What signals the beginning of summer to you? Do you wait for the calendar to tell you it’s officially begun, or do you declare it underway once you’ve planted a flat of annuals, fired up the grill, or popped open a beer on the back porch?
For me, those are all sure signs, but what really kicks off summer is the first festival of the season. Around here, that’s the Newaygo Arts & Crafts Festival, held over the Memorial holiday weekend.
Some years the festival is better than others (with my definition of “better” based on an index I derive through complex calculations weighted heavily by the ratio of actual artisans and crafters to booths occupied by gutter-guard salespeople and chiropractors).
This year, I have to say, the festival was outstanding. Not only were there lots of vendors offering interesting wares, there was also a new addition, “Let’s Art Newaygo!”, that I hope will become a regular feature of the annual celebration. This juried art show and competition showcased the work of twenty-two artists, displayed in thirteen businesses throughout Newaygo. You could think of it as a smaller-scale ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids extravaganza of the arts that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
I spent a blissful couple of hours strolling around Newaygo, checking out the works of art. Then I headed back to the River Country Chamber of Commerce booth in Brooks Park to cast my vote in the People’s Choice competition. (Read on to find out which pieces were selected by the judges and the People’s Choice voters.)
I was fascinated to see the variety of materials and techniques the artists used. There were paintings, photographs, sculptures of metal and wood, stained glass windows, and multi-media works. Several artists made creative use of recycled or repurposed materials, which added interest.
I could go on and on, but words don’t do justice, so I’ll let you take a look at more of the art. And if you’re in the Newaygo area, you don’t have to settle for pictures—the works will be on display through June 10, and printed guides to their locations are available at local businesses and libraries.
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.
It's a busy time of year, wouldn't you agree? You've got places to go, people to see. I've got stuff to do. So instead of burdening you with blather, I'm making my holiday gift to you a visual one. Today I'm sharing some favorite photos from our trip out West last fall.
But before we head West, some photo-related news: Copies of my photo book, "Nature by Nan," are now available for purchase at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Cafe in Croton. The 8x8-inch hardcover book contains 20 of my photos of local flora and fauna.
I hope to soon add copies of my second photo book, "Nature by Nan, Volume II," and to make both books available for order on this website. Stay tuned.
Now, let's head out West!
What are some of your standout memories from the past year?
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.
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:
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"
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This month -- this week, in fact -- finds us commemorating both Earth Day and Arbor Day. In the spirit of those two observances, here's a collection of quotes about nature and the planet on which we live.
As a bonus, I'm including at the end of this post, some of my favorite nature shots from our recent visit to the Southwest.
Love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need -- if only we had the eyes to see.
-- Edward Abbey
Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there.
-- Gary Snyder
The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
-- Alexey Leonov, Russian cosmonaut
The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees -- all of these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.
-- Thomas Berry
The earth is a living thing. Mountains speak, trees sing, lakes can think, pebbles have a soul, rocks have power.
-- Henry Crow Dog
When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what weather does. This sustains me very well indeed.
-- E.B. White, One Man's Meat
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.
-- Rachel Carson
Nature repairs her ravages -- but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.
-- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?
-- Henry David Thoreau
Loyd: "It has to do with keeping things in balance . . . It's like the spirits have made a deal with us . . . The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities, and we're saying: . . . We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took . . . You've gone to a lot of trouble, and we'll try to be good guests."
Codi: "Like a note you'd send somebody after you stayed in their house?"
Loyd: "Exactly like that. 'Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch. I took some beer out of the refrigerator, and I broke a coffee cup. Sorry. I hope it wasn't your favorite one.' "
-- Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
And now, for a little more nature appreciation . . .
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.