The Magic of Inspiration

The most common question I’m asked about my art is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I love the written word and quotations inspire me. When I read or hear something that strikes a chord, images begin to form in my brain. Seeing an adorable child has the same effect on me. In my mind’s eye, they can sprout fairy wings or morph into a mermaid. At other times, I’m compelled to search out a quotation to describe their essence.

However, my artistic process doesn’t always work that way. The above fairy painting is from a picture book I authored, Glory in the Morning. One day it struck me that the image not only illustrated a scene from the book but is also autobiographical. I had unwittingly brought a quote to life by Maya V. Patel that my sister Ann had given me, “She takes my hand and leads me along paths I would not dared have explored alone.” That describes our relationship perfectly. Ann and I felt we were traveling companions through our time on earth. Sometimes I would lead, and other times I raced to keep up with her. I now see my watercolor as a metaphor for our lives. In it, I’m the fairy soaring with my sister, the bluebird. Together we traverse the garden like the characters in my book. Because Ann died suddenly in 2009, the flight of the bluebird takes on an even deeper significance. Giving credence to the words of author J.M. Barrie, “Death is but the next great adventure,” I no longer grieve. Clinging to my sister would only serve to weigh her down.

Inspiration is a wondrous and mysterious thing.

Me with my sister Ann, hand in hand, at the beginning of our journey.

Me with my sister Ann, hand in hand, at the beginning of our journey.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Watch for my new children’s book app, Glory in the Morning, coming to the iTunes store in September.

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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Awestruck 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 seem to 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

 

Mary Engelbreit: So Much More Than Cute

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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

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

Mary Engelbreit is one of my all time favorite artists. I’ve been a fan of her art since my early twenties. Not only was I attracted to her illustrations, but I connected to the thought provoking quotations she incorporated into them. Those hopeful words were beacons of light to me. Mary felt like a wise friend pointing me in the right direction. Once, I waited in line for six hours to have prints and cards of her’s signed. After I gushed on and on about my love for her art, I showed her a print of my detailed fine art painting that Oprah Winfrey had bought from me. She looked at me quizzically and said, “You like my art?” I assured her I did and told her what a great marketer she is. “That I am,” she answered wryly.

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This signed print hangs in my studio. Mary’s message to me, “Believe, Sue! “

Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Mary is best known for her greeting cards, calendars, children’s books, and giftware. At one point she even licensed a series of dolls based on characters from her drawings. Her images are described as nostalgic and cute (“Nothing wrong with cute,” says Mary). 

For over 40 years she has produced images without any guidelines for her art licensing company. Mary feels fortunate that she has always been able to draw from her inner impulses. As a rule, she never follows the market trends. Although her licensing company did begin producing adult coloring books when they came into vogue. To that she said, “We aren’t stupid.”

Mary’s childhood was the perfect launching pad for her to make a living illustrating the world as she sees it. She grew up under the loving gaze of parents who believed in her talent. Her light was allowed to shine from day one. Her mom and dad never questioned her plan to become an artist or what that actually meant. All they knew was that Mary’s dreams were sufficient to earn their respect. She had a passion for drawing and was encouraged to create and develop her artistic ability in whatever way she saw fit. Mary believes that since she was self-taught it was easier to stay true to her vision. Never having anyone trying to shape her talent, left her wide open to explore.

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

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

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

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

Mighty Good Husband

The knight in shining armor is based on Mary’s  husband, Phil Delano.

Up until 2000, it looked like Mary Engelbreit was leading a charmed life. On June 21st of that year, everything changed. Their 19-year-old son Evan was killed from a gunshot wound. The details are blurry as to whether it was self-inflicted or murder. After almost 20 years, Mary is still recovering from that loss. She believes it shifted her focus to what’s really important in life. She and Phil adopted Evan’s child after he died. Mikayla was only three months old at the time. Mary credits her granddaughter for helping their family to move forward after Evan’s death, “She basically saved our lives.”

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

Prior to Evan’s death, Mary was a quiet activist. She created drawings about subjects that mattered to her but nothing too controversial. In 2014, that all changed when she made a drawing titled, No One Teach protesting gun violence and posted it on Facebook. Her illustration was inspired by her outrage over the police killing of teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. To Mary, the shooting death of Michael felt personal. Her heart broke for his mother and the community.

