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:
Bea Cordle is a woman with a mission. Every morning, she wakes up inspired and ready to get going. Right after breakfast, she begins her work, continuing until evening.
Bea is, by the way, ninety-three, an age when she could be excused for doing nothing more than sitting on the porch swing, listening to the birds. Instead, she's brightening the days of children who may need a little lift.
The project that absorbs Bea every day is drawing whimsical characters on brown paper bags for the Kids' Food Basket program, which supplies "sack suppers" to children living at or near the poverty level. These free, balanced evening meals are distributed at the end of each school day and during summer programs at schools where 70% or more of the student population receives free or low-cost lunches.
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
"I'm so blessed, because this gives me something to look forward to," says Bea. "I think about it before I get out of bed in the morning, and I think about it after I go to bed at night."
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
"About a year ago, my other daughter brought me a package of the colors and some coloring books and some of the bags and said, 'I want you to try to work on this,' " Bea recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I can't do that! I wouldn't be able to do that.' "
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
A social worker who visited one of the kids who receives sack suppers told Sandra the youngster's room was decorated with Bea's bags. Another little girl who cherishes the bags thanked Bea in person at a Kids Food Basket Halloween party. Sandra and Bea both get misty-eyed recounting the stories.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
"It's an exciting thing for the three of us," says Sandra, who also writes poetry and prose, in addition to singing and playing guitar professionally.
It was Bea's drawings that inspired Sandra and Marquita to collaborate on the first book and to recruit Bea to do most of the illustrations. Sandra, who used to make up stories about her son's imaginary friend when her children were small, quickly came up with an idea for the book.
"I got up in the middle of the night and wrote the story," she says. "I don't know what it is about writing, but the middle of the night, I wake up and ideas come to me, and I just get overwhelmed. I can't go back to sleep until I write the gist of it down."
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
Colorful and upbeat, the book celebrates diversity and encourages self-acceptance.
"I didn't just want to write a book with a lot of splashy colors. It's got to mean something," says Sandra. "But that's kind of the way I am with everything. If it doesn't have meat and guts to it, I just don't want to be bothered."
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
"We decided, the three of us together, we're going to move in together and be a three-woman powerhouse. We're going to help each other, be there for each other," says Sandra. "And it's worked out really good."
I Am Never Too Me! can be found at Hit The Road Joe Coffee Café in Croton, River Stop Café in Newaygo and Studio 37 Arts & Culture Center in Newaygo and will soon be available on Amazon.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
Welcome to the second installment of HeartWood's occasional feature on creative couples. In this edition, I'm profiling Newaygo County residents Tonya and Eldon Howe, whose talents impressed me when I first met them at the River Stop writers' salon and continue to amaze me.
You know you're in the presence of a creative couple when you look around their house, and every angle reveals artistry they've created, either individually or together. In fact, Tonya and Eldon's house itself is one of their creations—a six-year labor of love and imagination, inspired by their wooded setting.
But even before they collaborated on that ambitious project, Tonya and Eldon were co-creating. A few years into their courtship, in the 1980s, the couple took a pottery class together. Eldon made the jug they're holding in this picture, and Tonya decorated it with the carved design and artfully-applied glaze.
Later on, when they took on the task of building a home, Eldon—a builder by trade—worked with Tonya to integrate her design ideas into the house, even when that presented a challenge.
"You see that curvy post over there?" Eldon points toward the kitchen. "I was going to put in a simple, straight post—just a post—and run the electrical up through it. But Tonya said, 'Can't we find something in the woods that'll be nicer than that?' So we walked down below the hill—there was snow on the ground—and she saw this tree and said, 'Can we use that one? I like that one.' I said, 'No, we can't use that one. It's all curvy. There's no way I can put electrical in it.' But she just kept looking at it."
Eldon started walking away, but then he kept looking back at it, too, thinking.
"Finally I said, 'Okay, I think I can. So I got a chainsaw out, cut it down, put it on a plastic toboggan and literally drug it up here and spent probably a day or more trying to carve it and get it to fit in place."
Now it's a focal point of the house.
It was Tonya's idea, too, to use crotched tree trunks and burls for the window posts. And the couple came up with other natural touches, from the twisting stairway railing to the stone walls and fireplace, that grace the sustainably-designed home.
