Yield Or Not

Over the Labor Day weekend, I had the great pleasure of working with a wonderful group of artists and writers at St. Dorothy’s Retreat in the redwood forests of Northern California.  In a quiet working space, we worked on different projects; poetry, novels, musical compositions, essays, and art.  We took breaks to share our work and critique each other’s works in progress. The beautiful scenery, the professionalism of all the participants and camaraderie that developed made this retreat so memorable.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when distractions are removed and you only have your work before you.  I went with a ton of supplies not knowing the number of stairs on the retreat grounds or what kind of workspace I would be given.  It turned out that I took way too much. So I pared down my ideas to fit the space, a long table in front of a huge window looking out on hills, trees and occasional hawks drifting across the valley on the rising thermals. Though the sky was with filled with smoke from the Mendocino fires, the light was still strong enough as to not hinder my progress. I worked quickly following the general concept I had in mind and help from the guiding Holy Spirit.

Below is a photo of the finished piece.  I think, working so closely with great poets, I was inspired to write a poem that explains what I was trying to convey through the composition.  It is below the first photo.  Of course, you might interpret the piece differently.  If you do, I hope you’ll leave a comment.  Enjoy!


Not an angel.
Not a saint.
Maybe, a Spirit
standing before you
blessings and peace.
Her heart is set on fire
with love for all.
Does she call you forward
or, stops you
in your search for understanding?
Like a yield sign
must decide
to keep going,
to merge with deeper awareness,
because it’s not yet your time.
Her countenance is confusing;
not somber,
not sad, exactly.
Those eyes know the world,
know the truth about life, and
reflect back what you, too,
have learned.
That knowing glaze
could scare away
those not yet burned
by love and life, but
that faint smile,
not a glittering, meaningless TV ad one,
just gentle,
that whether you yield or not
the trip
turn out




Spirit of the Season

It’s become a tradition in my art classroom for me to do a white board drawing during the last week of school before the holiday break.  I always try to do something different that pulls in the multiple cultures represented at the high school where I teach.
Last year it was a Dickenesque, city scene with with a night snow fall, sparking stars and icicles.  Amongst the building was a church, Islamic temple, synagogue, a Buddhist temple, and for my Sikh students, my best try at rendering their cherished Golden Temple.  
This year I went for an indoor space, a single, one-point perspective drawing of a cozy room at night with a lit fireplace.  The lights are turn down low. There’s  snowman, with carrot nose pressed hard against a window. He seems desperate to get in out of the cold and nestle in the cushy chair beside the fireplace.  All is quietly awaiting the big day.
To make the image inclusive, I asked students what kind of cultural artwork they had in their own homes so I could add them to the scene.  I was clear that they didn’t need to be Christmas related, just something that told of  their cultural background.  It was surprising how few had anything in their homes that spoke of where their families came from.  I did get the suggestion of a Philippine parol and plenty of suggestions from my Hispanic students to add a Jesus house (aka manger.)  Towards the end of the day, Asian students suggested red lanterns and good luck symbols for the up coming Lunar New Year.
As the students saw that their suggestions were really becoming part of the drawing, more ideas were offered.  I was told to hide a pickle ornament in the Christmas tree because that was an important part of a family’s traditions.  Another told me his grandmother’ would build a manger scene outsider her home with stones and straw around the figurines.  So those were added. An elf on the shelf was placed on the mantel.  A train was drawn around the base of the Christmas tree with tracks that went up and down the walls and over a chair and through a tunnel in the wall by the fire place to come out on the other side of it.  Yes, as the week went on curious, surprising details were added that captured the charm and fantasy of the season.
Most importantly for all was the addition religious symbols added as pictures above the mantel on which the manger was drawn.
In the middle of the week, five wrapped boxes appeared at the foot of the drawing, so big they stretch across the full length of the white board.  Each one with colorful bow and  a tag signifying the class period it was a gift for.  “How did they get there?”  Well, of course, Santa brought them early, and they would be opened on the last day of school.  Jokes were made about shaking the gifts to see what was inside, maybe a lump of coal for classes who had been bad.
This probably sounds  pretty silly to be done at a high school, but art can transform  the atmosphere of a room. It brings up memories and feelings of childhood.  It can lighten the heart and put smiles on faces of students who appreciate it is a gift meant for them, to entertain and enchant.
Finally, the last day of school came.  Overnight the “elves” had torn open the wrappings to reveal the gifts. As I looked at the gifts that morning I realized that, though each box was meant for a single class, all five had something for everyone.  So each period I announced that all the gifts were meant for all; big smiles all around. The first box held a warm bed, a steaming cup of coco and a broken alarm clock in appreciation for coming to school each days on mornings so cold even I would have preferred to stay in bed.  And the broken alarm clock?  Let’s just say mornings are not the best time for teaching teenagers.  They understood that gift.  The next held a goat, which I learned this year is a positive slang term.  My version of it is Greatest Ones of All Time Students.  They all have been such a pleasure to teach this year. The third box held a boarding pass and jet airliner to take them anywhere they wanted to travel beyond the school grounds. The fourth held Bob Ross, a TV personality that all my students seem to know for painting “happy trees.” A thought bubble above his head stated that he wished he could paint as well as they did. And the last box, it held the words AWE and WONDER for each of them.
As I looked across the room I could see delight in so many faces. I knew they appreciated my efforts and the sentiments I was conveying.
At the end of my last presentation of the gifts, a voice called out, “This is imaginary, right?”
I was struck by this question, and I was stuck with how to answer it.  A high school student who is confused by what’s going on?  Couldn’t be more clear? A drawing on a white board.  Me describing  what my heart wanted the images to convey.  Images that represent traditions, beliefs, and the spirit of the season, the joy of coming together to share with one another. Maybe that was the confusion.  Imagination held in the light of spirit. And, spirit being felt so much that a spiritual gift felt real.
So that is how I answered.  “If you think it imaginary, than it’s all made up.  But, if you believe in spirit and understand the spirit that it was given in, than it is so real.”
It’s not about the gifts under the tree.  The gifts could be anything.  It is the spirit of coming together and the intent to share from our hearts. That kind of spirit is oh so real.  It can be felt. It can be known. And, it brings wonder and awe.light 2.png

