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.
You were all such excellent traveling companions last week, I've decided to invite you along on another excursion. Bring some snacks, settle in, buckle up, and off we go . . . !
First, a bit of whimsy to get us all in good spirits:
Next, we brake for wildlife:
Now, a detour down Memory Lane for some Route 66 nostalgia:
Can't visit farm and ranch country without seeing a few of these icons . . .
. . . and admiring some metal-smithing artistry.
Time to wrap up this tour with a little local color:
Every good trip ends with a peaceful sunset. Here you go:
While I'm taking a break for relaxation and recreation, I've invited some of my fellow bloggers to fill in with guest posts. This week's is from blogger/photographer Ruth Daly, who blogs here. Whether or not you carry a camera around, you can apply these insights on slowing down, focusing on details and really learning to see, to your everyday observations of the world around you.
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.