Thursday, April 7, 2022

Red Flags: How I (Almost) Got Scammed

Recently something happened which briefly resulted in a huge blow to my confidence as an artist. 

A couple months ago a stranger contacted me on Instagram, saying they came across my artwork and loved it. Would I be willing to do a commission for them? Budget was several hundred dollars. 

I rarely take commissions and never advertise anything of the sort, but obviously that offer piqued my interest! Of course, it seemed too good to be true. I talked with my dad and my husband and thought it over for a few hours, and decided it wouldn't hurt to at least find out what they were looking for. 

A pen and pencil portrait of their son? Easy peasy! I haven't done a lot of portraiture lately but I enjoy the challenge. We quickly reach an agreement on size and price. They told me they needed it in two weeks, so I set to work and in a few days I had a completed portrait.

Then it was time to discuss payment. I told them my preferred payment methods, popular services I'm familiar with and trust to be secure. Paypal, Venmo, Cash App.

The buyer replied stating they have a "standard business account which can't be linked to any third party apps," and asked to send me a scanned check.

"That's odd," I thought, and called my bank. As I suspected, the bank said no, the only way to deposit a check is to have the original check in my hands, either for deposit at the bank or mobile deposit. A scanned check would be unacceptable. This made perfect sense to me.  

I let the buyer know that if they wanted to pay by check they'd have to mail it to me, and I'd send the artwork once the check cleared. I felt a bit weird about accepting a check from a total stranger, but... $400 for my artwork... 

A few hours later they messaged me saying there was a mistake and their checking service issued a check for $3,000, not $300. They cancelled it but it would take quite a while to resolve and issue a new check. Lots of mumbo jumbo about business days and cancellation and reissuance. "I'm working on another solution," they said. 

That instantly fills me with doubt. All along I'd been cautious, trying not to get my hopes up too much, knowing it might not be legit or the deal might simply fall through. An error like that really sounded sketchy to me. 

I replied with a simple oops, and to be courteous and helpful I reminded them my preferred payment methods. At this point, I was only holding onto a tattered shred of hope that this was on the up-and-up. 

The person replied with the red flag of all red flags, which I've copied word-for-word:

"If I can trust you enough to deposit it and have your $400 out then we'll figure out how you can get the rest back to me. I'm sure I can trust you right?"

Missing punctuation aside, this is bad

I vaguely remembered hearing about this type of scam, an overpayment scam, and a quick Google search confirmed my fears. There are several variations of this, sometimes involving stolen credit cards, but the check is a classic. How it works is that I would deposit the check and once it cleared I'd ship the artwork and arrange a refund (often wire transfer or refunding to a card). A few weeks later, my bank would discover the check was bad after all. I would be out $3,000 with no way to get it back, plus the loss of my artwork and shipping costs. 

I told the buyer I wasn't comfortable issuing a refund and I would only accept the exact payment. 

At this point I knew it was over but I really, really didn't want to believe it. 

They said they'd figure something out and get back with me. An hour later they asked again about doing the check & refund thing, with more mumbo-jumbo about business days and reissuance fees and such.  I refused again, told them the deal was off, and finally blocked the account and reported it to Instagram. 

Like I said, I'd felt off about this since the beginning. Not quite seeing red flags, but maybe pink or orange flags. But the overpayment was as big and red as a matador's cape, and I'm not falling for that bull!

Going into this, I thought there wasn't much to lose. A few sheets of Bristol paper that I already owned, some brush-pen portrait practice and time that would otherwise have been spent in front of the TV, for possibly a great payout! I was wrong. 

I didn't fall for the scam, but I still lost a lot.

This was my third major art commission, and also the third one to fall through. I really hoped this was legit and that a stranger appreciated my work enough to pay substantial money for original, custom, art. It also hurts because money was pretty tight and that would have been a nice bonus to help cover some unexpected bills. 

Over the course of the day, I felt myself crumpling like tissue paper. 

To this person, I was not an artist. I was nothing more than a target. 

A soft, squishy, trusting target. This person saw a few art posts in my feed, deduced I would jump at a high-paying commission, and that was that. But in the days following this scam attempt, I had to wade through so many thoughts of inadequacy, guilt, embarrassment, and defeat. I still don't even want to look at that portrait again. Was it even that person's kid, or just a random picture pulled from Google Images? I'll never know. I felt stupid and embarrassed for going along with it for so long. I felt guilty for getting mine and my husband's hopes up that we might have some extra cash. I felt like a failed artist. I felt like my work would never be appreciated by anyone who doesn't know me personally.

I know none of these things are true. I know a lot of people actually do fall victim to scams much worse than this, and that falling for a scam does not make someone stupid. There are very nasty, very clever scams out there and I'm just lucky this one was so darn easy to sniff out.

This person appealed to my good nature ("I can trust you, right?") and my family values ("it's for my son's birthday"). The fact I'm not as na├»ve as they thought is just a credit to my parents for teaching me the internet is not a safe space. You cannot trust people on the internet, and to the same point, they really should not trust you. In fact, if an internet stranger says they can trust you like that, beware.  

