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Anya – The Scent of Home

Anya web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

The “scent of home” – if I were to ask you what that means to you, what would you say? I’m not talking about the Febreze commercials where your son’s room smells like a gym locker. This is more along the lines of a scene in Disney’s Ratatouille where the food critic flashes back to a moment in childhood, sitting at a rustic kitchen table where someone who loves him has prepared a meal for him. Each of us have experienced moments like that, where a sight or scent triggers memories of a time and place that once was home. For me it can be fresh sawdust, taking me back to hours spent in my dad’s workshop, sawing and hammering as a child. Or, a salty sea breeze, and I’m suddenly 7 years old again, building castles and burying jellyfish in wet sand by the Atlantic Ocean. Certain soaps remind me of my grandmother’s house and of her hug. Home. For some, “home” is about the people around you. For others, it’s a place or country where you were raised or spent years of your life. I’ve heard that missionary kids, military families, and others who moved several times growing up may struggle to pinpoint a particular place they’d call “home.” Yet we all have an idea of what home is or could or should be.

Today’s portrait is based on a senior photo-shoot I did several years ago. When I talked with Anya about what setting she’d like for her photos, she mentioned a prairie preserve nearby. She said the prairie paths and flowers reminded her of the Ukraine where she grew up. Anya is an American citizen now. So, in most ways, America is home now. But yellow and blue is woven into the fabric of her character, her values, her family’s cultural heritage. If you look up the meaning behind the Ukrainian flag, you find that yellow represents fields of wheat, and the blue symbolizes sky, mountains, and streams. No surprise then that nature, fields of wild flowers, and fresh air are the “scent of home” for Anya.

C.S. Lewis talks about the common human longing for our own “far-off country.” In The Weight of Glory (Oxford, 1942) he says, “These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire…but they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.” He goes on to comment about philosophies that try to “convince you that earth is your home…by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is.” But, he continues, “we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.”

For myself, I can attest to a feeling that the sense of “home” I long for is elusive. Were I to return to my 7-year-old self at the beach, would I really savor the sun on my face and the salty taste on my tongue? Or would I more likely be squabbling with my brother about who gets to use the shovel next, and nervous about jellyfish stings when I do dive into the waves? Time has a way of filtering our memories. Like a soft-focus lens, it blurs the edges, emphasizing what we want, need, long for and deemphasizing other details. According to Lewis, “home” is elusive, not because it never existed, but because our desire points us to a home we haven’t visited yet…a “splendor, which nature fitfully reflects.”

Anya is someone I’m blessed to know, because she and her family live out their faith. And, in living out that faith, they remind me of “home.” When we’re goofy and laughing and joyful, it’s a taste of joy that will one day become eternal reality. When we’re talking about the ups and downs of life, they keep me grounded in the truth that there is more to this world than what I see with my eyes. When we’re introducing one another to foods from the other’s culture, it’s a tidbit, a sampling of the coming feast in a country we haven’t yet visited. When we’re shooting photos in a field of wildflowers, the colors and scents surrounding us are merely a ghosting of the flower we have not found…the aroma of a home yet to come.

 


Siblings

Siblings web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

It’s been way too long since I’ve had a chance to post…not that I haven’t been painting! But May was taken up with sample paintings for a possible book project, school finishing, and diving straight into curriculum writing for a chunk of June. So, I’m just now getting back into a more regular rhythm with time for blog and personal projects.

The painting above is me (the cute one in the middle) with my two older siblings, a portrait painted recently for my sister’s birthday. Looking back at old family photos is such a funny time-warp. The hair styles, couch and pillow scream “late 70’s/early 80’s” – in fact, my sister wondered why I didn’t update her hairstyle when painting the portrait. But the Mary Lou Retton haircut was in then, so I’m sure Jenny looked stylish for the time. I can’t see much (if any) of current me in the baby version here. However, seeing my siblings at those ages reminds me of my nieces and nephews now. We have photos of Jenny’s daughters with that exact sideways glance, tilted head, coy expression on their faces. And any photo of Jeremy looks identical to his eldest boy. I could even venture to say that my youngest niece resembles my baby photos, with her round cheeks, turned-up nose, and dark hair falling across the top of her head. The Bozarth genes run strong.

