PLP#6 The World of William Joyce

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A young Mary Katherine with her father, Bill Joyce.

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light

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

William Joyce is the subject of my sixth Porch Light Profile. Bill is nothing short of a creative genius. He is an artist, storyteller and filmmaker. He is the author and illustrator of more than 50 children’s books. He won an academy award in 2011 (which he visualized accepting when he was a kid) for his short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and has won four Emmy Awards. The company he cofounded, Moonbot Studios, will be releasing their first feature film in 2019, The Extincts.

Bill’s talent is wide ranging. He is funny, candid, and refreshingly grounded. He grew up in a loving family where his artistic ability was recognized and encouraged. As a boy, his dream was to become a secret agent or Superman. After being introduced to Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are when he was five, 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.

For the most, part Bill has never veered from following his muse. He has admitted to taking on a project or two when he was younger just for the money and hating it. Over the years, he’s learned that he is most successful when he works off his inner impulses. 

“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.”

Bill’s artistic gifts are a part of the fabric of his being. He learned at an early age to use his storytelling skills as a tool to work through the struggles in his life. As far back as he can remember, he has used his artistic ability as a kind of therapy.

“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.’”

As a storyteller, Bill always trusted his creative vision. Beneath the enchanting illustrations and plots of his books run the undercurrents of his world. “I’m often not fully aware of what the story is I’m telling. 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 book he was working on to make the book, Bentley & Egg. Bill was confused as to 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 of working through his emotions throughout his entire career. “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.” 

Bill knows first hand about love and loss. In 2010, his radiant light of a daughter, Mary Katherine, died of an inoperable brain tumor. She was only 18. Her presence can be found in his Guardians of Childhood books. She is also included in his picture book and film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. In them, Mary Katherine appears as a young lady who understands all Morris needs is a good story and sends him her favorite book. Although Morris was originally based on his friend and publishing mentor, Bill Morris, there has to be an aspect of William Joyce in that character. 

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Mary Katherine in “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”

Shortly after his daughter’s death, Bill’s wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with ALS. After a long illness, Liz succumbed to the disease in 2016. She and Bill had always been a team. So sure that together they could handle whatever life gave them, it was heartbreaking when she was no longer at his side. Liz was a beautiful and brilliant woman. Before her illness she appeared as characters  in many of his books.

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Bill’s portrait of Liz from their college days.

In answer to my observation of his remarkable resilience in light of these losses Bill responded:

“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. In my book, Ollie’s Odyssey I’m not writing a book about illness, I’m writing about a little boy who loses his favorite toy and realizes that even in finding it things may never be the same, but that’s okay.”

Many people believe that the creative energy an artist channels is from a higher source. That’s exactly how Bill Joyce sees the gifts that move through him. They are coming from something greater than himself.

“Whether you want to call it a higher source or the human spirit, whatever it is, 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.’ He was right. My art is what saved me.” 

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

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*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

*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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PLP#5 Pam Grout: Cheers to Life!

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light

“You are here to create the good, the beautiful and the holy. You’re here to dance, to spread love, to write symphonies, to give birth to the very best that is inside you.” – Pam Grout

*I chose #1 New York Times best selling author, Pam Grout to focus on for my fifth Porch Light Profile. She is the author of 17 books, has a travel website, and is a reporter for People magazine. Her life and writing embodies the concept of “getting paid for being you.” She is an adventurer and traverses the globe (the perfect set up to be a travel writer) and a lover of the Divine Buzz (as she’s been known to call what most refer to as God). Pam’s proudest accomplishment is being a mother to her beautiful browned-eyed daughter, Taz.

As far back as she can remember, Pam had a strong calling to write. “It’s what I’ve loved to do from the time I was little. I was a reader. When I was in second grade, I got an award for reading 267 books. Often times people who read a lot think, ‘wow maybe I can do this.’  So I started writing at a pretty young age.”

Although Pam clearly loved to write, her parents didn’t encourage her to make a career of it. Being an author didn’t equate financial security to them. Pam’s mom pointed her in the direction of becoming a computer programmer. “When I was in college, that was the new field to go into. To become a writer seemed a little risky to my family.” 

Pam got around her mom’s directive by going into journalism. With the degree she earned she’d be able to get a “real” job. After college she worked at a newspaper for awhile before she took the plunge to become a full-time freelance writer. Pam’s happy to say that since that time she’s been able to support herself as an author.

