What signals the beginning of summer to you? Do you wait for the calendar to tell you it’s officially begun, or do you declare it underway once you’ve planted a flat of annuals, fired up the grill, or popped open a beer on the back porch?
For me, those are all sure signs, but what really kicks off summer is the first festival of the season. Around here, that’s the Newaygo Arts & Crafts Festival, held over the Memorial holiday weekend.
Some years the festival is better than others (with my definition of “better” based on an index I derive through complex calculations weighted heavily by the ratio of actual artisans and crafters to booths occupied by gutter-guard salespeople and chiropractors).
This year, I have to say, the festival was outstanding. Not only were there lots of vendors offering interesting wares, there was also a new addition, “Let’s Art Newaygo!”, that I hope will become a regular feature of the annual celebration. This juried art show and competition showcased the work of twenty-two artists, displayed in thirteen businesses throughout Newaygo. You could think of it as a smaller-scale ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids extravaganza of the arts that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
I spent a blissful couple of hours strolling around Newaygo, checking out the works of art. Then I headed back to the River Country Chamber of Commerce booth in Brooks Park to cast my vote in the People’s Choice competition. (Read on to find out which pieces were selected by the judges and the People’s Choice voters.)
I was fascinated to see the variety of materials and techniques the artists used. There were paintings, photographs, sculptures of metal and wood, stained glass windows, and multi-media works. Several artists made creative use of recycled or repurposed materials, which added interest.
I could go on and on, but words don’t do justice, so I’ll let you take a look at more of the art. And if you’re in the Newaygo area, you don’t have to settle for pictures—the works will be on display through June 10, and printed guides to their locations are available at local businesses and libraries.
For a few years now, I have closed out most weeks by taking to the trails with the Wander Women, a local hiking group. We walk, and we talk, and we take in the sights and sounds along our woodland paths. But the truth is, we don’t really wander. We have a definite destination and an approximate time frame, from which we rarely deviate.
That’s as it should be. We all have post-hike errands to run or appointments to keep or evening engagements to get ready for, so it helps to have an idea just how the day’s hike will fit into all of that.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on my own in the woods—or on a city street, for that matter—I like to just aimlessly meander. That makes me a flâneur, a word I learned from a lovely article in Mindful magazine. The word has been variously defined as “an aimless idler” and “a passionate wanderer.”
I guess I’m a little of both. So, apparently, was Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of “sauntering” and letting his mind wander along with his feet.
When I worked in downtown Detroit, I spent most lunch breaks walking, usually with no particular destination in mind. I might end up strolling by the Detroit River or losing myself in the Ren Cen’s maze of hallways and catwalks or exploring Greektown or Harmonie Park or Washington Boulevard. Wherever I roamed, I always came back to the office refreshed and ready to work for the rest of the day.
Later, when I worked in Ann Arbor, my lunchtime walks took me into various neighborhoods, where I found inspiration in the creatively-designed gardens, quirky houses, and funky yard art I passed along the way.
“When you wander, the spring you tighten in order to secure your purpose and direction can unwind,” editor Barry Boyce observed in the Mindful article. What’s more, he noted, wandering can even be a kind of mindfulness practice. While we tend to think mindfulness is all about corralling our restless minds, the definition can expand to include “the practice of just noticing one thing after another as we let ourselves out to play.”
That’s exactly what I find myself doing on my walks these days. A just-bloomed wildflower, an oddly-shaped stone, a leaf floating down the creek—there’s no telling what will catch my attention and take it far from whatever minutia occupied my overloaded brain before I set out on my stroll.
I seem to wander best when I wander alone, but some folks are joining up in free “walkshops” organized by the nonprofit group Street Wisdom. On these volunteer-led strolls, participants are encouraged to tune into their senses and use their heightened awareness to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills.
Whether you ramble solo or with fellow flâneurs, you can bet your creativity will get the same kind of boost, as long as you let your mind meander freely. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability and used their brains more efficiently (as measured with brain scans) than people who zoned out less.
All of that is reason enough for me to get up from my desk and wander off. See ya later!
In the days leading up to my recent birthday, colorful envelopes began appearing in our mailbox. Guessing they were birthday cards, I set them aside to open on the actual day.
Except for one. More a card-sized parcel than an ordinary envelope, it intrigued me with its cobbled-together lumpiness. When I noticed it was from my uber-creative friend Val in North Carolina, I couldn’t resist opening it right away.
In an earlier email exchange, Val had told me about her latest obsession: making “junk journals” and altered books from bits of this and that. I had no idea that junk journaling is a thing, but it is. Val confessed she’d gotten wrapped up in YouTube videos showing how to make the whimsical little assemblages.
More on those videos in a moment, but back to that mysterious envelope.
Inside, I found a mini-journal filled with a most imaginative and personalized assortment of miscellany. The cover was fashioned from a small manila envelope, folded in half, with one end left open to form a pocket for stowing notes and mementos. Val had covered the outside with a tropical print reminiscent of Samoa, where we met as teenagers in the 1960s. Inside were more pockets and envelopes made from magazine and catalog pages, sheet music, and so on, and stuffed with little treasures: maps of Samoa and my home state of Oklahoma, a recipe for Michigan Party Cheese Bake, clipped from some fundraising cookbook, plus other scraps and tidbits with special meaning to the two of us.
In the center was a two-page spread of another tropical scene, with Val’s face smiling from the window of a beach house and two little figures like the ones that populated the cartoons she used to draw in our Samoa days. My birthday journal was a delight from cover to cover, one that I’ll enjoy looking through again and again.
