Always Had the Power

You’ve Always Had it My Dear. You’ve Always Had the Power. Glinda the Good Witch
Always Had the Power

In 2000, I was lucky enough to sell the original painting from the above image to Oprah Winfrey. A series of small miracles brought the piece to her attention. After she purchased it, an even bigger miracle occurred. I was invited to be on her Favorite Things show. I was thrilled with the prospect of what her spotlight on my illustration could bring. Looking for approval of my artwork from the world had become a pattern with me.

It turned out the message in my painting was not only for Oprah. Although I was unable to grasp it at the time, it was also meant for me. Of course, I understood why Oprah took so much significance from Glinda the Good Witch’s words, “You’ve always had the power.” She had just won a defamation suit filed against her by Texas beef producers.  It took many years and reading Jean Houston’s The Wizard of Us before it dawned on me that I hadn’t been honoring my own power. I recognized myself in the Scarecrow’s search for brains. I was also waiting for the world to tell me what to do. The Tin Man asking the Wizard of Oz for a heart was no different than me not acknowledging and trusting my own. The lion’s quest for courage was his belief that he didn’t have what it took to be king of the forest. Didn’t that parallel my belief that my art couldn’t stand on its own? What I learned from Dorothy was the most meaningful. The power to realize one’s heart’s desire lies within.

Creating art is revealing one’s soul to the world. Unconsciously I believed if my gift wasn’t celebrated, I had no value. Seeking validation from the outside is like trying to fill a cup with a hole in it.

All my striving to make it as an artist has brought me to this realization. Yes, it’s scary to be exposed, but who I am is enough. My art is enough. The light that burns inside of me is enough.

The image of Oprah that I based my portrait on.

The image of Oprah that I based my portrait on.

Not many people know that Dorothy’s shoes were silver. In the movie they were transformed into the ruby slippers because they looked better In Technicolor.

Not many people know that in L. Frank Baum’s book the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s shoes were silver. In the movie they were transformed into ruby slippers because they looked better In Technicolor.

In my painting I tried to remain faithful to L.Frank Baum's description of Glinda the Good Witch.

In my painting I tried to remain faithful to L.Frank Baum’s description of Glinda the Good Witch.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Being Beautiful is Not a Profession

I learned very young that a woman’s power came from her looks. Specifically, my beauty, or lack there of, was how my worth was measured. The straightness of my nose and thickness of my eyelashes were important but useless if I wasn’t skinny. Tall and sturdy for my age, I took on the onus of “the fat kid” long before the title fit. My mother, with her movie star looks, was ashamed of me. She saw me as extension of herself.

My first attempt at weight loss was in the fourth grade. I had the brilliant idea of slicing my stomach with a razor and squeezing the fat out. Of course, I never could go through with it.  Every night as I lay in bed, the success of my day was measured by how little I ate. The obsession to be thin had already taken hold.

When puberty hit, my weight soared out of control. The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. I looked at the models in Seventeen magazine and knew I could never measure up. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the models didn’t measure up either. They had been airbrushed to flawlessness in their photos.

When I turned sixteen, my mother typed a rite of passage letter to me and signed it with, “Love, Mom.” What struck me the most in it was her advice to “marry a man who is going places and will take you with him.” I had learned the only bargaining tool to hitch that ride was my looks. And what I saw in the mirror told me I was doomed. I decided I’d better develop my talents.

My story does have a happy ending. At 23, I married a man who loved me just the way I was. Whenever I questioned how he could be attracted to me he said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I thought that was his way of saying I love you in spite of how you look. Today I know better. My husband was way smarter than the media gave most credit for. He could see past the images that beauty advertisements were trying to force down our throats. After 34 years of marriage, he still loves my soul and my own brand of gorgeous that encapsulates it.

Over the years, with a concentrated effort, I’ve undone much of the damage to my body image. Movies like Miss Representation have helped. Most recently a wonderful blog post by Kasey Edwards affirmed my belief that the way most women see their bodies is an illusion. Our perception has little to do with how the world sees us.

I’ve come to peace with my mother and her inability to accept the body I was born into. I see now that like me, she was a victim of “lookism.” Born in the 1920’s, a bride in the 1950’s, she was a product of our culture. In her own convoluted way, she was just trying to keep me safe. She was passing on the societal expectations she had learned from her own mother.

