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Oh sweet spring. Walking through the neighborhood, the scent of flowers fills the air. Jasmine! I lean down to inhale. And then the lilacs. They are pink, light purple, dark purple and the most wondrous: purple with white edges on each tiny flower. When I bury my face in them, the scent carries me to a memory lost in the folds of time. I am five or six. My dad has taken me to work with him on the railroad and I am sitting on the lap of the engineer in the massive engine at the front of the train. I remember his dark coveralls, dials and levers, and the oily smell of the car. The engineer reaches into his pocket to pull out a tiny bottle of perfume. Lilac! Had he known I was coming? I inhale the lilac scent. It fills the world of coal and oil with incomprehensible beauty. And it still does.

Springtime is a time of begging flowers from neighbors so I can photograph them. I always return the favor with a print, though it’s almost impossible to repay the pleasure.

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sister teresa

sister teresa in 2014

More than 35 years ago my friend Carolyn Kortge and I embarked on a feature story about the Carmel of Maria Regina, a cloistered community of nuns who live on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon. Several years earlier, as a graduate student, I had approached the nuns about doing a photo essay, but they decided that it was not the time and sent me on my way to explore another religious community. But this time around, in 1983, they agreed. After getting special dispensation from the archbishop in Portland, Carolyn and I were given unprecedented access to the lives of the nuns to do a unique story for The Register-Guard, where we both worked, she as a writer and I as a photographer.

Through multiple trips to their compound, we experienced their prayer time, meals, packaging of altar breads, feeding pets, making gifts for their annual sale, and a wedding-like ceremony of a novice becoming full-fledged nun. We found humor and humility as they worked, prayed and cared for each other.

A bulletin board in one of the hallways reminded them, with neatly attached Post-it notes, of people who had requested prayers for themselves, their friends or relatives. One of their jobs is to pray for all of us who cannot seem to do it ourselves. Carolyn and I learned that the cloistered life is not an easy one. We became life-long friends.

Over the years, the 12 nuns have diminished in number to about seven, with just the occasional addition of a nun-in-training. They continue to work hard all day long, praying, cooking, doing laundry, taking turns in the role of nurse for each other as they grow old. This past week they lost one of their own, Sister Teresa, who was a Carmelite nun for 40 years. She was the one who tended to the blueberries, the accounting ledgers, the email. She also created gold-tinged paintings that belong in a Bible or a museum of 12th-century art.

Her life was made difficult by rheumatoid arthritis and a heart that could barely keep up with her zest for living. Until, finally, it didn’t. Last Thursday all of the sisters (except one who is bedridden) left the cloister to gather around Sr. Teresa as she passed away after a sudden trip to the emergency department at one of the local hospitals. Her absence will leave a gaping hole in the lives of those who have known her for so many decades and also for those who didn’t even know she was saying a prayer for them.

This weekend, as I traveled by train to Vancouver, B.C. with my husband, I read a book called When Breath Becomes Air. It was written by a young doctor, Paul Kalanithi, who was in his final training as a neurosurgeon in California when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He was also a wonderful writer. The book was written as he was going through the painful disease and ravages of chemo.

There is a place in the book in which he discusses how dying informs life. The question is: if we knew we were dying, would we live differently? And how would that be?

I like to wonder out loud about these things every so often because I think it helps us, or me, at least, live more consciously. Maybe it’s my upbringing. Maybe my years of working with sick people as a nuclear medical technologist before I became a photographer. Maybe the many times I photographed people in various stages of health over my career.

I ask myself if I am doing what I could, should, ought to be doing in my life as a friend, spouse, teacher, musician, artist. Have I told you lately that I love you? Have I been adventurous, creative, kind enough, brave enough? Have I stopped to play with the cat, watch the leaves unfurl, say thank you?

Just today, a long-time friend died of cancer after a very brief illness. I was supposed to photograph him and his wife at their home next week. I wish we could have had that time. Meanwhile, today I signed up for an art workshop that I have long wanted to take. And I am working on an album of songs, something I have dreamed of. If I knew I were dying next week, would I live differently? I think the only thing I would change is that I would reach out to everyone I love to tell them that I love them. Again.

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About the image:  This image, called “Into the Clouds,” is part of my “Rapture” Series. It was created with an antique dress that once belonged to an elderly neighbor and which I bought at her moving sale as she prepared to move to an assisted care facility. She made it by hand to wear dancing on her first trip to New York City as a young woman. The dress was carefully floated in water outdoors to look as if it is passing through the sky or from one dimension to the next. It will be in the Artist Trust Auction in February. You can see more from this series on my website.

 

peonies_bookWhile preparing a talk to deliver to the university art students in my hometown of Minot, ND, I re-read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a thought-provoking take on why making art is hard.

Here is a quote from the beginning of the book: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Oh, yeah!

Pressfield writes that Resistance (the devil with the capital R) can arise in response to anything that might be good for us: making art, music, writing, dieting, any act of bettering our lives spiritually, educationally or otherwise. Resistance can take many forms, some as deceptive as deciding to clean the kitchen cabinets instead of working on our stuff.

I am not immune to Resistance. But I have found ways to work around it. One factor is responsibility to others. In my work as an artist, I have often been involved with a group (there have been several over the years) that meets monthly to discuss new work. We give ourselves an assignment and then meet to discuss. The combination of the assignment and responsibility to others forces me to overcome my critical internal dialog about not being good enough, not having enough new ideas, not having a clue about what to do. At some point in the month, I do the work. Oh, it can be sooo hard!

