winfrey Show. She is sharing her revelations about how life works. The intention has been set to bring her listeners along with her to the next level. To some that may seem like a tall order, but not to Sheri. She is already living it.

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Sheri and I meet again at her book signing.

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*Coming up next: American folk singer/songwriter Lori McKenna, winner of Best Country song at the 2017 Grammy Awards for Humble and Kind performed by Tim McGraw.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Amanda Shires: Songbird

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Amanda and Mercy.

moth_edited-2“I wanna look like a bird, like I was meant to sing,” Amanda Shires, Look Like a Bird 

Even before I spoke to Amanda Shires, I knew I was going to like her when I got this text, “So sorry Sue. I’ll call back in a few minutes. In the middle of saving a bird.” I should have known a bird would be one of the few reasons she wouldn’t pick up the phone for our scheduled chat. Being a bird lover myself, I’d noticed the bird imagery in more than a few of her songs.

Amanda called back a few minutes later. She apologized, “A baby nuthatch was caught in a string hanging by its feet from a glass bird feeder. It was so cute and so sad, but it’s all fixed now.”

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The little nuthatch Amanda saved.

Then our interview officially began. I was surprised to learn Amanda didn’t come from a musical family. As a girl, she never remembers seeing a fiddle until she came across a group of them hanging on a pawn shop wall. She’s not sure what pulled her to them but she knew she had to have one. She picked out a fiddle and talked her dad into buying it. Her mom paid for lessons. Amanda stuck with her training and learned to use her fiddle to express herself. “When my parents divorced, I dealt with it by spending time with my instrument. Playing it gave me joy, and I felt like I was communicating somehow. Since I didn’t have much of a vocabulary, my music spoke for me. It was the one constant in my life.”

By the time she was fifteen, Amanda was a member of the western swing band, the  Texas Playboys. In her early she twenties, she had graduated to side-player for Billy Joe Shaver. To supplement her income, she made a fiddle record that included two songs she wrote and sang. One day Billy Joe told her he’d heard she was a songwriter and asked to hear something of hers. Reluctantly, Amanda complied and was stunned when he told her that she was a great songwriter and should keep writing. “After I let the idea set awhile I thought, Billy Joe Shaver might be right.” She relocated to Nashville to launch a solo career a year and a half later.

She began waitressing to support herself. “I was awful at it, but it helped me begin my career. I saved up all my tips and made my first record, Cross Timbers and then I toured behind that. After I made Carrying Lightening, I didn’t have to wait tables anymore.”

Around that time Amanda began working with a producer who didn’t like the vibrato in her singing voice. “I got a small complex once when he said I sounded like a goat. He told me, “less goat more note.” I was like, oh man, this is going to make it harder.”

Even so that never did make her feel like throwing in the towel. ‘It made me want to get lessons. And I did and it’s not correctable. There have been so many times when I wanted to quit but I just can’t. It’s the only thing I am halfway decent at.” 

Her fans are happy that Amanda has come to terms with what they never saw as a flaw. That quiver in her singing voice is a gift.

Today Amanda is secure in her abilities. “It took practice to get comfortable in being who I am and trusting my decisions. I wanted to play the fiddle, and I did that. Then I started being a side person. I began writing songs before I even knew I wanted to be a songwriter. You get comfortable as you go. I’ve learned I’m really unsuccessful when I’m not being myself.”

In 2011 Amanda began dating fellow musician, Jason Isbell. It didn’t take long for her to realize his addiction to alcohol had spiraled out of control. She was instrumental in getting him into rehab. She didn’t know if their relationship would last, but she couldn’t just watch him self-destruct. “During that time, I didn’t give a crap about any dream of marrying him. I told him, ‘You’re going to quit drinking or it’s not going to work out between us.’”

It did work out. They got married in 2013. They’ve always been transparent about their trials with addiction even though it can leave them open to criticism. Amanda says, “The goal is really to help and connect with people. That’s the only reason we share such personal information. A little hope goes a long way. It’s hard to live in this world.”

