Why I’m moving my art studio

Reesa hanging up Black Lives Matter signs in the studio windows in early June, 2020. Afterward we walked downtown to the rally that was organized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Recently I decided to close my art studio in the Kaslosky building in downtown Palmer, AK. This was partially due to COVID-19. But what ultimately pushed me to a decision was the landlord insisting I remove the Black Lives Matter signage in my studio windows.

I wrote the full story in an Op Ed published in our local paper, the Mat Su Valley Frontiersman.

But I want to post this here on my website and blog as well. After all, if Black Lives Matter signs are removed and a studio closed with no one who knows about it, what does it matter? For posterity’s sake and so no one wonders where I stand as a human and a small business owner: Black Lives DO matter, and I think that is the barest minimum statement of fact. Although it’s painful to shutter a studio I loved so much, it would be corrosive to who I am and what I stand for to stay. I made a pact with myself that my decision to shut down the studio due to removal of the signage would be paired with amplifying this message through all of my channels, so here we go.

I hope you will take some time to read my piece, which is written with the predominantly white audience of Palmer business and civic leaders in mind. I truly hope, in my heart of hearts, that it sparks reflection, dialogue, and action even in some small way. If it does resonate, keep going. The official Black Lives Matter website is here and in the incredible age of the internet there are a billion other resources right at your fingertips.

I will keep going and find somewhere or something new. This is far from me giving up! This simply marks the end of one phase, and the beginning of something new.

If you’re wondering what to do

Oh, I think we can all agree it’s been an interesting week. I mean “interesting” like when you try a new flavor and hate it but are trying to be polite, or when you meet your friend’s new boyfriend and just…can’t.

I feel like I’ve been handed a new multifaceted prism through which to see the world. Kind of like a geodesic dome extension of my eyes and brain. At its center is me. I’m a very healthy, but also asthmatic, extrovert who paints, writes, and facilitates for a living. I am, by any global standard of living, rich. I am also far from rich. I am extremely fortunate to work remotely already for a living, and to be in the position to be able to stock up on food and cancel upcoming travel. 

Through my prism, I see a world built on a perilous house of cards; a system delicately strung in and of itself where one thread pulls at many others, and those that have the least to give are pulled the hardest. Economic inequality is one dry way to put that. Another way is to say we have a system that’s all about haves and have nots, and if you have already it’s easier to get farther; and if you have not you are supposed to somehow claw your way out of that in a system that is literally rigged against you.

I think of people like me; sure with an underlying condition that makes me susceptible but also with the massive, lucky standing in life to be able to mostly (hopefully) mitigate my risk. I think of healthcare, social, grocery store, delivery, cleanup, hospitality, and really any service worker profession that have varying degrees of choice about exposure. And then I go back to thinking about my reliance on this system.

Summer 01

Here is something green to look at and enjoy

I believe this is a moment in history that is rapidly unfolding so quickly that I, and we, don’t yet have the time to think through each of these lenses of what’s happening – what’s being starkly revealed, exposed, developed. We know some of it already – inequity, for one – but it’s easy to look at that from a dispassionate, academic perspective until we are forced to or force ourselves to confront it.

So, this is what I’m asking everyone this week and in coming weeks. One: take care of yourselves. For me this means eating really well, getting outside, setting up Skype dates with friends to look at ridiculous pop culture trends (and yes, staying up on the memes – I can’t get enough of those). Two: take care of each other. If you’re well and if you’re able, deliver groceries for someone who’s cooped up. Watch the kids. Make a dinner. Call instead of text. But do text the goofy meme. Ask how people are doing. Care. Three: do something for the world. Maybe it’s small; that’s good – share something you’re reflecting on on social media. Write a letter to a decision maker about an issue you care about; write a letter to the editor. Donate to organizations and causes that matter – that GoFundMe that’s going around. The Red Cross. Your local Food Bank. I’m sure there are many other options – can you send food delivery to an E.R.? I don’t know – but if that’s a thing you want to do, explore and do it.

I’ll be hunkering down. I’m doing the social distancing thing; still making all sorts of art and sharing it here. Please, please, please – enjoy it. Our brains can’t be lit up all the time by anxiety without eventually crashing; we need awe and beauty to relax ourselves so that we can function at our fullest. And all of us functioning at our best is what the world needs right now, so don’t shy away from beauty. Seek it out, create it, share it. 