Dust To 82 Ensos, The Wheel Still Turns

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, will soon be here, and so once again I’ve painted a piece for a local art show.  Though this time, my inspiration is very different.

Day of the Dead art isn’t for everyone.  Many find images dealing with death unsettling.  I use to feel the same way until a previous student of mine was curating a show and asked if I’d like to participate.  It was while painting the intended piece that I realized how artists enliven the medium they are working in.  Inert, inanimate paint takes on a life.  Yes, it is just an illusion, but it’s fascinating how we all buy into it.  It’s like we don’t even see the paint.  Instead, our imaginations jump right into the story being illustrated. I just hadn’t internalized this so deeply before.  “Dead” mediums coming alive with every brush stroke.  Day of the Dead artwork is now so alive for me.  Painting these images has allowed me to join in the fun of laughing at death, sort of the point of this annual celebration.

Since that first Day of the Dead painting, I’ve tried to make one every year.  In September, I take time to honor someone close who has passed on. It gives me time to appreciate the individual and remember the good times when we laughed and enjoyed life.  My first was for my parents, a dancing skeleton on fire with energy.  My parents always danced through life.  No matter their struggles, they never let life keep them down. At any party, you’d find them on the dance floor jitter-bugging. They had so much energy. Last year my piece honored a friend who died under some very sad, lonely circumstances. My painting honored her for the unique, caring person that so few appreciated.

This year, however, my inspiration has changed. I’ve been reading about Zen Buddhist Enso, a spontaneous painting of a circle, or the circle of life.  Zen Buddhist will paint an enso with one continuous brush stroke and then take time to meditate on what it is showing them about that moment in time when it was painted.  I like this meditation technique as I relate it to analyzing non-representational abstract art. Through the elements and principles of design found in an enso, the viewer may “hear” it speak about life.  For this year’s piece, I painted eighty-two ensos; eighty-one small, black ones and one giant, red hot one.  Emerging from the canvas on the red one, of course, is a skull, that universal symbol of death. While I don’t believe in reincarnation, I do think we live through many stages in this life and take on personas that change due to different relationships and situations. I’ve been a baby, a child, a teen, and an adult.  I’m a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a grand-aunt.  I’ve taken on the roles of friend, co-worker, boss, citizen, traveler, artist and many more.  And, I’m still here. I’m still experiencing life. So I’ve titled this year’s piece Dust To 82 Ensos, The Wheel Still Turns.

