A couple of weeks ago, a recent grad walked into my classroom. He was wondering whether I could use Photoshop to put a “painting” filter over a photo of himself and his fiancé. With an anniversary coming up, he wanted to give her something special, but with only a week’s notice, he knew I wouldn’t have time to do an actual portrait of the two of them. Before leaving, he said, “So, do you have any students like me this year?” I laughed and replied, “Alonzo, I’ve never had another student quite like you!”
I first had Alonzo in class as a senior, so there wasn’t the usual rapport developed over 4 years of high school between myself and him. He’s a guy built for playing football, generally friendly, leadership qualities, and definitely outspoken. There were times in class where I’d say, “Alonzo, shut it!” (meaning his mouth) when he’d speak without care of what the other person thought. He’s the kind of kid who will ask you to toss him an eraser or pencil sharpener because he doesn’t feel like getting up to go get one. Yet he’d also stay after class a minute or two to clean up messes other people had left behind.
In spite of the tough or pompous persona, I quickly learned that beneath all that is a big heart and a humble, get-the-job-done attitude about whatever he tackles (no football pun intended). So, I wasn’t surprised to hear by the end of senior year that he had fallen in love with a young lady and her baby girl and was planning to get married soon after high school. He’ll tackle husband-hood and father-hood in the same way he handles most things…probably saying the wrong things sometimes, but making up for it with a caring, humble, get-it-done attitude about daily life and love. I could tell he was already off to a good start. Because, when he walked into my room the other day, baby girl was asleep in his arms. He had made the rounds of the office, showing off this beautiful, sleeping bundle. She looked quite comfy and obviously trusts the strength and provision of the arms that were holding her.
With all that in mind, I decided a Photoshop filter wouldn’t cut it for this anniversary gift. So, I made time for a watercolor portrait. Alonzo was thrilled when he heard about the up-grade and asked if I could include the phrase, “I love you to the moon and back,” below the painting. While I didn’t scan that part for a blog post, I thought it deserved mentioning. “To the moon and back” is quite the measurement! May we all be willing to love that immeasurably: putting our words to action, tackling the hard times whenever they come, and having fun along the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time 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).
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!
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.
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.
The 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” theme 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…
How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.
As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.
A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.
Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.
This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.