Stay healthy and safe, everyone.

 

The murky middle

When I first started painting I was 15 years old. I was convinced every single time I started a painting that this would be the one I couldn’t complete.

My paintings then were polished, “perfect”, almost hyper-realistic. I learned by the hair pulling, painstaking, breath holding process of doing; of teaching myself along the way by adhering to strict self-imposed guidelines (which were basically creating whatever was on the photo I was using for guidance; using whatever technique I could to get there). Through this grueling process, painting by painting, I started to learn bigger trends of what worked and what didn’t. Every painting, until I finished it, was an exercise in heart-in-throat persistence to maintain confidence and focus on the bigger picture.

Now, having completed probably 100 paintings, I feel more confident just because of my history that I’ll finish whatever painting I’m working on in a way that feels satisfying and complete.

…And yet. Every painting I set out to complete, somewhere between the beginning (which is always clear, because it’s just about laying out big patterns) and the end (also clear because I feel satisfied), there is a phase where nothing looks right.

In that phase I look at the painting and have real fear. This is the one I won’t be able to do, a voice in the back of my head asserts. It looks like shit, another one chimes in. How are you going to dig your way outta this one?!

McRoberts Fall

This is a good example. I completed this painting recently. It would have been much more painstakingly true to “reality” had I done it when I was younger, but instead I trusted the patterns I was seeing/creating and pushed through until the painting was done. I think the painting embodies both a sense of realism but also movement.

Every time I have to coach myself through the phase, first by reminding myself that it is just a phase, and that it always happens. I have to take deep breaths and give myself an internal pep talk. Stay focused on where you want to go, I tell myself. Continue to try. Lay paint down in layers, see what works, adjust as needed; but above all believe that you can and will get there, and you can’t stop. The most important part of this phase is thinking and behaving with confidence and trust; continuing to move and push forward.

The fascinating thing for me is that I can see how, over time, my paintings have actually come to embody more movement and less fastidious attention to detail. There is something about picking up on trends and gaining muscle memory from tools that allows me to more flexibility in creating the bigger picture I’m trying to attain, without being bound to exactness. An entire painting seems to really come together somewhere in that murky muddle; the exact point where I want to tear my hair out but push myself to keep on going.

 

Let’s redefine ambition

Up until very recently I would have told you that I lack ambition. 

Backstory: at some point over the past few years I noticed friends and colleagues going far, fast in their careers. They wanted to be the boss. They weighed their life choices carefully; their career fully in the mix of determining where they might want to live or what job they might want to accept.

I thought to myself, huh. I’m not like that. I don’t really want to be the boss; I’m a much happier second in command. And I don’t want to work 24/7.

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Ambition is definitely needed to hike up Lazy Mountain, which is anything but.

I must lack ambition. 

At first I felt shame around it, but then I slowly accepted it. I went about my days: rode my bike, saw my friends, went to work, came home. It was spring when it first occurred to me that I might not be ambitious and I remember thinking that everything looked green and new, and wondering if I was just that slow to notice.

Eventually, I stopped comparing myself and in thinking I was behind in some way, and instead stuck my elbows out in my own lane and cheered them on in theirs. Whatever floats your boat, I figured. There are more ways than one to make a life, and I am just curiously not motivated the same way other people seem to be. I “owned” my lack of ambition.

Then, just a few days ago this video by Mel Robbins, a motivational speaker and the kind of forceful female powerhouse I find refreshing, popped up. In the video, Mel asserts that just because you’re not career-focused doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious.

I watched it with my mouth open. This is me, I thought, as she spelled out all the other ways one might have ambition in life. I realized how ridiculous it was that I’d thought I lacked ambition, when actually, in the past year, I’ve made a major career change, I’ve started a small business and opened an art studio, and I have relentlessly pursued adventure and building relationships (existing and new), including with my chosen home of Alaska.

In one sense, I’m left feeling vindication and an even sharper sense of “live and let live” – we all have different focuses in life. But it’s also a stunning reminder of how insidious the urge to compare myself to others can be, even when I think I don’t do that.

Ambition. It comes up in different ways. Maybe, at its heart, it’s just about wanting to immerse myself as deeply in life as possible, and challenging myself one step at a time to do exactly that. Somehow, even with big steps I have been pushing myself to take, I missed that definition. But it feels right.