Working on this portrait brought back a lot of childhood memories. Jenny braiding my hair, while I sat and whined that she was pulling too hard. Jeremy teaching me how to pace my steps for a hook shot in basketball, or letting me try out his juggling equipment and showing me how to juggle various items. Jeremy instigating trouble and then sitting back to watch us younger siblings squabble it out. Jenny letting me troop along with her and her friend Laura in the woods behind Laura’s house…showing me how to suck the sweet nectar from honeysuckle flowers, and consoling me when I screamed as a snake slithered around my feet on the forest path. Years of sharing a room with Jenny, and her recounting of my random sayings when I’d talk in my sleep. Asking Jeremy for help with math or science homework, and trying to listen as he’d explain 5 different ways of solving the problem when I really just wanted 1 easy answer.

Any of you who know me well probably hear me talk about my siblings on a regular basis. They crop up naturally in conversation because they continue to be part of every-day life. Making time to hang out with my brothers and sister isn’t as easy as it was when we were kids. Of course, sharing a room or being packed shoulder to shoulder in a car for 17 hours was never thought of as quality time. However, those forced situations of time together helped build the foundation for our relationships now. Living within 40 minutes of each other, it’s easy to let months slip by where we’re each consumed with our own fast-paced schedule. We have to be purposeful in calling and connecting. I realize I’m blessed to have siblings I still want to know and spend time with. And, though I don’t necessarily learn from them as I did when little, I do still look up to them in many ways. They’ve taught me about life and marriage, parenting, faith, work-ethic, budgeting, priorities, and family. Some of those lessons currently apply in my life; others I may use down the road. Besides the serious stuff, my siblings are also fun to be around! If you ask any of my nieces and nephews, they’d probably tell you that we can be pretty goofy when hanging out together – perhaps it’s because spending time together takes us right back to childhood, bringing out our silly sides. We let go the stresses of our adult responsibilities and take a few moments to flash back to when we were the kids in those photos.

If you have siblings, take some time to look back and remember who you were. Then, take a look now and see who you are. If those relationships aren’t what you’d like them to be, you can’t necessarily change who you’ve all become. But you can always work toward restoration, reaching out when and how you’re able. And, if you’re on the cusp of adult-hood, waiting for the chance to get far away from your siblings, pause before you run. Remember the good times when possible, forgive the hurts (with God’s help…not something you can do on your own), and be open to staying connected in the years to come.


Masha – a portrait in progress

Masha web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

I often tell my students to take process photos of their work so that they can see how the painting changed and developed. But I never remember to do this myself! Over spring break I was teaching my cousin some tips on watercolor portrait painting. For once, I made a point of photographing my progress. So, I figured I’d share a bit of that process with you here.

Masha 1web

Before starting a watercolor, I project and trace from sketches and/or photo references. White paper can feel intimidating – where do I start!? The best way to start is by toning the paper with a very pale wash of yellow ochre. The only areas I’ll avoid are (possibly) sky and any bright highlights that need to stay pure white. Use a large brush for this, spreading the wash across the page, and deepening any areas that will eventually be darker. From here, I’ll mix skin tones (yellow ochre and either cad red or alizarin crimson), beginning to build up midtones and shadows in the face. I leave the highlights and build around them. As you can see, at this point I’ve also started light washes of blue and lavender in the scarf. Deeper shadows in skin and around the eyes are done with either a red-violet or blue-violet. Using too much brown makes skin look cold or muddy.

