Valerie June: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Valerie June

Valerie June Hockett, known as 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 to Concord Music Group worldwide.

“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 and 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.

Valerie was raised in a loving close-knit family. Her parents encouraged her to dream and to put her energies into something she was good at, 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 any stringed instrument that she can get her hands on but she writes songs, poetry and loves to draw and paint. I wondered if she had always followed her passions? Did she ever support herself with work that was against her nature?

“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 her mindset 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 like what you do.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ So what’s going to get you out of it? You need to just keep quiet and tell yourself things like those affirmations to build yourself up.”

Valerie in Memphis

Valerie Playing for tips in Memphis.

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

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

Valerie is a believer in the value of living in the now – to a certain point. Owning that she is a romantic, she sees the importance of setting goals in her career. Although she believes it’s also important knowing when to rejuvenate and relax. 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 has deepened and broadened. She admits to doubting herself at times, but she never doubts her connection with The Creator.

“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, making writer’s block 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’s 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. Will she be able to continue to support herself? Will she remain in good health? What if she loses her voice?

“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 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 is admits to wearing shiny cloths to remind people to tap into their inner light.

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

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

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

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

Text and images © Sue Shanahan and Valerie June

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Kirsty Mitchell: A Wonderland of Her Own

Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty Mitchell. Watercolor by Sue Shanahan

Kirsty Mitchell is an award-winning fine art photographer from Surrey, England. She is the creator of the otherworldly photographic series, and book, Wonderland. Kirsty began the project in 2008 as an escape from reality after her mother, Maureen, died of cancer. Immersing herself in the production of it was her way of working through her grief and making something beautiful in her mother’s memory.

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“The Ghost Swift” (detail) ©Kirsty Mitchell

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

I first heard of Kirsty when my friend, Mary, invited me over to look at her Wonderland book. Mary was obsessed with it and certain I would be, too. Being unfamiliar with Kirsty’s art, 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. I couldn’t believe mortal hands were responsible for all the elaborate costumes and props. Each exquisite image encapsulated a kind of raw emotion. It boggled my mind that there was no Photoshop used to fabricate the magic in her photographs. What the viewer sees is the same thing Kirsty saw when she clicked the camera’s shutter.

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“The Secrets Locked in the Roots of a Kingdom”  ©Kirsty Mitchell

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

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A young friend awestruck at the Paine Museum

At the question and answer session, I discovered that Kirsty and her art are one and the same. She is utterly honest without a tinge of fakery. There are no details of her life when asked about 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.”

Kirsty’s openness about her fragility after the passing of her mother endears her audience to her. Wonderland is healing to anyone who has suffered a loss. When she began the series she already had an amazing career as a fashion designer. As a photographer, she was an amateur at best. She had no idea why she was driven to bring it 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. For seven years, she worked tirelessly assembling the sets and creating the costumes to capture her photographs of an alternative existence.

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 they were. At his suggestion, Kirsty took a year away from social media and put her heart into creating a small amount of pieces.

“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?”

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

Kirsty’s dedication to her series meant she had to come to terms with the unpredictable weather conditions in England. Everything she does is massively linked with creation and nature. She and her production team took days off work when a photoshoot was scheduled so there was no turning back. Kirsty discovered that rain or shine, the atmospheric conditions always brought an unforeseen beauty to the photograph. She attributes the influence behind the weather conditions as her mother’s energy. Between all the little glimmers in the atmosphere and changes in the weather they always felt a kind of a 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 death. Kirsty’s belief that we are all energy is reflected in her photography sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.

“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.”

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“Gaia, the Birth of an End” ©Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty had help behind the scenes creating Wonderland. If you ask her, she would agree that her mother’s love was 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 Kirsty’s life, the death 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 then its popularity has snowballed. This year the renowned Fotografiska photography museum in Stockholm, Sweden, has slated Wonderland to be their 2018 winter show.

 

Where has Kirsty’s life taken her since her monumental book was published? 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 seemed natural to her to put her energies into a new body of work about that journey. 

“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.”

Kirsty is now immersed in the production of it and has stepped back from the social media front. She imagines this series 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. 

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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

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 a higher 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

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Going With the Flow

Flow Rider550

Need to absorb an important life lesson? Get it down on paper. I painted this watercolor to remind myself of the ease that comes with surrendering to the flow of life. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to manipulate events to get what I wanted. Career planning seemed a crucial part of directing my path as an artist. This process seemed to be working until the recession hit eight years ago. At that time, I couldn’t get an art director to look at my portfolio to save my life. Even my portrait commissions dried up. It became clear that all the listing, visualizing and pushing toward my goals wasn’t helping them to materialize.