At Val’s prompting, I decided to try my hand at junk journaling (fully aware that the last thing I need right now is another project, but rationalizing that a hands-on activity would provide a good and necessary break from all the writing and book-related work that’s consuming my life these days. Sound convincing? I thought so.)
A junk journal is really whatever you want it to be, but it usually includes some combination of words, pictures, and other memorabilia, such as brochures, ticket stubs, maps, calendars, cards, or whatever else you want to include, all assembled in a helter-skelter way. The idea appealed to my passion for making collages and my tendency to hoard paper memorabilia with which I have no idea what to do.
But before I plunged in, I felt like I needed at least a little guidance. That’s how I found myself in the online realm of junk journal inspiration. It soon became clear that, like scrapbooking, junk journaling is one of those hobbies people can go a bit overboard on. I found photos of amazingly—and intimidatingly—elaborate journals, along with lists of all sorts of paraphernalia one might want to purchase, either to decorate the journal (where’s the “junk” in that??) or to use in crafting the journal: pre-made pockets, special paper cutters, fancy papers, bookbinding twine.
Yeesh. This is why I tend to stay away from Pinterest and crafting blogs. They’re inspiring, yes, but they also feed my insecurity when I start comparing my slapdash efforts to other people’s lavish creations. What’s more, have you noticed that it’s virtually impossible to find written instructions and diagrams for anything anymore? Learning how to do even the simplest thing requires watching a YouTube video. Or several.
I could see hours, if not days, swirling down the drain. So I set limits. I would watch only enough to learn a couple of things: How to make origami envelopes and library card-style pockets. Then I’d figure out the rest by studying Val’s example and just winging it. This decision also helped with the intimidation factor. Junk journals are supposed to be messy, but some people’s messy still comes out looking a lot more artful than mine. The sooner I stopped looking at videos and started doing my own work, the happier I’d be.
I chose a theme for my journal: Yoga and meditation. Now, here’s where it gets a little woo-woo. I went looking for card stock to use for my journal pages and found a stash left over from previous projects and recycled from other purposes. For my first page, I chose a pale yellow piece that seemed to stand out from the others. I had noticed that some of the pieces of card stock had color on only one side, with gray on the back, so I turned over the yellow piece to see if it had color on both sides.
Here’s what I found on the “back,” which had originally been the front: A flyer for classes taught by our beloved yoga teacher Ellie, whose death two and a half years ago devastated our community. Of course I wouldn’t sacrifice that flyer to make an ordinary page, but I’d find a way to give it a special place in the journal.
What else I included: Pockets holding decorated cards, with spaces on the backs for writing thoughts or inspiring words I come across in my reading; a freehand mandala I drew when I was going through a mandala-drawing phase; a collection of cards representing the seven chakras; a print of a collage I made for Ellie and another one that she especially liked; an origami envelope, made from Yoga Journal pages, into which I tucked a card with the names of my yoga friends.
I’m still putting together my junk journal, and even when it’s “finished,” it’ll still be a work in progress—something I can add to whenever I find something that fits.
Will I make others? That remains to be seen, although I already have ideas for several.
Will you make one? I hope so. And if you do, send me pictures, and I’ll share them in an upcoming blog post.
Want to know more about junk journals? Check out these websites:
A Beginner’s Guide to Junk Journaling
Junk Journal Tutorials For Beginners
What is a Junk Journal? Junk Journaling 101 for Beginners
Born and raised in Michigan, photographer Malia Rae has returned to her roots for an exhibit at Artsplace in Fremont. Roots have an even deeper meaning for Malia, whose fine art photography stems from her love of nature.
The daughter of Sue and Al Schneider of Newaygo (Sue is one of the Monday morning yoginis, by the way), Malia has shown her work at the city-wide, international art competition ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. The Artsplace exhibit, “Photography from the Heart,” which runs through February 2, is her first in Newaygo County. A meet-the-artist reception is scheduled for Thursday, January 24, 6:00-7:30 p.m. in the Jansma Gallery at NCCA-Artsplace, 13 E. Main St., Fremont.
I’ve invited Malia here today to tell us about her work.
So much of your work is nature-inspired. How did your appreciation of nature begin, and how has it developed over the years?
It definitely started with my parents, my dad in particular, because it was his upbringing. My father’s love of nature influenced and shaped our entire family. Growing up, we spent a lot of time in the woods. We didn’t get a lot of TV time, we were always told to go outside and play. Every vacation we took, we were camping—roughing-it camping with no running water, no bathrooms, no “campsites.”
As I got into high school, I resisted and pushed against spending time in nature. I wanted to hang out with friends, go to games, and be social. In college, when I was on my own, I quickly came back to my roots, enjoying spending time adventuring in the woods. I spent 10 years in Chicago, and Lake Michigan was my saving grace. When I moved to Texas, I bought a state park pass and started spending as much time as I could in nature. It was just like coming back to myself. Then I really appreciated all the time we had spent in the woods growing up, and I had more appreciation for my parents and what they did with what they had.
Now I feel like nature is my church, where I go for sacred space.
How did photography become your life’s work?
I went to school for photography and received my BFA in Advertising Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. After graduation, I worked for other photographers, learning the ropes, assisting with everything from architecture to food photography to regattas.
Then I moved to Chicago and started shooting on my own. Around that time, all my friends in photojournalism were getting laid off from newspapers, so they started doing wedding photography as a source of income. I had assisted on a couple of weddings when I was in school, and it was horrible. Not fun. I remember saying, "I’ll never in a million years do this." But then once the photojournalists started doing it, and I started seeing the documentary-style shooting they were doing, I reconsidered.