I share all this as a caution, because I know a lot of people are selling things online, running small businesses, or doing side gigs. If an offer seems too good to be true, watch out: 
  • Be extremely cautious with your personal information
  • Stick with the payment methods you know and trust
  • Never, never accept an overpayment
  • Talk about it with someone you personally know and trust. A second pair of eyes and ears can help you spot problems!
There are lots of scams out there. This particular kind of overpayment scam has been around for a long time, and people have lost big money. So if you see a few pink or orange flags, pay attention! There might be a giant red flag coming next. 

At this point, it's been a couple months and I am feeling better now.

The sting of this scam has faded. Not to sound conceited, but I know myself and trust my own skill and value too much to let one slimeball destroy my confidence! Still, I don't plan to consider any commissions for a long time. I didn't like doing them before, I've never advertised or sought them out, but after this... suffice to say no one's gonna get a commission from me except maybe my mom! 

But only if she asks me really, really nicely. 

In person. 

And pays with cold hard cash and a plate of hot fresh cookies!


Saturday, September 25, 2021

Silhouette Girl: Sheltering Rabbits

"Sheltering Girl," 2020. Acrylic, tissue paper, mulberry paper, sheet music, modeling paste, ink, and glue on canvas, 24"x36". Inspired by "Field of Sunflowers" by Christine Sarjan Cohen, 1996. 

Today I'm sharing one of the pieces I made last year that, after beginning with a slow burn, very quickly burst into a fire of inspiration. In March 2020 I shared a bunch of progress photos of this piece, with my thoughts on fear and Covid-19. I promised an update on this piece and this post has been chilling in my blog drafts for waaaay too long. Wait no more, my friends!

For a long time, every time I chatted with my work friend, LT, I found myself studying this old art print hanging in her office. It was probably hanging there for at least a decade, long before that office became hers. It didn’t belong to her and she didn’t care for it, she just never bothered to take it down. 

It was this innocuous print of a 1996 painting called Field of Sunflowers by Christine Sarjan Cohen. Unfortunately I couldn't find her or the painting online, so I don't have anything more to share about her, but she deserves loads of credit for the collage I'm about to share with you. If you know anything about her or this painting, please comment and share what you know!

The more I looked at that faded old print, the more I felt it—the dreamlike intertwining of flowers and rabbits, the feeling of a windy spring day, the watercolor-softness...

One day another coworker brought in some colorful abstract paintings to brighten things up in the office. As we talked about the art, I glanced over at the flowers and bunnies on Lt’s wall and asked if I could take it for a collage. She was all for it.

I lifted the 24”x36” poster frame from the wall and felt a rushing spring wind in my hands—this would finally become the collage I’d had slowly building in my mind for months.

Less than a week later, on the Monday after the Super Bowl, I was at work again and the full image came to me—the sunflowers and bunnies, the rushing wind, and my personal favorite touch—Silhouette Girl. The rest of that morning I brainstormed poses for Silhouette Girl, envisioned the size of the canvas, and made mental lists of the media I’d use in this collage… paint, pen and ink, different kinds of paper, maybe even oil pastels… I’d been looking for the right piece to bring Silhouette Girl into a collage, but it never quite felt right… This one felt exactly right. During my lunch break I rushed off to buy a big ol' canvas.

Detail from my collage, showing my tiny rabbits
at the bottom of the painting. On a collage this
big, these little guys are just an inch or so tall!
Recently a friend and I had gone to an art gallery and were interested by a wall covered in a series of multicolored abstract 8x10 rabbit paintings. (Spoiler alert: that "friend" became my husband! That visit to the gallery was our first date!). The gallery director came over and told us more about Hunt Slonem, a super-successful contemporary artist, and his many bunny paintings.

Between Slonem’s colorful rabbits and the dreamy rabbits racing through the Cohen print, I guess I had rabbits on my mind. I don’t have any strong feelings for rabbits; I don’t love them and I don’t hate them. I had a couple of pet rabbits as a child, but I’ve always preferred horses and dogs. However, I do love what rabbits commonly represent: peace and innocence.

I had been working on a writing project (more on that later!) focusing on the value and delicacy of innocence. I've long felt like the media and internet are constantly inundating me with calls to fight, to clapback, to rant and rage, to post snarky comments and retweet angry woke threads. I feel as if society wants me to be prickly and harsh and cleverly destructive. 

I don't like that. 

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." That quote often comes to my mind. It's impossible to make the world a better place through nastiness, rage, and destruction. You'll just become a part of the very thing you were against. 

Don’t get me wrong—I have a temper! I get angry, I rant and rage. Just ask my parents! But after a childhood of fighting tooth and nail when I didn’t like something, I eventually learned that outward-facing anger isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes quiet anger is better. Sometimes—maybe most times—it’s better to channel anger into kindness.

My friend Hannah sent me this screengrab of a tumblr post a while back which said being kind is an act of rebellion, of subverting the prevailing culture… being kind is punk. 

