Art, I made this

Art I Love – Cowgirl Shrine

Yesterday morning we started our annual descent into western madness with the opening parade of the Calgary Stampede — The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

For the next ten days it’s non-stop partying, shows, midways, agricultural displays, rodeos, and some of the strangest food going. Here’s the new and (so they say) exciting foods offered this year on the midway.  Personally, I might have to sample the bacon wrapped corn-on-the-cob, but hold the maple syrup, please.

In honor of all things cowgirlish, here’s a shrine I made several years ago after reading Carol Owen’s wonderful book about shrines.

For the makers out there, the base is foam core board, with a mulberry paper covering and lots of Golden® matt gel to hold it in place. The writing was computer generated and printed on tissue paper, then attached with more matt gel.

I had so much fun attaching everything I could find that might relate to a cowgirl theme: western cloth on the roof, miniature white hat (the symbol of the Stampede), milagro charms, deputy’s star, miniature quilt made with Roy Rogers/Dale Evans fabric, beads, cow buttons, stars, letter beads that say “Go west, young woman,” a copper bracelet, a miniature lariat, and an air-dry paper clay face. The really spooky thing is how much the face turned out to look like me. Complete accident.

Cow Girl Shrine Front

Cow Girl Shrine Front

Cow Girl Shrine Back

Cow Girl Shrine Back

Cow Girl Shrine - One Side

Cow Girl Shrine – One Side

Cow Girl Shrine - Other Side

Cow Girl Shrine – Other Side

Detail of cow girl's face

Detail of cow girl’s face

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters talking about a crate of suddenly freed chickens escaping their pursuers , but footage of a dramatic event, an event which changed the life of the people involved. While we’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment we watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while we watched? Did sports’ scores or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was our set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that we were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—cameras would lingered for a full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would be a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper windows and, perhaps, a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research done about five years ago by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. The original report  and a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim were both fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel, and express empathy. For all we know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings, who are most capable of turning empathy into helping. It’s vital that we keep that skill.

First, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance than empathy in our real lives is the question that if we become numb to experiencing empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.


Quote for the week:

If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.

~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain

See you on Tuesday, July 8, for the first part of the six-part mini-series on techniques to improve our first drafts. We’re starting with how to use body language in place of adverbs.


Art, I made this

Art I Love: Prompt Sticks

A few years ago I made a set of art prompt sticks. Prompts are a way to take a work in a new, often unexpected, direction. When I get stuck, I pull a stick at random and think about using what’s described on the stick in the piece.

For the makers among us:

Container is a plastic vitamin bottle with the top cut off. Cover in air dry clay. Score with a blunt tool to incise a pattern. Paint with acrylics. Add a round of craft felt on the bottom. Sun emblem is also air-dry clay, painted with acrylics.

Sticks are colored craft sticks. Tape a piece of tissue paper to a piece of plain bond paper. Type as many prompts as are wanted, leaving enough space between them so there will be room to cut. Print the prompts on the tissue/bond paper combination by running it through a printer. Cut the prompts apart. Attach one prompt to each stick with gel medium.

By the way the blue stick should read “Add a contrasting color,” though there are ways to add contracting colors to make something look smaller.

This is a project that’s a lot of fun to make and use with children.

2014-06-28 PromptSticks

Art, I made this

Art I Love: Pea Pod Fairy


We’re working hard on this blog on Tuesdays with Write the Novel and Thursdays on Level Thinking, so I decided on the weekends, we need to relax and look at the pretty pictures. Welcome to the first posting of Art I Love. It’s a once a week feature of art I’ve made, art I’m working on, and occasionally, art I wish I’d made.

All gardens, whether they cover several acres or flowers pots in a windowbox, need garden fairies. Here’s a pea pod fairy I made after reading one of Salley Mavor’s books. If you aren’t familiar with Salley’s wonderful miniatures, treat yourself to a visit to her site.

For the construction minded among us: embroidery floss wrapped wire, air-dried clay face, embroidered wool felt clothes, Kool-aid dyed wool roving for the hair, knitted wool cap. Pea pod is embroidered wool felt and air-dried clay peas, painted with acrylics. She sits 4″ tall.

