Saying that I’m “self taught” as an artist feels obnoxious to me, and it’s only semi-true.
Did I ever take any formal classes on technique and composition? No. I feel conflicted about that – I wish I had some shared language and knowledge about basic painting techniques so I could connect with other artists and understand the nuts and bolts a little better and more formally. But, I don’t wish it enough to take a painting class, at least not right now.
“Self taught” invokes that kind of solo it alone, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, sickness is a state of mind type of very western mindset that I think has partial value in terms of personal responsibility but is also grossly incomplete. While I by and large learned painting technique through painstaking trial and error, my parents bought me my notebooks and pencils when I was a kid and encouraged my drawing. My friend and art mentor suggested I try my hand at painting since I seemed to like drawing so much. My school gave me supplies and time to focus on painting. Many peers, friends, and strangers took time to examine my art, give me feedback, and even buy my work.
I’m always learning, both from the paintings themselves and from my community at large. Recently, I’ve been thinking about a friend’s practice of “unclenching”. Yep, think butt cheeks and fists: that squeezing, holding on tight, tense feeling that also seems to settle in my shoulders.
Deep in a painting, especially during that “murky middle”, I get tense easily. It’s the fear talking. The fear of not being able to complete this painting, or this part looking wrong. I’ll get exposed for the non-artist I really am: not schooled, no real skills.
(That’s the tension-causing clench voice in the back of my mind talking).
In these moments, I have to remind myself to relax. No, really: physically take a deep breath and bring my shoulders down from my ears. Feel my belly breathing in and out. Wiggle my legs and arms; roll my head. It all comes down to that breath; feeling it and breathing it slowly and relaxed.
It helps the process of painting feel better. And, I think it makes for better paintings: there is better flow when I relax. I trust myself to take the right steps, even if on canvas the brushstroke marks I’m leaving don’t look quite right yet. I can feel that there is a bigger picture and I just have to keep going along and trying to feel good moment to moment, versus stressing about what’s just happened or what’s next.
So, yes, in a way I’m self taught. But also, absolutely not. This “unclenching” comment, completely unrelated to painting and dropped casually by a friend, has stuck with me and helped make me a better (and happier) artist.
You know how with an idea or plan that hasn’t happened yet, often there’s a snapshot somewhere in the back of your mind that represents it? Maybe you can articulate it, maybe you can’t. Often, I don’t know what I subconsciously envisioned until I see the real deal and say something along the lines of, “I pictured…”.
In retrospect, my snapshot summarizing the Mobile Art Studio concept was me, with the studio, down on the wide gravel bar by the Knik River in Palmer, mountains jutting in every direction.
This is a stone’s throw from my house, but also someplace I probably otherwise wouldn’t paint because with my setup it takes too much to schlep all the supplies out there – and then, for what? I’m not a plein air painter (yet).
But with the studio, all supplies would be on board. I could paint indoors or out. I could chat with people.
As I imagined this I was, of course, seated at the kitchen table in my very non-mobile home, with my table easel set up, maybe with a podcast going. I was imagining a different future and trying to paint my way into it.
What surprised me this morning is realizing that I won’t just bring my painting to the places I visit and pick up a brush exactly the same as I would anyplace else. These places will inform how I paint, and likely change my art.
The very idea of the mobile studio is that somedays are sunny; some are rainy. I might set up outside or in. Or, like this morning, the wind blew so persistently – as it does in the high desert – that by the time I arrived outside at a park picnic table where I’d set up to paint, my water had tipped over and (lidded) palette with all the paint colors had flipped. Red mixed with black mixed with yellow and pink.
I used to have a controlled environment that enabled me to create and recreate almost the same context for paintings every day. There was no breeze. The lighting was consistent. I controlled the temperature.
This was both reassuring for the part of me that loves reliability and organization, and soul killing for the part that needs challenge and change.
Well, a flipped palette to start a painting session is certainly challenge and change. I decided to roll with it and have fun with the painting, feeling a little looser – like the wind still roiling around as I held down my palette with my palm, painting with the other hand – than I usually would.
The paint flowed easily. I didn’t allow myself to stop and inspect as often as I otherwise might. I just kept it moving. Even at points where I wasn’t sure what I was doing was adding up, I just kept on fluidly working.
The painting itself isn’t done yet, as the epiphany isn’t. But it is dawning on me that alongside my life circumstances changing, my approach to painting itself and thus my art is changing and growing. I am down on that gravel bar now, but I can actually feel the breeze on my face and the light shifting as the clouds skid around. The dream is alive, and it – somehow shockingly – very much is real life in all of its sensations and challenges. I love it, but differently than I subconsciously imagined.
For someone who disdains core exercises – as in, situps – I’ve gotten pretty good at them. I remind myself when the burn is happening that I can endure it. By going deeper into the moment, instead of trying to distract myself from it, I seem to fare better.
Related to this is how proficient I have become at holding. Holding boredom, frustration, sameness. It reached a fever pitch during the pre-vaccination days of Covid when Alaska felt like a (very beautiful) snowglobe in which I was trapped; specifically the walls of my home and the (very beautiful) views from my neighborhood.
Even outrageous beauty kills me, if it’s too much of the same.
I’m learning that while I do have the capacity to hold, to be still, to stay the course, to endure, it’s also deadly to my spirit. I thrive in movement. I prefer running to ab exercises.
Do I still do the core work? Yes. It’s good for me. Do I still choose a path and stay the course when necessary? Of course. Not only is that part of getting to where I want to be in life sometimes, it’s also needed so I can be there for people/things I care about – from family and friends, to my colleagues and consulting/writing work. Following through on what I say I will do is a deeply embedded value of mine, related to responsibility and integrity.