Here’s the piece.


If you look closely at the skull’s left eye, it appears as though you can enter through it and access the vast universe.  That’s closer to my idea of the after-life. Expanding. Unending.  Just a part of all of it.

If the piece “says” something different to you, I hope you’ll leave a comment.  Tell me what you’re “hearing.”

Enjoy your own Dia de los Muertos.

Hand – The Gift Of Brenda

The Hand of Brenda.pngMy coworker has a special gift.  She can see past the labels placed on special education students to see the spirit residing inside the individual.  Yes, she’s been a special education teacher for years and was trained to help students that struggle in school because of disabilities, but she looks deeper.  She seeks out that spark of the individual hidden behind the categories we sort students into.

One morning she found me to ask about my take on one student that was in my art class.  She already knew that he had something that others couldn’t see.  I think she was just asking me to verify what she had observed.  Maybe she was looking for a word to call what she was seeing.  Ok, I know that would be a label, but one outside of the special ed box. I told he was an explorer.  That in my class, from the first day, he would take in a little instruction and then take it where he wanted to go, applying new skills to where his brain was wandering to.  A smile broke out on her face, and she began to tell me about the amazing things she had observed him doing and creating. These were things that the day to day classroom activities and structure would keep hidden from his regular ed teachers.  Her ending comment to our discussion was that she hoped he got through school without school messing him up.

You might want to read that last sentence again because it does happen.

Brenda says the brain is an amazing thing.  I think Brenda inner sight is amazing too.

So,  to Brenda:sideviewHandBrenda.png

Tie the expectation box together
Containing a drowning Spirit
From radiating 
The gifts
It brings,


God bless the hand
That searches out the Spirit
Finding It where
Assured minds only see a troubled surface.

Bless the hand
That lifts the spirit
Out of the dark waters
To stare us down
With the true power
It holds.


circles.pngThis weekend I met up with my 7th-grade art teacher who I hadn’t seen in 48 years. It was the perfect completion of a circle in life, and as the day progressed, reinforced that one’s life’s circle is ever revolving and expanding.
In the 7th grade,  I watched in amazement as Mrs. Irish painted a perfect, realistic watercolor of a thistle in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t part of her planned lesson for the day.  She was just showing me the possibilities of the medium I was learning to control.  And, I thought, “I want to be able to do THAT!”
Why didn’t I separate the act of painting from teaching?  Probably because she was the only artist I had ever met, my only role model of what could be.  She also had an occupation I could later to sell to my parents who wanted me to go to college so I could have a steady paycheck.  They, like so many of our students’ parents, equated college with guaranteed employment.  Mine didn’t see it as a dream factory of possibilities. Luckily for me, it all came true.
So Saturday, standing in the PAC surrounded by nearly 300 pieces of art created by my own Digital and AP Art students I retold Mrs. Irish how those few moments she spent with me changed everything.  She had no idea.  I wasn’t a student that left a mark on her. She really didn’t put a face to my name until she looked me up in a very old yearbook.
Now as the circle is closing on my own teaching career of 36 years, I’m wondering how many of these moments I’ve created for students that I, too, don’t remember.  And, if I go to the dark side for a while, how many moments did I let slip by because I had to take attendance, turn in grades, answer emails, go to a meeting… follow the lesson plan.  It can so easily go either way. So many moments. So many chances.
I left Mrs. Irish with plans to go visit her in Washington.  But my day wasn’t over. I had some time to kill before I went to watch one of my AP students perform with Ballet Folklorico.  So off to Starbucks for some quiet time with my sketchbook. However, you just can’t get away from students if you spend any time in Union City. My down time was interrupted by yet another AP Art student.  We spent over an hour talking about her experiences at the art show and what she had learned about herself by going through the AP portfolio process.  She is standing where I was with Mrs. Irish.  Yes, longer than a mere moment, but that same changing experience where a dream is forming and her imagination is seeing the possibilities of where her life could go.
We might think that a well-designed lesson will guarantee our students’ success in higher education, but it’s their dreams that propel them forward. Slow down. Take a moment.  Help them dream.
And my AP, Ballet Folklorico dancer – just the pure energy of youth, spinning on stage in the spotlight of possibilities.
Another moment.
Another perfect circle.


