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.

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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. www.sueshanahan.com

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. www.sueshanahan.com

Kirsty Mitchell: A Wonderland of Her Own

Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty Mitchell. Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Kirsty Mitchell is an award-winning fine art photographer from Surrey, England. She is the creator of the otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland. Kirsty began the project in 2008 as an escape from reality after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in the production of it was her way of working through her grief and making something beautiful in her mother’s memory.

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“The Ghost Swift” (detail) ©Kirsty Mitchell

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

I first heard of Kirsty when my friend, Mary, invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and certain I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s art, 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. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. It boggled my mind that there was no Photoshop used to fabricate the magic in her photographs. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.

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“The Secrets Locked in the Roots of a Kingdom”  ©Kirsty Mitchell

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

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A young friend awestruck at the Paine Museum

At the question and answer session, I discovered that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is utterly honest without a tinge of fakery. There are no details of her life when asked about 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.”

Kirsty’s openness about her fragility after the passing of her mother endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When she began the series she already had an amazing career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. She had no idea why she was driven to bring it 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. For seven years, she worked tirelessly assembling the sets and creating the costumes to capture her photographs of an alternative existence.

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 they were. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small amount of pieces.

“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?”

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

Kirsty’s dedication to her series meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. Everything she does is massively linked with creation and nature. She and her production team took days off work when a photoshoot was scheduled so there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that rain or shine, the atmospheric conditions always brought an unforeseen beauty to the photograph. She attributes the influence behind the weather conditions as her mother’s energy. Between all the little glimmers in the atmosphere and changes in the weather they always felt a kind of a 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 death. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

“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.”

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“Gaia, the Birth of an End” ©Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty had help behind the scenes creating Wonderland. If you ask her, she would agree that her mother’s love was 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 Kirsty’s life, the death 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 then its popularity has snowballed. This year the renowned Fotografiska photography museum in Stockholm, Sweden, has slated Wonderland to be their 2018 winter show.

 

Where has Kirsty’s life taken her since her monumental book was published? 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 seemed natural to her to put her energies into a new body of work about that journey. 

“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.”

Kirsty is now immersed in the production of it and has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines this series 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. 

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

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

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Lori McKenna: Song Chaser

Lori McKenna_edited-1

Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Lori McKenna is a singer-songwriter who lives in the blue collar community of Stoughton, Massachusetts. In 2016, she won a Grammy for co-writing “Girl Crush” performed by Little Big Town. In 2017, she won a Grammy for writing, “Humble and Kind” performed by Tim McGraw. In addition to Little Big Town and Tim McGraw, her songs have appeared on the albums of Alison Krause, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. She is the first female to ever win the AMC Songwriter of the Year Award and was recently saluted by the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Poets and Profits Series.

“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 back in 2006 when Faith Hill took the stay-at-home-mom on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her. Faith had recorded four of Lori’s songs for her newly released album, “Fireflies” and wanted to share her music with the world. Lori’s songs 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. In Lori’s words, “It was like I won the lottery without buying a ticket.” That scenario is not entirely true. There was a lot of hard work done on Lori’s part before that fairy dust was sprinkled on her.

Lori’s award winning music isn’t the only reason I chose to write about her. I find a huge career being launched from songs written on a kitchen table, equally compelling. A devoted mother of five, she was nineteen and pregnant when she married her high school sweetheart, Gene. They live a half mile from the home she grew up in. Even though Lori lives far from the country music mecca of Nashville, her songs have found their place in that world in a big way. Her career gives hope to anyone who has a dream. 

Lori considers her childhood a happy one even though her mother died of a blood platelet disease when she was only seven. Her older brothers stepped in to help raise her so she never felt a huge sense of loss. She barely has any memories of her mom and thinks that may be because she was the youngest of six and her mother was sick a lot. “I don’t remember her almost at all. I think what I remember are just stories that somebody told me that I made into a memory.”

Lori grew up in a musical family. 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.”

Other than mimicking her siblings as best as she could, 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.”

Lori wrote her first song when she was thirteen and hasn’t stopped writing them since. It wasn’t until she was 27 before she found the courage to perform them in public. 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.’” 

Lori is devoted to her family and posts about her kids and Gene on Instagram almost as much as she does her music. She acknowledges that without them she wouldn’t be where she is today. Not only did Gene’s job as a master plumber support them in the early years, but the song writing inspiration she garners from her clan is priceless.

“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.”

