PLP #2 Susan Branch

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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

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When Losing is Winning

Martha's Vineyard Ag Fair Poster

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose

And most times you choose between the two.” – Carole King, Sweet Seasons

I love my sister, Laura. After 34 years as a school social worker, she’s finally retired. Part of her bucket list is to attend the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair in late August. Previously, this wasn’t possible because she always had to be back at school in the early part of that month. This year our families’ summer trip to the island will include experiencing the charm of the Ag Fair for the first time.

Last March, when Laura read about the Ag Fair poster contest, she urged me to enter. If I won, it would be so much fun to see posters, featuring my art, hanging all over the island to advertise the fair. I was already envisioning how cute my grandsons would look wearing t-shirts displaying my design. The best part of all would be giving the framed original to my sister as a retirement gift.

I worked around the clock on my illustration to get it to the judges before the April 1st deadline. I was pleased with what I came up with and felt I had a real chance of winning.

On April 7th, I got a call letting me know that although my entry was a runner up, it wasn’t chosen to represent the fair. At first, the news stung more than a little bit. After awhile, it came to me that this was not a loss.  Granted my poster won’t be showcased around the island, but who cares? The important thing is the original art would be hanging on Laura’s wall. I knew all the hours spent creating it would make it even more special to her. As for the t-shirts? There was nothing stopping me from having them made for my favorite people, so I did.

Today, I’m even more sure that even though the poster competition didn’t go my way, it still worked out perfectly. None of our efforts in life are ever wasted. We can’t always see the reverberations of good intent, but they ripple forever outward just the same. Doing something out of love for another is no small thing. Winning and losing are all a matter of perception.

Getting pictures of my grandsons in my Ag Fair tee shirts was harder than I thought.

Getting a good photo of my grandsons wearing the Ag Fair t-shirts was harder than I thought.

The ponies down the street that my poster was designed around.

My poster was designed around a snapshot I took of the ponies that live down the street.

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

Dreams Take Care of Themselves

 

Click to purchase signed prints of  "Beach Dreams"

Click to purchase signed prints of “Beach Dreams

The above painting, captures the innocence of childhood and my love of Martha’s Vineyard. I have traveled to the island every summer for the last 17 years. It’s hard to write about its splendor without sounding cliche. Although there is much that is upscale on MV, there is also raw beauty woven throughout. All I can say is the President and his family vacation there for a reason. Illustrating a child worn out from play, slumbering on the beach, is my way of bottling the island’s magic. Just looking at this picture, brings me right back to the warm sand and soothing sound of the sea.

Beach Dreams was an illustration commission for a poem. I was given free reign on how I depicted it, so I drew from my own experience. Dreaming has always been such a big factor in my life. The little girl sleeping is my way of saying the more you relax into your dreams, the more you allow them to come to you. If given a chance, dreams take care of themselves.

Below Beach Dreams from conception to final art.

My model "sleeping"

My model “sleeping”

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

Watercolor wash

Watercolor wash

Adding the details

Adding the details

Final art

Final art

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

Being Open to Magic

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

Magic is everywhere. Like in my painting it’s right outside your window looking in, frequently unnoticed. It’s not that we don’t believe that anything is possible. Often we are blind to miracles because we have tunnel vision. We are so locked into our limited perception we can’t see what’s smiling at us through the porthole on the ship we’re sailing. It’s good to have dreams and plans but not to map out how they are to be manifested.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Robertson Davies

Last week while babysitting my grandson, the concept of “seeing only what my mind is prepared to comprehend,” was brought to my attention. While Cameron was napping, I went to the refrigerator to get a bottle knowing that he would be waking soon. When I opened the door, I couldn’t  find the blue carrying case his parents brought his bottles in. From top to bottom, I searched the refrigerator for that case. I looked everywhere, even in the freezer. Eventually, I put on rubber gloves and rooted through the garbage, to make sure I hadn’t thrown it out by accident. No luck. I was comforted that I had discovered a bottle of frozen breast milk in my search but didn’t know what I was going to do for the rest of the day. Finally, it came to me that I should surrender the situation to God and ask for help. And so I did.