I had been photographing dogs for fun, and for my love of them, which lead me to doing photography for PAWS Chicago—Pets Are Worth Saving. People who saw the dog photos had been asking if I ever shot weddings. Once I saw what was going on in the industry with wedding photography, I thought, “I could try this.” So in 2007, I launched my own business, and it took off from there.
On your web site, you say that you’ve been studying love for some time. Tell us more about that.
Sometimes when you’re involved in what you’re doing, you can’t see the bigger picture. There was a time when my life took some drastic turns, in terms of everything changing as fast as you can snap your fingers. Within a year after that, I began looking at things with a broader perspective, and I realized that the whole time I’d been shooting weddings, I was actually studying love. Every couple communicates differently and shows love differently, even within their families. No two couples are the same. It really showed me a more dynamic range of what it’s like to show up and love someone or be loved by someone. Love is this intangible thing, but it’s also very real. Around the time I started having a new perspective, I also began the quest of finding hearts in nature, and it started to all make sense: I’d been studying love for a really long time without even knowing I was doing it.
It’s so interesting how it all dovetails.
I never would have chosen weddings. I never set out to do them. I resisted them at first, then fell in love with them and the people they brought into my life. And it wasn’t like I set out to do this whole thing with hearts. That came about because I was so down and depressed and struggling to find my way, and I knew there was something bigger and greater, and I knew I was capable of more. I was reading human potential books, listening to interviews, and looking for direction when I came across the phrase, "What you look for in life you find." Something nudged me to explore this concept more in my life. I decided to start looking for naturally formed hearts in my daily life. Initially I couldn’t even find one heart, not one. For three months I searched desperately everywhere I went. At that point, I was thinking, “This is total BS, they are all making this stuff up, I’m going to burn all the human potential books, and stop listening to the interviews. This is not working.”
It wasn’t until I left Chicago, on the first hike I did on my own in Austin, that I found a heart-shaped leaf. When I saw it, I had chills up and down my spine. What I’d been desperately searching for, I found in this one leaf, and all of a sudden that started to change everything.
Do you find that different people respond differently to the various heart images?
Yes, for sure. Sometimes, interestingly enough, it takes people a couple of minutes and then it’s like, “Oh wow, all of these are hearts.”
At ArtPrize 2016, we had 150 heart images, and there was definitely a handful of people who came through and took a while to figure it out. But yes, different images speak to different people. That’s the beauty of it all. These hearts transcend race, religion, gender, and politics. They have the ability to speak individually to each unique heart of each viewer.
What I’ve also found since I’ve been doing this project is that a lot of people have different things show up in their lives, whether it be hearts as a symbol or something else. I met a couple who find nickels everywhere. After their daughter died really young in a hospital, they walked out and they found a nickel, and they felt it was her speaking to them. Now they find nickels everywhere. To me, that’s amazing—I’ve never found a nickel in my life.
In that way, this project has opened up a way of communicating with people who also have a sign or a symbol or something that speaks to them, letting them know they’re on the right path, they’re loved, or that there’s something more, and to keep moving forward.
What was the experience of being in ArtPrize like?
It was so fun because that was the first big installation I did with the hearts. We had a 10 x 15-foot wall, with 150 8 x 8-inch metal prints of hearts mounted to float off the wall. That was the first time when, assembling all the pieces, I felt like it was bigger than me. Once they were up, I was like “Whoa! They’re mine and I photographed them, but they almost don’t feel like mine anymore. In a large collective, they took on a life, a pulse, and a breath all their own.” The people that came and that I connected with, some of them I’m still in touch with to this day. That’s where I started to be inspired to do more installations—trying to get into hospitals and other healing environments or public spaces like airports, to send more pieces of love out into the world.
I did have a 70-piece installation in the Austin airport. That was just fantastic, too, a space with that much traffic. The pieces just take on a life of their own once they’re out there. I’m trying to find out more ways to get them out there. They keep evolving, too, as I keep moving forward with them.
Are you still finding heart images?
Yes, all the time. I mostly only post and share ones in nature, but I also find them in other places. In fact, there’s not really a place in my life that I am not finding these signs of love.
I think what’s surprising me the most now, though, is the people that find them and take a picture and send it to me. People I don’t actually know that well personally, and also other people’s kids! I had friends who were vacationing in Alaska, and their son was scouring the beach. He finally came running to them with a black, heart-shaped rock and said, “This is for Malia.” My niece and nephew, also will find them on their own and grab their parents’ phone to take a picture and send it to me.
That stuff blows my mind. It’s shocking. Because in some ways I was the anti-heart girl, and the fact that now people see a heart and associate me with it, that’s wild. It warms my heart, makes me smile, and inspires me to keep pressing on even when I’m not sure where I’m heading.
Your Soul Nature project offers a unique perspective on both human nature and Mother Nature. How did that project come about?
Even when I was back in school shooting film, I always loved alternative processes like multiple exposures—shooting one frame of film and not advancing the camera and then shooting another frame over it. I had experimented with taking parts of a human body, like somebody’s legs or knees and putting them with, say, a cactus. So I always had this idea of wanting to mix Mother Nature and human nature, but I never really had the time or resources to do much with it, and with film it was so different. When Canon came out with their Mark III cameras, it became possible to do multiple exposures in-camera. At that time I was ready for an upgrade. As soon as I got the digital camera, I started playing around with the technique.
