Alli Harvey Art

I was wrong about Florida

January in Alaska is hard on me. Yes, I chose to live here; yes I’ve now spent over ten years of my life here. Winter is extraordinarily beautiful. It is also dark, in a way that seeps into my skin, brain, eyes, and heart. By this time of year, I can’t tell the difference between my external environment and myself. It just feels like the world is this way: fragile and cold, with a dash of hopelessness and clawing for something different.

I told you it’s dark. Hello, seasonal affective disorder-lite. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I can see the symptoms for what they are when I zoom out. 

My husband and I took an opportunity last week to jetset to Florida, where my dad has a condo and graciously offered us a place to stay. It wasn’t a vacation per se. We both worked from home, which is a little rough with the four hour time difference. But we indulged in a heavy dose of Vitamin D. We ran and rode bikes out to the beach. I took many work calls while walking aimlessly outside, in 90% fewer clothes than would be required this time of year in Alaska.

Running at Lover’s Key, a State Park in Naples. Gorgeous walking, biking, and running trails.

As part of agreeing to accept my dad’s generous offer, I told him I’d paint a Florida scene for his condo. One afternoon, nearing the end of our trip, I parked myself and my easel at his kitchen table. I started painting a photo I’d captured of a Naples sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, a view I know he and his wife love.

A bit of context here: my relationship with Florida has been, ah, fraught. To say the least. Last time I visited it was when my dad had first bought the condo. I was a teenager, and had just discovered my own love of Alaska. Read: my identity was now tied to mountains, extremes, and variable weather. Florida was the antithesis of that. Like any good teenager, I saw the world in binaries: one where my parents were embarrassingly defective in their falling in love with a place that had mild weather, zero hills, and condominium views for miles. I, of course, was right. 

I behaved very poorly during that trip, grouchy and snippy the whole way through. It was mutually agreed that my parents and I were fine with me not visiting Florida again.

So, this trip was a bit of a re-visiting and, ultimately, revising my opinion. Naples, Florida is still extremely subdivided and built up. It’s still flat. But I caught glimpses underneath all that to the the Florida that draws people in.

There were incredible and charismatic birds. From pelicans patrolling the beach, occasionally dive-bombing for food; to sanderlings darting bravely toward the shoreline and pecking eagerly at the ground, then skittering back out with the tide at their heels, I gawked at all the wildlife. We visited a wildlife refuge with a beautiful, vibrant array of plantlife rising in explosive greens and gnarled shapes from serene swampland and standing water. 

And, of course, my dad’s beloved sunset over the water. It was truly spectacular.

Sunset near Vanderbilt Beach in Naples, FL.

You know what else was spectacular? Seeing all the people on the beach turn to face sunset when it happened, collectively taking in this natural phenomenon together. You know me. I’m a sucker for what connects me and all of us to ourselves, one another, and the natural world. Witnessing the warm, final throes of orange light glow-up the faces of everyone on that beach was almost as special to me as seeing sunset itself.

So, an old idea is now sinking in for me anew. If I can connect with the beauty in Florida, this place that I once shunned, I can find it in other places too. I’m so looking forward to this year of the Mobile Art Studio, taking the show on the road, visiting new places, and finding and painting the extraordinary everyday beauty there, too. I hope to meet many people along the way generous enough to share with me what they love.

Caring less works for me

I have poured myself into aspects of my life. When I hear the phrase “heart in my throat”, I feel that viscerally. 

“Hiking Anchorage” (click the image for more info!). Caring a little less works well for paintings – it helps me be more fluid and have more fun, instead of every brush stroke feeling high-stakes.

This used to be my default. Even when I have been defensive or guarded, my entire being was right there at the ready. Does that make sense? There wasn’t even a part of me I walled off or withheld. All of her, all of Alli, was present through every interaction, even if my behavior didn’t immediately disclose everything she saw or felt.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been learning how to hold a piece of myself back.

This seems contrary to popular opinion and advice. “But Alli,” you might be asking, “Isn’t it better to actually bring more of yourself forward? Why not just ditch defensiveness altogether?”

In some situations, I think that’s absolutely true. And I think it’s important no matter what to learn how to be authentic to myself, even if I have some defenses up. But I don’t think bringing every fiber of myself to the table is always necessary, or healthy.