I first became aware of Pam’s writing when I stumbled across her book, E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality. An international  bestseller, her book was a light in the wilderness of limited thinking to me. I was so brainwashed by the cultural paradigm of how life is supposed to work it seemed unrealistic to believe that my inner longings could come true. The fun experiments in her book helped open my mind to the possibility that God had my back. I learned the way to be certain you’re aligned with that benevolent being is when you feel joy. According to Pam, following your bliss is the quickest way for your gifts to find their place on the planet. 

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“If we all did what brings us joy, rather then what we think will keep us safe we would live in a different world. That feeling of joy is what tells you that you are in sync with God. It’s your GPS system.” What a beautiful concept, a loving God who uses good feelings to signal you are on the right track.

Pam didn’t always have such an enlightened outlook. She grew up being her own worst enemy because of an offhand remark her dad made after she was born, “She is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” The metal forceps that aided Pam’s delivery temporarily flattened her nose. She took her dad’s declaration to heart and spent a good portion of her youth trying to fix her looks. She’d feel like she got one area in that department under control, and then something else would surface that needed an overhaul.

By the time Pam hit college it occurred to her that her obsession to “fix” her looks, not how she looked, is what needed to be changed. In search of answers, She began pouring over every self-help book she could get her hands on. Reading those books eventually changed her thinking. Instead of looking for what needed fixing, she began appreciating what was right about herself. Pam began feeling so good about her assets that she swears her appearance began improving. Her skin cleared up. Even her eyesight went back to normal so she could lose those coke bottle glasses she needed to see.

Pam’s decision to let go of her limiting thought process went full throttle when she discovered A Course in Miracles, a self-study program in spiritual psychology. She credits the book with opening up her mind and allowing her to let go of the stifling worldview she had absorbed from the culture. Pam laughed when I asked her if she ever veers from her upgraded way of thinking. “Of course I do. When I look at the news media I think, ‘Oh my gosh, things are horrible.’ Then I have to remind myself to ask God to help me to see things differently. Retraining your mind is a little bit like house breaking a puppy. You just have to keep taking it outside and showing it a different reality.”

Pam’s spin on life is certainly a departure from the belief systems she was raised with. In E Squared she writes, “Look through the Bible and nowhere does Jesus say, ‘Worship me.’ His call to us was ‘follow me.’ There’s a big difference. By making Jesus out to be a hero, we miss the whole point. Jesus wasn’t saying, ‘I’m cool. Make statues of me; turn my birthday into a huge commercial holiday.’ He was saying, ‘Here, look what is possible. Look what we humans are capable of.’ Jesus is our brother, our legacy, the guy we’re supposed to emulate.” 

Pam admits that her parents being traditional Christians are sometimes worried for her soul. On the other hand she knows, “They’re really proud of me and my books and that I’ve been able to make a living following my heart.” 

“The universe is limitless, abundant, and strangely accommodating.” – Pam Grout

It looks like all of those self-help books Pam devoured weren’t just happenstance. Not only did they open up her mind but all the information she gleaned from them has become the foundation for her life’s work. Reading E Squared gave me the same kind of “wa wa” moment Helen Keller must have had when she realized the cool liquid pouring between her fingers was water. It flipped the switch that opened my eyes to a better way of thinking. Talking to Pam and reading her books makes her positive spin on life seem so doable. She lives her number one motto: “Have fun. No matter what.” Bringing that mindset to our life and work assures us that we will land where we are supposed to. How will we be certain that we are going in the right direction? We will feel good. 

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*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

More must reads by Pam Grout:41O5goJA1BL41blDwOiezL51t23k7trdL

Taz and Pam

Taz and Pam exploring Egypt

*Coming up next: Profile of Writer/Illustrator/Filmmaker/Genius , William Joyce

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

 

PLP#4 Mary Engelbreit: So Much More Than Cute

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© Sue Shanahan 2017

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

For my mother, who always told me anything was possible. – Inscription from, Mary Engelbreit: The Art and the Artist

My subject for this Porch Light Profile is illustrator, Mary Engelbreit. Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, she is best known for her endearing greetings cards, children’s books, calendars and journals. Her drawings are described as nostalgic and cute (“Nothing wrong with cute,” says Mary.). She is one of my all time favorite artists. I’ve been a fan of her wry humor since I first came upon her art as a young mother. Not only was I attracted to her illustrations, but I connected to the thought provoking quotations she incorporated into them. Oftentimes, those hopeful words where a beacon of light to me. Mary felt like a wise friend pointing me in the right direction. To this day, I have a print she signed for me hanging in my studio.