During that frustrating time, the assurance in Matthew 6:33 came to me. “But you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added to you.” Translation: the Divine takes care of His children. For this to occur, all that’s required is to draw near to Him. After that, all of our other needs will be met. This was radical thinking for a wheel gripper like me, but I felt defeated enough to try it. Relaxing my hold and shifting my focus meant living where God lives – in the now.

Being in the now, means no longer trying to make things happen. I began letting problems work themselves out. I stopped trying to pry open doors that were nailed shut and began walking through the doors that were open. I discovered allowing God to be in control feels much better than trying to force solutions. To my surprise, my artistry was pulled in a direction that I never conceived of. I began writing (something I’d never done before) and illustrating a blog that now runs in the Huffington Post. My next step is to compile my posts into a book. It’s an undertaking that never would have come to me if I were still clinging to my “five year plan.”

Today the original “Going With the Flow” painting hangs in my studio.  It calls to mind the acronym for FROG – Fully Relying On God. I need to be reminded daily of the power of surrender. My little frog rider illustrates that truth perfectly. Like me, she has learned that it’s a waste of time to try and redirect the energy of life. Not only is the present moment missed but you’re too preoccupied to notice the gifts that lie around the bend. Relax and enjoy the ride. The current will take you to places that struggle never could.

Karli

My friend Karli was happy to model for the fairy in my painting.

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The frog is based on this photograph by Gigi Embrechts.

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

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Don’t Have a Fairy Godmother? Borrow One

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Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughter, Agapi

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” -Anna Freud

I’ve made a practice of gleaning wisdom and support from women I admire. Because my mom was not the “in your corner” type, I learned to do this at a young age. Growing up under her tutelage forced me to figure out ways to get my need for nurturing met. My search led me to reading books with omniscient mother figures and happy endings. It’s no accident that as a child Cinderella was a favorite story of mine. That evil stepmom may have been in control for a time, but she was no match for the powers of a fairy godmother. By fifth grade, I had graduated to being utterly taken with Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, in Little Women. Her steadfast devotion to her girls was the launching pad for them to live their dreams. Somehow reading about the security of unconditional love was healing to me.

In my twenties, I discovered how author Maya Angelo mothered Oprah Winfrey. Her love and wise council helped Oprah to become her “best self.” I began studying other strong women who pointed their daughters in the right direction. I embraced the relationships of Eunice Shriver and her daughter, Maria, Dorothy Howell Rodham and her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and finally Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughters, Agapi Stassinopoulos and Arianna Huffington. All of these mothers inspired me and gave me a lead to follow. Since I considered them as more than mentors, I christened them fairy godmothers. Remember the sparkle Cinderella’s fairy godmother brought to her life? She gave the added magic needed to help Cinderella leave behind the cinders she made her bed in. That’s what these mothers I admire did for me.

One of my favorite of the godmothers is Elli Stassinopoulos.  In my painting above, she’s pictured with her daughter Agapi on Agapi’s 16th birthday. I first read about Elli in Agapi’s book, Unbinding the Heart. Elli was a remarkable woman. She was not accomplished by the world’s standards and yet gave much to the world. Her daughters are living proof of that. Elli knew what was important in life. It was people not things that mattered. There was no hierarchy in her world. She treated a government official and a plumber with the same warmth and generosity. She never allowed her daughters to feel “less than.” She knew that both of them were born with the gifts needed to fulfill their life’s purpose and she stood in support of that. Reading about Elli made me think of how much easier my life would have been if I were raised by a mom like her. My soul would have known its worth, instead of having to fight for it every step of the way. Getting to know Elli helped soothe what I lacked.

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The Photo I based my painting on.

I reached out to Agapi for permission to work from the photograph I based my watercolor on. Elli reminded me of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella in the picture. Agapi was kind enough to grant her consent and even gave her thoughts on the art in progress. All along she was pleased that I was capturing her mom’s spirit. What she was having trouble with, was my portrayal of herself. We both knew something was off. Was it her eyes? Or her smile? She could not pinpoint it and in my revisions neither could I. Finally, in frustration, I thought to ask Elli for help. I reasoned that since she had passed away in 2000 she would have the clarity of a higher vantage point. As soon as I sent out my request, I got the distinct feeling to have a glass of red wine and stop trying so hard. I should just relax and enjoy the process. I did just that and had fun tweaking the piece. In a flash, I was done and satisfied with the results. When I sent a file of it to Agapi, she responded,“It’s great!” I smiled as I wondered why I hadn’t called on Elli sooner. Of course she would want me to do justice to her girl.

