Dear Betty Boop, Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” ~ Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni

I’ve heard the quote many times before but never knew who to credit – after much Googling, I’m still not sure if I have the right source, so we’ll call it good enough.
Regardless of whether or not I got the credit for the quote correct (which I hope I did), it’s a true statement and one that I’ve personally experienced, or maybe finally recognized, over the last decade.

It started with my first drawing class in Yardley, Pa.

When I say that I was nearly hyperventilating and on the verge of abandoning the class for the refuge of my car, I’m not exaggerating. The only thing that moved me forward was another student who caught up to me and cheerily said, “You must be here for the drawing class, I can’t wait! Let’s head in together.”

Gulp! This left me with little choice but to face my fears and perch myself on a stool in front of an intimidating blank canvas amongst people who knew each other but were strangers to me.

The subject for the first lesson was a sunflower, a large one from my perspective. I sat on my stool, overwhelmed, and a bit paralyzed. The sunflower we were supposed to draw looked impossibly intricate.

It didn’t help matters that the women around me already had petals flying out of their pencils onto the paper, and I was so hung up on how to draw a perfect circle that I couldn’t move on.

Anne, the instructor, walked up behind me, put her hand on the small of my back, and said, “Breathe, Beth, you’re in the right place. I know you are.”

As it turns out, I was. It took me weeks – but I eventually finished the sunflower.

029 final sunflower_white shading
I took several classes with Anne through the Artists of Yardley. In all that time I finished every drawing we started, but only one during the class. It was a pine cone, and the medium is charcoal.

pine cone_04_19_12
While I lived in Pennsylvania, I also had the privilege and opportunity to take drawing lessons from an accomplished artist at the Princeton Arts Council. I lived just across the river from New Jersey, so it was more than convenient.

I still remember the Thanksgiving in St. Louis when I decided to sign up for one of Konstantin’s classes. The class cost more than any class I had attended to date, which was part of what caused me to take pause. The more significant hesitation had to do with his profile. There was no doubt in my mind that he was a no-nonsense professional artist. I bit the bullet and hit submit.

He didn’t disappoint, he exceeded my expectations and made me think about art ways that had never occurred to me. I’ll always remember my first class with him.

He asked the class, “What is one of the most important things to know as an artist, as you sit down to create? Here’s a clue, if you took piano lessons and you had a good teacher, you learned this early on.”

There was silence as the students looked at each other and tried to come up with the right answer.

Unsure, but uncomfortable by the silence, I raised my hand and offered with some hesitation, “Proper fingering to form a chord or to play a scale?”

His somewhat clipped and heavily accented response was, “Good guess, but no. They teach you how to position yourself in front of the instrument and place your fingers properly on the keys so you can easily move from note to note. It’s no different with art, and that’s where we’re going to start.”

That’s when I first learned how to properly set up an easel and align myself with the subject when working from something real, not imagined for inspiration. I was hooked on his teaching style from the beginning.

He taught me to draw while he taught others to paint. His focus was on helping me learn and understand the fundamental elements – and also to loosen up. His painting classes were always full, but the drawing classes, for whatever reason – not so much.

I hadn’t thought about it before now, but I realize now he went out of his way to offer me a venue in which to learn. It had to be tough to have patience with a student who is afraid to draw a circle and at the same time, coach a student with years of experience. He did so with aplomb.

I laugh with fondness when I recall him walking up behind me when I was clearly frozen in a state of perfectionism. He’d say to me, “Betty Boop, you’re creatively constipated again. Loosen up.”

He was a teacher one either loved or not. For whatever reason Betty Boop was and still is his nickname for me, I sort of love it!

Fast forward a few years, and two cross country moves that landed me inexplicably in Upstate NY, and enter stage left, my piano teacher. It wasn’t easy to find him, and when I moved here, I had every intention of continuing my exploration of visual art and had no plan to rediscover music.

As life often happens, things unfold differently than we imagine they will.

Having my piano tuned for the first time in over a decade triggered an unexpected flurry of Google searches for a piano teacher. I found one that was willing to teach an adult was within a reasonable driving distance and sounded like he had a fun approach to teaching. I’ve been taking lessons now for a little over seven months, and all I can say is “wow.” It’s been amazing and continues to be so – I’m now thinking about music in a whole different way.

I’ve kept in touch with Konstantin over the years, and on a whim, I sent him an email about a week ago.

Subject line: Greetings from Betty Boop

Hello Konstantin,

It’s been a very long time since I’ve touched base with you. Thought I’d send you a hello.

