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

PLP#5 Pam Grout: Cheers to Life!

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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

“You are here to create the good, the beautiful and the holy. You’re here to dance, to spread love, to write symphonies, to give birth to the very best that is inside you.” – Pam Grout

*I chose #1 New York Times best selling author, Pam Grout to focus on for my fifth Porch Light Profile. She is the author of 17 books, has a travel website, and is a reporter for People magazine. Her life and writing embodies the concept of “getting paid for being you.” She is an adventurer and traverses the globe (the perfect set up to be a travel writer) and a lover of the Divine Buzz (as she’s been known to call what most refer to as God). Pam’s proudest accomplishment is being a mother to her beautiful browned-eyed daughter, Taz.

As far back as she can remember, Pam had a strong calling to write. “It’s what I’ve loved to do from the time I was little. I was a reader. When I was in second grade, I got an award for reading 267 books. Often times people who read a lot think, ‘wow maybe I can do this.’  So I started writing at a pretty young age.”

Although Pam clearly loved to write, her parents didn’t encourage her to make a career of it. Being an author didn’t equate financial security to them. Pam’s mom pointed her in the direction of becoming a computer programmer. “When I was in college, that was the new field to go into. To become a writer seemed a little risky to my family.” 

Pam got around her mom’s directive by going into journalism. With the degree she earned she’d be able to get a “real” job. After college she worked at a newspaper for awhile before she took the plunge to become a full-time freelance writer. Pam’s happy to say that since that time she’s been able to support herself as an author.

I first became aware of Pam’s writing when I stumbled across her book, E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality. An international  bestseller, her book was a light in the wilderness of limited thinking to me. I was so brainwashed by the cultural paradigm of how life is supposed to work it seemed unrealistic to believe that my inner longings could come true. The fun experiments in her book helped open my mind to the possibility that God had my back. I learned the way to be certain you’re aligned with that benevolent being is when you feel joy. According to Pam, following your bliss is the quickest way for your gifts to find their place on the planet. 

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“If we all did what brings us joy, rather then what we think will keep us safe we would live in a different world. That feeling of joy is what tells you that you are in sync with God. It’s your GPS system.” What a beautiful concept, a loving God who uses good feelings to signal you are on the right track.

Pam didn’t always have such an enlightened outlook. She grew up being her own worst enemy because of an offhand remark her dad made after she was born, “She is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” The metal forceps that aided Pam’s delivery temporarily flattened her nose. She took her dad’s declaration to heart and spent a good portion of her youth trying to fix her looks. She’d feel like she got one area in that department under control, and then something else would surface that needed an overhaul.

By the time Pam hit college it occurred to her that her obsession to “fix” her looks, not how she looked, is what needed to be changed. In search of answers, She began pouring over every self-help book she could get her hands on. Reading those books eventually changed her thinking. Instead of looking for what needed fixing, she began appreciating what was right about herself. Pam began feeling so good about her assets that she swears her appearance began improving. Her skin cleared up. Even her eyesight went back to normal so she could lose those coke bottle glasses she needed to see.

Pam’s decision to let go of her limiting thought process went full throttle when she discovered A Course in Miracles, a self-study program in spiritual psychology. She credits the book with opening up her mind and allowing her to let go of the stifling worldview she had absorbed from the culture. Pam laughed when I asked her if she ever veers from her upgraded way of thinking. “Of course I do. When I look at the news media I think, ‘Oh my gosh, things are horrible.’ Then I have to remind myself to ask God to help me to see things differently. Retraining your mind is a little bit like house breaking a puppy. You just have to keep taking it outside and showing it a different reality.”

Pam’s spin on life is certainly a departure from the belief systems she was raised with. In E Squared she writes, “Look through the Bible and nowhere does Jesus say, ‘Worship me.’ His call to us was ‘follow me.’ There’s a big difference. By making Jesus out to be a hero, we miss the whole point. Jesus wasn’t saying, ‘I’m cool. Make statues of me; turn my birthday into a huge commercial holiday.’ He was saying, ‘Here, look what is possible. Look what we humans are capable of.’ Jesus is our brother, our legacy, the guy we’re supposed to emulate.” 

Pam admits that her parents being traditional Christians are sometimes worried for her soul. On the other hand she knows, “They’re really proud of me and my books and that I’ve been able to make a living following my heart.” 

“The universe is limitless, abundant, and strangely accommodating.” – Pam Grout

It looks like all of those self-help books Pam devoured weren’t just happenstance. Not only did they open up her mind but all the information she gleaned from them has become the foundation for her life’s work. Reading E Squared gave me the same kind of “wa wa” moment Helen Keller must have had when she realized the cool liquid pouring between her fingers was water. It flipped the switch that opened my eyes to a better way of thinking. Talking to Pam and reading her books makes her positive spin on life seem so doable. She lives her number one motto: “Have fun. No matter what.” Bringing that mindset to our life and work assures us that we will land where we are supposed to. How will we be certain that we are going in the right direction? We will feel good. 

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More must reads by Pam Grout:41O5goJA1BL41blDwOiezL51t23k7trdL

Taz and Pam

Taz and Pam exploring Egypt

*Coming up next: Profile of Writer/Illustrator/Filmmaker/Genius , William Joyce

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. 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

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Painting with Abandon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings From Heaven

 

Blessings from Heaven

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

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

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

Megs circa age 9_edited-1

Megs around age nine.

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

Chirup_edited-1

Chirup

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

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

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

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

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

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

1843 Flower Dictionary_edited-1

My 1843 flower dictionary.

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

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

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

*Click here to purchase a copy of Blessings from Heaven

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

 

The Season of Renewal

all-creartures-great-and-small-2_edited-1

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

– Attributed to Cecil F. Alexander

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

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

Click to purchase a copy of All Things Bright and Beautiful print.

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