Artist, Speaker, Blogger

The Thing With Feathers...

Lost  & Found (detail)  N. Hannans

Lost  & Found (detail)  N. Hannans

There are so many birds in my paintings, circling, singing and soaring! They are my messengers of hope, bearers of good tidings, the eternal mediators between heaven and earth.  
Emily Dickinson's poem, Hope is the Thing with Feathers, is the most eloquent definition of hope that I've ever come upon. It inspires me to express and share the power of hope through my work.

Hope, as Dickinson's poem so aptly expresses, perseveres despite all obstacles.  This "thing with feathers", present in the soul of every hero,  makes all things possible! 

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston on Finding One's Voice.

The Harlem Renaissance, one of my favorite periods in art history, was a flowering of African American art and culture in the early 1900's.  So when the opportunity arose to research this movement for an art history class, I was excited to delve deeper and learn more about it.  I immersed myself in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, the art of Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, and listened to such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.

Zora Neale Hurston, a writer, folklorist and anthropologist, quickly captivated me.  Hurston is best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  It was written in 1937, when African American women novelists were few and far between, and African American female heroines, exceedingly rare.

The novel chronicles the life of Janie Crawford and her ongoing search for identity, from youth to middle age, and through three difficult marriages.  Janie grew up in the early 1900's, during a time when men dominated women and a woman was supposed to know her proper place. She was brought up by her grandmother, Nanny, a former slave who wanted her to marry an older man and have the security and protection in life that she never had.  After many trials and tribulations, Janie becomes determined to chart her own course and control her destiny.  She is transformed from a voiceless girl to a woman who knows her own worth. 

As Janie tells her friend Phoeby, "There is two things everybody got to find out for theirselves. They got to find out about love and they got to find out about living.” 

                                     ― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Mary Poppins, An Unlikely Hero!

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As soon as I read Mary Poppins, written by P. L. Travers, life suddenly became rich with magical possibilities.  It's a story about the unbelievable escapades of a stern nanny and her charges, Jane and Michael Banks.  From the very moment Mary Poppins was blown by the east wind onto the steps of the Banks family's house, I was along for the ride!

Mary Poppins was a mystery to me.  She certainly was far from perfect.  And really, why should she be?  Clearly the people around me didn't seem so.  Mary was extremely opinionated, unpredictable and very strict.  In fact, she was more than a little scary - nothing like my beloved, warm and fuzzy kindergarten teacher, Ms. Splaine!

So what was it about Mary Poppins that generations of children and adults found so endearing?  In spite of all her imperfections, nothing was impossible for Ms. Poppins - the sky was the limit!  Underneath her very proper demeanor - complete with upturned nose and black umbrella that enabled her to sail over land and sea - Mary made the improbable, probable, and the real, magical.  Leading the way with Jane and Michael in tow, she opened the door to incredible and sometimes downright dangerous adventures.

And isn't it a necessary life skill to be able to discover your own power and put it into action?  Mary Poppins certainly did that, and showed others how to do the same.  That's one of my qualifications for a hero!

Joyce Carol Oates and the Incredible Gift of Alice in Wonderland.


“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.” 
                                                              - Lewis Carrol                                                                                                     Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland, Illustration by John Tenniel

Alice in Wonderland, Illustration by John Tenniel

While listening to Morning Edition on National Public Radio, I came upon a fascinating interview with author, Joyce Carol Oates.  She was discussing her latest book, The Lost Landscape, a collection of short stories about her early childhood experiences that shaped her life and work. 

Oates credits her grandmother, Blanche, with instilling in her an early love for reading and writing.  She gave her precious treasures - books!  One in particular, Alice in Wonderland, made a huge impact on her life, stirring a yearning in her to become a writer.  Alice was her hero. 

Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, describes Alice as:   

"Loving...gentle as a fawn... trustful, ready to accept the wildest impossibilities with all that utter trust that only dreamers know; and lastly, curious... with the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood...”

I admire Alice for all of these qualities as well, and especially for her resilience and love of adventure.  And I'm inspired by Joyce Carol Oates' devotion to perfecting her art and persistence in fulfilling her dream of becoming the writer that she is today. The women in my paintings are 'Alices in Wonderland', so to speak.  For Alice, nothing is impossible!

