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.

Joy to the World

Joy filled to the top and spilling over, that’s what the holiday season brings. Since 2000, I’ve tried to capture that joy in a Christmas card I create in memory of my nephew. TJ, short for Timothy James, was so full of life anything less would dishonor him. Snatched from us without warning, he died 17 years ago when he was only 23.

The holiday cards are sold to raise money for a scholarship fund formed in my nephew’s name. To date over $150,000. has been dispersed to kids his parents believe their son would have chosen. Like TJ, many of the recipients have been wrestlers or students who’ve had to work at their studies harder than most. TJ had more than his share of learning problems but took them on and overcame them with heart.

A child of the foster care system, when TJ was 10 he came to my sister Laura and her husband Bob seemingly by accident. Laura, a social worker, was called by TJ’s caseworker to see if they could take him for the weekend on emergency. They did, and his stay stretched from weeks to months until they knew he was there for good. TJ had come home.

TJ struggled in school. He had profound hearing loss in his left ear and a learning disability that made it difficult to read. Laura shared her love of books by reading to him every night. That, along with exceptional teachers, helped TJ to blossom in his school studies. By the time he reached high school, he was an accomplished athlete. He excelled in football and wrestling. When it was time for college, TJ went to Eastern Illinois University on a wrestling scholarship.

In 1996, his senior year of college, TJ and his friends had gathered at a park to celebrate completing their final exams. A warm spring day, some of the kids decided to brave the swirling river and jump in. The water was especially treacherous that year because of an abundance of rain in the previous weeks. My nephew, always a lover of risk, was able to jump in and get back out. On his second try, the current pulled TJ to the spillway while he struggled to keep his head above water. His friend Joe attempted to save him, but they were both pulled under. By all accounts the boys perished around 4:00 PM that day.

At the same time my sister Laura was driving TJ’s little sisters Molly (5) and Elyse (7) home from school. Suddenly Elyse pointed to the sky and said, “Look Mama at the two angels! Can’t you see them? Right there in the clouds.” As hard as she looked Laura could see nothing but billowing sky. Later my sister told me her daughter’s assuredness of what she saw sent a small wave of fear through her. Could the angels mean something horrible had happened? Only later, when the shock began to fade, were Laura and Bob able to connect the time of their son’s passing with the angelic appearance.

Some may say the heavenly visitors appeared at the exact time of TJ’s passing by Divine appointment. What better way to help ease his little sisters’ pain then by letting them know their brother and his friend were in heaven? Bob looked at it more as TJ personally reaching out to Molly and Elyse. He was glad his son had thought of the girls and made the effort to connect with them as he passed from this world to the next. Every year I incorporate an angel in my card design to remind us that although no longer in the physical, TJ is always with us. Death isn’t strong enough to extinguish his bright light.

TJ brought much joy to the world. He was smart and loving and creative and kind. Yet, at the same time, he could be moody and selfish and inconsiderate. After he died, found among his things was a list he compiled to inspire himself in his goal to be an All-American wrestler. At the bottom of the page he wrote, “It is not where you start. It is where you finish.” As a child he endeared much sadness and neglect before he landed with my sister and her husband. From a rocky start, he accomplished much. He was perfectly imperfect in his humanity. And anyone who was lucky enough to know him wouldn’t have wanted to change a thing.

*To purchase cards click here.

The last picture of TJ with Molly and Elyse. Taken after  an EIU Senior Night wresting meet.

The last picture of TJ with Molly and Elyse. Taken after an EIU Senior Night wresting meet.

I converted Sayla playing with her slime (last year's favorite Christmas gift) into an angel pouring snowflakes from a jar.

I converted a snapshot of my model Sayla playing with her “slime” (last year’s favorite Christmas gift) into an angel pouring snowflakes from a jar.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Your Children Are Not Your Children

So valuable is the dignity of the human soul, that every member of the human race has a guardian from the moment the person is born.” – Saint Jerome

At first glance, one would think the above painting is an artist’s hope that guardian angels exist and guide our children. What if I told you it illustrates an actual event to the smallest detail?