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Mary’s message to me, “Believe, Sue! “

Mary’s childhood was the perfect launchpad for her to make a living illustrating the world as she sees it. She grew up under the loving gaze of parents who believed in her talent. Her light was allowed to shine from day one. Her mom and dad never questioned her plan to become an artist or what that actually meant. All they knew was that Mary’s dreams were sufficient to earn their respect. She had a passion for drawing and was encouraged to create and develop her artistic ability in whatever way she saw fit.

Mary believes that because she was self-taught it was easier to stay true to her vision. Never having anyone trying to shape her talent left her wide open to explore.

“Because I didn’t go to art school I didn’t have any influences except the beautifully illustrated fairytale books that belonged to my mother and grandmother. I poured over them and taught myself to draw by copying their pages. The way I draw now was influenced by those books. There was often a quote under the pictures to explain what it illustrated in the story. That’s where I got the idea to incorporate quotations into my drawings. Because I was the only one doing that at the time, it set my work apart. It wasn’t my mission to get noticed or anything. It just worked out that way. My goal was to create images that expressed myself.”

After Mary graduated from high school, she immediately moved into her career as an artist. She worked at an art supply store, a newspaper, and an advertising agency. While trying to get freelance work from another ad agency the art director told her she had to settle on a single style to attract clients. After that suggestion Mary knew she didn’t want to work in advertising, “I tossed his advice aside and kept on going.”

At 22, Mary met her future husband, Phil Delano. They were married three years later. Even in the early stages of her career, Phil recognized her talent. He saw how people reacted to her art and was certain it was going someplace. Mary counts her lucky stars that he came into her life, “He always believed in me and encouraged me to keep at it. Even when we were broke.” In 1986, they formed their own licensing company, Mary Engelbreit Studios. This year they’re celebrating Mary’s 40th anniversary of being in business.

Mighty Good Husband

Mary based the knight on her husband.

Up until 2000, it looked like Mary Engelbreit was leading a charmed life. On June 21st of that year, everything changed. Their 19-year-old son Evan was killed by a gunshot wound. The details are blurry as to whether it was self-inflicted or murder. After 17 years, Mary is still recovering from that loss. She believes it shifted her focus to what’s really important in life. She and Phil adopted Evan’s child after he died. Mikayla was only three months old at the time. Mary credits her granddaughter for helping their family to move forward after Evan’s death, “She is great. She basically saved our lives.”

After her son passed on, Mary found herself shifting artistically. She explains it like this:

“I was always open to what came my way as an inspiration for my art. That loss opened a door that nobody wants to open. But there it is and I had to deal with it. I’m lucky to have this artistic outlet to express my feelings. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I’ve felt that all my life, even for small things and for fun things. It’s really important to get your emotions outside of yourself so you can move on.”  

Previous to Evan’s death, Mary was a quiet activist. She created drawings about subjects that mattered to her but nothing too controversial. In 2014, that all changed when she made a drawing titled In the USA protesting gun violence and posted it on Facebook. Her illustration was inspired by her outrage over the police killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. To Mary, the shooting death of Michael felt personal. Her heart broke for his mother and the community.

In the USA

Click to purchase print.

Speaking her truth created a backlash Mary wasn’t prepared for. She confided that when she put In the USA on Facebook, “Some people responded to it by posting ugly, ugly things.” She has come to terms with that though. Being herself is something she won’t compromise. She may have lost some followers, but in the end, they were replaced by others who support her views. Mary now sells prints of that image on her website. 50 percent of the proceeds go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And without as much as a backward glance, she goes on her “Mary” way.