Awakening Curiosity and Suspense: Delving Deeper into the Art of Mystery.

What attracted me to Nancy Drew, the young fictitious female detective in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, besides the fact that we share the same name? Well, she's smart, courageous, thoughtful, independent and very determined to solve the mystery at hand.  But most of all I was drawn to solving the intriguing mysteries that fascinated her curious and inquiring mind.  From the Mystery of the Old Clock to The Secret in the Old Attic, I read every book in the series that I could get my hands on! 

Looking back, I'm sure that my early love for mystery stories led to mystery being such an important element in my own art.  I want my paintings to awaken curiosity and suspense, taking viewers on a journey over the hill and around the bend, along a road with many paths, twists and surprises.  I leave many clues along the way -  signs and symbols that encourage them to dig deeper, creating their own endings to my painted stories.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science."                                                                                                                    - Albert Einstein

Once Upon A Time...The Whimsical and Enchanted Stories of Marcia Brown

One of my favorite children's book writers and illustrators, Marcia Brown, passed away recently at the age of 96.  A woman who brought her incredible imagination to life through storytelling.

I remember delighting in Brown's stories and illustrations with my children on our visits to the local library years ago.  So many wonderful books full of magic, fantasy and drama.  These are elements that I'm always trying to incorporate into my own work.  Powerful tools for storytelling!  Turning the pages of her books, you can see Brown's love for folklore and classic tales rendered in her signature woodcut prints, gouache, and pen and ink. 

During her life Brown won many accolades for her work.  She received the Caldecott Medal for three of her books, Cinderella or the Little Glass SlipperOnce a Mouse, and ShadowThis award is the American Library Association's highest honor for excellence in children's book illustration.  In 1992 she received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement.

Marcia Brown leaves an incredible legacy, including over thirty books, for generations of children and adults to laugh and exclaim over and enjoy. 

Stop and Smell the Roses! Inspiring Verses of Love and Longing from Ancient Women Writers

The words of ancient women offer pearls of wisdom and inspiration if we are willing to stop from the busyness of life, smell the roses, and just listen for a moment.

The exquisite beauty and timeless messages these writers share with us have long been a source of inspiration for my work.  It fascinates me how they express our common hopes and desires as if they were living among us today.  One forgets when or where they lived or what culture they came from.

 Teresa of Avila writes, "We bloomed in Spring.  Our bodies are the leaves of God." Such a powerful vision!  I see a woman dancing, formed by branches, twigs, leaves and seeds.  A seed that can become a painting!  Avila, a Christian mystic, was expressing her longing for unity with God and all of creation. 

And so I've begun a series of  paintings inspired by several of these writers, many from different faith traditions.  I want to spread the word and share the messages of these kindred spirits.  Here are some details of my works in progress!  

A Kenyan Woman's Legacy: 51 Million Trees Sow Seeds of Change

"When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves".  

                                                                                      - David Orr  

My favorite time of the year!  Spring is in full swing and we're surrounded by growing seeds, sprouting plants and blossoming trees.  And they seem to constantly find their way into my work.

                            Nancy Hannans

                            Nancy Hannans

Women have always had an intimate connection to nature and so many around the world have made it their life's mission to preserve and care  for it.

In the late 1970's, women living in rural areas in Kenya saw the devastating effects of deforestation.  Their streams were drying up and their food and fuel sources were dwindling. Wangari Maathai, an environmentalist and professor at the University of Nairobi,  who also grew up in rural Kenya, wanted to help.  She suggested that they plant trees to secure food, water, fuel and medicine and improve their livelihoods. 

Under Maathai's leadership, their tree-planting grew and evolved into the Greenbelt Movement, dedicated to better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement.  Since then, more than 51 million trees have been planted.  Maathai was the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace".

To learn more about Wangari Maathai and her work, check out this wonderful documentary, TAKING ROOT.

Pioneering Ballerinas Soaring Over Mountains and Valleys

Twirling, flying and soaring over mountains and valleys.  Dancers - they're in so many of my paintings! 

                   Sky Dance

                   Sky Dance

Dancers are always overcoming obstacles as they strive for perfection.  Two great ballerinas especially come to mind, Native American Maria Tallchief and African American Misty Copeland.  When they took their first steps at the barre, little did they know how profoundly they would change people's perceptions of who a ballerina is, where she comes from, and what she looks like.

