Interview by an Esteemed Journalist

[As part of her summer English homework, my daughter was asked to select a work of art to analyze, and to research the artist and his or her work. It is an honor to share below the article and interview by renowned journalist Julia Yazhari!]

Not Just A Doily

I am blessed to have grown up surrounded by art.  My mom is an artist, meaning that my house is filled with her paintings hanging on many of the walls.  My very first gift was a pair of paintings that she created for me to celebrate my birth—they are painted a soft pink with fabrics of butterflies and flowers collaged onto the canvas:

My mom’s very first gift to me

 

I sometimes take my art-filled home for granted.  It’s ridiculous, to be honest.  How could seeing so much beauty every time I walk into my living room become commonplace?

When I do take the time to study my mom’s paintings, I am astonished by their complexity.  Her work is unusual, both in its physical components and in its themes.  Most of her paintings start out as white canvases or wooden panels.  She will then apply her first layer of paint.  Then, another, and another—this time a different color.  After that, she may move on to adding pieces of fabric that she has collected.  My mom loves to celebrate cultures from all of the world, and she purposefully searches for textiles and fabrics that come from different countries.  A particular piece may include parts of a Victorian lace doily from England, a sari from India, and a piece of Chinese silk.  She always looks for handmade fabrics, usually ones that have taken women an unthinkable number of hours to create yet are now sitting unused in someone’s drawer at home.  Once my mom has cut, sewn, and glued on the fabric, she usually moves on to bead work.  As with the textiles, my mom collects beads from all over, recycling them from old necklaces, vintage earrings, and even antique belts.  My family always groans when we pass an estate sale by the road, because we know there’s a good chance my mom will want to search it for beads.  Once she has chosen the beads she wants to use, she will then sew them by hand into the fabric.  This is usually the most time consuming part of her work, but it adds such a unique three-dimensional effect to the finished product.

 

“Beaded Chrysanthemum,” 18″ by 18″

 

My mom’s pieces vary in size, color, and shape, but they all possess the same special presence.  This, I think, comes from the spirit behind the work. The point of her paintings, my mom has told me, is to elevate the work of women all over the world.  These are women who spent their lives sewing, embroidering, weaving, and creating without being recognized as true artists.  Their work was often highly underappreciated.  On her website, my mom says:  “Discarded doilies and remnants of embroidered fabrics are a source of inspiration to me; by rescuing them and recycling them into my beaded paintings, I hope to honor and collaborate with the creative spirit of past generations of women from around the world whose handiwork has often been ignored because it was not created to be displayed in a gallery.”  http://www.bethyazhari.com/about.html

With so many paintings currently hanging around our house and in my mom’s studio, I thought that this assignment would be the perfect opportunity to do some in-depth research of one her works.  As I searched the house for a piece that particularly spoke to me, I was struck by a certain one hanging right by our kitchen:  “Lace Study #4.”

First Impressions

I chose “Lace Study #4” partly because it is my favorite color (blue) and partly because I know almost nothing about it, except for its name and its age (about two years old).  Because of my lack of familiarity with this painting, I thought it would be interesting to list my first impressions and to analyze why this piece is so appealing to me.

 

 

Picture of Lace Study #4
“Lace Study” #4

 

“Lace Study #4” is not a huge painting, unlike some of the other pieces my mom has created over the years.  Using a ruler I tracked down in my kitchen, I found that it is a perfect eighteen inch by eighteen inch square.  It hangs from the wall like a diamond and is surrounded by a solid black wooden frame.  This frame is unusual because its sides do not actually touch the border of the painting.  Instead, it leaves an inch or two of space, giving the painting a light, “floating” effect.  One of the aspects I love most about “Lace Study #4” is its soft, almost dainty aura, and the juxtaposition of the dark frame against the powder blue paint and delicate lace contributes greatly to this feeling.

 

Picture of frame
The dark frame adds a light, “floating” effect

 

An interesting detail I noticed quickly about this painting is that it has no beads sewn into it.  Touching the “canvas,” I realized that it was not a canvas at all but a wooden panel.  It seemed an interesting choice, I thought, to choose a hard wooden block instead of a supple canvas.  Wouldn’t that take away from the gentleness of the piece?  Then, thinking back to the name of the piece and its specific reference to lace, I realized that the wood is actually an important aspect.  Because it inhibits the use of beads, the wood allows the fabrics and lace to be the star of the piece.

I am drawn to this work not only because of its soft colors but also because of the symmetry and the sense of depth it displays.  Every piece of fabric is mirrored in all four corners of the piece so that you could flip the painting in any direction and it would appear identical.  This uniformity gives me a feeling of zen and balance, adding a calm strength to the gentle piece.

The dark paint in the background of the painting adds another important element, giving it another dimension.  Because the painting has no beads, I would think that it would lack the normal three-dimensional effect of my mom’s work.  However, like with the black frame, my mom has painted round, indigo-colored shapes in order to create a stark contrast against the intricate blue and peach lace.  This causes the lace to pop out and adds a complexity I find very enticing.

 

The dark shapes in the background add a feeling of depth

 

At this point, there isn’t much more I can deduce from the piece by simply looking at it.  It’s time I get some exclusive, behind-the-scenes information from the woman herself: the artist and my very own mom, Beth Yazhari.

The Interview

First, could you explain what your intention was in creating the Lace Study pieces and why “Lace Study #4” is meaningful to you?

I am really drawn to the incredible intricacy and diversity of antique lace patterns.  Over the past several years, I have done a lot of reading about the historical importance of lace and have come to have a deep respect for those who labored for many months or even years in order to create a complex piece of handmade lace!  My lace studies are a way of exploring the unique geometry and almost infinite variations of lace structures; I enjoy rescuing abandoned specimens of stunning handmade lace and embroidery at estate sales and transforming them by using them in my paintings.  I give these textiles new life by painting them and often reassembling them in complex new formations on canvases or wooden panels.

An important aspect of your work is your use of textiles from nations all over the world.  From which countries did you find the various fabrics in this piece?

“Lace Study #4” has an intricate layered composition that features delicate fragments of textiles from several countries.  In addition to the lace edging of an antique wedding handkerchief and a variety of other pieces of finely tatted lace and embroidery from America and Europe, there are bits of sari fabric from India, finely embroidered butterflies rescued from the edges of vintage napkins from China, and tiny quilted squares from a miniature wall hanging that I believe to be from Guatemala.

When I look at “Lace Study #4,” I feel a sense of peace and calm.  Is this the mood you were going for, and if so, which physical aspects do you think contribute most to the painting’s tranquility?

I agree that there is a serene feeling to this piece, and I think that the dominantly cool color theme and symmetrical composition create that.  Viewers have often compared my paintings to mandalas because they tend to be intricate and symmetrical and to radiate a peaceful energy.  While creating “Lace Study #4,” I rotated the square wooden panel in order to orient the piece as a diamond.  This, along with subtle asymmetry within the initial layers of paint, lends the painting a certain dynamism.

Although you didn’t use your standard stitching and beading with this painting, I did notice that you hand painted stitches in some areas of the panel.  I have seen you use this technique in other works, but what is the reason for it?

About five years ago, I was juried into a show that gave me the parameter of working on wooden panels rather than on canvases.  I normally do lots of my own hand embroidery on my painted canvases, but for these three pieces I had to think of a way to reference women’s handwork without actually being able to stitch through the panels.  Midway through this series (“Homage to Needlework: Trompe l’Oeil # 1, #2, and #3”; 2013) I happened upon the meditative technique of using a very small brush to paint “stitched” outlines in the negative spaces around my painted motifs.  I was very pleased with the result and have used these tiny stitches to create patterns in the backgrounds of many of my paintings since; they have a similar feel to the intricate outlines of echo quilting that I am drawn to on antique quilts.

While viewers often marvel at the sheer number of tiny painted stitches in my pieces, I enjoy the process of painting them; the repetitive motion makes me think not only of the act of embroidery but of the creation of Aboriginal dot paintings.  I am also intrigued by how effective they are at fooling the viewer’s eye; unless you are very close, it is almost impossible to tell what is paint and what is a piece of vintage stitched fabric that has been collaged on the panel or canvas.  In a variation on this theme, I have recently been using small brushes to create intricate loops of painted “lace” in a new series of lace studies.  Just as the painted stitches are difficult to distinguish from actual embroidery, these lacy backgrounds are extremely hard to differentiate from the fragments of antique lace superimposed on them, which creates all sorts of intriguing possibilities!

Finally, if you were to describe this painting to someone in three words, what would they be?

That’s a hard one!  I would have to choose intricate, for sure.  I think harmonious and energetic might be the other two; this piece is an interesting combination of delicacy and power to me.

Thank you!

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Cloudbreak

IMG_9929Earlier this year, I was inspired once again by a call for the Artist’s Vision Juried Exhibit at the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts. Curator Briana Thornton described the theme of the exhibit, which was called “The Skies Opened,” in an interesting way:

“Storms have a middle; an eye. We venture through the chaos and overwhelming war of the elements (our past), before we are offered a moment of calm (our present), and eventually enter a new unknown territory of elements (our future). As the hallway is a representation of the present, the eye of the storm is, too, a metaphor of what has passed and what is to come.”

Her description of the art that she hoped would be created for the exhibit also resonated; it sounded like it could have been taken from my own artist’s statement:

“This exhibition is a visual representation of our rightfully owned presence in each moment. It is a reflection of the quiet moments when we recognize the beauty of our immediate existence amongst the chaos and clamor of the world.”

She also suggested some words for the artists to meditate on as they created their works: “Moody, dramatic, tempest, silence, black & white, shadows & highlights, the present, calm, light, wind, condensation, organic forms, crystal formations, fluidity, mirrors, diffusion of light, abstraction of sound, distortion of perception.”

Keeping these striking images in mind, I began my piece by finding an image of light breaking through the clouds and making a rough painting based on part of it:

First Photo

I liked the contrast between the stillness of the light blue sky in the center and swirling movement of the light clouds against the stormy gray surrounding it. But the piece was not that exciting to me until I was inspired to paint and collage several fragments of very old handmade lace into the clouds:

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The introduction of the lace’s intricate patterns increased the sense of dynamism and movement in the painting, but the lace’s fragments needed to feel more integrated into the piece. I refined the shapes of the clouds framing the opening in the sky, and I used numerous transparent washes of paint over and around the lace to tweak the colors into a more harmonious whole. Here is a photo of the completed version of “Cloudbreak”:

Cloudbreak--BethYazhariNot only do I feel happy with the final composition, but I feel like the inclusion of the antique lace makes this painting conceptually coherent with my overall body of work. Here, the incorporation of fragments of painstakingly handmade lace can be seen as a symbolic reference to the efforts of women throughout history to break through societal constraints, just as light struggles to break through dense clouds.

 

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Chasing Paper

Recently, the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts provided me with inspiration for a new “paper”-themed piece.  Here’s what I found on the festival’s website:

“The theme for this year’s special exhibit is Chasing Paper—a celebration of the pursuit of artistic expression and creativity through the properties of paper. At once familiar and mysterious, simple and complex, fragile and strong, paper is made and manipulated into surprising and delightful creations in the chase to stretch the boundaries of paper as an art form.”

In response to this year’s theme, I decided to create a mixed media painting on a wooden panel that consciously explores paper’s creative potential.  Paper is truly amazing; it can be collaged and manipulated into so many forms, including a variety of intriguing beads (my personal favorite).  Here is a photo of the resulting piece which I’ve called “Potentialities of Paper: Tribute to Adelaide”:

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Potentialities of Paper: Tribute to Adelaide

The centerpiece of this mixed media work is a small quilled fan from the 1950s—its maker was a woman named Adelaide Coleman who carefully copied a 17th century quilling design and proudly mounted it on red velvet.  I discovered this after I purchased it on Etsy, as there was an inscription on the back of the frame.  Somehow, I was touched by Adelaide’s handwriting, which reminded me of my grandmother’s.  I was able to incorporate her paper fan as a focal point in this tribute to the handiwork done by women of my grandmother’s generation, who rarely perceived themselves as “artists” and yet derived pleasure from beautifying their homes through their creative efforts.

The small origami crane, an old earring of my mother’s from the 1980s, lends the central peacock-like bird figure the resonance of multiple generations.  I used vintage paper doilies from the 1960s to enhance the overall design, which is an eclectic combination of a Chinese cloud collar pattern from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and a contemporary embroidered suzani from Uzbekistan.  The light blue rolled paper beads, which create an Art Deco-inspired frame around the quilled fan, are from a contemporary fair trade necklace made in Uganda, while the gilded papier-mâché beads are from my vintage jewelry collection.  Thus, the versatility of paper as an art form is also emphasized in this painting.

As part of this year’s “Chasing Paper” exhibit, I will be doing a demonstration in the Lakewood Center’s special exhibit space on Saturday, June 25 at 2 p.m.—if you live locally or are visiting Portland that weekend, please stop by and say hello.  The entire Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts runs from Friday, June 24 through Sunday, June 26.

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On The Fringe

The past several months have been a whirlwind of intense creative activity, all of it leading up to this weekend: the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts, from June 26-28.   I had the privilege of helping to curate a special exhibit called “On the Fringe: Today’s Twist on Fiber Art.” Not only did we receive many beautiful and creative pieces for the exhibit–including works as unique as knitted glass, a silk reproduction of an atomic bomb, and a huge worm crocheted from copper wire–but the exhibit served as inspiration for two installations on the outside of the Lakewood Center itself.

“Handmade,” by Carol Milne

“Little Boy,” by Yukiyo Kawano

We were very fortunate to have not one but two incredible installation artists for “On the Fringe.”   The back entrance of the Lakewood Center was transformed by Barbara De Pirro, whose work focuses on recycling and sustainability.  For “Flourish,” she used 3000 bottle caps, each of which had to be drilled with four holes.  She also created large garlands of colorful beads with 750 bottle caps and a smattering of small toys.  The netting is made of milk cartons that have been cut into ribbons!

“Flourish,” by Barbara De Pirro

I was so excited when Janice Arnold, who describes herself as an “extreme felter,” agreed to be a part of “On the Fringe” last fall.  She is an internationally renowned fiber artist who has traveled all over the world.  She learned traditional felting techniques from nomads in Kyrgyzstan, and she has done commissions and installations for Cirque du Soleil, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York, among others.  We are so lucky to have not one but two installations by Janice, one of which was inspired by her visit to the building.  We originally asked her if she could create a felt installation for us as the heart of our exhibit downstairs, but when she visited several months ago for the first time, she loved the architecture of the building and was intrigued by the pillars in the front.   As a result, here is the celebratory piece that she created on the front of the building, using many yards of gorgeous lime-green dupioni silk—it’s called “Wrapping L.O.F.A.”

“Wrapping L.O.F.A.,” by Janice Arnold

The process of hanging the silk on the building was quite challenging; Janice calls installation a “thrill sport” for a reason.  It required the help of an intrepid young architect named Woodrow, who was willing to get up on a very high ladder and meticulously manipulate and pleat fabric around a bungee cord as Janice directed him.  Thank goodness he also has a background in mountaineering!  You can see below that Janice also went up on the ladder.  She had just enough fabric left at the end to create little silk shawls for Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, which added just the perfect sense of whimsy and celebration to the installation.  Fortunately, I had the much safer job of holding the ladder.

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A shawl for a president

Feet firmly on the ground

Feet firmly on the ground

Janice also created a site-specific installation for us in “On the Fringe” itself—it is part of an installation that she exhibited at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan a few years ago.  She reconfigured two large felt pieces from the original “CHROMA Passage” and calls the piece for our exhibit “CHROMA Passage—Dissected.”  It is a very colorful and immersive environment, and it takes the viewer on what she describes as a nomadic wandering journey, which references the nomads who make felt.  The major inspiration for CHROMA Passage was a spectacular sunset that Janice saw outside her studio; you can see this reflected in the dramatic spectrum of color in the piece.

“CHROMA Passage – Dissected,” by Janice Arnold

Parallel to my work planning “On The Fringe,” I have also been pushing myself over the last several months to finish an ambitious beaded painting for inclusion in the special exhibit.  I did manage to get it finished just in time; like many of my larger beaded canvases it required a total of almost 300 hours to create.

My pieces often begin with textiles from around the world that I am inspired to combine.  The subsequent creative evolution is very organic.  In this particular painting, you can see that I first painted a rich yellow-orange background on the canvas.  A pink silk sari with a very intricate pattern was then cut apart, reassembled in a geometric arrangement, and then adhered to the canvas with acrylic medium. The center diamond is part of an antique silk scarf, fringed with vintage fabric from Iran.

Beginning the piece

Beginning the piece

In the next stage you can see how I’m starting to add more textiles—silk ribbon from France, needlepoint medallions that I recycled from a tablecloth I got at an antique fair, Persian peacock motifs, a pillow cover embroidered with french knots that was never finished, etc. I also printed my own photos of roses onto silk and transferred them to the four corners of the canvas before painting over them.

Adding textiles and layers of paint

Adding textiles and layers of paint

The lace that came in at the next phase really started to add some movement to the piece—it was from a very old and damaged lace tablecloth from the late 1800s that I got on eBay and cut apart very carefully. You can also see that I have built up a lot of layers of paint at this point. In some ways, I consider myself primarily a painter, although I love to use a lot of textiles and textile techniques in my pieces. These “beaded paintings” require many hours of hand-beading through the canvas, and in the end I feel that my paintings straddle the two worlds of painting and fiber art—they are paintings, but they include a lot of physical incorporation of textiles and references to textile techniques.

Added lace and color shifts

Added lace and color shifts

In a close-up detail of the center of the piece you can also see that many of the “stitches” in the center and around the roses are actually painted. The stitches that hold my beads to the canvas are invisible, so I honor women’s handiwork by creating a very visible symbolic reference to it. I also find that the repetitive painted marks lend a lot of energy in a manner that is reminiscent of Aboriginal dot paintings. Many layers of paint give the piece a very rich and luminous feel; I work in transparent layers, so it’s almost like dipping a piece of batiked fabric in dye repeatedly. You can see in this close-up that there are artifacts from a variety of cultures—Chinese butterflies recycled from antique silk kimono sleeves and a vintage tablecloth, enameled bird medallions from Iran, vintage rhinestone earrings from the 60s, butterfly beads from Germany, etc.

A late change to the center of the piece

Painted stitches and beads from many cultures

The finished piece is called “Dawn of a Golden Age,” because to me it symbolizes a new era of women having access to art education and being able to express themselves as artists. Many of the women whose textiles I recycle in my work didn’t have access to the art world and wouldn’t have had the opportunity or the vision to see themselves as artists.

“Dawn of a Golden Age”

And here is a photo of “Dawn of a Golden Age” in the exhibit, above an amazing wooden scultpture of a rug by Peggy Harkins, another local artist whose work I love.

At the Festival

At the Festival

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Lace Inspiration

Every so often, I receive a confirming sign from the universe that I am on the right track with the themes and techniques I am exploring, and that everything is coming together to help me create meaningful pieces of art. Last week, I was grateful to receive one of these signs in the form of a meaningful gift from a friend with whom I am serving on a task force for a special exhibit focused on the fiber arts.

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A gift of lace

Those of you who know me are aware that I tend to be inspired by antique textiles in general, but this windfall really struck me because of the unusual designs and the quality and quantity of the handmade lace—there are yards of it! There is no way of knowing how many hours went into all of these gorgeous and complex pieces, but this collection definitely represents several hundred hours’ worth of work.

Seeing the physical evidence of so much female talent and time spread out on my studio floor, waiting for me to repurpose and combine it with textiles from other cultures into my “collaborative” paintings, was humbling and actually moved me to tears. I felt as if the women who poured their hearts into making these lovely things had given me a special opportunity to highlight what they represent: not only beauty, but intelligence, patience and complexity!

The timing of this gift of lace feels all the more meaningful because I have recently been making lots of paintings that incorporate both hand-painted pieces of lace and painted images of it. Three recently completed “Lace Studies” on canvas resonate with the theme of my “Trompe l’oeil: Homage to Needlework” series. In these paintings, the question becomes, what is lace, and what is a painting of lace?

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Three lace studies on canvas with some of the lace “stencils” used in their creation

 

Lace Study #1

 

With the help of Liquitex’s new line of spray paints, which I began experimenting with this summer, I have been inspired to use doilies and lace as stencils to a much greater extent. When I used doilies as stencils in the past, I was always frustrated by the blurry images that were created by sponging paint through their holes; the spray paints yield much crisper, more detailed imagery, and this line of paint is archival, so I am not worried about it eating away at my collaged fabrics.

