Flashdance Flashback Fantasy

I want to tell you about submitting my three paintings to an exhibition/contest last week.

I was pretty nervous. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to show complete strangers my work (posting them on this blog doesn’t count. I can’t see you cringe over the internet).

I drove up to the fourth level of the parking ramp of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art per the directions given for finding the “intake” room for submitted art. On my way there I didn’t see any other cars going up. I just saw little signs with arrows saying “Festival of Arts Drop-off” leading me higher and higher into the parking ramp. It should probably come to no surprise that my reality is often infected with bouts of fantasy not unlike those of Walter Mitty, though I don’t usually go catatonic when I’m having them. The small fantasy that rode up with me through the UICA parking ramp that day was one where I follow the signs for the art “drop-off” all the way up, up, up, to the very top of the ramp and am guided to drive my car off the edge of the roof to crash in a metallic heap far below, accompanied by a very bright fireball that passers-by would find beautiful, but inconvenient. Of course, my body is never found, but my artwork survives the inferno. The county coroner comes to the scene, sees my paintings, and writes as the cause of death on my death certificate “obvious suicide due to artistic hackery”. A photographer then happens by, shoots a picture of the burning carnage, submits it to the contest, and wins the Grand Prize.

All this went through my head between levels two and three of the parking ramp.

As I brought my car to the fourth level, I saw quite of few cars parked there and people holding artwork waiting in line through a door that led into the UICA building. The sign next to the door confirmed that was where I wanted to be.

I parked the car and carefully removed the three paintings from the backseat, dreading the sound of cracking glass as one of them banged against the other. Fantasy #2 lasted 3.4 seconds and is the one where all three paintings shatter into piles of dust at my feet, blow away, and leave me standing there with a bunch of artists staring at me. After the 3.4 seconds were over, I walked my paintings to the back of the line.

I noticed everyone looked like an artist. I can’t explain what that means, other than saying that from the man with the long beard and dreadlocks, to the old guy with the corduroys and tattered golf hat, to the teenage girl with that gleam in her eye only the reincarnation of Picasso could have; every single person waiting in line looked like they knew what they were doing. They held their bodies a certain way and carried art that looked like it should be in a museum. I looked down at my paintings and fought the urge to shrug and loudly declare that I was submitting them on behalf of my pet monkey.

The line slowly moved forward. I could see volunteers inside typing feverishly on a bank of laptops, entering artist info and putting numbered stickers on the back of each submitted piece. Oil abstracts, wooden sculptures, photographs of things I’d never seen before — all passed in front of me like a surreal artistic conveyor belt.

My next fantasy contains an infusion from the old 80s movie, Flashdance. I am a middle-aged, grey-bearded nightclub dancer, trying to apply to the prestigious ballet company with a bunch of well-trained and dainty ballerinas standing on their toes around me. They look at me with pretentious judgment in their eyes. They know I’m not a “real” dancer. I want to run out of there just like Jennifer Beals did in that movie.

I felt these people staring at me knew I wasn’t a “real” artist.

But as soon as I realized the only person actually staring at me that day was the lady behind one of the laptops asking for the next submitter to step up, I settled into the true fantasy of my surroundings. And that fantasy is the one where I am submitting artwork that I painted to a real, live art exhibition and contest. Yikes! This shit was getting real!

“Thank you. You should be finding out if your work was selected in the next day or two,” the volunteer said after taking my information and letting another volunteer spirit my paintings away somewhere. I walked back to my car in a daze and drove home.

Two days later I received three emails from the Festival of Arts, each with a different number in the subject line.

I opened the first one. Not selected. Damn.

I opened the second one. Not selected. Damn.

I opened the third one. Selected. Damn.

…what? Selected?

It appears the Festival of Arts 2014 Regional Art Exhibition has decided to approve Jennifer Beals’ application to the dance school for at least one of his paintings anyway.

The piece below will be displayed with other selected pieces from other artists for the next two months at the gallery of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art.

Whether I win any of the awards or not doesn’t matter to me. One of my paintings is in an exhibition.

I gotta a feeling…I’m becoming an artist.

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Here’s another one I painted not too long ago. Just for something new to look at. Yeah, I’m a maniac.