Maria Tallchief was one of America’s leading ballerinas from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. She became the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet in 1947, and was the first American dancer invited to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet and to dance in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.  Along with her sister, Tallchief later went on to found the Chicago City Ballet.

Misty Copeland is the first African American ballet soloist in two decades with the American Ballet Theatre. Recently she danced the lead in Swan Lake with The Washington Ballet and has also performed with the musician, Prince.  Copeland's new book, Life in Motion, An Unlikely Ballerina, chronicles her struggles and triumphs to achieve her goals.  I highly recommend it!

Herbie Hancock and the Transformative Power of the Arts for Peace

I remember when Maiden Voyage, by legendary jazz musician and composer, Herbie Hancock, made it's debut.  Listening to it's lyrical and tranquil melodies, I felt that I was being carried away on a mysterious journey. 

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Hancock's life has been quite a journey as well. In addition to being a renowned pianist and composer, he is a humanitarian and believes that the arts have the ability to create change and can be instrumental in helping bring the world together to establish peace and develop peacemakers.

"All of the arts are a wonderful vehicle for being able to promote the best of what humanity has to offer".     - Herbie Hancock

In 2011 UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova named Herbie Hancock a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Intercultural Dialogue for his dedication to promoting peace through dialogue, culture and the arts.  Hancock is one of the founders of the International Committee of Artists for Peace (ICAP), an organization dedicated to "creating a culture of peace and developing future peacemakers through the transformative power of the arts". ICAP accomplishes this through performances, educational programs, awards and scholarships, and exhibits at schools, events and conventions.

A practicing Buddhist, Hancock explains that there is great beauty in every human being and that each of us exists because we each have something to offer for the evolution of the universe that we alone can fulfill. 

Pioneers in Fair Trade, One Step at a Time...

 "If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time. "                               

                                                                                                      Marion Wright Edelman

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 I've always loved to shop in Ten Thousand Villages with it's incredible offerings of art and handicrafts from all over the world.  Curious to know more about its' origins, I was amazed to discover that it all began with the efforts of one woman.

In 1946 Edna Ruth Byler, a volunteer for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), visited an MCC sewing class in Puerto Rico.  She wanted to help the impoverished women that she met and returned to the U.S. with some of their handcrafted items.  Byler began selling them out of the trunk of her car and sent the proceeds back to the women. Her efforts eventually led to what would become Ten Thousand Villages, North America’s first fair trade organization.

A few years later, relief workers from the Church of the Brethren, now known as SERRV, began helping refugees rebuild their lives after World War II by selling their crafts. The first product was a cuckoo clock from Germany.  SERRV is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation.

What is fair trade?  It's an organized social movement whose goal is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions and to promote sustainability.

The efforts of Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV have paved the way for so many other organizations to help artisans and farmers support themselves and their families through fair trade.  And it all happens one step at a time.

Gifts that Keep on Giving....

Here are two organizations that are making people's lives a little better in a very unique way.

ArtLifting, based in Boston, Massachusetts, is dedicated to helping homeless, disabled and other disadvantaged people not only create, but also celebrate and sell their art.  And there is art for every taste!

Art Project, Houston's mission is to provide homeless artists with an opportunity to support themselves by creating, displaying and selling their art through art exhibits, community fairs and local art events. Founder Juanita Rasmus believes that helping the homeless to create art can empower them to make ongoing changes in their lives. 

By enriching the lives of the homeless, disabled and disadvantaged, we are empowering them to enrich the lives of others.  What a gift!

The Common Good in Action

Recently I came across an organization called Sojourners, that's been around for 40 years! It's an international group of people committed to transforming their faith into action for social justice.  They also publish Sojourners Magazine which features numerous examples of how working together to find the common good can be effective in solving problems.

                                                                                          The Gift                                                                                

                                                                                          The Gift                                                                                

Sojourner's founder, Jim Wallis, wrote a wonderful article in TIME Magazine not too long ago called"Whatever Happened to the Common Good?"in which he states:

"A commitment to the common good could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?"

