Monday #34: From The Mouths of Babes


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What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?

I recently asked this question to 80 fourth graders as part of an “application” for a book illustration project I am working on for a non-profit, urban forestry organization called Tree Pittsburgh. Out of the 80 children, I hand-picked 40 kids from Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School to illustrate a 40-page picture book that I wrote for Tree Pittsburgh called, If We Were To Plant A Tree, a spin-off of my 2008 title, If I Were A Tree. Next week, I will spend five days at the school working with these children as a part of the school’s Earth and Arbor Day celebrations. The book will be launched later this fall as part of Pittsburgh’s “Neighborwood” festival but its larger objective is to spread the mission of urban forestry to the country—and maybe even the world!—at large. I am so excited and honored to be directing such an amazing project.

I visited the school briefly a couple months ago during my first information-collecting trip to Pittsburgh. There was a quick introduction to the kids and a tour of the school, which sits on the edge of the city’s largest green space, Frick Park. Then, a couple weeks ago, I did a video-conference with all 80 of the kids to tell them about the two different ways they could participate during the week I’m at the school. Children who are not illustrating will be involved in a week-long, urban seedling-planting project with the educational outreach person from Tree Pittsburgh. The two parts of this project dovetail so nicely and, as a grade-level project, I think it’s pretty cool for these students at ECS to be involved in something with such local and national outreach.

Predictably, many of the initial questions I was asked were concerned with how the forty would be chosen and I was able to sense a little anxiety and angst over the perceived “fairness” of selecting some and not others. Indeed, this was the initial concern of the teachers at the school even before we secured the project with them. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am not a big fan of the “everyone gets a medal” mentality that is so pervasive among this generation of children and that I am an enthusiastic proponent of healthy competition among people of all ages, especially children. Much of the research done by the likes of Daniel Pink and Carol Dweck supports this opinion and most adults, if they are being honest with themselves can usually acknowledge that it has been, and will always be, true that, no, not everything in life is fair.

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My criteria for picking the children who will do these illustrations was, in general, a response to obvious expressed interest in the project (they could choose between this and the outdoor tree planting project), thoughtful and often funny answers to the seven questions on the application, and then something “extra” in the quick drawing of a tree I asked them to do on the back of the form. The project is an important one and the book will be promoted nationwide so I wanted the kids who truly wanted to be a part of it, but I did want the kids to have fun with this “playsheet” as I called it, and felt that I would be able to detect sincere interest.

Many of the questions were asked just to prime the pump on thinking about trees in preparation of the project and to see if the children would answer beyond the rote responses of knowing that trees provide us with oxygen or that they grow in city parks. Playsheets with questions that were left blank, answered with “I don’t knows,” or that provided tree drawings that portrayed the ubiquitous “lollipop” tree were quickly cast aside. Some of the answers made me chuckle out loud and those were immediately put into the group of 40 kids who would illustrate the book with me. If a kid can make me laugh, that’s a kid I want working on a big, fun project.


My favorite question was the last one: What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?

I wonder if you will agree with me that the answers given by these children are pretty astute considering they are all of nine and ten years old. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of answers and the insight they offer on what our young people think is important for someone who chooses a career in the arts, however, I find that this list of responses is good advice for any profession or any relationship.

-Creativity (this answer came in more than any other).

-Being imaginative and having freedom.

-Being passionate because, if you aren’t, you won’t be able to do your best work.

-If you show your work to someone else and they say something bad about it, just let it roll off your back because you know you like it and that’s all that matters.

-Keeping an open mind and looking at things from all perspectives.

-Being in touch with your art.

-You have to make all your work very detailed and get ready for questions from fans.

-Don’t be discouraged.

-Using all your senses.

-Being happy, loving art.

-Creativity is the base of all things, from architecture to politics.

-Honesty and being yourself.

-Having pride in your work.

-Keep a notebook with you in case you have an idea.

-Knowing how to let your creativity out.

-Having thoughts.

-Never underestimate what you can do.

-The most important thing is having fun because if you don’t have fun, your art won’t look fun.

-Sometimes you don’t need amazing art skills to make a masterpiece.

-Concentration and a brain that is always expanding.

