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.”

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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

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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 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

 

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 asked her 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

Amanda Shires: Songbird

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Amanda and Mercy.

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 wanna look like a bird, like I was meant to sing,” Amanda Shires, Look Like a Bird 

Even before I spoke to Amanda Shires, I knew I was going to like her when I got this text, “So sorry Sue. I’ll call back in a few minutes. In the middle of saving a bird.” I should have known a bird would be one of the few reasons she wouldn’t pick up the phone for our scheduled chat. Being a bird lover myself, I’d noticed the bird imagery in more than a few of her songs.

Amanda called back a few minutes later. She apologized, “A baby nuthatch was caught in a string hanging by its feet from a glass bird feeder. It was so cute and so sad, but it’s all fixed now.”

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The little nuthatch Amanda saved.

Then our interview officially began. I was surprised to learn Amanda didn’t come from a musical family. As a girl, she never remembers seeing a fiddle until she came across a group of them hanging on a pawn shop wall. She’s not sure what pulled her to them but she knew she had to have one. She picked out a fiddle and talked her dad into buying it. Her mom paid for lessons. Amanda stuck with her training and learned to use her fiddle to express herself. “When my parents divorced, I dealt with it by spending time with my instrument. Playing it gave me joy, and I felt like I was communicating somehow. Since I didn’t have much of a vocabulary, my music spoke for me. It was the one constant in my life.”

By the time she was fifteen, Amanda was a member of the western swing band, the  Texas Playboys. In her early she twenties, she had graduated to side-player for Billy Joe Shaver. To supplement her income, she made a fiddle record that included two songs she wrote and sang. One day Billy Joe told her he’d heard she was a songwriter and asked to hear something of hers. Reluctantly, Amanda complied and was stunned when he told her that she was a great songwriter and should keep writing. “After I let the idea set awhile I thought, Billy Joe Shaver might be right.” She relocated to Nashville to launch a solo career a year and a half later.

She began waitressing to support herself. “I was awful at it, but it helped me begin my career. I saved up all my tips and made my first record, Cross Timbers and then I toured behind that. After I made Carrying Lightening, I didn’t have to wait tables anymore.”

Around that time Amanda began working with a producer who didn’t like the vibrato in her singing voice. “I got a small complex once when he said I sounded like a goat. He told me, “less goat more note.” I was like, oh man, this is going to make it harder.”

Even so that never did make her feel like throwing in the towel. ‘It made me want to get lessons. And I did and it’s not correctable. There have been so many times when I wanted to quit but I just can’t. It’s the only thing I am halfway decent at.” 

Her fans are happy that Amanda has come to terms with what they never saw as a flaw. That quiver in her singing voice is a gift.

Today Amanda is secure in her abilities. “It took practice to get comfortable in being who I am and trusting my decisions. I wanted to play the fiddle, and I did that. Then I started being a side person. I began writing songs before I even knew I wanted to be a songwriter. You get comfortable as you go. I’ve learned I’m really unsuccessful when I’m not being myself.”

In 2011 Amanda began dating fellow musician, Jason Isbell. It didn’t take long for her to realize his addiction to alcohol had spiraled out of control. She was instrumental in getting him into rehab. She didn’t know if their relationship would last, but she couldn’t just watch him self-destruct. “During that time, I didn’t give a crap about any dream of marrying him. I told him, ‘You’re going to quit drinking or it’s not going to work out between us.’”

It did work out. They got married in 2013. They’ve always been transparent about their trials with addiction even though it can leave them open to criticism. Amanda says, “The goal is really to help and connect with people. That’s the only reason we share such personal information. A little hope goes a long way. It’s hard to live in this world.”

“After having a child, wrangling a career, and keeping my husband in line I feel like my voice has gotten a lot stronger. Not in a way that’s bitchy or anything but in being able to express what I need.”- Amanda Shires

To date Amanda hasn’t written a song about her part in Jason’s sobriety, but in her  album My piece of Land she does write about another milestone. In her song “Nursery Rhyme”, she sings about nesting in an effort to distract herself from the approaching birth of their daughter. She admits to being terrified that she would no longer have the freedom to express herself musically. She had no idea if she could be a mom and continue her calling.

After the birth of their daughter, Mercy (named because, “The world could use a little more of it”) Amanda found that she still had the drive and the support she needed to share her gifts.

“I’m blessed to have family and friends to help, so I can still make music and tour. It definitely takes a village. Sometimes it’s tough to juggle everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Being a mom has brought so many unexpected gifts to Amanda. “To see something through a child’s eyes is really wild. When you see a little person figuring out what a shadow is for the first time, you look at the world differently.”

“I’ve been reading the classics, scanning the news It all goes in the mouth of the muse.” – Amanda Shires, Nursery Rhyme

Amanda weaves much of her personal life into her songs. She doesn’t give much credence to writer’s block. She has learned how to nip that nuisance in the bud.

“You have to fill up your well by reading or by spending time observing. When the well is full it starts coming out and expressing itself artfully. Most of the time it’s fear that’s stopping you from creating something. So you have to keep on writing and writing through it.”