What happens for me when I do that is my identity gets caught up in one facet of interaction or life. I’m talking about me at my core. I want to be careful with that core, generous with feeding it and giving it room for expression in the world, but also safe from things that might damage it. My core self is not my thinking, rational being that can decide whether to let information in, and if so how deeply. She’s more vulnerable. If I bring her too far to the surface, I risk getting hurt by all of the crap that life is constantly throwing my way. So, I’m protective. I decide what to let all the way in.

What learning this slight removal of “core” self from the world, with judicious exposure, has taught me is that I actually perform and learn better when I have less than my entire being at stake. Since my very identity is not wrapped up in every interaction with the world, I can play more. I can fail more, without risking my essence, and therefore I can more readily learn from experiences. Counterintuitively, knowing that me, at the very heart of my being, is simply and straightforwardly a good thing that deserves care and protection in the world, and holding her back a little, helps me lead a better life. 

To the teenager up on the stage

I was out cross country skiing when my phone dinged ten times in a row. Before you picture technology interrupting a serene experience with “whooshing” noises like a Nordic Track across fresh, downy snow, instead please imagine more of a clattering, dawdling planks on icy snowmachine tracks down near a river situation. 

We made it to the picture-perfect ski eventually, but it wasn’t before I fell over while attempting to call my best friend whose texts were blowing up my phone. 

“What?” I asked, “What are you talking about? I’m skiing.”

“I can’t talk either,” she said, “But you NEED to look at Facebook. Like, right away. It’s crazy.”

Right away couldn’t happen. So, for the next hour or so, classic skiing my way through an Alaskan winter landscape with my family and a friend as dusk fell, this question hummed in the back of my mind. What’s on Facebook? What is she talking about?

We got back to my friend’s house in darkness, and stowed our skis and gear before gathering around the kitchen island. Snacks laid out and cocktails in hand, my heart rate went up as I pulled out my phone and opened Facebook. Everyone gathered around to see what it was.

And, the most bizarre thing: the video started, and it was a memory. Not a “Facebook Memory”, but it was an actual, bona fide memory of mine; something I experienced directly and was also apparently captured by a camcorder video in the very early 2000s. I remembered the feeling of that night even if not the details – a coffee-house style show organized and hosted at my school. It featured numerous performances by people I spent significant time around. All their faces were captured on film exactly as young as they were then, from the kids in the dance performances to the guy I dated a couple years after the video was shot. I remembered being there, in the dim lighting, the stage, the walls, and seeing the low-lit faces of an audience including my parents seated on folding chairs.

I remembered my heart in my throat, exactly as it was now as I was rewatching. I watched myself get up on that stage.

In those days, I wasn’t who I am now. I’d recently overcome my chronic childhood asthma, and my face and body were still puffy from all the prednisone and months trapped inside. I’d experimented with dying my hair as I tried to figure out who I wanted to be post-asthma, so I had these bleached streaks in a short, wavy cut. I remember feeling like I was up there on that stool with my guitar forever, but in reality it seemed like I got set up and off the stage almost as quickly as I could.

Watching me from a different era, my heart both swelled and hurt for her. I wanted to tell her: it’s okay!

Then, I watched me starting to sing. So did my husband, stepdaughter, and two close friends, all gathered around my phone witnessing this performance from twenty years ago. 

I was, actually, okay! I was good. I didn’t remember the song I was singing, but I sang it well – I could hear only a thread of nervousness, but my voice hit those notes and I kept on going. The song sounded vaguely folky, and I had a little tiny bit of remembering what it was. That’s when I realized this had been my very first performance. It was all optional; no one made me or any one of us do it. I had decided to select this song, learn the chords, and get up on that stage in front of everyone and sing.

Everyone else at that show had done it too.

I finally understood what all the staff members at that school were always going on about, with how incredible the students there were. It wasn’t about the talent, although there was a lot of that on the stage. It was the creativity, confidence, and bravery of the performances, how funny some of them were, and also how terribly out of people’s normal “lane” or comfort zone. Some of the performances were surprising, like someone had an alter-ego no one knew about before. One of the little kids got ushered off stage after too long dawdling at the mic. There were beautiful voices, and terrible voices, but it was all one tapestry of authenticity and expression. It was absolutely imperfect, but also not scripted by anyone – it was real. So many people in that spotlight.

Yes, because you’ve ready this long – here’s a screenshot from the video! I can’t share the recording because it’s on a private Facebook group (tragic, I know). But you get a glimpse of the memory and teenage me up at the mic just the same.