-To know that the project you are working on can help you work on your life.

-To inspire others.

-To express what you are feeling.

-Your art flows your own way.

-Having patience when you mess up.

-Dealing with artist’s block.

-Having determination.


And this is my personal favorite:

-Being able to keep your cool.


The kids sure get it right sometimes, don’t they?

TRY THIS WEEK: Think about things that matter most to you.








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Monday #33: Fun Shows

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I’ve been teaching adults lately. Mostly, I put out a bunch of supplies and ideas and let grownups take a break from their real lives to play for a while. This, as you might guess, is often a challenge for them.

Last week I had two adult workshops. I encouraged everyone to abandon their fears of not making something “good,” and to let go of any ideas of what things are “supposed” to look like. I talked about some of the benefits of creative play: learning to take risks, exercising our brains in new ways, being in a space that always welcomes us and never has any expectations of us. One of my workshops was an art journaling class and my students really went out for it and made some beautiful stuff…

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At the end of the session, everyone felt happy and surprised at what beauty they had made. It was cool to see people feel surprised at being able to tap into their own creative streak. But they also said they had fun and that they were surprised about that. When I look at their art, I can see the fun. Can you?

And, even though I’ve made a career out of my own creativity, I can really relate to the fears of letting go. When deadlines are piling up and people are waiting for me to finish things, when I am in the midst of producing for shows or a gallery, I can feel my playfulness being pushed out by anxiety and stress. But, I’ve been taking Lilla Roger’s “Make Art That Sells” class on art licensing for the past couple of months and, in a rather transformative way, have come to internalize her mantra, “People will buy your joy.” As a nurturing agent, and an artist in her own right, Lilla infuses all her lessons with words like “fun,” “play,” and talks about having a good time as an integral part of the constant practice of one’s craft. She says fun shows.

For our first two assignments, I had a hard time plugging into play. I was too caught up in trying to follow the prompt to the letter rather than letting my spirit put its own spin on it, too focused on the abilities of others and too afraid to make a “mistake,” whatever that is. And then I pushed all that aside and got out my collage papers. I turned on my favorite playlist, lit a nice smelling candle and got down to the business of fun. The assignment was tropical fruits and vintage pyrex. The fruits were right up my alley and, while the pyrex made me pause a bit, I was determined to stay in play mode and let it rip without fear.

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The days I worked in my studio on this went by quickly. It was fun and, personally, I feel like it shows.

We can be playful in other parts of our lives, too. With our children and our families, with our partners and our spouses, with our classmates, colleagues and our associates. We can can approach our work with the idea of being in our joy and when we do this, well, it shows.

TRY THIS WEEK: Let it show.


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Monday #32: Driven To Distraction

I work from home and have only ever held a “real” job for one year in 1995. In my workspace, I have a large computer screen that allows many programs and windows to be open and I have just added a second screen which will allow for even more screen viewing. I am completely and utterly addicted to Facebook, although my kids say this is passé and so I’ve just begun to dabble in Twitter and Instagram, which clearly presents another issue. I adore Pinterest. And, yes, it is porn for creative people. I have a to-do list that is, thankfully for this freelancer, always growing. I have a studio full of delicious art supplies and half-done projects that are constantly calling to me and I am always saying yes to another one. I need to run or exercise just about daily. I like to think about food and to cook stuff from scratch. I have kids who still live at home. I have a great boyfriend who is tons of fun to hang out with. Oh, and there is this thing called sleep that I like to do whenever possible.

And, did I tell you? I am Easily distracted. And, please note, that is easily with a capital “E.”  I’m pretty sure that once upon a time, had there been such a time in my youth, I would have been diagnosed with ADD and there isn’t a teacher on this planet who had me in their class that would ever tell you that I “made good use of my time.”  I’ve written about my chronic procrastination issue, which really goes hand-in-hand with distraction, but distraction, on its own, is a really big demon of mine.

Oh, wait! I think I just saw something shiny!

See, the problem with all of this is that sometimes I actually have real deadlines. REAL ones. Deadlines that involve real stuff like financial proposals and other people in their other real lives and their deadlines. Deadlines that involve my financial well-being and livelihood. Deadlines that, if they were not met, would make others very upset and would have a terrible impact on my career. When I have something like this on the line and distraction comes in, it’s important to know how to cope with it.