I picked a course of bringing the Mobile Art Studio into being, starting in 2020 and solidified in 2021. This required me to be very, very still in one place for what felt like a very long time. I focused deeply, alongside my husband, on all that was required to bring this dream to life. It required an enormous amount of energy and discipline from us: to imagine, discuss, adapt, and plan together; and then to double down on money and logistics in the most profound way I think either of us have ever focused our attention and resources on one thing.
For a very long time, we pulled as hard as we could, from basically the same deep place, to source what we’d need to finance the studio. It was about my art business, but also, for the two of us, a pivot in the course of our lives enabled by having a trailer from which, ultimately, we could live and travel.
The most extreme measure we took was Airbnb’ing our house and living in our truck for weeks at a time. I remember saying to Wes as we lay in the back of Fluffy the Dodge Ram’s slightly leaky truck bed as rain poured (poured!) down and we helplessly watched a trail of water snake down the side onto any already sodden clump of paper towels, this is in the name of a life change. This time next year it will be better. We’re doing this, for that.
The rain didn’t let up. It felt like it stayed that way for weeks last summer.
We held the course. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, to sleep in the truck for nights on end, to run the same sameness day after day, to skip travel plans, to say no to fun opportunities, to live by a strict budget, to transfer everything I could out of every paycheck toward the studio and focus on growing my art and painting my paintings. It required a kind of routine and focus that kills me. But I knew it was in service to this dream.
So I held. I held on even when it was so boring, so maddening, and so frustrating. My muscles shake sometimes when I’m near exhaustion, but I know I can make it through the rest of the plank even if it seems impossible. Moment by moment.
And now, I’m sitting here in the Mobile Art Studio itself, having picked it up in Ohio and learned to drive it, having completed my first commission and about to start another one this morning, with my sister getting ready for the day and Wes about to fly in. I made it to the desert. I get to see my stepdaughter in a couple short weeks. We’ll caravan around my (other) favorite part of the world; I’ll keep on painting, writing, and consulting.
When I saw the studio in its entirety for the first time, with my new logos emblazoned on both sides and website on the back; the truly beautiful and iconic silver Airstream silhouette, I cried and laughed as I walked toward it, sharing the moment with the designer and my new friend, and one of the many people at the shop who worked on it (Kelly teased Tommy: “you made her cry!”). I couldn’t comprehend that this thing, this idea, something I’d gazed at the mockups for for hours, and even masking-taped out the dimensions in my dad’s basement to get a sense of the space – it was real, it was done, it was right there in front of me.
The moment that I cut the check for it was terrifying, because it stretched the upper limits of everything that I’d saved – and I and we truly gave this everything – but at the same time, it was a relief, because it was done. There was no more unknown quantity. We’d come in close to our budget, and I had enough to pay for the overage. That was it, game over – the trailer was officially mine. Ours! No more wondering, no more throwing everything I have toward it and holding my breath that it would be enough.
Now that I have it in hand and am doing the things I said I would do from it, there is no chafe. There is no nagging, oh, but I wish we’d designed it this way; no, oh, but the reality of this thing is not as good as the dream. I really thought there might be. After all, life has taught me repeatedly that the grass isn’t greener. Now that I’m here, it should look an awful lot like the rest of my life, but just superimposed on a new setting.
But it’s not like that. It is better than the dream. It is everything I hoped for and more. I feel happier and more fulfilled than I have in a very long time.
The biggest thing is that I once again have the fire in me of movement; of dynamism. I have enough knowns and unknowns to make life feel at once secure and safe, but also exciting and immersive. On the one hand, this isn’t about a thing, which – glorious though it is – is what the Alli Harvey Mobile Art Studio is. But on the other hand, this – gorgeous, functional, amazing – thing is the catalyst for a new phase in my and our lives. It’s very much about the thing, and what it enables me and us to do.
I am both proud of my ability to hold for so long, and also hopeful and optimistic that that’s the last time I’ll have to do that in a long time. I’m ready, again, for freedom and movement. And that’s how this feels.
I am so profoundly grateful for every single one of you who has been part of this with me, helping me both imagine and bring this into reality. Now that I’m here, I can say in full, wholehearted truth that it is everything I dreamed of, and so much more. Better than getting to inhabit this new reality is knowing that I did zero parts of it alone, and I get to share this feeling of wonder and awe in all that we did with so many amazing people. Thank you all. Thank you all.
I will try to keep unburying these little blips and thoughts and reflections from the back of my brain to share back as they come. It’s my way of trying to continue to invite you all to experience this growing reality. It’s so exciting and profound for me. And, you know me, the spirit of my art and writing is all about creating connection. I love being in this adventure for my own experience and life, but it’s so much better shared.
Of course, this is to the best of the very capable P&S Trailer team’s ability. They’re pretty great at what they do, but they’re not in charge of supply chain or any other monkey wrenches thrown in best laid plans. My biggest lesson learned from this whole process so far is cultivating a sense of trust and fluidity, trying to roll with whatever happens and understanding that there’s a bigger picture that I likely don’t understand. This is all some semblance of the mantra “it’s all okay” or “it’ll all work out”, two phrases I’ve been humming in the back of my mind that give me instant calm.
Maybe that all sounds woo-woo, but I have a choice here: I can fixate on dates and details and wring my hands when I perceive things as “off track”. Then, I can follow the first wrinkle in my plan, and pursue the legion of “what if’s”, tracing the domino effect as far back as it will go. This keeps me awake at night. Or, I can take a breath, let myself feel momentary frustration or fear about what might happen and how, and then distract myself with the wonderful trappings of life in all of its continuous, sensory, surprising and exquisite moments.