I felt a few things: I felt gratitude for the experience and especially how supportive the school and the audience, including all of our peers, had been. I felt a small sense of awe and confusion about how I had ever summoned up the courage to get up on that stage at that age and particularly where I was in life, but also grateful I had managed to scrounge it up. And – and I don’t use this word often or lightly, because I don’t particularly like it as a word – I felt tenderness toward every person on that stage. I had the sincerest hope for each one of us that we would find exactly our way in the world, whatever that was, and that we wouldn’t sweat whatever was between us and that along the way; not too much anyway.

It was a strange feeling to have, because it was all retrospective. Me, and everyone else in that video? We’re twenty years older now. And there I was feeling earnest heartfelt hopes for the futures of the people on film.

Back in my now-body, in Alaska, where I was taking in this memory in my friend’s kitchen, we disassembled from around my phone and laughed and debriefed while eating cheese. My stepdaughter appreciated the fun the videographer had with production; lots of those early 2000’s effects thrown in. My heart rate started to go down.

That feeling of experiencing the memory clung to me a late into the evening; how struck I was by the memory, how clearly I could see it in retrospect, even though when I was actually in it the world was a cloud of teenage angst. I had managed to find some clarity in it and find my way forward, and so had everyone else from that stage. 

There’s not a clean takeaway here. But I’m reminded that each step forward is always faltering and awkward, and in the end that’s what makes it brave. I’m proud of everyone who performed that night and sincerely grateful to all who witnessed (including the videographer!).

Visible relief and shock that it’s over and that I didn’t die. That’s the expression on my face as I complete the song and remove the capo before handing the guitar back to the stage manager to ready for the next act!

The year of the mobile studio

A couple of years ago I was biking through snowy, cold woods. It was midday January in Alaska. I was with Wes, and we were a couple hours north of where we live. Even just a little Interior like that, the landscape vastly changes – more low-lying rolling hills versus stark mountain views. Ponds and lakes dot the landscape, easily seen from a plane but linked together only by a trail network on the ground.

Off-key yipping and howling of the occasional dog sled team echoes through the woods there. The trails are packed by snowmachines which leave a patterned track. The forest is peaceful, punctuated only by the occasional crew of snowmachiners revving and zipping through. Otherwise, you’ll see dog mushers, the occasional walkers, and skiers.

Then, there’s us.

Fat tire bikes are wide and slow. The big tires create flotation. The fluffier the snow on the trail, the more air you have to let out of your tire to create traction. That day, the trail pack was pretty hard, which is nice. It helped that it was a chilly, but not unrideable 6 degrees. The cold temps helped lock in the snow groom created by the snowmachines.

It’s weird how living in a place with so much winter, my sense of what’s okay outdoor recreation weather is a tad skewed. I start putting the kibosh on sustained outdoor activity at -20.

What’s also weird is that, even though fat biking is and can be a calming activity, the actual experience is often loud from the sound of bikes on snow, and sometimes grueling. In temperatures like that, I’ll have at least one balaclava over my face to protect my cheeks and lungs from the extreme temperatures. Condensation naturally accrues as I breathe, and soon I have those trademark frosty white eyelashes. 

Pedaling over snow with two wide tires is also naturally difficult, because the traction means it takes that much more effort to keep going forward. It’s simply slow going, but that’s not for lack of sustained movement. The little hills created by riding onto and off of ponds at their bank push my legs into higher gear, and even with the frigid air I’ll start to sweat.

So even though my husband and I were together, we weren’t talking unless we were stopped. We did pull off to the side on part of the trail that ran across a lake once to let a dog mushing team go by. We watched the dogs pulling on their line, and marveled at how amazing it is to be in Alaska where this is normal. 

We also paused at decision points, where the trail forked. It was at one of these stops that I really felt my heart beating, and looked around.

Light in Alaska in January is scarce, especially the farther north you go. That day, it was “high” noon and while the sun wasn’t high, it was a clear blue sky. Light filtered through snow-laden trees surrounding us, filtering blue and purple shadow right alongside creamy yellow onto the sparkling snow. I could feel all of this color, contrast, and light hitting my brain and massaging it into instantaneous, clear-as-day sensations of pure joy. The joy was prolonged by that feeling of my heart working, thumping right there under my layers in my chest; the joy was compounded by my sudden intense feeling of gratitude for my body, the day, and the activity that brought me right there, right to that moment.