As a fan of punk-rock and emo music, I loved this idea a lot. I loved it so much I still think about it several years later. I loved it so much I made a cross-stitch that reads “kindness is punk,” in fierce red and white thread on black cloth.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my 26 years of life is that you can be both strong and gentle, angry and kind, powerful and peaceful, furious and hopeful. This is the message I’m trying to shape myself around, and the theme I’ve tried to cultivate throughout my work, especially with Silhouette Girl. Which brings me back to the Cohen print and the collage...

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of innocence when I looked at Slonem’s colorful bunnies in that gallery. They're cute little colorful rabbits, after all. 

]It felt so natural to take these thoughts of peace and kindness, embrace the rabbits in the Cohen print and the Slonem bunnies I'd so enjoyed at the gallery, and then place my Silhouette Girl in the middle of everything. Silhouette Girl is our reigning champion of innocence and peace, after all!

This was taken after gluing down the first few couple layers
of paper. Recognize the pieces I cut from the art print?
I started my work by examining the soft watercolor shapes in Field of Sunflowers and finding some of the natural lines along which I could cut. 

When I had a basic plan, I set to work with my scissors! For the main flowers and rabbits I followed the existing lines of petals and stems and bodies, but I went a little more loosely with the abstract bits, cutting along changes in color or vague lines to create irregular pieces. 

Continuing to build up layers of paint and paper... 
Once done, I rearranged the flowers and rabbits where I wanted them and placed the irregular bits like puzzle pieces to hold everything together.

As a kid I used to be obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. Not to brag, but I’m still really good at them, I just don’t have the time anymore. Instead of piecing together the edges first, I’ve always liked to work in sections by color and pattern. 

Arranging a collage is a lot like piecing together a puzzle, but instead of a box lid with the picture, I figure out in my mind what I hope to end up with. 

Hope is the key word there—there’s no guarantee that the final artwork will look how I planned! The way the materials interact with one another and with the glue, the varying opaqueness of different materials, and how the precise arrangements come together always affect the result.

By the end, what I’ve made is usually pretty different from what I’d envisioned, but I’m almost always happier with the actual result. If I’m not, it just means the piece isn’t finished.

In this collage, I definitely wanted to broaden the values found in Field of Sunflowers. I’m a fan of high-contrast images; scenes with dark shadows and bright lights. Field of Sunflowers is soft and contains mostly light and medium values. I want my work to better reflect life, with its deep shadows accentuating wonderful highlights.

Almost done... 
With all the cut-paper in place, I went in with my additions—lots of dark red and navy blue, and some pastel pink, blue, and yellow. To these I added torn sheet music in white and off-white.

The result after my first session of work was a rather chaotic and disjointed beginning. I was eager to bring in more paper, some paint, and other materials to start turning this into a cohesive image that looked like it all belonged together! I love that about collage—the process of taking all these separate pieces and combining them into one beautiful image.

Check out that modeling paste in action!
I had been learning a lot about accessibility in art and design, especially tactile art, and wanted to make something super-textural, so I bought a big tube of modeling paste, a painting material that's sort of paint-meets-clay. It's thick and holds whatever shape or texture give it, so it was perfect for painting over the flower petals and stalks so that the flowers were literally stand out from the canvas. It was my goal that if a blind person were to touch the collage, they could identify the flower shapes. 

My final challenge was figuring out what Silhouette Girl would be doing.

In keeping with the accessibility of the tactile flowers, I also wanted a nod to my beloved Deaf community. I considered different signs she could be making... protect, peace, hope, kindness...

The brainstorm Post-its I made while at work...
Of course, it's impossible to capture most signs in a single image. Sign language is about movement! But there are a few signs that can be captured in a still. The well-known "I love you" handshape is one of them. "Shelter" is another. The sign is made by holding one hand flat and moving your other hand downward from your mouth to "take shelter" under the flat hand. 

So I painted Silhouette Girl signing "shelter" above her head, loud and proud, defending the innocent bunnies at her feet from the big, turbulent, bad world around them. 

Maybe I was also a bit inspired by the shelter-in-place orders beginning to take effect around the world, as Covid-19 swept through and totally altered life as we know it. We all wished for some sort of shelter safe from the virus, the chaos, and the uncertainty. A shelter fully stocked with toilet paper, of course. A shelter from the social and political unrest, the police brutality, the misinformation and selfishness.

The final collage is hanging on the wall by my dining table. It was the first piece I hung in my apartment. I want this collage, with its themes of kindness, innocence, and shelter from the world's brutality, accessible and welcoming to all, to set the tone for my daily life. Of course I mess up... I'm often unkind, brusque, or unwelcoming. I yell at other drivers and get annoyed with my siblings and get impatient with my husband. But this collage has become my prayer and my goal. I hope it becomes your goal, as well. 


Saturday, September 18, 2021

Hope is the Thing With Feathers (and Glitter)

When you know someone really well or for a long time, sometimes your communication starts looking a bit like a secret code. Inside jokes, shared memories and references, concocted signals, and old secrets weave their way in. My husband and I have our secret codes. I have secret codes with my family and my best friends. God and I have secret codes, too. 

God knows if I want him to make something abundantly obvious (because I'm a dummy and I don't pick up on his hints very well), I'll ask him to "hit me with a 2x4." Obviously that's not literal. 