“So I just went on my merry way and produced the kind of art I wanted to see.” –Mary Engelbreit

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*Coming up next: Profile of #1 New York Times best-selling author, Pam Grout

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

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

PLP #3 Rodney Crowell: : It Ain’t Over Yet

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

“I’ll bet that when you’re dying, you’re not going to think about the money you made. You’re going to think about your art.” – Guy Clark

I’ve chosen musician and author, Rodney Crowell, to feature in this Porch Light Profile. He is known primarily for his work as a country music singer/songwriter. His songs have been recorded by Keith Urban, Bob Seger, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash.  His acclaimed memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is the follow-up to his 2001 semi-autobiographical album, The Houston Kid, recounting his hardscrabble Texas youth. On March 31st, his new album, Close Ties, will be available on iTunes.

Rodney had a rough childhood. He didn’t realize until some years later that he had been traumatized by his upbringing. His dad was a hardcore alcoholic who wasn’t opposed to hitting his mother on occasion. She, on the other hand, was a member of a Pentecostal church that bordered on the fanatical. In 1965, at age 15, he moved to a town 30 miles from his home to join a rock and roll band. His leaving was met with no resistance from his parents. Rodney can’t even remember them saying, “Good luck.” Since that time, Rodney has supported himself through his music. He has never even considered doing anything else. “I’ve been pulled to it since day one. Music was the catnip, and I was just one of those cartoon cats floating in the air, following the sounds.”

By 1972, Rodney had made his way to Nashville. He fell in with a group of songwriters who mentored each other. At the helm was Guy Clark. He gave Rodney a book of Welshman Dylan Thomas’ poetry to study. He wanted to make clear that what they were doing was making art. Rodney poured over it and came to the realization that songwriting wasn’t just something you do. It’s an expression of your deeper, entire self.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Rodney continued to pay the bills with his music and songwriting. When he had five number-one hits off of his 1998 album, Diamonds and Dirt, it seemed he had arrived. The only problem was that he had strayed from the songs that rang true to him. Instead, he was writing music for the masses. “The 90s weren’t my finest years artistically. I wrote some good songs in there, but in terms of my vision of getting the paint on the canvas, that was not my best time. I didn’t like the fact that I had fallen into mediocrity,” Rodney said. That’s when he made the decision that, for better or worse, he was only going to  put out what came from within.

In 2001, no longer under contract, Rodney began work on his masterpiece, The Houston Kid. He made it with the cash he had on hand, even bouncing a couple of checks in the process. He stuck to his decision to be true to himself. “I had to fund that record on my own because I wanted to make the exact music I wanted to make. When I was doing something on someone else’s dime, I was inclined to try to anticipate what they wanted. I knew that wasn’t what an artist was supposed to do. In funding my own music, I found my voice.”

“Oh Rodney, I get it. You don’t want to be rich. You play to the A students.” – T- Bone Burnett 

In his newest album, Close Ties, Rodney continues creating from his center, writing about the relationships he holds dear. It’s timeless appeal makes it one of his best works yet. Some of the songs are so personal he knows they aren’t destined to be covered by other artists. He is fine with that, though. “I’ve earned the right to do exactly what I want and the people who are meant to find it will.”

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Today Rodney Crowell is a man who lives with no regrets. He’s following his calling, and has never looked back after making the decision to choose art over celebrity.

“I have an unwavering faith that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. I don’t think I can create anything of lasting value unless it comes from the heart. I’ve had this knowing all along, even when I lost a handle on how to do it. As a young man, I craved fame. I was trying to fix holes in my soul that were there from childhood. Now fame would be a detriment to my sensibilities. These days all I need is a following large enough to sustain the artistic process.”

At 66, Rodney knows that time is precious. He has made a conscious effort to spend it with the people he loves. And with the rest of his time he makes art.

How our paths crossed

Rodney first came to my attention in the early 1980’s when I heard his album, But What Will the Neighbors Think I was immediately hooked. After seeing a magazine photo of his wife Rosanne Cash with their darling little girls, I sent him a letter with some pictures of my paintings, asking if he would want to commission me to do a portrait of his daughters. I about fainted when he replied that he was interested in my offer. Nothing ever came of it but just that he took the time to answer made me believe in my gift a bit more. Not long after that, I was busy raising babies and lost track of his music.

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I still have the letter.

Rodney didn’t resurface again in my life until 2001 when he introduced his masterpiece, The Houston Kid. My sister and I caught his show in Chicago and were awestruck by it. I had to tell him how wonderful his new album and performance where. The next day I emailed Rodney’s management asking for an address where he could be reached. Would you believe the following morning there was an email in my inbox from Rodney himself? The subject line read, “Re: At your service.”  We struck up a friendship and talked about collaborating on a children’s book for awhile. Since that time, I’ve kept tabs on his career and purchased every recording he has put out since The Houston Kid.