It’s not like we don’t go biking in the woods a lot. Winters are long. We get out as a means of physical, but almost more, emotional health. I’ve had lots of good moments in the woods. But that one stuck out to me.

I think the circumstances that invited and sustained this experience are something along the following: 

  • The ability to be out there and riding at all, and gratitude for that;
  • Hard work and how it created heat where I needed it most and brought me to a beautiful place, 
  • Long-term lack of access to a key resource (sun) followed by seeing it clearly for the first time in a while,
  • A willingness to simply take in my surroundings with all of my senses, without analyzing or thinking behind or ahead. 

This is the year I’m finally constructing and bringing online the mobile art studio and gallery. This story keeps coming to mind as a feeling I’m longing to inhabit, both as I await and take this next big step.

Where do I thrive?

I’m used to pining for one place from another.

When I lived in New York City but my heart was in Alaska, I would pace the sunny streets of Brooklyn looking over the river into the new shining condominiums of New Jersey, wishing it was the Chugach range.

In mid-January in the low light and frigid cold of Alaska, I think of Nevada. I yearn for the high, powerful sun infusing the air with dry and permeating warmth, on my face, arms, and legs.

From the comfort of my house in Alaska, I miss living out of a van.

Living out of my truck in Alaska while Airbnb-ers rent our house, I miss the comfort of home.

Etc.

This summer was the most frenzied Alaska summer I’ve ever experienced – and this is for someone who is used to the breakneck pace of 24 hour daylight. 

I had a Covid respite, fully vaccinated and slowly and then suddenly arriving back on the “scene” of being around people; saying “yes”, “yes”, “YES” to every opportunity as it came up, after a full year “off”.

We rented out our home for extra income to support long term plans. We camped in various friends’ driveways. We flew down to Nevada to attend Reesa’s high school graduation and experience van life for three straight weeks. Family visited and we drove down to Homer for a three-night staycation; we went on a fishing charter. I learned how to packraft and flew into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for a friend’s epic bachelorette party on the Ivishak River. I had an art opening with Stephan Fine Arts. I trained for a marathon. I hiked Pioneer Peak for the first time.

And I maintained a roughly thirty-hour work week consulting, with breaks for some of the above-mentioned activities.

You’re waiting for the inevitable mic-drop of “and, boy I’m exhausted.” That’s true. Ish.

I am realizing that when I fill up many, contrasting aspects of my interests and life, one complements the other. When I’m living out my truck, I am an excellent consultant. Driving through the high desert for weeks at a time, I can write an essay a day. Training for a marathon helps me build enough endurance to sit fully still for hours focused on a painting. 

I’m working on what I need in order to live a life that is less about a house, and more about experience. At least, for the time being. I’m only 75% clear on what that means exactly, but I think that’s a good start. I’ll be sharing more here as I put my plans in motion!

In the meantime, I know it’s been a while since I wrote. Pictures & inspiration from this past summer below!

Finding presence, without the yoga

Listen: I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried it so many times. Back when Groupon was a thing, I bought unlimited yoga classes for a month and went religiously. I remember it was very difficult for me not to giggle when everyone’s butts were in the air. I felt irritated at an “ohm” dedicated to something terrible happening in the world (these are all South Anchorage ladies, surely we could dedicate…money?!). And one time during a particularly relaxing class, I fell asleep on my mat.

Now I do yoga like some people smoke cigarettes: socially, occasionally. 

What I am really into is finding ways to be present in my life. 

“Presence” is now an Internet wellness-ism catch phrase. When I think of the word, though, I think of raising my hand in class. Hi, I’m here.

Painting snow is kind of like insta-presence: it requires enormous concentration and trust.

At 35 years old, I’m not old or young, and one thing I’m starting to fully grasp is how my life will culminate in a series of moments. It’s so strange, fickle, and in some ways unfair that I can’t simply create and hold a way of being or feeling that I like for myself – nope, everything that happens to me will be fleeting and yet add up somehow to something bigger.

Good luck figuring that one out, right?

Well, I’m trying.

I think many people try to access this presence in both body and mind through yoga. Think of it as one portal in. This particular portal doesn’t work for me, but I have stumbled on other means.

Money!