Pea Pod Fairy

Pea Pod Fairy

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Time Travel

Come with me for a short foray into time travel. Forty-four years ago today I climbed on a plane to go to Vietnam. I was a lot younger then.

Friday, May 15, 1970/Travis Air Force Base, California

Waiting is so hard.

The terminal building is a large grey warehouse of corrugated iron; combat boots make hollow sounds on the concrete floor. Inside men in fatigues or summer uniforms wait everywhere, sleep on grey wooden benches, read paperback books with the cover folded back, or wander and smoke cigarettes. I’ve been down here three times only to be told I’m not yet manifested on a plane.

Sue and I are afraid. We have heard stories that the Viet Cong rape women prisoners, that they never take women prisoners alive, that in Tet of ’68 nurses were issued a suicide capsule. Since no U.S. service women has ever been captured, our imaginations, fed by boredom and anxiety, are overworked. We are afraid of being captured, raped, tortured. We are afraid of our plane crashing and never getting there. Most of all, we are afraid of somehow not measuring up.

A lot of the Army is like this, proving you are as tough or tougher than the guys. It is the kind of thing that worried us about going to basic. We had seen movies and heard stories about being awakened at 0430 and having to run 5 miles and do physical calisthenics for any infractions of rules. In the end it wasn’t like that at all. It was “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” from the enlisted men and the sergeants. Sometimes we were a little disappointed, as if they didn’t think we could pass the rigorous tests, so they never gave them to us. We wanted to be tested. We still want to be tested.

After supper, we take a walk along the fence that protects the airstrip. The sun is going down. A med-evac plane has just landed and casualties are being loaded from the plane onto a bus. We stand with our fingers interlocked with the mesh fence, our faces pressed up against the metal links. I wonder where the casualties have been, who they are, if I know the nurses are who cared for them. I am so tired of waiting, so keyed up that I want to jump the fence and do something—adjust I.V.s, check dressings, take vital signs—anything to be a part of what is happening. I look at Sue’s face and know she feels the same way. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We want to be a part of this war.

About 9 P.M. I make one more visit to the manifest desk. The rather bored Specialist verifies my name and serial number on a clipboard. “Two A.M. Saturday morning.” My mouth goes dry. I’m really going to Viet Nam! I go back to the Officers’ Quarters and say goodbye to Sue. I wish we could travel together, but she still isn’t manifested on a plane. We know we will probably never see each other again.

I try to sleep, but am too excited. Finally I get up, dress and fuel myself with several cans of Coke. I call a military taxi to take me and my duffel bag over to the terminal about midnight. My duffel bag contains everything I can cram into one long green cloth tube; what’s in there has to last me a year. Six sets of fatigues, two pairs of combat boots, a couple of summer dresses, underclothes, tennis shoes, a robe, extra shampoo and toothpaste, my diary, a small camera, a tape recorder, my address book and some stationery. The bag has my name stenciled on the side and it’s locked with a padlock. I wear the key around my neck beside my dog tags.

The night is dark and warm. A hot breeze blows across the runways and large orange lights illuminate the terminal. I hear a ghetto blaster from the barracks down the road from the terminal; the building is just too far away to make out the song. Inside the terminal, I’m the only woman in the building except for a black specialist checking names at the embarkation desk and a woman in a Red Cross uniform on the far side of the terminal who’s serving coffee, juice and cookies.

When it comes down to this hot California night, when my duffel bag disappears along the sterile aluminum chute, when I have a ticket in my hand and my name on a manifest list, I am terrified. I should be working in a hospital in New Orleans or Atlanta, surrounded by civilians and peace. Why have I gotten myself into this twilight zone of barn-like terminals, blaring intercoms, people with drawn and scared faces? I don’t belong here.

Yes, I do. When I saw those men carried off the plane yesterday, I knew I had to be here, to do what I am about to do. I can’t let them go to this war alone. It wouldn’t be honourable. When I was in high school I read Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein. In that world people who had done a tour of voluntary service could vote and people who hadn’t, couldn’t. I think that’s the way it should be. We have to do something to earn the right to be citizens.