The fact that Sojourners has been around for so many years means they must be doing something right.

Ingenious Youth Fashion Musical Instruments from Trash and Trinkets

In my last blog I wrote about artists who are creating incredible art from recycled materials, while providing livelihoods for impoverished families and communities.  This same spirit of creative ingenuity and resourcefulness is taking place in the world of music where instruments are being fashioned from garbage and recycled materials, enabling many more people to play and experience music.  I find this very exciting because the power of imagination and creative ingenuity to create positive change is a reoccurring  theme in my work. The town of Cateura is located on top of a mountain of garbage in Paraguay where 1,500 tons of solid waste is dumped every day.  Home to 2,500 families, many survive as recyclers, selling everything that they can find.  Favio Chavez came there to work on a recycling project and saw that the children of the recyclers had very little to do.  He began to teach them how to play music using his own instruments.  As the number of students grew and there wasn't enough instruments for everyone, one of the trash pickers, Nicolas Gomez, created additional ones from recycled materials. Some of these children are now part of the ensemble known as The Recycled Orchestra, which travels the world.

Musician Jair Rezende has transformed his community and world culture through his band, Lactomia.  These young musicians from Salvador Bahia, Brazil, use discarded cans, bottle caps and plastic to make a wide range of instruments and costumes.  Film director, David Zucker, has documented their story and incredible music in the film, Found Sounds Bahia.

Ingenious Youth Fashion Musical Instruments from Trash and Trinkets!

A Story of the Heart's Desire, Watchful Eyes and Soulful Song in the Forest of Paradise

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.  That myth is more potent than history.  That dreams are more powerful than facts.  That hope always triumphs over experience.  That laughter is the only cure for grief.  And I believe that love is stronger than death.”                                                                                                                                                                                                     - Robert Fulghum

Fairytales, myths and legends inspire my art and each one of my paintings tell a story.  So I was very excited when the opportunity arose to both write and illustrate a story for a recent art exhibition, "Postcards from...".  Curator Sharon Mason describes the show as "an intimate encounter with memories of people, places, events, and the mystical journey of the heart."  Six artists expressed this theme through the creation of a series of original postcards.   Fellow artists were Mary B. Allen, Wayne Guenther, Deborah Hoeper, Marni Maree and John Skain Mason.  The exhibit took place last month at the Verizon Gallery in the Ernst Community Center, Northern Virginia Community College.

The Golden Feather
The Golden Feather

Thinking about what my concept might be, the image of a golden feather kept coming to mind, appearing and then disappearing into the darkness.  As  I tried to understand its significance, my story began to take shape.  For me, the feather symbolizes freedom and unlimited possibility, a bridge between heaven ad earth.  After my story was complete, I realized that it had been inside of me all along, just waiting for chance to be given wings and fly.

There are so many stories that each of us has waiting to be shared with others.  The National Storytelling Network is an invaluable resource.  Its mission is to bring together and support individuals and organizations "that use the power of story in all its forms."  There are many regional associations, including the Virginia Storytelling Alliance  which promotes the art of storytelling throughout the state of Virginia.  They will be holding a Saturday Storytelling Series in September at the Workhouse Arts Centerin Lorton, VA.

A Story of the Heart's Desire, Watchful Eyes and Soulful Song in the Forest of Paradise. 

Flip-Flops, Metal Drums and Wire, Turning Trash into Artistic Treasure for Impoverished Communities.

What do flip-flops, metal drums and discarded wire have in common?  They are some of the many raw materials recycled by craft cooperatives in developing countries to make beautiful artworks.  Sales of these artistic treasures are enabling artisans to support their families and break the cycle of poverty, while helping the environment. Steel oil drums found in Haiti's landfills are the raw materials for Haitian metal art.  Artists draw patterns on the metal and then use chisels, dies and hammers to cut and shape the final design. My husband and I have several pieces hanging in our home and they are particularly inspiring to me as an artist, with their imaginative imagery, and rich symbolism.  One source for Haitian metal art is Beyond Borders & It's Cactus.   A member of the Fair Trade Federation, they promote fair living wages to producers in developing countries.