Just kidding. A few of the ways I bring myself into my own present are through good, genuine connections with friends, family, and colleagues; exercising outdoors with all of my senses – remembering to breathe deep and smell stuff, to notice how a breeze feels on my skin, to listen to birds and trees – and (you know where this is heading) through painting.

Painting at its best is meditation.

I enjoy painting most when I’m relaxed and along for the ride, even though I’m the one in the driver’s seat. Yet, in a sense I’m not. Much of painting for me is intuition. It’s taking one good big belly breath at a time, noticing and focusing on where I am in a piece, and taking small, precise and yet uncharted steps toward drawing a bigger whole. It’s not like I’m painting by numbers. My brain is humming but hopefully not in overdrive, and my lungs feel full of air and hope as I watch myself build something on the canvas.

If I can simply notice, instead of judging myself, I stay in a good zone. Yes, it’s work. But I just keep on holding the bigger picture and taking small steps that eventually continue to grow into something complete.

That something complete is also me. When I’m painting, I’m constantly growing, focused, completely immersed. I’m present. (Hi, I’m here!). That’s one way of being complete; this constant state of motion that’s also grounded in fully sensing the right here. 

That’s blue, right?

My poor old brain. I am constantly trying to feed it things and get it to do stuff for me. I picture it skulking around in the shadows trying to avoid me, wondering how many hours until we get to sleep again.

Sometimes, when a new idea or realization hits, I feel my brain’s movement. It’s laborious and slow, like giant gears on a machine groaning into place. But when it has a really good reason it accommodates, grinding ever-upward until it a new thought sinks and clicks.

The other day, I was working on a painting-in-progress. My thoughts went something like this:

We’re painting sky. Sky is blue. Mix, mix, mix the whites and the blues, oh and a little red – is that right? Oh yes, nailed it. Nice first layer.

Now we’re painting faint mountains; background mountains. They’re – what’s that, they must be navy blue. Head for the blue, some white, and a touch of black. 

WAIT.

[Cue my brain, big dopey eyes wordlessly begging me to not make it continue working, scuttling around frantically for a place to hide from incoming New Information.]

I caught the thought just in time: WAIT, it said. Actually look at the color of the mountain range. Is it what you think it is, or is it something different?

I looked at the mountains and tried to remove my knowledge that they were mountains. I looked at the shapes and what was in them. Suddenly, I saw dark gray with deep purple undertones. A very different shade from what I had initially assumed based on what I know of background mountains.

Meanwhile, my brain begrudgingly lit up – acknowledging the work it had just put in to come to a new conclusion, sure, but also happy to be resting in the glow of new knowledge. 

The painting I was working on – see those background mountains?

Learning new information is pretty easy, especially when it already fits what I already know. The general shape of a mountain, for instance, is not that tough. Filling it in, with all the complexity of color and shade? That’s tougher, particularly when I’m working with something I’ll never fully understand – all the light, depth, subtlety, and majesty of true mountains. My paintings are only a translation between those mountains and the rest of the world, the filter being me.

As an imperfect but striving filter, I am challenging myself to look at what is and not what I assume. This very much hurts my brain, which craves comfort and knowing that background mountains are navy blue. Why do we have to change something that’s served us so long, after all? Can’t we just go to bed already?

The new color brought me closer into those mountains I was painting. I felt that I’d learned something about reality that had always been there yet I’d never seen. There’s something exciting about that exploration, taking place so quietly in the moment where I make a decision to look at something in a new way.

A word, please. On New Year’s resolutions.

You probably think I am about to rail on the futility of New Year’s resolutions. There are plenty of articles out there debunking them. “You’re setting yourself up to fail,” they say. “Outlandish and unrealistic changes in your lifestyle are unsustainable.”

But me? I’m for ‘em. I love me a good New Year’s rezzie, and here’s why.

Okay, so time is a construct, nothing actually magically changes from the end of one year to the start of the next, etc, and yet. We collectively mark the moment in time. It’s an agreed upon time to turn a page; to celebrate a shift. A ball drops, people smooch, fireworks explode (dogs whimper, too many people share fireworks on their social media, we wake up the next morning with champagne headaches which are actually and certifiably the worst form of hangover). 

This was my New Year’s resolution painting from last year. Hiking Lazy. Anyone who’s ever done this haul knows you just take it one step at a time!

Generally we agree to celebrate one year ending and a new one beginning.

