Chickadees for Liz


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Thread painting — using embroidery thread to create images — is a thing I’ve been trying the last three years. I’m starting to get the hang of it.

The chickadees are DMC cotton thread on linen fabric dyed using Derwent Inktense pencils.

To see the genius artists of this genre, check My Modern Met’s collection of examples from 2016.

A couple of other stunning eartists: Charles & Elin and Ana Teresa Barbosa.

Fun thing about a project like this is it helps you identify areas that need more learning and practice. Coordinating colors is much more difficult that I had understood. Also dyeing fabric is an art that probably takes years to master.

Buddy system wins the day


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The Eugene Marathon (annually, end of April, qualifier for the Boston Marathon) drew me and my friends Liz and Al Cratty. We did the half marathon, 13.1 miles, and we walked. Despite the fact that we live in TrackTown USA, running isn’t our thing. But lining up with some of the best runners in the world, even being at the back of the pack, was a great thrill and it’s because of the community support. Thousands of folks line the entire route, and they stick around even for those of us bringing up the rear. They have cowbells. They yell encouragement. They have posters. They don’t care if it’s drizzly raining. I loved the blond kid with the “Run, random stranger, run!” poster.

You will find our names in the results list pretty close to the bottom. We weren’t last, but we finished in just under four hours, which was better than what we had expected.

This was Liz’s first half marathon. It’s my second, but the last one I did was in 2014. We started training in January. Liz and I are pushing 70, OK? And Al passed that milestone a few years back. We are both active, but we aren’t competitive so this is a little outside the usual zone.

I write frequently on this blog about doing things outside my comfort zone, about long projects vs. short ones, and persistence. In regard to the half-marathon, Liz’s desire to participate carried us forward and the fact that we did it together with Al, was key. The buddy system is a genius tool for a months-long effort.

And on race day, the buddy system got multiplied thousands of times over by all the random strangers yelling encouragement along the way. “You got this!” “You’re doing it!” “Finish strong!”

We got it. We did it. We finished strong. Bragging rights acquired.

Secret tools


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OK, I have a bone (thread?) to pick with all the wonderful women who taught me sewing over the years. Thank you, of course, grandmothers, mother, aunts, mothers of best friends, etc. Because of you I have been making things, some of my own design, all these years.

But why did you introduce me to the indispensable seam ripper (far left in the picture) without telling me how much I would need tweezers alongside the seam ripper.

We all make mistakes at the sewing machine and the ripping tool quickly cuts through long rows of stitches and allows us to fix mistakes. But picking out the little threads left behind once the ripper has done its job? That’s tedium beyond belief. Until you have tweezers. I saw the pair I am using at the checkout counter in a fabric store a couple of years ago. It was one of those impulse buys. I didn’t know why it was there, but it looked cool and it was a fabric store. There must be some secret purpose for this little tool. The first time I had to rip something out after the tweezers hit my sewing basket, I immediately knew what to do next.

My advice to teachers of young sewists. Tell them about seam rippers, of course. But don’t forget the tweezers.

Midwives to a story



Putting your soul under somebody else’s microscope isn’t easy. But that’s what writers do when they join a writing group, a gang of fellow authors who hear or read the first draft as it comes in bits and pieces fresh from the fingertips of the author. First audience, cheerleader, critic and deadline monitor, writers show up for each other every week to perform all these functions.

A writing group on its best behavior balances a delight in the first draft with an ability to help tease out its flaws, helping the writer get to his or her polished final draft.

I got lucky in the realm of writing groups. The generous and talented author Liz Engstrom took me under her wing many years ago. We’ve been in and out of writing groups together for a long time.

But the last couple of years our little group — five then four then three as covid and other changes peeled folks away — became something special. Thoughtful, kind, funny, and, yes, critical but only in the service of the story.

This month we get to celebrate our fellow writing group member, author Paul Neville, whose most excellent novel “The Garbage Brothers” is now published, with positive reviews coming in and bookstore events planned.

I loved this story as it came to us, chapter by chapter. I loved getting to experience it in small bites. And I loved witnessing its transition from fine idea to powerful narrative.

I highly recommend writers groups because I’ve seen the benefit. Liz has a great guide on setting up a writers group, a format that we used for a long time, and still, mostly, adhere to. If you’re lucky you’ll find fellow authors as knowledgeable as Liz and as intuitive as Paul.

Oh, and do read Paul’s book. I highly recommend it, too.

Congratulations Mr. Neville. I loved watching this book be born.

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.