We also understand that when I see a dragonfly, I know he's with me and taking care of me.

My husband and I have had our share of struggles over the past months, adjusting to marriage, figuring out finances and whatnot... finally it felt like things were getting a bit better over the past month or so. Until the past two weeks, culminating in a really, really bad day on Thursday. 

Not like, "I overslept, stubbed my toe, the milk was spoiled, and my favorite team lost" kind of rough time. Well, my favorite team did lose... but I'm talking tragic car wrecks, lost jobs, terrible illnesses, and several deaths among my family and friends. A really, really rough, emotional time. 

However, God arranged for me to be off work Thursday, thanks to a randomly-scheduled doctor appointment, so I could spend the day with my husband. And God sent a couple dragonflies my way, flitting around my car as I parked outside our home after a late lunch out.

Now it's Saturday, and I was just sitting on the balcony with a cup of coffee, talking with God about everything that's been going on. I asked him for a more tangible sign of hope because I feel like hope keeps slipping through my fingers, or flitting away on the breeze. 

God immediately pointed out that I am an artist. I can make that tangible reminder. He's given me all the materials I need! As I was praying and writing in my journal, I even saw these feathers on the balcony floor, perfect for little dragonfly wings. 

Emily Dickinson, a favorite poet of mine, wrote the famous poem beginning "Hope is the thing with feathers." Her metaphor was a little songbird... obviously dragonflies don't typically have feathers! Their wings are more like sparkly tissue paper or something. 

But if you're talking with God, asking for hope, and you two have a secret code involving dragonflies, and he points out two feathers on the ground and quotes Emily Dickinson to you, the whole birds vs dragonflies thing becomes unimportant. You don't question it. You just pick up the feathers and wash them and get on with things. 

Like ok God, I get it, you're right. Enough with the 2x4, geez, don't give me a concussion!

I always have random, unplanned works-in-progress waiting around for a real purpose; paint slathered on canvas in a fit of restless emotion. 

One of these random canvases is a little 8x10 piece I'd begun on a restless evening back in April, something randomly collaged together with scraps of paper, colored thread, and little sun decals, with no plan or purpose in mind. It would be the perfect background for a funky little dragonfly!

I rummaged about in my collage materials for dragonfly parts, finally landing on a bit of crocheted ribbon, an amber button and a little wooden bead, some translucent vellum paper, the feathers I'd just found, and... glitter. 

I know... I know. Glitter. Yikes. What is glitter, known as the herpes of the craft world, doing in my art studio? 

I don't know. I never bought it, so someone must have given it to me. I haven't worked with glitter since I was a kid! But dragonfly wings are sparkly, and God told me I had all the materials, so somehow I had glitter. God works in mysterious, sometimes glittery, ways.

Check out this bad boy and his funny, glittery wings!
The finished piece came together like magic, no hesitation or waffling or getting stuck. Not even a glitter mess. And it is exactly the tangible thing I needed. Light, color, seeming serendipity, all coming together in a tangled-up, perfectly imperfect, unplanned image of hope. 

God often works in seeming serendipities, the things we couldn't have planned if we tried. Like this collage that I started months ago with no plan. 

Is everything from the past couple weeks magically fixed? No. Everything is just as rough and emotional and difficult as ever. Thursday still happened. I'm still crying at the drop of a hat. But God reminded me that hope doesn't have to dissolve or flit away. 

Hope can be tangible, because God made me an artist and artists can capture all those things that flit and dissolve and slip through the cracks. 

"Hope is the thing with feathers," and hope can be a thing with feathers and glitter, glued on a canvas covered in string.

Hope is the thing with Feathers and Glitter, September 2021. Paper, feathers, string, a button, a
bead, and glitter on canvas, 8"x10". Sorry about the bits of white glue. I tried to wait for it dry
clear but I was too impatient... 


Saturday, May 22, 2021

Cailey's Back: Wheat and Sunflowers, Changes and Mistakes

After about a year off blogging, ya girl is back! Last year was probably the craziest year ever. I know,  I don't even need to go into all that, it was a crazy year for everyone. But seriously. I'll share more later but let me just give you the cliff notes: 

Nick and me dancing at our
In January 2020 I was happily single, living in my parent’s house, working full-time, planning a visit to Kherson, Ukraine, and enjoying my best mental health in years. 

Things were looking good, I was a few months away from paying off student loans, hoping to move into my own place by the end of the year, and working on an October deadline to publish a poetry novel.

By December I was engaged, had a new sister and a new nephew, had spent April and most of May off work for quarantine, I was finally getting ready to move into an apartment, I'd paid off my loans and completed my book, and was still enjoying my best mental health (aside from the stress of planning a wedding during a deadly pandemic!). 

With everything going on last year, adopting a sister and dating during a pandemic and whatnot, something had to give... so this site drew the short straw.

Now I'm happily married, happily vaccinated, and ready to come back to See Cailey Color!

It seems right to begin with a painting that, like this blog, also sat dormant for a year:

Wheat and Sunflowers, May 2021. Acrylic and gold ink on canvas, 14"x18". 

Early in the process...

Like I said, I planned to go to Ukraine for a week at the end of June last year. 