How to paint snow

It’s white, right?

Great – I’m done here, heading home.

But no. Examine snow, and you’ll see blues, pinks, greys, purples, and even yellows, oranges, and reds. White, sure, yes, but that only typically makes up a small percentage of an overall snowy landscape.

When I stare at snow before beginning a painting, my brain explodes a little. I wonder, as I do 100% of the time before I’ve started, if this will be the one I can’t finish. Snow is complex! Its frozen patterns mimic waves. It holds shadows in often barely discernible patterns. It’s soft and fluffy looking, but…paint is not.

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First draft of a recent 8″x10″ commission. I laid down the patterns of the snow and the colors until they looked just about right, to fill in more later (next picture).

Before painting snow, I have a little pep talk with myself. I recommend these kinds of pep talks for any aspect of life that at first seems impossible or anxiety-inducing. It goes something like, “You’ve got this, self. Think: confidence! Enjoy it. Put your whole self into it. Keep moving, keep trying, don’t hold on too hard – don’t clench. Be in it. Play.”

Then I set to mixing colors, using the photo I’m working from as a guide.

I lay down a foundation of the dominant color. Maybe it’s a blue shadow tinged with red and a little black to add depth; maybe it’s a lighter, sky color blue mixed with some white to soften it. Often, the color I initially put on the canvas isn’t right at all. I add to my existing mix, or create an entirely new mix and try again until it looks right to me. 

Ideally I get to keep working while the first layer of paint is still fresh, although acrylics dry fast. I add shadows with darker colors – deeper blues, purples, and even black. I create gradations with the colors by lightening up a little here or darkening the edges, starting to blend the snow. Finally, the light – there’s always light, usually dramatic and scary to paint because, what if it’s wrong? I go bold: I load my brush up with pre-mixed white, yellow, orange, or pink. I streak, dot, or schmear the paint across the canvas.

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Completed commission. I was thrilled with how the snow turned out – it felt true, to me, to this time of year in Alaska and the casual beauty we have right outside our door.

I resume breathing, and take a step back from the canvas. I examine. I unfocus and refocus my eyes. Sometimes I use my phone to look at the picture through the camera lense. Oddly – I can’t explain why this is – doing that helps me see the totality of the painting in a different way. I can more readily pick out if colors or shapes are off, and adjust accordingly.

I keep painting and layering onto the snow, again with the patterning of streaks, dots, and schmear (yes, like cream cheese – there’s no other word that quite fits) until the painting looks right. 

Snow is one of the most difficult things to paint, and also the most thrilling to get right. 

What I learned from Taylor Swift on Friday

My 16 year old stepdaughter, Reesa, asked me last weekend over Google Hangout if I’d watched the new Taylor Swift documentary yet. I hadn’t, and we agreed that we’d both watch it as homework before we talked again.

I made a date with a friend and we cozied up on the couch with a laptop, college-style, to watch the doc. 

I won’t bore you with a complete analysis of the film (some takeaways were that I loved Taylor’s mom’s giant dog, and somehow my sympathies became aligned more with Kanye as a result of the movie…). 

What I will say from this: Taylor Swift works hard. The best parts of the movie showed her in the studio with various producers, coming up with songs and building on them. Her voice was far from perfect as she imagined up the riffs that later in the film would be featured on center stage. She would get stuck mid-song, on lyrics or on what happens next. She’d refer back to an audio recording she’d made on her phone at 4am when inspiration had struck. Lots of times in her studio, it didn’t look like she was doing much of anything at all – but she was present.

I know this to be true: it’s not those with the most talent that go the furthest in their careers. Talent helps, but can also exist in a basement with no food/water or audience, and not go very far at all. I don’t believe that talent necessarily has to be tied to exposure to be worthy. But talent will not get “discovered” if it’s not accessible in the first place.

So you have all kinds of artists – musicians, actors, and yes visual artists – that sure, have talent, but more than that, they are diligent and committed to their work. It’s hard to say how much of Taylor’s knack for creating a damn near perfect pop song is pure talent, because she’s been doing this at a professional level since she was a kid. But she has the discipline down.

