Living in art



This is a clip from a Stephanie Barrow painting, and if you want a feast for the eyes, visit her website.

I confess I am biased, but I can’t help loving her art. A friend, I have watched her work evolve over the decades we have known each other.

If I were to create a video of Stephanie, everywhere she walked rainbow colors would flare out and away from her, and gardens, too, curling tendrily vines, bright flowers, verdant ferns emerging, rising wherever she wanders.

Wherever she lives, the space becomes a 3-dimensional painting. And she doesn’t keep it to herself. She shares with others. Her motto: art and gardens everywhere.

If you are a little blue, if you need a bit of brightener in the winter, visit Stephanie virtually. And if you want to know more about her, the blog is a fine and honest expression. I love her wisdom about the value of a daily practice.

Renaissance woman


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My good friend Liz Engstrom has a way with words. An author, an educator, she also has a way with yarn. She made me this felt bowl last year in what seemed like no time at all, and I keep hats, gloves, neck gator, etc. in it close to the front door. Every time I see it, I both smile and marvel.

Some people seem to come pre-loaded with talent. But even as I write this, I know that Liz is all about the work. She puts in the effort at whatever she does. And because she seems to have a propensity for organization, many many things get accomplished. Her garden, for example. Beautiful, lush, productive.

She’s written multiple novels, mostly in the horror genre. If you want to lay awake at night twitching at every odd house-settling sound, read Black Ambrosia. One of her novels Candyland, was made into a movie so she also has a listing on IMDB.

She’s taught many writing courses in many venues over the course of her career and threads that tricky needle of providing useful feedback while not dimming the hopes and aspirations of neophyte writers.

You could also consider Liz an itinerant minister, not connected with a specific faith tradition but deeply spiritual. Her master’s degree in applied theology and certificate in pastoral care from Marylhurst University inform her approach to the day. Love and mercy. So, yes, a complicated soul. Great laugh, generous heart. I’m honored to call her my friend.

Why am I writing about her today? It’s my new year commitment to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary people in my life.

In the presence of the original


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Sculptor Peter Helzer‘s Parade of Animals at the state capitol in Salem surprised and pleased me when we walked by on a visit with family last month. I had seen pictures but hadn’t been in its presence.

Anyone who’s ever been confronted with an original famous work of art after years of seeing reproductions will know this feeling. Vincent van Gogh’s Irises have been reproduced endlessly on card stock and even silk scarves and dish towels, but to be in the presence of the actual painting itself at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is to realize you haven’t really understood the vibrant beauty of the thing before.

And this seems even more true of sculpture, which offers the fine three-dimensional experience seeing it from all sides. Better still, outside rather than roped off in a museum you can touch the cool metal and feel the fine shapes.

I loved the little details, specifically the glasses on the horn (perhaps a French horn?). Loved seeing the alligator, its eyes cast upwards where a crow (raven?) sits on its head playing a tiny violin. You catch a glimpse only in a picture. You feel the piece in its presence.

Elements of design


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Hand embroiderers call this thread painting. I’ve been playing around with it for a couple of years. While I’ve done some experimenting with my own designs, there are some amazing embroiderers out there who sell designs, even kits including fabric and thread. I’ve done a few of those and quite enjoyed them, but there’s a kind of paint-by-numbers feeling to them, so this year I’ll play with my own designs. This is my first project of 2023 (begun in December). I started by looking at many photos of chickadees and a particular image of the bird, body facing the camera but head turned, caught my eye.

Here’s what I learned doing this project:

  • There’s a reason the professional artists use as many as 30 or 40 colors even for something simple like this. I started this project with just 10 colors and had to go back and add in more tans and grays.
  • Adding in colors after the piece is finished makes the surface lumpy. The colors need to be worked in during the work because the threads are snugged so close together.
  • Good lighting is essential. The light I used made it hard to see my guide marks and the thread direction suffered.
  • Drawing on fabric has some challenges. I’ve tried different pencils and pens with ink that washes out and am still trying to find a good balance between a fine line and a temporary one.
  • Pencil graphite smudges the white thread, but it does wash out.
  • Organizing thread during the project is essential.
  • Mary Corbet’s web site is a life saver. I’ve become a patreon, because she deserves support.
  • Long and short stitching is deceptive. You watch a few how-to videos or step-by-step instructions and you think easy-peasy. But no.

I thought this would be a one-and-done and I’d move on to a different project. But this turned out to be a study. I’ll do another chickadee and incorporate what I learned.

Let the real learning begin


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Studying for months: Done

Taking practice tests: Done

Showing up for an actual test: Done

Getting a 94% passing grade: Done

Now I have an FCC-issued technician level license and a call sign: KK7JQN.

Things people do with their ham radios: volunteer on emergency neighborhood response teams, provide communications at long-distance running events. Lots of other things get done of course, as the ARRL, the national amateur association notes.

This month, two days after passing the license test and two days before getting my license, I helped out as a scribe at our neighborhood’s monthly communications practice session. It’s a couple of hours of folks ensuring their gear is working and that they can be heard by each other. I won’t say it was the most fun two hours I’ve ever spent. Three of us set up radio and antennas at a high point in the neighborhood under a tent on a rainy chilly night and proceeded to do check-ins with emergency volunteers. By the time we were done, we were cold. By the time we had loaded out afterward, we were soaked. But we added one more layer of radio experience and practice to a group of folk who are prepared to be helpful should a massive disruption, like a subduction zone earthquake or a power outage hit our region.