At first I thought I could do it on projects for my client base, but that did not work out very well. So I decided, if I really want to do this, I need to take time. For one whole month I got up every single morning a couple of hours before sunrise and went out to the state park. At first I was using myself as a subject, with a self-timer. I kept testing and testing and testing. As soon as I got the first image that actually worked—that wasn’t just muddy and gray—it was like finding that first heart. It was like my whole body and soul went Yes! Let’s do this.
I haven’t really found an avenue for putting these images out in the world, so really it’s just a personal project. I’ve always said if I could paint, I would. But for some reason I chose a camera as my medium, so I manipulate the camera to do what I would if I could paint or draw. By layering human figures into these natural settings, it’s my attempt to convey the mystical experience I have when I go into the woods.
Even when I think I have the process “figured out,” it’s always surprising me. I expect things to layer up certain ways, and then they come out totally different and it surprise me. I feel like I’m collaborating with Mother Nature. A lot of what’s involved is me just showing up. And then having the courage to ask people to come out to be photographed—that interaction with people is a vulnerable space for me.
Sometimes I have an idea that I think will work, and it might take over a year to actually make it all come together. So then I just keep playing with it and practicing and going out to create new images. In this series, I’ve been able to layer up things from Austin, Texas, from Chicago, and from Michigan. Right now I have four shots that literally encompass the four places where I’ve spent most of my life. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling of that. That starts to stitch together the threads of my life.
How do you feel about showing your work at Artsplace?
I’m so excited. I think it’s just the perfect fit. In my life I appreciate and value places that create community and bring people together. Artsplace does that, not just for artists, but for anyone who wants to be creative or wants to learn different techniques.
What kinds of things do you do to recharge your creative energy?
Yoga is big in my life; I love the body movement connected with breath. It’s like kinking and un-kinking a hose. It really fuels so much creative energy for me. Being in nature is another big one. I try to be mindful and aware of what I’m taking in, so I stay away from negative news. I also try not to look at other photographers and what they’re doing so I don’t compare myself to them. But surprisingly, one of the places where I get so much inspiration right now is all the science that’s coming about our bodies and our hearts and the heart-brain coherence. That you can be within a few feet of somebody and your hearts start to synchronize. The heart’s intuitive intelligence will actually try to get in rhythm with those around you. That blows my mind! So I go to lectures and workshops and try to saturate myself in information that feels good while continuing to learn and evolve myself. I get so excited, it makes my heart explode inside out with happiness.
What I want to do is create art that ignites the soul in that way. Sometimes it can be just one little thing that sparks the fire inside that makes you feel Yes! Anything is possible.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email, not a text, but an honest-to-goodness, pen-on-paper missive of a full page or more, folded, sealed, stamped, and placed in an actual—not virtual—mailbox. When, for that matter, was the last time you received a letter?
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
That's a pity. Letters have worth far beyond the paper they're written on, offering intimate musings and glimpses of everyday life that can't be found in brief dispatches or even impassioned Facebook posts.
"A letter is, after all, a piece of writing in which we give ourselves the space to reflect—to distill our emotions and reactions, to choose the things that are important and flesh them out in detail," writes Cristen Hemingway Jaynes in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine. "Without the more intimate form of writing letters, I drift apart from those who are not in my daily life."
Reflecting on her communications with one friend who still writes letters but never sends emails, Jaynes observes, "I know more about her thoughts and her relationship with the world—how she is actually doing—than I do about most of my other friends."
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
For instance: "I'm feeling very anxious about my entomology project and I want to make sure I have something done before Dr. Hurley gets back. I'm trying to get my equipment together this week so I can start the project next week. So far my equipment is a cake pan with the bottom cut out of it and a sieve. I have fears that the whole project is going to be about that sophisticated. I'm very nervous about it. I will enclose some of my bitten off fingernails if I remember."
Segues were seemingly unnecessary. I followed a discussion of travel plans with this news flash about my cat: "Ooooh, the most creepy thing just happened. Zeke has been sitting next to me on the couch, watching the birds outside and chattering his teeth at them. Then he lay down and went to sleep and chattered his teeth in his sleep. I CAN'T STAND IT!!!"
Some letters included funny drawings; others carried silly variations of my return address: "Sunset Avenue Circus Museum," "Sunset Avenue Center for the Development of Better Sleep Habits."
Reading the Laurel letters inspired me to haul out a box of letters that friends and family members had written to me over the years. Just the act of taking the letters out of the box gave me a deeper satisfaction than I've ever gotten from an email popping into my inbox. Seeing my brother's artsy, backhand cursive trailing across an envelope; recognizing a friend's old return address, noticing the stamp she selected, the kind of paper she wrote on, all felt like little homecomings. And the contents of those letters took me to times, places, and crannies of my friends' hearts and souls I couldn't have visited—and revisited—any other way.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Though very maladjusted and in a state totally unfit for normal upright society except for that of Alaska, which I hate the city part of, I'm alive and back in Anchorage," he wrote. He went on to recount seeing hundreds of caribou, five grizzlies, two moose, and one gyrfalcon; tipping over twice, but righting himself before swamping his kayak; and sharing bowhead whale meat and blubber with local indigenous people on Barter Island.
Even accounts of my correspondents' less adventurous experiences were a treat to read. My friend Barry's dispatch from college in 1969 was just as keenly observed:
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
Old letters preserve daily details that now seem quaint. Writing in 1971 about her employment woes, my friend Wendy lamented "I really want to get out of the $1.65/hr range. It's a drag." In the same letter, she included sketches of a denim coat and paisley dress she'd managed to buy on those skimpy wages, and added, "I've ordered rain boots from Sears (pg. 555, Fall-Winter book, item 5, on sale for $8.94 in one of their sale books)."