Twelve years ago an old friend tracked me down after coming across a lithograph of mine. In it angels were pictured playing in the clouds, blowing stars to one another. Even though the signature on the piece was different from when I was in high school, Clare recognized my art and felt compelled to find me. She thought anyone who can paint angels like I do, must believe in them. After meeting for coffee, she confided the event that made her search me out. Two years earlier she had stood in court looking on as her ex-husband was sentenced for sexually abusing her daughter. What had taken place shook her family to its core. In the depths of their despair, an angel came to little Emma and helped her come to terms with what had happened. The angelic presence not only healed her but healed her mother and siblings too.

The events with her stepfather left Emma in deep emotional pain. She had loved him dearly and even called him dad. How could he betray her like this? How could she miss someone who had hurt her so much? One night, as she neared her breaking point, she climbed out of bed to get a tissue to dry her tears. When she returned, sitting next to her bed was a woman with wings and light radiating around her. She introduced herself as Sarah. She told Emma she was there to help. She knew that Emma missed her stepfather but promised her everything would be alright. The heavenly being assured her that she had done the right thing by revealing her secret to her mother. That was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship. Emma’s guardian angel stayed by her side during the process of pressing charges against her abuser. She always knew exactly what Emma needed to hear to soothe her.

As Clare and I rekindled our friendship, of course, I pondered the hugeness of her story. I wanted to believe her. Who wouldn’t want the comfort of knowing that our children are watched over when we can’t protect them? After meeting her kids, I was convinced something incredible had indeed taken place. I came to believe my friend’s daughter had been given a gift, through a tangible presence that had found her shattered and left her whole.

As time went on, Emma’s angel began to fade into the background but never entirely left. Today all grown up and a mother herself, she continues to be one of the most well-adjusted young ladies I’ve ever met. It’s impossible not to feel a remnant of the celestial when in her presence. Until now, her encounter with Sarah has only been disclosed to a trusted few. The way I see it, Emma’s gift is a healing balm that should be shared with the world. Her mother agrees and is now expanding her journals about her daughter’s experience into a book. As a parent, I feel privileged to have been able to tuck Emma’s visitation in my heart all these years. It’s been such a source of comfort to me while watching my children scale some very rocky terrain. In lyrics penned by Van Morrison we are assured, “You know the obstacles along the way, sometimes might feel so tremendous. There are guides and spirits all along the way, who will befriend us.” Our loved ones are watched over and cared for even when we can’t be with them. Just knowing that helps me sleep better at night.

So what about you? I would love to hear any experiences you’ve had with the angelic.

*The names were changed in the post to protect the privacy of all involved.

Dream Catchers is the image Clare came across and compelled her to find me.

Dream Catchers is the image Clare came across and compelled her to find me.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Time Well Spent

Time together is time well spent,  And time with our children is heaven sent. – Author unknown, found on a vintage sampler

In the above painting, which is more endearing, the fairy or her habitat? No question in my mind, I pick the fairy. Of course, it would be fun to discover the magic of her home, but she, herself, is what would ultimately charm me. I found life imitating art while visiting my daughter in Vermont.

We had been planning my October trip for months. Five days with my Bridget in a land of eclectic shops and bistros at the base of foothills woven with color. We had every day brimming with activities. I couldn’t wait to get there and begin our adventure. The first two days went according to plan. And then on day 3 it happened, without warning,  my back went out. Moment by moment, the pain worsened as we scrambled to get an appointment with a doctor on a Friday afternoon. We were lucky to find a chiropractor who squeezed me in. I did feel better after her adjustments but was advised to take it easy for the rest of my stay. Both Bridget and I were disappointed we had to cancel most of our plans (although, in retrospect, we really just felt bad for each other.) So that afternoon instead of taking her rescue dog on a hike to the reservoir we went to a movie.

Saturday we managed to browse a few shops before my back insisted we return home and ice it. That evening we had no choice but to stay in and watch a movie and sip some wine. But do you know what? We had a blast. We came to the realization the whole point of my trip was for us to be together. Sure Vermont is a beautiful place to explore but it doesn’t hold a candle to the pleasure of my daughter’s company. That night as I lay in bed my heart echoed the words of Kitty Carlisle Hart, “Each morning I wake up and say, ‘Dear Lord, I don’t want anything better; just send me more of the same.'”

Always my muse, Bridget modeled for the above illustration at age 10.

Always my muse, Bridget modeled for the above illustration at age 10.

Bridget and Nelson - a moment captured on my trip.