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Judgment Time

I’m entering my first art competition next week. I figure it is time to step up my game…and my exposure. Since I don’t know anything about art, I relied on some of my friends and social media to help me choose among the dozen I thought might be worthy of representing what I’m doing these days.

Just as I thought, most of my favorite pieces fell short on votes and didn’t make the cut for submission to the contest. This is proof that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing as an artist just as I’ve been stating in this blog all along. However, I did receive more positive feedback than I expected. I think people were surprised I was painting at all, let alone painting stuff they might mistake for being attractive. Remember, I just started painting back in August. That’s almost fifty years of NOT painting that my friends had to ignore in order to open themselves up to even entertain the thought of me as an artist. Writer? Whisky enthusiast? Beekeeper? Eccentric, but lovable buffoon? All of those are easier to swallow than me being an artist. Ask any of my friends.

Luckily for me, I’ve had a number of artistic accidents recently that have evolved my capabilities to a level I’m not embarrassed to show. Some might disagree and say I should be embarrassed to show them, but again, luckily for me I don’t have the common sense to listen to those people. But it’s not those people who are trying to talk me out of it. It’s myself.

Who in the hell do I think I am, entering a regional art competition? People only enter those who have been “arting” for years! I’ve been at it for less time than it takes for a woman to grow a baby!

Thank you, Mr. Lack-of-confidence. You can sit down and shut up now.

And that is just how I have to handle my misgivings about entering my paintings in the competition. The amount of time I’ve been painting has very little to do with the worthiness of my artwork. Thankfully, art doesn’t require the same planning, engineering, nor education of rocket science. And that’s the nice thing about submitting art anonymously. The judges don’t have any idea if the pieces they are looking at are painted by a trained master or an untrained chimp. Granted, a painting by a chimp is more likely to include feces as a medium than a painting by a trained master, but I figure as long as I limit my efforts to using acrylics I can still be potentially confusing when it’s judging time.

So, the three paintings I’m submitting to the contest are below. They are the ones that received the most votes by a small list of friends who found it worth their time to give me the feedback I was seeking. Though they aren’t necessarily my favorite paintings, I like each one and am feeling pretty good about submitting them. I am not expecting anything special to come of it, but you never know. Hell, every journey starts with a single step. My first step at painting started last August. My first step at thinking my stuff might not be total crap starts next week.

I’ll let you know how far I got with that step in a future post.

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Getting Used To The New Me

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A few months ago, I wrote a blog on finding my artistic voice. I should have known at that time, like any voice just beginning, it was the voice of a child and would eventually deepen after going through puberty. The buddhists say the only thing that is constant is change. Yes, I should have known that my artistic voice would always be changing. I should have remembered the life I knew would always be changing. I should have continued to be aware that I will always be changing. No matter how old I get.

This past February, I was fired from my job after surviving it for fifteen years. Don’t feel bad. It was a corporate thing. There was nothing you, nor I, could have done to change the direction of that train. Today’s blog isn’t a campaign for sympathy though. It will not be a rant against corporate evils like you may find in some of my other blogs. It is simply a testament about the change I’ve found in the world since being freed from my employment — a newness to look forward to that I forgot was part of being alive — a breath of fresh air — a reminder of the natural current that is my existence and how I can manifest that in my art.

Of course, one of the first things I did after being informed I no longer had a purpose at a place I struggled to find purpose for the better part of two decades was to stop shaving. It was the perfect time to see what I was capable of growing by myself both literally and artistically, unencumbered by the daily indentured servitude of traditional societal parameters of thought, attitude, and personal grooming.

As the progression of my whiskers sprouted from my face, so did my ideas concerning what I wanted for myself and for my art. Even though I needed to find another job, I didn’t let that weigh on me. Instead of feeling I had to jump right back in the fire, I allowed myself the opportunity to look around and see what was available in the cool breeze that swirled around it. I woke up naturally and well-rested. I listened to the inviting cadence of the day beyond the vapid rhythm my job had conditioned me to believe was necessary to fit into society.

I set my own pace. I ate when I was hungry, shat when I was shitty, and started painting like it was the only job I had.