For little old me in my clean, sunny studio way up in Alaska, I’ve been learning more about painting. As I paint more routinely than I have ever in my life, averaging about a painting every two weeks, I’m noticing that my paintings have become less fastidious. They’re not rushed. But, interestingly, as I’m more focused on carving out and committing to just sitting down and working, I’m creating a kind of muscle memory when it comes to painting similar scenes. 

McRoberts Fall

This recently completed painting is a great example of this. Before, I would have painstakingly studied and recreated each cranberry leaf on the tundra. This time though, I figured out the basic patterning and applied it myself. It seems like there is a lot more movement than there otherwise would have been.

I see and paint patterns now, whereas before I clung to the photograph I’m working from as my see-all-know-all guide. I still use the photograph, but now it’s to discern those patterns, studying the light, color, and landscape. My paintings are starting to embody more movement; they appear a little bit less fixed. It seems like there is more life in them.

Isn’t it interesting that more work results in less work, in a way? By studying and practicing constantly, I’m freeing up more interpretation of my own because I’m gaining better technical practice. 

So – thank you, T Swift, and other artists who inspire me – not just from what you put out there in the world, but how you just buckle down and do it.

How to talk about art

My college roommate and friend Diana and I made ruthless fun of the pretentious guy for months after my art opening.

“Oh Alli,” she’d say in her Swiss accent, “I love your work because I can see the darkness in your paintings.”

“Like what darkness?!” I’d retort to Diana, like she was actually that guy. “You mean, between the clouds? Or, like, behind the canvas?!”

Winter 08

The darkness!

Like any good college-age humans, our bullshit detector was high and not terribly generous. The poor guy was just grasping for some kind of words to use in relation to the paintings he saw on the wall – and probably trying to impress us. And he did, in a way.

Now I also struggle to talk about my paintings. I mostly don’t want to; I just want them to speak for themselves. But, there’s a need for me to talk about them, like there’s a need for words to be put to anything that you really want out there in the world. 

Talking about art is a form of making the implicit explicit. It turns out that’s a whole life skill. What’s right in front of me is obvious, right? Just as obvious as what’s in front of you. Except it turns out we both have different brains and perspectives, and surprisingly different thoughts kicking around up there. If we don’t say the thing – if we don’t somehow communicate in a shared language what it is we’re experiencing – we’ll just make assumptions about the other. And you know how well that works out. About as well as having a baby to fix the relationship.

So I get to sharing; I get to talking. I talk and show and share so that others can do the same. I do this in art; I’m learning to do this in other realms of my life as well, especially in consulting/facilitation. I try to share myself and my perspective in a way that allows for others’ experiences to stand true as well; including their experience of my paintings (the darkness!). It’s an example of the fascinating art of connection: here is my experience in the world, in a way that is not exclusive of but actually creates room for your experience of the world, and we can meet in the middle and compare notes.

It is scary and exciting to continually put myself out there, but I find the places and people it leads me to are thrilling like nothing else. It’s all about the unknown. And I’m often surprised and delighted by what people have to say and observe.

Unlike my college self, I completely understand that it’s hard to talk about art. Still, I keep trying.

 

When it’s over before it starts

You know that feeling when you catch a whiff of something familiar? It’s there and then it’s gone. You try to place it, but the moment and whatever memory it’s attached to is over. There’s a kind of aching missing feeling in its place, like a dream that you can’t quite remember.

I’ve been feeling the inverse of that feeling lately. It goes something like – this is an important glimpse of my life, right now. But by the time I’ve identified that right now is even happening, it’s over. It’s slippery. 

A couple of examples:

I was out on a trail in the snowy woods on my fat tire bike. Fat biking is hard work, so even though the temperature was hovering somewhere around 0 degrees when I stopped I felt warm. I gazed up into the trees filled with both snow and sun, contrasted with the bright blue shadows all around me, and could just feel my heart beating and my warm body even knowing the temperatures were frigid all around me. Like, clothing was crunchy type cold. I felt alive and grateful for my beating heart and being able to look up and around at that scene. I felt almost deliriously grateful for daylight.

Winter 09Then, I was just driving. It was the usual route – pulling out of my driveway, leaving my neighborhood. The truck registered -31. That car is a drama queen; I think the temperature was actually more like -25. But still: it was cold. Again, with that sunlight though: it lit the mountains and boughs of trees heavy with snow all around me with this bright, lemony light. It was punchdrunk, motherboard of your brain explode type light, especially if you haven’t seen anything like it in a few months. Again, I felt deeply grateful and calm.

