Alli Harvey Art

How the struggle helped

My good friend and roommate in college had a helpful sense of the absurd. Narrowing her eyes as she took a drag from an American Spirit yellow and sipped two buck chuck from a coffee mug in our slowly collapsing Brooklyn brownstone, she’d tell me all about “the struggle”.

Road 01 (1)

An example of STRUGGLE: the daily commute. I still can’t believe that I can get used to a view like this. Painting helps me showcase the amazing everyday beauty we are fortunate to see even and especially in the middle of the grind – and that’s not just in AK.

We’d commiserate about the struggle during our monthly raids of the kitchen for baby cockroaches. We called those afternoons where we removed all of the food and dishes from the cabinets and sprayed the corners of the cabinets until the scuttling dots stopped moving “massacres” – I can still smell the acrid, but over time increasingly homey smell, of Raid. We’d paper towel out the bugs and residue afterwards, sweep the kitchen, and put everything back where it belonged.

This was just part of the process of living. I don’t think either of us actually believed that it was a struggle with a capital S. We had a roof over our heads, groceries in the fridge, and a public transit card to navigate the best city in the world for free happy hours and art events. That apartment in Brooklyn felt like a base camp in the middle of a wild urban playground, and the struggle was a reference to our attempts to somehow find the meaning of life within it all.

It was a nod to the absurdity of our daily routines. How we schlepped our laundry in grocery bags or carts down the street and sat in a humid room doing school work while our clothing tumbled in a machine behind us. Or we stayed out until 5am and got home as the sun was rising and someone on the street was cooking meat for the neighborhood on a barrel-shaped grill. We often had welts on our hands after bringing groceries home, because we’d tried to carry too much down into the subway and then back up to walk the five blocks to our apartment. We complained about not finding meaningful romantic relationships while sitting in our apartment together on a Saturday night drinking wine and listening to Bruce Springsteen.

Still, simply living in New York felt like an accomplishment. We celebrated the struggle. We knew it was intrinsic to living.

Now, ten plus years later in Alaska, the struggle is different. It’s less ironic. It’s more normal, and boring I think – the struggle is, like, paying the mortgage, or figuring out the error message on the dishwasher. So that I don’t sink into the most boring and horrifying parts of modern life – not becoming that person that’s telling a long and drawn out story about being on hold with AT&T customer service, for instance – I create struggle. 

I run. I bike. And, yes, I paint.

Painting isn’t schlepping the laundry, contending with a subway commute, or massacring baby cockroaches. It’s less of an externally imposed struggle. But it’s about attempting to shape and draw out something I so want to bring into the world, and all of the focus, frustration, and satisfaction that comes with that process. At the beginning, a painting is a big old unknown, and it’s up to me to see if I can make it happen.

I still struggle with whether I’m up to the task, every single time. And, frustrating though it is, that’s ultimately what makes every painting worth the effort. It’s one of my ways of finding the meaning in life, even and especially through the messiness and difficulty of it all.


Success, redefined

Last week at Thanksgiving, my extended family was incredibly sweet and enthusiastic about what I’ve been doing to get my art up and going. Multiple family members – aunts, uncles, cousins – congratulated me on what they called “my success”.

I didn’t know what to say.

I stammered through a few explanations along the lines of, thank you, I appreciate that, and it’s funny to think that this is what success looks and feels like.

When I think about succeeding with my art business, the first thing to pop into my mind is financial success. After all, a business that just breaks even is just a hobby. The whole reason I created a small business instead of just occasionally painting, like I have for the past twenty years, is because I want to build this passion of mine into something that eventually turns a profit. I want my art to be my life, and vice versa.

The other equally integral piece in my definition of success is making sure that this is what I really want. I’ve chased a lot of goals only to arrive and realize the reality isn’t the fantasy I’d built in my head. So, I run constant (and scary) gut checks with myself, to see how it actually feels to create art and run a business. Am I chasing an ideal, or is this really panning out day-to-day as something that is gratifying to me?

What I think my family is picking up on, success-wise, is that I have been fastidiously putting pieces in motion to build this thing, and so far the ideal matches the reality.

That alignment seems to be coming through when I’m talking about Alli Harvey Art. This is awesome feedback for me because most of the time I’m in the day to day.

And frankly, the day-to-day doesn’t add up to an enormous profit – yet. When I do turn a profit, I typically put it right back into the business. I buy more art supplies, more greeting cards to sell, purchase the new software I apparently need, pay for some Instagram ads, host an event and buy a bunch of box wine and snacks. This coming year – 2020 – is the first year I want to take some of the profits and use them to propel myself further into the world. I’m hoping to make enough from the art business that I can travel somewhere new, at least once if not a few times throughout the year.