This new work was hard and fulfilling. I spent hours upon hours hunched over my painting table, trying new colors, new methods, new shapes. The progression of my days were not measured by the clock, but rather the occasional turning over of the sheet of glass I was working on to see how my piece of art was progressing. That’s the wonderful thing about reverse painting — you don’t really know how it’s going at the time you’re working on it. You just have to let it unfold naturally, like a plant that you water and nurture but have no real control of. Then you flip it over to see how it is blossoming. Sometimes it’s prickly like a cactus and other times it’s smooth like a blade of grass. But I’ve found that it is always a fruitful and interesting outcome whether I like it or not.

This fevered production of painting over the last couple of months has healed me in a way. It has made me feel like a new man ready for a new adventure in some fresh direction instead of a washed up middle-aged guy who just got fired from his job.

The only problem with painting as much as I have lately is finding a place for all the pieces. I’ve been storing them around my office, but space is running out. It’s starting to look more like a dishevelled gallery with each new addition. Perhaps the next generation of my own creative blossoming is to not just create the art, but to actually do something with it. I recently gave the piece below to my daughter for her 23rd birthday. I wanted to paint her something and she told me she liked earth-tone colors. This was different from my earlier attempts with muted blues and grays. It forced me to take a chance on new colors I wasn’t yet comfortable with. Luckily, I like the way it turned out. More importantly, SHE liked the way it turned out. This piece now adorns one of her walls. That is as much a present to me as it was meant to be a present for her.

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It is a wonderful thing to look around and realize the options you have. I never truly felt that way until I was fired two months ago. Before, I just looked around and told myself I was lucky to have a job. Now I look around and don’t have to tell myself anything. I just let my life make up its own story.

Of course, I need a new job. But should I go back to work for a different company? Should I study and take the bar exam again? Finish my novel? Become a beekeeper (I’ve always been interested in bees and started two hives last year). Do I want to make my living being an artist?

Whatever I choose, I know that it will be a step forward instead of backward — a vote for progress instead of stasis.

I feel a little guilty being this giddy at my age. But that’s how I get when I’m hopeful. I’m like a kid seeing something new for the first time all the time. I can’t stop it. But why would I want to?

Oh, I almost forgot. This is how the whiskers are progressing as well. It’s weird though. I don’t remember using so much grey in any of my earlier attempts.

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Another Fortunate Accident Or Just Misfortune?

I really wanted to do something fun with this big piece of glass I found. It was the biggest so far, more than 3 feet by 3 feet. I sketched different variations of possible designs over many days. I knew I had to choose one or I would never get started. Eventually you just have to dive in.

As soon as I applied the bold lines of black, I felt I had tilted from my original plan. Damn. Do I keep going? Make the best out of a bad situation? When will I get another piece of glass this big?

Since I started this art thing a few months back, I had been promising myself I would make no corrections — that the process had to be open and free and accepting of whatever came of it. Each piece of art had to be an expression of circumstance, not intent.

Screw that idealistic crap! I might never find another piece of glass this big again! I grabbed a paper towel and some Windex and decided to start over. I didn’t even know if I could start over, but I was going to try. I sprayed the Windex and wiped the paper towel along the surface. Some of the black paint came off, but most of it just streaked and moved around. Much of the paint had dried enough already for most of the lines to maintain their original placement, but give up their guts each time I tried to wipe the whole thing away. I rubbed hard against the dry portions, leaving great swatches of injury along the entire span of design. Ugh, this was pitiful. It was just growing more and more hopeless with every swipe. Not only was I probably not going to be able to start over, but I was most assuredly ruining any chance of saving it and wasted…um…an entire…um…wait a minute. This was kind of cool.

Maybe I could make this work. Maybe I just needed to give myself up to the error. Not only that, but maybe I should paint the whole thing in error — create more scars and add the next color before the last color completely dries. It could be the worst thing I’ve ever done. But maybe not. It was time to check the depth of the pond by diving in head first. Let me know if I broke my neck.

This is how that big piece of glass turned out.

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I liked it, but I wasn’t brave enough to purposely try to fail again with another large piece of glass, so I grabbed one of my smaller pieces. If it sucked, I’d throw it away and not tell another soul. I could just continue my life as if nothing happened.

I explored with lines to keep it simple. No reason to be a hero. I wiped the wet paint when some of it had dried. Okay, still kind of cool. Maybe not a total disaster.

