Rocking the Boat

7″ x 9″ watercolor, NFS
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Ok, so I admit that when a painting comes before the idea for a new post, I have to dig a little deeper to find a contextual match. This painting above of a scene in New York had me a bit stumped. I think my dad may have told me a time or two, “ask and you shall receive.” So, I asked fellow blogger, Anna Hackman of ‘Green Talk’, if she had any ideas. Oh, did she. How perfect is this:

New York City based nonprofit “Rocking the Boat uses traditional wooden boatbuilding and on-water education to allow high school age youth to develop into empowered and responsible adults. Through these mediums, Rocking the Boat empowers South Bronx students to deal with everyday realities that are often not addressed at home or in school…programs directly serve over 2,000 students and community members drawn from a range of New York City public high schools and neighborhoods…Rocking the Boat teaches, challenges, nurtures, and motivates, providing the tools to transition into the next phase of life. Kids don’t just build boats at Rocking the Boat, boats build kids.”

Way to hit the nail on the head Anna!

All too often I hear the ignorant gripe, “Programming like this is waste. We need to focus on pushing math and science.” Programs “like this” teach youth responsibility, leadership, confidence, and how to collaborate on goal-orientated outcomes. Becoming a successful adult who contributes to society entails far more than acing your SAT. I have personally witnessed many teenagers participate in such projects and become be far more articulate, social, engaged and invested in their own futures (not to mention less interested in peer-pressure induced activities like doing drugs and competing for bragging rights for the most sexual partners). It’s kind of hard to study chemistry when you’re high or 13 and pregnant. Organizations like Rocking the Boat are preparing our youth be learners who have the capacity to absorb their education.

Alright, I’ll get off my soapbox. I think I’m still a little heated about all of the recent across-the-board cutbacks (from state and federal to dried up foundation funds).

Ps-I should mention that this painting was created from a photo taken specifically of another organization certainly worth mentioning: the New York City Downtown Boathouse. Next time you’re in NYC, you should definitely going kayaking on the Hudson with their all-volunteer staff of instructors (one of whom is pretty cute. I think I may have a crush).

Happiness is…

18″ x 24″ oil on canvas, SOLD.
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Are you happy? Would you say you’re a happier person than a citizen of a neighboring country? How do you measure happiness?

A 2006 study calculating happiness by nation has added a new unit of measurement to the typical equation of income and access to quality health care and education. Inserting the new variable seems to be based on the theory of “what goes around, comes around.” The Happy Planet Index reminds us that we live in the environment we help create by naming ecological sustainability as one of its 3 primary indicators. No one wants to call smog-filled community without clean water home. The study “shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.”

A more traditional study would likely name a Scandinavian country such as Denmark the world leader of pleasure and contentment. The Happy Planet Index bestows the title to the unlikely candidate of Vanuatu, a small freckling of islands in the South Pacific that only gained its dependence from Britain and France in the 1970’s.

Analyzing life satisfaction, life expectancy, and ecological footprint yields some very surprising results. Mexico and Columbia are 2 of very few countries on the index’s world map positively denoted in green. Give their survey a spin for yourself to gain a better understanding of information collected for the study. Hopefully you are happy and/because you’re ecological footprint is petite.

Urban Robin Hood serving modern poor

30″ x 36″ oil on canvas

During my recent 2 weeks in Seattle, an unintentional theme of poverty presented itself in my agenda of meetings with community activists and nonprofit staff. Talking to people both personally effected by poverty and those involved in administrative roles opened my naive eyes to the nature of the issue and deepened my sensitivity. Just finishing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was also a rude awakening to a culture foreign to a middle class kid like myself.

I held a preconceived perception of poverty that assumed there was something “wrong” with a person who couldn’t afford housing, food, and other essentials; that something needed to be fixed about that individual. True, there are many factors, such as substance abuse, that may contribute to an individual’s inability to support themself, although in many cases, poverty means that a full-time job and frugal living does not equal the cost of living. Hindering circumstance outside of one’s own control, taking on a multitude of forms, can snowball into devastating financial results demanding more than a lifetime to surmount (ie death of a spouse, illness, or even a car accident resulting in a sudden loss of transportation).

Of course, I have several pieces in the works inspired by my interactions with the folks in Seattle, but the broader issue of poverty is a great tie-in to a nonprofit in New York that has been collecting dust in my backlog of organizations waiting to be featured here. The long awaited completion of this painting of NYC presented the perfect opportunity to bring Robin Hood to center stage.

Robin Hood, much like United Way, boasts a record of impressive efficiency with dwarfed administrative cost. Both organizations fund other nonprofits rather than offering services directly to individuals themselves, inherently cutting administrative costs, but additionally,

“Robin Hood’s Board of Directors underwrites all of [their] fundraising and administrative expenses. From the rent to staff salaries to the website…it’s all paid for so your money goes to help others. [They] believe the urgent need in New York’s poor communities requires [them] to put every dollar out on the streets helping people and not in an endowment.”

