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love & poetry

 

Here is an essay by my friend, poet Spencer Reece, who is an Episcopal priest, currently living in Madrid. He worked at an orphanage in Honduras, the “murder capital of the world,” teaching poetry to girls who were residents of Our Little Roses, an orphanage.  Writing poetry was a daring venture, against all odds. What difference can poetry possibly make in our lives? Much less the lives of abandoned girls in a Third World country? Please read this beautiful story.

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Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

 

September 10, 2001 was a perfect day. The sky was turquoise. The air, a soft touch on the skin as we disembarked from the ferry that took me and my photography crew from Puerto Rico to the nearby island of Culebra where I took this photo. We were on a mission to create images that showcased the beauty of Puerto Rico.

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We had just spent days scouting everything from rain forests to mountains to islands. We drove through little towns, up winding roads, into the rain forest, to the edge of cliffs overlooking vast valleys. In San Juan, we scouted streets built hundreds of years ago, streets that drew tourists from cruise ships to a country rich in history.
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 Little did we know what would happen the next day, September 11. When it did, I was photographing a little boy on the streets of Old San Juan. He was wearing white shorts and a white shirt, playing with a soccer ball. The sky was clear. The art director was on her phone to her husband who was telling here about the twin towers in New York City.

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Suddenly, everything changed. We were no longer creating a world of idealized images but we were involved in a real-life world of trying to call our families, worried about what was going on at home. Cell service was disrupted. Planes were canceled. There was an eerie quiet in the air. We were isolated in paradise with no way to get home.

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In took four days of worry and waiting on hold on the phone to the airlines. Finally, unable to reach anyone, we packed up all 13 cases of equipment and went to the airport to wait. Seven hours later we were on the first plane to Miami. Six hours after that we were on the first plane to Seattle. The tourism department of Puerto Rico used the above image to create a full page ad in the New York Times to send its support to the people of the United States. It was such a tender and heart-breaking time, when we all felt so vulnerable. A show of support meant so much. In fact, it seemed as if the whole world responded with compassion.

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Now Puerto Rico is in trouble. So is Mexico. And so are many of the Caribbean Islands. But Puerto Rico’s situation is especially dire with no water and no power for the foreseeable future. Unlike us, their situation is not solvable by catching an airplane home to safety. Many hospitals are closed and those that are open are running out of fuel for their generators. There is danger of a health crisis in the hot weather with standing water, fallen trees and destroyed homes.

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The wonderful thing about traveling to other countries is that when we make connections to the people and the land in those places, we can better visualize what is happening. And it can compel us to offer our help, no matter how small. If you want to help, please find the charity of your choice for Puerto Rico, for Mexico, for St. Martin . . .

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A few months ago I sat between my mother and father on their couch in the basement of their home in Minot, North Dakota, my home town. My mom is almost 90. Dad will be 92 in a week. They wanted me to look at things I might like to keep from their lives, our lives together, after they pass away.

At this point, I have most things that I need, including multiple sets of dishes, furniture, cookware and books. There is one thing, however, that I want to hold on to, and that’s a sense of my family’s history. On our laps lay a photo album of my parents’ wedding. As we paged through it together, the bittersweet feeling of the circle of life brought tears to my eyes. We admired my slender father, my mother in her satin gown made by my grandmother, the perfect youth of two dear people who are now almost 69 years into that marriage.

From there we delved into the family albums. In the photos of me, it’s almost a history of hair: hippie years with long blond hair, then the frizzy stage, when I got married, then my pixie red stage. There, in the photos, was a life lived with my parents, grandparents, cousins, sisters, gathering together for holidays and birthdays. As we turned the pages, things long forgotten rose to the surface. Without these photographs, many of these memories would have faded into oblivion. I am grateful to my mother for her role as the family archivist.

Even though, as a photographer, I have archived tens of thousands of photographs, mostly of others, the photos in our family albums help me remember, as nothing else could, where I came from and who I am.

Documenting lives with photography has been on-going since the mid-1800s, when the medium was invented. In those early days, families posed for the unblinking eye of large studio cameras, their heads held in place by metal frames, sitting motionless as the image burned slowly onto film. Ever wonder why those people looked so serious?

Later, with box cameras, 35mm cameras and faster film, people seemed to blossom into life. These days, with our phone cameras, we are capable of recording every moment of life as it happens. But–with the sheer volume of images and how to manage them, what will become of the history of our lives as technology changes. How will we pass our histories to the children, to help them know who they are?

Over the years I have had clients who get this. They create a photographic legacy of their lives to pass on to their kids. But even if professional photography is not your choice, please think about creating a family album of your most important photos so you can sit with your kids one day, as I did with my parents, and share a history of life together.

About the photo “Memory”: When I drive by the endless fields in North Dakota, I often wonder about what has passed before. This is my exploration of that: a current photo of a ripe barley field in North Dakota overlaid with a photograph that includes my paternal grandmother (left) and grandfather, taken in the 1940s..

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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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