In my life, I’ve found that within every hardship there are always blessings. I believe I was given the perfect mother to help me become who I was born to be. Without the difficulty of being raised by her, I don’t think I’d have the insight and compassion I do today.  Plus, I may have never discovered the wisdom of these beautiful women I call fairy godmothers. I’ve studied and absorbed how they moved through life. Their philosophies have become my philosophies. Today, I’m happy to say I share their wise council with others who’ve been gifted with moms similar to mine. In this way, even though my fairy godmothers no longer grace the planet, their magic goes on and continues to break the spells that others live under.

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Bob and Sue Final_550

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.

Bob and Sue Wedding

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.

DSC04918 (1)-2

On our 35th wedding anniversary.

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

The Magic of Creativity

Snuggle Bunny

“Listen to the music inside. Can’t you hear what it says to you?” – Van Morrison

As an artist, I try to honor the muse that guides me. Over time, I’ve gotten better at paying attention and following its lead. Years before I was a grandmother, an idea took residence in my heart. I could clearly see a blue-eyed, blond haired baby, around six months old, being hugged by his mama. Around them were written the words, “Snuggle bunny, you’re my honey.” I neatly folded and tucked this concept away to be brought to life when I had a grandchild.

I became a grandmother for the first time in the spring of 2014. Shortly after my son, Brian, and his wife, Pam, announced they were having a boy, I began my search for the perfect bunny outfit for him to wear in my “Snuggle Bunny” illustration. One thing was certain, I did not want my grandson wearing a costume in which he could be mistaken for a girl. After combing the internet, I came across a darling grey, hooded sweater with bunny ears. Perfect. I was all set to photograph my grandbaby wearing it when the time was right. Now all I had to do was be patient and let the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Cameron John Shanahan was welcomed into the world on April 8th. I was over the moon for him. I couldn’t wait for my grandson to be six months old so I could draw him as my “Snuggle Bunny.”

When Cam was around three months old, Pam sent me the most endearing selfie she had taken of them together. In it there was something so enchanting about the look of wonder on my grandchild’s face. They reminded me of sea creatures looking through a porthole. Because Pam is enamored with the ocean, I had envisioned painting a watercolor of her and Cam as mermaids, but not until he was a toddler. Seeing that selfie changed all of that. Bam, my creative juices were flowing now! I began working on a mermaid portrait based on that image. It would be the perfect Christmas present for their little family.

Pam and Cam selfie

Pam and Cam selfie

Meanwhile, on November 17th, our oldest son, Rob, and his wife, Emily, gave birth to our second grandchild, Logan James. My husband and I were overwhelmed with joy. I couldn’t wait to capture our newest grandchild’s essence in a painting. I was certain the perfect scenario to place him in would be revealed after I got to know him.

Humming in the background, was my quest to get the perfect picture of Cameron in the rabbit sweater. He was already past the age I had envisioned for the baby in my bunny illustration. One day in December, I asked his mom to bring the bunny sweater over with Cameron, so I could photograph him in it. I had decided to move forward without having her in the illustration, as she had already been included in the mermaid portrait with her little guy. At one point, I thought that maybe Logan was the baby I’d seen in my mind’s eye, but quickly dismissed the thought. No, I had bought the sweater for Cam before he was even born. I felt bound to my original plan.

After Cameron arrived, I began trying to make him smile for the camera, but he would have none of it. He sat stone-faced as I tried to make him laugh. I gave up. Letting go of my inflexibility opened the door for Logan to come through. I came to the realization that he was the baby I had envisioned all along. With his blue eyes, blond hair and chubbiness, he was the snuggle bunny I had visualized!

Cameron

Cameron being very unsmiley indeed.

I immediately began making plans to photograph Logan with his mom when he was six months old. I pictured the background of the painting being a wash of yellow— sunny like Logan and Emily. I would ask his mother to wear blue to match Logan’s eyes. Relaxing my grip allowed for the realization that the sweater had to go too. Instead, I found the softest, plushest, bunny-eared bath blanket to wrap Logan’s chubbiness in. I began to “see” him with a carrot rattle in his hand. I googled “carrot rattles” and to my surprise, I easily found one. Finally getting the concept on paper was a full-circle moment for me. The image was a gift that had been given to me to pass on to my son and his family. As I type this, “Snuggle Bunny” is getting matted and framed. It will be wrapped and placed under our tree to be opened by Rob and Emily on Christmas morning. Shhhhhh.

