beautiful things, creativity, David, death, grief, love, mother, paper, things

What We Keep

What do the things we choose to keep say about us?

I recently shared a mixed media piece I created using objects that had either been my mother’s or reminded me of my mother, a project directly related to the theme of my upcoming book, Called to Be Creative.

Most of the those small mementos had been stored away in drawers and boxes. I love having them displayed where I can see them  now. Since then, I’ve been collecting items that remind me of my husband David; things like the last piece of jewelry he purchased for me, the tiger pin I wore when I was a waitress at Sambos, (where we met), and our 25th anniversary newspaper announcement. I’m planning an artist-facilitated “Memory Mixed Media” program at my workplace in February, when I’ll complete the project.

With all the talk today of the Kon-Mari method of decluttering and the value of simplifying our lives and homes, why save any memorabilia at all? These art pieces take me on a sentimental journey, reminding me of two very special people I loved, the mother who was the muse for my creativity, and the husband who encouraged me to spread my wings and fly in my endeavors.

What does it say about me that when I faced a move to a 760-square foot house in the summer of 2018, I easily parted with thousands of items; pieces of furniture, clothing, hundreds of books, home decorations small and large, but sifting through piles of paper, files, photos, and letters seemed an impossible task? At least two of the things I chose to keep, my mother’s cabinet and trunk, were with the intention of storing other things.

What does it mean that I saved every letter my mother had ever written me, the few my father did, and many I’ve received from siblings?

Until the winter of 2017, I hadn’t re-read Mom’s letters, but as I prepared to write a book chronicling the creative legacy she’d left behind, I did. In fact, I immersed myself in all things Mom, re-reading letters, her memory book, and notebooks, searching for nuggets of wisdom, like this, to share in the manuscript.

mom talents on loan from GodMuch of Mom’s words that appear in the book will be shared in her own handwriting because of what I kept.

In downsizing, I did manage to dispose of hundreds of greeting cards that had no personal message, only a signature. Because I saved others, I still have my very first “fan letter,” sent to me care of my publisher in 1996, after the release of Homeschooling From ScratchI also have the birthday card my pen friend and prayer warrior Pam Pierre sent me on the first birthday I celebrated without my mother, which also happened to be the anniversary of Mom’s death. That was the last note I received from Pam before she herself died unexpectedly.

I also chose to keep the ledger my mother utilized to keep track of her art sales. I’d flipped through those pages in 2017, marveling at her detailed notes and wondering how she kept track of the art work she’d done after the final listing of a courthouse carving in 1996. Surely an artist who’d carefully numbered her pieces, from the first wood carving at age 42 would have continued the tracking? Perhaps she’d done so elsewhere, in a notebook I didn’t have? I wrote about this in my book:

“If midlife means the mid-point of one’s lifespan, my mother hit hers at forty-one, a year before she’d picked up a hammer and chisel to create her first woodcarving. In the ensuing thirty years, Irma “Amy” Potter would produce 544 pieces of art, according to a ledger that tracked each piece. The entries are not dated, but begin with the first woodcarving in 1970 and end with the relief woodcarving that was commissioned for the Delaware County courthouse in 1996. Anything Mom had crafted before the age forty-two—the wall-hangings, pastel pictures, quilts, or homemade dolls—were not included in this tally. Neither was the body of work she continued to produce between 1996 and her death in 2010. That includes countless pillows, teddy bears, baby quilts, Christmas stockings, handmade ornaments, a painting that hangs in Breitbach’s restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, lavishly-designed walls my sister Pat commissioned Mom to paint in 2001 in the lower level of her Treasure Alley consignment store, along with numerous paintings and wood-carvings now displayed in homes of family members and strangers.

I could not begin to guess how many additional pieces of art my mother produced in those last fourteen years of her life, or why she stopped keeping the log, but suffice it to say, my mother was a prolific artist in the second half of her life.”