Over the years I've sometimes chided myself for holding onto mementos like these old letters. But a single snowy afternoon spent reading them—even if that happens only once a decade—is more than worth the closet space my box of letters occupies. I'm reminded of how long my friendships have endured and how they've sustained me.
Letters enhance connection and contentment, to be sure, but they're also good for creativity.
"When I write longhand each pass of the ink on to paper is a physical creation. And as with sculpture, textiles, painting, and furniture, it contains remnants of myself," notes Jaynes, whose great-grandfather Ernest Hemingway was also an inveterate letter writer. "The exercise of writing, whether it be in the form of a letter or a story, is all good practice. As my great-grandfather demonstrated in his colorful letters to friends, there can be just as much creativity in letter writing as in any other form. Similar to freewriting exercises, writing a letter loosens the knots in neural pathways, leading to subjects and characters lying just below the surface."
I know it did for me. I learned to write largely by crafting letters to everyone from grandparents to pen pals with whom I connected through a kids' magazine.
After all I've said in praise of letters, you probably think I'm going to end this post with a pledge to write more of them. I could, but I know it would be a hollow promise. Truth is, I've never been that great a correspondent, even when letters were my main form of communication. I wrote tons of them, but I always seemed to have a stack of unanswered ones nagging at me (kind of like my email inbox these days).
So rather than make a promise I'm not likely to keep, I will resolve to keep writing an occasional letter, and I'll encourage you to do the same.
After all, as Hemingway once wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something."
Need more inspiration? Check out Letters of Note, a website that "offers an intimate window into history and the characters who shaped it."
Or write a letter to a stranger who could use an encouraging word. Find stories of deserving people, along with where to send letters, at More Love Letters.
Feeling a little (or a lot) weighed down lately? I know I have been. With dreadful things happening around the world, and many friends and family members facing difficult challenges, it's sometimes hard to find reasons to smile.
Yet even in rough times, a little levity can help us cope. In that spirit, I'm taking a look back at some of the funny and light-hearted things we've come across in our recent travels.
One way I amuse myself on long road trips is by collecting funny names of roads, businesses, and other points of interest. I don't do this in any organized way—I just scribble them down in whatever notebook I have at hand. It's a treat to come across those notations later, when I'm thumbing through the pages, looking for the name of a book someone mentioned or the phone number of a tradesman I saw on a street-corner sign, or whatever else I've stowed in the same notebook.
On our latest trip out west, we chuckled at a highway exit sign for Bad Route Road, and then laughed harder when we saw the next sign advising trucks to exit there. On the same stretch of Montana highway, we encountered Whoop-Up Creek Road. I guess if you make it through the Bad Route, you've got something to whoop about.
Some place names just make you wonder how they came by those monikers. Take Tongue River, for instance. Or Fourth of July Creek. I Googled that one while working on this piece and didn't find out the origins of the name, but I did discover author Smith Henderson's 2014 novel by the same name. Looks like another book worth jotting down in that little notebook and adding to my to-read list.
In Seattle, our friends Laurel and Darwin took us on a day trip to Kitsap Peninsula, which included a visit to a finger of land known as Point No Point. According to a source cited in Wikipedia, explorer Charles Wilkes gave the place its name because "it appears much less of a promontory at close range than it does from a distance." I don’t know about that, as I didn't view it from a distance (I didn't see the point--ha, ha), but I will say that there is a point to visiting Point No Point: seeing the oldest lighthouse on Puget Sound and enjoying the driftwood sculptures and furnishings that decorate the grounds.
On our drive back to Michigan, we saw other sights that made us smile.
In Kellogg, Idaho, there's a circular building topped with an oversized miner's helmet and lantern. Built in 1939, it was originally a roadside diner where workers from nearby lead and silver mines stopped for Coneys and beers. After a stint as a 1950s drive-in restaurant, it closed in 1963, but reopened in 1991 as a realty office, which is what it remains.
Even highway rest stops can serve up some smiles. Weary of construction delays toward the end of our travels last spring, we came across this jaunty fellow in one rest area.
And on our most recent trip, we encountered this frighteningly funny chap at a pit stop. Two truck drivers were preparing to station the skeleton at the controls of a piece of equipment they were transporting. They told me they planned to put a sign on Mr. Bones's back reading "I WAS TEXTING."
More merriment came from the names of businesses we passed along the way: Garden of Read'n bookstore in Missoula and Animal House Veterinary Hospital in Forsyth, Montana. Then there was the billboard that warranted a double take, with its ad for the Rock Creek Testicle Festival.
You know I had to look that one up! Turns out it's an annual event famous for dishing up the local delicacy known as Rocky Mountain oysters—breaded and deep-fried cattle testicles—and sponsoring such contests as the Undie 500 tricycle race. I should say it was an annual event, as the Testy Fest (motto: "Have a ball") was discontinued this year, following a series of incidents, including fatal crashes caused by festival-goers, in previous years.
The owner of the lodge that hosted the rowdy event for 35 years said attendance—which once numbered more than 10,000 people—also had been dropping, due at least in part to social media. Apparently not all attendees cared to have footage of their festival antics posted on Facebook.
Though I'm a big fan of festivals (read more about that here), I think this is one I'm not sorry to have missed. At this stage in life, I'm content to get my amusement from road signs and sights. And newspaper headlines, which are sometimes downright funny, but more often ironic in their placement.