“After having a child, wrangling a career, and keeping my husband in line I feel like my voice has gotten a lot stronger. Not in a way that’s bitchy or anything but in being able to express what I need.”- Amanda Shires

To date Amanda hasn’t written a song about her part in Jason’s sobriety, but in her  album My piece of Land she does write about another milestone. In her song “Nursery Rhyme”, she sings about nesting in an effort to distract herself from the approaching birth of their daughter. She admits to being terrified that she would no longer have the freedom to express herself musically. She had no idea if she could be a mom and continue her calling.

After the birth of their daughter, Mercy (named because, “The world could use a little more of it”) Amanda found that she still had the drive and the support she needed to share her gifts.

“I’m blessed to have family and friends to help, so I can still make music and tour. It definitely takes a village. Sometimes it’s tough to juggle everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Being a mom has brought so many unexpected gifts to Amanda. “To see something through a child’s eyes is really wild. When you see a little person figuring out what a shadow is for the first time, you look at the world differently.”

“I’ve been reading the classics, scanning the news It all goes in the mouth of the muse.” – Amanda Shires, Nursery Rhyme

Amanda weaves much of her personal life into her songs. She doesn’t give much credence to writer’s block. She has learned how to nip that nuisance in the bud.

“You have to fill up your well by reading or by spending time observing. When the well is full it starts coming out and expressing itself artfully. Most of the time it’s fear that’s stopping you from creating something. So you have to keep on writing and writing through it.”

Relying on her intuition to point the way, Amanda believes, “We all have an inner guidance system that directs our paths but a lot of people aren’t trained to listen to it. You can’t be guided if your antenna isn’t up or it’s busted.I think that can happen from a lack of empathy or too much ego. Sometimes I think you can’t hear your inner voice because you’re just living obliviously.”

Amanda went to church when she was younger, but these days she has no formal practice, “I think for me my church is being outside, being a birdwatcher and a gardener and being with my family. As far as guidance, sometimes I think the voice inside me is either my mom’s or Leonard Cohen’s.” Both are probably worth listening to.

Currently Amanda’s time is split between her career as a solo artist, and making music with the all-female supergroup, The HighWomen, composed of Amanda and her friends, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. She still finds time to hold down the fiddle strings for her husband Jason and his band, The 400 Unit, and to be a mom to Mercy. 

When they’re not on the road, Amanda and her family live in a home on the outskirts of Nashville. It’s a quiet spot with enough land to grow their own vegetables. “Peace” is the word Amanda uses to describe what she feels when she retreats there after touring. It’s the perfect place for replenishing the well. Life is good. Amanda Shires has come into her own. 

“You feel most fulfilled when you are ‘doing you’, as they say. I think a lot of people worry too much about what they need. They need to have cars. They need to have this or that, but that’s not what we all really need. Happiness comes from doing what you where put on Earth to do. And what I say is, whoever dies happiest wins.”

Now there’s an adage a little bird needs to tell Amanda to write a song about.

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Amanda’s album “My Piece of Land.”

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*Coming up next: Profile of  Sheri Salata. She stepped down as co-president of Oprah Winfrey Network to cofound female lead  media and branding company, STORY.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

William Joyce: Still Shining

Bill Joyce

Mary Katherine with her father, Bill Joyce

moth_edited-2“It was like all fairytales. One must travel through darkness to find the light.” – Elizabeth B. Joyce, With Love and Fury

William Joyce grew up in a loving family where his artistic abilities were recognized and encouraged. As a boy, his dream was to become Superman. After being introduced to Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are in kindergarten, Bill decided he wanted to make picture books. He shifted his focus from superhero to becoming a “maker upper” when he grew up. By creating worlds that people believe in and characters that they love, Bill had figured out the way to have superpowers without a cape.

Today Bill is considered a creative genius by many. He is the author and illustrator of over 50 children’s books. He won an academy award in 2011 (which he visualized accepting when he was a child) for his short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. He has won three Emmy Awards for the animated series Rolie Polie Olie. He is one of the artists who brought the original Toy Story movie to the big screen. The DreamWorks computer animated-fantasy film, Rise of the Guardians is based on his Guardians of Childhood book series.

Looking back, Bill is amazed by the precociousness he exhibited when he was a kid.