 

Masha 2web

Now I need a bit of context for the face. Where is she standing; what color tones surround her? So, I take a break from skin tones and start laying in the brick pattern behind her. Here again I start with light washes of pink, then layer in midtones of reddish-brown, finishing off with texture and shadows in darker browns. I like to finger paint texture. By that I mean I’ll dab a bit of color onto the brick, then swipe my finger across it to smudge and soften the mark. This gives me rough, organic edges, creating depth in the surface of each brick. At this point I’m also using the negative space (bricks around her hair and neck) to help define and refine the shape of her face.

Masha 3webTime now for hair, scarf, and shirt! Her hair was pulled back in the photo, but I don’t want her to look too masculine. So, I’ve added wisps of hair, stray locks that blow in the breeze, giving more of that feminine touch. Now that there is color behind her head, I have a better idea of how deep I need to go with shadows in the face and neck to give form and contrast to her features. Moving to a smaller brush, I begin to tighten details in the face. Meanwhile, I’ve blocked in a basic blue in the shirt and can start building darker shadows in the scarf and clothing. Subtle shadows between the bricks (in the mortar) are made with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber (Payne’s Grey would also work, mixed with brown).

 

Masha 7web

Jumping ahead, here I’ve continued brick work and started to block in the forms of light fixtures. As always, I lay in lighter washes first, then build the midtones and darks around them. The same grey tone I used in mortar is used for the lamps and sweater. By the end of this I swore I’d paint no more bricks for a very long time! I always complain about lacking the patience needed to do patterns in clothing…brick walls now fall into that category. The sky, clouds, and background buildings were saved for last. These needed to be kept simple, basic shapes, and soft edges to maintain focus on the figure in the foreground.

I’ve made a short video (40 seconds), clipping all of the process photos together. So, if you’d like to see it from start to finish, click here.

As a side note, this portrait is of a young friend (more like family) whose birthday happens to be this week! The shot is from a series of senior photos I took for her when she graduated high school. When I finished the painting, I realized I hadn’t included her freckles! So, I had to go back and add just a hint of freckles to her face. She (and her sister) told me later that the shot I chose to paint happens to be one of her favorites from the senior photo series. The expression, the whimsy, the vibrant colors, and the composition/setting are all reasons it’s one of my favorite photos as well.

Happy Birthday, Masha – love you lots!


Total Praise

Total Praise web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

Why do we lift our hands? In concerts, people will raise up a hand or two, waving along to the music. Several decades ago, that waving hand might have held a lit lighter. Now, people have the flame app, and will wave their raised phone in sync to the band. At sports games, whole crowds will lift their hands in an undulating wave, cheering their team to victory or simply enjoying the collective experience. At theme parks, those same arms are raised in excitement, with hollers or screams, as the roller coaster zips down hills and around curves. In a classroom setting, we raise our hand to be acknowledged because we want to be heard. In the wild west, you’d hear the command, “Stick ’em up!” and you’d raise those hands immediately in submission, for the sparing of your life. The very tradition of waving hello comes from ancient times when you wanted to show a friend (or stranger) that you weren’t holding weapons when you came to greet them…you came in peace.  A child will run to its parent with arms lifted, saying, “Hold me!” The parent swings that baby up into their arms to protect or cuddle or hug. Praise, excitement, acknowledgement, cheering, submission, peace, greeting, desiring comfort – this is why we lift our hands.

The world lifts their hands on a daily basis, for all of these reasons. Yet, I often hear non-Christians say, “That Christian thing of raising your hands in worship is so weird. I don’t get it. You’d never catch me doing that.” Well, all of those reasons listed above are why we Christians lift our hands. We lift them in praise and excitement, cheering for a God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). We lift them in greeting, telling God we come seeking peace between ourselves and Him – especially when we know we’ve done wrong (Psalm 51). We lift our arms like a small child, needing to be held by our Heavenly Father (Psalm 103:13-14; Psalm 46:1-3). And, yes, we lift them in submission – not to a gunman who seeks to harm us, but to the Almighty who knows the best and worst of us and loves us anyway (Psalm 139; Isaiah 55).