I got my passport, our group purchased plane tickets and started learning about the culture, everything was on track for us to travel... 

Of course you already know that didn’t happen. Covid-19 threw a major wrench in everyone's plans. 

When I began making arrangements for the trip, I did some research on the country, planning to make a painting inspired by what I learned. Wheat and sunflower oil are two of Ukraine's largest exports, and the area we were going to is very agricultural. 

I've always loved sunflowers and the color yellow... Toss in a shameless obsession with Vincent Van Gogh, and this painting just had to happen!

So I spent hours googling images of sunflower fields and wheat fields, considering my composition and colors, and thinking about techniques. 

Check out that empty foreground, waiting for inspiration!

I wanted to use a paint brush as little as possible on this one, so I used a painting knife for the underpainting and and the sky, and a sponge to paint much of the sunflower field. I only used a brush on the sunflower details and the wheat!

Anyway, coronavirus reared its ugly head, the trip was cancelled, plane tickets refunded, and my painting slipped to the sidelines. It was almost finished except for a strip of foreground that I just couldn’t get right.

The painting sat in a stack of unfinished work for a long time. I was seriously stuck on that foreground. I loved what I'd done with it thus far, especially with the sunflower field, but I just couldn't work it out.

Finally, just few weeks ago I decided I wanted to finish the painting. Feeling determined but still not exactly inspired, I made a big mistake by attempting to add a large pine tree to the foreground, with the trunk stretching up the right side and branches arching across the top, neatly framing the sunflower and wheat fields. 

I didn't even want to show you this picture but I felt
obligated to share my shame...

My gut told me not to, but I was stubborn and added that darn tree.

I hated it with the first brushstrokes, but I just kept painting and painting, like a mad woman. 

By the time I finally put down my brush, I was stuck with this very ugly tree marring the whole right side of the canvas. It was awful. I hated it.

I mean, look at it! That's like.... the worst thing I've ever painted. I hate it. 

Finally I put down my brush, but the damage was done and I wanted to cry. I felt like it was ruined. I was so mad at myself. 

I hated the thought of trying to go back over it and fix everything. The sunflowers would never be the same. The big puffy clouds and deep blue sky could never be fixed. I even considered cutting the unmarred rectangle from the middle of the canvas to use in a collage. 

But I didn't do anything drastic (the first thing I did right that night!). The next day, I painted back over the tree. Everything would be fine. 

It strikes me that this painting is a lot like life. Sometimes, you ignore your conscience and do the wrong thing. You know it’s wrong and stupid, you know it’s ruining everything, but you do it anyway, all the while your gut is screaming at you for being so stupid and stubborn. 

I’m thankful for a God who forgives mistakes and works things out for the best! 

Almost done!

That doesn’t mean the mistake never happened; there are always consequences. 

It's true that the sky and the sunflower field will never be the same. And I’ll always know that underneath the yellow and blue paint, there’s an ugly tree that should never have happened. 

Overall, however, the painting is actually more beautiful because it's finally finished!

June 2020 came and went and I still haven’t been to Ukraine. I have no idea if there’s a landscape like this anywhere in the country. There probably isn’t! I just know two of their main industries and enjoy using a paint knife. It’s hardly even about Ukraine anymore, but about mistakes and a hope for redemption.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, oil on canvas, 1890.
I've always loved this one. Can you tell it was big inspiration for my painting?

I still want to go to Ukraine someday and see what it actually looks like. But I’ll need to change the last name on my passport!

-Cailey Lazarus

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dear Bus Artist: An Open Letter

An Open Letter to an Artist I Met on a Bus in 2009

Dear Bus Artist,

The summer before I started ninth grade, my youth group did a "stay-cation"-style mission trip.

In other words, we camped out in the back yard of one of our youth leaders and did various service projects around the city.

We did things like painting and playing with kids at the Salvation Army youth center, working at an urban garden, and working with other local ministries. Each day, we took the city bus to a different work site.

For me, this was an eye-opening experience on many levels.

I had no idea the need, or the important work being done, in my own city!

Here I was, a timid, awkward freshman girl, hopping aboard a bus each morning and evening with a group of 20 other high school students. Have I mentioned I'd never ridden a bus before?

I was terrified of sitting next to a stranger, terrified of getting lost or missing my stop (yes, I was in a group; no, that did little to calm my fears), terrified that I'd make the wrong move and be mugged in the street.

At the time, I didn't realize these fears had a name: anxiety. As an adult, very aware of myself and my mental state, I can look back and point out all sorts of symptoms I had. As a young teen, I had no idea. I thought I was just a typical, if shy, person.

Of course I also had the normal teen girl fears, like not wanting to look stupid in front of my crush... Anyway, moving on.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted, probably stank from not showering enough, and was only slightly less terrified of the bus.

That Friday afternoon, we all piled on the bus and to my dismay, I was the odd one out. I was forced to sit beside a stranger (horror of horrors!).

This is where you come in, Bus Artist. The strange I sat beside was you.

As a child I had an unexplained fear of men, particularly old men. Well, all old people. And strangers. And sick people, and people who smoked, and people with facial hair (my dad was clean-shaven). Or people who were loud and rambunctious. I had a long list of fears!