With that celebration tends to come reflection. What even happened last year? What were the high and low points? What do we want to keep going in the new year, and what might we want to shift or let go of entirely? What’s our word going into the new year, what’s our commitment – there are so many forms a resolution can take just in terms of how we apply our focus.

We are now one full month into 2021. The coronavirus apparently didn’t take a break to celebrate new year’s, in yet another chapter of its being a soulless virus. A new Administration officially took office, after a riot and before shenanigans on Wall Street. In many ways, the dreaded 2020 marches on, and yet. Didn’t we have a New Year’s? Didn’t those fireworks go off?

What about YOU, though? You and me – we are the rest of the world in so many ways, but also we are not. We have our own personal reflections on the years past and what we want(ed) going into this one. Did you resolve anything? Did you pick a word; a focus? How is it going?

In defense of New Year’s resolutions, yes, they may be based in an artificial notion of time and yes, some may be completely outlandish goals (like any goal, at any time). But there is power in choosing to reflect and then define a purpose and focus in moving forward. New Year’s provides a pivot point; an opportunity to decide what to aim for moving ahead. That aim might be something concrete, like a savings or fitness goal. Or it may be more amorphous, like choosing to focus on feeling or inhabiting your body and mind in a certain way.

There’s lots in this year we can’t control. But we’ve always got ourselves. I’m really happy, one month in to 2021, that I chose to double down again on art. It feels like something deep within me that I can grow and bring into the world more and more. I’m looking forward to where it takes me – and us!

On bettering the world

It’s not lost on me that I’m writing this on this inauguration week in what will likely go down, some way somehow, in history books. I continue to be a firm believer that while as individuals it can feel like we are helpless and powerless, little actions add up to change. If you’re feeling a sense of alarm mixed with detachment and burnout, and the tiny fervent wish that the world would stop being a dumpster fire for even a minute, you’re not alone. 

Here’s what I am doing with that feeling this week:

  1. Focusing on something beautiful.

No, this is neither a commodified Yoga type platitude (#blessed) or an invitation to stick my head in some soothing, aesthetically pleasing sand. 

I believe that I don’t do the world or myself any favors when I’m in a bad way. If anything, if I’m not grounded I’m more likely to react in ways that future-me is unhappy with or not proud of – lash out on social media; bark at a colleague unexpectedly. 

On the other hand, if I can somehow lure myself to at least neutral if not positive, I can act levelly from my own values. Or, at least more levelly. I realize I’m teetering here – there’s a lot out there to spike my heart rate.

So, I chose a painting to work on this week with the kinds of colors I am craving. It’s been slate gray at my house for what feels like eons and I almost burst into tears on a bike ride yesterday when there was enough light to cast my shadow. That’s a check engine light for me. Since I can’t will the sun higher into the sky, I can at least paint about it. I’m focusing on ethereal sunset colors and will soon build snowy branches into the foreground.

2. Picking an action to take and doing it… without telling anyone.

There’s an almost knee-jerk reaction to share absolutely everything with social media. It’s there, right? Likes feel good. Little heart or thumb shaped dopamine hits are momentary flares of something resembling joy. 

But I think the more durable joy and change comes from what isn’t always shared. It comes from a lot of people choosing to do the right thing, whatever that means to us.

Maybe it’s taking advice from a trusted leader on a good phone number to call this week, weighing on a decision maker to do the right thing. It could be making a donation to a trusted organization. It could be reading something that pushes me into a new perspective. Whatever it is, I’ll do it, and know that it’s a thing that took time out of my day and brain space; that someone or something out there got this little push from me up in Alaska. And that if there are enough “me’s in Alaska” consistently doing the right thing, it adds up to change.

I’m not saying don’t encourage others. But I think there is a world right now filled with askers and sharers, and perhaps not quite enough doers. I find that for myself there is an integrity (one of my core values) in fulfilling an action that I think is right, without telling the world. It checks me on my intent. 

All in all, this week I will try to stay focused on the world I want to see while still responding to what is. I hope that by combining both my focus into something better and brighter, combined with day-to-day actions, I can contribute meaningfully and productively to whatever comes next. 

I write this as a small encouragement to others who may be feeling the same way. I really do believe that collectively we can and will make change.

Working small while dreaming big

My kitchen table has seen a lot over the past year.

It’s patiently endured wax spills, as I fully realized the extent to which I’ve become a “candles person” over the pandemic. 

My stepdaughter set up for her remote classes each day during the summer with a smoothie to one side, thick textbook to the other, and her laptop. 