 

Houston Kid

My ticket from the concert.

My Illustration

The face of Rodney in my watercolor is based on a compilation of photos of him performing. I took the hat he is wearing from the cover of Close Ties. My son, Brian, donned a blue shirt so I could snap an iPhone photo from which to work. The musical notes and letters pouring from his heart and wrapping around him came to me long before I interviewed him. I can think of no better way to describe who he is.

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

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My friend, Rodney, and I before his show in Chicago last week.

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*Coming up next: Profile of artist, Mary Engelbreit

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

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

 

PLP #2 Susan Branch: From Her Heart to Yours

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

My second Porch Light Profile is about New York Times best selling author and illustrator, Susan Branch. Her cookbooks, calendars and memoirs have made her feel like a dear friend to thousands. Handwritten and gorgeously illustrated, they are a vacation for the mind. Filled with conversational style and inspiring quotations, they are an antidote for the harshness of life. Her 2015 memoir, The Fairytale Girl begins in her childhood and ends with the break-up of her marriage in the 1980’s. Like many women of that time, she had hitched her wagon to a husband. Although being a stay-at-home wife had it’s perks (she was able to turn homemaking into an art and honed her skills as a watercolorist) in the end it left Susan empty. All that centering around her husband, meant that she had no life of her own and no way to support herself. 

“Believing in myself was probably the hardest thing I ever had to learn to do.”

– Susan Branch

So where did Susan go from there? She went for a three month stay on Martha’s Vineyard and ended up never leaving. What she thought was a hiatus to nurse her wounds turned out to be an introduction to herself. She decided that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. On the island, she soon realized that her steady diet of news and soap operas were weighing her down. She turned off the television and decided the only news she needed to hear could come through her open window. To sooth her unrest, she began seeking the keys to life in biographies of her heroes and quote books. She learned the theme that ran through most of them was that the answers to your questions cannot be found outside of yourself. Heaven lies within. Now that she knew that, Susan’s search was over. It was time for her to take responsibility and get to know herself. 

In 2016, her sequel to The Fairy Tale Girl was released. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss, follow their hearts and believe in their dreams. Hope lives in its pages. In it, Susan writes in detail of how she learned to live from her own center, “I learned that, for me, the key to making my dreams come true – the one that opened the door to the gift of “within” – was meditation.” Becoming an author and illustrator was a byproduct of self-discovery and living from her inner light. She didn’t have to map out a plan on how to make a living with her talents. When Susan found her heart, her life’s work found her. It soon came to her that realizing her dream of getting a cookbook published wasn’t about the dream world at all. Realizing her dream was about hard work. Happily, the toil is made much easier when you are doing what you love.

In her books and blog, she talks to her readers as if they are old friends. Because of that, over 56,000 kindred spirits subscribe to her newsletter and feel like they know her personally. Never one to market herself much, most of her followers have been drawn to her by word of mouth. In fact, that’s how a Hollywood screenwriter found her. A script for Susan’s books is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If her fans are lucky (my fingers are crossed), the screenplay will soon  be made into a movie or a television series.

Go. Be. Love. The world needs you- Susan Branch  

Two summers ago our mutual friend, Margot Datz, brought me over to Susan’s house for tea. At that time, I vaguely knew Susan’s work, but I liked her right off the bat. She was warm and welcoming. Her house oozed charm right down to her mustached cat, Jack. I have since became a huge fan of Susan’s memoirs and cookbooks and can’t believe she wasn’t on my radar sooner. Her newest books, The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams, have become two of my all time favorite reads. How she writes about herself, and who she is, are one in the same. Don’t let the nostalgic cheeriness of her work lead you to believe she has no opinion of the world past her doorstep. She is a woman of heart and mind and doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her followers, or girlfriends as she likes to call them, love her more.

I based the above watercolor portrait of Susan on a photograph I took. The only snafu in the process was that after I had completed the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it been in the photo. Susan Branch had decided to let it go gray. No point in not being who you are.

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*Coming up next: Profile of singer/songwriter, Rodney Crowell

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

*Click  to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5 X 7 print!