In light of all that, I hope you weren't offended by my silence or my unwillingness to even let our clothing brush, though we shared a seat on a bus. I was a dumb kid, and you were an older man with a 5 o'clock shadow and the lingering scent of cigarettes.

But from the first moment, I noticed your clipboard and thick stack of paper. As we rode along on our jerky, stop-and-go way, I was intrigued to find that you were drawing on this makeshift sketchbook. I didn't want to pry, but I couldn't resist watching.

You sketched our fellow bus-passengers without a word. One, two, three pages, filled and flipped over the clipboard.

I would have never said spoken if you hadn't spoken first. I would have sat in silence the entire way, sneaking peeks at your sketches.

I'm so glad you spoke up!

You asked if I liked art. My response, still nervous, was less than enthusiastic. I admitted I liked to draw sometimes.

I wish I'd had the guts to speak freely, to tell you I'd been wondering about pursuing a career as an artist. I'd always loved art, poring over drawing books trying to absorb every word of instruction. I'd moved on from Crayola markers and crayons to "fancy pencils," charcoal, and ink-washes. I specialized in horses, copying all my favorite pictures in my horse books. Yes, I liked art!

You spent the rest of our bus ride showing me how you did gesture drawings. We talked about shading, and the direction of the light. Several times, you told me to get the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I tucked that title away in my mind.

You asked if I drank or smoked, which I, being a sheltered homeschool kid, was somewhat shocked by. I answered "no" truthfully. You smiled and said that was good, and not to try those things. You said drinking and smoking could ruin someone's life. I wondered, but I didn't ask whose life they'd ruined--yours or that of someone you loved. I've wondered ever since... and I've prayed. Whatever your story, I wish life had been a little kinder to you.

As soon as I got home, I borrowed Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the library. You were right, it's a pretty insightful book!

I'll admit, I largely forgot about our little encounter until a few years later when I stumbled upon that book in a used book sale.

I opened the book, a hardcover, unlike the paperback library copy I'd borrowed years earlier. The spine was stiff from sitting unopened on someone's shelf.

Turning the pages, it all came tumbling back to me.

Your gruff but kind words, you rough clothing, calloused hands cradling your scrap-paper sketchpad. Your sketches, so expressive and full of movement. The way you explained drawing perspective, shadows, and keeping in mind the direction of a light source.

I was wildly glad that long-forgotten drawing book popped back into my life so unexpectedly, at a time when I happened to be feeling pretty frustrated and uninspired in the creative department.

I don't know if I thanked you for talking about drawing with me. I don't remember our exact conversation, if I said anything when we reached my bus stop. You removed the sketches you'd made during our ride from your clipboard and handed them to me. They are the drawings in this letter.

We parted knowing almost nothing about each other, except that we shared a love of art.

Looking back, I wish I'd asked your story! I wish I'd asked you what you did for a living, what lead you to sketch your fellow bus-riders, or when you first started drawing. I wish I'd asked you if you knew Jesus.

When I got off the bus with my friends, clutching the stack of pencil gesture drawings, I started crying. Weeping. I felt as if I had seen a glimpse of God, and in the most unexpected place: a 50-year-old artist riding a bus. I cried because I could suddenly see how much God loved you, and how much God loved me.

That was in 2009. 

Today, eleven years after that bus ride, I wonder where you've ended up.

What's happened in your life since that Friday afternoon? Do you still ride that bus route? Do you still carry your makeshift sketchpad of scrap paper?

Thank you, sir, for speaking first. Thank you for the book recommendation, it's a great book!

Thank you for reminding me that every person is a story, a poem, a sketch of dreams, mistakes, and memories.

Thank you for reminding me that art exists to bring people together. I pray that I may grow to become the one who speaks first, myself, and touches the heart of a young person.


The Teenage Girl on the Bus

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fear, Unfinished Art, and COVID-19

Work-in-progress collage (untitled)
Hey all! I hope you're staying healthy, safe, and sane during these strange times...

For well over a month I've been working on a large, colorful collage of sunflowers and bunnies. A few weeks ago I wrote up a basic first draft of the blog post I planned to share when it's finished... It's mostly about my mental health and how good this year has been so far, the symbolism of sunflowers and bunnies, good stuff like that.

The problem is, everything changed in the past three weeks. 

A few weeks ago, COVID-19 was a distant concern for much of the world. For those like me, living a quiet life in the midwestern US, it was barely even a headline in the world news. 

For the first two months of this year, my mental health was the best it has been in years!

I was happy, my depression was creeping steadily backward, my anxiety was the lowest since I don't even know when. My few anxious days each had specific causes, easy to address and move on. I refocused my relationship with God, I was spending more time with people I care about, I had a lot of new and exciting things happening, I was happy and healthy and doing so, so well. The happiest I've been in a long time.

Since COVID-19 developed into a full-blown pandemic, anxiety and depression began rearing their ugly heads once again.