I kept going without a net. No plan. No expectation.

There is something very cathartic about giving yourself up to commit errors that you have pledged to leave alone — promised not to fix. Much like life, sometimes we have to let the mistakes happen, maybe even encouraging them, to see what type of beauty can be expressed from the mess.

Believe it or not, error can become art.

And because of this, perhaps we should all stop being so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes. We can never really erase them and start over anyway, so why bother looking the other way when they happen? Maybe mistakes aren’t really errors at all, but rather, expressions of the awkwardness we are meant to feel when life jolts us into an unexpected direction. You never know.

Regardless, I think I will keep going in this new direction and see what happens…

Until my next mistake.

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Ignore The Feeding Frenzy And Thank The Feeding Friends

I learn about life through my experiences. I have become cynical about some things, but overall, I believe I am optimistic and generally happy. I rarely have to look far to remember why.

I was fortunate enough to have a blog article published on the Huffington Post site recently. Not an article I wrote for my own blogs, but one I wrote in response to an open call for blog posts that dealt with America’s working poor. I figured my story fit the bill. I work. I am poor.

Some of you may have read the article. For those of you who didn’t, let me just say that it was an anecdotal summary of my career in about 1000 words or so. I didn’t try to pass the blame to anyone for any professional shortcomings I may have experienced and I wasn’t trying to garner sympathy for my plight. I just told my story — plain and simple — so people could see that hard work was not necessarily a ticket to success. I knew that there would be a percentage of the readers that responded negatively.

The feedback was mixed as expected, with about as many supportive comments as there were critical comments (and there were almost a thousand comments in all). The supporters applauded my candor and continued resolve, and generally seemed to understand the nuances of the purely expository purpose of the article. The detractors, on the other hand, were almost universally judgmental and insulting. They happily filled the informational blanks with their own assumptions to rationalize their outbursts. For example, one critic said he had no sympathy for a “pot-smoking loser” when he addressed the fact that I had initially dropped out of my first attempt at college. I never mentioned anything about smoking pot in the article (probably because I didn’t smoke pot. I preferred gin). I just said the temptations of a big university were too much for me. The critic obviously didn’t like the fact I had left out details he needed to make a hasty generalization, so he filled in the gap arbitrarily.

Initially, I read most the comments just to see what kind of feedback I was getting. But I soon realized there was nothing for me in any of them. Comments of support were nice, gave some momentum to my self esteem, but were fundamentally unnecessary. I love my life. I think the trade-offs I’ve made instead of following a traditional path have been worth it. I like the way I view the world. Sure, I have complaints and things to say about areas where I believe society can improve, but that doesn’t mean I need a hug to be happy. I always need hugs, but not for that reason. Hugs are just healthy and good for people.

But it was within the critical comments I found the most waste. Not one person told me anything that I didn’t already know. Many said I had made “reckless decisions” and deserved what I got. Hell, I knew THAT! My entire life has been a model of how a person can survive quite happily on a wave of reckless decisions. And I have never argued against my own accountability within that model that has had both good and bad results. Most of the other negative comments, however, were just venomous insults, striking out at me. It was as if they were trying to injure me for what I could only guess was some pervasive disgust in their own lives that manifested itself as some form of pompous self-righteousness and could only be expressed through the degradation of another human being.

I found it very, very interesting.

It confirmed to me a simple truth — there are people who want to help and then there are just some people who want to hurt. Negative criticism is not necessarily hurtful. If it is based on reasonable interpretations and is offered with the purpose of benefiting someone than it can be a very valuable tool. Unfortunately, I believe the bulk of critical expression these days is usually a misguided cry for acknowledgement by the critic in hopes of being recognized as an intelligent, valid, and relevant creature.

As an artist, it is important to be able to separate the two types of critics — the helpful apart from the hurtful. Luckily, I have not encountered either yet. Probably because few have actually seen my art.

But unlike the comments of support for my Huffington Post article that I found fundamentally unnecessary, I’d be a liar if I didn’t confess I enjoy comments of support for my painting. Perhaps it’s because it is all so new and I have yet to completely synthesize the truism “ars gratia artis”, art for arts sake, into my own psyche. I still like to hear that I’m not wasting my time nor my paint.