Using her life as a starting point is all well and good when you write songs like “Humble and Kind” for your children but what about songs that potentially put your 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.”

I assumed that the poetic insight in her lyrics meant that Lori is an avid reader, but not so. She writes from her instincts and confesses to not being 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 think 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 Lori’s  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 admits 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 pulled 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.”

These days 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. She admits the hardest thing about her life is being tugged in so many directions.

“I’ve been blessed to have the best of both worlds and 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 Lori’s background doesn’t look like it could have provided her with the expertise necessary to be the mega-hit songwriter that she is. Yet somehow she has everything she needs to shine her light. She’s quite certain 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 career path. She never tried to force any of her hopes or ambitions into being. She simply played music for the love of it. She walked through the doors that opened and ended 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. I don’t know about you, but I’d say Lori McKenna has been officially out dreamed.

Lori’s next album, “The Tree,” will be released in July.

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

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

Sheri Salata: You Are What You Dream

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

Sheri Salata

Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Sheri Salata is best known for her association with The Oprah Winfrey Show. She began working for Oprah in a basement office at Harpo Studios when she was 35. Over the next twenty years she moved up to executive producer and then to president of Harpo. When The Oprah Show stopped production in 2010, Sheri moved to California to become co-president of OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). In 2016, she stepped down from that position to form media company, Story, with her longtime friend, Nancy Hala. 

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

The first time I met Sheri Salata would be considered a chance encounter by many, but I know it was a matter of divine timing. The minute I ran into her at a hotel coffee shop, I already felt like we were friends. Sheri is warm, funny and candid. It just so happened that the day before I was a part of an audience that she spoke to about re-visioning your life at any age. She made everyone there feel like she wasn’t a fancy CEO but one of us. Leaving soon for a flight, Sheri was dressed in traveling clothes, with her hair thrown on top of her head. When I asked if I could schedule an interview with her for my Porch Light Profiles and take a picture of her to base my watercolor on she responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure!” I love her for that. It confirmed to me that the realness she projected on stage was no act.

When I interviewed Sheri over the phone the following week, I felt the same genuineness. We talked about the twists and turns and all the wrong doors she’s walked through to get where she is. “It wasn’t like I knew what I was doing. After college I went from a typing pool, to 7- Eleven, to moving into my parent’s basement to regroup.” If I would have known her then, I would have considered her a party girl but Sheri assured me that wasn’t so.

“I was always a seeker but I don’t think I felt at home in my own spirit until I begin to understand what I was really looking for in a job was meaning. That’s why no matter what I was doing I would try to do my best. I wanted to feel like what I contributed mattered to me in my mission.”

Over time, Sheri uncovered that what was important to her is empowerment, illumination, enlightenment and joy. She wanted to use her energy to have an impact and be of service.  In moving through different jobs, Sheri learned what was bringing fulfillment to her and what wasn’t. Today she defines success as meaning. “As long as I’m in alignment with meaning, everything else falls into place.”

In 1995, when Sheri got the call to work at the Oprah Winfrey Show, she plugged right into her new environment. For the next twenty years, she worked 80 to 90 hours a week. She was happy to do it. Working under the tutelage of the of the “Queen of Dreams” served her well. She learned much about doing what she loves, trusting her gut and that anything is possible. 

The year Sheri turned 56 she knew it was time for her to step down from OWN. It was the ride of a lifetime but Sheri had some dreams of her own to realize (“If not now when?). Along with her BFF, Nancy Hala, she cofounded, Story, a media company that develops content and tells stories across print, TV, film and digital platforms. Its name reflects Sheri’s and Nancy’s belief about how life works. “We christened it Story because people’s stories are one of the things we love most. The fact that it completely connects to what we believe spiritually just makes it more powerful. The stories that we tell ourselves is what makes our dreams come true.”

At this time in her life, Sheri is ready to not work at such a frantic pace. She want to do what she feels prompted to do. No more pushing. She is consciously aware of the difference between “doing” verses “being.” After the magnificent experience that she’s come off in Oprah Land, she can see that “doing” ruled the day for her time there. Now she’s ready to transcend to the  place of “being.” That means I’m gently letting go of that doer, even though at times I still feel like that doer was super successful,” she laughs.

Sheri’s decision to leave OWN never brought up a speck of fear in her.  After so many years of being filled with all the love, support and grace, leaving felt like a natural evolution. It was a beautiful launching and also a time of completion. “You have to let go of one thing to hold out your hand for another.”