In a second-floor studio off the bedroom, Tonya pursues her passion for oil painting and drawing.
"I like to paint mostly scenery and people, trying to capture the mood or character, or the exchange between people," she says. Though mostly self-taught, Tonya took some classes in the 1980s with Pentwater artists Cheri Petri and the late Bert Petri. Until recently, she favored realism, but now she's experimenting with more abstract, impressionistic paintings.
Some of Tonya's work:
Photographs from Tonya's "Rock People of Moonlight Beach" series:
Two floors below Tonya's studio, Eldon has a space for working on the guitars he crafts in a larger workshop down the hill from the house. Guitar-making is a natural pastime for Eldon, who's been playing guitar since the early 1980s and working with wood since his teens. What's more, his father, Elon Howe, is an award-winning maker of violins, violas, and mandolins.
"A nice side benefit is, Eldon's been able to work with his dad in his shop, so they're spending time together in his dad's later years," says Tonya.
Eldon's aim in guitar building is "functional artistry." Though beautiful to look at, the guitars are designed with specific playability goals in mind. "It's very experimental, what I'm doing," he says.
Music is also an area of collaboration for Tonya and Eldon. Eldon composes music, writes, and sings, and Tonya writes lyrics for some of the songs that he performs.
"When Eldon and I are working on a song, our creations always start with Eldon's music composition coming first, by chance and by relaxed daydreaming," says Tonya. "Then later, I run his music through my head and create lyrics to go with it. It's like I can see a story, poem, or drama play out in front of my eyes."
"She pays attention to the emotion of what I play," says Eldon. And Tonya's response is a kind of barometer, he adds. "I know it's a good piece of music if she wants to write lyrics to it."
The Howes recently released a CD album of their songs, titled "Sundown," currently in the music rotation on WYCE. (Songs can be requested online at https://grcmc.org/wyce/wyce/request or by phone at 616-742-9923.) Tonya shot the cover photo of Eldon before a performance at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.
"He was just warming up before going on stage," she recalls. "I saw how he was sitting and said 'Stay right there.' I just could see in my head that that would make a good promotional picture."
Tonya also offered suggestions on accompanying instruments that would convey the proper emotions and fit the theme of each song. Now, she's mixing music into her art in another way. "I'm trying my hand at quick sketches of musicians while they're playing a song," she says. "I call them 'one song long' sketches."
As Tonya describes the genesis of the book, "I took notes on Eldon's memories of how the story played out, and then I said, 'Give me a few days to write it, because I can't think of anything right now.' But that night I couldn't sleep, and all of a sudden the story started coming to me, and I saw it through the eyes of the elephant." She wrote the story, and her daughter Sherry Perkins did the drawings that illustrate the book, along with some of Tonya's photographs.
Stories, paintings, photographs, songs, instruments—who knows what Tonya and Eldon will create next? I only know I want to see and hear whatever they come up with.
The CD, "Sundown" is available from Eldon Howe at email@example.com
Listen to tracks from "Sundown"
I was at my desk, working on this week's blog post when a mysterious missive came over the transom. The thing literally flew in as if borne by winged creatures.
Now, I'm pretty good at ignoring tweets, pings, and such, but a fluttering billet is quite another matter. Of course I had to give it a read, and when I did, I knew I had to drop everything and share it with you.
Here it is . . .
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (April 28, 2018)—This year's late spring had officials in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo) concerned about the availability of housing for all the fairy folk returning from their winter homes down South.
"Construction has been delayed all over the county, and the Enchanted Forest was no exception," said Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "Fortunately, however, artisans from all around pitched in to fill the forest with creative homes for wee folk."
When fairies, gnomes, pixies and their pals showed up last weekend to check out the offerings, they found every kind of dwelling imaginable, from condo to castle.
However, it's common knowledge that pixies can be, well, picky. And fairies are notoriously fickle, with whims that shift with the wind. So we sent a reporter out to tag along with the fae and find out what they thought of the choices.
Pierre Pixée, who winters in the South of France, was searching for something palatial. "C'est si bon!" he said when he spied this turreted manse, complete with moat.
