Do you ever have those back-in-school dreams? Like the one where you realize you're late for the final exam in a class you've somehow forgotten to attend for the whole semester? Or the one where you have to make a presentation that you haven't prepared for? And you're inappropriately dressed. Or not dressed at all.
Distressing, aren't they? Fortunately, I don't have those dreams so often any more, but I've had them often enough over the years. Between those nightmarish episodes and all the waking-life years I spent in actual classrooms, I have no interest furthering my formal education.
So it's kind of funny that one of the things I most looked forward to when I retired was having time to take classes. Not the kind that involve brain-busting study and deadlines, but the fun and enriching kind.
Recently I took just such a class, and it turned out to be so enjoyable, I may never have another school-days nightmare. The class was a six-week Intermediate Photography course at Artworks in Big Rapids, taught by local photographer Dave Johnson. Dave has been a shutterbug since high school, but got serious about honing his skills over the past ten years. Now he focuses mainly on event, lifestyle, and landscape photography. A proponent of life-long learning, he not only strives to keep improving his skills, but also shares his passion and knowledge with others through classes, photo walks and individual lessons.
I was a little nervous about taking the class. For one thing, I wasn't sure how "intermediate" it would be. Though not an absolute beginner, I consider myself a novice. Would I be out of my depth?
For another thing, I'd been looking for a hands-on class, where we'd spend at least part of the class period actually shooting and getting feedback on our work. But once I found this class, I was anxious about that very aspect of it. I know how I can feel suddenly brainless and blocked in writing workshops where we have to write on the spot. Would I turn photo-blind when it came time to shoot in class?
I needn't have worried. Dave's an easygoing instructor who makes the course relaxed and fun, encouraging experimentation and allowing plenty of time for questions. He also shares his approach to photography: trying to look at the world in unique ways, focusing on both the details and the larger scenes they come together to create. When he photographs people, he looks for ways to capture something of their life stories and sources of inspiration.
A few more examples of Dave's work:
For our first out-of-class assignments, Dave encouraged us to photograph everyday objects we could find around the house. I found eggs . . .
and the candle I light every night at dinner time . . .
and a still life of kitchen utensils.
In class, Dave showed lots of photos to illustrate points he was making. But rather than simply showcasing his best work (and possibly intimidating us in the process), he also showed us some of his less successful photos and engaged us in discussions of what would've made them better. It was a good reminder that learning any skill takes lots and lots of practice and that even accomplished artists have to work at getting everything right.
Each class session mixed lecture and discussion on the finer points of exposure, composition, lighting, and specific types of photography—such as landscape, macro photography, and night photography—with breaks to try out techniques we'd just discussed. When the weather cooperated, we took our breaks outdoors.
When the weather didn't cooperate, we found things to photograph indoors—either the Artworks exhibits or items Dave brought in: tiny toys for close-up practice, prisms for special effects, and a variety of dollar store light-up doo-dads for a session on playing with light.
That one, with the light-up gadgets, was probably my favorite in-class exercise. We experimented with shooting long exposures of ourselves and Dave moving around with glow sticks and strings of lights. It felt like pure play, but we ended up with some pretty cool abstract images.
In spite of my early fears, I didn't freeze up when it came time to practice our skills together. I did find group shooting a different experience from roaming around on my own, but it was fun to see what other people were shooting.
To promote even more of that kind of exchange, Dave maintains a Facebook group where current and former class members can post photos and comment on photos that other group members post. Busy schedules kept some class members from taking full advantage of this resource, but I appreciated having a place to share work and get feedback.
At the end of each class period, Dave issued a challenge for the coming week, such as photographing a fast-moving subject at different shutter speeds, or taking photos at different distances from a given subject.
For once, I loved having homework! When I spent an afternoon wandering around with my camera, I wasn't just goofing off, I was working on an assignment.
I came away from the class with a fresh set of tips and techniques, but perhaps more important, the inspiration to keep stretching my skills, trying new things, and seeing the world in different ways.
Have you taken an enjoyable or challenging class recently? What have you learned?
Enjoy a few more of Dave Johnson's photos:
Bea Cordle is a woman with a mission. Every morning, she wakes up inspired and ready to get going. Right after breakfast, she begins her work, continuing until evening.
Bea is, by the way, ninety-three, an age when she could be excused for doing nothing more than sitting on the porch swing, listening to the birds. Instead, she's brightening the days of children who may need a little lift.
The project that absorbs Bea every day is drawing whimsical characters on brown paper bags for the Kids' Food Basket program, which supplies "sack suppers" to children living at or near the poverty level. These free, balanced evening meals are distributed at the end of each school day and during summer programs at schools where 70% or more of the student population receives free or low-cost lunches.
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
"I'm so blessed, because this gives me something to look forward to," says Bea. "I think about it before I get out of bed in the morning, and I think about it after I go to bed at night."
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
"About a year ago, my other daughter brought me a package of the colors and some coloring books and some of the bags and said, 'I want you to try to work on this,' " Bea recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I can't do that! I wouldn't be able to do that.' "
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
A social worker who visited one of the kids who receives sack suppers told Sandra the youngster's room was decorated with Bea's bags. Another little girl who cherishes the bags thanked Bea in person at a Kids Food Basket Halloween party. Sandra and Bea both get misty-eyed recounting the stories.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
"It's an exciting thing for the three of us," says Sandra, who also writes poetry and prose, in addition to singing and playing guitar professionally.
It was Bea's drawings that inspired Sandra and Marquita to collaborate on the first book and to recruit Bea to do most of the illustrations. Sandra, who used to make up stories about her son's imaginary friend when her children were small, quickly came up with an idea for the book.
"I got up in the middle of the night and wrote the story," she says. "I don't know what it is about writing, but the middle of the night, I wake up and ideas come to me, and I just get overwhelmed. I can't go back to sleep until I write the gist of it down."
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
Colorful and upbeat, the book celebrates diversity and encourages self-acceptance.
"I didn't just want to write a book with a lot of splashy colors. It's got to mean something," says Sandra. "But that's kind of the way I am with everything. If it doesn't have meat and guts to it, I just don't want to be bothered."
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
"We decided, the three of us together, we're going to move in together and be a three-woman powerhouse. We're going to help each other, be there for each other," says Sandra. "And it's worked out really good."
I Am Never Too Me! can be found at Hit The Road Joe Coffee Café in Croton, River Stop Café in Newaygo and Studio 37 Arts & Culture Center in Newaygo and will soon be available on Amazon.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
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.