For me, dealing with distraction is a constant challenge but, over the years, I have learned two important things. First thing is that a big part of it, procrastination–is my percolation. This period of percolation is as necessary to me as studying, outlining and brainstorming are to other people. I have to delay the project to the eleventh hour–which, for me, isn’t actually the eleventh hour but the exact right hour to dive head in and be overwhelmed. Second, when distraction comes into play during my work period, I must have a strategy to deal with it. So, here it is:

1. Set the stage for the task. You can call this a ritual if you want but really it is just getting your space ready for the task at hand in whatever way works for you. For me, this often has a little OCD element to it which looks very much like cleaning and reorganizing and, when it comes to my studio space, can include a complete overhaul of my materials but fortunately only takes a couple hours and seems to work out some of my more compulsive tendencies. So, perhaps, set a time, clear a space, put on the kind of music you love, make a cup of coffee or tea, do your yoga… whatever it is that gets you into a space to focus on something, that is what you need to do and do it now. And, when you do it, fully do it. Be present and feel what you are doing to prepare yourself for the task.

2. Turn off the “stuff.” That’s email, Facebook, instant messenger, your phone, whatever. What is it that is keeping you from your task? Turn it off. It is pretty likely that no one will die if you aren’t available for 30-60 minutes.

3. Thirty to sixty minutes? Can you do that? No? Maybe you can’t and that’s okay. But, what can you do? Think about how much time you believe you can truly devote to your task and put that number in your head. If you think you can only be focused for ten minutes, then BE focused for ten minutes and don’t let anything else seep into your attention.

4. I know I said it already but it bears repeating: BE focused for whatever amount of time you have set for yourself. And, if ten minutes is your starting period, see if you can increase that over time to fifteen, thirty and up to an hour or more. Get into what is known as “zone” and “flow” and watch this attention period increase.

5. Reward yourself with your distractions! If you have successfully put in your time on task, well, then go for Facebook, Pinterest, video games or whatever your favorite distraction is! This is not about abolishing who we are but, instead, about being able to balance the parts of our lives that pull for our attention.

6. Reflect. How did it feel to be immersed in that task without distraction? Would you like to do that again? How would it be to be able to be in control of your tasks and distractions?  Imagine that you could eventually organize your day so that your “distractions” were not intruding on your ability to complete your tasks?

Distraction can keep us from our goals, can keep us in perpetual procrastination, can completely paralyze us. It’s true and I know it. Days can fritter away and make us into slackers. Smart people like us, however, can make plans and implement them in order to be the best versions of our selves. We can conquer these silly little shiny things. We can choose to let our selves enjoy them at another time of our choosing and get the things done that we need to get done.


TRY THIS WEEK: Implement your plan to combat distraction.


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Monday #31: Spring Haiku

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Once again we find

the flowers eager to bloom

after winter’s rest.


TRY THIS WEEK: Add your Spring Haiku!

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Monday #30: Toxic Dump

We work with them and for them. They are in our classes, our clubs, our gymnasiums and our places of worship.  We encounter them at the businesses and restaurants we frequent. They can be our friends, our partners, our spouses or even our family members. When we are with them, we can feel the shift in our mind, our body and our temper as we become lesser versions of ourselves under their influence. In some cases, we grow accustomed to this dynamic and this shift in our selves becomes the new “normal.” Our tolerance of these relationships subtly stifles the personal growth that would come from more healthy and inspiring relationships. Left to fester, we feel our own personality change and, sometimes, almost unknowingly begin to adopt their traits.

Toxic people.

From the schoolyard bully to the overbearing boss, from the possessive boyfriend to the passive aggressive mommy-friend at the weekly, neighborhood playdate; toxic people exude their toxic energy and taint the vibe wherever they go. Maybe deep down you know it and maybe deeper down you wish they weren’t in your world. They are exhausting to be around because of all the emotional hoops you are jumping through whenever you are around them.

You might have a person or two like this in your life and, if so, you probably already know some of the things that toxic people do.