Which would you choose?
Before I left on this trip, I had a nice sit down talking to with myself. I’d realized I was becoming hooked on stress when one stressor departed and I caught myself feeling brief respite and relief, and then immediately rooting around in the corner of my brain for the next thing to worry about.
I coached myself to be present for this trip and time in my life. After all, I have it in my ability to inhabit it, or ruin it. Worry and fear is a stain that grows and infects. Presence and trust soothes, heals, and grows.
Phase one was, of course, “simply” getting the truck down to the Lower 48. My friend Bailey from Reno, NV flew up to Alaska to join me for the adventure. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend and road trip pal, in general and also specifically at this phase in my life. We shared excitement and complementary competencies and approaches to car camping and life on the road. We shared similar taste in music and food. We shared inhabiting these major pivot points in both of our lives with a sense of anticipation, yes, but also openness, joy, and optimism. For Bailey, she started a new job the Monday after she flew home. For me, I moved on from this first phase to where I am now, which is heading to meet the designer and builders of this trailer and, ultimately, driving off into many sunsets to come.
I am writing this blog post from a friend’s beautiful backyard in sunny, 75 degree Cincinnati. “Whirlydads” from that eye-popping, near-fluorescent green foliage color that occurs in early spring are spinning their way down all around me. I went on a 5.5 mile run alongside my friend’s husband, who I am meeting and getting to know for the first time after years of friendship with her. These two are taking good care of me – dinners are planned out, laundry and showers provided, and a glass of local bourbon handed to me at the end of my long drive day to get there. The conversation rolls naturally; I get to sip my coffee while catching up with my friend.
This is the high life, no? Tomorrow we’ll go to a nearby coworking space, where we’ll both spend the day focused on consulting. First, of course, I’ll run. After, we’ll go to dinner.
I feel profoundly grateful. I could not do this alone, and I’m not. From contributions to gas, places to stay, road trip songs on the collaborative playlist and other music to listen to on the road, recommendations of must-see stops, friends and family joining for legs of the journey, our incredible mechanics, people commissioning paintings and buying art/swag, and of course, Wes, and friends and family who are constantly cheering us forward, this is a BIG EFFORT that is happening with and for so many people beyond just me. I am so happy to share this feeling, and stunned that so many people want in.
And I do, I feel so very present, happy to be here and taking this exact moment in. Part of that presence is also enjoying the little jolting feeling of excitement about what’s next, whatever that may be.
I always start with the very background of a new painting. The goal of the first paint is simply to cover the canvas: the deepest colors; the broadest shapes. This is a fun session because it’s fast, and about fluidity and big picture. I’m not focused on finite details, but setting myself up so that when I get there those will simply be finishing touches on layers of layers of the slow build to clarity.
Some memories as a point of reference to help guide me into Mobile Art Studio pickup and launch:
It was 75 degrees and warming under a bright blue desert sky as I alternated walking and jogging a trail that wound gently upward and promised rock features. I took in prickly pear and barrel cactus on either side of the trail with both appreciation and wariness – no false steps here. At first, the feature ahead looked tiny and unimpressive: a large gray boulder surrounded by smatterings of red rock with bleached green plant life lumps in between. But I got closer and slowed, my face sheened with sweat and my calves covered in a light dusty film. Split, cavernous red rocks glowed under the sun with lime green, early spring desert plant life filling the cracks. Bright light from a clear sky contrast the deep blue with fiery sandstone, all radiating steady warmth from the surface and cool from the shadows. I started crying. It had been a long time since I’d visited the desert from Alaska and I felt lucky to be there. I wished I could beam in everyone I knew and loved to share that moment and feeling with me.
I was painting a 12”x12” rendering of sun and snow filled winter woods on my table easel at home in Alaska. I noticed the photo reference was all pattern and color: branches fanning out and locking, with cool blue and purple snow lining and punctuating every available upward-facing surface. On the outer edges of the painting, a warm red sky attempted to push through the tightly woven trees. Toward the middle, a glowing orange and finally a piercing yellow-white punched through the center. I decided to focus on the patterns and colors over the subject: literally looking at the forest through the trees as I painted versus focusing on finite detail and patiently waiting for it to add up to a whole. I had such joy painting that painting, because I was playing. As I dotted the final bits of snow on the surface, I took a step back and felt finished at the same time as the painting. I smiled. I signed my name.
We waited for weeks to finally get the title for our truck, Fluffy. As we discovered when we were getting set up to sell, we’d never received the title from the bank when we paid off the vehicle in 2019. And, as I discovered when I went to the Alaska DMV for what I thought would be a simple, if annoying, process to get the title, it wasn’t actually in Alaska. We had purchased Fluffy in Nevada, therefore we’d have to get on the horn with their DMV to finally get our title in hand. Wes did. Then he did again. Then he did probably eight more times, with hold times as long as two hours before he finally reached someone (on days when they didn’t simply throw up a busy signal and basically say “we’re too busy, better luck next time”). We had a buyer lined up who was, thankfully, patient. All things said and done: Wes initially got misinformation from the DMV about sending in our expedite forms, which resulted in an agent seeing the situation and expediting us even more than we initially would have been. We got the title and officially sold the vehicle with days to spare before I hit the road. It worked out.
Experience and enjoy the moments. Be present.
See the forest through the trees. Have fun and keep perspective.
Worry is a fool’s errand. Keep moving forward and trust the bigger picture. It will work out.