Yes, at times, I still fall back into feeling horrified by the way I look. Recently, I saw a picture of myself that made me cringe. Instead of taking the feelings to heart, I now compare them to how I feel hearing a recording of my voice. Like most people, I don’t like the way I sound, but don’t take the foreignness of it to mean I’m flawed. In the same way, I no longer take my reaction to a photograph of myself to heart either. It doesn’t mean anything. My initial discomfort doesn’t stem from how I look but comes from the disconnection I feel of looking at a shell. The “real” me is formless.

Our world is evolving and so am I. The best gage of my self-acceptance is my daughter and the women my sons chose to marry. All three are stunning, accomplished women. They exude self-confidence and embrace who they are. No matter how thin or pretty, they would never think to add the superficial to their list of achievements. They where brought up knowing their power isn’t on the outside but lies within, being beautiful is no longer a career path.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

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All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Hope in the New Year

The pears in the drawing symbolize hope. The mocking bird is not only from Oprah’s favorite book, "To Kill a Mockingbird" but is the official State Bird of Mississippi.

The pears in the drawing symbolize hope. The mocking bird is not only from Oprah’s favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” but is the official State Bird of Mississippi.

“Hope makes the impossible possible.” – Lorna Byrne
In 2001, I drew the above portrait after a gloomy period of questioning my career as an artist. My slow progress made me wonder if what I had envisioned for myself was nothing more than a fantasy. My discouragement dissipated after turning on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I was reminded that any obstacle I faced was minuscule in comparison to what she had been born into. She is black, female and perhaps the worst sin of all, ample in size. Yet none of this has stood in her way of  becoming one of the most influential women in the world. Yes, Oprah’s life clearly shows anything is possible. There is much to hope for.
Born in rural Mississippi to an unwed mother, Oprah was left to be raised by her grandmother, Hattie Mae. Oprah remembers at age four, standing on the back porch churning butter. Her grandmother, called to her as she hung cloths on the line, “Oprah Gail, you better watch me now, ’cause one day you gon’ have to know how to do this for yourself.” But hope had already made a nest in Oprah’s soul. She refused to accept her grandmother’s vision for her future. She knew deep inside her life would be more than hanging clothes on a line.
Growing up, I think the same thing that perched in Oprah’s soul breathed in mine too. Looking back I remember cultivating hope as a kid by saving my drawings for biographers who would one day write about my life as an artist. Then, as a teenager, I wrote to Norman Rockwell for advice on how to become an illustrator. The encouragement in his response confirmed that my dreams where indeed possible. Hope is the tiny spark of light barely seen that pulls us forward. Without its flicker, I never would have taken the initiative to save my art or contact my hero.
2014 is going to be a good year. It’s the year for reaping what we’ve so patiently sown. It’s the year when our long-held dreams will be brought to fruition. No matter where we stand, we can see the glimmer of a better day. How do I know all this? Because 2014 is the year of hope. It’s time to fan that flame.
The painting for a Mother’s Day card I made when I was eight.

A painting for a Mother’s Day card I saved for my biographer when I was eight.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Kimothy Joy: Metamorphosis

“I believe everybody’s light is bright as a child. It’s really bright and pure. And then slowly you are influenced by who everyone wants you to be. Over time if not nurtured and protected your light dims. And then there is nothing left of you to shine.” – Kimothy Joy

Kimothy Joy’s mom, Merri, had a huge personality. Her vibrance could not be contained. When she died of breast cancer in 2009, Kimothy was lost. Her mom’s dying words, “Go have fun, Kimmy,” seemed like an impossible task. Kimothy wasn’t ready to lose her best friend and anchor. She was only 25 years old. Up until then, things had been going along as planned. Shattered for the first time, Kimothy saw that those plans weren’t even made by her. “Losing my mom magnified my lack of self-awareness and identity. It sent me into a black hole of grief, self-destruction and eventually, on a quest to know my true self.” 

Kimothy began questioning everything she thought she knew. She felt like a Russian nesting doll. The real Kimothy had been covered up with layer upon layer of belief systems that had nothing to do with who she genuinely was. She had fit herself into a mold created by others. Kimothy Joy was a good girl. She had forfeited her soul for that title.

She had been taking directions from the outside for so long that she had no idea how to rekindle the connection within. Kimothy set out on a journey of self-discovery. Digging deep meant coming to terms with feelings that were hard to look at. For starters she wasn’t happy in her marriage. She was attracted to someone else. She readied herself to tell her high school sweetheart that she wanted a divorce. She was terrified of the flack she would get from the people around her. They had only been married for a year and a half. He was the right guy but not the right guy for her. Looking back Kimothy says deep inside she always knew that the marriage wasn’t going to last. “It was a small voice, and I just ignored it. But that voice was so clear in my mind, ‘This isn’t it.’ And I still got married.”