End Of Summer



Use the above QR code to hear my thoughts about this painting. (Click on Download as MP3.)

Twilight, Sunday sitting waiting for my glazes to dry so I can add the finishing touches on the window reflection on my latest painting.  I’ve got Roseanne Cash’s Black Cadillac album playing. Life is quieting down like the end of summer.
In a few days, I’ll go back to teaching high school art.  These last days of summer are tough especially when my vacation has been so eventful.  So many little adventures have taken place, and my soul is so content, relaxed.
Even so, the anxiety of starting afresh with a new group of teens nags at me too.  They’re just a few gray clouds hanging out on the horizon.  They’ll drift in soon. The storm is coming.
Until then I’ll remember a quiet afternoon on the Mendocino coast.  That day dark clouds drifted in and out with breaks of sunshine. On the window sill, sunshine sat in three, vine-ripened tomatoes.  These orbs of summer glowed with the internal warmth of long, hot summer days.  They held the memories of working with my brother in our shared backyard garden and the days waiting to bite into the just picked, warm and juicy fruit of all our hard work.  Of zucchinis, cucumbers, peas, and beans, the tomatoes ripen last. Because of our micro-climate, they ripen in August. So that first bite is also a signal that summer is coming to a close.
In my painting, they stand like soldiers at easy, yet holding back what is to come and radiating the glory of the life they hold. Memories of sunny days without cares.

Icon of Mary Magdalene

MaryMagdaleneWEB.jpgTechnique or soul?
Such an odd pairing.
But, while I tried to go deeper into one, my ego made me take an old path instead of experiencing what could have been a holy different adventure.

To the right is my finished icon painting of Mary of Magdalene. I tried to follow the directions in the book Drawing Closer to Christ: A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. This artist/author has given me a  fuller understanding of what it means to venerate an icon and how this kind of painting can be thought of as a way to bring The Word into the world.

While Malham gives very clear directions on how to technically paint an icon, it is the passages in between that are rich with historical background and guidance into using the time to prep for a days work with prayers and working with a more contemplative mindset throughout each work session that I found the most insightful.

I wish I had the patience to follow the directions of the author, to use the painting process outlined as the retreat it was meant to be.  But alas, my focus became to just finishing before Spring Break was over and in time to show my piece at my church’s art show. I dropped Malham’s technical directions and relied on my usual process for painting an image to appear three dimensional. Yes, my ego won over my search for a spiritual experience.

I did, however, take time to learn more about Mary of Magdalene, read her gospel and finally opened the Book of Common Prayers looking for ones to begin and end each painting session.  I’d like to spend more time with Mary’s gospel, especially it sections about the soul and sin. I did find some beautiful prayers, that so fit with my redirection for painting, that I know I’ll return to them as I try to build a more soulful art practice.  Malham’s book also lead me to Saint John of the Cross’ poem Dark Night of the Soul.  The “dark night of the soul” keeps coming up on the podcasts I listen to and the books on my nightstand.  Saint John’s poem paints an experience so different from how other sources use that phrase.  John’s is more beautiful and enlightening about one’s meeting with God.  Malham’s book is making me rethink what compels me to make art and question what “words” I’m bringing into the world.

So, while I didn’t stay on the path, I guess my meandering lead me to places I needed to go.  So goes the spiritual path. It is definitely not a straight one.



Art & Soul


Every Blade Of Grass Has An Angel
That Bends Over It And Whispers…
“Grow, Grow”
The Talmud

The above lines from the Talmud have stayed with me since I read it many years ago. It flies up in my mind whenever I see someone taking extra special care to assist another person to succeed.  I so relate it to my experience of being a teacher. I like to think I do this with all the students that walk into my classroom, say “Grow, Grow!”  Even though the passage means a lot to me, I’ve never tried to illustrate it before now.  I guess the time comes when something is ready to come into the world.

My new church holds a yearly art show called Art & Soul.  Parishioners bring in their works of art, crafts, poetry, and songs for a two-day celebration of creativity. When the call went out for artists to get their work together, it was suggested to think about Earth Day as the show is held this year on the day of this yearly event.  This image called out to be made. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I think it has blossomed well.