Scurrying along a woodland path, Grizela Gnome pulled her cloak around her. "It's still too cold here in Michigan," she complained. "I wish I'd stayed on the beach."
"But look," said her friend Sophie Sprite, pointing to a cottage nestled beneath a tree. "This house will make you feel sunny and warm no matter what the weather."
"You're right! I'll take it," said Grizela. "Care to stay for a piña colada?"
On the stairway leading down to Pickerel Lake, Fairy Fiona paused to take a breather. "These houses are all beautiful," she said, "but what I'd really love to find is one with room for my wine collection AND a view of the lake." Then she leaned over the railing and there it was: Gnome Top Vinyard. "It's an oenophile's dream!" she said.
Up on the patio of Lang Lodge, Ivan Imp took Elvira Elf aside. "I hate to admit this," he said, "but I'm not much of a woodsy fellow. Really more of a garden guy. Any chance that the house I choose could be, um, relocated?"
"As a matter of fact," Elvira said, "that's what we're hoping for. All the houses are up for auction, to raise money for Camp Newaygo's ongoing improvements. When bidding closes Sunday night, some lucky humans will be taking the houses home—complete with tiny inhabitants, of course—to install in their own special sites. I'm quite sure more than a few will find their way into gardens."
What magical beings do you suppose chose these homes?
One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
I've been to reunions. I've been to festivals. I've even, in my day, been to a fair number of hippie love-ins, be-ins and other gatherings of the tribes. But nothing quite compares to Creekfest, an annual event hosted by our friends Paul and Valerie.
Now in its 25th year, Creekfest is a reunion of "kin," who may or may not be related in a strict genetic sense, but who all share genes for enjoyment of good music, good food and good times.
Held on Paul and Valerie's wooded property on Coolbough Creek, the event goes on for a full weekend, with many of the 150-200 or so attendees camping on the premises.
Things get rolling Friday evening, when local chef Tracy Murrell offers Thai specialties. Music and merriment typically follow.
Saturday is activity-packed, with a kids' craft and painting party, tie-dye for anyone who wants to get colorful, and a rubber ducky race on the creek. This year, Ray and I arrived just in time for the tail-end of the pre-dinner talent show, an impressive display of musicality by youngsters and not-so-youngsters.
Part of the fun is just taking in the setting. The "cabin," its additions and outbuildings have been constructed over the years with the help of friends. And everywhere you look are Paul and Valerie's creative touches, from Paul's metal sculptures to Valerie's moss gardens, to various intriguing objets d'art placed here and there. You could wander around for days and still not see everything.
After Saturday's talent show came a potluck to top all potlucks. I swear the spread was half a block long. Well, maybe not quite, but it just kept on going. All the dishes got rave reviews, especially one beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts. (Did you make that, Erin? We all want the recipe!)
Still more music followed, and went on until the early morning hours, long after we'd gone home to bed. We would've stayed longer, but Ray had another festive event to attend the next day—a car show in New Hudson—and he wanted to be up by 4 a.m., about the time things wound down at Creekfest.
Once the weekend was over, I asked Valerie (who twenty years ago declared herself Creekfest Queen) for her thoughts about this year and all the years leading up to it.
"For one reason or another, each Creekfest is the best ever," she says. "Sometimes I've had to stretch a bit to say that, but each year has its best-ever moments, this year included."
Every year also has its share of "oh, s**t" moments, this year included. Like when Valerie lost her birthday kazoo at the ducky race and dropped her iPad into the creek. But by last Tuesday, when I touched base with her, The Queen was chipper as ever and recalling the best-ever moments as well.
"The music, the kids, our kinship and love, the camaraderie. Even the dogs keep things fun and lively."
Another highlight: Creekfest's first-ever silent auction, which helped defray expenses—higher this year due to some necessary repairs and replacements. "We were ravaged by rodents last year," says Valerie. "They took down our inverter for the solar, the generator that pumps our water, the golf cart. They got into the wiring and trashed things."
All things considered, though, this year was the best ever. And next year? Better still.
Do you have an annual event with its share of best-ever moments? What makes you look forward to it?
More scenes from Creekfest . . .