One of my good friends, George, never fails to let me know how much he likes my art. In fact, he doesn’t stop with the compliments, he proactively seeks out opportunities to get my pieces out into the world. He is an artist himself, a chef who uses food as his medium, so he can identify with the risk of putting one’s art on the table for the consumption, thus the criticism, of the public. We are brothers cut from the same cloth — we both believe a life should be explored during its entirety and not just when you’re young. George is the proprietor of Shier’s Artisan Foods (awesome eats) and currently operates a food wagon in cooperation with the Midland Brewing Company, a craft brewer in Midland, Michigan. Last month, George facilitated the hanging of a number of my pieces around the walls of MBC’s publc tasting room.

They hang there as I write this now, available for anyone to view and criticize to their hearts content. I must admit, it’s a little scary having my babies out there where I can’t defend them, but I can’t worry about the negative things people might say. Ars gratia artis, right?

All I can do is be thankful that there are people out there like George and the folks at Midland Brewing Company. And I know there are others out there as well. It is important to focus on the people trying to help instead of dwelling on those trying to hurt.

“Your stuff is great and it needs to be seen,” George says.

Thanks, George. That means a lot coming from you.

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This is one of the pictures hanging at MBC in Midland. For George’s sake, I hope it doesn’t make anyone lose their appetite.

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Faith and Art

Like art, faith is not reserved for the religious, nor does any religion have a monopoly on it. To the contrary, at one level, faith is a common and important psychological coping mechanism used every moment of our lives to allow us to function as normally as possible. I am not exaggerating when I say it keeps us from going insane. We all need faith in this way — the scientist, the laymen, the atheist, the zealot — it is the mental bonding agent that allows us to hold it all together emotionally.

My faith that I will wake up each morning instead of drifting off into the underworld keeps me from going crazy the night before trying to contact people to say goodbye. My faith that I can drive to work every day without getting killed in an automobile accident keeps me from staying home all the time and getting fired. And perhaps most importantly, my faith that intolerance and ignorance will eventually give way to reason and compassion (regardless of how long it takes) keeps me from writing off every other person I meet as a waste of my time.

Unfortunately, at another level, faith is what some people treat as a type of official membership card in an imagined club God has sanctioned — “my faith has been approved by God — yours is just a cheap counterfeit”. This “exclusive” belief is an attempt to secure afterlife insurance and a defense against uncertainty whether those people are aware of it or not. When faith is held as a shield against fear in this way, it can and often does lead to a blindness that is perpetually confused with clarity. Why look around us when what we want is right there?

I might even agree with that logic if I could be sure truth was the goal of our desire instead of just security against uncertainty. But I’m not one to make that call for the rest. I can only speak for myself. I made friends with uncertainty long ago.

In the mid-1990s, when I first encountered a man who would become a good friend of mine, I was walking through the used bookstore he owned and noticed an entire section devoted to Theosophy. I was unfamiliar with the topic, but the fact that this particular section held both used and new books, as well as being situated in a prime corner of the building easily accessible for convenience, told me he regarded it with importance. I was intrigued. I introduced myself and asked him about some other titles before pretending to ask about the Theosophy section as an aside. He gave me the ten minute tour of the subject (referring to it as a “religious philosophy” more than a religion) and said he and his wife had been Theosophists for the better part of their adult lives. He spoke to me the whole time in an informative tone and without proselytizing, something I thought uncommon in a religious discussion — or even in a religious philosophy discussion, for that matter. He seemed rational enough for me to press him with a simple question:

“How do you know this stuff is true?” I asked.

His response surprised me and changed the way I would exercise my own spiritual health forever after.

“I don’t,” he said with a smile. “But even if it’s not true, it’s a good way to live.”

I found this approach to faith refreshing. It wasn’t the stagnant pool of entitlement and righteousness that has caused so much conflict in the world, but rather a view of faith that seemed to validate my decision to seek alternate roads to answers I wasn’t even sure I was capable of finding. It allowed me to indulge my pioneer spirit and understand my curiosity as a tool instead of a hindrance. And finally, it allowed me to remain open to the views of others whom I suspected were just living life the best they could under the power of their chosen wind.