And both these moments were over as soon as I recognized them for what they were. Like the scent that I pick up on briefly and then lose completely, those feelings were both fleeting but also tied to something really deep in me. 

They say it’s the little things that make up a life. I’m trying to get used to this idea, that the notion of an even-keeled, stable type of an existence is made up – that life is highs, lows, and just really quick sparks of something that is over before it’s started.

It’s kind of a similar thing with painting. I find that if I look too closely, if I paint over something too many times or work on it too much, the thing that I’m after – that movement, the light, the moment – disappears into something that looks fraud. It’s like life trying too hard. It’s like if I sat down and said “okay, self, let’s have a moment”.

There’s something in the middle here, to feeling and seeing the fleeting, and letting it fill me and a canvas up, but not trying too hard to stay there. 

 

Coming clean about my relationship

That was click baity, sorry. But I do want to come clean about something.

Friends have teased me for YEARS about the role freakin’ Google Calendar plays in my life. When I was younger, single, and car-less in Anchorage I’d ride my bike all up and down town to go from this event to that party to Title Wave to play Scrabble with friends and old ladies. My dance card was full, all the time. How’d I manage all of it, you ask?

Why, my Google Calendar, of course.

That was when the cracks started. “Alli, is there room on your calendar? Alli, I know if it’s not on your calendar it isn’t happening.”

Over the years, as coping strategies tend to, this relationship has, shall we say, evolved. It’s not just one or two levels of calendar anymore – say, personal and work. I have a training calendar that I change the title of depending on the race I’m working toward, I have a shared layer for my husband’s personal and work calendar, plus several different layers of work (my work calendar plus the “out of office” calendar). Then, there’s my art calendar, which has taken on special significance in recent months.

january 2020

This will look familiar to anyone who bought a calendar! This is a much, much more calming environment than my Google Calendar, let’s just leave it at that.

You see, my calendar is an extension of my brain. It’s actually a little terrifying. There is NO WAY the motherboard of my somewhat scattered, easily distracted (squirrel!) brain could manage all of the things I’m supposedly doing in any one week. So I use the calendar to block off time: to tell me where and when to do the thing; where and when to be.

Yes, I even schedule relaxing. Some nights I’m “busy” when that just means I’m staring at my navel and/or watching terrible television, or whatever drone thing I want to do. Baking in that “power down” time where I don’t need to focus, plan, or accomplish is part of how I stay sane throughout all the other things I want to do!

The benefits of my calendar are, of course, that I have an ongoing tool to keep myself accountable to my own goals and benchmarks; and that the time itself is baked in to my week. That means I have to make fewer decisions in the moment because prior-self already made the choice for me. Monday nights are painting; Tuesdays are for client prospecting meetings, Thursday afternoons/evenings are writing and administrative, etc, ec. My job is just to buckle down and, oh I don’t know, actually do the work.

The downside can be that my schedule can feel packed and, at times, rigid. Again, it’s a line to walk – I find that my calendar is a great tool for discipline and putting energy where it actually matters; but things in life change so I also need to be adaptable. In case you didn’t pick up on this by now, I’m not the most fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants person so it can take me a minute to adjust to change. But when I’ve had a chance to rearrange things in my head I am able to change course.

But that calendar. I’m telling you. It’s where my brain lives. It’s how I set myself a track and stay on it. Someday when we all go back to analogue I’ll be fine with the slower, more deliberate pacing – I’m probably best suited to that anyway – but for the time being if I gotta keep up and keep myself going, this is the best tool I’ve found to manage it and stay sane.

Re: make six figures from anywhere!

It’s the darndest thing. I’m getting all of these Instagram advertisements encouraging me to “make six figures from anywhere!” or “automate my small business’s communication from this one-stop-shop!”. 

I set out to use this platform to write not just about painting, but in a more meta-sense about the process of setting myself up to do more painting as part of my income. This is very much a post about that: the business part of Alli Harvey Art that basically allows me to be a sane human and pay some of my bills while also bringing something into the world and doing something that I love.