After her divorce and a few more relationships, Kimothy decided to hit pause on dating for a year. She could see that never being alone was a distraction from listening to herself. She learned to savor solitude, read more, travel solo and hang out with friends who energized her. She began painting with watercolors. Creating for enjoyment was a revelation. Previously Kimothy thought doing something just for fun was a waste of time. She had always felt so much pressure to make money that she never allowed herself to play. Watercolor and pen quickly became powerful tools for healing and self-discovery. Painting became an outlet to express her emotions that didn’t feel safe to talk about in the past. 

After the presidential election in 2016, healing herself through painting took on an even larger role in her life. Kimothy was shocked by what a woman running for president looked like in this country. The disrespect, shaming, and superficial sexist commentary pointed at Hillary Clinton horrified her. All of it. To rebuild hope within herself Kimothy began painting images of strong women throughout history. “I wanted to tap into their stories, their work, and their power.” She began posting portraits with quotations on Instagram to remind the collective of what females are made of. She was thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response they got.

To Kimothy’s delight the Huffington Post began sharing her portraits. Next, the website, “Join the Uproar” reached out for permission to make her illustrations available as free downloads. The website was collecting feminist artwork that could be printed out and used on posters at women’s marches across the country. Without a moment’s hesitation Kimothy said, “Yes.” That generous act would soon land her a literary agent.

At the same time, Kimothy began shining a light on women, her soon-to-be agent, Cindy Uh, dedicated her career to amplifying diverse female voices. Cindy and her sister were planning to walk in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. that January. Downloading Kimothy’s art from “Join the Uproar,” they made signs using her images to carry at the event.

During the march, Cindy was asked so many times about Kimothy’s art that the night she returned home she looked her up online. In an email, Cindy told Kimothy that she really wanted to support her in making a book out of her women’s portraits. The email was waiting for Kimothy when she returned from the Denver Women’s March. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. “I thought, Oh my God, this is a dream! When I was painting those portraits, I actually envisioned them being made into a book. I had even put together a template of what it could look like. I did a cover and everything!” With Cindy as her agent, That’s What She Said: Wise Words from Influential Women was published in 2018. It’s design stayed true to Kimothy’s original concept.

Coming from the heart meant Kimothy was no longer taking directions from the outside. She was honoring what felt right to her. “Feelings are the breadcrumbs that lead you to where you need to go. Don’t judge them. Just follow the nudges. Tap into your inner being because it knows before you know.” 

There are a myriad of ways to do that, Kimothy discovered. Painting with watercolors is still at the top of her list. She makes a practice of turning off her electronic devices. The quiet leaves an opening for insights from the Universe to come in. Being in nature is another way she listens. But her most profound awarenesses come through meditation.

“I meditate daily, but in my own way. I never went to a workshop or anything. Maybe we should call meditating something else so it’s not so intimidating for everybody. Even going for a walk and listening to the wind blowing through the trees can be meditative. When you slow down you can hear the messages and cues from your inner being. Getting quiet, with no distractions is when I get lit up with ideas.” 

Kimothy says there is nothing inherently special about her. We all have gifts and talents. What sets her apart is she is willing to go within and  “follow the breadcrumbs.“ “When I began connecting to my inner light, my whole world expanded. Things that I never thought were possible happened and continue to happen when I keep coming from within.”

Sharing her good fortune is something that she feels called to do. 10% of the profits from her online shop go to organizations that work to empower women and girls. Kimothy passes on insights about life and her art to schools across the nation. In the past she spoke in person, today she is shifting to presentations on Zoom.  

“If I can minimize some of the suffering that I experienced when I was young, it’s so worth it. Usually it’s just as simple as telling students to, “Follow your bliss.” There’s so much to be found in that phrase. It is counterintuitive to what everybody else is teaching, especially to college kids. The old careers that appeared to be safe are no longer holding up. If you are going to make it up why not make a living by doing something that makes you feel alive? I wish I would have heard that message.”