PLP #1 Anita Moorjani: To Heaven and Back

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

My first Porch Light Profile is about New York Times best selling author Anita Moorjani. I chose her because her book, Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing, is one of the most compelling memoirs I’ve ever read. The book details the author’s spontaneous healing of stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma after a near-death experience (NDE). As she lay comatose, her organs shutting down, she “crossed over” to an indescribable realm of love and clarity. In Heaven, she was reunited with loved ones who had passed away. From them she learned she had the choice to return to Earth. They told her if she went back, her cancer would rapidly heal. All she had to do was to live her life fearlessly. What that meant was to love herself unconditionally and be who she was moment by moment.

Reading about Anita’s spontaneous remission from cancer was awe inspiring. Even more fascinating to me was what she learned in her visit to the other side and how it played out when she came back to Earth. Before her NDE, Anita didn’t live by her inner light. In fact, she was very much disconnected from that source. Raised in Hong Kong by Indian parents, she learned to deny her true self at an early age to fit in. She had been people pleasing for so long that the first thought that came to her when she was diagnosed with cancer was, “Good, now I have a reason to take care of myself.”

In my phone conversation with Anita, she assured me that if we all listened to our inner voice and did what felt right, our lives would unfold better than we could ever imagine. In her case, sharing her NDE on an internet forum lead to her getting a publishing contract. After her book’s release, Dying to Be Me, quickly hit the New York Times bestseller list. Its has since been translated into 45 languages and has sold over one million copies worldwide. English film director and producer Ridley Scott’s company has optioned the rights to make Dying to Be Me into a full-length feature film.

Anita believes that we are all born connected to an inner guidance system but it gets conditioned out of us. We are taught from a young age to get our validation externally rather than internally. We give our power to people and cultural belief systems that dictate how we should live our lives. If we are constantly trying to be what other people want us to be, we end up not living our own life. Anita’s experience in the heavenly realm set her free from all of that. When she came back, she knew that all she had to do was to be herself and follow her joy. I wondered if living life that way means you never have problems. Anita said that you do, but the problems you attract from following your heart are like a check and balance system to put you back on course. When you resolve them, they take you to the next level of your deepest self.

When I asked Anita if we all had a calling she said, “Yes. We all come here with a destiny, but many of us lose our way.” She believes that not being true to ourselves is a kind of spiritual crisis, and that can lead to conditions like depression, addiction or even cancer, like she had. Our only purpose in life is to be who we are. When we do that, our highest potential unfolds before us. According to Anita, charting your course limits God. Getting out of the way allows life to draw in gifts and solutions that we never dreamed existed.

“We teach best what we most need to learn.” – Richard Bach

There’s good reason for my attraction to Anita’s story. I’ve struggled for years trying to promote my gifts to the world. All my chasing and pursuing has only taken me so far. Reading Dying to Be Me gave me pause to consider that perhaps I’ve been living life backwards. In writing my Porch Light Profiles, I’m trading in industry goals and marketing plans to instead come from my own center. For me, this series is important work. It’s my heart’s longing to know itself. As time goes on, I hope to confirm what Anita learned on the other side. If Porch Light Profiles really are a product of my inner light, then the stories I share will attract readers who need to hear their message. Inspired, they will turn inward and begin to listen.

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*Coming up next: Profile of author/watercolorist, Susan Branch

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

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Introducing Porch Light Profiles

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“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman

Welcome to Porch Light Profiles. This year I’m shifting the focus of my blog to writing about men and women who allow their light to illuminate the world. What do I mean by that? I mean people who know who they are and express their inner selves to humanity. This expression always brings them joy and manifests itself in their life’s work. I’m discovering that if you follow what most excites you, the right people, resources and opportunities will appear to help you share your gifts with the world.

Although “Porch Light People” are a part of all walks of life, I’m going to begin by focusing on artists. For me, it’s easiest to see this principal in action in them. Growing up they learned the same societal belief most of us did: you must find a career path that will earn you a living. Yet the flame inside urging them to create, burned so brightly it was impossible to ignore. Instead of asking, “How can I support myself?”, they said, “If I don’t do my art, I can’t go on.”