A week or so ago, I was at a high school vocal concert featuring an ensemble known for performing gospel music, as well as music from other countries/cultures. They sang a song entitled Total Praise. This song happens to be a favorite of mine! I first sang it in the late 1990s in a vocal ensemble I was part of in college. It’s one of those songs where the harmonies are so tight, and the flats and sharps so difficult, that once you learn them you never forget them. So, I found myself singing along with the high school choir last week. The song lyrics are based off of several themes from the book of Psalms. But the first few lines come directly from Psalm 121:1-2 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Musically, the notes rise, as though walking up steps, through that entire first line. I’m guessing this is partly because Psalm 121 is known as a Song of AscentsIn Jewish tradition, it would be sung by the people as they made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, up the steps of the temple, on their way to worship. Minor harmonies interplay in the line, “knowing my help is coming from you.” Then, the voices crescendo triumphantly through the line, “Your peace you give me in time of the storm.” And that word storm is an apex – a moment of dissonance, sung full-voice. Unless you’re very familiar with choral music, it’s tough to describe. But, listen to the link below, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to mimic some of those lifts and harmonies in the visual aspect of the illustration.

This painting is inspired by Elena – one of the young ladies who performed the song Total Praise at the concert I mentioned earlier. She happens to be not only a kid I teach at school, but also someone who helps lead worship at our church youth group each week. Elena relates best to scripture by creating amazing word art of the verses we discuss in youth group on any given Sunday night. She’ll make designs using markers on scraps of paper, emphasizing words or themes through color, style, and font size. Sometimes she’ll create 2 or 3 of these in one evening. After watching her perform, I thought it would be fun to do my own word art with the lyrics from the song. Because Elena likes symmetry, I’ve tried to create a sense of visual symmetry in the artwork, balancing colors and weight of words/shapes throughout the design. The Amens tumbling about at the bottom of the page represent a vocal layering of Amens that build upon each other at the end of the performance. You’ll hear them if you follow the link and listen. There are many versions available on YouTube. I’ve included 2 here for you to choose from. The first one is a goofy group of guys, but once they start singing a cappella, you hear all the tight harmonies I love. The second is a true gospel choir with drums and piano mixed in. Either way, they point you to the God who is worth lifting our hands to in total praise, trust, and submission.


Portraits of Scotland – Tobermory Fisherman

tobermory-fisherman-web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

I’m finally back with another in the Portraits of Scotland series! While in Scotland, we spent several weeks on isles, with the sea visible or within easy drive of where we stayed. Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, was no exception. We stayed in Harbour Guest House on Tobermory High Street, which is the main street that curves around, hugging Tobermory harbour. Tobermory is the capital of Mull because, with a population of 700, it’s one of the few places large enough to be considered a town rather than a village. You may remember mention of it in my post about the Leather Artisan. Well, having spent so much time around the sea, and having eaten fish and chips to our heart’s delight, I hoped to find a fisherman who would let me paint his portrait.

Our very last day on Mull (even as we were packed up and ready to drive back to the mainland), I stopped in at a shop to pick up a glass fusing piece I’d made the day before. When I came back to the car, my mom said, “Mollie, weren’t you hoping to paint a fisherman? I’ve been watching this man climb nimbly down a narrow metal ladder to his boat. I can’t believe his agility! He must be nearly 70, but he’s up and down that ladder in the blink of an eye! This is your chance! Ask him whether he’d mind if you take his photograph.” So, I approached the fisherman. It was a quiet morning, still fairly early, and he was alone – no crew with him. I figured he had simply been checking on something in the boat, and I was right. Funnily enough, his first response when I asked about taking his photo was, “Does my hair look alright?” This is the same question Alan (the Leather Artisan) asked before I photographed him!…must be a Tobermory thing. Well, the fisherman’s white hair was blowing in a harbour breeze, so I laughed and said it looked fine. Like several of the people I approached, he was surprised anyone would want to paint his portrait. Perhaps the tourist-painter intrigued him. Perhaps he was merely complying with an odd request. Whatever the motivation, he agreed. And, while I took a few photos, we chatted.