Now, every Friday I pull out my paint supplies and arrange them over the far end of the table. 

The setup is modest. I have an old sheet that I spread out to protect the wood from inevitable paint flecks. An old table easel that has been with me for over ten years (I know because it has an old Nordic Ski Association sticker still affixed to it, somehow) is small but quite functional. My paints live in a big wooden box; brushes fan out from an old giant cottage cheese container and I use an old tin can for water. It must have had tomatoes at some point.

12″x12″ kitchen table work-in-progress painting of the iconic old gas station in the Butte neighborhood of Palmer. Photo taken 1/10/21.

The size of the canvases I work from have contracted alongside the set up. I do 5”x7”, 8”x10”, and when I’m feeling bold, 12”x12”. This is a far cry from the bigger paintings I was completing in my studio space.

What I’ve discovered is that the little paintings go a lot faster. I might start one day, and complete the next if I’m really feeling it. With bigger paintings, it could take me weeks to complete a single painting.

I still give the tiny canvases care. I am choosy about the photos I work from. At the beginning of a new painting, I examine various options and think to myself, where do I want to spend an entire work session? Do I want to stare and really immerse myself in this, or that? 

Sometimes detail on the tiny paintings is painstaking. Especially letters on signs, or tiny silhouettes of people. I have to get those right, or my mind sends up flares that something is wrong.

But when I complete a painting I have this little (literally) springboard into the next. I didn’t plan it this way, but it’s a great way to quickly build back a body of work and build back excitement about what’s to come. I think about someday working day in and day out on a body of tiny paintings; maybe sitting outside, being at a crafts event, or being in a mobile studio taking in a new view as I go. I think about how much people have seemed to connect with and enjoy the tiny paintings, and how they’re more affordable than the larger ones.

There’s something to this. It’s barely a new year, and already I have several new paintings completed. That feels good.

My kitchen table doesn’t seem to mind. This is what it was made for – more use, more time, more activity. I’m grateful to have a simple space that works.

The Plan for 2021

I started 2020, like many of us, on a roll. My art business was picking up, my calendar was full of little tasks and to-do’s; Fridays found me parked in front of my easel painting merrily away. When I wasn’t painting, I was growing my competence and confidence in facilitation and other small business/NGO consulting, playing outside, or spending time with friends.

Then the pandemic hit and the last painting I started, full of greenery, was left on the easel in my public studio half-way finished for months. I vacated my art studio in favor of working safely from home. Finally, I closed down the studio, partially as protest and partly due to Covid-19. During the summer I eased myself into gardening more and working less. I had less to give at that point as a human, and indulging in simply taking in good, green, fragrant sensory input from my backyard at a time when the world was going to shit felt like the right thing to do.

Friends passed through, outdoors or around a fire, but the interior of my home was just for me and Wes. As the months went by and the days got shorter, that interior got fuller and richer. I turned more into myself than I have since I was a teenager. It felt fascinating and indulgent; also limitless and scary. As someone who’s moved around a lot and relishes big change, I’ve always wanted to know what it would feel like to be in one place and go deep; to experience everything one place has to offer and understand things like how the sun hits in a certain way or why a plant grows here but not there. This year I had my opportunity.

But I can only let the world carry me along with it for so long, with no aim beyond my present moment and taking it all in as I go. Going into 2021, I need to set my sights somewhere and pick myself back up. 

Interestingly, when I took some time this past weekend to write down all of the high and low points from the last year and reflect on themes, I noticed that I had more high points in 2020 than I wrote down for 2019. This is despite much less external activity. 

And the themes I’m taking away are all about presence.

What will it be like, I wonder, to both set my sights on where I want to head and pick myself up on a path I am designing, while simultaneously being more fully in each moment as I go and letting it take me along? 

I have big dreams, but this year also taught me that those dreams are realized every step along the way.

So, The Plan for 2021 is grand: I am picking back up on painting and art; I am starting up again modestly with only tiny paintings because it’s what I can do from my kitchen table; I am working toward designing and purchasing a mobile art studio either this year or next. But The Plan is also to feel good; better – not just to take my time, but to fully inhabit it.

I hope that at the end of 2021 I can once again tick off a list of high points that are both external and deeply internal. After all, if 2020 taught me anything, it’s that I live mostly in my own mind, and I can shift much of my own experience by being fully present within it.

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.

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