What all of this means for New York residents is that more services and aid are made available to them to overcome poverty, whether that condition be the result of a self-destructive lifestyle, or the more common inability to afford the cost of living in spite of very sincere effort to make ends meet.

Much of what I read on their website reads like a landing page for a venture capital firm: “follows an extensive due diligence process to ensure that every dollar invested generates results,” and “before investing in a program…reviews its strategy, scrutinizes its financial statements, evaluates its management teams, and conducts multiple visits.” The business speak certainly is indicative of backgrounds of the successful board of directors spearheading the organization. Such an approach has proved to be highly effective, as indicated in their quarterly updates and success stories. Thank goodness since, reportedly from their website, 1 in 6 New Yorkers live in poverty.

Portraits coalescing youth worlds away

portrait painting of Bennett Morris portrait painting of Gray Morris
24″ x 30″ oil paintings on canvas
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Rummaging through my digital archive of paintings, I came across these fairly recent private commission portraits that shook loose from my memory an organization I’ve been attempting to collaborate with. Months ago I sifted through online information on youth and art focused nonprofits, and discovered the Memory Project. The concept, which came about after founder, Ben Schumaker, volunteered for one month at an orphanage in Guatemala, is a brilliant interlacing of high school art curricula with orphaned children in third world countries. High school art students are given photos of an orphan and create a portrait of that child, which is turned over to the Memory Project and then delivered to the orphanage. Correspondence between the portrait subject and the student is established creating obvious unique opportunities for both individuals.

Few of these children who have been abused, abandoned, or for some other reason are without a family, posses any items reminding them of their past or identity. We take for granted things as simple as photographs of ourselves with loved ones and other sentimental knickknacks. The portraits give the orphans a sense of self that they can reflect on as they grow older, which will also remind them that someone cared enough to create it. Of course, this is also incredibly rewarding for the high school student as well. Opportunities such as this truly broaden the horizons for kids at a time when their world is narrowly self-focused.

This is such a powerful and fulling project for any high school art class I recommend you pass the word onto to teachers you know that would like to implement the portraits in their school. They can visit and click on “get involved.”

I hope to possibly post some of the portraits that will come of this school year on my blog if I can connect with teachers incorporating the Memory Project into their curriculum.

Ps – Click here to watch a CBS news segment on The Memory Project.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” closing community celebration

After extensive event planning by our delegates, the camp participants, staff and community members celebrated our accomplishments at Noble Park in Paducah on Saturday. Several of those interviewed by the students over the past three weeks joined us as well as a TV crew and a local newspaper reporter. I was especially excited for the delegates to unveil their mural to our guests and the media.

Two students from the painting committee spoke about the mural design, which included vignettes of places they had visited and concepts and illustrations of things they felt were imperative in their vision of an ideal community. I could see the how pleased the delegates were with the response of jaws dropping when we pulled the sheet from the work of art.

It was amazing to see this camp make a positive impact on the kids in such a short amount of time. I’m so glad they’re people in this world (especially from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights) who invest so much of themselves in making experiences like this possible for people who need it most.

More Kentucky Remembers! camps are still in progress in other parts of the state. If the other camps have compiled as much material as my camp has, the textbook on human rights to be created from all of this work will be a thick read rich with personal and unique content enriching the lives of students in public school throughout the state.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” our last day

It’s hard to believe what we have accomplished in 5 days!   This group of students have amassed an impressive audio archive of interviews with members of their own community who are of a generation safeguarding firsthand experiences of human rights struggles, which these kids would not have otherwise known so intimately.   They have written about their research, documented the people and places they’ve seen with pictures, and translated all of this information into their own visual interpretation on canvas.

My usual work is of course a one-woman show, so it was amazing to see our 4′ x 6′ mural fill with color faster than I could keep track.   The students were devoted and incredibly impressed with their own work.   We also discovered strengths among each delegate.   Some people were on detail duty, focusing on the text, some were better at design, and then we had a few color experts who often consulted on color temperature contrast and value.

At the end of the day, we had a finished polished masterpiece, an enormous amount of historical material to contribute to the upcoming Kentucky Remembers! textbook, written a Paducah/Murray theme song, and planned a community celebration for the next day, which you will hear about very soon…

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 4

I’m learning the power of small groups. The Kentucky Remembers staff is finding the students are far more productive when we break them up in smaller committees. Although one of the committees is specifically devoted to the mural, everyone has been rotating in to help. Things are really coming together and the painting is about 80% finished.