Relying on her intuition to point the way, Amanda believes, “We all have an inner guidance system that directs our paths but a lot of people aren’t trained to listen to it. You can’t be guided if your antenna isn’t up or it’s busted.I think that can happen from a lack of empathy or too much ego. Sometimes I think you can’t hear your inner voice because you’re just living obliviously.”

Amanda went to church when she was younger, but these days she has no formal practice, “I think for me my church is being outside, being a birdwatcher and a gardener and being with my family. As far as guidance, sometimes I think the voice inside me is either my mom’s or Leonard Cohen’s.” Both are probably worth listening to.

Currently Amanda’s time is split between her career as a solo artist, and making music with the all-female supergroup, The HighWomen, composed of Amanda and her friends, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. She still finds time to hold down the fiddle strings for her husband Jason and his band, The 400 Unit, and to be a mom to Mercy. 

When they’re not on the road, Amanda and her family live in a home on the outskirts of Nashville. It’s a quiet spot with enough land to grow their own vegetables. “Peace” is the word Amanda uses to describe what she feels when she retreats there after touring. It’s the perfect place for replenishing the well. Life is good. Amanda Shires has come into her own. 

“You feel most fulfilled when you are ‘doing you’, as they say. I think a lot of people worry too much about what they need. They need to have cars. They need to have this or that, but that’s not what we all really need. Happiness comes from doing what you where put on Earth to do. And what I say is, whoever dies happiest wins.”

Now there’s an adage a little bird needs to tell Amanda to write a song about.

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Amanda’s album “My Piece of Land.”

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*Coming up next: Profile of  Sheri Salata. She stepped down as co-president of Oprah Winfrey Network to cofound female lead  media and branding company, STORY.

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

 

The World of William Joyce

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A young Mary Katherine with her father, Bill Joyce.

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

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

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

Bill’s talent is wide ranging. He is funny, candid, and refreshingly grounded. He grew up in a loving family where his artistic ability was recognized and encouraged. As a boy, his dream was to become a secret agent or Superman. After being introduced to Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are when he was five, Bill decided he wanted to make picture books. He shifted his focus from superhero to becoming a “maker upper” when he grew up. By creating worlds that people believe in and characters that they love, Bill had figured out the way to have superpowers without a cape.

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

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

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

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

As a storyteller, Bill always trusted his creative vision. Beneath the enchanting illustrations and plots of his books run the undercurrents of his world. “I’m often not fully aware of what the story is I’m telling. There are many times I’m surprised by the themes that come out in my writing.”

On an Instagram post, Bill relates the story of his wife being hugely pregnant with their first child when he suddenly stopped the book he was working on to make the book, Bentley & Egg. Bill was confused as to why he was so compelled to do a book about a frog who is in love with  a duck about to lay an egg. But his wife had no problem cracking the code, “Look stupid, you’re the frog, I’m the duck and this….she pointed to her stomach…..is THE EGG!” 

Bill suspects he has unwittingly used the same process of working through his emotions throughout his entire career. “The tragedies that I’ve been through and the losses that I’ve experienced have all shown up in the Guardians novels, and even in my picture books, in subtle ways. In my stories there is a sense that there will always be losses in life, but you power through them. If you lose something that you love, the memory of that love will sustain you and never die.” 

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

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

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

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Bill’s portrait of Liz from their college days.

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

“It was tough. There were many, many days when I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. There were a couple of things that saved me. One was that I had to take care of our son, Jack. That makes you strong. I also had my artistic outlet. I got more work done during those seven years of illness and tragedy than anytime in my life. The stories were pouring out of me. I guess they were my refuge but also my salvation. I was making sense out of all of the stuff that was going wrong by writing about it without knowing I was writing about it. In my book, Ollie’s Odyssey I’m not writing a book about illness, I’m writing about a little boy who loses his favorite toy and realizes that even in finding it things may never be the same, but that’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Pam Grout: Cheers to Life!

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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

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

Clearly Pam Grout was born to be a writer. At an early age she was a voracious reader and that lead to spinning tales with her pencil. Writing is all she ever wanted to do in her free time. Yet when she graduated high school her mother suggested computer programming. Being an author didn’t equate financial security to her parents. “When I was going to college, computers were the new field to go into. To become a writer seemed risky to my family.” 

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

Pam has authored 20 books, three plays, a television series and two iPhone apps. She writes for People Magazine, Huffington Post and her travel blog. She is a world traveler and a lover of the Divine Buzz (as she is fond of calling God). Her life and writing embodies the concept of “getting paid for being you.” Being a mom to her daughter, Tazman, has and always will be her greatest accomplishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More must reads by Pam Grout:41O5goJA1BL41blDwOiezL51t23k7trdL

Taz and Pam

Taz and Pam exploring Egypt

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary based the knight on her husband.

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

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

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

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

In the USA

Click to purchase print.

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

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

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

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

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Rodney Crowell: : It Ain’t Over Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How our paths crossed

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

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I still have the letter.

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

 

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My ticket from the concert.

My Illustration

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

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

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

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*Coming up next: Profile of artist, Mary Engelbreit

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

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

 

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

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