Bridget and Nelson – a moment captured on my trip.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Children are Pieces of Heaven


“It is no small thing, when they who are so fresh from God, love us.”  – Charles Dickens

When children arrive into earthly life, they bring with them a breath of heaven. Just look into any baby’s eyes and you’ll know it’s true. To be loved by a child is to be loved for one’s self. It’s a love that heals hurts and changes the course of the world. It did for me. When my eldest was placed in my arms, it seemed as if the room lit up. I knew without question, that God exists. I felt whole. I was no longer the girl who defined herself by the wounds of a painful childhood. I was Robby’s mother.

After that came Bridget and then Brian – almost too much love for one heart to hold. My passion to be an artist was always trumped by being with them. It didn’t feel like I even had a choice. They came first. My career would have to be patient. I agree with Jacqueline Kennedy’s observation, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” Looking back over my life, I wouldn’t change a thing. Although being a mother slowed down my painting for awhile, it gave me a much broader range of colors to choose from on my palette. Today I am able to focus on sharing my creative gifts with the world while marveling at the incredible human beings my kids have grown into.

When my children were little, I used to feel their shoulder blades and tell them they were the nubs from the wings they had before they were born. As angels they flew over the world to pick out their families. How lucky their father and I were they chose to land here, with us. Back then I never considered this anything more than a tale told to delight. In the here and now, I know better.

In the portrait I painted of Cooper, the quote from Charles Dickens was the perfect addition. He is a delight.

In the portrait I painted of Cooper, the quote from Charles Dickens was the perfect addition. Cooper is a treasure and charms everyone he meets.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Hold on Tight to Your Dreams

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all your life spend your days on the end of strings that somebody else pulls.” -Howard Thurman

 The first memory I have of myself painting was when I was in kindergarten. I was working on a profile of a woman with blond hair, wearing a red dress. My teacher was so astonished at the level of my skill she brought the rest of the faculty in to watch me. When I ran home and showed my creation to my mother, she barely gave it a glance before she discarded it. Today, I believe she had a personality disorder and didn’t have the capacity to be supportive. I really struggled searching for the courage to live my dream of being an artist. Part of me believed I was gifted, and the other half thought I was delusional.

Preparing for college, I informed my high school counselor that my sights were set on a career as an artist. She assured me that wasn’t realistic. No, my future had teacher or nurse, stamped across it. I was heartsick. Even though I didn’t argue her prediction, my mind still whispered, “Someone is going to do it. Why not you?” That thought is was what lead me, at 17, to begin reading books by Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking. His message fueled my longings and gave me the determination not to abandon them. Holding on to my gift is one of the triumphs of my life. I could have so easily accepted what the adults in my world told me. As time unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear – authority figures don’t know everything.

When I became a parent, my joy couldn’t be contained. The love I felt for my children made my mother’s lack of interest in me even more obvious. One thing was certain, I would make sure my kids knew they mattered.

The girl in the illustration is my daughter, Bridget, when she was 21. She sits on a moon composed of her dad’s chagrin. Yes, that is his face embedded in it, and those are her words waltzing across the sky. Bridget was born with a sense of entitlement. At 3 years old, when I told her I was the boss, she exclaimed, “I’m the boss too!” At that moment, I made a pact with myself to protect that fire in her. I wanted her to believe she could do anything. I wanted her to know that her hopes and aspirations where important, and nothing could stand in her way of achieving them. When she was in junior high, I took her and her cousin to the Oprah Winfrey Show. We were in the audience for an episode on girl’s self-esteem. I hoped they’d make the connection that Oprah and her staff weren’t so different from them. Knowing that regular people do amazing things makes what we long to achieve more attainable. This first occurred to me when my children’s friends looked at my illustrations and couldn’t believe I had painted them. I saw the significance of understanding that the extraordinary always comes from the ordinary. Knowing that is what gives credence to the words, “Someone is going to do it. Why not me?” And why not you? What gifts were you born to share with the world?

I do what I want- photo I snapped the above photo of Bridget to base my illustration on. Under my direction she sits on a “picnic table moon,” holding a martini glass.