It was fun to try my hand at gilding even though I held back from buying the real gold leaf. I’m planning on following the instructions of the book Drawing Closer to Christ: A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. It will cover in more detail how to use gold leaf on a wood base to paint religious icons.  I think I’ll do an image of Mary Magdalene who helped grow the early church, definitely an “angel” that said, “Grow, Grow!”

Prayer Mandala – “Listens”

How fun it is to collaborate with someone when making art. The mandala shown here was done with my friend CoYourOriginalDrawing.jpgletta.

PrayerMandala.jpgShe started it at a retreat where I presented how to make a prayer mandala.  For some reason, she was unable to finish her design.  But her sketch, shown here, really caught my eye. So I asked if I could complete it for her.

Over the course of several emails, she shared some ideas that I tried to incorporate while also letting the design speak its spirit into being, too.  The colors were selected to express the Dress Rose Scotish tartan pattern she wore when she danced.  Learning this I incorporated Celtic knot patterns within the letters. Her chosen word for her mandala was “listens.”  She wrote to me that it was to remind her that God listens and she needs to work on listening. (Don’t we all!) He must have heard her because as the word was repeated in a circular pattern hearts and angels appeared.  I embellished it was even more of them.  I hope as she meditates on the design, she feels God’s support and love are always surrounding her.

Holy Spirit

holy4This weekend I’m going to a women’s retreat where we’ll be making mandalas and origami cranes.  To prepare to lead these wonderful women I’ve taken some time to research contemplative art practices.   It’s been an enriching experience and a validation of my own art practice.  I’ve always felt that the Spirit guided me in my endeavors to create.  Through my research I’ve learn that this process is similar to Lectio Divina.  So maybe this art process could be called artem divina and help my sisters to have a deeper spiritual practice.

Artboard 1While this piece was done using Adobe Illustration, we’ll be using traditional media at the retreat.  The process will have the artists hide a word within their mandala.  One that they could use as their focus for later contemplation or meditation.  I’ve chosen to use the word holy and hope the Spirit reaches out from the design to touch those who gaze upon it.
As I developed this design I realized that the Holy Spirit  is the lattice that supports our growth as we become more fully engaged with the world and God. May it help you with your own journey.


Christmas Mandala


What a glorious day!

A good service at church about letting one’s light shine in a world that can look so gloomy and dark.  It was a call to step up and be, as Gandhi said,  “the change you want to see.”

From church to a friends house for a pot luck with my theater buddies.  Breaking bread and sharing wine as a group is an echo of the Eucharist.  When we meet with love, I know God is always there.

And now back home to put the final touches on this Christmas mandala that I hope sends a light out to everyone .

This was my year to learn the history of the poinsettia and it’s symbolism as it relates to Christianity.  I’ve always just thought of them as the Christmas flower. It’s great to know now that the five points leaves symbolize the Star of David and the blood of Christ.  It’s a symbol that pulls the old and new thoughts of God together into a flower that seems to burst upon the season with all the hope this holiday is about.


IMG_4746To work tight or lose?

This is always a tough decision for me.  I’m strongly attached to painting details.  They say God is in the details. They also say God loves diversity.  So for this work I loosened up and let go of trying to capture very detail before me. Even my rendering of the hydrangeas is a bit of a fantasy. While I’m close to finishing,  I’m facing a tough time of pulling it all together while keeping it loose.

Isn’t that, too, a face of a God that likes diversity?  He is somewhere in between and yet all encompassing; a continuous flow and in the moment, oh, so specific.


That is how it has been to work on this painting, moving between just letting go and focusing.

I’ve been listening to Billy Joel in the studio .  His rock and roll helps my brush dancing across the canvas, and his song, with the lines
You maybe right
I may be crazy
Oh, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for

somehow fits with this working dichotomy.   It feels right and crazy all at the same time.

One of my favorite songs of Bill Joel’s is And So It Goes,  a soothing and at the same time sad tune.  It begins with the lines

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one come along

I hope the person I’m creating the painting for feels the a bit the beat of Joel’s rock and roll and at the same time finds a refuge, a place to rest at the end of her day.

Life and rest.
God in between and all around.