We contacted several local reporters today and hope that a Murray news station will stop by the church tomorrow to see us in action. There’s also some potential for an article about Saturday’s closing celebration.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 3

Wow! We got a lot done today. When we started this morning, only half of the sketch was finished. What I’ve been most pleased with is that I’m finally beginning to see most of the students get attached to their work, taking pride in what they’re producing. I think they’re truly surprising themselves. There were several times today that the painting committee members stepped back to look at the mural and said in astonishment, “Oh my gosh, this is REALLY good!”

A few of them even began to get a little possessive of their artwork, which is a switch from the disengaged attitudes we started with. Students have been rotating from other committees to contribute to the mural, and “my” committee/painting committee has made it very clear that the others can only help if they’re “really serious.”

We’re hoping to get some newspaper and TV attention either during our last 2 days, or at Saturday’s community celebration where the students will be unveiling the mural and presenting parts of their audio interviews, photos, and essays. They will be contacting the media themselves. I really am proud of them!

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 2

Today was the last day we worked on pre-canvas activities. We started by combating cabin fever developed from sitting under the florescent lights of the 9th Street Church if Christ for several weeks by playing kickball in the church parking lot. Working up a sweat definitely made the slide presentation of other artists’ work (such as Diego Rivera and Robert Shutterly) a much calmer experience.

Then we revisited sketching by taking turns modeling for each other for short 30 second poses. I told the students not to worry about “getting it right.” The idea was just to get their hands moving and something on paper without getting sucked into the details or attached to the outcome. I said they could even wad up their drawings after each pose if they didn’t want anyone to see it. Here are a few of the sketches that were volunteered for display (the first one is of me in a teapot pose; yes, I’m lame, I know).

Shortly after lunch we had to get down to business and use all of these flowing creative juices on the mural. Right now we are in the process of completing the outline on the canvas. We’ll begin painting tomorrow, so progress shots will soon follow, along with an explanation of how their design illustrates what they have learned over the last 2 weeks about the struggle for human rights.

And, as promised, here is one of the Frankenstein animals we created during yesterday’s drawing exercise. This is a dove-frog-cow combo.

“Kentucky Remembers!,” day 1

My first day with the students at the Paducah camp was a bit of a whirlwind experience to say the least. To all of the middle and high school teachers out there, you are a phenomenal breed of human beings! Attention spans are like butterflies and trying to hold onto those short attention spans feels similar to grabbing for a fist full of air. Nonetheless, we started the “mural week” off to a strong start.

After playing “Ky Remembers Win, Lose or Draw,” we warmed up with an exercise intended to get the students adjusted to working on a large scale, over the fear of “making a mistake,” prepared to work collaboratively, and to simply get them to laugh. I had each student pick a piece of paper out of a hat that had a type of animal written on it. Then, they were given a sheet of butcher paper which had either “top,” “middle,” or “bottom” written in the corner.

They were to draw the portion of the animal that was given on their sheet of paper. So, for example, if my animal were a monkey, and my paper said “bottom,” I would draw monkey legs and a tail. We reconvened and pieced together our Frankenstein creatures. The outcome was quite comical, but I’ll have to share pictures of the final products with you later since I didn’t have a chance to take any at the time.

The staff, who have been with the students for weeks and worked with the last camp, tell me today was a success and we’re on the right path. Whew!

Kentucky Remembers! Project

This weekend I traveled to the far western end of Kentucky to facilitate the third week of one of five summer camps titled the “Kentucky Remembers! Project.”   A close friend, who spearheaded the project, via the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, asked me to participate in the Murray/Paducah camp as the artist leading a week long mural project.

The middle and high school students involved in each camp are charged with quite a hefty task of creating material for a textbook about the history of human rights, specifically in our state.   Apparently, there are no requirements in Kentucky public schools to cover monumental topics such as the civil rights movement, and unfortunately the freedom to omit these events has created a generation that knows little of historical events, which tremendously impacts their lives.

The “Kentucky Remembers! Project” requires students to spend a portion of their summer collecting material for the textbook, which will be used in the classrooms in 2009, and will include material from:

  • audio-recorded interviews, as guided by oral historians, with community members who lived through much of the civil rights movement
  • video and still photo documentation of field trips to historical places of interest
  • a collaborative mural illustrating their “ideal community” (which will ultimately hang in a public venue such a library)

This week long commitment has landed me in a dorm room at Murray State University, with little to no time to paint for you.   Instead, you’ll be following 17 students, 3 staff members, and myself through the process of creating a large scale painting that is the culmination of 2 weeks worth of face-to-face, hands-on historical research.   This is the storytelling method of passing down history of the old days meets new media of the 21st century.   These “kids” will be posting podcasts, editing freedom songs they wrote themselves, uploading videos on YouTube, and showcasing it all on their blog (which is uber new and very much in the works, so bear with us).