Speaking her truth, created a backlash Mary wasn’t prepared for. She confided that when she put No One Teach on Facebook, “Some people responded to it by posting ugly, ugly things.” She has come to terms with that though. She may have lost some followers, but in the end, they were replaced by others who support her views. Today Mary continues onward and upward with her activism. She will not stay silent so others can remain comfortable. And without a backward glance, she goes on her “Mary” way. 

In the USA

Click to purchase print.

*Prints of No One Teach can be purchased on Mary’s website. 50% of the proceeds go to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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

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

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My Only Valentine

Valentine*750“We got this far, darling, not by luck, but by never turning back.”                                         – Mary Chapin Carpenter

My husband, Bob, and I met through mutual friends when he was 20 and I was 21. We went on our first date the following week. He had just gotten out of a tumultuous relationship and was determined never to fall in love again. After hearing that, I figured I’d better proceed with caution. We tried our best not to fall for each other, but our hearts won over our brains. I made the above illustration, featuring Mae West and W. C. Fields, for Bob after we had been dating a year. As an artist, a handmade Valentine is the only way to declare your love.

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When we first met.

One year after we met Bob proposed to me. I said, “yes” but wondered if it was a good idea to tie the knot with the only real boyfriend I ever had. This July it will be 37 years for us. Our commitment to each other has weathered many storms. There was too much drinking on his part and way too much “fixing” on mine. When I finally went and got help for myself, things slowly began to change for the better. Bob got sober and we grew together in a positive direction. That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing ever since. I’ve always held onto the advice my sister Ann gave me about sticking it out in a marriage. After three husbands, she had come to the conclusion that you should work out your troubles, if you can, because no marriage is problem free.

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On our wedding day, July 28, 1979.

In hindsight, I can see that Bob and I had no business getting married when we were 23. We were way too young. I question the wisdom of conceiving our oldest child six months later too. What was our hurry? I think in Bob’s case it seemed like the right thing to do because he came from a huge Irish/Catholic family. In my case, I adored kids and was certain that love would take care of the details. Thankfully, in the end, it always did.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. – Robert Browning

Yes, there is something to be said for growing old together. Being with someone longer than you’ve been without them brings the kind of comfort that a well worn pair of shoes does. Not exactly a romantic notion, until you consider the discomfort that can come from breaking in a new pair. As we age, our love deepens. Sure, Bob and I still can get on each other’s nerves, but we have the presence of mind to let many of the little annoyances go. We are two separate individuals and have come to respect our differences.

Next June, after forty years at his job as a signal maintainer, Bob will be retiring. I have to admit I do worry about having him around all the time. In my work as an  author and artist, I need solitude to reflect and allow inspiration in. At other times, I am not concerned at all about him invading my space, and am looking forward to adventures with him and our grand babies. One thing is certain, the man I married all those years ago deserves a break. He has worked tirelessly to support his family and his wife’s dream of being an artist. It’s his time to fulfill some dreams of his own.

It looks like Bob and I will be approaching this next phase of our lives much like we did our marriage. Jump in and figure out how to swim later. When you think about it, how much of life can you truly plan anyway? What I do know for sure is the love that has carried us through the early, and middle years is not going to fail us now.

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On our 35th wedding anniversary.

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

Bluebirds from Heaven

Looking back at this illustration of Ann and my son Rob, must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

My 1984 illustration of Ann and my son Rob must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

“I’m always looking for cosmic rhymes.” – Bono

Today is the anniversary of my younger sister Ann’s death. She died suddenly, of an undetected heart condition on October 9, 2008. It hardy seems possible that she’s been gone for seven years. When she made her transition she left a huge hole in my life. We spoke every day and spent as much time together as we could. The two youngest of unstable parents, we clung to each other growing up. Survivors of a shipwreck of a childhood, there was no one who nurtured and supported my recovery more than her.