~ Toxic people are negative to the point of extreme. Their glass is never half full, never even half empty. It’s just empty. Heck, they might not even have a glass. They would have you believe that everything in their life is something to complain about and they always seem to be down or in a bad mood. The moment they are around us we feel their negativity affecting our own good mood. When we try to express something positive to a toxic person, they find the tarnished lining in our silver cloud.

~ Toxic people are victims. Of what? Ask one or just wait and see because in short order you will learn that everything in their lives that they find unsatisfying is the fault or responsibility of someone or something else. Someone has always done them wrong, something unfortunate has always happened to them, life has dealt them a crappy hand and they are compelled to wear these burdens on their sleeves rather than overcome them. Of course, if something terrible is someone else’s fault, you never have to change anything about yourself, right?

~Toxic people don’t—can’t—share the joy of others. When we are the best versions of ourselves, when we feel whole and fulfilled and are living in our own joy, and then good things happen to people in our lives whom we care about, we expand our own sense of happiness by sharing their’s. Think about it… why wouldn’t we want the people in our lives to be happy and successful? It can only mean good things for us! But, to a toxic person, the success of others only exacerbates their own sense of unfulfillment, negativity and disappointment. In their victim mentality, our success is part of the reason they have such a hard time and so they can’t possibly be happy for us.

~Toxic people peddle guilt. “If you really cared about me you’d….”  It’s a passive aggressive tactic to try to inflict guilt onto other people and often stems from the toxic person’s own feelings of jealousy, envy and competition. Because they can’t be happy for the success of others, they attempt to make us feel guilty about it. When a toxic person is effective in dumping guilt on us, we end up not doing what we want or being who we want because we have been manipulated to feel guilty about making them feel bad or sad or defeated. The truth is, however, that no one can make another person feel anything. Our emotions are ours.

~Toxic people use sarcasm in place of honesty. So, instead of saying, “I know you’re really busy with your work right now but I miss you and would have liked to have seen you today,” they might say, “It must be nice to be so important and busy that you don’t have time for the rest of us.” Having an open heart and expressing what we feel in a direct and honest way takes courage and requires that we leave ourselves vulnerable. Not all people accept honest emotion well and when we open our hearts we have to be ready for any number of responses, including ones that may be painful. But, honesty and open-heartedness are the building blocks of trusting relationships.

~Toxic people are exhausting. Being with them requires mental and emotional acrobatics and makes us anxious and “on edge.” When we have healthy relationships, we feel inspired, invigorated and energized. Toxic people drain us with their negativity and squash our own sense of inspiration with subversive attempts to bring us down to their level of pessimism.

What to do? No one can ever get in another person’s head or heart. No one can know the truth of another person’s relationship. And, only we can choose the path that’s right for us. Because relationships with toxic people can ease into our lives in a way that can promote a twisted sense of normalcy, one thing we can do is to begin to ask ourselves important questions when we suspect we might be involved with someone who is toxic.

Do I feel inspired and invigorated when I am with this person?

Can I freely share the joys and successes of my life with this person and feel good about these things in my life?

Does this person always make me feel like I have let them down?

Am I the best version of myself when I am with this person?

What would it feel like to not have this person in my life? Would I be relieved?

When we surround our selves with people who are in the neverending process of self-improvement, who are to eager share our joys and successes, who see possibility instead of loss and who inspire, encourage and invigorate our hearts and minds, we surround our selves with people who make us better at being us. When we are better at being us, we can be the kind of people who make others better at being who they are.

Sounds good to me. How about you?

TRY THIS WEEK: Join the non-toxic club.

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Monday #29: Determination

Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life– think of it, dream of it, live in that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success. ~Swami Vivekananda

Well, Daylight Savings time is here, which means Spring is almost here, which means ski season is almost over. We anticipate that next weekend could likely be our last trek onto the slopes before the big thaw. If you have been following my blog during the last year, you know that last winter I went skiing for the very first time. While I am an athletic person who enjoys endurance activities of all sorts, I have some serious fears of heights and of speed. I also fought with my feet and legs and constantly struggled to get them parallel so that I could make turns more easily and graduate to some more advanced runs.  All in all, skiing did not come naturally to me and, while I always felt like I could kind of do it, it took an enormous amount of physical and psychological focus every time I went down a slope. I was slow and I fell a lot.