I don’t know what the details are yet, but this piece serves as those bigger picture brush strokes on which I can begin to layer my upcoming journey. I’m so thrilled and grateful for this phase of life and whatever and wherever it brings me, including and especially the many people and places that sustain me. I’m feeling very full, open, and ready.
I’m writing to you from April 19th. You’ve probably already compressed all of these weeks, and even months leading up to the Mobile Art Studio adventure into a wad of tightly packed and long-forgotten anxiety.
I realized it doesn’t fully have to be like this. “This” as in, so stressful. Late last week, Wes and I were walking home in the bright, cool sunshine of early April after dropping off (newly named!) Brian the Beast the F350 at our mechanics. They just live a mile away from us and it’s a nice excuse to get to walk to or from the car, depending on what side of repairs we’re on. Pioneer Peak looms hulking and snow-blue at an incredible height above our neighborhood. I’ve seen it so consistently in the past few years that I have to remind myself of its grandeur.
I’d been worried that the necessary repairs on Brian would delay my departure date, throwing another monkey wrench into my plan. It turned out I had nothing to worry about: we set a date to get the repairs done and the vehicle returned in less than a week. I felt a huge sense of relief.
Yet, as Wes and I walked away and the stress around our vehicle repair timing slipped away, I could feel myself trying to root around for something else to fret about. It was the mental equivalent of tonguing a cavity or itching a bug bite – I was just searching to verify the stress was still there, and seeing if I could goad it to come back even further.
I’m used to it. Is stress a friend? Not really, but it’s a familiar companion. I’m a creature of habit who craves comfort, and finding something to stress over is another way to trick myself into thinking I am safe from all the unknowns and wild cards of life. Perversely, excessive worry makes me think I have control.
Which, I do. But I have control over my perspective, not my external surroundings. Stress, worry, and over-planning are insidious in that they provide me the illusion and comfort of thinking I’m making my life better, when in fact they’re a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I am constantly a spinning wheel of stress over nudging and pushing pieces in place where I want them to fall and fretting over what happens if they don’t, then instead of making conditions where I enjoy and inhabit my life to its fullest (the carrot I goad myself along with, telling myself the stress is worth it to get “there”) I’m crushing my own spirit.
There’s no “THERE”. There is here. Here I am right now writing to you in the future, and there you’ll be – a slightly newer, grown, more experienced version of me, who is also “here” in reading this.
So very meta.
Here’s my “reminiscing into the future” articulation of some things I hope you (I!) have experienced:
A breeze and sagebrush smell under a shaded awning during a hot desert afternoon. Icy beverage and an easel out, painting.
Waking up somewhere new and looking out the window and pinching myself. Drinking coffee on a camp chair outside as I slowly wake up.
Working on a full-sized commission on a cloudy, warm day – backing up from the easel to take in the full scope, zooming back in to keep working on it.
Running from my campsite. Hiking from my campsite. Walking from my campsite. Swimming from my campsite. Coming back to the trailer dusty and sweaty to shower, change, eat, and pivot toward whatever the rest of the day has in store.
The excitement and scary unknown of the open road and driving, slowly and relaxed, from one known locale to a new place.
Sharing the adventure with family and friends along the way, from road-tripping, to rendezvous, events, coworking, and simple day to day activities of life.
Getting excited about and cooking dinner; drinking tres agaves margaritas (my favorite mix).
Friends joining to camp. Building fires and playing music under starry skies. Talking about anything we want, for as long as we want.
Sitting at the table in the Airstream and focusing on work; taking video calls or working on projects.
Meeting people and getting to know them; making new connections.
Finding new opportunities with art! New painting ideas, projects, sales, ideas for the future.
The overarching feeling I hope for is excitement, joy, and connection throughout the days, with that healthy dose of awe. I’m going to need to slow myself down, by necessity and by design. I’m not going to be hauling 19’ of trailer anywhere quickly, and especially not in Brian the Beast. If I want to stop and breathe, take in the view, immerse myself where I am? That’s going to take even longer. In advance, I’m telling myself: that’s okay. That’s more than okay! That’s the point.
I hope this trip isn’t a one-off; that this is truly a pivot into something different – a new way of seeing the world, of having confidence in yourself, and continuing to inhabit your life even while you push to grow it. Confidence is the antidote to stress, because it tells me I am up for, can cope with, and even learn to thrive within whatever life throws my way.
Confidence is not a boisterous, external state for me. It’s a quiet, deep presence and openness.
I also sincerely hope in retrospect that this time that I am writing to you from is, indeed, one of the biggest buckle down and push phases of life you (we) experience because the view from here is towering, let me tell you. And I’m trying to remind you – me – us – of the overall big picture purpose of this adventure so that we can fully inhabit it the way we dreamed.
Love into the future from the past and everything in between and from here on out.
Thing #156 I like about getting older: when I have a bad day, I know it’s just that. One day. Or, often, much less than a full day.
Still, even though I know it will pass, it isn’t fun when it happens.
I had a bad day on Saturday. It culminated in sobbing over chili at dinner next to a suddenly contrite and maybe alarmed Wes, who had reacted to something I’d said tersely. He rubbed my back. I felt my big scarf filling up with the tears suddenly rolling off my face and, strangely, the release felt good. I’d been feeling and naming that I was experiencing stress the entire day.
The funny part is, up to that point I’d felt like I’d crested a hill.
“Just cruising on in these next couple weeks to departure!” I’d announce brightly to anyone who asked how I’m doing two weeks prior to Airstream pickup. “I’ve got a big list, but I feel like the heavy lift part is done and now it’s just ticking things off ‘til I leave.”