When I finish a piece, I feel wonderfully alive. Even if the work is not as good as I imagined or doesn’t quite convey the sentiment I had in mind, I did it! It is something out of nothing! And sometimes, to my amazement, it turns out better than I ever hoped; maybe it even leads to bigger projects, such as a book or an exhibit. But the best part is overcoming the gravitational pull of Resistance! Forget the kitchen cabinets. They can wait!

a farewell

Haunty_72dpi_2012_coverI have photographed many people over the years. Each person has his or her own interesting story. Sometimes there are people whose stories are particularly moving. Nancy Haunty is one of those people. In 2012 I was hired by the Swedish Hospital Foundation in Seattle to photograph Nancy for a special Foundation publication about women and cancer. It turns out that Nancy, who was in her early forties at the time, had dealt with several bouts of breast cancer after an initial diagnosis in 2002. She and her husband Jake came to the photo session at Discovery Park accompanied their two beloved bull dogs and by a large group of friends who loved and supported them.

Nancy was an inspiration to many as she battled years of metastatic breast cancer. Incredibly, she ran two half-marathons and climbed Mt. Adams with the support of Team Survivor Northwest. Sadly, Nancy died on May 13 at the age of 46. Though the encounter I had with her was brief, she is a person whose life was inspiring to me and to many who knew her. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with her.

Those ocoffee_yellow tablef you who watch my occasional Facebook posts know that I just got back from a month in Europe. First on the list was a 10-day stop in Paris, alone, to celebrate a milestone birthday. Pourquoi non?

I rented a lovely apartment around the corner from the Eiffel Tower with the idea of taking 10 days to see what I would discover about Paris and about myself. After that, my husband would join me for travel to Spain.

What do I love about Paris? The architecture, the grand boulevards, the balconies, the flower shops, the sidewalk cafes, the great museums, the soaring cathedrals the flea markets, the farmers markets. But what I love most is wandering, which I did every day.

The French have a name for such a person: flâneur. Which means one one who saunters around observing society. And though I did not exactly saunter (I am a fast walker), I enjoyed observing, stopping in shops, watching people, looking at art, making pictures. Everything. And I enjoyed pausing for a cup of coffee, which I rarely do in my Seattle life. It was a time to just BE.

I had such a wonderful time that I decided to try to bring a bit of the flâneur back with me. So the other day I took the bus to downtown Seattle where I walked around, went to galleries and shops, and strolled through the Pike Place Market with the eyes of a visitor.

I filled myself with art and beauty at the Rovzar Gallery, the Lisa Harris Gallery, and the wonderful Watson Kennedy store near the Inn at the Market. I even stopped in a café to enjoy a crème brulée. Later I joined my husband and friends for dinner on Capitol Hill.

Voila! I discovered that I do not actually not have to go to Paris to be in a Paris state of mind. For the price of a bus fare, I was there.

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note: please check out my updated website.

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top: The Beast. bottom: the flames

top: The Beast. bottom: the flames

Last evening my husband and I joined a host of other people at the home of Kate Thompson and Mary Bruno for an incredible event about letting go. Kate has been lugging around a suitcase for three decades, a suitcase filled with her mother’s poems and prose and rejection slips, which she explains in her blog post.

Finally Kate decided that it was time to have a ceremony about letting go. It’s a question all of us who create stuff (art, sculpture, poems, songs) have to consider, eventually.

The very talented Kate created a large beast that looked somewhat like an alpaca (a beast of burden), feathered with triangles of cut up poems and stories from her mother’s suitcase. Everyone who came to the event was invited add their own symbolic burdens to the creature which was then hauled ceremoniously from the backyard down the the beach below.

Surrounded by friends, Kate lit a match. The Beast of Unburden went up in dramatic flames, ashes floating off into the clouds, to some creative afterlife, undoubtedly freeing up space for more creative works to come.

 

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so beautiful

Rosanne Olson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lately I have been reflecting on the incredible variety in who we are and how we present ourselves. If you know of someone (male, female, young, old) who has an inspiring story (including you, dear reader), please let me know!

Victoria is a young woman I know and adore. She is a lovely 24-year-old who exudes good cheer and that “I want what she’s having” quality. What makes her so? She is not our media’s norm for beauty. On any given day she might have pink hair. Or blond. She wears tight clothes with stockings that cultivate runs. But Victoria, through her being and connection to life, is beautiful.

Her approach to clothing is an example of what’s happening now in the world of women and fashion, especially for younger women. Getting beyond the stick-thin model as a paradigm of beauty, some women are throwing off baggy clothes to reveal their hearts and bodies. And while one may make the argument for aspiring to be svelte for reasons of health, the point is to celebrate what we have right now. And Victoria does that with panache.

When Victoria showed up at our annual holiday party, she wore a green velvet sleeveless dress, stockings with seams, incredible heels. Thank you, Victoria, for your inspiration!

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Galway Kinnell

 

 

In the department of inspiring people, I want to note that one of my favorite poets, Galway Kinnell, passed away at the age of 87. I met him at an art retreat at a place called Menucha, east of Portland, Ore., in 1979. He was 52 at the time and seemed to be vibrating with vitality and creative energy. He did a reading for us, a small group of artists and writers. It was a reading I will never forget at which he read: The Bear, a brilliant poem about life life, art and suffering. Another of his poems that is one of my all-time favorites is St. Francis and the Sow. I have read it many times at lectures for my book, This is Who I Am. I is a powerful statement about finding beauty in every living being.

St. Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

From A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell, published by Houghton Mifflin; copyright © 2000 by Galway Kinnell

 

Seattle Center _OlsonSummer’s a sweet memory–one of the best ever in Seattle. Now the tomatoes are just about finished, the trees are ablaze in reds and yellows. The spiders are busy creating elaborate webs that somehow impossibly suspend across the sidewalk from our house, snagging the early morning walkers. One of my favorite photos from summer is that of the fountain at the Seattle summer, taken with my iPhone. Every time I look at it I feel that water and feel like a kid again!

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