Book lovers in our community felt disappointed—and frankly, guilty—when word went around last winter that Bay Leaf Books was closing. The store, filled with an assortment of carefully selected, meticulously organized, high-quality used books, had graced Newaygo's main street for more than three years, after moving from nearby Sand Lake.
We all loved having a bookstore in town. Maybe we just didn't love it enough. That's where the guilt came in. If only we'd visited more often, bought more books, might that have made a difference?
As the initial shock wore off, our conversations turned from what we should have done to what we still could do. Was it too late to rescue the shop? If not, how could we do it? Most of us were still thinking in terms of buying more books—maybe even pledging to purchase a certain number a month.
John Reeves had a bigger idea: buy the whole, honkin' store.
He paid a visit to owner Gabe Konrad, who told him recent life changes had prompted the decision to close the brick-and-mortar store and concentrate on his mail-order book business. The two men kicked around some numbers, and John left, excited with the idea of recruiting friends to go in together on the store.
"It turned out only one was interested," John says. So John, his wife Marsha and the friend pooled their money, and Flying Bear Books was born.
It took some doing for Flying Bear to achieve liftoff, however.
"In my mind, I was going to buy a bookstore, turn the lights on, open the doors and sell books," John recalls, laughing now at the thought.
"We were thinking, we'll move a little furniture, create a comfortable place where people can hang out," adds Marsha. "As we got into it, it was clear there was more and more that we wanted to do. That's when it struck us that, oh, this is a big project!" The biggest "to-do" was entering all the books into a database, to keep tabs on what kinds of books are selling best.
Previous owner Gabe, who's been selling books through catalogs and specialty shows for more than 20 years, knew the store's inventory inside and out. John and Marsha, on the other hand, were not only getting acquainted with the store's contents, they were brand new to the book business. Unlike "book guy" Gabe, "we're just readers," says Marsha.
John researched software packages, decided on one, and started entering books, with the goal of having 10,000 cataloged by the store's March 1 opening. The process turned out to be so time-consuming, only 2,000 had been entered by then.
While John focused on the inventory, Marsha coordinated painting, cleaning, rearranging and signing up artists to sell their work in the shop. Neither labored alone, though.
"We put out the word that we could use any help we could get, and people showed up weekend after weekend," says Marsha. "It was so heartwarming. I just felt embraced by the community."
Two helpers, Rod Geers and MaryAnn Tazelaar, stayed on to work part time. Other friends have volunteered to pitch in when John and Marsha go on vacation.
The new bookstore owners are committed to maintaining the same high standards that Bay Leaf Books was known for, and the store's organization is the largely the same. "Gabe's thinking was, if he had three books on a topic, he would create a section for it with a shelf card. That was his criterion," says John. "So we don't throw cards away, we keep them even if we might run out of the three books in that area, because I might go to a sale and find three more books on that subject."
The strategy pays off in sales, he adds. For example, "one young lady in her twenties came in looking for books on how to survey land. It turned out we had four books on surveying. She bought three."
The Reeveses did move the military section from the front of the store to the center "to soften the entry," says John. They also hope to increase the indigenous section, with a special sub-section for Anishinaabe literature.
As for other directions, time will tell.
"For me, it's a learn-as-you-go process," says John. "Every day I'm learning something new about books or how they're categorized." Or, he says, popping up and rushing to the front window, "learning to turn over the OPEN sign." The biggest surprise so far: "It's a business, and I have to start thinking of it like a business." He's brainstorming ideas to draw in customers—perhaps a book club or a more informal monthly get-together where people just talk about whatever they're reading. He'd also like to find ways of supporting local authors and working with schools and community groups.
All of which makes it clear this undertaking is not just a business proposition to its new owners.
For Marsha, holistic nurse with an interest in all aspects of healing, changing the store's layout and getting it working in a different way was "a form of healing." And, she adds, "I know that there's healing that goes along with learning, and there are a lot of opportunities for people to learn here."
What's more, owning the bookstore is just plain fun—way more than John and Marsha expected. "Every day, John comes home with a story about something funny or about helping a kid who came in with a cool question," says Marsha. "It's really a delight."
Flying Bear Books is located at 79 State Road in Newaygo. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: 231-414-4056.
