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

Gordana Biernat: #ShineOn

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

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, Brandi Carlile.

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Valerie June: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valerie in Memphis

Valerie Playing for tips in Memphis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And shining is about being yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text and images © Sue Shanahan and Valerie June

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Kirsty Mitchell: A Wonderland of Her Own

Kirsty Mitchell

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

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

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

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

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An awestruck viewer at the Paine Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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The White Queen Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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Gaya the Birth of an End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Lori McKenna: Song Chaser

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2“Before you knew me I traveled around the world

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

– Lori McKenna, Fireflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sheri Salata: You Are What You Dream

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheri Salata and Nancy Hala

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheri and I meet again at her book signing.

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

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

William Joyce: Still Shining

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

Bill Joyce

Mary Katherine with her father, Bill Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bill’s portrait of Liz from their college days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Susan Branch: Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

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

I was first introduced to Susan Branch’s art through a mutual friend. Margot had told me more than once that we had to meet. We were kindred spirits. After I began reading Susan’s memoirs and blog I was ready for Margot to make that happen. Learning about Susan’s world made me want to be a part of it.

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In her posts and memoirs, Susan shares musings, watercolors, and photographs of her life. I had become so familiar with her surroundings that pulling up to her house sparked a feeling of déjà vu in me. No need to introduce me to her partner, Joe. I felt like we had already met. My eyes soaked in every detail of her mid 19th century home. With a flash of recognition I saw her beloved Beatrix Potter figurines on her windowsill. Through that same window I could see the white picket fenced garden Joe had built for her. When I came upon her mustached cat, Jack, I knew for certain that her blog isn’t staged. It’s her living diary.

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Susan speaks to her followers (or girlfriends as she calls them) like old friends. She loves people but admits to being an introvert. “The worst thing that can happen to me is going to the grocery store and having to make small talk with people.”  Yet she has no problem bearing her soul to the 56,000 (at last count) subscribers who follow her blog.

Her books, calendars, and blog are filled with watercolors and inspiring quotations. They are a step back into a simpler time. Susan tends to look on the sunny side of life. At the same time she doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her readers love her more. Her most recent memoirs The Fairytale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams have become two of my all time favorite reads. They follow Susan’s quest to find her light and shine.

The Fairytale Girl begins with Susan’s childhood and ends with the break up of her marriage in the 1980’s. Like many women of the time, she had hitched her wagon to a husband. Being a stay-at-home wife did have its perks. Susan was able to turn homemaking into an art while honing her skills as a watercolorist. But in the end, it left her empty. All that centering around a man meant Susan had no life of her own. Leaving the marriage meant she had no way to support herself. “I was so confused because I thought I had done everything right. I mean I was married and supposed to live happily ever after. And then suddenly I find myself in the situation were I had absolutely no control over my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

With money from her divorce, Susan decided to go for a three-month stay on Martha’s Vineyard. She loved the island and needed time to reflect. What she thought was a hiatus to nurse her wounds ended up becoming a permanent home. She was determined that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. 

The decision to start over was the beginning of Susan’s introduction to herself. She now had plenty of time to explore who she was and where she was going. She soon realized that watching the news and soap operas was effecting her outlook. “One day I said, ‘You know I am feeding myself a steady diet of bad news. I’m turning it all off. The only news I’m going to listen to is what comes through my own open windows.’” That resolution left Susan even more time to discover who she was.

”So many times I’ve been asked, ‘what are you going to do with your life? Who are you going to be?’ I had no idea, and these questions tortured me. I read everything trying to find the answers. I wished I could find a nice short book called, The Secrets of Life. I kept asking, ‘Where is it?  Someone must have written it down. Like first you do this, then you do that, and voila!’ I never found that book but my search included lots of biographies about successful people and I started reading quote books like novels. They were filled with distilled genius. I was putting two and two together. It was all there. For one thing, you should never give up. And for another, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, we already have the power within.” 

Susan learned to connect to that power by taking a course on meditation,“For me, that practice is what opened the door to the gift of ‘within.’”

Next Susan began putting her energies into making her little house a home. “Just the tiniest thing, like putting a couple of flowers in a jar is so cheerful to see on your windowsill. It gave me a sense of having control of my life. I may not have been able to do a thing about the outside, but I had complete control on the inside.”

Susan now had the time to hatch a long held dream. She began filling her hours with writing and illustrating a cookbook. Combining her love of cooking and watercoloring was a natural progression. Once completed, she gathered her courage and submitted the manuscript to Little, Brown and Company in Boston. She was floored when they wanted to publish it. She had an exclusive contract with them from 1986 until 2006. During that time, Susan created thirteen books.

After 20 years of working together, Susan and her publisher parted ways. Little, Brown and Company had been successful with her cookbooks and weren’t open to trying anything different. Susan longed to create a book in the style of her handwritten diaries. Leaving Little Brown gave her the opportunity to “Branch out” and self-publish. 

“Making a book is like making a Christmas present. You want it to be wonderful. Now I could write what I liked. I could use the paper I wanted to use. I could give it a ribbon bookmark. Starting my own company, Spring Street Publishing, gave me all of those options.” 

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The Fairy Tale Girl came out in 2015 and Susan went on to publish its sequel the following year. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss and believe in themselves. “It was about finding your heart, finding your passion, and finding what you are meant to do in life.” Hope lives in its pages. 

Susan Branch never had a concrete vision of where her artistry would take her. Her career was a byproduct of living from her center. When she found her heart, her life’s work found her. Her best marketing has always been through word of mouth. In fact, that’s how her books were brought to the attention of a Hollywood screenwriter. A script for her memoirs is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If the world-weary are lucky the screenplay will soon be made into a movie or television series. Susan’s sphere is the perfect antidote for the harshness of life.

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

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*Today Susan spends her time at her art table in her house on Martha’s Vineyard. She is painting and writing a new diary book, called Enchanted.

**My watercolor portrait of her is based on a photograph I took when we first met. After completing the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it had been in the photo. Susan Branch had decided to let it go gray. No point in not being who you are. 

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

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

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