Because I was beginner all last year, I did most of my skiing alone. No one wants to wait ten minutes at the bottom for slow girl.  At lunch, I would meet back up with Jeff and the kids and they would report on their top speeds and all the black diamond trails they’d done already that morning. Soon my kids were reaching speeds of over  50 m.p.h. and learning how to ski backwards and I was still stating, very matter-of-factly, that I was happy on the green trails and would never do a black, never ever. Then I would go back out and spend the afternoon trying so hard not to snowplow through every turn, my quads toasted by the end of the day. Jeff says you should never say you aren’t going to do something just because, at the moment, you can’t.

Despite all of this, I turned in my seasonal rentals and furthered my commitment by buying my own equipment. I guess I figured that even if I never went beyond being a beginner, I wasn’t going to let this sport totally whoop my ass. Plus, it’s a whole season of weekend fun that I didn’t want to miss out on and my children were completely hooked.


So, this year, I have skied twenty days already and there are two things that have completely changed this game for me.  Somewhere after the few first weekends, Jeff started skiing with me instead of the kids. I have no idea why but I’m glad because this is probably when things really started to change. The night before this happened, however, I’d been online desperately looking for some new insight on parallel skiing and found this video which really addressed some of the mechanics I wasn’t getting quite right. Armed with a new approach to think about and practice, I had a new sense of determination so, when Jeff urged me onto some steep blue slopes, I went with a little less trepidation and a little more confidence. Maybe, I thought, I could dial this up a notch.


Now, there is a weird moment of terror when you get to the edge of the slope, just before you go down. The feeling inside of you as you see the view down from this place, the precipice, is one that conjures up all your resistance and fears, combined with the fact that you know once you go over that edge, the only way down is, well, down. I’ve tried to capture the visual perception of it on camera but it just doesn’t quite translate to what you really feel when you are there, which is intense. If you’ve ever stood at the edge of anything very tall and steep then you know what I am talking about. Jeff says you cannot let the precipice scare you from the slope.

But, I was able to do the blues and even gain some speed. When I got to the bottom at the lift, Jeff remarked that I was only a couple minutes behind him! A few weeks later in NY, I did my first black diamond, Belleayre Run. And I did not fall.

Last weekend, Jeff and I tackled a scavenger hunt at Killington Mountain in VT. We were overly ambitious (or, I should say he was overly ambitious) and signed up for the “advanced” course instead of the “intermediate.” We also made a critical error in designing our strategy map for hitting all the checkpoints and had our butts handed to us on a black diamond called Royal Flush that was in a natural, ungroomed state, full of rocks and moguls and covered in ice. I think that my newfound success, however, changed the voice of my inner critic from an insulting and degrading one to a drill sergeant who screamed at me somewhere in the middle to put my skis back on, get up off my hiney, quit sniveling and get down the damn hill! I won’t tell you exactly how much time this little activity cost us but let’s just say we could have won the prize for the last team to come in. It was humbling to say the least and gave me a real understanding of how mastering moguls are going to take a different kind of practice!

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But, now something had happened in both my body and my brain. Skiing was finally starting to feel natural to me. I was going to the precipice and not feeling that paralyzing terror. I began to actually want the challenge of something more difficult. I was enjoying the feeling of conquering these slopes. The next day, just before the lifts closed, Jeff and I, both double diamond virgins, did Cascade.


Yeah. I’m a double black diamond skier.


Over time, a bit of good advice, practice, renewed determination and the encouragement of another led to real success. Skiing, like running, has become a metaphor for my life and has taught me many things about myself and how to approach the moments in my life where fear and lack of confidence can creep in. I’m about to really use this vibe in upcoming weeks where I will be immersed in something professional that is very new and pretty overwhelming to me because my skills are few and fresh. I’m determined to approach this with a sense of adventure, though. Heights and speed are, after all, just another thing to conquer.

TRY THIS WEEK: Don’t let the precipice scare you from the slope.

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