Doing what makes your heart sing, seems like a good way to starve in the logical world. We may reason that the only sure way to keep ourselves safe is to follow the cultural rules of survival. Often, that means turning your back on doing what makes you feel alive. Some get so good at suppressing what brings them joy that, sadly, they lose touch with it. They never learn that paying attention to the “still small voice within” is what will help them succeed. Those who have a wide-open connection to that voice are who I’ll be writing about. They know their work flows through them from another source. That doesn’t necessarily mean they take part in a formal religion. What it does mean is they don’t control the process, but let something greater than themselves take the reins.

Here are some questions I hope to answer over the next few months:

Do we all have an inner guidance system that will direct our path if we listen?

Can you make a living by following your heart?

What happens when you give into fear and move away from your passion?

Can following your bliss lead to your life’s work?

Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?

In these profiles, I hope to give evidence that it is safe to share your deepest self with the world. In fact, I believe that is what we are here for. Being who we are and doing what feeds our soul is our life’s work. When we allow ourselves to shine, the world can’t help but be drawn to us. Our life has become a prayer. In that state of being, it doesn’t take a lot of thought or planning to figure out how to share your gift with others. Like moths to a flame they will find you.

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*Coming up next: Profile of New York Times best selling author, Anita Moorjani

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

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Rolling in Another’s Skates

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Learning to love myself means learning to love others. I’ve discovered they are both sides of the same coin. To quiet the self-berating voice in my mind, I had to stop finding fault in people. In the bible it says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” Growing up, I was taught that verse meant if I were critical of another than I would be judged by God (and thrown into the fires of hell). Today, I believe Christ meant that if we judged others harshly, we will do the same to ourselves. His teachings weren’t about doom and gloom but meant to help free His followers to live in joy.

It’s hard to hold someone’s behavior against them when you realize we all struggle, many of us carrying the baggage of less-than-perfect childhoods and life experiences. That’s not to say that hurtful actions directed at you won’t sting. They do, and the feelings about them shouldn’t be denied. Understanding that we are all born innocent and only do what we’ve learned, makes it easier to trade our resentments in for compassion. I believe that beneath the most obnoxious personality lies a beautiful soul that I am a part of. Truly, we are all one. That is why it’s impossible to pick apart another without doing the same to yourself.

Family systems and societal beliefs have a way of programming us to be fearful. We all want relief from our pain and many lash out at others to unburden themselves. That’s why on a higher level, any kind of attack can be looked at as a call for love. Having empathy for what it would be like to roll in another’s skates, in no way means that you should put yourself in a position to be hurt by wounded people. A good analogy for this lies in an incident that happened to my friend, Gigi, while she was living in Montana. One day out her back door, she spied two adorable bear cubs climbing a tree. Moments later, their mother appeared to help them down. Although Gigi is a wildlife photographer, she didn’t take her camera outside and to try capture the scene. Understanding the protective nature of a mama bear, she knew she could be mauled if she went near them. That bear family was best enjoyed from the safety of her kitchen. In the same way, we have the choice to keep our distance from less than safe people. Like wild animals, some folks are best appreciated from afar.

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A photo of the cubs Gigi was able to snap through her kitchen window.

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

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Going With the Flow

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Need to absorb an important life lesson? Get it down on paper. I painted this watercolor to remind myself of the ease that comes with surrendering to the flow of life. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to manipulate events to get what I wanted. Career planning seemed a crucial part of directing my path as an artist. This process seemed to be working until the recession hit eight years ago. At that time, I couldn’t get an art director to look at my portfolio to save my life. Even my portrait commissions dried up. It became clear that all the listing, visualizing and pushing toward my goals wasn’t helping them to materialize.

During that frustrating time, the assurance in Matthew 6:33 came to me. “But you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added to you.” Translation: the Divine takes care of His children. For this to occur, all that’s required is to draw near to Him. After that, all of our other needs will be met. This was radical thinking for a wheel gripper like me, but I felt defeated enough to try it. Relaxing my hold and shifting my focus meant living where God lives – in the now.

Being in the now, means no longer trying to make things happen. I began letting problems work themselves out. I stopped trying to pry open doors that were nailed shut and began walking through the doors that were open. I discovered allowing God to be in control feels much better than trying to force solutions. To my surprise, my artistry was pulled in a direction that I never conceived of. I began writing (something I’d never done before) and illustrating a blog that now runs in the Huffington Post. My next step is to compile my posts into a book. It’s an undertaking that never would have come to me if I were still clinging to my “five year plan.”