Here’s what was dawning on me that Saturday:
Yes, we have the truck (freshly named Brian the Beast, by the way. Brian for short). But the truck needs some repairs and tune-ups to be haul ready. The parts are en route, but not all of them have arrived yet. The mechanics we work with will do their best, but they’re up to their eyeballs in work, always.
Yes, the Airstream has been picked up from the manufacturer. But we’re a week behind pickup date due to a fire (!) at the manufacturer which had a cascading impact. And of course, even the “new” date is not a certainty. If this were the only thing hanging out there for me, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But I have consulting commitments throughout this journey and the “not knowing” exactly where I’ll get internet and be able to do focused work stresses me out.
Yes, Fluffy (the truck) has a buyer. But the title is still in Nevada. We need it to officially make the sale. And navigating the bureaucracy of an out of state DMV is about as exciting, confusing, and at times misleading as it sounds. It’s been a bit of a red-tape and misinformation nightmare.
I’ve also been feeling many, many pulls on my time and energy. Most of them are compelling! Yes, I want to take on that project. Sure, I’ll swing by later on. Thank you for the invite here! Oh, there’s an opportunity there! Etc.
Lucky me, right? There’s a world out there with people in it who know I exist and are excited to connect and bring me further into the stuff we do in life to find meaning. Thing is, I’m more saturated right now than I think I have ever been. I feel full-up with stimulus, running logistics, focusing on fulfilling what I’ve said I’ll do (for myself and others), and still having time leftover to meaningfully rest. Does that sometimes mean mouth breathing and playing Wordle on a couch with a blanket and bottomless tea? Going for long walks by myself? Building an epic dance playlist in the comfort of my living room?
Yes. That’s part of being oversaturated, is spending that time on myself to decompress and try to make up some of the lost ground. Another reason I love being older: I find it a whole lot easier to say no, because I know I have a perfectly good reason whatever it is.
But Saturday the frenzy of the many unknowns really hit me in the morning and created a pallor over the day. I went for my usual weekend morning long run without any music or podcasts, just trying to focus on taking in the fresh air and breathing out stress. It worked only a little bit; another sign that I’m oversaturated. Typically running provides a surefire reset.
There’s not an easy answer here. I think crying helped – it was just a simple release of energy. I talked to a friend who assured me everything would work out okay, and that helped too. And Wes helped, rubbing my back and telling me he thought it would all be fine.
It will be, of course. But I’d be naive to think that I’ve crested a hill and am just cruise-controlling my way into this next phase of life. Of course there’s a lot, there always will be. I have to keep reminding myself that the stress will come and go, that I have choice in how I manage my self, and try to focus squarely on what matters the most to me: taking in the little, beautiful moments as they happen, and keeping a sense of connection to the world and the people and places I love so much.
In so many ways, this time right here and right now is one of the biggest pushes and changes I’ve ever invested in to create circumstances that enable more of the above. Of course it’s stressful. How could it not be? And this too shall pass.
I think most people remember their realization that landmark days occur as simply another moment in time. Whether it’s a birthday, vacation, or a wedding day, even the most anticipated events are experienced through the lens of our same ol’ brains and bodies that we inhabit our entire lives.
Sometimes these events are everything we hoped they’d be. But more often than not there is a twinge of disappointment as we recognize there’s no magic inherent to our external circumstances. We’ll have to experience this moment the same way we’d experience any other: as ourselves.
Is that depressing? Yes and no. Yes, because as the old adage goes, wherever you go there you are. And no, because so much about life is about how we show up for it and what we decide to inhabit. Some of life’s most surprising, sweet, and indelible moments come unexpectedly. And the big events that require dreaming and planning? We must still decide to be present when that big day comes around.
It’s because I believe all of this to be true that I was so surprised when April immediately marked a shift for me.
It was Friday. The fools jokes rolled in hot on my social media feed. I had the full day dedicated to art and writing. It was another surprisingly sunny day, given that my app had predicted a week full of overcast weather. The snow had nearly all melted in my yard – early break up, no complaints here.
It was the final day of a fundraiser to help prepare me for the Mobile Art Studio inaugural journey later on in the month, and I was really pleased with the results. So many people chipped in! It helped ease my fears about going on an epic road trip at a time when diesel costs one million dollars a gallon. It also helped take the sting out of an unexpected maintenance bill to get our new (to us) F350 road-ready.
April 1st felt like a click. It felt like an actual turning point, not just an arbitrary paging of the wall calendar. Here was a month I’d vaguely thought about and pointed to for a long time in getting ready for the Mobile Art Studio, and it dawned sunny and springlike, practically inviting me in. My task list still felt daunting, but I felt that I’d actually crested a hill and was starting to cruise toward my goal with greater momentum. I felt buoyed and optimistic; open.
So, I’m going to decide to keep that going. If arbitrary but significant life moments are what we make of them, which I do truly believe, then I’m going to take the feeling provided me to start this pivotal month in my life and enjoy/expand on it. This time of life is about bringing something to life, myself included. It’s about focusing on where I want to go, and fully feeling it both along the way and in those moments of “arrival” that aren’t, really, ever – as long as life keeps moving on.
You know what I pined for the most during the most isolated parts of this pandemic? It surprised me. The number one thing was New York City. NYC crept into my dreams. I was out at bars in the Lower East Side; I was in taxis heading back to Brooklyn in the early hours of the morning, I was in and out of a blur of ornate interior atmospheres and restaurants that characterize the rich interior life of that incredible city.
I’d wake up from my dreams of rushing around NYC in my bed in mid-winter snowglobe Alaska, the ravens and moose doing their thing outside. I wondered if we’d ever get a ticket out of this place. I mustered the strength to go back to daily living in isolation.