The two photos I taped together to base my art on.

The two photos I taped together to base my portrait on.

“I am not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.” – Ray Bradbury

I continue to be in awe of the creative process. Bringing forth art works best when I don’t try to force it, but get quiet and listen. The muse always makes its wishes known. Step by step, following its directions never disappoints. Creating a masterpiece from thin air is a simple process. It’s all in the allowing.

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

Four Reasons to Self-Publish Your Children’s Book

Sharing my the books in my heart with children has been a dream of mine since childhood.

Sharing the books in my heart with children has been a dream of mine since my youth.

I wished more than anything in the world to be a writer. – J.K. Rowling

I’m a children’s book author and illustrator. I’m not alone in that. It seems like everyone I talk to has a picture book inside them just waiting to be written. We children’s writers are passionate people. We love words and have tales to share with the world. I have two picture books I wrote and illustrated that where transformed into iPad apps a few years back. Parents and their kids loved Glory in the Morning and Love You to the Moon and Back, so I decided to try to have them published traditionally. There is nothing like snuggling a child in your arms while reading them a storybook, right? Thus began a three year process of submitting my books to publishers and agents. Over and over again, they were turned down. Most of the rejections were sweetened with compliments about my art, but no one thought my stories were marketable. I had all but given up on my dream when I heard an interview with author Hugh Howie. He self-published his mega successful science fiction novel, Wool and sold it on Amazon. What really peaked my interest is when he explained how cost effective self-publishing can be today.

Here are some surprising things I’ve learned that may give you the push to walk through the indie publishing door:

1) These days it’s nearly impossible to break into the traditional publishing world. The main reason for this is that book companies need a certain number of sales guaranteed. They are in business to make money and with the high cost of advances and printing they’re much less willing to take risks. That means submissions from unknown authors, who lack a robust social platform, hardly gets a glance. Nowadays, most publishing houses only read manuscripts submitted by agents. Finding a literary agent is as difficult as finding a publisher, unless you are a celebrity, of course.

2)  Publishing houses expect authors to market their books. Book companies don’t do the marketing for their titles like they did ten years ago. No longer are authors assigned a publicist to arrange interviews and book tours. Authors are expected to do that themselves. They’re also expected to have a social media following to initiate sales. In light of that, I know of quite a few successful, traditionally published authors who have decided to self-publish and pour their social media energies into promoting their indie book.

3)  Amazon makes self-publishing easy and economical. Amazon has partnered with print-on-demand publisher CreateSpace. With no set up fees, all you need to do is upload your book to CreateSpace’s website to have it printed on demand (in America!) and sold on Amazon. This seemingly daunting task is made easy with all the help they provide. They give you access to all the tools needed to design a book cover and upload your manuscript in the proper file format. Any questions will be cheerfully answered by their around-the-clock, knowledgeable phone staff. Because I had the ability to create my own illustrations, the only money I had to put out was to have my book edited. It’s a great feeling to have a royalty placed in my account whenever one of my books is sold on Amazon.

4)  The power has been given back to the writer. If you have a story to tell, it’s a wonderful time to be alive. Self-publishing gives authors creative control. My gratitude runs deep for CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon. From what I see, he is bending over backwards to support indie authors. He has given us the tools to take the stories that live in our hearts and put them into the hands of readers. He’s made it possible for me to publish my books when the cost of printing thousands of copies through offset printing was not an option for me. Now every time someone orders one of my books on Amazon, CreateSpace digitally prints and ships it to the purchaser at no cost to me. The only downside is there is no option to have hard cover editions made. I got past that disappointment when I remembered Beatrix Potter, author and illustrator of “Peter Rabbit” fame. After she couldn’t find a publisher, she decided to dip into her savings and self-publish her little gem of a book. The high price of printing made her settle for publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit with a color frontispiece and black and white interior woodblock engravings. After her book begin flying off toy store shelves, it was picked up by publisher Frederick R. Warne and made into the beautiful full color edition that is still in print today.

If you are a frustrated children’s author, ready to take a leap and see your story in print, I wish you much success on your journey. Who knows, maybe you will be the next big success story with publishing house representatives lined up at your door waiting to sign you on.

Reading an expensive hard cover copy of  "Glory in the Morning" before I discovered CreateSpace.

My niece and nephews reading an expensive, (I could only afford to have a few printed) hardcover copy  of “Glory in the Morning.” Today, thanks to CreateSpace and Amazon, an affordable version is in the hands of children across the country and across the ocean.

This story also appeared on MariaShriver.com — THE most inspiring place on the web.

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