A Love That Never Sleeps

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In preparation for the birth of their baby, my daughter-in-law, Pam, asked me to make an image to hang in our new grandchild’s bedroom. She wanted the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep with a moon. After reading the prayer, Pam emailed to me I was happy it wasn’t the version I learned in my childhood:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I discovered that variation came to the American Colonies via the New England-Primer, first published in the late 1600’s. For seventeenth century New Englanders, who had no knowledge of antibiotics, bacteria, or even simple hand washing, losing a child was a very real possibility. Parents were entrenched in the fear of hellfire and damnation so an invocation of protection for their children must have seemed like the prudent thing to do.

For me, being born in the 1950’s, the likelihood of not seeing a child reach adulthood was no longer a major threat. Yet many of us were still taught a prayer with instructions for God to take our souls in case we didn’t wake up in the morning. I never thought how menacing that prayer was until Pam sent over the newer version.

Today I’m happy to say many of us no longer have room in our lives for a harsh, punishing God. We believe our children and grandchildren are made in Love and will come into a world surrounded by a Love that never sleeps. It is good to evolve.

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My son Brian, and his wife Pam with there firstborn. Cameron is sharing his sucker with the new baby.

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

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1 + 1 + 1 = Love

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Meet Patrick, Cooper, and Bridget, one of the most endearing families I’ve ever met. Cooper is Patrick’s son from a previous relationship, but you’d never know it. When spending time with them, I’m always struck by the love they have for each other. The only thing that would tip one off that Bridget isn’t Cooper’s biological mom is that he calls her, “Babe,” a term of endearment that he picked up from his father.

To create my portrait paintings I work from reference photos. For this watercolor, I ended up combining two group-shots. It can be tricky to get three people (especially when one is a child) to all look their best in one image. I asked Pat to take off his hat mid photo shoot because his face was in shadow. Removing it, left him with a clear case of hat-hair. I knew that I could change that in the artwork by working from a photograph of Pat with his hair gelled and combed. It comes in handy having a brain that fuses and alters images like Photoshop.

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I felt like I’d won the lottery when I was commissioned to paint this piece. Getting paid to do what makes your heart sing is a gift. Plus, the fact that Pat and company are some of the nicest (not to mention beautiful) people around made it a dream job.

In September, this family by choice, will deepen their bond when Pat and Bridget are married. 1+1+1 = Love is Patrick’s love letter, painted through me, to the two most important people in his life. I’m wishing them all the best as they set sail on their happily ever after.1+1=1=Love_detail_edited-red

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Painting with Abandon

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“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.” – Patti Smith

Last month I finished up the second of two very detailed portrait commissions. I’d been working on them since before the first of the year. In my artistic process, I lay down a wash of watercolor on paper and then alternate layers of colored pencil and paint until I feel like the image is totally in focus. I end up with stunning results, but I was beginning to avoid my drawing table and had to figure out why.  After some reflection, I realized that my painting style had become so tedious I was beginning to resist it. I had to figure out a way too work faster. I was ready to create something for fun.

I determined I needed to let go of my perfectionism and decided to explore only using watercolor in my next piece. In a very real way, that medium can’t be controlled. Trying to rework a watercolor can be the ruin of it. You have to work fast knowing that you can’t always direct the pigment’s course.

“The making of art is no different than prayer “- Rainn Wilson

The above image is the result of my “painting with abandon experiment.” It’s based on the daughter of an artist I know. I purposely worked from photographs of poor quality, so that I wouldn’t be able to labor over the details. I was forcing myself to fill in the blanks with my imagination. In my watercolor, I began by painting the night sky. I loaded my brush with water and soaked the paper. Next, I laid down the color and watched it flow and pool. Then I sprinkled salt on the wet pigment, so it would crystallized and texture the sky. I loved how the watercolor paints had a life of their own. I was exhilarated with the results. I knew something higher was painting through me. I could feel the presence of the Divine.

I remember painting like this as a child. The joy of expectancy that I felt back then was akin to prayer. It was the physical act of “letting go and letting God.” I was never certain what I was going to end up with, but I knew it was going to be good.