Bay Leaf Books still operates as an online bookseller. Visit here.
Sunshine smiled on the Enchanted Forest, AKA Camp Newaygo, for at least part of last Saturday, but Sunday's downpours had fairy-folk scrambling to take shelter under toadstools. No worries, though. Quick-thinking Camp Newaygo staffers whisked gnome homes and pixie palaces out of the wet woods and into drier hiding places, where twinkly lights made fairy-house hunting just as enchanting.
The occasion was the two-day Enchanted Forest walk, a fundraiser for the independent not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan.
Last year's Enchanted Forest event was a great success, and this year's appeal to artists and craftspeople to create and donate fairy houses again yielded a fanciful assortment of tiny abodes—forty-seven in all.
It's always fun to see what imaginative people use to craft these dwellings: tree stumps, gourds, clay, copper wire, twigs, feathers, tin cans. One of this year's creations was made from a cowgirl's boot. Another had a hornet's nest worked into the design.
Ray and I got a close look at many of them when we helped hide the homes in the woods and along the Wetland Trail early Saturday morning. Then, as visitors began arriving and heading out with trail maps, we made the rounds again to watch them discover the little houses.
We had fun watching visitors' reactions to our own creations, too, both the fairy house and the story that went along with it.
"We were so excited to see families outside and enjoying the houses that were hidden on the trails," said Christa Smalligan, the camp's Events and Facilities Director. "Camp Newaygo is a great place for families to enjoy activities together. I heard many kids found some fairies in the woods."
If you missed out on the enchantment—or if you'd like a chance to relive it--here's a look at more of the fairy houses and the weekend's fun. And if you'd like a fairy house for your very own, all the houses pictured here--and more--are available for purchase on ebay through May 8. Proceeds help fund the camp's youth and family programs as well as renovations to facilities such as the Foster Arts and Crafts Lodge.
In January, Ray and I spent a delightful hour or so viewing the latest work of photographer Tim Motley at an exhibit and reception at Artsplace in Fremont. Tim, who has made a living as a commercial photographer for thirty-seven years, recently changed direction to concentrate on fine art abstract photography.
As I listened to Tim discussing his inspirations and techniques with gallery visitors, it occurred to me that HeartWood readers might also be interested in what he had to say. Though I had already peppered him with questions the night of the reception, he graciously agreed to answer still more questions for this Q&A.
I'm always fascinated when someone who's been successful following one path decides to take a chance and turn a different direction. You mentioned that your shift from commercial photography to fine art photography was something you'd been thinking about for a while. What made you decide it was the right time to make the move?
It was one of those things where you're kind of gently pushed. I started out in fashion in back in the eighties, moved into high-end weddings, and then when the economy went down, my weddings went from fifty a year to four. Because of the economy and so many other photographers out there, I decided to go into fine art world. I had done some fine art work back in the nineties, but it really didn't go anywhere. This body of abstract work that I'm doing now, I'm very motivated to get it out there, get into galleries and museums. I look at this as my legacy.
Was your previous fine art work similar in any way to the work you're doing now?
It was very different. Quite a bit of it was travel photography—a lot of images from Italy. The rest of it was just fine-art things that I'd shot off and on through the years, like Tibetan monks. I have photographed events all my life, and after a while, with the events, I started getting little fine art pieces. And in the nineties, I was in an artist's co-op. We had a gallery in South Haven and we all sold our artwork. That kind of dried up when my weddings took over.
Where did the initial idea for this new work come from?
About three years ago, I was photographing a dance rehearsal. I was starting to get really bored with it, because the dancers would get up and move around, and then they'd sit down and talk about it. You could be there for four hours without much happening. So I started shooting abstracts of the dancers in the dance studio under fluorescent lighting and getting some interesting results. That's where it really took off. I thought, if I take the concept to my own studio where I can the control lighting and background, I bet I could get some remarkable results.
How much experimentation did it take before you arrived at a process that would produce the results you're after?
Actually, I'm still in the experimenting stage. But probably about a year into it, I started feeling confident and knowing I had something here to really treasure. After that, with each shoot, I continue to learn something. It just evolves. There's really no hard-and-fast rules that I use in this, with the exception that generally I use one light and one person, and they have to move. Those are the only requirements.