Maybe success is simply what it feels like to walk into this little studio that has taken months and the help of many people to make into a reality.

This is part of that painstaking work I’ve been doing to build the dream. Which is why, maybe, I have a hard time embracing the word success. It seems to be implied that success is a destination, and I think while that’s part of it, it’s also an ongoing and forever process. I do feel successful. I feel almost overwhelmed daily with amazement and gratitude for all of the pieces of this whole endeavor that life has afforded me, and I don’t take that at all for granted. But I also feel I have a lot more to do, and in many ways right now I’m only laying the first parts of the foundation of where I’d like to go.


What the signs don’t say

I was running today in Massachusetts because I’m here with family for the holiday, and saw two signs sticking out of someone’s front yard: YOU ARE WORTHY and YOU ARE NEEDED.

Listen. I’m all for mental health and affirmation, particularly around this time of year (well, any time of year). I think each of us need to tap into the intrinsic and unique values we bring to the world. I truly, in the bottom of my heart, believe the world would be a better place if we were each fully able, empowered, and motivated to pull our real selves into the world. This is part of what draws me to issues around justice; I think there is a lot of amazing human ability that is crushed or crippled by systems of power and oppression. It is unconscionable that some of us go through our one life less able to access the opportunity to be fully ourselves because of who we are and systems we were born into.Summer 01 Final

But those signs – YOU ARE WORTHY and YOU ARE NEEDED – rubbed me the wrong way. I thought about it as I chugged along on the suburban eastern sidewalks that wind past people raking leaves in their front yards, and town signage etched into stone that have been there long before there were paved roads.

What creates the feeling of worthiness, or being needed? Those are essential cornerstones to being human. We need connection to build meaningful lives.

Signs – staked in a lawn – are the antithesis of connection, for me. Sure, they bring a nice sentiment into the world. Sort of. But aren’t there already plenty of platitudes to go around? I’ve seen more compelling truisms on needlepoint hangings.

If I were suffering from depression or anxiety, would a sign posted in a lawn help remind me of my intrinsic value in the world? Or would it feel somehow too anonymous, like a “you don’t know me, so how could you possibly know?” kind of a thing?

I would prefer a “Take Care of Each Other”. Or, “Call a Friend Today”. “Call Somebody Today instead of Texting”. All kind of preachy, all kind of cliche and annoying, but somehow those carry more value and instruction to me than YOU ARE WORTHY and YOU ARE NEEDED because they are ways we can each demonstrate value and need of the people in our lives.

It’s Thanksgiving week. For me, the holiday is about connecting with family, feeling and practicing gratitude for these people that I love and who love me, and cooking/eating absurd quantities of food. My takeaway from those signs, that in all fairness were posted with good intent, is to do something this week that’s beyond the norm of what I normally do to express my caring for the people around me. We need and deserve that from one another.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday. And sure, yes, YOU ARE WORTHY and YOU ARE NEEDED. But maybe find someone specific to say that to, and hear it from.


What I’ve learned about grief

IMG_9088I have felt both isolated and affirmed by others while grieving. It’s lonely when people don’t know what to say so as a result they just don’t say anything. But at the same time the feelings that go with being on the knife edge of grief let me know that I am very much alive, steeped in both love and loss. This makes me feel connected to the world in a profound way. And when people reach out to me in whatever ways they are able, it has made me feel intensely grateful.

I’m not saying that I give grief a five star Yelp review for being a great part of life. But it is intrinsic to life. And, for me, there have been surprising comforts within it, including and especially from people showing up.

Here is what I’ve learned on how to be with people (whether “with them” is remotely or in person):

Showing love is always, always better than not saying or doing anything at all. Specific gestures or offers are much better than general “let me know how I can help’s”. Food, errands, coming over and hanging out, airline miles, picking up the kids and taking them to a movie, etc are examples. Pick up the phone, send the text, or send a letter but do not expect an affirmation or a response: just give it as an act of love. Do not say things like “it’s part of god’s plan” or “stay strong” – that is the whole point of grief is that there is no reason behind it or the tear it leaves in the world, and we are not going to be strong when we are grappling with that. Listen. Be very judicious about timing if you are sharing your experience, and first ask yourself the question of relevance.

Our lives are multifaceted. Happiness is often bound up in grief is bound up in joy is bound up in profound loss. Grief doesn’t come from a cookie cutter, and there’s no one way to approach it. We just have to continue to care deeply, for ourselves and one another and the life we all share, and fumble around in a continued attempt to be there for each other when we are most needed.