One day, for instance, the front pages of Montana Standard and Great Falls Tribune were crowded with news of corruption and strife—a sheriff charged with felonies, nastiness between two state senate candidates—but anchored with a story bearing this headline: "Labyrinths across state bring peace, meditation."
Let's hope so.
What has tickled your funny bone lately?
If you ever find yourself traveling through North Dakota on I-94, wishing for relief from the tedium of driving and the monotony of the plains, just take Exit 72 for a delightful detour through one man's imagination.
Known as the Enchanted Highway, the 32-mile stretch of two-lane county road from Gladstone to Regent showcases a collection of colossal creations by metal sculptor and retired teacher Gary Greff. Gargantuan grasshoppers, humongous fish, gigantic pheasants, the world's largest tin family—you'll find all of these and more if you venture off the interstate.
Greff dreamed up the Enchanted Highway nearly three decades ago in an attempt to revitalize his hometown of Regent, then a town of around 200 people. He'd never studied art and didn't know how to weld, but that didn't stop him. Using scrap metal, cast-off oil drums and recycled pipes, Greff just figured things out as he went along, sculpture by sculpture.
"He envisioned ten mega-sculptures, each with parking lot, picnic area and playground equipment, spaced every few miles along the road. So far, he has completed six on the Gladstone-to-Regent road, plus an additional sculpture, "Geese in Flight," on a ridge overlooking I-94 at the Gladstone exit.
Simply funneling travelers into Regent wasn't enough for Greff, though. He wanted to keep them there long enough to eat, drink, sleep, shop, and hang out a while. So he opened a gift shop, and when the town's school—which Greff had attended as a kid—closed, he and his brother converted the building into a hotel.
But not just an ordinary hotel. No, the brothers Greff wanted a hostelry in keeping with the enchantment theme. So, once again with more inspiration than experience, they turned the school into the Enchanted Castle, a 23-room hotel with waterfall walls, suits of armor, and other medieval touches. The inn even has a bar and a restaurant fittingly named Excalibur Steakhouse.
Though the hotel, bar, and restaurants have garnered glowing reviews, they haven't yet turned things around for Regent. The population has dwindled to around 170. Yet Greff is undaunted. Ever the optimist, he's working on two new sculptures to grace the hotel grounds and attract more visitors, he told the Dickinson (North Dakota) Press: a 35-foot-tall, sword-wielding knight and a 40-foot tall dragon that will breathe fire every hour.
Regular readers of HeartWood know I can never pass up roadside oddities, especially the oversized variety. My patient husband and traveling companion, Ray, knows it, too, and never objects my quests for the quirky. So when I read about the Enchanted Highway in a North Dakota tourism magazine and realized it was right on the route of our recent road trip to Seattle, I declared it a must-see. On the way out to Seattle, we had only enough time to stop at "Geese in Flight," which is currently closed to visitors, but can be viewed from the highway exit. On the way back, however, we spent an entire morning visiting the rest of the sculptures.
I was— of course—enchanted! The sculptures were even more immense and intricate than they appear in photos. It was clear, though, that some could benefit from an infusion of cash to maintain or restore them to their original conditions.
Greff's project is largely self-funded, and he does all the upkeep, including cutting the grass. He'd hoped gift shop proceeds would cover costs, but so far they haven't, he told the Dickinson Press. Neither, apparently, have the donation stations at the sculpture sites.
I only hope some kind of magic materializes to provide Greff with the means to continue and care for his work. It's a testament to the vision and perseverance of one big-time dreamer and an inspiration to all who dare to aim high.
As Greff summed it up in an article on a North Dakota tourism website, "You've got a dream. Live that dream. Don't hesitate. If I can do it, a person who didn't know how to weld and didn't have an art class, if I can go out and build 110-foot metal sculptures, I think you can do whatever you put your mind to."
In the two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I've written about dozens of creative people, some here in Newaygo County, others as far away as the U.K. But it struck me recently that I've never written about my favorite creative individual, one who's right here at home: my husband, Ray Pokerwinski.
Since Ray has a birthday coming up next week, what better time to celebrate his talents?
One of the first things I appreciated about Ray (after his green eyes and engaging personality) was his imagination and ability to apply it to all sorts of projects. When we first met, twenty-six years ago, he was remodeling a house, transforming a cobbled-together lakeside cottage into a stunning, open-floorplan, contemporary home, complete with boat house and tiered decks. He envisioned the whole thing, then set about gutting the place and putting it back together in an entirely different conformation. (That house, by the way, was the fifth house he had remodeled, all with self-taught skills.)
As time went on, I discovered he was equally adept at re-imagining all sorts of things, including two of my motorcycles. With my input, his skills and artistry, and a little help from a custom painter, Ray turned stock bikes into head-turners.
Now he's turned his attention to a hot rod, the design of which has been incubating in his brain for a few years. Finally he's found time to start chipping away at the project as time permits.
Ray's genius for innovation applies to more than making things; he's a whiz at coming up with out-of-the box solutions to all sorts of problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been stuck, unable to figure out how to deal with a complicated schedule or some other seemingly intractable situation (like keeping squirrels out of the bird feeder). When I outline the problem to Ray, he instantly sees a simple fix that I was too mired in details to discern. (So far, he's winning the squirrel battle.)
So yeah, his ingenuity makes everyday life more efficient, but it also makes life a whole lot more fun. I never know when I might find a funny face on my lunch plate. Or fashioned out of folded laundry.