I've been doing this for about three years, and as I go along my techniques shift and change a little day by day. One of the really neat things about this is, I felt like I had learned everything there was to learn as a photographer, and now all of a sudden this abstract world has opened up a whole new world for me. I'm learning much more about photography.
For photography enthusiasts, can you say a little about the techniques you use in this work?
We set up one light, and I have the model standing on the floor under the light. We put some music on. The music is very important; we try to put on music that they love to move to, dance or yoga or whatever, and then we start to shoot, using low shutter speeds. Usually the shoots last an hour only, because after that the model is exhausted and so am I. It's a real short time, but it's filled and compacted with energy like crazy.
Every model that comes in brings something different to the shoot. Some are professional models, some are dancers, and I've had a number of actresses come in. Each person brings a little something different each time, be it through their personality or through their talent. That contributes to the difference in each shoot.
How many images do you typically take to produce one of these pieces?
In one session, we will shoot anywhere from 500 to 800 images. There's a whole lot of shooting going on. Usually out of that 500 or 800, I can come up with five or six really good pieces. Then I'll narrow that down to maybe one. The rest of it is just exploration.
You mentioned that your wife, Patty Caterino, does the printing and any post-processing that's involved. Can you say a little about that process?
Oh, absolutely. Being that I shoot everything digital, there's a lot of latitude with any of the images. Basically all we do with the images is what you would do in a traditional darkroom. The lights are darkened, maybe a little contrast and saturation, but that's it. All of the abstract work is actually done in the camera. After we shoot, quite often I'll spend a few days evaluating the images, and then I'll pull maybe 20 or 30. My wife will sit down with me, and then she and I will go over them. Her knowledge in the computer is far beyond anything I could ever do. She starts making little adjustments, and she'll see things in her mind's eye, and from that all of a sudden other things start coming out of the picture.
In fact, the one picture that was like the main picture of the whole Artsplace show showed a blue body walking out of frame. That was a picture that I just breezed right over. My wife found it and said, "Oh, let me take a look at this," and she made a couple of minor adjustments and all of a sudden the picture took on a whole new life.
I'm basically a photographer. I work the camera, but I don't work the printer. I don't have experience in that field. My wife and I really make a very good team. We've been together since 1995, and we have a good cohesion, where with what I shoot, she makes my images so much more beautiful.
She's an artist in her own way. Anything she has an interest in, she can pick up some books, read them for about two weeks and then master whatever she wants to do. She's done everything from welding to glass mosaic work. She used to do a lot of oil painting on my photographs, where she'd take a black-and-white image and hand-color it. She has a phenomenal touch. She's very, very artistic. The things that we do together let her use that talent.
What do you feel you're expressing in this new work?
These abstracts kind of parallel my life. In the old days, when I was out there photographing events, my life was wide open to everyone, and people knew what was going on in my life. Now I'm much more reclusive, and my work is shifting with my personal life as well. Part of the idea behind the abstracts is, the body will have no clothing, no jewelry, simply because I don't want to depict this society. I would like those images to be as timeless as they can be.
My personal feelings are, the more I see of society, the less I want to be a part of it. So the abstracts kind of play along with that, and are something different that no one else does. And this work speaks to me. It really does.
And it stimulates me. I had reached the point a while back where the work just did nothing for me. All I did was make pretty pictures, but I couldn't feel anything coming from it. When I do these abstracts now, there's a feeling I get, a sense of accomplishment, definitely a sense of mystery. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm getting, but I love what I'm doing. So I just continue down that path and see where it takes me.
Every piece that you see of my work is a part of me. I feel that connected to it. I think for the first time in my life, I truly do feel like an artist, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the early days when I was shooting a lot of fashion, some of the fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon inspired me. Nowadays my references that I use for studying are Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning. I really do see life in an abstract way now, and this is all I really see photographically, too. I study art all the time. If I'm not shooting or working on pictures, I'm studying other artists' work just trying to be inspired by it, analyze it, see how it can come into my work.
How did you first get started in photography?