Speaking of which. A close friend of mine is going through something no one of us should ever have to endure. I don’t mean that hyperbolically. She has given the people who care about her an amazing opportunity to help, so I am sharing that ask here. Please contribute if you can and help support this family that is experiencing terrible loss, and are trying to do so together. The response has already been incredibly moving, but this is going to be a long process so the financial support will need to last.

Why talk to strangers

Alli in times squ

Younger me says goodbye to Times Square

When I was younger, I was awestruck a lot of the time. I still am – which is, if I’m being honest, probably both refreshing and irritating to those around me. Someday I will be that person gawking at the quantity of paper towels available at Costco. But it used to be so intense that I would marvel at every single thing about airplane travel. 

I know. On the one hand, it’s understandable. I’m getting on a metal tube that will hurdle through the sky and then deposit me, within a matter of hours, to a destination that’s likely in a different climate and time zone. On the other hand, commercial flight is one of the last remaining forms of widely used public transportation, and no one likes being crammed into small spaces for long periods of time with all of farting, sneezing, and snoring humanity. It’s just something you’ve got to get through to get to where you’re going.

Yet wide-eyed younger me didn’t understand, or was unwilling to accept this. I was enchanted.

Back then, I would talk to people on airplanes. I would talk to people on the plane.

One flight in particular stands out. It was Christmas Day. I’d bought the cheap, one way ticket to move myself and all of my earthly belongings from frigid, windy New York City to frigid, snowy Anchorage, AK. 

On the final Anchorage-bound, nearly empty flight, I found myself talking with two strangers. Across the aisle, we turned toward each other and started buying rounds of drinks, sharing what brought us to the airplane and what we were hoping to do in Alaska. I know why I was part of the conversation – my giddy excitedness and desire to tell anybody that would listen that my day to finally move to Alaska had come. What moved the other two to talk must have been Christmas spirit, or something. Time felt suspended.

Over the course of three hours, we had an honest, intergenerational conversation about life, our aspirations, and our challenges. We listened to one another and encouraged each other. At the end of the flight, we exchanged contact information and heartfelt well wishes. 

I still think about that. One of the two found me on Facebook, and it makes me happy to see that he has achieved key parts of his plan. Having even this small, but bright connection is a reminder of what openness and awe can bring – a connection to others, and a deep sense of empathy for the bigger underlying struggles and dreams we each carry.

I don’t often talk to people on airplanes anymore. I’m not as entranced by flight. But I do try to remember that it’s a balance between getting to where I’m going, and being right here even when I’m still on the way. I love the connections with people, big and small, that expand my experience of the world. It’s a good reason to talk to strangers.

What surprises me most about painting

Winter 06

This painting. So pleased with how it turned out! And it taught me tons (Read: it was maddeningly difficult at times).

I have a vision of the kind of person who paints colorful landscapes. It goes something like: when the paints come out, so do an array of exciting possibilities. She sets forth to fill the canvas with color and movement, and a kind of flow state begins. The work is meditative and fulfilling. It continues, the artist’s heart swelling and filling as forms begin to take shape. Cue the strings.

Then there’s me.

I will often sit in front of the canvas staring at mutant half formed shapes splattered and carved across in meaningless blobs, wondering if I should just give up. Sometimes I want to grab the canvas and shake it. (Related question: do you think that would make the image reset, like an Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe I should try).

It’s not that I don’t also experience the euphoric moments. Those are what keep me hooked. But, and I hate to burst this bubble, like anything in life painting is a series of ups and downs. 

I had this aha moment a few years ago during a staycation. I’d wondered why it was so difficult for me to adhere to a two hour a week painting schedule. Two piddling hours! I’d set it up as a recurring calendar invite for Wednesdays, and while I was disciplined about parking my butt in front of the easel to paint, I dreaded it and counted the minutes. It was a good night when I lost myself in painting for even an hour.

Of course, this was in addition to working a full time nonprofit job. So those Wednesday night sessions took place after “other”, seemingly unrelated work.

But during the first morning of that staycation, I set myself up at the easel, still in my pajamas in the Alaskan winter darkness. I figured I’d only be there a couple of hours, max. But then two hours ticked by, three, and ultimately I painted for five hours in a row. My brain felt unburdened, and somehow more generous toward everything I encountered on the canvas. 

That day I learned that I use the same skills for painting that I use in any other line of work. Strategy, vision, tactical adjustments, patience, and persistence. The reason it was so difficult for me to motivate to paint for even two hours on Wednesday nights is that my reserve of energy had already been spent elsewhere.

Painting isn’t solely a regenerative, meditative practice for me. It’s work. That doesn’t make it bad; if anything, it makes the practice even more worthwhile and meaningful. Painting requires the very best of me, even through the worst parts of it. It requires me to adapt and grow; to consistently get better. When I paint, I am working at the edge of my skill, and every work pushes into new territory.