Since her mom’s death, Kimothy’s life has opened up. Her wings are unfurled. She is now navigating the terrain of motherhood. She has a huge following on Instagram, a creative design firm and recently scored a deal for her second book. Rekindling the connection to her heart has changed everything. Since her mom’s passing, Kimothy has figured out that coming from her center and living in joy are one and the same. She has taken her mother’s dying words to “have fun” to heart. She had the word “joy” tattooed on her wrist, in her mom’s handwriting, as a reminder. Embracing life and living her truth are working well for her. Anyone ready to fly should be taking notes.

Coming up next: Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner at Backstage Capital, a seed investment fund that backs up underrepresented startup founders. Author of It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated into Your Greatest Advantage

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

Seth Avett: The Dynamics of Light

“I’ve seen the reward in my own life for accepting who I am.” – Seth Avett

I set my sights on talking to Seth Avett after hearing an interview with him. In it, Seth said that it took him eight years to write the song, No Hard Feelings. That gave me hope. You see, I struggle with how lengthy my creative process is. Whether I am painting an illustration or writing an essay, I’m slooowww. True my paintings are extremely detailed, but it seems that there is no good reason for my writing to dribble onto paper at a turtle’s pace. Over the years, I have frustrated myself by trying to speed things up and then beat myself up when I couldn’t. If Seth was okay with the length of time it took for his masterpiece to come to fruition, perhaps I could be okay with my process. Letting the still, small voice within have its way has paid off for him. 

When I got Seth on the phone, I was surprised that he immediately understood the premise behind my Porch Light Profiles. Most creatives that I interview are a little confused about what “living from their inner light” means, even though that’s exactly what they are doing. But not Seth. He admitted to, after some trial and error, coming from the heart with The Avett Brothers. 

At the beginning of their musical collaboration Seth and his brother, Scott, assumed that they would need to become something that was against their nature. They put their attention on being a rock band, like Sound Garden or At the Drive-In.

As Seth put it, “Basically we tried to be like something we had seen on TV.  And then when that fell apart, Scott and I had to start over. We simplified and started writing songs leaning towards what came to us naturally, from the actual region that we’re from. It all kind of started falling into place immediately.”

There were a couple of milestones Seth credits to bringing about this shift in focus. One was discovering American roots music from North Carolina. The other was meeting bluegrass legend, Doc Watson. Seth had met Doc when he was around 14 but didn’t apply the knowledge he had acquired from him until some years later. Witnessing Doc play acoustic guitar and sing on stage, opened up Seth’s mind to what makes a powerful musical performance. Power doesn’t come from volume. Power comes from character. 

Seth learned early on that the only thing he could offer to the world was himself. He never bought into the notion that getting a degree and then plugging into a 9 to 5 job was the only pathway to success. Getting to know and be himself is what turned out to be his formula for success.

“Right, totally! And that is at the root of every, every great thing there is. The reason Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder is because he was himself, you know? And Tom Waits and Randy Newman. All the great ones have found a way to just be themselves and find the most purest way to present from who they genuinely are.”

Early on in our conversation it was apparent that Seth has a spiritual foundation. You can hear it in the Avett Brother’s lyrics, too. I think that’s why they have such a strong core audience. More than ever people ache for that. Seth agreed.

“Well, I know I certainly do. I am infinitely benefited by discovering and really spending time with music that’s honest. And that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily positive. I need that too, but it’s good to listen to and hear the darkness. The darkness is true, and I think it’s good to take part in that. It’s important to take part in all of the dynamics of light. I personally need music, and not just to tap my feet to. It’s part of my spiritual practice and my discipline. I need it on a daily basis. It’s just part of my health so I enjoy being in a position where I might be able to provide some of that as well. I hope I can. I feel like it’ll be one of the great honors of my life if I’m able to take part in an effort that provides that for any number of people.”

Giving back is part of the bedrock of Seth’s upbringing. His grandpa was a minister. For Seth and his brother, music is their own spin on bringing people together. Albeit in a different, more expansive way.  “Well, we’re very thankful to be a part of the flock. We’re thankful to be connected to the people that come to our shows and let us know it’s important to them. They in a very real way, are giving us fuel.”

Seth honors that there are many pathways to God. He describes his spiritual practice as being  wide open. 

“I believe that I have an indescribable, inarticulate dialogue with God. I don’t hear voices though,” Seth jokes. “I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do feel that I have an ongoing dialog with Providence and I use any spiritual guide I can get my hands on. Some of them are Christ’s teachings or are based on the words of the Buddha. And Ghandi, certainly. And Martin Luther King.” And he adds laughing, “Andy Griffith.”

With our interview winding down I had made my way to the question I was hoping would help bring me peace.