The other thing I sorely wished for was a manicure. I told myself that one of my first treats to myself when it was finally safe to venture out into the world would be an appointment at a salon to get my nails done.
New York City makes sense as something to miss. NYC was the set of an exciting time in my life and it’s full of people, culture, and activity; three things that were sorely lacking throughout 2020. Manicures?! I’d only ever gotten two professional manicures in my lifetime at that point. One with my sister, and another with my best friend. I was the tagalong for both. Sure, sounds like a fun activity but most of all I like spending time with you I said, as I gamely joined to get my nails did.
Weeks later, I cursed both of them as I tried to scrape the gel polish off after soaking my nails in pure acetone for entire episodes of The Office. It still wasn’t enough time! Gel polish is durable and, turns out, a beast to remove. I vowed never to get a manicure again.
Enter the pandemic, and I dreamed of NYC and having pretty nails.
I think at its heart what I was craving was a lasting marker of something externally beautiful, that I could see every day for myself and also act as a declaration of me to the world. I wanted to see and be seen. The four walls of my home and (wonderful, but solo) husband weren’t cutting it.
So on the eve of my first journey back east for Thanksgiving in two years, fully vaccinated, I cajoled a friend to go with me for a gel manicure at a local salon. Even fully masked up it felt somewhat illicit, like all interior activities with other people felt like those few short months ago. But it also felt indulgent. The salon wasn’t anything particularly special. It had that transactional, bare-bones feel of many nail salons; not too much to look at but they’ll get the job done. My nails, though. I chose a deep sparkling red. Walking away in the snowy November Alaska cold, I didn’t want to put my mittens on, so I could keep admiring my new polish in the waning daylight.
It was everything I’d dreamed of! Lucky me, right? How often does life pan out that the very things we crave turn out to exactly fit the bill? In this case, I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the best way.
Instead of scraping the polish off three weeks later, I made another appointment.
And then another one.
I’ve been going in to get my nails done every three weeks since then. This is a major luxury for me. Each visit costs between $45-$60 (with tip) depending on whether I just get polish or a full manicure, which in this time of scrapping and saving for the Mobile Art Studio feels borderline irresponsible.
But it’s doing wonders for my daily sense of joy and even, to some extent, my sense of identity and self confidence. Before every visit, I muse about what kind of big events I have coming up; what the next few weeks might look like, and is there a color that corresponds with the kind of stature I am looking to inhabit during this time? To ring in New Year’s, I chose a bold, bright glittery blue that felt fresh, optimistic, and fun to look at during the darkest time of winter. Later on in January and February, I chose a mood-changing polish that was a sleek and professional navy during my work day, but when I warmed it up shifted to a bright magenta. It felt like I was wearing a secret.
Every visit I spend at least five minutes scrutinizing the array of color swatches offered in a little basket, thinking about what mood I want to bring into my life in the coming weeks. It’s a version of meditation, because I’m reflecting on the prior weeks and who I was during this last polish while thinking about what shifts and changes I’d like to realize in the weeks to come. When I select my color, I am making a decision about who I would like to be in the future, even as I have no other control over what happens except for how I bring myself forth.
When I look down at my nails, especially in those first few hours and day after the polish, I feel – and I’m not exaggerating – joy. The color and shine brings me joy. After a while the polish and the joy fades, but then I have about a week to think about what the next polish will be. It’s a good cycle; a good passage of time and phases.
Then, during the manicure itself, I can’t stare at my phone because my fingers are either in little tinfoil packets (this, it turns out, is how they professionally apply acetone – with little daubs of cotton doused in acetone, affixed to my nails with tiny foil squares wrapped neatly on each of my fingers) or in the process of being fixed up and painted. This is at least a full hour of no phone gazing, which means all I can do is let my mind wander or intermittently chat with the salonist.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how many manicures I have left until the day I go in to select my Mobile Studio pickup color. This last time I made an appointment for the week of departure.
My nails for these coming weeks are a dark, nearly iridescent green that shimmers slightly differently in different lights. To me, this color represents the weeks of trees gearing up for the green-up that will happen at some point soon – a deep, dark internal greening that takes place for a long time before the external and seemingly overnight explosion of color.
I haven’t chosen the color for pickup yet. I am open to ideas!
In what I call “deep pandemic” times (in 2020, when vaccines were but a twinkle in a laboratory scientist’s eye) my husband Wes and I were in the habit of spending Fridays at the makeshift bar that was our butcher block table. It used to be that we’d host people most Fridays for cocktail hour following a hike. But during this peak Covid isolation it was just us, shiny bottles (we’d retrieved from curbside pickup in Anchorage) in different hues and at varying levels of fullness staged attractively in front of us with cocktail-making accoutrement and spent lime rinds scattered between. I usually lit candles.
I make it sound romantic, and it was, if you ignore how very sick we were of the interior of our home at that point and that after a while, even though we convinced ourselves we were making our own choices about how to spend time, there was little bandwidth for that choice. It wasn’t like we were choosing to stay in.
Still, it fostered creativity. I enjoyed the coziness of those nights. It felt a little like playing house as a kid. We were playing “go out to the bar”.
One ritual we got into a few times was doing a “song-off”, where one person would play a song on our speaker via Spotify, and the next would riff off the former song or continue building on a theme.