When we bought an adjacent piece of property with a weathered shed, Ray amused the whole neighborhood by decorating the shed for holidays with mostly Ray-made adornments.
For my birthday a couple of years ago, he gave me a gift card to a local camera store, but instead of just sticking it in a greeting card, he presented it in a camera-shaped, wooden box that he had made.
And one Valentine's Day morning, I stumbled into the kitchen to find a wooden heart Ray had fashioned from a piece of the towering oak we'd had to cut down. That's the heart you see in my HeartWood logo. Another year, I found a bouquet of wooden tulips he had made in his workshop.
It's been a pleasure, too, to collaborate with him on creative projects, like fairy houses for Camp Newaygo's annual Enchanted Forest event. Ray dreams up the creations; I just help with a few finishing touches. And it's Ray who makes up the fairy stories to accompany each house; then we work together on the wording.
Seeing how Ray makes creativity a priority emboldens me to do the same. What's more, he actively encourages and celebrates all my creative undertakings, from my memoir to this blog to photography projects and other artistic dabblings.
It's inspiring, as well, to see that he's still trying new things, with youthful enthusiasm that belies the number of candles on his cake (or pie, as that was his request for the upcoming birthday). His latest venture: hand-turning wooden pens and mechanical pencils for friends, relatives and fundraisers.
I could go on and on singing Ray's praises, but I've gotta go now—I have a pie to make.
Dreams, determination and a life's artistic work—that's what transformed a nondescript vacant lot in Detroit into an urban sculpture park.
City Sculpture is the creation of Robert "Bob" Sestok, who has been making art in Detroit since the 1960s. I met Bob in the early '80s, when the neighborhood now called Midtown was in its grittier incarnation as the Cass Corridor. Bob was already a fixture in that community, as one of the founders of Willis Gallery and part of the Cass Corridor Movement, a group of artists whose unconventional methods and materials reflected the crumbling, post-industrial environment of the time and were influenced by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Some of those artists, including Bob, were featured in a 1980 Detroit Institute of Arts retrospective exhibition, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." (The title was a nod to the debut album of the rock band MC5, which played at the opening of an art show Bob organized in 1972.)
I've always been amazed at Bob's ability to segue seamlessly from drawing to painting to printmaking to creating massive metal sculptures. Many of those sculptures are displayed in public spaces in Detroit, its suburbs, and other locations around Michigan and beyond. Other pieces accumulated over the years in the alley behind Bob's studio.
But Bob had a bigger vision for those works: a public space to display the sculptures right in the neighborhood where they were produced. He didn't have to look far to find a good spot. A block away from his home and studio was a city-owned vacant lot that fronted the John C. Lodge Service Drive. A conscientious neighbor and his kids had been mowing the lot and keeping it trash-free, and when that neighbor died, Bob took over the job.
"I was cutting the grass and thinking, 'Why don't I own this?'" Bob recalls. So he bought the property from the city and then spent about a year cleaning it up, repairing the sidewalks, installing a fence and pouring concrete slabs for the sculptures. Once that work was done, he spent another week or so moving and positioning the sculptures.
"As soon as I did that, all of a sudden the news media got wind of it, and I was on all the television channels and in the newspaper," says Bob. "It was quite a big bang."
And quite a change for an artist who has always been more comfortable just doing his work than being in the public eye.
"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," says Bob, "but I was willing to do interviews and tell people about the work in the park. So I'm a little more public today than I have been in the past, but that's the nature of having a space like that. And it's a fun thing to have. People go there from all over the place."
Like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls's MBAD African Bead Museum, City Sculpture has become a destination landmark, as well as a showcase for an individual artist's life work.
"Tour buses pull up, school buses pull up, kids get out, all kinds of people," says Bob. "We give tours. People contact me if they want to have the artist's viewpoint of the park. I do a little talk. We've had thirty or forty people at a time."
He also throws a party in the park every summer. "It's kind of a big thing for me to put together," he says, "but I get local musicians and it's a lot of fun." This year's event, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, features Ethan Daniel Davidson, The Drinkard Sisters, Danny Kroha, Denise Davis and the Motor City Sensations, and Botanical Fortress.
I'd been hearing about the park since it opened in 2015, but hadn't had a chance to visit it until a few weeks ago, when Ray and I drove down to Detroit to have lunch with another old Cass Corridor friend who was back in town for a couple of days. We arrived a little early, and since the restaurant where we were to meet our friend was only a few blocks from City Sculpture, we made a side trip to the park to check out Bob's creations.
Seeing so much of Bob's work in one place was truly impressive. Thirty-two sculptures of welded steel, crushed aluminum, car parts, and garden implements are artfully arranged around the well-maintained site. A bench beneath a tree offers a place to sit and reflect. Even with traffic whizzing along on the Lodge Freeway, City Sculpture feels like a haven.
The works on display reflect Bob's eclectic approach to making art, a style he has described as the absolute lack of a single, cohesive style.
"When people ask who made all these, I tell them, 'Well, they could've been made by a lot of different people, because nothing looks the same.' There's a lot of diversity in my work. I think that keeps me moving forward."
A graduate of the College for Creative Studies (then known as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Bob is known not only for his sculptures, but also for his paintings, including both permitted and unauthorized public art pieces. Among the first were murals commissioned in the early 1970s for the Edward W. Duffy Company, a pipe and tubing supply business. More recently, Bob created a mural for musician Jack White's Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the Cass Corridor.