The inkling to sing her own song has been with Sheri for as long as she can remember. When she was younger she went from job to job because she didn’t have the courage to launch her own company. It just wasn’t in her zeitgeist. Over her years under the wing of Oprah and seeing everything she created, taught her that there are no limits. She also got much inspiration from the young entrepreneurs they partnered with at OWN. They were building incredible businesses that were a culmination of their own dreams coming true. “I was like, ‘I need to do that before I really don’t want to work anymore.’” 

When Sheri and Nancy founded Story, they didn’t have super complex strategy or a deeply detailed business plan. They just had found themselves at a time in there lives where they wanted to shine their own lights and do what they wanted to do. “We want to be intuitively guided to the things that we want to create and to the people we want to partner with. Story is really for our own delight and joy. Sometimes I  feel like I’m just having a conversation with myself about what I most want to hear in midlife.”

Sheri believes that making a living following your heart is the best way to make a living. And yes, she believes it’s possible for everyone but they have to believe it’s possible. “That belief piece is no small thing. All things require your belief to make them happen. Many people are afraid of not getting what they want so they drop the ceiling on their dreams. I’ve learned to stand in the light of possibility.”

The best advice Sheri can share with women is the same advice she gives to herself three or four times a day. 

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

Anyone who knows Sheri Salata knows how she is answering those questions. While many women her age are winding their lives down she is amping hers up. Through her podcast, This is Fifty with Sheri and Nancy, and her memoir, A Year at Belle Vie (scheduled to come out May 2018) she will be inspiring her DreamTribe, as she calls it, to go along with her in redefining their lives. To help she’ll be bringing in experts for ideas on how to live a more joy-filled existence. Sheri wants to share her revelations about how life works and shine a little light on the world, too. To some it may seem like a tall order but not to Sheri. She is already living it.

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

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

PLP#6 The World of William Joyce

Bill Joyce & MK_

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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*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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Don’t Have a Fairy Godmother? Borrow One

Elli&Agapi

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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Blessings From Heaven

 

Blessings from Heaven

Last September my friend Nancy, got in touch to tell me of the death of her beloved daughter. I was saddened to hear the details of Meghan’s passing. Nancy explained that she wanted to commission me to create the cover art for a book she was writing about Megs. She then went on to tell me of a lucid dream her brother, Charles, experienced after her daughter had passed. In it he envisioned his niece moments after her death. No longer was Megs a 35-year-old woman consumed with cancer, but a healthy nine-year-old. She bounded through the door of Chirup, their summer cottage, and raised her arms in delight as she overlooked the lake. When she realized she had crossed the threshold to the afterlife her joy couldn’t be contained. That’s the image Meghan’s mom wanted illustrated for the cover of her book, Blessings from Heaven. Nancy planned to include all the details of her brother’s heavenly encounter with his niece.

Some may dismiss Charles’s vision as a broken heart trying to heal itself, but I knew better. From what I’ve witnessed, along with sorrow, death always brings miracles. Through her uncle’s dream Meghan’s soul made sure her family knew her suffering was over and that she is free.

I accepted the commission and began gathering details for my illustration. Meghan’s mom had to find photos of her daughter as a child and of Chirup for me to work from. Getting the details of the cottage right were almost as important as getting Megs right. She had such a connection to the vacation dwelling that it was her heart’s desire to spend her final days there.

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Megs around age nine.

I felt a little apprehensive about making the book cover. I knew what I was doing was important work and wanted it to be perfect. Nancy turned out to be a fabulous art director. When she saw my preliminary sketch, she knew I had to thin and elongate Meghan’s body. She was able to supply me with the minutest of details to make Chirup authentic. She even gave me images of wildflowers that grow in the area to incorporate into the painting. She told me that I had artistic license to place them around the cottage in abundance even though they weren’t there in actuality. The illustration was of heaven after all.

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Chirup

The final art took months to complete. Every day that I sat down to paint, I put on the cancer bracelet that Meghan’s family wore to support her. Having it on my wrist somehow solidified the connection I felt with her. I could feel her vibrant energy. I knew she was doing what she could to help me make the cover of her mom’s book a masterpiece.

When I finally put the finishing touches on the art, I appraised all the detail in the plants around the cottage. I’d spent hours and hours painting those flowers. I found my antique flower dictionary to look up the definitions of the blooms Nancy wanted in the illustration. When I complete a portrait commission if flowers are included, I like to read the meanings behind them. The definitions always somehow tie into my subject’s personalities, struggles and gifts.