It was only yesterdaynine years after the death of my mother, as I searched the trunk for memorabilia to include in my next art project, I picked up the ledger again. Studying those pages of neat handwriting and record-keeping, I marveled at the low prices she charged for her work. Hours of toil on an owl carving amounted to a single ten dollar bill. Four small owls she sold to “David and Mary Kenyon” (me), less than that. I wondered again at that last notation. Why had she stopped keeping track? I flipped through the empty pages until something caught my eye; a lightly penciled notation on an otherwise empty page.

pencil notes about muralsSo, Mom had noted her mural work on the walls of my sister’s shop, though without a date. I flipped through a few more empty pages amazed to discover there were further records at the back of the ledger!

This list, unlike the beginning of the ledger, was not in chronological order. Many were numbers from the previous list, but some were newer, including a piece numbered 1040 (suggesting she’d completed at least another 500). An ad from a South Dakota studio was paper-clipped to the page. Did the Eng studio owner order the “carved Eskimo Girl” my mother noted, or did she own a “carved Eskimo Girl” by the artist? I’m fascinated by either scenario. (I later searched the Internet and discovered that Marion Eng, the co-owner, had passed away within days of my mother)

This. This is why I keep these sorts of things; the letters, a ledger, a list. Pieces of paper to some, precious treasures to me. A rosary, a pencil, a penny dated 1978. My mother wrote this. She drew with this pencil, prayed on this rosary. My husband kept this receipt for my wedding ring, he cherished this Valentine from his grandson fighting cancer. He wrote this note proclaiming his love and chose that necklace for me. Each foray into the trunk or cabinet, a warm hug. Each letter re-read, a visit with the beloved mother.

And sometimes, a surprise… a few previously unread pages, a clipping, a question unanswered. Who carved “Eskimo girl” and where is she?

If I ever find her, I’ll probably keep her too.

 

artist, beautiful things, creativity, research for new book

Facing the Fear of Creating

God is all over my next book. How could I write about creativity without talking about The Creator? But more than just writing about God, I’ve begun each and every writing and editing session with prayer, asking for discernment, inspiration, and the words He wants me to share. I’ve been in awe of the ways he has showed up. Recently, however, he asked me to do something I wasn’t sure I was capable of.

I interviewed a dozen “Creative Sparks” for this book; real people doing real things to incorporate creativity into their very real (and busy) lives. Among those creatives: a yoga instructor, two professors from my alma mater, a woman who’d waited nearly fifty years to submit her beautiful poetry, my brother who picked up woodworking tools he’d inherited from our mother to begin carving in midlife, and a nephew who always knew what he wanted to be and never gave up the pursuit of it, not even through grueling cancer treatment.

As I worked on final edits a month ago, it became clear to me that there was to be one more “creative spark,” an artist whose work I was personally drawn to. Not only that, I was to actually create the type of art this person practiced. My publisher didn’t tell me to do this, nor did the editor request it.  We were so close to completing the first edits, they wouldn’t have dared. We’d moved things around, deleted over-used words and phrases, and heavily edited entire sections of the manuscript.  No one insisted I face my own fear of failure by attempting an art form I’d never done before. In fact, the editor gave me an easy “out” when I mentioned my uneasiness about taking on an art project so close to deadline. She insisted it wasn’t necessary for me to create anything more than an additional creative spark profile.

But the prompting from the Holy Spirit was as real as the fear of the unknown and the possibility of failure. What if I messed up or destroyed precious pieces of memorabilia by undertaking an art form I knew nothing about?

It dawned on me then— that is exactly what I ask readers of my book to do—open up their minds to creative possibilities, try new things, and allow for the possibility of failure, all in the name of discovering their true nature, their God-given potential, the creative self within them. How dare I suggest something I was not willing to do myself? I knew that I must do it.  I needed to step outside of my comfort zone and create a mixed media piece.