Because of the direction of ocean currents, trash from far and wide washes up on Kenya’s shores. Thousands of flip-flops can be found in the piles of debris.  Ocean Sole recycles these flip-flops and produces a variety of products, including sculptures, household goods and fashion accessories.  Julie Church founded the company after seeing children making toy boats out of the old shoes.

Made by the Zulu people of South Africa, vibrantly colored baskets crafted from telephone wire can be found at a Bridge for Africa Foundation, which provides fine contemporary crafts to the American marketTheir mission is "to provide consistent work and a living wage for the skilled artisans with whom we partner, enabling them to shape their own lives and thereby advancing hope for future generations."

Flip-Flops, Metal Drums and Wire, Turning Trash into Artistic Treasure for Impoverished Communities.

Spirituality and Faith Traditions, Banding Together to Promote Lasting Peace Through Love.

Boston is very dear to me.  I graduated from Boston University and lived and worked in many parts of the city including Copley Square, not far from where the recent bombings occurred. It is a jewel of a city with a proud history, and for me a place of wonder and discovery, with its’ many colleges, universities, museums, and diversity of faiths and cultures. I felt so many emotions when I heard the terrible news - compassion, sadness, anger, and also pride in this proud and tenacious city.  As all eyes were on Boston, we saw the transformative power of love in action through the heroic efforts of its' citizens.  They immediately ran to help and protect others, tending to their needs and forgetting about their own.  The people of Boston have reminded us of the capacity of love to overcome hatred and  evil.

"Love is the core energy that rules everything ... love is the one ingredient that holds us all together."

                                                                             John E. Fetzer

John Fetzer, a broadcasting executive and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, believed that love and forgiveness are powerful forces that can transform the human condition.  To that end, he founded the Fetzer Institute in 1962, whose mission is to "foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community".  A recent project of the Institute involved a meeting of the minds between a team of John Hopkins physicians and a Burmese relief group.  They focused on how to best provide positive care and support to build resiliency in dealing with the worst natural disaster in Burma's history.  It killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The Golden Rule is present in just about every religion of the world.  Treating others as we would like to be treated involves love, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.  It is a vital tool in fostering cross-cultural and religious understanding.  United Religions Initiative is dedicated to promoting peace and justice by engaging people in overcoming their religious and cultural differences.  One of the ways they achieve this, is through Cooperation Circles, groups of people who share a common vision: "that our religious and spiritual lives, rather than divide us, can guide us to build community and respect for one another".

Spirituality and Faith Traditions, Banding Together to Promote Lasting Peace Through Love.

Women Tilling Fertile Soil for Environmental, Agricultural and Social Justice.

"Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children".                                - Native American proverb Our intimate connection with the earth and our responsibility as its protectors and nurturers, are central themes in my work as an artist.  I express this through images of women who personify these protectors and nurturers and mother earth herself, as well as symbolism from the natural world.

Kathleen Rogers, President of  Earth Day Network, stresses the need for women to be leaders in the green economy.  She points out that women are a driving force for economic growth in their communities, make up the majority of consumers and reinvest a larger percentage of their earnings into the economy.  The organization’s Women and the Green Economy (WAGE®) campaign promotes women’s leadership in designing and advancing the green economy.

“The facts are clear: Bringing more women into the design and development of the green economy will result in a better, more sustainable, more just economy.  Let’s make sure that happens”.                                                                         -Kathleen Rogers

 A global women’s advocacy organization, the Women's Economic and Development Organization (WEDO), works to "ensure that women are empowered as decision-makers and leaders, especially in environmental and sustainable development arenas". Sustainable development has long been central to WEDO's overall vision and it works to strengthen alliances between the women’s, environmental and development movements. Program Director Cate Owren believes that everyone must come to the table in fighting climate change, which is the most comprehensive issue that the world has ever faced.

The Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI), is an environmental research, renewal and retreat center whose mission “brings together agricultural, food and environmental justice, one community at a time; one farm at a time and one person at a time and all of us together".  Led by Executive Director Karen J. Clark, WEI conducts research, collaborates with other groups on calls for policy reform, supports community-based advocacy efforts and raises public awareness of environmental and agricultural justice issues.  WEI recently received the Dream Maker Award for Organization Support & Leadership from the Ann Bancroft Foundation.

Women Tilling Fertile Soil for Environmental, Agricultural and Social Justice.