Today Bridget is is still doing what she wants as a local television news anchor and reporter. Once she got the bug to be on TV, she never even considered it wasn’t possible. She is a born communicator and loved being on air from day one. Diane Sawyer and Bridget ShanahanBridget’s role model is Diane Sawyer. So in 2010, when the Oprah Winfrey Show requested recommendations for a “Harpo Hook-Up” show, I sent an email (okay, 33 emails) to her website telling her staff about Diane’s influence on my daughter and how inspiring it would be for Bridget to meet her. Sure enough, the Oprah Show hooked her up. Bridget got to sit in on ABC’s World News as Diane’s guest. It was one more opportunity for her to see that big things are accomplished by ordinary people. Most of all, what I yearned for Bridget to take away from that experience was that dreams do come true. And they do.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Dreams Begin in Books

Dreams Begin in Books

There is no substitute for a book in the life of a child.
– Mary Ellen Chase, Recipe for a Magic Childhood (1952)

Dreams Begin in Books

When I was a little girl, I decided the most wonderful things in the world were books. They were my friends. They kept me company when I was lonely and showed me a bigger world when I felt like I didn’t fit in. Around age ten is when Little Women captured me. I loved Jo March. She was self-conscious but pushed the boundaries of being proper anyway. She was a bold, outspoken dreamer. She revealed myself to me. I wanted to grow up to be Jo March but with a paintbrush.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, had modeled Jo after herself. Louisa was an ordinary woman who lived and breathed. In reading about the real Jo, I made the connection that art is created by flesh and blood. It comes through everyday people, to inspire us all. And so began my dream to become an artist…

In honor National Reading Month, Auryn Inc. is giving one of their children’s book apps away every day in March. My app Love You to the Moon & Back will be free on March 22nd. You can get a link to the offer by going to Apps by Auryn’s Facebook page on that day. I will send out a reminder on the 22nd to everyone who has signed up for my blog.

Share the love of reading with a child. Ignite their imagination.

Rachel looked like she was plucked from the 1940's. She had the perfect look for the vintage feel I was going for.

Rachel looked like she was plucked from the 1940’s. She had the perfect look for the vintage feel I was going for.

Ashley lived down the street from me. She was a delight and had no problem dropping everything to model for me.

Ashley lived down the street from me. She was a delight and had no problem dropping everything to model for me.

A detail of the original art. In it is a huge mistake I missed until a third grader pointed it out. During a school visit she asked me why the book cover was backwards. I couldn't believe that I hadn't noticed that. A clear case of missing the forest for the trees.

A detail of the original art. In it is a huge mistake I missed until a third grader pointed it out. During a school visit she asked me why the book cover was backwards. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed that. A clear case of missing the forest for the trees.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved

Live From the Inside Out

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs

Live fro the Inside Out

Live from the Inside Out

Live from the inside out. That’s my motto for the year. I have put the kibosh on following social convention and fulfilling other’s expectations. Living in a box of someone else’s making leaves little room for sharing your gifts with the world.

Over the years, I’ve learned to actually feel when my heart is speaking to me. It takes quieting the mind to discern the embedded whisper. Granted, many times I’ve ignored that guidance and gone into my brain. There is nothing like trying to reason your way to safety for a sense of false security. Being safe and being an artist do not go hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that we are born to share our gifts with the world. The older I get the clearer it becomes that I’m just passing through this realm. That knowledge is what has brought me to the decision to take directions from within. Living from the inside feels risky until I consider the ticking clock. American author Erma Bombeck said,  “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

Allegra was the perfect model for my illustration. Living from the inside out is something she was born doing.

Allegra was the perfect model for my illustration. Living from the inside out is something she was born doing.

Me too.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Gently the Snowflakes Fall…

When I am willing to step into the realm of uncertainty and ambiguity I open myself up to infinite possibilities.  – Anita Moorjani

Make plans but be loose with them. Inflexibility can block wonder from unfolding. Be willing to be surprised.

The story behind the making of the above painting illustrates this perfectly. The two little fairies are my nieces Madi and Emma. Originally, I hadn’t planned on the younger one being in the picture. At her age, I didn’t think there was any way Emma would cooperate. While photographing Madi, to her mother’s dismay, Emma jumped in to have some fun with her big sister’s skirt. Luckily, I had my camera in hand to freeze that fleeting moment. Seriously, there is no way I could have orchestrated that event. By staying out of my own way and signaling for their mother to let Emma be, I was able to capture a twinkling of joy. In my world, it doesn’t get better than that.

Trust the flow. It’s the same wave that transports snowflakes dreamily to the ground. Airy, yet with purpose. Even if a gust of wind blows them off course, they still sparkle where they land.


Emma being Emma.


Madi practicing her bubble blowing skills.

Emma and her big sister Maddie

Emma and Madi.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.