I hope all things are well in your world. Things are good, but a bit strange in my world – as per usual. 🙂

I may have mentioned that I moved to Syracuse, NY – it’s been quite a change in many, many ways. It’s hard to believe I’ve lived here for almost a year…

I won’t bore you with aspects of my professional life – let’s just leave it at, I made the right decision to move to Omaha and from there to NY. But this will most certainly not be my last move. I’m starting to feel like a nomad. LOL

Creatively speaking, my move here has caused a gap when it comes to writing and visual art. In Omaha, I was on fire with experimenting with visual art. In Pennsylvania, I was on fire with writing and exploring visual art.

Here, those two aspects have been lacking. However, I found the most fantastic piano teacher, and he’s helping me learn to play the piano in ways I never dreamed of. I doubt I ever shared this, but I took piano lessons from third grade through twelfth and for a few years again as an adult in the early 2000’s. Before I started my crazy cross-country moving trek. I was actually reasonably accomplished in classical music.

My current lessons are stretching me in so many ways, it’s almost impossible to describe – but it’s incredible.

I did participate in #inktober, so, in a small way, I have started to revisit visual art expression. My new place just doesn’t have a space that’s conducive to doing much more than small scale drawings – ink, pencil, and small canvases are currently my options.

Visual art teachers here are non-existent. I genuinely miss the Princeton Arts Council and the classes I was able to take there. In particular, I miss learning from you.


Just thought I’d say hidy ho and send greetings from Betty Boop to you.

A few nights later, I sent my piano teacher an email, I wanted to try and express how his teachings are changing my perspective about music.

Subject line: More than Music Lessons

Some thoughts are in my heart and mind that I wanted to share.

Until meeting you, I didn’t understand or appreciate the role of an accompanist.

I had no idea what to expect at my first lesson with you, but I knew I didn’t want to regroup on learning classical. It served me well, but for me, it was time to have fun with music.

You immediately seemed to get it.

Although, at first, to be honest, I sort of thought you were a bit bonkers for teaching me to play songs from music with a single note melody line- aka fake music. But, I quickly got it, loved it, and felt challenged.

Then, you started taking me on the path of learning how to chord on the piano in a way that would support a vocalist and/or other musicians.

I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do this.

But you challenge me, teach me and encourage me in a great way, and I am loving the progress I’ve made. It’s beginning to click.

You’ve turned music on its head for me. That’s a good thing.

Now, every time I listen to a song, I gain a new appreciation for the accompanist, who helps bring a song to life.

I also feel like I’m making good progress in my own way.

I came across this tonight and wanted to share it. (You’ve got a friend, link was inserted here – I’ll put it at the end of my post. 🙂 )

Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and in d for me, this brought home the music lessons I’m learning from you.

The most amazing and extraordinary thing happened, on the same day – they both responded.

There were many words of wisdom, support and encouragement in both replies. It truly made my heart smile.

I also laughed out loud at Konstantin’s quirky, humorous comment. For a bit of context, refer back to my message, in which I mentioned to him that my piano lessons are stretching me.

In true Konstatin humor, he replied, “please, be very careful with the stretching exercises (of the direct, not figurative variety), while keeping in mind the grave price Robert Schumann paid. After all, you do need your hands and fingers for drawing and painting, as well. No need to sacrifice yourself to one muse only! 🙂”

I had to Google what happened to Robert Shuman, suffice it to say, he damaged his hands in an attempt to stretch and strengthen his fingers – which of course, is something Konstantin would know!

I took comfort in both messages, which coincidentally – or not, sent two important lessons. Konstantin summed it up this way, “Take full advantage of whatever Life is offering you at THIS moment -lemons or piano lessons, and make full use of it.”

Mark, my piano teacher, offered this thought among many others, “So the journey is long but so FUN!”

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…

Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

As promised, here’s the link.
Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and for me, this brings home the music lessons I’m learning right now.

Beach Hats and Butterflies

monotype print - butterfly

Sometimes I try too hard to come up with the words to express what I feel.  I prefer it when the thoughts and emotions just flow out of my fingers but I guess  there are times when they don’t.

I think part of it is that I have a hard time saying goodbye to things and when I feel like it’s a goodbye it makes me want to linger in the moment and hold the experience close to my heart.

When I was a little girl, the sobbing started the moment I crawled out of my grandmother’s arms and into the back of the wood-sided Ford LTD station wagon, and lasted until I ran out of tears (and I had at least an hour’s worth of tears).  I really don’t know how my parents managed to retain their sanity mile after mile.