This is truly a unique opportunity for students to have a tremendous impact on their peers.   How many high school students can say to a middle schooler, “Hey, I wrote that book you’re using in history class?”

Suzuki Assoc giving music to youth

7″ x 9″ watercolor
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I played the cello as a child and was having a flashback yesterday as I watched a slightly confused, wee little cellist with an open mouth and bangs in her eyes try to follow along with the other 100+ young musicians on stage. Her eyes were doing far more moving than her fingers, which I found easy to remember, incredibly endearing, and admittedly amusing.

Yesterday’s orchestral performance was thanks to a local chapter of the Suzuki Association of the Americas which, “is a coalition of teachers, parents, educators, and others who are interested in making music education available (throughout North and South America) to all children.” The music-making nonprofit was certainly exhibiting success in numbers as I’ve never seen so many mini crocs and missing baby teeth.

The entire performance offered an entertaining mix of music, comical instruction from the adults, and unusual uses for a bow (such as poking your neighbor). Clearly the Suzuki Association offers an introduction into the world of string instruments for youth that may not otherwise have had the opportunity.

Click here for a direct link to watch this painting being painted.

Earth worms and garlic ice cream, mmm good!

8″ x 10″ oil on canvas
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I’ve always said I love garlic, in abundance, on anything. I may stand corrected, although I’ll have to get back to you on that after I harvest garlic tomorrow and make my own garlic ice cream at The Food Literacy Project‘s Family Farm Day. I may also bake bread in a solar oven (weather permitting) and pass the brush onto someone else to have my face painted. From 10-2 tomorrow (Saturday) you can partake in all of this and more at Oxmoor Farm. Proceeds from tickets sales and the silent auction will go towards The Food Literacy Project’s efforts to reconnect consumers (especially kids) with the processes and products of organic farming via hands on learning.

Personally, I believe we are easy targets for junk food manufacturers because it’s been decades since anyone of us understood from experience what food really consists of and how it makes it to our plates (or wrappers). So ignorance is bliss as we eat our cheesy puffs, and “made with real…” in front of any ingredient on a box is luxurious instead of expected. The Food Literacy Project is out to bridge this great divide by meeting urban Louisville residents on their turf since the farm is juxtaposed next to the city’s largest mall and I-64. School groups, adults, or whomever can taste foods from the farm, plant seeds, learn about composting and more (or they’ll come to your school).

Maybe I’ll see you out there tomorrow. You get to try my garlic ice cream first. Ha!

$20/family pre-registered
$6 at the door
children under 2 free
To pre-register: Call (502) 413-5989 or email

100 Wise Women

Myself and 99 other “wise women” heard Kentucky State Auditor, Crit Luallen, speak this morning at a “One Hundred Wise Women” breakfast.   I had planned to post a quote of inspiration from some popular philosopher, poet, or visionary from antiquity.   After hearing Crit speak, I instead decided to share with you what I found inspirational about her talk.

Given the nature of her work, Crit is inundated with statistical information about the state of Kentucky.   A very large portion of this information is terribly depressing.   I hope I have this wrong, but I swear I heard her say that 3 in 20 students in the state will graduate from high school (please, please correct me on this if my ears heard incorrectly).   In spite of such dismal facts about our state, Crit has forged on and devoted much of her self to affecting change.

Crit highlighted three crucial characteristics imperative for strong leadership that fully resonated with me that I’m sure you will appreciate as well:


All three especially remind me of traits becoming evermore important as things heat up on the campaign trail.   Kentuckianas will vote for governor later this month and, of course, presidential candidates are revved up like we’re voting tomorrow.

New life sprouting at Blackacre

24″ x 30″ oil on canvas
Click here to order a print.
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At long last, I think we have passed the point that necessitates keeping our winter coats on hand. Watching trees grow lime-green buds expanding to crowd my view of neighbors’ homes is encouraging as I kiss winter goodbye. Now we can begin to enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of nature preserves such as Blackacre.

I visited a Blackacre for a retreat several weeks ago and got a tour from the foundation’s executive director, Katie Greene. I learned about some exciting things under way, such as plans for building new a visitors center. Also, 2 1/2 new residents recently moved in: two horses, one of which is due to foal any day now. So go stroll, hike, learn, and feed horses.

Beyond welcoming visitors, Blackacre is always looking for volunteers who love playing in the dirt. If gardening is your forte, they would love to hear from you. Although, I’m sure there is work for everyone, even if you prefer to be behind a desk.

Anxious to lace up your hiking boots, but not in Louisville? Find a nature preserve in your backyard at The Nature Conservatory, otherwise, here are directions to Blackacre. They have slightly odd “hours of operation,” so be sure they’re open before you head out to hike.