But the most important thing I found from the talk with my bookstore-owner friend that day was learning the motto of the Theosophists — an inarguable statement in it’s mathematical simplicity:

“There is no religion higher than truth.”

I can find no fault in those words and have integrated them into my spiritual DNA ever since.

And this is how I view the creation of art, like faith, as something that all of us need to do to some extent to keep us sane. Whether it be painting, writing, playing an instrument, communicating with a co-worker or a friend, driving a car through busy traffic, cooking, believing in the divine, not believing in the divine — we need to live some part of our lives artfully every day, even if how we decide to do it is different from how other people might do it.

This all might not be true.

But it’s a good way to live.

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Buried Treasure

More often than not, it isn’t obvious. More often than not, we have to dig under all the distracting garbage to find it. More often than not, we forget it’s even there until we trip over it accidentally.

Treasure is there. It’s just that sometimes there is an art to finding it.

My sister messaged me last week. She wrote “Hey you…are you alive? Breathing? Doing something today that brings you JOY?”. She was just touching base and trying to make plans for the holiday, but her message started me thinking about her. She is an artist by nature — adept at any medium — clay, wood, paint, leather, crayon, glass, feather — living a life that seems to be a creative expression of her own will upon it. But the true art of her life may be her ability to find treasures that other people overlook. She finds them in form and design, garbage and nature, places and people. This ability is as beautiful and creative as anything I’ve ever seen.

My sister hasn’t had an easy life, but I believe she has had what deserves to be a joyful one — not in what she has been given, but in what she has found. She is a treasure hunter — forever keeping an eye out for the next good find — the next gem. She has furnished her homes beautifully and creatively with either used things or things she has made. Her artwork is often an item of the mundane turned into something to celebrate. You will rarely, if at all, see her with anything brand new, but she is constantly surrounded by new items in her world decorated by nothing new.

She was born a free spirit. Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, she’s been dancing to her own drummer the whole time. It didn’t surprise me when she came out as gay back in the 80s — long before it was fashionable to do so. I remember thinking at the time that it made sense, that being “straight” just didn’t seem to fit my definition of her. To me, she was a person of fluid and rounded corners — a meandering river free of the rocks of expectation and the snags of tradition.

After she graduated from high school, she spent years holding court on the gulf coast of Texas, working hard and maintaining her beach house that was a hub for free-thinkers, musicians, artists, and those “fringe” people who often had to choose the terror of being honest with themselves over the pain of families who couldn’t accept them as they were. Yes, my sister’s house was a haven for the broken, the broke, the creative, the tolerant, and sometimes just folks who craved the support of other “weird” people. I, myself, lived down there for six months in 1984 after I split with my first serious college girlfriend. I needed an escape route from the pain of love and her A-frame on stilts near the splashing waves sounded like the ticket. I found solace there amidst what some people might call “human wreckage”, but what I found to be an exciting swarm of vibrant souls who withheld judgement until they understood a person’s character; didn’t let the pain of their injuries keep them from laughing; and loved life freely regardless, with passion and without apology. Even thirty years later, I look back on it as a time of magic. I did not come back unaffected.

Eventually, knowing that our mother was not getting any younger, my sister moved back north to Michigan so she could be close by if needed. She built a house in the woods and again made it available to those she thought might need it. She added a ramp to accommodate wheelchairs and made sure there were plenty of craft and art supplies to offer any at-risk children she helps supervise or family members looking for something creative to do.

But the woods are different from the ocean.

Though she’ll only admit being twenty-nine, her hips and knees scream otherwise and the last time I saw her she was using a cane and “wobbling around like a penguin”, according to her own words. And even though the artist and treasure hunter still shines through her eyes, I can tell it’s getting harder for her to see those works of art and hidden gems in a world where she used to find them so effortlessly. Yes, life is slowing her down.

But if she reads this, and I know she will, I hope it helps her walk a little lighter and feel a little younger to know that her life has been and will continue to be a work of art to me. That even though her aging pain makes the world seem bland these days, the simple virtue of her presence still adds color to it. That even during these long winters, she will forever be a warm spot for those stuck out in the cold. And that even when I think my own art is crap, her enthusiasm and support for it is the only proof I need to know that there is treasure there…somewhere.

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