I decided to poor a cup of coffee and relax until my little charge awoke. When I reached into the fridge for the creamer, to my surprise, I saw four baby bottles of milk grouped on the bottom shelf. How could I have missed them? I’ll tell you how. I was so fixated on locating the blue case I couldn’t see anything else. Surrendering helped me to loosen the grip on my perception and opened me up to what was right in front of me. It made me wonder how many other things I’ve missed in my life.

“That is certainly one way to look at the matter. There are others.” Patricia C. Wrede

In my mermaid image lives the perfect reminder of why I must stay loose with what I think I know. It’s good to have a vision but let a higher source fine tune it. That is the formula that brought my porthole painting into being. The figures in it are my daughter-in-law and grandson, Cameron. Pam grew up near Boston and spent her summers by the ocean. She has what we like to call saltwater in her veins. When I found out she was pregnant, I immediately began seeing her as a mermaid, stretched out on a rock, holding a shell to her merbaby’s ear. When Cam was born, I prepared for the illustration, by photographing the perfect “mermaid rock” for them to be sunbathing on. Now all I had to do was get photo references of my two muses. That had to be put on hold until Cam was old enough for his mom to hold him while he listened to the sound of the sea in a shell.

The mermaid rock I came across on Lucy Vincent Beach in Martha's Vineyard.

The mermaid rock I came across on Lucy Vincent Beach in Martha’s Vineyard.

One day last July, the plan for my illustration took on a new direction when Pam texted me a selfie of her and Cam. In the photo, Pam’s hair flowed across a pillow and her little guy, laying next to her, had a look of pure wonder on his face. It was magical. I knew the moment I saw it that it was the photo I would base my art on. I’m so grateful I was open enough to see that the sea creatures I wanted to bring to life weren’t sunbathing, but looking through a porthole, right into my soul.

The selfie that pointed my imagination in another direction.

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

We Burn Brighter Together

Angels with one wing

Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they are always there. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I just returned from our annual week’s stay on Martha’s Vineyard. Since 1997, my family has vacationed together there. Early on, my sister discovered painter Margot Datz lived on the island. She’s illustrated most of Carly Simon’s children’s picture books. I was crazy about her work. I made up my mind to track her down and introduce myself, although it took me a couple of years to work up the courage to call her. My resistance came from having placed  her on a “one who has arrived” pedestal. After finally meeting Margot, her warmth and candor assured me she was not above me. We stood eye to eye. I now call her a friend and a more generous one you’ll never find.

Margot Datz on one of my Vineyard visits

This year when I reconnected with Margot she was frantically finishing paintings for her show in August. True to her nature, she dropped her paintbrushes to bring me to tea at her friend, author/illustrator, Susan Branch‘s home. After reading Susan’s memoir, A Fine Romance, I was dying to meet the woman behind that gorgeous book. Margot was delighted to make that happen.

When we pulled up to Susan’s house, a weird déjà vu came over me. In Susan’s blogs and books, she shares musings and observations of her daily life. They are illustrated to perfection with her watercolors and photographs. As she introduced me to her husband, Joe, I had to restrain myself from saying, “We’ve already met,” because we had, in her writings. From reading her posts, I recognized every charming inch of her house, even her cats. Susan’s life, like her heart, is an open book.

Susan's cat Jack

Susan’s cat Jack

The three of us sat around her kitchen table and sipped Susan’s own private blend of delectable tea. We talked about our lives as artists and other things. All three of us agreed to liking intimate gatherings over parties. No chitchat for us. We are of the soul-connection variety. When I confessed that I had no idea I could write before I began blogging, they tittered in unison, “No one does!” Really? So that means that I’m not alone but share a sort of universal creative process. Hmmm. Knowing that comforted me. I am not an oddball. I am an artist.