I didn’t cry when I drove home from my print making workshop, but I did feel sad about such a wonderful session coming to an end.  I had the privilege of spending three consecutive Mondays with four other unique and daring artists; three other students and our instructor Kathy.

Each member of the class couldn’t have been more different.  Ann is tiny in physical stature, is an amazing water color painter, and works in the most amazing and delightful detail imaginable.  I think she took the work in an unexpected direction.

Sarah is a lovely young college graduate who is finding her way into the post graduate world.  She made me both lonesome and happy to experience the class with someone who reminded me of my daughter Katie.  She has a great eye and a wonderful approach for creating each piece.  My favorite was a steaming coffee cup in the middle of a table.  It was the kind of image that makes you wonder why someone would leave their hot coffee behind.

Grace introduced herself by saying, “I’m not an artist.  I just enjoy learning about art and making things.”

I think that is the definition of an artist.  An artist isn’t someone who makes a living selling their work; it’s a person who loves to create and appreciates the beauty in the world.  I really think artists are people who see the world just a little differently and find a way to express it.

Grace made some of the most interesting work in the class.  My favorite was the piece she created when Kathy challenged us to complete a print in thirty minutes or less.  I never would have thought to step outside and pick a few leaves to use as the shapes and impressions, but Grace did – and it was amazing.

I had a couple of other ideas, but got lost in the land of butterflies and beach hats.  Who knew that the same form could take on so many different shapes?

Starting with a hat; I rolled out, marked and printed the yellow and red layers during the first class.

Monotype print - hat after yello and red layers of ink

As instructed, I returned to the second session with the print and ready to finish it with a layer of blue.  I went to the ink station without hesitation and rolled a layer of release agent and a coat of deep blue onto my printing plate made of plexiglass.

Whala!  I made a butterfly – oops!

Monotype print making butterfly - greeen, blue and yellow

In my confidence and haste I picked up the wrong plate and started the print making process from the wrong direction.  It’s best to go from light to dark colors not the other way around.  I couldn’t help but laugh at my mistake and with everyone’s encouragement made the best of it.

After the blue butterfly mistake, I made sure to take the plate for the hat to the ink station.

mono-type Print hat 1

Next up was a butterfly done with the colors laid down in the right order.  I have a thing for butterflies and this one is gorgeous.

monotype print butterfly 1

There was just enough time for me to experiment a bit.  I was so intrigued with how the butterfly that started out as a mistake turned out that I thought I’d see what would happen with the hat.

monotype print -  beach hat in blue

After the first class I was questioning myself and whether or not what I’d done could be considered “art,” given the fact that the drawings were traced and not original.

A timely phone call and a long conversation with Kathy convinced me that what I’d created was original, artful, and maybe even painterly.

My answer to the 30-minute challenge at the beginning of the third session was yet another beach hat.  The words wild and psychedelic come to mind.  I’m wondering what it would look like if I turned the lava lamp on.

monotype print - beach hat

Last but not least, I took a thoughtful approach for my final print.

monotype print - butterfly

Beach hats and butterflies – sunshine and summer.  I wonder what’s next.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I like to joke with my friend Kathy and say that I’m her “roadie.”  After she introduced me to the art of making paper I’ve enjoyed two sessions of creating hand made paper, a workshop on the craft of making books, and as of last night, it now includes Monotype print making.

I registered for her next workshop at the Princeton Arts Council. Yesterday was the first session and it’s sure to keep me busy and out of trouble for the next two Monday nights.

I had serious challenges wrapping my head around Kathy’s instruction to bring along black and white  images that would work to use in the process. As always she was super patient and explained that we were going to trace the shape on an object onto a piece of clear plexiglass and that the shape should be large and simple.

I brought along more pictures than I needed to. I would have loved to have tackled the image of a butterfly resting on a flower, but I suspected that it wouldn’t be the best choice for a beginner.  The picture is from an unexpected treat and a visit to a zoo in North Carolina – I took more pictures of butterflies and flowers than of the animals (which will always me laugh).

I couldn’t resist sharing the color version.

I cropped it and turned it into a black and white close up of the butterfly.  The contrast is exaggerated to bring out the details.

In addition to the butterfly, I also brought a picture of a pair of running shoes, which I plan to draw but have yet to tackle.

And last but not least I included a couple of versions of one of my favorite pictures from this summer.  There’s something fun about the beach hat perched on a wine glass and the reading glasses, smart phone, and kindle on the table.

We reviewed the images and mutually agreed that a close up of the hat was the best choice for my first attempt at print making.

The first step is to prepare the piece of plexiglass, which starts with peeling off the plastic covering (on both sides) and after smoothing out the rough edges the fun begins.  The fun part is tracing the shape onto the plexiglass with a Sharpie.