Life without Ann was hard. It’s not that I didn’t believe she was in a better place. I just missed our daily connection. I yearned for proof that she was still near me. The summer after she left, my heart ached as I packed for my family’s annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. Truthfully, I didn’t much feel like going. A friend had told me about seeing a red cardinal after her father passed in times of trouble or when she missed him. She believed they were sent by her dad to let her know all was well. To give my trip a sense of purpose I asked Ann to send me a bluebird when I was there to let me know she was alright. Although they inhabit the island, I had never seen one. If a bluebird crossed my path while I was there, I decided it would be a sign that she was near.

When we arrived on the island, even its beauty couldn’t fully cheer me up. Everywhere we went my eyes scanned the trees for bluebirds without any luck. When my sister Laura brought me to her friend, folk artist Ashley Medowski’s gallery, I began to rethink the perimeters of how my bluebird would show up. On the gallery wall, with a red sold sticker on it, hung the most enchanting piece of art with a little bluebird on it. It was entitled, The Family Tree. A box with a door, made from a victorian photo album, opened up to a tree. Hanging stairs were attached to it to symbolize our assent to heaven and the rejoining of the loved ones who went before us. Laura knew how much I missed Ann and bought it for me. That gift opened me up to being flexible as to how the bluebird was going to manifest on my trip. Real or fashioned by a human hand, it didn’t matter. I accepted it as an assurance from Ann.

The Family Tree

The Family Tree

Later that week, I went to visit my friend, artist, Margot Datz. She wanted me to see an image she had painted with me in mind. Inspired by the profundity of my loss she had named it, My Blue Heart. I couldn’t believe when I saw a bluebird holding a heart in its beak at the center of its design. Margot knew about my younger sister’s death but not about my quest for bluebird signs. I’ve glossed over many coincidences in my life, but it was hard for me to believe this was just happenstance. It had to come from Ann, through Margot’s paintbrush, to me. Today the painting hangs in my studio next to my drawing table.

My Blue Heart

My Blue Heart

Me with Margo that summer.

Me with Margot that summer.

After I returned from Martha’s Vineyard, bluebirds were on my radar. It seemed like everywhere I looked I saw one and was reminded of Ann. I had let go of any hope of ever seeing a real eastern bluebird in my suburb of Chicago. Like me, no one I knew had ever seen one in our area.

That all changed Sept. 29, 2014. That day I was feeling discouraged about launching my children’s books and said a prayer for help. Not a minute later, I glanced out the window and saw what looked like an eastern bluebird! I couldn’t believe it. I went and grabbed binoculars to make sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking. Looking through them, I could clearly see a small cobalt blue bird with an orange breast eating seeds under our bird feeder. Then, as if to clarify my vision, it flew toward my window and soared away. Ann, one of my biggest supporters, had to let me know that everything was going to be all right.

Of course there is no way to prove my bluebird assurances scientifically. Some may say my sightings are a product of an overactive imagination, but I know what I know. As the years move on, I no longer yearn for Ann like I did. Over time, other relationships in my life have deepened. The hole has been filled. I am at peace. I’ve found that no matter how much faith you have there is always an adjustment period when someone you love dies. Missing their physical presence takes time to come to terms with and be healed.

“Death is just life’s next big adventure.” – J. K. Rowling

Today, I’m happy for Ann. She is still with me, behind the scenes, supporting my journey. I know she is experiencing a world my mind can’t even begin to comprehend. I wish her Godspeed on the new adventures she traverses. She never was one for sitting still.

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

Coincidences: We Are Never Alone

I see the moon 300 (1)In 2012, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, I was shopping for a beach read. A little volume, whose cover wore the night sky, caught my eye. Its title, When God Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life, intrigued me. Learning the author, SQuire Rushnell, lived on the island and had signed the book was all I needed. I purchased one. I began reading it that evening and finished it long before we trekked to the ocean the next morning. According to the author, a godwink is a message of reassurance that comes from above in the form of a coincidence. It’s a signpost in our life to let us know we’re going in the right direction. I yearned to feel God’s presence and in the pages of this book was a refreshing way to do just that.