Sometimes the orchestra plays in that corner of my brain, where things light up. And in that moment all the work, like anything in life, is suddenly worth it.

Where did this all begin?

Russian Jack Park, Anchorage AK, 2009

I made my permanent move to Alaska on Christmas Day, 2008. I shared photos like this one on Facebook to show how casual and accessible beauty in Anchorage is, and in response my family said things like “looks cold”. (That’s true).

I tell a little story when people ask me how I got to Alaska:

As a teenager, I read the book The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman and became fascinated with seeing the northern lights. I lived in the suburbs of Boston, MA where aurora isn’t really a thing. So I headed north once, twice, and finally a third time which was my breaking point. I moved to Alaska.

There. That’s the story. Of course, there’s the more comprehensive version, too. It’s LONG. But, unlike the quick version, it also tells the story of how and why I began painting. 

Since this weekly blog is going to serve as a place to share the ups, downs, and messiness around Alli Harvey Art, I figure we should start with how I got to Alaska and started painting. This will be a longer blog post than anything else I’ll write here, so if you’re staying, get cozy.

Here’s the full story. It starts the same:

As a teenager I read the book The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman and became fascinated with seeing the northern lights. I lived in the suburbs of Boston, MA where aurora isn’t really a thing. So I put “see the northern lights” on my mental bucket list and shelved the book and the idea for the future, whenever that would be.

Meanwhile, I grappled with who I was as a human. Everyone does this (especially teenagers) but I was particularly keen on figuring this out because I truly didn’t know where to start. There’s this big gap for me between childhood and young adulthood, roughly between the ages of 7 – 13, where my major hobby was putting up with chronic asthma and cultivating a little world around that. I was typically absent from school and other activities. I skulked around my house like a good moody teenager, had hospital stays scattered throughout the year, and used the nebulizer next to my bed. I tried to be “normal”, like anyone, including maintaining friendships and a social life, and I did okay at it considering, but my world revolved around my asthma.

Sitting in bed, I’d often draw pictures. I’d use either photographs or magazine clippings as a model and sketch away in a book. One time I drew the contents of my closet for an art assignment at school, and the teacher remarked – seemingly surprised – that it was actually quite good.

Then when I was thirteen I had an asthma attack that dang near killed me, and at the same time air quality test results came back from my public school. The air quality was, well, bad. The school knew it, and informed us they were tearing the building down the following year. In the meantime, they offered to pay out the taxpayer dollars that would have gone to my public education so we could find someplace…else for me to attend. Coincidentally there was a private school nearby whose tuition exactly matched the payout, and which had an open campus policy. At the time, my folks figured that the open campus policy would allow me to attend my many doctor’s appointments, so they were (mostly) willing to overlook the other parts. 

Like, the fact that there was no mandatory curriculum at this school. There were no real classes at all, at least not in the way that you normally think of classes. Maybe there would be a handful of self-organized classes scattered throughout any given week, but those were not the focal point of the school; not at all. As a student I could choose to spend my time exactly however I wanted, as long as I wasn’t interfering with anyone else’s ability to do so. Let me say it again: at this school, I would decide exactly how to spend my time. I was 14.

Once I enrolled, my asthma disappeared exactly overnight. So there was no reason from my parents’ perspective for the open campus policy anymore; I didn’t need all the doctors. But even though the philosophy was not exactly my dad’s cup of tea, I was hellbent on staying. I had a glimpse of being able to figure my shit out there, and I was NOT going back.

As one does when one is committed to “figuring out one’s shit”, I spent my first full week learning how to knit. I spent my first full year flitting from social group to social group, mostly as an observer, and sitting in the middle of a lawn writing angsty poetry into a spiral bound notebook. So: I mostly did nothing. When my dad demanded to know when I was going to take a math class (coming from an understandable place, I think, of parental concern about me making it out there in the world), I inarticulately sobbed that by deciding what I did every day – which did not include math class – I was doing the most important thing I could for myself. I couldn’t explain it, and I certainly, at that point, could not prove it.

Then by year two I had an epiphany. By doing “nothing” the only person I was cheating was myself. And, I should clarify, it wasn’t really nothing that I was doing – I was flatlining, in a way, but also just taking a full year of a reset and drift after many years of being a full time asthmatic, lost in herself. I was passively exposing myself to an entire school of humans who seemed so distinct from one another, pursuing things they loved. Over that year of “nothing” it started to seep into me that my life could be mine, too. And there was no one around to tell me exactly how to do it. That was on me.