It’s more than that, a lot more personal. Viet Nam has been so much with me for the past five years. I saw the fear of this war on the faces of the boys in university every time an exam paper was handed back, felt it on the Halloween night when I was at a party and Johnson announced the mining of Haiphong harbor. This war had run through the past decade of our lives. My brother Ward can be drafted. I don’t want him to be here in this terminal. I can’t let those boys from university, from that Halloween party do this alone. And yet, it is only discipline that brings me to the ramp of the plane where a black sergeant looks over his clipboard.

“Name, rank and serial number?”

I rattle them off. I have memorized my serial number so I can rattle it off in short bursts: three numbers, two numbers, four numbers.

He salutes and I board the plane.

Sharon helicopter

©Sharon Wildwind, Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, River Books, 1999.

My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking: Easing the Uphill Struggle

At times, I run out of energy before I run out of day. When those days happen, it’s terrific to be able to ask my husband to do things for me that I normally do for myself, even simple tasks such as untie my shoes, or hang up my dress, or bring me a glass of water.

A few years ago, a group of researchers, led by Simone Schnalla of the University of Plymouth in England, has demonstrated that approaching a daunting task with a good friend has a measurable positive effect on judging how hard that task will be. Their study, called “Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant” was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Schnalla and his co-investigators did two studies.

In the first, a person was asked to estimate how steep a hill was. Test subjects who had a good friend with them during the test estimated the hill to be less steep than people who were unaccompanied.

In the second study, subjects were asked to estimate the steepness of an imaginary hill, this time while thinking of a supportive friend. In this study as well, people who thought about a good friend, saw the hill as less steep than did the people thinking about a neutral or disliked person. The longer and more positive the friendships, the flatter the hill seemed to be.

Supportive friendships existed among writers long before the Internet made keeping in touch easier. In the nineteenth century, the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and the biographer and social reformer Annie Fields not only shared a house, but kept up friendships—and correspondences that didn’t depend on e-mail, cellphones, or Facebook—with a list of people that reads like a high school required reading list. Among their long-time friends were Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Lydia Maria Child, Mark Twain, Mary Ellen Chase, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Willa Cather, and William Dean Howells.

I talked recently to a friend who is a writer, though not of mysteries. Her particular literary neighborhood is going through a dicy patch right now, one of those, “He said,” “She said,” “I never said” fracases, with side orders of name-calling and back-stabbing. She said to me, “Every time we talk, you have another story about mystery writers doing something nice for each other. How do you guys do it?”

The flippant answer is that we mystery writers get all of our hostilities on paper by polishing off people we don’t like, thus leaving us free to enjoy one another’s company as writers and human beings.

However we do it, I’m darn glad we do. So my advice this week is to raise our collective glasses to one another and give a little cheer for making all the hills seem smaller. Let’s keep hiking on together.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

~Anais Nin, diarist and writer (1903 – 1977)


Level Thinking: Creativity and Aging

Susan Perlstein is one of my favorite people. She founded Elders Share the Arts in New York City, and is the Founder Emeritus National Centre for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. Several videos of her speaking can be found on-line. Search for her name.

These are some things  I learned from  her about creativity and aging.

Creativity is scary as well as having a lot of positive values. The arts are deep play. Current brain research shows that as people age, both sides of the brain integrate. Younger people tend to be more right-brained or left-brained, but older people are whole-brained. One surprising thing that brain research has shown is that when the brain is stimulated with real creativity, brain tissue grows more dendrites, that is, the brain reserve gets larger. The immune system also grows stronger.