I decided to call my painting, “Dancing with the Moon,” because of the magic I found in painting my subject without restraint. I have to admit that I ended up using some colored pencil to refine the details on the image. Even so, the painting took only four days to complete, verses the six weeks my last piece did.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” – Vincent Van Gogh

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Last week my niece, Andi, and I visited the Chicago Art Institute to see the Van Gogh exhibit. The experience filled our artist souls and reminded me of how I used to paint with vibrant colors. In my early twenties, I poured over Van Gogh’s paintings in my huge coffee table book that cataloged his works. My eyes drank in the vivid pigments he used. I began painting with bold complimentary colors like he had learned to. Over the years, my devotion to color was lost in my pursuit of mastering the minutia of realism. I wondered if my decision to paint with less restraint meant that all those years I had spent on meticulous detail were a waste of time? Andi looked at me and said, “I think you had to perfect your technique before you could be loose with it. You couldn’t have the latter without the former.”

Her words reminded me that we are always on course. Our best efforts are never wasted on God’s good, green Earth. And now it was time for me to begin painting with abandon, in brilliant color…

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

Blessings From Heaven

 

Blessings from Heaven

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

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

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

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Megs around age nine.

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

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Chirup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My 1843 flower dictionary.

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

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

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

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

 

The Season of Renewal

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All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

– Attributed to Cecil F. Alexander

For now, the church has lost me. Confirmed allegations of sexual abuse from a priest in my parish makes it impossible for me to attend. Fortunately, my bond with God is intact. He is with me everywhere. I’ve claimed the outdoors as my cathedral. It’s hard not to feel the Creator’s presence in its beauty. Every bird, every tree has his signature on it. There is no dogma in nature and man never thinks of ways to improve it. All is well under the great blue dome.

Spring is a sign of hope and renewal. It’s the counterpart to the reawakening of humanity. I’m comforted that the darkness in the church is being rooted out. Pope Francis gives me grounds for believing that one day it may again feel like home to me. Until then, the wonder found in my own backyard refreshes my soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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The Importance of Magic

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“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W.B. Yeats

I drew this mixed-media illustration of Steven Spielberg back in 1996. He’s been a favorite movie maker of mine since I first saw, ET. In my art I have a young Steven pictured as Peter Pan.  The words “Do you believe in fairies?” come directly from J.M. Barrie’s book Peter Pan and Wendy. In the story, Tinker Bell was dying because she drank poison that was meant for Peter. As she was fading away, she whispered that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies. Peter jumped up and shouted to children everywhere, “Do you believe? If you do, clap your hands. Don’t let Tink die!” For those of you who don’t know the story, yes, Tinker Bell pulled through. Believing is a powerful thing.

There is not a doubt in my mind that Mr. Spielberg believes in fairies and all things magical. I do, too. I’ve learned to cultivate enchantment and to be open to being astonished:

I believe in miracles.

I believe that imagination is more important than intelligence.

I believe a child’s capacity for wonder is gold and should be guarded as such.

I believe good always overcomes evil, and if you’re lucky, you may live to see it.

I believe if you can dream it, it can be done.

I believe that someone is going to do it, so why not you?

I believe you are born with all the gifts needed to fulfill your life’s purpose.

I believe all your answers can be found within.

I believe that what you are looking for is looking for you.

I believe you’re never too old manifest your heart’s desire.

I believe that you shouldn’t limit your dreams. Just follow your bliss. What you end up doing may not have even been invented yet.

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ― Roald Dahl

Steven Spielberg has joined forces with Disney to bring Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) to life. It will open in theaters on July 1st. I am already counting the days. The more I feed my sense of wonder, the more possible the impossible seems. Letting ourselves be enchanted, conjures the spark that ignites the flame of possibility. Without hope we would wither away into mundanity. For it’s true, without a little pixie dust, it’s death for most of us.

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

A New Year – BE TRUE. BE YOU.

“We don’t realize that we are actually perfect just the way we are. We are born perfect, but spend a lifetime trying to be something we are not, and then feel inadequate for failing. Your only purpose is to BE YOURSELF, otherwise you will deprive the universe of who you came here to be.” ~ Anita Moorjani

The other day my son, Brian, told me that he wants our grandson, Cameron, to grow up and do what makes his heart sing. He doesn’t want “who he should be” imposed on his little guy. I found my son’s conviction so heartening. He already knows what’s taken me a whole lifetime to learn. Be who you are.