I asked about his work. We’d eaten fresh lobster the night before. Had he caught those lobsters? He said that all of the lobsters his crew catch are actually shipped overseas…makes more money than selling it locally. I asked whether he had children who’ve followed in his footsteps career-wise. He said he has no sons. But his two daughters married fishermen, and his sons-in-law work with him. It was a short conversation, a brief glance into his life. But each of these portraits has opened doors for me to learn something of the people of Scotland. They are humble, yet proud; hospitable and friendly; they work hard and value tradition; they highly value family and community. Possibly because their towns and villages are so small, a sense of community is inevitible…for better or worse, everyone seems to know everyone else. I asked whether he knew Alan, and he said, “Aye, of course! I know him well.” My favorite part of this particular portrait is the fisherman’s stance. Hands are jammed solidly into his pockets. Weatherbeaten and ruddy, his face holds the wrinkles of sunshine and wind, laughter and life. His eyes are used to peering out across the water, whether through glaring sun, storm, or fog. No fancy airs or moment taken to brush his hair…the wind would blow it again anyway. He is a man’s man, a working man, a provider for his family, comfortable in his own skin. The stance says, “Here I am! If you want to paint a portrait, you’re welcome. Just make sure my boat is included. For my boat is part of who I am.”

This illustration is actually a compilation of several photos taken during our days on Mull. The jetty where the fisherman stood was lined with lobster cages. Beyond those you could see the panoramic view of iconic Tobermory shops. The red, yellow, and blue group of shops in particular is well-known. Apparently, they appear in a BBC children’s show called Balamory. I’m a little old to watch the show now, but the Scottish accents are fun! In designing this scene, I took the photo of the fisherman with his boat, combined it with photos of the panorama and lobster cages, then added in a couple seagulls for good measure. Huge seagulls are the other “fishermen” of Tobermory. Whether swooping and diving below the water’s crest, or scavenging bits of fish left by the pros, they’re always interested in the day’s catch. Just a few feet from this scene (kind of behind and to the left) was the fresh fish-&-chips vendor. This tiny trailer sold fish that had been caught fresh that morning. You’d tell them what kind of fish you wanted (halibut, cod, etc.), they’d pull it out of the fridge, dip it in batter, and fry it right there in front of you. Then they’d toss it onto a bed of hot chips, and you could add vinegar or ketchup before carrying your treasure home to feast. It was so good, Mom and I literally ate there 3 out of 4 nights on Mull! If you look above the Tobermory shops, you’ll see one more iconic building. The Western Isles Hotel, up on the hill, is one of the filming locations for the 1945 Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I’m Going. Wonderful film! If you’ve never seen it, check it out!

Well, this concludes our tour of Tobermory. Of all the places we visited, this is a top one on my list to visit again. If you’re ever there yourself, keep an eye out for my friend Alan and for his neighbor, the fisherman.


Puppy Love

puppy-love-web

copyright 2017 Mollie Bozarth

I remember the day we got our first family dog. I was 6 and my younger brother was 4. We drove up to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, and as we piled out of the station wagon, a Golden Retriever bounded up to greet us. This was not my grandparents’ dog. They lived in the country, and this retriever liked to break away from his owners and come hang out at my grandpa’s place. Grandpa is a dog person in that all dogs love and respect him…and many strays have found their way to him over the years. The dog’s name was Beauregard (a proper southern name, but way too fancy for the countryside). Everyone called him “Bo-jack” or “Bo.” Golden Retrievers are one of the most family friendly breeds, and Bo lived up to that. We fell in love with him at once (including Jonathan, who had always cried or been scared around dogs in the past). When asked where he came from, Grandpa told us that Bo belonged to a farm nearby. The farmer had several dogs, most of them very aggressive. Being gentle, Bo didn’t like the other dogs. So, he’d break free every chance he got, and would come to visit Grandpa’s house.