Today the original “Going With the Flow” painting hangs in my studio.  It calls to mind the acronym for FROG – Fully Relying On God. I need to be reminded daily of the power of surrender. My little frog rider illustrates that truth perfectly. Like me, she has learned that it’s a waste of time to try and redirect the energy of life. Not only is the present moment missed but you’re too preoccupied to notice the gifts that lie around the bend. Relax and enjoy the ride. The current will take you to places that struggle never could.

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My friend Karli was happy to model for the fairy in my painting.

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The frog is based on this photograph by Gigi Embrechts.

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

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Don’t Have a Fairy Godmother? Borrow One

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Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughter, Agapi

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” -Anna Freud

I’ve made a practice of gleaning wisdom and support from women I admire. Because my mom was not the “in your corner” type, I learned to do this at a young age. Growing up under her tutelage forced me to figure out ways to get my need for nurturing met. My search led me to reading books with omniscient mother figures and happy endings. It’s no accident that as a child Cinderella was a favorite story of mine. That evil stepmom may have been in control for a time, but she was no match for the powers of a fairy godmother. By fifth grade, I had graduated to being utterly taken with Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, in Little Women. Her steadfast devotion to her girls was the launching pad for them to live their dreams. Somehow reading about the security of unconditional love was healing to me.

In my twenties, I discovered how author Maya Angelo mothered Oprah Winfrey. Her love and wise council helped Oprah to become her “best self.” I began studying other strong women who pointed their daughters in the right direction. I embraced the relationships of Eunice Shriver and her daughter, Maria, Dorothy Howell Rodham and her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and finally Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughters, Agapi Stassinopoulos and Arianna Huffington. All of these mothers inspired me and gave me a lead to follow. Since I considered them as more than mentors, I christened them fairy godmothers. Remember the sparkle Cinderella’s fairy godmother brought to her life? She gave the added magic needed to help Cinderella leave behind the cinders she made her bed in. That’s what these mothers I admire did for me.

One of my favorite of the godmothers is Elli Stassinopoulos.  In my painting above, she’s pictured with her daughter Agapi on Agapi’s 16th birthday. I first read about Elli in Agapi’s book, Unbinding the Heart. Elli was a remarkable woman. She was not accomplished by the world’s standards and yet gave much to the world. Her daughters are living proof of that. Elli knew what was important in life. It was people not things that mattered. There was no hierarchy in her world. She treated a government official and a plumber with the same warmth and generosity. She never allowed her daughters to feel “less than.” She knew that both of them were born with the gifts needed to fulfill their life’s purpose and she stood in support of that. Reading about Elli made me think of how much easier my life would have been if I were raised by a mom like her. My soul would have known its worth, instead of having to fight for it every step of the way. Getting to know Elli helped soothe what I lacked.

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The Photo I based my painting on.

I reached out to Agapi for permission to work from the photograph I based my watercolor on. Elli reminded me of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella in the picture. Agapi was kind enough to grant her consent and even gave her thoughts on the art in progress. All along she was pleased that I was capturing her mom’s spirit. What she was having trouble with, was my portrayal of herself. We both knew something was off. Was it her eyes? Or her smile? She could not pinpoint it and in my revisions neither could I. Finally, in frustration, I thought to ask Elli for help. I reasoned that since she had passed away in 2000 she would have the clarity of a higher vantage point. As soon as I sent out my request, I got the distinct feeling to have a glass of red wine and stop trying so hard. I should just relax and enjoy the process. I did just that and had fun tweaking the piece. In a flash, I was done and satisfied with the results. When I sent a file of it to Agapi, she responded,“It’s great!” I smiled as I wondered why I hadn’t called on Elli sooner. Of course she would want me to do justice to her girl.

In my life, I’ve found that within every hardship there are always blessings. I believe I was given the perfect mother to help me become who I was born to be. Without the difficulty of being raised by her, I don’t think I’d have the insight and compassion I do today.  Plus, I may have never discovered the wisdom of these beautiful women I call fairy godmothers. I’ve studied and absorbed how they moved through life. Their philosophies have become my philosophies. Today, I’m happy to say I share their wise council with others who’ve been gifted with moms similar to mine. In this way, even though my fairy godmothers no longer grace the planet, their magic goes on and continues to break the spells that others live under.

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

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