Like many couples, Wes and I have developed a shared language around music. There are a few albums that characterize different phases of our lives and relationship. When we first got together, it was back in the days of that hot new band Mumford and Sons (lol). We have a strangely fixated nostalgia for an album that mashed up Lil Wayne with the 500 Days of Summer (remember that movie?!) soundtrack. And, when I was living in Nevada, we road tripped out to hot springs in the middle of the state with then-new Beirut and Death Cab albums. (I feel like our taste in music characterizes us as the once-cool-but-aging parents in a teen flick).
That road trip out to Nevada hot springs stands out as particularly inextricably linked to its chosen soundtrack. I remember that morning in December, probably 2011, when we decided to make the trek, the check engine light on Wes’s rig popped up unexpectedly (I wrote about the trip in its entirety on my then-blog). We were going through some hellacious custody issues at the time, mostly (likely) spurred by change fostered with my arrival on scene. That’s a super sanitized way of saying that Wes and I, in our still fairly new relationship, had shifted into pretty high gear together very fast and were dealing with solidifying our relationship and family dynamic even while diving headfirst into legal sparring. It was, ah, unpleasant, and most days nearly all encompassing.
The view out the windshield from central Nevada.
But, as we made the decision to head to the hot springs despite the check engine light, all I remember from that trip is the feeling of release and decompression as we headed deep into the wide-open desert. Mountains and passes yawned open as we crossed range after range that typifies Nevada in a way that is both secret-seeming and miraculous in its expansiveness. We listened to those albums that we’d downloaded specifically for the journey.
And all those years later, when we had our Friday night song-offs and one of us played a song from that particular time, we sat at our makeshift bar in deep-pandemic isolated winter in Alaska and agreed that we had no idea in that moment, at that time that it was such a particularly characterized, special and isolated gem of a time. We didn’t know that the short, weekend trek out to the hot springs, listening to those albums, would freeze in an emotional kind of amber the way it has. The point of reference for us is a sense of release, possibility, joy, and adventure, even during a time of adversity.
I keep reminding myself in these final weeks leading up to Mobile Studio pickup that even as I hustle, buckle down, move faster, and do more than I have at nearly any other time in my life, this IS my life as I’m experiencing it even as I am striving for something more. I am incredibly stressed, but also incredibly motivated and focused.
I don’t know yet what or if the soundtrack is. Maybe it’s more of a visual reference as I try to get myself out on slow, long walks in between the rushes of action, taking in the mountains and really trying to feel cold air on my skin. I am both excited for the next chapter while also enjoying these final days of this phase in my and our lives.
In late fall 2021, I realized my dreams had started to feel like email.
I have a subconscious that is pretty direct with me. I’ll wake up and recount my dreams and know exactly what I am trying to say to me, because my sleeping self just said it. For someone who might be considered a “creative” (ew, never call me that), my dreams are disappointingly plain. They often almost exactly mirror my daily life.
When I was a barista, I dreamed in coffee orders. When I went on a ski vacation, I careened down snowy slopes. After packrafting all day, my inflatable pad at night became a boat and I was paddling. Etc.
So, when my dreams took on the look and feel of gazing into a laptop and responding to a never-ending inbox, I thought I might have a problem with my waking life.
I decided to try shifting my focus. I downloaded a meditation app and dutifully meditated for about 20 days straight. This was my attempt to have more choice in my life about where I focus my attention. Email? No thank you. All the beauty that I am so lucky to be surrounded with everyday, including the amazing people in my life and Alaska? Yes, more of that, please.
Like anything working with what’s knocking around upstairs in my brain, there’s not a switch I can trip to reset myself. There’s only trial and error, process, and slow change over time that can be difficult to perceive since I have to pick up on it using the same exact noggin that I’m working on shifting. As my perspective changes, so does my perspective on my perspective.
That said, I think, over time, meditation has helped me. I know how to focus on elemental aspects of my human experience in order to re-ground myself and my senses, like feeling the heat in my hands or my breath.
And it’s good – I suppose – for this increasing ability to be challenged. Which, in our modern society, is frequent.
I know what I want to feel more of, which is awe, connection, love, gratitude, and joy. And I know what I often feel, which is confined. Confined by what, exactly? Well, by Alaska, especially after two years of Covid. Bills and the need to pay them. The need to crack open a laptop and hook myself in for days on end to solve problems that can feel arbitrary and fake, but simultaneously important. Confined by the need to move myself to care enough to rise to the steady flow of these sorts of challenges.
The confinement feeling leads to offshoot feelings, like sadness or even, in the darkest parts of winter, despair and a kind of frozen, paralyzing feeling. More mildly, I feel irritation – kind of like the laptop in front of me is a constant itch that I’m already contending with, so anything on top of that scratches just that much deeper. Anger comes up when I feel powerless in the face of corporate interests, like dealing with the United States’ “healthcare” system and my place in it.
As always in my life, it ends up boiling down to a series of decision points. (That’s at best, when I recognize what I’m feeling and that I have the ability to make a choice.)
Where is it worth it to invest in the discomfort of navigating things I simply do not want to do? When is it worth it to shift my perspective away?
Big picture, I’m working on designing life circumstances that require less materially of me. Read: fewer bills, more economic and ultimately time freedom. The real limited commodity is not money, but the number of breaths I get to take here on this earth. (Yes, money absolutely helps make the most of those breaths – not discounting that. I’d just like to require less of it, because I don’t particularly enjoy navigating the systems of earning and then maintaining all that more money affords).
But to get to this big picture, I have to play the game. So, I am. That means this is an instance where it is worth investing my focus in necessary “evils” (mini-evils?) like email in order to get to where I’d like to go.
It’s the other stuff I wrestle with more – the phone calls to navigate unfair bills, the maddening labyrinthe of doctors’ offices and health insurance, the neighbors’ dogs constantly barking, the email or offhand comment that landed poorly.