My motivation was to create a life where I could play, explore, and fulfill. I didn’t want to look back at my life with disappointment in what I could have done. I felt terrified. And thrilled.

One of the things I did with my subsequent time at school was figure out how to inhabit my body. That was a struggle (have I mentioned I was a teenage girl?!), but I was also extremely lucky to have opportunities to get outside. I went on school trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where a mentor confessed to me years later that he wasn’t sure I would make it. I wheezed, red-faced and extremely not in shape, my entire way uphill. But once at the destination, I couldn’t believe my own legs could carry me there. The alpine air smelled like balsam. And I was surrounded by people I loved and respected. I felt a sense of connection and awe like I never had before.

I was hooked.

Another thing I did was move my bedroom drawings onto canvas, using acrylic paint. It started with an innocuous suggestion made to me by my chosen art mentor: why don’t you try your drawings, but with paint? And I figured what the hell, why not.

I sat in the art room for hours using a sitting easel and painstakingly applying paint to canvas, dimly aware of the ambient noise of conversations, people coming in and out to check out what was going on, and other projects going on around me. Acrylic is forgiving in that it dries, and you can layer over it. I don’t know how many layers were on that first painting, but when it was done I knew it. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I’d experienced that same sense of terror combined with thrill throughout the process. I had to try another painting, to keep pushing; to find that edge where I couldn’t go any farther.

So, I painted another one. And you know where that goes – soon I had accumulated a sizable body of paintings because, again, I was fortunate to be at this school that allowed me to decide how I use my time. 

My art mentor suggested I show my work at a local gallery. I called up Barnes and Noble, and they graciously set a date with me to hang my paintings on the wall of the Starbucks inside the store.

But they had one question for me the week before the showing that somehow blindsided me. The easy question – what are the names of my paintings?; I’d already done that. But they wanted to know how much I was selling them for, so they could include that information with the titles.

I asked my mentor. What should I do?! She asked me if I wanted to sell the paintings. I said, no, not really. So she suggested I price them beyond what they were worth. When it came to setting a price tag, she was unhelpful in determining that for me. But she did encourage me several times to bump my number up, and up again.

I had my art opening and one by one, my paintings sold. Some to family friends, and some to strangers. It was baffling, and exciting.

I had a dizzying amount of money for a 16 year old. Sure, I also had a job. But this was more than just the cost of my car, insurance, or food. This was real money.

I remembered about The Golden Compass, and the aurora. And I decided to visit Alaska.

Fast forward a few years, and the most bitter (maybe one of the only) fights I ever got into with my grandma was about whether I should pursue art school or not. I said no. She said yes. Her argument: I had talent and I should develop it. My argument: I could develop that at any time, all the time; what I really wanted was to explore something new – something else I could do in the world. Going to art school was never an option in my mind.

So, I went for something completely different. I embarked on another career, connecting with what I cared about from a different vantage point. I ultimately moved to Alaska, having been drawn back twice, and then a third time. And art was mostly latent; something that hummed in the background on and off. Many people in my life had no idea I painted. Some years I was prolific; other years I slacked or was just too hammered at work to put much into painting.

And now, 2019, I’m making the decision to focus on art. Not full time; roughly ¼ time (which in practical terms means 12 hours a week, including evenings and weekends). 

Which brings me here.

I’m starting this blog not just about painting. The paintings themselves are not just about painting or canvas; they’re about what happens when the scales of maintaining the status quo tip toward “do something” rather than “do nothing”. I figure out what little bit of perspective I want to bring in the world, and I have to want it badly enough to dedicate hours to struggling with a canvas. Every painting I do rides that wave of terror and thrill of whether or not this will be the one I finally am unable to do, and every time I finish one I feel surprise and relief, and the push toward what’s next. And bringing a business into the world?! That is the biggest creative endeavor I have ever taken on, so far.

I’m writing this because the themes of creation, stagnation, tearing your hair out, celebrating achievements, feeling hopelessly lost, finding inspiration, and figuring out how to make a dent in the world add up to define what I consider a meaningful life. Me embarking on making something bigger out of painting, once again, is one way to enter into the messiness, and excitement, of being part of the world. I paint because I want to share a sense of wonder and beauty that I see in our every day lives. I believe we each need to be and deserve to be connected to that feeling; that it’s healing and inspiring for each of us, and having a deep sense of joy is part of what enables us to better connect to ourselves and each other. 

So this writing will be part of that. It’s about the paintings, sure; and about me wrestling with business, and how to manage all of it in the dumpster fire of my schedule. But in a deeper way it’s about sharing pieces of every day beauty in the world, even and especially in the unknown, the routine, and the new.



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