Needless to say, we begged our dad to let us keep him. Bo obviously didn’t like his home. Maybe the farmer would sell him! Better than that, the owner actually GAVE the dog to us, saying he was too much trouble to keep since he ran away all the time. With Bo now part of the family, we took a long walk while discussing a new name for him. My older brother, Jeremy, said, “He looks like a lion with that orange mane of fur around his collar. What if we name him ‘Aslan’ like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia?” So, Aslan he became!

Aslan was my puppy love as a child. Childhood memories are full of him: building a fence on a muddy/rainy day to give him a safe area in our backyard; plucking slugs off of his dogfood bowl before feeding him each evening; being dragged down the street when he’d practically pull us off our feet on a walk; tennis balls chomped in half that would get caught on low tree branches when we tried to toss them for him; Aslan digging holes in the yard to lay in the cool dirt on a summer afternoon; and (best of all) the retriever tendency to lay his head on your foot so that he knew you were close by. I wouldn’t trade those memories (even possibly the gross slug memories) for anything.

Today’s illustration is from a candid moment of my niece with my Golden Doodle, Jack. Jack leaned in to sniff her, and her hands went instinctively up under her chin, with an expression of pure glee on her face. I can’t believe we caught that on camera! The photo has been hanging next to my desk at work for several months. When I saw that the SCBWI drawing prompt for February was love, I thought, “What a perfect chance to paint that portrait!” I also happened to need a portrait to demo for my Painting 2 class. So, timing worked out well. My niece has known Jack her entire life. His name was one of her first words. And, when she and I took Jack for a walk yesterday, she enjoyed repeating his name at an obnoxious volume all the way down my street (she’s 2, so she can pull off “loud and repetitive” without driving the neighbors crazy). She tried to “help” me walk him by holding part of his leash. Like Aslan, Jack likes to pull hard on a walk. I made sure that her attempts to “help” didn’t get her pulled off her feet.

Watercolor Portrait Tips: when demonstrating to my painting class, I reiterated several tips that any of my “old” students reading this will recognize. 1. White paint is a “no-no” in my classroom. Watercolor paper is white. Simply leave the white paper where you want highlights or bright whites. Do not mix white with red to make pink. Instead, water down the red to let more of the white paper show through…thus, pink. 2. Most white areas aren’t a pure white. Example: the shorts and the chair. For the shorts and chair, I mixed a cream or a pale grey, building up subtle shadows. 3. Shadows in skin should be blue-violet or red-violet. Using too much brown in skin shadows makes the skin tone look cold or lifeless. Think of the red blood flowing through our veins…there should be a pink tone, even in the shadows. My student had a good question: “What if the person you’re painting is brown or black skin tone?” Well, still use a peachy pink or pale yellow for the lightest highlights. Then mix red-violet and blue-violet with your browns in the midtones and shadows. 4. Textures like dog fur should be done by layering different tones, creating a haphazard pattern of fur and shadow shapes. You still need to pay attention to the bone structure and the way the light hits the body (even if he looks like a ball of fur). Several layers of small strokes, following the direction and flow of the fur, will give the desired effect. 5. It’s always about contrast. Darken tones behind lighter objects to help the lighter object stand out. 6. The pen & ink (if used) should highlight lines and details you want to accentuate or tighten. But I’d stay away from a full outline in ink. Particularly, facial features and highlighted fur should have very little ink added. Too much ink, or too solid an outline, can make soft features look harsh. The way my masters’ profs put it: “Either the ink or the watercolor should take center-stage. Fun ink outline with very basic color washes. Or, detailed watercolor with very little ink.” 7. Last but not least: do not be a slave to your reference! In this illustration, I eliminated several distracting objects from the background. I also changed the colors in her shirt and hat to better match the room where this will hang. Use artistic license to decide what to keep and what to tweak, change, or eliminate from your reference image.