Perhaps it’s the former dumpster-diving coupon queen in me that accounts for my attraction to mixed media art, with tiny bits and pieces of “trash” incorporated into a work of art. Maybe it is because I have lost so many pieces of my own life through the deaths of mother, husband and grandson in the space of three years. Whatever the reason, I considered the art form I’d seen displayed on the walls of Upcycle Dubuque, a unique and innovative creative reuse store that displays the work of local artisans.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Allison Poster’s art. I’d seen it displayed at Inspire Café two years before. Fitting, considering I was there to speak about the legacy of creativity, my mother’s art, and the creativity that resides within each one of us.  When I noticed the beautiful art on the walls, I moved closer to study the mixed media pieces, something deep within me resonating with the images of butterflies, angels, trees, and hummingbirds on old mirrors and windows, and a framed image of a hauntingly sad girl in a birdcage. I was fascinated by the artist’s use of broken and crushed glass, bits and pieces of old jewelry, and repurposed old frames. I snapped a photo, shared it with my daughter, picked up a business card, and messaged the artist to tell her how beautiful I found her art. We agreed to meet in person someday. That someday had come.

Not only did Allison agree to be my final “Creative Spark,” she offered to help me with the creation that was fast taking shape in my mind, a piece directly correlated with the theme of the book, in memory of my creative mother. I’d use small things of Mom’s that were hidden away in drawers, where I never saw them. I sorted through a box of her holy medals and discovered a broken rosary with a blue cross that represented her deep Catholic faith. I’d add newspaper clippings about Mom, pieces of a pillowcase she’d embroidered, and the last chalk pastel drawing that remained on her easel after her death. Then there was the yellow rose painting I’d done at age 16, the same age my youngest daughter is now. I’d sat next to Mom in her workroom as I’d painted it. What better way to immortalize the “magic pencil” I’d found in my mother’s empty house than to include it? I’d ordered hundreds of similar pencils on eBay to give away when I did presentations on creativity, but remained fearful of losing the original. Everything included in the final product had meaning for me, including the words I chose from a vintage poetry book about mothers, the small wooden oval with crosses created by my brother, and the tiny glass owl my son Michael created in the very workroom where Mom and I had sat working in companionable silence forty-five years prior.

mixed media

I smile every time I look at my mixed media memory canvas, which is often. It hangs on the wall near my writing chair. No longer fearful, I’m looking forward to creating a similar piece in honor of my husband.

Not long after I finished this piece, I met with a new friend who’d lost his wife the year before. I realized as he talked how often he used the word “can’t” or the phrase “never” in our conversation. I suddenly realized there was more to my creation than I’d imagined. I asked him if he’d seen the photo of the art piece I created to represent my book’s theme. What I said next was as much for myself as it was for him, and readers of my book who have lost someone important to them:

“That’s what our life is like; little bits and broken pieces. Everything we went through and experienced up until the moment our beloved took their last breath. There are ugly moments we’d rather not remember and beautiful ones. There are precious memories. There is a pattern to our life that has made us who we are. Your life is a mixed media collage. Whatever you add to the collage from this point forward is up to you. You can keep moving those broken parts around. You can add similar pieces. That is your comfort zone, and there is nothing wrong with that. But God might have something more for you. God’s plans for you are so much bigger than you can imagine. He can use you in so many ways if you let him. You can grow in him and share in the masterpiece he wants to make of your life’s collage.”

mixed media close-up

 

 

 

creativity, learning, lifelong learners, workshops, writer's conference, writing

Tribal Art

“Think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy doing? What were you naturally drawn to? When you were a little girl what made you happy?”

“Take your time. Dig down into the deep recesses of your mind.” I continue, noting a few furrowed brows in the room full of women.

“Some of us will have to dig deeper than others,” I add with a smile, and good-natured laughter erupts from the corner of the room where two women in their seventies sit.
Did you spend hours outside poking anthills with sticks? Follow your mother around as she cleaned house, begging to dust the furniture? Love working with your grandmother in the garden? Were you a voracious reader, devouring books like the chips in a Pringles can?