“At age five, I was already using drawing and storytelling, although, I didn’t realize it, as a way of dealing with life. My sisters teased me mercilessly. The only real revenge I could get on them was to draw them getting eaten by dinosaurs. They were the reason I learned how to write at a young age. I had to be able to sign their drawings with, ‘Love, Bill.’”

In his mind, there was never any question of what line of work he would go into.

“I knew how much I wanted to do this. I had a hunger for it that was so intense that I was willing to swim against whatever stream there was to try to get there. I was driven, and it surprises me looking back on it. At the time, it just seemed essential, like it wasn’t a choice.” 

Bill rarely compromised his creative vision. He admits to taking on a project or two when he was younger for the money, but he always ended up hating them. He’s learned that the easiest way for him to make a living is by being himself. 

“The thing about artists is a lot of times they end up being successful because they aren’t trying to make money. They are just trying to be true to their vision and that touches people. I’ve never written or illustrated anything that I thought about like ‘Oh, this is going to make a million bucks.’ It just needed to come out, and if it’s good and pure people respond, and you can honestly make some money.”

The connection between who Bill is and what he puts down on paper are inseparable. Beneath the enchanting illustrations and plots of his books, flow the undercurrents of his world. “I’m often not fully aware of what the story is I’m telling until years later. There are many times I’m surprised by the themes that come out in my writing.”

On an Instagram post, Bill relates the story of his wife being hugely pregnant with their first child when he suddenly stopped the project he was working on to make the book, Bentley & Egg.  Bill couldn’t figure out why he was so compelled to do a book about a frog who is in love with a duck about to lay an egg. But his wife had no problem cracking the code. “Look stupid, you’re the frog, I’m the duck and this….she pointed to her stomach…..is THE EGG!” 

Bill suspects he has unwittingly used the same process to work through his emotions throughout his entire career. It’s what helped give him the strength needed to face some of life’s cruelest tragedies.  

For storytellers our illusions are our armor.” – William Joyce

In 2010, his radiant light of a daughter, Mary Katherine, died of an inoperable brain tumor. It was a crushing blow for Bill. She was only 18. Mary Katherine’s magic now lives on in his Guardians of Childhood  books. 

“The tragedies that I’ve been through and the losses that I’ve experienced have all shown up in the Guardians novels, and even in my picture books, in subtle ways. In my stories there is a sense that there will always be losses in life, but you power through them. If you lose something that you love, the memory of that love will sustain you and never die.” 

Shortly after his daughter’s death, Bill’s wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with ALS. Liz was paralyzed and on a respirator for three years before she succumbed to the disease in 2016. Bill adored her. They had always been a team. So sure that together they could handle whatever came their way, her absence left a huge hole.

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Bill’s portrait of Liz from their college days

Liz appeared as characters in almost all of his books. In his picture book and film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore she materializes as a lovely lady being pulled across the sky by a cluster of flying books. She understands all Morris needs to give his life meaning is a good story. It seems prophetic that the book she sends him is opened to a page with Humpty Dumpty on it. For so many years Bill looked to his beloved Liz to provide life’s answers. The thought of losing her must have felt like an irreparable “great fall.”

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Liz in the “Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessore”

“It was tough. There were many, many days when I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. There were a couple of things that saved me. One was that I had to take care of our son, Jack. That makes you strong. I also had my artistic outlet. I got more work done during those seven years of illness and tragedy than anytime in my life. The stories were pouring out of me. I guess they were my refuge but also my salvation. I was making sense out of all of the stuff that was going wrong by writing about it without knowing I was writing about it”

Without his creativity, who knows where Bill would be today. He seems to be tapping into something from above when bringing his inner impulses to light.

“Whether you want to call it a higher source or the human spirit, I am lucky it’s a part of me. During that dark time I talked to other friends who are creative people. Maurice Sendak was the most helpful usually. He said ‘Art tortures us, but it’s also our salvation. And these are the times when it really can save us.’ And he was right.” 

As with all creatives, William Joyce’s gifts are twofold. The light that pours through him is not only for his legions of fans. That light is a part of his healing, too.

“But even now, I dare to dream.” – William Joyce

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*Coming up next: Profile of music maker Amanda Shires. She is a singer, songwriter, violinist, mother to Mercy and wife of musician Jason Isbell. 

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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