“Your children first learn who God is by experiencing you.” – Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

It’s been said that we model our perception of the Divine by our relationship with our parents. That certainly was true in my case. To me a loving Creator was only wishful thinking. My family was riddled with alcoholism and the mechanism’s formed to cope with it. My father often told me he loved me but looked the other way when it came to my mother’s harsh treatment and verbal abuse. As for my mom, I can honestly say I never heard her utter the words “I love you” my whole childhood. I couldn’t help but grow up with the unconscious belief that although God may be there for others, he ignored me and my prayers. There seemed to be an impenetrable wall between us. Reading When God Winks gave me hope that there is a Higher Power who loves his children (me included) unconditionally. The notion that he puts serendipitous events on our paths to lift our spirits was a lovely concept to me. I liked this way of thinking and immediately began watching for winks. I had no trouble finding them again and again.

“Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.”- Carl Jung

I’ve come to the awareness that my life has been filled with godwinks all along. I missed them because I didn’t know they were there. When reviewing important events of the past, I can see them glimmering throughout. One such scenario took place in 1994. I had a strong inner nudge to draw a portrait of Chelsea Clinton and send it her mother, who was first lady at the time. Mrs. Clinton had been getting such bad press about health care reform, I felt compelled to encourage her. I knew she was partial to angels and wore an angel pin on her shoulder. I had the inspiration to paint her daughter as an angel and send it to her. I’m not in the habit of giving my art away, but it was something I felt a strong call to do. For a woman who had little faith in herself, it was a real leap.

Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton Portrait

I didn’t realize it then but I now see that godwinks were there to give me hope and point me in the right direction the whole way through.  After I decided to trust my intuition, I came across a wonderful quote to include on the illustration (wink #1). Next, I stumbled upon the perfect photograph of Chelsea’s face to base the portrait on (wink #2). My daughter was close to Chelsea’s age and I was able to photograph her body to work from to create the image (wink #3). I was going to ship the piece to Mrs. Clinton in care of the White House until I stumbled upon the more direct route of sending it to her address at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (wink #4). When the drawing was completed, I wrapped it up and shipped it off to the First Lady. In less than a week, I received the most lovely thank-you note from her. In it she told me I had captured her daughter’s spirit (wink #5). What a confirmation that I should trust my own instincts! Reflecting back, it seems incredulous that I didn’t notice how miraculously everything had fallen into place. But you can’t perceive what you don’t believe exists.

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Godwinks is now a household term in my family. Watching for them has made all of our faith bloom and grow. It’s almost a different form of gratitude. Of course, at times, I still slip back into my old thinking patterns. When I pray for assistance, I’m always given a nod from God that lets me know he hasn’t abandoned me. I’ve found the evidence of his love is everywhere if we only shift our focus and look.

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

Beauty Within

Divine Things

Maybe the tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten we were each Divine. Shirley MacLaine

 The inspiration for Divine Things came to me one summer on Martha’s Vineyard. The island is wrapped in a wild, raw beauty. There are images of mermaids everywhere.  Lying on the beach, it’s not hard to imagine a secret world beneath the waves.

 The mermaid in the illustration is a metaphor for the exquisiteness that so often lives below the surface. It takes an open mind and heart to discern it. But then again, sometimes all it takes is just looking……

Bridget MV

I snapped this photo of my daughter Bridget on Martha’s Vineyard, around the time she posed for the above illustration. She is a mermaid of the landlocked variety. To learn more about mermaids check out my friend artist Margot Datz’s book  A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids.

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

Divine Things

Maybe the tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten we were each Divine. -Shirley MacLaine

The inspiration for Divine Things came to me one summer on Martha’s Vineyard. The island is wrapped in a wild, raw beauty. There are images of mermaids everywhere.  Lying on the beach, it’s not hard to imagine a secret world beneath the waves.

 The mermaid in the illustration is a metaphor for the exquisiteness that so often lives below the surface. It takes an open mind and heart to discern it. But then again, sometimes all it takes is just looking……

I took this picture of my daughter Bridget on Martha’s Vineyard, around the time she posed for the illustration. She is a mermaid of the landlocked variety. For more information on mermaids check out my friend Margot Datz’s A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids  
All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.