A younger woman looks up from the sheet of paper in front of her. “I’d almost forgotten! I used to spend hours making Barbie doll clothes! They weren’t very good; just quilt scraps my mom gave me that I cut holes in for the arms.”

A single woman in her thirties, the Barbie clothing designer sports spikes black hair, a ring in her nose, and arms covered with colorful tattoos. She looks the part of a creativity group member, but the truth is, all of the women belong; something about creativity appealing to a restless stirring inside them.

Thirteen women attended the inaugural meeting of the inelegantly dubbed “Lifelong Learner’s Creativity Group” I began at the library where I was employed in 2017. Forming the group made sense for a librarian. A 2015 Pew Research study revealed that adults who use libraries are more likely to consider themselves to be lifelong learners, actively pursuing learning opportunities. The group was consistent with a library’s mission to engage learners and inspire thinkers, but organizing it was not simply a job-related, altruistic move. It had been months since I’d experienced the kind of creative energy that ignites in a room full of people interested in the same thing. I’d seen it happen in writing classes I’d taught and at writing conferences I’d attended. I missed the passionate exchanges about writing and the rush of adrenaline that came with speaking and practicing one’s passion, the camaraderie of being in a room full of people that shared that passion. Those women needed what the creativity group could offer.

So did I.

As we took turns introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent we all had one thing in common; we wanted to add creativity into our lives and suspected that doing so would make us happier.

We were correct in that assumption. Scientific research demonstrates that practicing creative pursuits results in a happier, healthier life. The activity can be as simple as journaling, playing an instrument, or spring gardening, so long as it has meaning for the individual.

I didn’t make friends easily for most of my adult life. I was too busy raising eight children. That changed in 2011, when I attended my first writer’s conference, connecting with women and men interested in writing and publication.

writers conference 002
Cedar Falls Christian Writers workshop 2011

A year later, I’d discover the value of friendship when my husband unexpectedly died and some of those writers attended his funeral, becoming a support system of sorts. I made additional friends outside of that writer’s circle through a workplace setting, classes I taught, involvement in grief ministry, and by forming both a Bible study and the creativity group.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said. The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death found that the groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. If you want a stronger faith, become part of a faith community. If you want to be more interesting, spend time with interesting people. To be more creative, hang out with creative individuals. Find your tribe.

It wasn’t long after I traded in that library job for one as a Program Coordinator at a Spirituality Center that I began a similar group there, aptly named “Artisan Souls.”

Something extraordinary happens when I facilitate groups and conduct workshops. I’m so exhilarated by the energy in the room, I’m hardly aware of the passing of time, and I leave those meetings deliriously happy, a soaring feeling that can last for hours, even days. Researchers call this joyful state “Flow,” the loss of time and self-consciousness that happens when we’re completely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s intellectual, professional, or physical. Flow can be achieved through activities such as running a race, playing the violin, or writing a book, as long as the activity is voluntary, intrinsically motivating, requiring skill, and challenging in some way. A growing body of scientific research proves that flow is positively correlated with happiness, and that people who experience a lot of flow also develop increased concentration, performance, and a higher self-esteem.

I enter the state of flow when I write or conduct workshops, but I’m open to experiencing it through other avenues, which explains one of the tenets of our creativity groups; to try new things. In these two groups I’ve painted on canvas, designed Vision Boards, practiced hand lettering, and made jewelry.

painting
painting with James Kennedy Public library Lifelong Learners

One month, a member of our Dyersville library group brought ukuleles for everyone, insisting we’d be playing a tune by the end of the evening. As my fingers fumbled clumsily with fret and chords, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I wondered why I wasn’t catching on when the women on either side of me made it look easy. Then I happened to glance up. A woman across the room was having just as much trouble as I was. Our eyes met, and we both laughed. I didn’t have to worry about failure or looking foolish. I was there to have fun, not to become a musician.

uklele

I’d found my tribe.