“I do love your song No Hard Feelings. To me it encompasses all you’ve spoken about. I heard you say that it took eight years to write. When you were writing it, were you ok with the song coming at its own pace? It sounds like the first lines were downloaded  and then you gave the song a rest. Later on another phrase would come. Is that how it worked?”

“Yes. The first few lines of No Hard Feelings came to me immediately. I was almost in tears, you know? It sounds ridiculous to think about starting to weep about what you’re writing. You know, the song is a death letter. To think about everything going on in the world without you, to think about being alone and stepping away from all these people you love so much…. It’s difficult, you know? The first few lines came to me while I was driving through Statesville, North Carolina. I’m left-handed,  so I’ve got a piece of notebook paper on the console. I’m driving with my right-hand on the steering wheel, crossing my arm over, trying not to wreck and feeling super emotional while I’m driving. And trying to continue to drive back home through the mountains.

Writing No Hard Feelings was a very intense experience, and I was not gonna rush it. It took eight years to write because it took eight years for it to visit me enough times for me to understand what the song was in its entirety.”

Seth went on, “You know some songs are just about having fun or are avenues for being clever. This is a bit of a cliché thing to say, but there are some songs that are more of a channeling than a creation. Sue, I had a phone call from a dear friend about a month ago. She works at the airport in Charlotte. When I answered the phone, I was expecting her say that my flight was overbooked or something. She called to tell me that there was an employee at the airport who passed away. He was loved by everyone, just loved. Adored. And 500 employees from the airport went to his funeral because they were so affected and so connected to this person. She let me know the only song that was played at the funeral was No Hard Feelings.

Her call came at the very beginning of the day. I was not in a deeply spiritual place at the moment. It immediately hit me and I slowed down and stopped. I just listened to her. She made me promise that I would thank anyone that was involved in the recording of that song. To let them know how much it meant to her and to all the people at the funeral. So I promised her I would. Then it hit me. I realized that song is for everyone. Even from the earliest moments of writing it, it was not mine. You know?  It’s like the song Hallelujah. It’s not Leonard Cohen’s and it’s not Jeff Buckley’s. It’s not anybody’s song who sings it. That one is for everyone.”

I think that Seth is right about that. Some songs, or paintings, or books are for the whole world. I think it’s remarkable that he was trusting enough to not to try to force the song into being. He allowed it to flow. At its own pace. As he matured the song was crafted from a broader perspective. Life experiences shift the way you think. 

“I’m thinking about how I would’ve treated that song when I was 22. But you know, God would never have given it to me then,” Seth laughs. “I believe you don’t have access to anything that you’re not ready to have access to.”

That was all I needed to know. It’s not necessary to try and force your creative project into being. Whether it’s meant to be shared with the masses or for your eyes only, let it unfold at its own pace. Creativity is a gift to be enjoyed and is always completed in perfect timing. 

A couple of months later as I watched The Avett Brothers perform from front row seats, I noticed something. More than once Seth placed his hand on his heart when the words he sang especially moved him. Yes, coming from the heart serves Seth Avett well. 

No Hard Feelings – The Avett Brothers

When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Will I be ready? 

When my feet won’t walk another mile 

And my lips give their last kiss goodbye 

Will my hands be steady?

When I lay down my fears 

My hopes and my doubts 

The rings on my fingers 

And the keys to my house 

With no hard feelings

When the sun hangs low in the west 

And the light in my chest 

Won’t be kept held at bay any longer 

When the jealousy fades away 

And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust 

And it’s just hallelujah 

And love in thoughts and love in the words 

Love in the songs they sing in the church 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold


When my body won’t hold me anymore 

And it finally lets me free 

Where will I go? 

Will the trade winds take me south 

Through Georgia grain or tropical rain 

Or snow from the heavens?

Will I join with the ocean blue 

Or run into the savior true 

And shake hands laughing 

And walk through the night 

Straight to the light 

Holding the love I’ve known in my life 

And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done 

Much good for anyone 

Kept me afraid and cold 

With so much to have and hold 

Under the curving sky 

I’m finally learning why 

It matters for me and you 

To say it and mean it too 

For life and its loveliness 

And all of its ugliness 

Good as it’s been to me 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

I have no enemies 

*Coming up next: Author and artist extraordinaire, Kimothy Joy.

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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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.

Gordana Biernat: #ShineOn


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.

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.

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.


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. 


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?”




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.


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.

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.