More fun last summer was supporting the runners at the Waldo 100K Ultramarathon. Of course, back then, I had just begun my studies, and I didn’t really know what I was doing aside from noting runner times at the aid station we supported about half-way into the grueling race. But I got to see how ham operations work, how moving an antenna just a few feet can make a big difference, how seriously hams take transmitting information exactly as they receive it, and how careful those receiving the information are in confirming what they hear.

When I started down this road, I was only doing it because my wonderful partner asked me to. Now I’m excited to begin being a participant in this community.

What’s next? Bring on the actual radio gear.

Keep calm and study on


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Eleven days out from taking the Amateur radio technician license test, the anxiety begins to set in. I’m fairly confident that I haven’t worked this hard to acquire knowledge outside of my comfort zone since college.

Consistent daily review over the past three months of the various categories of information provided in the National Association for Amateur Radio’s manual has given me some small measure of understanding, helpfully supplemented by my sweetie, already a licensed amateur, who also happens to be an electrical engineer.

In my effort to calm the growing nerves I went looking for online guidance about effective study habits to help me over the finish line and I discovered that I’ve been doing many of them all along. Here’s the list:

  • Quiet place, consistent time for study. First thing in the morning, coffee in hand, I sit down with the study guide.
  • Have a goal: I’m studying to pass a 35-question test that requires a passing score of 26 correct answers. The manual lists all of the possible test questions. And the ARRL web site offers practice tests, you can take repeatedly, which I do.
  • Take written notes. When I miss questions on the practice test, I write them down in longhand and then search out the relevant section of the manual for review. Research has shown that writing things down is a good way to help embed concepts in the brain.
  • Stepping away periodically. I’ve been known to push a little too hard. But you can’t push learning, especially in areas well outside your knowledge base. Things come over time. I knew I couldn’t cram at the last minute on this effort. And I haven’t.

My curious mother


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It’s hard to guess which of us was more surprised. In our most recent book group, Irene Palmer asked me if I had read “House Made of Dawn” by N. Scott Momaday. Happens I had, thanks to a literature professor committed to diversity in the literary canon she taught.

But hold on there, Irene. How did you happen on this literary treasure, published back in 1969 that won a Pulitzer Prize and established Momaday on the literary scene. A Kiowa who grew up in New Mexico among the Pueblo and Navajo, Momaday is credited with nudging Native American literature into the mainstream.

Irene discovered Momaday, when he was mentioned in a Ken Burns documentary on World War II. It turns out that Momaday, among many awards, received the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize in 2019, which honors an individual whose body of work has advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit. That’s Irene, she takes notes and searches things out.

I haven’t read Momaday since my college days, but I kept my paperback of “House Made of Dawn” among the books I couldn’t part with (Terry Tempest Williams, Willa Cather, John Nichols, Wallace Stegner, Tony Morrison, Edward Abbey…). But unlike the books from those other authors, I didn’t go back and reread House Made of Dawn.

Until now.

Thanks to my mother whose curiosity — always far-ranging — has lately pulled her into the realm of fiction. Previously, she has preferred nonfiction — biographies, history, philosophy, religion.

What we are remarking on, as we read Momaday, is the poetic cadence of his story-telling. It should be no surprise that this well-regarded author has several volumes of poetry. I expect we’ll go there next. Unless my curious mother finds some other path to wander.

Not in my wheelhouse, yet


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Amateur radio, AKA ham radio, never caught my interest. People fussing with complicated gadgets, raising odd antennas on the roof — someone in Antarctica talking to someone in Alaska — I mean, get a cell phone for heck’s sake.

It might as well be magic for all I understood it.

But I have this amazing partner, Craig Cherry, who likes tinkering with gadgets and who is involved in our neighborhood’s emergency preparedness group. Ham radio, it turns out, is integral to that effort. Last winter he suggested that I get my ham radio license, a process that requires some study and taking a test to show you know your amperes from your ohms and your farads from your henrys.

I dismissed the idea right out of the gate. I couldn’t even tell the difference between watts and volts. And up until a few months ago, I did not care. When Craig asked a second and then a third time, I saw that it was important to him, and since he has been known to visit Canada in the freaking winter with me just because I ask, well, quid pro quo. Also: We live on a river held back by 13 aging earthen dams, the next subduction zone earthquake and accompanying tsunami are overdue, and wildfires have ramped up in recent years. Semper paratus as the Coast Guard says.

So I said, OK.

Then I began reading the study guide. It kicked me back to junior high school days when I was wrapping my head around algebra, the first stumbling block being that letters had, through some strange metaphysical process, become stand-ins for numbers. Frankly, it pissed me off. Learning that doesn’t emerge from one’s own native curiosity and that requires time and effort to absorb, that’s hard.

Learning about electricity, radio frequencies, bandwidths, transmitting, receiving, amateur radio etiquette, FCC regulations, has brought the adolescent me back in spades. I get cranky. I storm around and yell. Then Craig explains a thing. Then I settle down and read some more and another little piece of knowledge embeds in my brain.

One slow step at a time, I am making progress. I do know the difference between current, volts and watts. I do know that farads are a unit of measure of capacitance and that henrys are a unit of measure of inductance and that capacitors and inductors store energy differently. I know enough to pass practice tests about half the time. That is 100 percent more than I knew last April.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke noted once that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Perhaps I will end the year viewing radio as technology, something in my wheelhouse.