What I’m trying to do more of is sift out how much of my focus these mundane, but attention-sucking details of modern life get from me. I’m trying to see them and then zoom out so I can rationally decide. Do I want to spend the time haggling on the phone with the health insurance claim that probably won’t get resolved, feeling myself getting more and more angry? Or do I just want to pay the damn bill and be done with it, moving my perspective (and again, finite breaths) on to take the run and see the mountains and call my stepdaughter up to see how she is?
It’s really hard, because there is truly a system out there that is so much bigger than me and requires so much change to actually enable fair circumstances for all of us humans to have a shot at inhabiting this same joy I crave creating. Isn’t that all anyone wants from life, in whatever way each of us accesses that? I see it, I see the unfairness. And I weigh it, with my life and those daily experiences I wish to have.
What I end up back to is twofold: 1) I am so very fortunate to be able to – hopefully, ultimately – create circumstances that better position me to access joy and awe, more. I need to continue working not just on my external circumstances, but on my inherent ability to choose where I put my focus. I absolutely deserve it, just by virtue of being a person here on earth, so I will continue to work on and hopefully enjoy it. 2) This is a basic human right for everyone, and it is my innate responsibility as a member of the human race on the face of earth to do what I can – and to be consistent in my effort – to break down and contribute to better systems that support myself and others in having this same access to whatever gives our lives meaning, purpose, and love.
I started writing this from my personal perspective, about learning how to choose my focus and, hopefully, make my dreams brighter and less e-mail-esq. But I’m ending with tying together how this, for me, is intrinsically tied to my greater sense of connection and, more importantly, responsibility. If I have this access and perspective, if I access joy and awe, others should too. This is part of why I write. It’s part of why I paint. And it’s part of why I am weaving a business model that I want to give back and lift up causes, people, and places I care about.
Beginning of the Alli Harvey Art manifesto, over and out!
On Friday morning, I felt like I was staring up a hill with no motivation to climb it. I felt pre-tired.
The hill was made of writing and painting. Those are my usual Friday activities. It’s my one full day of the week dedicated solely to art. That morning I easily found the energy to complete a difficult work out in my living room, and then jumped at the opportunity to head to a friend’s house for tea. But work?
When I started sorting out possible photos to paint, instead of my usual curiosity mixed with the thrill-meets-fear of whether or not I can do it, I felt deep resistance. Like, dog digging its heels in and refusing to budge against the pulled leash level resistance. I had near nausea; I simply didn’t want to do it. When I thought of parking myself at my laptop to write, I had the same reaction.
It occurred to me that I might just call it and take a full rest day. Immediately, I felt my spirits lift.
I spent the rest of the day lolling about in the bathtub with a book and a face mask or on the couch with the same book but now a cup of green tea. When I thought, out of habit, that maybe I would do xy or z task later in the afternoon, I struck myself down with, “today’s a rest day”. My check list would be there later on.
My stepmom’s voice sometimes ricochets around in my head at moments like these, because she used to give a deep sigh at hearing about some of my weekends. She would tell me I needed to learn how to rest. It was an exasperated kind of a sigh. I never took her advice, although I considered her perspective and wondered if she was right.
I must have truly been exhausted on some level on Friday, even if it wasn’t physical, because it takes a lot – a lot – for me to take a true rest day. I need to be sick. And, that’s kind of what it felt like. I wondered briefly if I was getting sick, but then my physical energy was high and my immediate change in mood when I granted myself the rest day told me that something else was going on.
I am someone who enjoys creating. I chafe at calling myself a “creative”, because that sounds demeaning, but when I think about the activities that are the most work but also the most reward, it’s about painting images into being, learning how to support a roomful of people trying to do a thing together in a way that maximizes their desired outcome (ie, writing agendas and facilitating), writing stories and anecdotes that only live in my heart and mind until they get down on paper. I love DJ-ing dance parties, and otherwise curating experiences.
What is all of that, if not creating? Yes, it takes a lot of effort, but I almost always am happy with the result, which helps propel me deeper and forward into my life.
I think my energy is fragile these days and was particularly compromised on Friday because I’ve been pushing myself forward on steps that are required of but no longer fit me. Sitting at a laptop for 30 hours a week while consulting is becoming more draining than rewarding. I follow through on it because I am committed to it, and I really do give myself the extra push needed to fully inhabit my role. But that push comes at a cost, and I think I felt that on Friday.
I also am ready to downsize the material needs in my life in favor of a more compact existence, with less “stuff” and fewer bills to pay. That moment is coming, but not quite yet.
It’s been a long Alaska winter, following and still during an even longer pandemic. We’ve been saving every penny, and that’s a difficult posture to hold for a very long time. I crave sunshine. When I think about the desert, which I do too frequently, I feel homesick in a profound way.
My husband reminded me that we are taking active steps to change our situation. It’s true. But I’ve never been a steps person. I’ve been a “paint it or write it into being; flip the switch, go to the place, life is short” actor; I don’t need instant gratification but I’m swift and decisive in making change because, again, I like creating. Life is a constant creation for me. I like to make things happen.
What’s happening now is the slowest but also, probably, deepest and most thought-through series of changes I’ve made in my life so far, in partnership with Wes. This takes time, and not even too much more of it. But I still feel the every day waiting and working in the meantime, and the routines in building toward our big life move have started to wear me thin.
I don’t have an easy answer for it except recognition. And, perhaps I can afford myself a few more rest days in the meantime, knowing that soon I’m coming into enormous, welcome change alongside all that will be required of me then.