White remembered seeing the Duffy Company murals when he was in high school, and once he became a successful musician with his own factory, he got in touch with Bob to commission a mural for the record-pressing facility.
As for unsanctioned street art, Bob says he's pretty much "retired" from that line of work. "All the buildings I painted on were rehabbed or torn down. I said, I don't want to have my art destroyed completely."
The desire to preserve his art also has him thinking about the future of City Sculpture. "Now I'm becoming more of a businessman and trying to get corporate sponsorships," he says. "I created a nonprofit, which I'm thinking to turn into a foundation to manage the park." He plans to turn over management of the foundation to his daughter Erika, who grew up in the neighborhood and has experience in park management.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps making art and displaying his work in different venues. He recently delivered five sculptures to Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, and he's currently in a show at Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw.
"I'm a lucky guy," he says. "I've got a job for my life. I can't stop—I just keep doing my thing. I like to discover things and challenge myself. If you don't challenge yourself, you're not learning anything. You have to push yourself and reach outside of your comfort zone in order to be prolific."
With nearly one hundred sculptures, more than five thousand drawings, and some one thousand paintings completed to date, he should know.
City Sculpture is located at 955 West Alexandrine in Detroit.
To help support City Sculpture, visit https://www.citysculpture.org/donate/
Bob Sestok has exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Cranbrook Museum of Art, and Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York City), among others, and had work in ArtPrize 2009. His work is held in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Museum of Art,and Wayne State University. He has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Kresge Foundation.
Do you ever have those back-in-school dreams? Like the one where you realize you're late for the final exam in a class you've somehow forgotten to attend for the whole semester? Or the one where you have to make a presentation that you haven't prepared for? And you're inappropriately dressed. Or not dressed at all.
Distressing, aren't they? Fortunately, I don't have those dreams so often any more, but I've had them often enough over the years. Between those nightmarish episodes and all the waking-life years I spent in actual classrooms, I have no interest furthering my formal education.
So it's kind of funny that one of the things I most looked forward to when I retired was having time to take classes. Not the kind that involve brain-busting study and deadlines, but the fun and enriching kind.
Recently I took just such a class, and it turned out to be so enjoyable, I may never have another school-days nightmare. The class was a six-week Intermediate Photography course at Artworks in Big Rapids, taught by local photographer Dave Johnson. Dave has been a shutterbug since high school, but got serious about honing his skills over the past ten years. Now he focuses mainly on event, lifestyle, and landscape photography. A proponent of life-long learning, he not only strives to keep improving his skills, but also shares his passion and knowledge with others through classes, photo walks and individual lessons.
I was a little nervous about taking the class. For one thing, I wasn't sure how "intermediate" it would be. Though not an absolute beginner, I consider myself a novice. Would I be out of my depth?
For another thing, I'd been looking for a hands-on class, where we'd spend at least part of the class period actually shooting and getting feedback on our work. But once I found this class, I was anxious about that very aspect of it. I know how I can feel suddenly brainless and blocked in writing workshops where we have to write on the spot. Would I turn photo-blind when it came time to shoot in class?
I needn't have worried. Dave's an easygoing instructor who makes the course relaxed and fun, encouraging experimentation and allowing plenty of time for questions. He also shares his approach to photography: trying to look at the world in unique ways, focusing on both the details and the larger scenes they come together to create. When he photographs people, he looks for ways to capture something of their life stories and sources of inspiration.
A few more examples of Dave's work:
For our first out-of-class assignments, Dave encouraged us to photograph everyday objects we could find around the house. I found eggs . . .
and the candle I light every night at dinner time . . .
and a still life of kitchen utensils.
In class, Dave showed lots of photos to illustrate points he was making. But rather than simply showcasing his best work (and possibly intimidating us in the process), he also showed us some of his less successful photos and engaged us in discussions of what would've made them better. It was a good reminder that learning any skill takes lots and lots of practice and that even accomplished artists have to work at getting everything right.
Each class session mixed lecture and discussion on the finer points of exposure, composition, lighting, and specific types of photography—such as landscape, macro photography, and night photography—with breaks to try out techniques we'd just discussed. When the weather cooperated, we took our breaks outdoors.
When the weather didn't cooperate, we found things to photograph indoors—either the Artworks exhibits or items Dave brought in: tiny toys for close-up practice, prisms for special effects, and a variety of dollar store light-up doo-dads for a session on playing with light.
That one, with the light-up gadgets, was probably my favorite in-class exercise. We experimented with shooting long exposures of ourselves and Dave moving around with glow sticks and strings of lights. It felt like pure play, but we ended up with some pretty cool abstract images.
In spite of my early fears, I didn't freeze up when it came time to practice our skills together. I did find group shooting a different experience from roaming around on my own, but it was fun to see what other people were shooting.
To promote even more of that kind of exchange, Dave maintains a Facebook group where current and former class members can post photos and comment on photos that other group members post. Busy schedules kept some class members from taking full advantage of this resource, but I appreciated having a place to share work and get feedback.
At the end of each class period, Dave issued a challenge for the coming week, such as photographing a fast-moving subject at different shutter speeds, or taking photos at different distances from a given subject.
For once, I loved having homework! When I spent an afternoon wandering around with my camera, I wasn't just goofing off, I was working on an assignment.
I came away from the class with a fresh set of tips and techniques, but perhaps more important, the inspiration to keep stretching my skills, trying new things, and seeing the world in different ways.
Have you taken an enjoyable or challenging class recently? What have you learned?
Enjoy a few more of Dave Johnson's photos:
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.