I was born into a world that already had perimeters and guidelines set into place to mold me. Being Catholic and female, left little room for my song to be sung. Add my parents fearful life-view into the mix, and I was a shell of the gift I was born to be. Needless to say, I felt stifled and unhappy. The harder I tried to fulfill others expectations the more empty I felt. Disillusioned and certain something was wrong with me, I began looking for ways to fix myself. Somehow what I was searching for in self-help books always alluded me. Today I see that what I really was seeking was permission to be myself.

I’ve set the intention to believe it isn’t selfish to love myself in 2016. I am going to stop criticizing my every move and allow myself to be me. I’ve come to the conclusion that loving who you are can only honor the Creator. Your uniqueness is no accident. Without your gifts and quirks there would be a hole in the tapestry of existence. Einstein was known for being a little peculiar but wrapped in his oddness was the ability to see things differently. What if he had stifled himself? The world have been deprived of his genius just like it will be deprived of yours if you keep the “real you” reigned in.

By being ourselves, we allow the Universe to work through us. Some may say, “But how can I do that when I don’t even know who I am?” The easiest way to discover the true you is when you’re making a decision ask yourself, “What would I do if I loved myself?” And then do that. A life lived this way is certain to take you to places you never dreamed of when you were holding yourself back.

This year when presented with a choice I’m going to ask myself, “Is this something that brings me joy or am I doing it out of obligation?” I’m going to check in moment by moment and really listen to how I feel. Once you start practicing this, you’ll be amazed by how many of your choices are not your own. It feels risky to quiet the mind and listen to the heart but doing so yields much joy.

This year, I am going to open myself up to having more fun. Trying to fulfill the world’s expectations is serious business and leaves little room for lightheartedness. I’ve resolved to ban self-help books from my library. I’ve decided I’m going to be reading for enjoyment. I am looking to be entertained not fixed. I will love my body and eat and exercise in ways that feel right to me. I am through with bowing to the standards imposed on women by advertisers and the diet industry.

Truly, the best New Year’s resolutions don’t come from the outside but from within. Many of us have tried for too long to make ourselves into something we’re not. It takes radical trust to believe that God knew what he was doing when he created you.

In working with the dying, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, found that her patient’s biggest regret was that they wished they had lived a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them. I’m determined to never let that happen to me. When I reach the end of my days, I don’t want to be hit with the realization that I’ve lived someone else’s life. No, from this day forward the life I am living is my own.

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

Spread Love Around the World

Jaeden's Angel

Jaeden’s Angel

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!”             ~ Hamilton Wright Mabie

This is the first year since 2000 that I haven’t illustrated a Christmas card for the Tim Fix Scholarship Fund. Tim was my sister, Laura, and her husband Bob’s son. He died in a drowning accident in 1996. To give meaning to his passing, his parents formed a scholarship fund in his name. The holiday cards I designed were just one of the ways money was raised for it. My sister was a school social worker in the same district their son grew up in. For years, she sold many cards through her connections in the community. Last May, when Laura retired from her job, we felt like it was time to wind down the Christmas cards, too.

I loved creating the cards in Tim’s memory. I always included an angel in my design. It was also fun selling them. Sales would connect us to people who knew and loved my nephew. The cards always gave us pause to remember him and smile. Knowing that the money collected supported kids we thought Tim would approve of, added to our good feelings.

The absence of a Christmas card for my nephew this year leaves a bit of a hole in my heart. I’ve decided to fill that hole by honoring him in different way. This December, I’m going to give an angel in Tim’s memory to a friend I’ve never met in person and most likely never will. Petrina lives in Malaysia and found me through my blog. She began writing to me because even though we live worlds apart, we still have so much in common. We truly are kindred spirits.

In one email, Petrina confided in me about the loss of her son Jaeden Gabriel. At three years old, her sweet boy was taken from her by a mysterious illness. She sent pictures of him to me. The beauty of her child and the depth of her grief stayed with me. I was pulled to paint a portrait of him. Finding the time for that never happened until I realized that Petrina should be the recipient of Tim’s angel this year. I took a break from a commission to work on a watercolor of Jaeden. It was a joy to paint. In this high holy season of love, I know my portrait will mean so much to her and her family.

So for all of those who love Tim, this year his angel lives in the image above. At the same time, my gift of Jaeden and his heavenly companion travels across the miles to Petrina. For just like love, angels were meant to be shared.

Pictured below are the cards that I created over the years in memory of Tim :

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2005

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