PLP#4 Mary Engelbreit: So Much More Than Cute

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© Sue Shanahan 2017

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.

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 where 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.

Mighty Good Husband

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

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

PLP #3 Rodney Crowell: : It Ain’t Over Yet

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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.

“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.

 

Houston Kid

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.

RC&Sue

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!

 

PLP #2 Susan Branch: From Her Heart to Yours

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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.

My second Porch Light Profile is about New York Times best selling author and illustrator, Susan Branch. Her cookbooks, calendars and memoirs have made her feel like a dear friend to thousands. Handwritten and gorgeously illustrated, they are a vacation for the mind. Filled with conversational style and inspiring quotations, they are an antidote for the harshness of life. Her 2015 memoir, The Fairytale Girl begins in her childhood and ends with the break-up of her marriage in the 1980’s. Like many women of that time, she had hitched her wagon to a husband. Although being a stay-at-home wife had it’s perks (she was able to turn homemaking into an art and honed her skills as a watercolorist) in the end it left Susan empty. All that centering around her husband, meant that she had no life of her own and no way to support herself. 

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

– Susan Branch

So where did Susan go from there? She went for a three month stay on Martha’s Vineyard and ended up never leaving. What she thought was a hiatus to nurse her wounds turned out to be an introduction to herself. She decided that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. On the island, she soon realized that her steady diet of news and soap operas were weighing her down. She turned off the television and decided the only news she needed to hear could come through her open window. To sooth her unrest, she began seeking the keys to life in biographies of her heroes and quote books. She learned the theme that ran through most of them was that the answers to your questions cannot be found outside of yourself. Heaven lies within. Now that she knew that, Susan’s search was over. It was time for her to take responsibility and get to know herself. 

In 2016, her sequel to The Fairy Tale Girl was released. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss, follow their hearts and believe in their dreams. Hope lives in its pages. In it, Susan writes in detail of how she learned to live from her own center, “I learned that, for me, the key to making my dreams come true – the one that opened the door to the gift of “within” – was meditation.” Becoming an author and illustrator was a byproduct of self-discovery and living from her inner light. She didn’t have to map out a plan on how to make a living with her talents. When Susan found her heart, her life’s work found her. It soon came to her that realizing her dream of getting a cookbook published wasn’t about the dream world at all. Realizing her dream was about hard work. Happily, the toil is made much easier when you are doing what you love.

In her books and blog, she talks to her readers as if they are old friends. Because of that, over 56,000 kindred spirits subscribe to her newsletter and feel like they know her personally. Never one to market herself much, most of her followers have been drawn to her by word of mouth. In fact, that’s how a Hollywood screenwriter found her. A script for Susan’s books is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If her fans are lucky (my fingers are crossed), the screenplay will soon  be made into a movie or a television series.

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

Two summers ago our mutual friend, Margot Datz, brought me over to Susan’s house for tea. At that time, I vaguely knew Susan’s work, but I liked her right off the bat. She was warm and welcoming. Her house oozed charm right down to her mustached cat, Jack. I have since became a huge fan of Susan’s memoirs and cookbooks and can’t believe she wasn’t on my radar sooner. Her newest books, The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams, have become two of my all time favorite reads. How she writes about herself, and who she is, are one in the same. Don’t let the nostalgic cheeriness of her work lead you to believe she has no opinion of the world past her doorstep. She is a woman of heart and mind and doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her followers, or girlfriends as she likes to call them, love her more.

I based the above watercolor portrait of Susan on a photograph I took. The only snafu in the process was that after I had completed the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it 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!

Introducing Porch Light Profiles

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“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman

Welcome to Porch Light Profiles. This year I’m shifting the focus of my blog to writing about men and women who allow their light to illuminate the world. What do I mean by that? I mean people who know who they are and express their inner selves to humanity. This expression always brings them joy and manifests itself in their life’s work. I’m discovering that if you follow what most excites you, the right people, resources and opportunities will appear to help you share your gifts with the world.

Although “Porch Light People” are a part of all walks of life, I’m going to begin by focusing on artists. For me, it’s easiest to see this principal in action in them. Growing up they learned the same societal belief most of us did: you must find a career path that will earn you a living. Yet the flame inside urging them to create, burned so brightly it was impossible to ignore. Instead of asking, “How can I support myself?”, they said, “If I don’t do my art, I can’t go on.”

Doing what makes your heart sing, seems like a good way to starve in the logical world. We may reason that the only sure way to keep ourselves safe is to follow the cultural rules of survival. Often, that means turning your back on doing what makes you feel alive. Some get so good at suppressing what brings them joy that, sadly, they lose touch with it. They never learn that paying attention to the “still small voice within” is what will help them succeed. Those who have a wide-open connection to that voice are who I’ll be writing about. They know their work flows through them from another source. That doesn’t necessarily mean they take part in a formal religion. What it does mean is they don’t control the process, but let something greater than themselves take the reins.

Here are some questions I hope to answer over the next few months:

Do we all have an inner guidance system that will direct our path if we listen?

Can you make a living by following your heart?

What happens when you give into fear and move away from your passion?

Can following your bliss lead to your life’s work?

Is doing what we love and answering our calling the same thing?