Kathy had us include a clue that would help us remember which side we were working on.  The words “Ink” and “Draw” were the guidelines for which side to put the ink on.

The next step in making the print is to coat the plate with a layer of release agent and then add the ink.  The ink is applied with rollers and the goal is to get it spread evenly across the surface.

Then it’s time to play!  The objective is to “artfully” remove ink and reveal the object.  We had access to use everything from bubble wrap to Q-Tips as well as paint brushes and bamboo sticks,which were all tools to remove the ink.  I used a combination of things, but my favorite was creating a feathery movement with some tin fine tooth combs.

I had no idea what to expect when I flipped the plate, ink side down, onto the paper.  Kathy helped make sure that I applied the right amount of pressure with a giant rolling pin.  She had me press and hold down the papers edge while she lifted the corner to expose a beautiful abstract yellow hat.

After cleaning off the yellow, it was back to the ink station, another layer of release agent, and a coat of red ink.  I found myself being bolder with shapes and movements in the ink.

It was fun to watch everyone go through the same process doubt and wondering what the print would look like to big smiles and a feeling of satisfaction.

Next week we’ll add the final layer of ink and I’ll take pictures with my “real” camera, not my smart phone. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Never in a Million Years

the beginning of the process

A few weeks ago my friend Kathy asked if I could help her demonstrate the art of making paper for the Princeton Arts Council.  I had no idea what to expect and didn’t even think to ask.  She needed the help, I was available – the “what” I’d be doing didn’t really matter, plus I knew it involved making paper so I figured there couldn’t be a down side.

We met at Kathy’s house and I followed her to Princeton.  My biggest fear was that I’d have to parallel park on a narrow neighborhood street.  Much to my chagrin I don’t know how to parallel park.  I must have at one point in time because I have a driver’s license, but to this day I’ll walk a mile or more before attempting to maneuver my car between two others.

I found a spot on Lytle Street and took a picture of the street sign just in case the street names escaped me later in the day.

Witherspoon St and Lytle St - Princeton, New Jersey

I wandered around with my camera while Kathy and a couple of volunteers set up the tent.  While snapping pictures, the mission became clear.  Kathy had invited me to help her at the Princeton Arts Council Fall Open House.

Princeton Arts Council fall open house_Paul Rebeson Center for the Arts_

Oscar, a volunteer and incredibly nice guy, helped me hang samples of hand made paper along the tent for show and tell.  I was as excited and nervous as a first grader to put my artwork on display for everyone to see.

Before I knew it we were both surrounded by people and I was chattering about how to make paper like I’d been doing it all my life.  It was great fun to encourage people to touch the raw material and watch their eyes light up when they saw the end result.

There were mixed reactions to the pulp in it’s first stage, it’s wet and feels sort of mushy but strong.  Mostly people wondered how the the stringy stuff in the bucket would become a piece of paper.

the beginning of the process

The pulp is soft and feathery after it’s suspended in the water and it really is a lot like panning for gold to pick up the tiny wet fibers and drain off the excess water.

It’s fun to add pressed petals or leaves for a special touch.

The best part of the day was seeing the eyes of both kids and adults light up when they watched the piece of paper magically release from the screen.

At the end of each demo, I shared completed pieces of paper so people could feel how strong the paper is even though it has the texture of parchment.  I was embarrassed but delighted at how people raved it.   I felt like some sort of celebrity when a few people asked if they could take pictures of my drawings and hand made paper.  It’s three days later and the memory still makes me smile, it’s one that always will.

While I was busy making paper, Kathy was equally if not busier demonstrating mono print making. (that’s my next class – can’t wait!)

Kathy is an amazing artist and beautiful teacher.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.  Both kids and adults were drawn to her table like magnets.  They couldn’t wait to see how the painting that started with a bunch of bubble wrap would turn into a piece of art.

Kathy Metaxas explaining mono print making

She’s all about hands on involvement and having fun.  The picture of six child size hands next to one adult teaching hand pressing the next layer of ink on the print was priceless.

Kathy Metaxas_engaging young artists

In the midst of it all, I found a quick moment to take a picture of our guests on stilts and the lonely but hopeful young man who had just moved to Princeton from Montreal the previous day.  I wanted to take a picture of the tall young Caucasian guy wearing an orange sarong and a yellow tunic, but that seemed rude.

visitors on stilts

Before we knew it it was almost 5 pm and although people were still stopping by, it was time to clean up.

It was a day to remember, and one I would have ever imagined, not in a million years.