Susan Branch in her studio

Susan Branch in her studio

He who lights his candle from mine, receives light without darkening me. ~ Thomas Jefferson

In my youth, I felt quite competitive toward professional creatives who, as I saw it, were living my dream. I was beneath them always grasping for what was out of my reach. I viewed the world as having only so many openings to be filled by people in the arts. If others arrived, that meant there was less of a chance that I could. The only way to find success was to somehow maneuver around them and snatch their light.

Thank goodness for the beneficent women who’ve shown up and taught me different. They’ve encouraged me and believed in me. Unthreatened, they’ve made it their business to help figure out a way for me to market my gifts to the world. Forging a friendship with Margot left me with the awareness that no one makes it alone. Bringing your heart’s desire to fruition is never a solitary act. It hadn’t occurred to me someone would actually allow me to light my candle from there’s. Wouldn’t I be stealing their flame? No, the truth of the matter is together we burn brighter.

Margot’s book, “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids” with it’s sage observations is the perfect gift for any of your sister-friends.

 

Susan's "A Fine Romance" is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

Susan’s “A Fine Romance” is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

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

 

Coincidences: We Are Never Alone

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton Portrait

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

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

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

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

For the Love of Grace

Grace of My Heart

Grace of My Heart

“Blessed be childhood, which brings down something of heaven into the midst of our rough earthliness” -Henri Fredric Amiel

The little girl in the above illustration is Grace Audrey McDonnell. She is one of the twenty children whose lives were cut short at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14. Although I didn’t know her personally, she has taken residence in my heart. I was first introduced to her while watching the news. President Obama shared Grace with the world during a speech unveiling his gun control agenda last January. The president brought to light the details of her life. He said, “Grace was seven years old when she was struck down. Just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of being a painter. And just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings. And I hung it in my private study, just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace …”

Hearing about Grace’s art hanging in the president’s study triggered some memories of my own. I had been beyond thrilled when I learned Hillary Clinton had hung my portrait of Chelsea in her private study when she was first lady. It saddened me Grace wasn’t here to know of the honor bestowed upon her painting.

I was drawn to Grace and began reading articles about her short life. We had so much in common. Like me, she was born with the soul of an artist. When she grew up, she wanted to live on Martha’s Vineyard. Vacationing there every summer for years, I share her love for everything about that island. And I learned that, like me, some of her happiest moments were spent there.

I felt such a connection to Grace. The thought began coming to me that I had to paint a portrait of her for her parents. I tried to dismiss it as just a sympathetic impulse, but the entreaty wouldn’t leave me alone. I had the distinct feeling it was something Grace wanted me to do. It was my part to play in her family’s healing. The painting would be a gift from Grace through me. I tried pushing these thoughts down but they were always there, humming in the background. Finally, I surrendered to them and tracked down her mom, Lynn. Understanding she might be wary, I expressed my conviction with trepidation. Grief is such a personal thing. I didn’t want to add to her parent’s burden in any way. Lynn accepted my offer and sent me the program from Grace’s memorial service. When I opened it up, I knew I had found the picture to base her portrait on. Inside the booklet was a photo of Grace taken by her mother at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. The pensiveness in that child’s beautiful eyes revealed her soul – a look only a mother could capture.

Last week, I put the finishing touches on my painting of Grace. All that’s left to do is pack it up and ship it to her family. My hope is that anyone who reads this post prays for Grace, and for the healing of all those she left behind. Collective prayer always brings miracles.

Grace Audrey McDonnell didn’t have an ounce of hate in her. She was the light and the love of her family. She was Chris and Lynn’s daughter and Jack’s little sister. She was a granddaughter, a friend and loved by many. But to me, she will always be, simply Grace of my heart.

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

Beauty Within

Divine Things

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

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

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

Bridget MV

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

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

Divine Things

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

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

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

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