My sister assures me that all of this will be a great motivational story someday. That time that I left my full time job, which was simultaneously enormously fulfilling but also driving me crazy (oh hello, mission-driven nonprofit work) and took a steep pay cut to pursue this thing that I so very much want to do. It was a dual part leap: I’m now working ¾ time as a consultant with an awesome, small Alaska-based firm, and simultaneously building and running Alli Harvey Art. Winter 01 (1)

Oh, and I paint routinely. That, too! 

In seeing these Instagram ads come up, I’m realizing that I’m trending more and more toward a kind of lifestyle that’s very popular right now, at least in the collective imagination of my generation. It’s the “gig” economy; or “freelancing”, and the lexicon is all over the place. It pairs well with #vanlife, and #gratitude or #blessed. I’m essentially in the process of weaning myself off of thinking I need a steady paycheck. What does it look and feel like to only work ¾ time with a firm? What does it look like to really pour myself into Alli Harvey Art and see what comes of that? 

I’ve discovered a few, or a few hundred, things. One of the ones I could have told you right off the bat is that I lack hustle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m full of exuberance and life, and I’ll dive whole-hog into the thing that I’ve decided to invest myself in. But I don’t have the multiple irons in the fire, working a room, sealing the deal type of nature that I often imagined would benefit me as a business woman or consultant. I’m more of a slow and steady wins the race type gal. 

I slowly invest, slowly build, and slowly decide; and once I have decided I just go and stick to it. 

I think that’s my answer on how to “make my small business work for me” or “how to brand yourself to sell”. I’m working over here! Building, step by step. I’m open to input and very open to learning every freaking thing I can; but I’m also not going to chase something that’ll waste the energy that I’m trying to invest. 

It’s hard to stay the course, but if reflecting on the amazing gains of 2019 alone taught me anything it’s that change happens gradually, then suddenly. I’ll keep plodding along. It’s served me well through many a race, and surely creating and running a small business isn’t SO different…is it?

 

One day to describe where I’m heading

One morning in December, 2017 I sat painting in my pajamas for five hours straight.

I hadn’t intended to paint for that long when I started. I figured it would be like it normally is when I paint after a full day of work. I’d have an hour in me, maybe, and I’d push myself to two. But that day I was focused on the canvas for what, at that time, was forever.

Finally, around 1pm with the sun barely hovering over the horizon and the thermometer outside reading 10, I pulled on “real” pants. By real, I mean several layers of long underwear and snow pants. Friends pulled into my driveway to pick me up so we could go hiking.

Road 01 (1)

This was the painting I was working on! I love this painting because it contrasts the “normal” (a commute) with the ethereal. Alpenglow is beautiful and fleeting.

We hiked up in the snow, chatting even though we were breathing hard and outfitted like astronauts in all of our layers. Eventually we got to a good view point.

By the time we turned around, the pink alpenglow sunset was starting to descend on the mountains. The incredible thing about Alaskan sun is that it takes forever to rise and set. Sunrises and sunsets last for a long time. During that sunset I felt intensely grateful and alive, and connected to the two people I was hiking with. It was about being outside in that kind of an intense and beautiful situation, having a full morning of painting to propel myself forward with, and going outside even in the cold.

I realized something important that day, which was that I wanted to have more days like it.

I’d had the energy for the art because I hadn’t already spent it elsewhere. And it left room for the other things I love. I still think of that day as the mental touchstone that describes where I ultimately want to be: primarily doing art and leaving enough space in the day to get outdoors. I’m working towards it, step by step, and with a lot of support.

The story behind the painting

I have been writing a weekly outdoors column in the Anchorage Daily News for the past five or so years. For me, that’s a lifetime, and sometimes I blank on what I’ve already written about. Palmer Series 03

This week I went ice skating on the glorious, fleeting natural rink that forms under just the right conditions. It is literally ice skating a riverway, and the feeling is as magical as it sounds. I thought: I must have put this to words already…right?

I searched my folders for “skating” and the answer is, yes. So this week, in celebration of solstice and the light beginning to return, I’m sharing this column I wrote last year about the first time I tried nordic skating on natural waterways. This kind of high from a sense of discovery is what continually inspires me to push to try more, including in paintings – AND as you can see from the photo in the ADN piece, art imitates life!

Enjoy, and happy holidays! I’ll be taking a break over the next week and will start back up again in the New Year.

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