Back in the 1970s, I got a camera and started photographing my sons. One day I was shooting one of my sons in the living room, and I did something different with the lighting, and it was the most different picture I'd ever made. That really inspired me. I was bitten by the bug then, and I took off with photography. I started reading everything could get my hands on about photography. I was a magazine junkie. I bought every magazine I could get on photography and devoured it.
I dabbled in it until about 1985, when I met a guy at a camera shop who had a little studio in a warehouse in Grand Rapids. He said, "I'll tell you what, you come in and help me with my rent, and I'll teach you how to use studio lighting." I was with him for two months; then he took on a couple of other photographers because he wanted to lower the rent even further, and the place was too small for all of us. So in the same building, I built my own studio. I had close to 2,000 square feet that I only paid $200/month for. I was there for fifteen years in that building, shooting fashion and weddings and portraits. Then my wife and I met in '95 and the place we live now came up for sale in '97.
Where we live now is in a little area called Tallmadge Township, about fifteen miles outside the city of Grand Rapids. We actually own an old town hall, and that's what my studio is in. In back of the town hall is our house. One benefit of shooting the abstracts in the studio is that it keeps me home more often.
What suggestions do you have for anyone who's starting out in photography or who's been dabbling in photography for a while but wants to get better at it?
The one thing I could suggest is, you have to have a very strong drive. You have to be dedicated to it and you have to be focused on it. To go the route that I've gone, you have to work at it 24 hours a day. Once I got into photography and started professionally, it was like there was nothing else that went on in this world to me except my photography.
Are there other directions you'd like to take this work in the future?
One of the ideas we're kicking around now is tying my abstracts in with cancer patients. One of the models who's been in probably three or four times to do these abstract nudes is a breast cancer survivor. She's 57 years old, and she's got scarring, and it's obvious what she's been through, and we made some very beautiful artwork of her. Further down the road, if we can find a patron to bankroll this kind of project, I'd like to make beautiful abstracts—nudes or portraits—with cancer survivors and have them displayed in a hospital.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The show at Artsplace led to a contact in Ludington, and I'll be putting on a show at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts in 2018.
If the news of the day has been getting you down, here's one bulletin that's guaranteed to inspire:
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (March 1, 2017)—In spite of last year's housing boom in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo), officials report a serious shortage of sprite-sized housing.
"Thanks to the artistry of local supporters, the fairy homes that sprang up in our forest last year were so attractive, they were all immediately occupied by pixies, gnomes, sylphs and all manner of tiny creatures," says Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "We’re expecting an influx of fairy folk soon, as they return from their winter homes down South. We're asking everyone to pitch in again to create a forest full of houses to welcome them back."
After receiving the news, fairy-house builder Wildwood Ray was spotted heading for his workshop with an armload of mysterious materials. "This is one call to action it's impossible to ignore," he said.
Bet you can't ignore it either! So start gathering twigs, moss, stones and anything else that strikes your fancy, and get busy creating. Houses are due April 15 (you can drop them off at Camp Newaygo or call 231-652-1184 to schedule a pick up). Guidelines are listed below.
The fairy houses, gnome homes, pixie palaces and elfin abodes will be hidden in the forest surrounding the camp, and during the Enchanted Forest Event, April 29 and 30, visitors can wander the woods with a trail map, searching for the houses and trying to spot their secretive inhabitants.
Cookies and punch will be supplied for house-hunting fortification, and for an additional fee, young visitors will have a chance to create their own handiwork at a craft table.
All the fairy houses will be auctioned on eBay afterward, so you can pick out a favorite to take home. (Don't forget to make a wish for a fairy to come along with it!)
Camp Newaygo is an independent, not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan. In addition to offering a girls' residential summer camp and a coed day camp, the camp provides year-round community events: dinners, girlfriend getaways, winter sleigh rides and more.
Last year, organizers hoped the first Enchanted Forest event would bring in twenty-five to thirty little dwellings. They received forty-two houses, and a total of 627 visitors toured the forest over the two days.
Here are this year's guidelines for building your fairy house:
The Enchanted Forest tour is April 29 and 30, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost is $7 per person or $25 per family of four. The make-and-take craft table will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on the 29th, for an additional charge. No advance registration necessary; please pay at the door.
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.