This is what spring looked like at my house a few days ago. Not exactly picking-posies weather. But I do believe it's coming . . . eventually.
Until then, let's enjoy a few reminders of what spring should look like.
What are your favorite signs of spring?
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.
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.
Quick as a darting dragonfly, summer flits past us. Those leisurely days we fantasize about all winter long soon fill up with visitors, summertime projects, and a mad, whirling mix of busy-ness and play. Before we know it, it's the middle of August, and we're trying to cram even more into what's left of the season.
Before rushing off to another activity, though, let's just pause to savor some scenes from this lovely time of year. Sunny fields and shady forests, festivals and fairs, recreation and relaxation, blossoms and berries, creatures great and small -- all the things that make summer special.
Skies were dreary and heaped with slate-colored clouds, but all was bright in Sandy VandenBerg's garden, near Fremont, Michigan, when I stopped by for a tour last week.
The 75- by 80-foot flower plot, criss-crossed with paths and accented with garden ornaments, is the result of a decade-long labor of love, Sandy told me. The plot started out as a vegetable garden, edged with a border of flowers. Somehow, over the years, the vegetables disappeared, and the flowers took over. Even the flower mix evolved over time, as Sandy added more and more native plants—about 50 in all—and those plants thrived alongside the 100 or so non-natives she acquired from friends and family members who helped her get the garden started.
"The natives, they just flourish, they go crazy," Sandy says. "I let them be where they want to be."
As a native plant gardener, Sandy is part of a (pardon the pun) growing trend. Many green-thumbed growers are adding native plants to their landscapes, for a variety of reasons.
Once established, native plants generally don't need to be fussed over. Because they're adapted to local conditions, they typically require less water—a big plus for gardeners accustomed to lugging around a hose or watering can.
The gardens attract some lovely visitors, too. Native bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flock to the flowers. The seeds, nuts, and fruits of the plants offer an enticing buffet for wildlife, and the whole plants provide shelter—all important for critters whose habitats have been fragmented or destroyed by urbanization and other factors.
As natural gardening pioneer Ken Druse writes in The Natural Habitat Garden (Potter, 1994), "a habitat-style garden of native plants welcomes the whole food chain—not just flowers, birds, and butterflies, but also a magnificent decaying tree stump teeming with life, ringed by otherworldly fluted layers of fungi."
In contrast, many of the flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees sold in nurseries are exotics from other parts of the world. While wildlife may utilize some of these plants, they aren't the plants these animals evolved to use. What's more, some exotic plants become invasive, outcompeting native species and degrading remaining habitat, the Audubon Society maintains.
Sandy's interest in native plants began when her children were small. "On walks through the woods with the kids, I started noticing wildflowers, and I wanted to learn their names." As her love of local plants grew, she thought she'd like to have some in her own garden. She started shopping at the Newaygo Conservation District's annual native plant sale and attending the workshops offered during the sale each year.
Now, she not only tends her own burgeoning garden, she also shares seeds and plants with friends. It's not unusual for her to show up at our Monday morning yoga class with a carload of coneflowers, wood poppies, and other treasures.
On our recent walk through her garden, we admired wild petunias, rattlesnake master, pink coneflowers, yellow coneflowers, false sunflowers, bee balm, queen of the prairie, boneset, wild ginger, native phlox, and maidenhair ferns, as well as a few non-native perennials.
Especially impressive: a towering cluster of cup plants. The basin formed by their large leaves catches rainwater that birds, insects, and small mammals imbibe.
The garden refreshes Sandy, too, and aligns with her yoga practice.
"I practice a yoga nidra called, interesting enough, “Moving into the garden of your heart,” by Betsy Downing, one of my yoga instructor heroes," she says. "I attended Betsy's workshops for several years in Grand Rapids. On the practice tape, she asks you to visualize moving through a garden. She refers to it as the garden of your heart, and it is there to return to anytime you need peace and tranquility. When I open the gates of my actual garden, all worries are left at the gates. Sometimes the time spent there is hard physical work, and other times I'm just spending time appreciating all the beauty of nature. I always walk back out the gates a more grounded and peaceful being."
As we wrapped up our garden tour, I asked Sandy for tips to share with gardeners who'd like to give natives a try. Matching plants to soil and site type is essential, she said. Prairie plants won't prosper in a boggy area, and woodland plants will wither in a sandy, dry site.
Druse concurs. "Never have the words don't fight the site held so much meaning," he writes. "It is the habitat gardener's guiding principle."
Another thing to keep in mind: while native plants don't need a lot of pampering, they're not exactly maintenance-free. They can grow very tall and sprawly and may need to be staked or moved to roomier sites. And while they don't need fertilizer, adding compost can give a boost to plants that like rich soil. Sandy keeps four compost piles working and adds composted material periodically.
Also important: where you get your native plants. Plants that are propagated by a nearby native plant nursery or sold by a native-plant society or legitimate plant-rescue operation are all fair game. Digging up wild plants on your own is a no-no.
As a gardener who abandoned exotic perennials in favor of native plants when we moved to our woodsy setting six years ago, I can tell you that the joys of going natural far outweigh the challenges. Since I began planting and encouraging native plants, I've been delighted to see trillium, wild geranium, columbine, lupine, butterfly weed, black-eyed susans, cinquefoil, evening primrose, bee balm, horsemint, coneflowers, blazing star, prairie smoke, wild petunia, marsh marigold, blue-eyed grass, mayapple, spiderwort, and many more make themselves at home on our property. And along with them, a colorful assortment of butterflies, bees, birds, bats, and other creatures with whom I'm happy to share our space.
For more information on native plant gardening:
Wild Ones native plant organization
Michigan Native Plant Producers Association
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, by Lynn M. Steiner
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse with Margaret Roach
All photos by Nan Pokerwinski
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?
Spring is here! But before we run out to pick posies, let's take a moment to appreciate the season we're leaving behind. It may not be as eagerly awaited as its warmer, more colorful sisters Spring, Summer and Autumn, but Winter has its own chilly charms. Here's a look back at some of my favorite scenes of the season.
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.
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.