I'm not all that concerned about getting sick (although maybe I should be? We can debate that later). My feelings about the illness itself are more of resignation than fear. I'm washing my hands, taking care of myself and my family, staying home. If I get sick, I get sick, there's nothing more I can do about it. All I can do is pray it would be a mild case. If any of my loved ones get sick, my prayer remains the same. My prayer remains the same for everyone across the world.

What's really caused me anxiety is the social upheaval and uncertainty over the future.

In a matter of days and weeks, businesses closed, restaurants closed their dining rooms, people became afraid, and most days social media seems to be more guilt-trips than anything else.

I felt guilty when I wasn't able to work from home, I feel guilty when I go to the grocery store, I feel guilty for cracking coronavirus jokesbut I need to make money, I need to eat, and I need to laugh in order to cope.

Now I'm off work until April 6th at the earliest, so at least I don't have to feel guilty about going to the office. Instead I just get to think about how long my paid time off will last, compared to how long this pandemic could run... fun thoughts, amiright? And as someone whose mental health thrives on routine, these ever-changing, uncertain times are rough

On top of everything else, I've had a mild cough lingering for the past month, slowly and steadily improving. I feel guilty every time I have to cough or clear my throat in public, worried that my innocent cough is spreading fear and panic. 

Work-in-progress collage (untitled)
Everything feels strange and surreal. On one hand, we're in the middle of a worldwide emergency, a deadly pandemic. People are sick, dying, or losing their jobs, suffering from deep depression exacerbated by loneliness and fear. Businesses are struggling. My heart breaks for those suffering, and I fear the long-term effects this will have on the economy and society. 

On the other hand, the sun is shining and spring has arrived. My 25th birthday is in ten days! I'm making art, writing, baking cookies, exercising. Life goes on, strange as it may be right now.

However, I'm beyond thankful to say that my mental health is holding strong. The week of the 15th I was filled with anxiety and dread. I couldn't paint most of that week because I was too anxious.

This past week has been a different story! I'm still anxious and I dread the turmoil and loss in the coming weeks and months, but I've felt enough peace to paint, and that is truly a precious gift to me.

I've continued working on this collage I started long before COVID-19 was a pandemic. Today I'm doing something I wouldn't normally do on this site... Today I've shared only work-in-progress photos, because the collage isn't finished yet.

I'm hoping to complete it sometime this week, and then I'll edit and publish my other blog post draft sharing the inspiration behind the piece. That is also when I will reveal the title of this piece. I've chosen a title I think we all will be able to connect with...

For now, I hope you enjoy these progress shots. Just as this bunnies and flowers collage is unfinished, remember that this pandemic is not the new normal, this is not the end. This is temporary, and in time the term "social distancing" will become a memory.

Until then, this collage has become my prayer. I pray you remain healthy, safe, and happy. I pray illness, stress, financial struggle, loneliness, and boredom stay far away from you. I pray these bright sunflowers and blue bunnies can brighten your day a little. I pray you enjoy baking sourdough bread, sewing masks for hospitals, binge-watching Netflix, or whatever you're doing while quarantined. I pray you learn new things about the world, yourself, and your loved ones during this time. I pray that we all learn to value our relationships more, and learn to treat others with an extra dose of kindness... especially those workers who are so often mistreated, but are truly essential to keeping our society going.

I pray you remain healthy and safe.


Saturday, February 1, 2020

Franz Marc, Laurel Burch, and Me

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I ), 1911
Another blog post, another note about forgetting to publish this when I drafted it, almost a year ago... I know, my blunder is old news.

Don't worry, we're almost through this old batch about last year's Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse project. I just couldn't allow myself to trash all this content, even if it's old. I really love sharing my inspiration with you. Please stay with me just a little longer?

I'm still embarrassed, but I take great comfort in the fact that you're still here, reading all this. I appreciate the support, more than you know!

I promise, new content will come soon. I've got some really exciting things headed your way... more art, more poetry, more everything. In the meantime...

Franz Marc rocks.

Not sure who he is? No worries! I'm going to talking about him today so if you're curious, keep reading. If you're not curious, well... I really hope you keep reading anyway?

Laurel Burch, "Indigo Mares"
Okay, back to Franz Marc. Franz Marc painted lots of subjects, but he was especially fond of animals, and of all the animals, he painted horses the most. As one who has grown up with a love for horses, I can't help thinking of Franz Marc as "the blue horse guy".

Growing up, I tended to prefer realism. As my appreciation for expressionism has grown, so has my enjoyment of Marc and his colorful cubist critters.

Nevertheless, there's a connection which didn't occur to me until I opened this old blog draft. I was preparing a basic piece on Marc and his animals, but I realized that Marc and I seem to have something in common... And we're not alone.

Enter Laurel Burch!

In one fell 16-page swoop starring a blue horse, I managed to accidentally echo both Franz Marc and Laurel Burch.

I would be mad if they both weren't so great!

Detail, "Meeting," Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse.
Watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry paper on paper
cloth. March 2019.
Oops, did I say that? Yes, I'm also a Laurel Burch fan! Not the cats; I'm not a cat person, but I'm all over her horses. Her use of colors and shapes is gorgeous.

Between the two of them, Marc and Burch managed to capture animals in entirely new ways, using vibrant colors, shapes, and patterns. They both favored cats and horses and created dynamic compositions with them.