In North America, the shift from a negative, medical model of aging into what can older people offer has happened since 2000. Elders Share the Arts (New York City) started by collecting stories and transforming them into all art forms. This grew into the first landmark research on creativity and aging in the US. The research was carried out between 2001 and 2005. Since then every study done has added to the body of knowledge that show that the health of older people involved in creative artistic expression group improved significantly in all areas. They:

  • lived longer
  • visited the doctor less often
  • took fewer medications
  • incurred less health care costs
  • had fewer falls
  • increased their visual acuity, if they were engaged in visual arts
  • had more friends and social contacts
  • increased their sense of mastery and control over their lives, even in non-art areas
  • had increased confidence
  • increased their ability and willingness to problem-solve and locate and use resources
  • experienced less depression
  • appeared to have a deceased risk for entering long-term care

The National Center for Creative Aging also came out of that research. They continue to promote art projects for older people. The organization’s goal is to pair as many senior’s programs as possible to arts organizations on the local, state, and national level. They have wonderful on-line resources. If you are involved in any organization for older people, this is a great site to check out.

Total respect for life experiences is the base and heart of artistic programs for seniors. These are not “keep busy” projects. We are talking professional art instruction, public performances and art exhibits, and social integration into a multi-generational group.

Stop thinking of arts for older people as follow-the-dot kits, sing-alongs, etc. where all the person has to do is slap on some paint or try to remember the words to old songs. Real creativity starts with the blank page, the lump of clay, a drum, or an empty stage.

Stop using bland, non-controversial subjects, such as having older people paint a bunch of flowers on a table. Tap into the individual and cultural heritage that every older person has and allow art to grow out of the richness of that heritage.

Real artists deserve real working space, and real display space. Stop thinking of art for older people in terms of “Art Corners” furnished with second-hand furniture and third-hand, close-out-sale art supplies, where finished projects are Scotch-taped or pinned to a bulletin board with thumbtacks. Get artists into real art studios, real performance spaces. Mount the pictures, frame them, and display them in galleries. Put actors, poets, musicians, and writers on stage. Make CDs. Do desk top publishing. Organize living history festivals and present them in real venues.

Think partnerships. It’s not a matter of corporations or governments making a donation and walking away. Close the circle by taking the art back to those same organizations in the form of art displays, performances, etc.

Train people already working with older adults in the arts; train artists in working with older people.

Form intergenerational liaisons and projects whenever possible. Connect to local school curricula and build artist/school links, such as linking a seniors’ centre and a school in the same neighborhood.

If you want a look at some older people totally immersed in their art, I recommend both of these films, which I throughly enjoyed.

 Film: Do Not Go Gently: the power of imagination in aging

2007, 57 minutes, US production, narrated by Walter Cronkite. This film once had it’s own web site from which it could be ordered, but that site seems to have disappeared. The link is to the Internet Movie Data Base listing for this filem

Explores the thoughts of older artists and others involved in creative aging. How important is imagination to the experience of being human? What are the most inventive artists expressing at a very old age? And why? This is a very powerful film, featuring:

  • Arlonzia Pettaway, 84, quilter from Gees Bend, Alabama.
  • Frederick Franklin, 93 ballet artist, who’s still dancing and teaching younger dancers
  • Leo Ornstein, over 100, musical composer and pianist
  • Several groups around the US, which offer artistic programs for their senior members

 Film: Still Kicking

2006, 35 minutes, US production

Amy Gorman invited Frances Kandl to journey with her throughout the San Francisco Bay Area searching for female role models—very old women, still active artists, living with zest. While Amy chronicles their oral histories, Frances is inspired to compose songs for several of these women, many well past 90, culminating in concerts celebrating lives liberated by age. Artists featured:

  • Frances Catlett, 95, painter
  • Ann Davlin, 93, dance and piano teacher
  • Madeline Mason, 101, doll maker
  • Elsie Otaga, 91, ikebana artist
  • Grace Gildersleeve, 95, rug weaver
  • Lily Hearst, 108, pianist

“If you don’t have a sense of wonder, you can’t create. Wonder begins when you ask a question to which there is no clear answer. The question and answer must flow through one another. The question must be the answer and the answer must be the next question.” ~Ted Blodgett, City of Edmonton, Alberta poet laureate, 2008-2009

If you’re following my Tuesday series on Writing a Novel, I hope to see you back on Tuesday, March 18 for Character Development, Part 3 — Expanding the Starter Kit