I Have A Dream

mlk-1987-web

copyright 1987 Mollie Bozarth

30 years ago today, I drew my first portrait. I know the exact date because it’s written in large, tidy letters, on that lined manilla paper you use to practice writing in elementary school. With carefully rounded “o”s, curved “r”s, and very straight “t”s, the 6-year-old Mollie wrote: “A Special Birthday Today is January 15, 1987. It is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” MLK has had more of an effect on my life than I’ll ever really know. My mom’s high school was desegregated in the 1960s. Her brother was bused off to another school, while kids from the black school came to join her high school. Because of that desegregation, she gained a lifelong friend named Keith.We still keep in touch with Keith and his family. I got to meet his wife for the first time last summer when we were all at my grandparents’ house in Virginia. Keith is a joyful, honorable, faith-filled man. I’ve gotten to visit with him many times through the years and have always looked up to him.

Growing up in suburban Virginia, skin color wasn’t something I really thought about. The friends that I ate lunch with, played basketball with at recess, sat next to in class, invited to my birthday parties…were a mix of black and white. Schooltime memories are filled with color. I accidentally hit my friend Jackie in the back of the head with my flying loose tooth in kindergarten. Naomi was the quirky friend who loved to crush her potato chips before eating them at lunch. We all prayed for my friend J.J.’s family when his dad died tragically in a fire, trying to save the family dog. Elisabeth was the first friend my dad threatened to take home in the middle of a sleepover birthday party…she was a bit on the noisy, rambunctious side. Tharrin was a big and tough kid, (my hero) who was always standing up for me if boys tried to exclude me from playing basketball. These friendships, and countless memories, would never have been mine if not for MLK and others like him.

mrs-spence-1-webThe drawing above was done in Mrs. Spence’s 1st-grade class. Even Mrs. Spence is someone I can thank MLK for. She wasn’t tall in stature (perhaps that’s why 1st-grade was a good fit for her), but she taught us respect and honor. And, I can think of at least one major instance where she showed me great grace. A few weeks before this drawing was completed (Christmas holidays of 1986), she gave each kid in class a hand-made ornament to take home and put on their tree. Mine was a styrofoam mouse with a curled pipe-cleaner tail, beady black eyes, whiskers, and red plaid ears. He has hung on my Christmas tree every year for 30 years and is still one of my favorites to hang on the tree today. Now, I teach in a fairly diverse district, where kids of every color, race, and religion come together to learn on a daily basis. As a teacher, I look back on the example set by Mrs. Spence and the classroom atmosphere she created, endeavoring to foster a similar environment of respect and grace with my students.

The same week that I drew the portrait of MLK, we used his “I have a dream” me-1987-webtheme as a springboard for discussions on what we’d like to become or accomplish when we grew up. I’m only slightly surprised that at the age of 6 my life’s goal was already set in concrete (or crayon). Notice that the portrait of MLK was much more realistic than the proportions/accuracy of my hands, feet, and table legs. Students, this is why we always tell you to work from a reference photo rather than drawing out of your head/imagination! It was true when I was 6, and it’s true today. Anyway, the point is that MLK’s portrait was an intriguing foreshadowing of my life now. I have always been interested in faces. Shapes of ear and nose and eyes are puzzle pieces that (when fit together properly) can tell the visual story of a life…or if the subject has passed away, trigger memories of a life well-lived. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’m neither ignorant enough nor idealistic enough to say that MLK’s dream has completely come true. Unless the world becomes colorblind, I’m afraid there will always be undercurrents of racial tension this side of Heaven. Newspapers, TV shows, and other media remind us of the broken ideals on a regular basis. But I am ever thankful that he dared to dream. That dream trickled down into the cracks of society, crumbling walls, shifting courses, and expanding into a river whose current continues to erode racism. The more you and I cultivate classrooms, hallways, lunch rooms, office spaces, churches, and neighborhoods where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the more his dream becomes a reality. Each doing our part in the process of erosion, we can help fulfill another lesser-known line from his speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

From my 3rd-grade yearbook, here is part of the crew I hung out with growing up. Note: my older sister liked to circle faces with pencil…

me-yearbook-1989