In these profiles, I hope to give evidence that it is safe to share your deepest self with the world. In fact, I believe that is what we are here for. Being who we are and doing what feeds our soul is our life’s work. When we allow ourselves to shine, the world can’t help but be drawn to us. Our life has become a prayer. In that state of being, it doesn’t take a lot of thought or planning to figure out how to share your gift with others. Like moths to a flame they will find you.

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*Coming up next: Profile of New York Times best selling author, Anita Moorjani

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!

Art Elevates

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. -Khalil Gibran

My best friend Gigi and I have deep conversations about where we are going as artists. I am an author/illustrator, she a photographer extraordinaire. One day she asked me why I felt compelled to share my art with the world. I was stumped. I had a vague sense that my talent is here to make the world a more beautiful place. But what’s the use of beauty? It has no worth that can be measured or weighed.

The arts are part of the force that keeps violence and despair in check, that keeps hope alive. -Lynne Taylor – Corbett

Then my mind went back to September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I had the television on constantly. I listened to the media drone on about Homeland Security’s color-coded threat levels while I worked in my studio. I became frightened out of my mind. At my wits end, I walked out the back door and found my husband weeding the garden. He hugged me as I sobbed and told me to turn the TV off. After that I made a conscious decision to put my attention on what is beautiful, to what uplifts.

I began listening to music by George Harrison, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. Their melodies and lyrics soothed me. I can remember watching movies like, Fried Green Tomatoes and Father of the Bride. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I poured over children’s picture books and absorbed their exquisiteness. Gradually, I was brought back into feeling that a source of good exists and watches over us. Me, and those I love were safe.

Since that time I am very careful about the kind of energy I expose myself to. I no longer immerse myself in the news but glance at it. I keep my focus on what brings me to a higher place. Without fail, beauty does that.

Something sacred, that’s it. It’s a word that we should be able to use, but people would take it the wrong way. You want to be able to say a painting is as it is, with its capacity to move us, because it is as though it were touched by God. -Pablo Picasso

Whenever I sit down to draw I’m always at a loss. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Understanding the responsibility of sharing my gifts makes it even worse. After I finally put my pencil to paper, something begins working through me. Some people call it creativity but I call it God. As skilled as an artisan as I am, without his energy guiding my hand my illustrations would be flat. A collaboration with the Creator is always a sure-fire way to bring forth the amazing.

I heard in an interview with Pharrell Williams that, like me, he wants to use his gifts to lift people up. He was asked, “Are you afraid if you give yourself too much credit, it would all go away?”

“For sure,” he said. “You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it’s really all them. It’s not all you. It can’t be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it’s not the kite. It’s the air.” Listening to his song, “Happy,” makes me want to catch that same breeze.

Grass Is Greener

Beauty is alive and well in the fine-art photography of Gigi Embrechts.

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

In Art and Life: Perfectionism is the Enemy

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Perfectionism is the enemy in art – and just about everything.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve developed a pattern of procrastination when I begin a new illustration. I circle over my Arche’s hot-pressed watercolor paper like a hawk stuck on repeat. I think about it, plan out my method of approach, resolve to zero in on it and then am interrupted. It’s always something that is a faux “can’t wait” situation. What is this? I’m an artist. Isn’t painting supposed to be my passion? Why am I so easily pulled off course? Next, I berate myself for becoming distracted and vow to start my image first thing…tomorrow.

After about two weeks of this push and pull, I finally force myself to begin. I sit down, grip the pencil tightly and have my eyes inches from the paper to begin the preliminary drawing. It must be perfect. I must be perfect. No wonder I have trouble getting started. I’ve discovered that in pursuing flawlessness I was perfecting the joy and life right out of my art.

“It’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing or else you are always going to procrastinate.” – James Altucher

The more I’ve evolved as a person, the more I’ve embraced my humanity and know many of my character defects are simply survival skills gone awry. Unbeknownst to me, the more I accepted myself, the tighter I gripped my paintbrushes. Losing the enjoyment of my craft, made me wonder what would happen if I painted with abandon. Would it bring back the pleasure and make my artwork come alive? I was ready to experiment. The above piece, I Heart the Moon is the result. I had labored over an earlier version of it in 2012. That one took me six weeks to complete. The new interpretation took two weeks, and l loved painting it. I let the watercolor swirl and land where it wanted to. Unrestricted, filling in the details with colored pencil was no longer drudgery but fun. I felt free. Procrastination didn’t mean I was lazy or a failure. It was just signaling to me that my method wasn’t working.

I Heart the Moon © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 2012 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Next, I decided to post both pictures on Facebook and take a vote to see which illustration my followers preferred. I was happy to know the new rendering was the favorite, but it wasn’t unanimous like I thought it would be. Some still liked the one that I had done in my “being perfect” stage. Did that mean I was wrong about my up-tightness transferring itself to my art? I don’t think so. What it did confirm is there is an audience for every phase of my work, something  I’m particularly grateful for.

“Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” – E.B. White

My art and it’s process are a metaphor for my life. When I pay attention to both, so much is revealed to me. Holding back who I am in any area, not only does a disservice to myself, but to the world too. Dumbing down the “gift of me” is something I learned in childhood. It kept me off the radar of unsafe people. It took years of unraveling before I felt secure enough to risk living uncensored. Letting go, something I resisted, has ended up bringing me great rewards. The truth of who we are is revealed in every spontaneous action we take.  And for me, hiding is no longer an option. I know too much.

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