They also both felt strongly about the meaning of art and the feelings they could evoke with their paintings.

"Today we are searching for things in nature that are hidden behind the veil of appearance... We look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature."
- Franz Marc

Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, and some of their avant-garde friends formed an organization called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in 1911.

This group was deeply interested in spiritual meaning within art. Their mission was to get away from the long-standing art traditions and returning to a raw, primal, spiritually meaningful art. They were deeply invested in symbolism and spiritual representation in art. Kind of a kooky bunch in my opinion, but we all have different beliefs. I won't fault them for being a little kooky.

Cover of Der Blaue Reiter. Design by Wassily 
Kandinsky, 1912.
In 1912 Der Blaue Reiter published a journal of essays by the artists and almost 150 reproductions of primitive, children's, and folk art.

Marc, like many influential artists, had some traditional art training early on. He fell in love with the work of Vincent van Gogh, and left art school in favor of developing his skills alongside other avant-garde artists.

As Der Blaue Reiter focused more and more on the spiritual meanings of color and form, their work continued to drift more and more toward cubism and the abstract, leaving their traditional art education behind.

The start of WWI brought an end to The Blue Rider organization and publication. Franz Marc was drafted into the German cavalry and killed in battle in 1916.

However, Marc and Kandinsky sparked something that lasted far longer. Der Blaue Reiter led the way for the Abstract Expressionists, 20th century "modern artists" like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

"My paintings are the most intimate portrayals of all that is precious to me, my greatest joy is to offer them in forms that enhance and brighten the lives of kindred spirits all around the globe."
- Laurel Burch

Like Franz Marc, Laurel Burch felt strongly about the meaning in her art. She used color and form as tools for spreading joy, building her career on that mission. Whereas Marc and Kandinsky were focused on the spiritual and mystical, Burch's focus was on the mythical and fantastical, creating images of cats, butterflies, horses, and other animals in sparkling jewel tones and geometric designs, ignoring fashion trends and instead drawing influences from folk art and her imagination.

Laurel Burch started out as a young single mother making jewelry to sell in shops in San Francisco, but quickly outgrew her humble beginning. She made jewelry, painted, and experimented with many art and craft techniques.

Laurel Burch with one her numerous cat paintings
Burch had a bone disease, osteopetrosis ("stone bone") and passed away in 2007 due to complications from that. Her bones were very hard and brittle, and she broke over 100 bones in her life. She knew pain, and strove to outweigh her pain with vibrant, joyful art.

Like Marc and the artists of Der Blaue Reiter, Laurel Burch's influence went beyond simply painting. Burch was something of a pioneer— she was one of the first Americans to partner with Chinese manufacturers, in the early 70s when China was generally considered a closed market. Burch stood up for the integrity of her work, politely but firmly insisting that every product reproduce her images exactly, with no change or interpretation.

Burch's colorful, fun-loving art and her mind for business led to a worldwide market, expanding to license numerous companies to create products using her original artwork. She made her art accessible to all, with everyday products like jewelry, accessories, and clothing, sold at inexpensive prices. Laurel Burch, Inc. virtually exploded in the 80s and 90s, and is still known and loved today, especially among cat-lovers.

Am I breaking some rule by comparing Franz Marc and Laurel Burch?

Did an art critic somewhere in New York, London, or Paris just start inexplicably crying?

I really don't know, and that's the thing about the art world. I've barely dipped my toe in with a few art shows and that awesome RAW: Columbus experience, but from the outside I see so many unspoken, unwritten rules. So many "shoulds."

As a child I fell in love with Norman Rockwell's paintings, and as a teen I discovered that many artists and critics claim he was "only an illustrator" or "only a cover designer." Apparently he didn't count as a a "real artist"...whatever that means.

Detail, "The Dance," from Silhouette Girl and the
Moonhorse. Watercolor, gouache, ink, and mulberry
paper on paper cloth. March 2019.
As if being an illustrator or a designer is somehow not being an artist? Somehow, I don't see the logic there...

For a long time I grudgingly believed that pretentious, long-held, harmful idea that if an artist is not devoted to making it in the fine art world of galleries and agents, cocktail dresses and auctions, they don't belong. Grudgingly, because I don't like the idea of being boxed into that role.

Finally I found my mistake, and suddenly I felt free to have an Etsy shop and design on Redbubble, and still call myself a serious artist.

I had spent so long wanting to "be an artist" as if that were a dream job to work toward, not realizing that I was an artist simply because I made art!

I now believe the purpose of art is to build bridges and bring people together, not divide them. Art is meant to open the eyes of those who cause hurt, and to heal those who are hurting.

Whether the artist is Franz Marc, Laurel Burch, Norman Rockwell, Leonard da Vinci, whoever - our art exists to try to bridge the gaps between all of us.

I believe that when two people who are otherwise opposite—upbringing, nationality, age, religion, class, education, values—become lost in the same painting, feeling the same emotions, longing for the same things, utterly eclipsed by a single painting, song, book, or movie... that is why we make art.


Some sources on Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, and Laurel Burch: