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It was on September 13th, when she was just 13 years old, that Orelle was struck by a car as she crossed 13th Street. Unlucky number 13.
Orelle spent the remainder of her short life in pain, finally finding peace when she took her last breath exactly 13 months later on October 13th, 1932.
It was my Grandmother who kept the memory of her sister alive all these years. She once confessed to me that she wasn’t afraid of her own death because she knew that she would see Orelle again. See her without the pain that the unlucky number 13 had wrought.
Several years ago I asked my Grandmother - what was Orelle like? She smiled, “A bit like you. She was a dreamer, very artistic and she was always writing poetry and plays.”
A bit like me. No one in the history of my family had ever been described as being a bit like me. I wrote poems and plays and dreamed my way through life. I had always wanted to be a writer but never dared pursue it. It was when my Grandmother told me of Orelle’s wish to write that I finally owned my own.
I will never have the opportunity to hear the sound of Orelle's voice. But I feel the power of it course through my veins each time I put pen to paper.
Today, as I write this, it is June 13th, and would have been Orelle’s 96th birthday. My gift to her is to share her story with you. Thank you Orelle, for inspiring me to live the life you could not. The life of an artist.
Mickey was born the moment that his father died. His dad was rushing to the hospital to greet his firstborn son when he was hit by a train and killed instantly.
A few years later, Mickey's misfortune continued when his mom married a Bad Man. Family lore has it that the Bad Man beat little Mickey so brutally that all the sense was knocked out of him. Mickey would always remain a boy, even after he was grown.
He was my father's cousin. This boy/man lived with his invalid mother in the forest near my grandparent's Minnesota lake house. An idiot, they called him, but not unkindly. To me he was a cross between a giant and Snow White's sweet dwarf, Bashful.
Each summer Mickey would teach me the trails of the forest, pointing out the birds, trees and wild animals he called his friends. He taught me how to put a squiggly worm on a hook and to cast a fishing rod. He never spoke to me, only gestured and smiled, both of us equally shy of one another.
One summer, Mickey shared a secret. We followed the trail that led from my grandparent's dock toward his mother's house. In a clearing, I saw a small sign with the word "Mickeyville" scrawled upon it. A pretty little town lovingly built of wood in miniature. Mickey, it would seem, was a deeply talented woodworker. His eyes shined with pride as I walked through Mickeyville. It was all there, brightly painted houses, a school, a tidy church with its tall steeple. And there was the hospital, right next to the railroad tracks. Just as in Mickey's life, there were no people in Mickeyville.
I wouldn't return to the lake house for another 20 years. They were all gone by then: my beloved grandparents, Mickey and his invalid mother. I picked up a rusty fishing pole from the edge of the dock and cast the empty hook into the water just to remember how it felt. There was a hard tug and I reeled in a huge Northern pike - off the dock with an empty hook! The ghosts of my people were having their way with me.
Leaving the spirits of the water, my eye caught the trail into the forest. Soon I found myself standing in the ruins of Mickeyville. Countless winters had battered the buildings, most crushed by the weight of snow and neglect. The tall steeple of the church stood alone. I reached through its wide front doors, past the rows of tiny pews, across the altar and removed the small wooden crucifix fastened to the back wall.
Today, the crucifix from the Mickeyville Church sits on my own altar where it remains my favorite piece of art.
I was having was one of those days and life was bringing changes that tinted my spirits blue. I turned to the TV, hoping to escape my melancholy mood.
Mary Poppins. I never watch kids’ films, but it was the only thing on, so I settled in with a sigh.
I had forgotten about Mary Poppins and how much I’d loved her. I was surprised to find I knew every song and remembered every word. I had forgotten that when I was a little girl, I wanted to be Mary Poppins.
I imagined that when I grew up I’d create a life where I would sing with birds and dance with trees. I’d have adventures and live my dreams.
“Real life’s not like that,” they all warned gravely, concerned for the future of this curious little girl. But I was intent.
Every time I saw a shooting star, I'd wish for those magical powers. I poured a small fortune into wishing wells. And I spent so many years bent over in search of four-leaf clovers that I still suffer from back pain.
But as I watched Mary Poppins again after so many years, I became enchanted. And a miracle did transpire. I remembered who I was. I remembered that little girl who wanted to create a beautiful life, full of adventures and magic and delight.
And I realized that in a strange way, I am Mary Poppins. I have created that life. And that I don't have to feel blue when life brings change, I just need to take it with some sugar.
In many ways, Mary Poppins was like an artist, leaving everywhere she went more beautiful for her having been there. She never wasted a minute wishing things could be different, but focused on the magic of each moment. Mary Poppins reminded me that how I respond to change is a choice that I make. And that life is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, if I will only believe.
Wind’s in the east, mist coming in. Like something is brewing, about to begin...
I brought no Italian to Rome.
At the Brazilian Embassy, I tell the guard that I am to see the great artist Vik Muniz. The guard speaks no English. My best mime only warrants a raised eyebrow.
In desperation, I plead, "Parlez francais?" though I do not. A call is placed and I gather that I have been mistaken for a french journalist of great repute. "French" because everyone now speaks to me in french, though my only reply is my customary Gallic shrug. "Journalist of repute" because I was granted the sole private interview with the artist so they assume I must be somebody.
The red carpet is rolled out as a diplomat whisks me upstairs to Vik. Introductions are made, in french, to Vik as he looks at me, baffled, and exclaims. "It's you!" We embrace as I explain how I chased him to Rome, wanting an interview for my Working Artist project, and how I carefully connived to arrange this meeting.
They give us an ornate room to talk in private. Vik helps me set up my film equipment and, as I struggle, he patiently teaches me how to use my tripod. Oh God, I repeat to myself nervously. The Brazillian Ambassador drops in to say hello. Oh God. A white-gloved man in uniform silently serves us espresso. I am shaking with caffeinated nerves.
But he was the same Vik Muniz he has always been, generous, brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and gorgeous. And in the end, I got an amazing interview.
If I had a nickel for every time I couldn’t move forward because of money, or because there simply wasn’t enough time… but I decided to stop letting those things that I cannot control decide my fate. I decide my own fate; it’s a thing with me.
I practice the "little-teeny-tiny bit each day" philosophy, because that’s how things get created. And that way, I can focus on the money that is needed right now, and not worry about the money that I will need in the future.
More times than not, when the money isn’t there, another door opens. I just keep working, keep taking little-teeny-tiny steps.
I’ve noticed that when people work this way, especially if it is in service to others, doors open. And the timing is always more perfect if you allow the universe to work for you, instead if dictating your timeline. Just keep working. Start small and you will do great things. Start now.
At the extraordinary James Turrell exhibition at Pace London, I felt as if I was falling back in time. I've shared so many conversations with Turrell over the years.
It was he who first taught me how to look at his work, and spoke to me about light. It was he who introduced me to the Quaker religion to which he belonged, and would sometimes invite me to worship with them.
When I told him about a magazine I subscribed to, "Quakers in the Arts," he laughed as I explained how it was more of a xeroxed newsletter than a magazine. But the editors made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in budget. There had been an article in one issue about Turrell and his work and how it related to Quakerism. The writer mused on her desire to see Turrell's masterpiece, The Roden Crater, an extinct volcanic crater in the middle of the desert that he'd made his life's work, turning it into an incredible piece of land art.
So Turrell and I decided to invite her, and all of the Quakers in the Arts to visit the Roden Crater.
They were thrilled! From all over the states came water-colorists, quilters, and poets. It was a fine day at Turrell's ranch, with hay rides and a picnic, and we even sat in silent worship together.
After lunch we piled into cars to make the arduous journey through the rough terrain to the crater itself. I drove in front with Turrell and a long line of Quakers followed. We were a little concerned about their small cars on the gravel road that twisted for miles, but everyone arrived in one piece.
At the gate, Turrell got out of the truck only to come back right away, panicked. "I forgot the keys." What? "I forgot the keys." James Turrell had forgotten the keys to the Roden Crater and there were 12 carloads of Quakers idling expectantly behind us.
There was only one thing to do. We broke in. I won't tell you how we did it, just that we did it. Because not many people can say: "I broke into the Roden Crater." But I can. Yes, I can.
They tell me that I have always been creative. My family recognized the symptoms from the start. I often heard them wail, “She’s creative!” when they didn’t understand why on earth I made the choices I did. They would cry out, hands on-head in despair, “What will become of her?”
At school, I’d entertain the other kids with song and dance routines during class. “She’s creative,” the teachers would whisper to one another conspiratorially.
After spending a large part of my adult life with the same therapist, I finally asked him what exactly was wrong with me? He shrugged, “You’re creative.”
It didn’t sound like a nice thing to be. I wanted to be something else, someone else. For many years my creativity just scared me. Being creative made me see the world in different colors thanother people see it. And when others recognized that difference in me, I felt wrong, ashamed.
It took me a long time, but now I paint the world in my own strange colors. And I feel right in feeling wrong.
I have always been right! Handed, that is. It's my dominant side and I've often shuddered at the thought of having to change. Life must have heard me and had a chuckle at my expense.
Last summer, a visit to a dodgy dentist left me unable to chew on my right side anymore. It was challenging to change my chew. Yet it did make me slow down and pay attention.
But when I recently developed a condition in my right hand that makes it painful to write or make art, I was concerned. "What's the gift?" I asked myself between mouthfuls of Tylenol.
I'm learning, slowly, to use my left hand. I'm starting with bigger movements, like wagging my left index finger in disapproval instead of my right, or manning the corkscrew. My goal is to one day take a calligraphy course and write even more beautifully with my left hand than I've ever done with my right. I've bought dictation software, challenging myself to process my ideas differently.
Life is forcing me to crawl when I love to run, but I am determined that my response shall always be "thank you." After all, it's only right.
I met him as I was taking my daily stroll through the city. An artist painting the landscape. I stopped to chat, as I do, and take a few pictures of a working artist at work.
He said, "I like to show my paintings to children the best, because they ask more interesting questions."
What kind of questions do grown-ups ask?
"Adults tend to ask either 'How much can you get for that?' or 'How long did that take you to paint?' I tell them that it took me 35 years and five hours.”
One of the first questions I ask aspiring artists is, "What is it that you want?" Invariably the answer has to do with wealth and fame. Heroes named include Damian Hirst and Andy Warhol.
And then I sigh, collect myself, and try to explain that when your focus is on wealth and fame you are getting your validation from outside of yourself, your values are being formed by others. By the media, for crap's sake. Have you seen the media these days?
This is your life and your work, why would you place its validation in the hands of a soul-less machine?
The best artists have a strong inner core of ethics and values and they are motivated by a developed sense self-directedness.
This is what it is to be an artist; to find one's own voice and not cater to the trend of the month. As artists, we need to have better goals.