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A lace study on paper

I also experimented with lace for the “Big 500″ exhibit that is opening in Portland this weekend, featuring 500 Portland-area artists; the show’s only constraint is that the artwork be created on 8” square wood panels provided by the show.  My pieces are small acrylic paintings on paper that have been stenciled, stitched and collaged before being adhered to the wood.

Pieces for the Big 500 show

Pieces for the Big 500 show

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The Art Literacy Years: 2004-2014

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Mark and Julia with first-grade teacher Mrs. Butcher

This has been a year of many personal milestones—my husband and I both turned 40 during the last several months, and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary last week, so we have been feeling grateful and contemplative in the midst of all the busyness that comes with raising children.  Our son Mark entered high school and turned 15 this year—he is now learning to drive, which is a little harrowing—and our 11-year-old daughter Julia completed fifth grade and will be starting middle school in the fall.  It is very hard to believe that our years of having elementary school-aged children have officially drawn to a close.

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One year’s class auction project

I just spent some time looking through our photo library and reminiscing, and I came across many photos of art projects and shows from the kids’ elementary school days, since I was fortunate enough to be in a position to volunteer with their school’s art literacy program for the past ten years.  I really enjoyed teaching the kids about different artists by sharing slides, helping with hands-on projects, creating collaborative class art projects for school auctions, and hanging hallways full of art for end-of-the-year art shows.  Below are a few of the photos I came across…

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During my first year as an art literacy volunteer, I helped Mark’s kindergarten class create this collaborative butterfly painting for the school auction.

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Butterfly project for Mark’s class

Here’s a photo from the art show at the end of that year—my friend Shari and I had a very long hallway of bulletin boards to cover with pieces of student art inspired by Wassily Kandinsky; this is only a tiny fraction.

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The Kandinsky Wall–what is Julia up to?

Here is a photo from a school art show a couple of years later—I really enjoyed teaching the kids about Helen Frankenthaler, and luckily I had a smaller hallway to fill, too!

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Helen Frankenthaler projects

The following year I helped with auction projects for both of the kids’ classes. For Julia’s class, sweet matching aprons…

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Matching aprons

…and for Mark’s 4th grade class, a collaborative painting inspired by an Oregon quilt with a rose motif; the class was studying the Oregon Trail that year.  I unified the quilt squares, which were printed on silk and then colored by the students, with a stenciled border and painted ribbon.  I thought this was a particularly successful piece; the parent who bought it at the school auction was really happy to get it!

Oregon Quilt School Art Project

Inspired by an Oregon quilt motif

There were many more projects, but these are definitely some of my favorites. Looking back at the fruits of the hundreds of hours I spent volunteering with the art literacy program during my kids’ elementary school years is truly a source of pride and happiness.

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Me and my graduating girl!

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Gallery At The Jupiter

This past Friday was the reception for my most recent show entitled “Collaborations With Anonymous”.  The Gallery at the Jupiter staff put together a lovely reception and the June evening weather in Portland was perfect.  The gallery is part of a complex that includes an outdoor atrium, the Doug Fir Lounge and the Jupiter Hotel.

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The gallery as viewed from the atrium

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Meeting some other local artists

As always, I was fortunate to have lots of friends and family attending, as well as many new faces, including other local artists and art enthusiasts.   We also made some new friends who were serving their delicious local organic Sattwa Chai to attendees.  It turns out we’re neighbors–they live only two minutes from us!

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Our new friends Julian and Natalie

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These cool two-sided hanging panels contribute to a great gallery space

One of the most meaningful moments of the evening came toward the very end.  An old family friend who had grown up in my grandmother’s town shared with me stories of the ways she had touched his life and influenced him.  And he pointed out that my most ambitious piece, “Renewal Springs From Woman,” has a border created of ferns–my grandmother’s first name was Elva Fern!  I had never consciously made the connection, even though I am always thinking of my grandmothers when I create my pieces.  And, of course, the theme of this particular piece is connection to the generations of women of the past.  So I felt that my grandmother’s spirit was really with me at this show.

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With my mother and friends in the atrium

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Hannah and Blaine–they’re awesome!

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A picture with my kids as the reception winds down

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