I was in awe when I read what the wildflowers Meghan’s mom chose meant:

*The orange day-lilies represent beauty. They describe Nancy’s daughter far beyond the physical.

*Daisies mean simplicity. Megs never was one for too much fuss in her attire or surroundings. She drew much comfort from nature.

*Black-Eyed-Susan’s mean justice. To Meghan’s family and friends her passing seemed so unfair, but in the tapestry of life she left in perfect timing. So many gifts will materialize that wouldn’t have if she had stayed. Megs now has the power to help her loved ones from behind the scenes in ways she never could have while on Earth.

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My 1843 flower dictionary.

*The final flowers Nancy requested are purple phlox. I got chills when I read that their definition is, ”our souls are united.” It was a clear cut message for Meghan’s family, especially for her son, Tyler. Death could never be strong enough to separate them from her love.

Discovering what the flowers I had painstaking painted symbolized gave me a new understanding of the aphorism “God is in the details.” As I closed my Victorian flower dictionary, I was reminded, once again, how Divine love is woven through everything.

When Nancy learned I’d scheduled my essay to run today, she was thrilled. You see today is her birthday. I had no idea. No one can convince either of us that this isn’t a gift to her, through me, from Meghan. Happy birthday, Nancy.

*Click here to purchase a copy of Blessings from Heaven

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

 

5 Lessons From Harriet Tubman to Help You Follow Your Inner Wisdom in Honor of Black History Month

keep-going

“Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”                        -Harriet Tubman

No one knows if Harriet Tubman really uttered these words, but there isn’t any question that she lived them. Harriet was born into slavery and raised in a world with no hope. Still, she dreamed her dreams and did what she had to do. She broke the law of the land by following the North Star to freedom. Where did a woman who was whipped as a child get that kind of courage?

Harriet had a deep and abiding faith that she was being guided. She was steadfast in her conviction that all she had to do was keep going and God would take care of the details. She shepherded over 300 slaves to freedom. If any of her fugitive charges became faint-hearted and wanted to turn around, she threatened to shoot them. Turning back could mean death to them all. She gave them no choice but to keep going. I, too, have been known to buckle and want to backtrack. Somehow the pain of the mundane seems safer than pioneering into new territory. The only way I’m able to move past that kind of paralyzation is to borrow some of Miss Harriet’s grit. She always remembered to ask for direction and then listen for the answer. The way was always made clear.

Studying Harriet Tubman’s life has made me a believer in praying for help. When I first began to follow her example, I had a difficult time discerning the guidance coming my way. I soon realized that Harriet’s unshakable faith was born of desperation. For her, there was no other choice than to pay attention to the “still, small voice within.” She knew those whisperings were from God and had to abandon herself to them or face certain death. Today, most of us don’t live with the kind of urgency she did. We lead busy lives and often times are too distracted to be aware of any inner knowing. Yet it’s still possible for us to learn how to hear and carry out the internal guidance we receive. I make a practice of this and live a life far easier than when I was going it alone. Below are the tools I learned from Harriet on how to accomplish this:

1) While growing up, Harriet began listening to the voice of her Maker to keep herself safe. When working in the fields, there was plenty of time to pray and listen for direction. Today television and electronic devices can keep us so preoccupied that we never give ourselves a chance to communicate with a Higher Power. Making a habit of having periods of quiet throughout the day is a good way to begin developing a working relationship with Him.

2) Gut feelings should never be analyzed by the brain. We can reason any type of inner guidance away with intellect, but logic often is a hinderance.

3) Pay attention to how you feel about opportunities that are presented to you. Doing something out of guilt or fear is a red flag that you’re going in the wrong direction. Something you should move forward with is always accompanied by feelings of peace or joy.

4) Be mindful of your dreams. Harriet was often foretold how to sidestep dangers in hers. Keep a journal beside your bed to write them down.

5) Be aware of physical sensations. It’s no accident that the term “gut feeling” is used to describe intuition. Harriet’s heart would begin beating wildly to warn her when she or someone else were in danger. She could feel trouble deep in her bones. Never discount the gift of these signals.

Take baby steps when you begin following your inner wisdom to test the process out. I did and discovered rather quickly that the God that was there for Harriet watches over us all.

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This picture of Harriet Tubman was taken between 1860-1875. I love her hat placed on the chair.

 

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