Monthly Archives: December 2016

Anyone Can Create A Still-Life Self-Portrait!

After culling a gigantic herd of objects, this is my still-life self-portrait!

After culling a gigantic herd of objects, this is my still-life self-portrait!

I recently taught a self-portrait class to the kids at my studio. I didn’t offer them mirrors because I was hoping to give them the freedom to create themselves without the limitations of looking at their faces. The girls dove in and drew, painted and embellished fun versions themselves but the boys were resistant at first. They eventually settled in and had fun creating themselves as Minecraft blocks and super heroes.

I realized that asking someone to create a self-portrait is a tough request. How do you go about it? I think we are the sum of our life experiences, the things we love, and the places we’ve been. How do you capture that in a drawing or painting? I don’t know that most people can but I do believe that you can reveal your essence in a still-life self-portrait, which is essentially a collection of curated objects.

Still lifes are created when an artist paints, photographs or sculpts a collection of items, and self-portraits are paintings, photos or sculptures created of the artist by the artist. Still-life self-portraits are made when a person compiles things that are meaningful to him to craft a portrait of himself. These arrangements can be photographed or painted and may have a legend included with them. I first fell in love with the notion of the still-life self-portrait when I came across Still Life in The Wall Street Journal’s monthly magazine. The idea is instead of constructing an image of your physical self, you create a vignette of objects in your life that reflect who you are.

Each Still Life showcases a famous person. A couple of months ago, that person was the romance writer, Danielle Steele. She put together a collection of things that she loves, such as her deceased son’s stuffed animals, the typewriter she’s written her novels on, and a portrait painting of herself. I love these because they are beautiful and inviting and I found myself not looking at the separate pieces but at the vignette as a portrait of Ms. Steele.

I figured that I would try to do my own still-life self-portrait. It was not as easy as I thought. While I’ve made clutter portraits of my kids and myself, paring my life down to a few objects was challenging. In order to build a still-life self-portrait, you need to curate your things. I realized that I didn’t want to clutter my portrait while at the same time, I didn’t want to miss anything, plus I wanted the sum of the parts to make a “picture” that was me.

So I began pulling stuff from around the house and piling them on a desk in my living room. It was beginning to look like a junkyard. Things started to get out of hand when I began compiling the cosmetics, creams, and combs that I use to get ready each morning onto the bathroom counter. Kind of like Monet’s Haystack paintings, I realize that I am someone different during each part of the day, a benevolent Sybil. What to do? Do I create a montage of who I am or who I want to be? The best thing to do when confronted with a problem like this is to power through it. So I continued to pull stuff and as things piled up I realized that I wanted my portrait to be more simple and elegant.

What I discovered was that my collection was going in a different direction than I had anticipated. It wasn’t about the things I do or places I’ve been but about the people I love most. There was none of my artwork, or things from my travels, and nothing that indicated that I love writing more than anything else. My treasures were nestled on a silver mirrored desk, a nod to my love of glitz. Above the desk is a big Thomas McKnight lithograph of an artist’s loft, the first piece of art given to me by my mom and the artsy chair, the last, the pink tourmaline given to me by my dad to wear on my wedding day, my favorite photo of my kids, my favorite romance novel, and a hand-built house made by a dear friend. The final piece is a sculpture of a frog prince, given to me by my husband on the birth of our only daughter.

Not only was this a fun and therapeutic process, it also allowed me to create a meaningful vignette in my living room. If you are interested in creating and sharing your own Still-Life Self-Portrait, I’ve created a Still Life Self-Portrait Facebook Page where you can share your photos! If you need more inspiration check out The Annotated Room in The Wall Street Journal and Show Us Your Wall in The New York Times.



Letting The Random Be Your Guide

Sometimes something as random as a knocked over Christmas tree can lead to a new career.

Sometimes something as random as a knocking over the Christmas tree can lead to a new career.

Imagine you’re an aspiring actor whose working as a mail room clerk to pay your bills. You’re hanging with your family at Christmas and you clumsily knock over the tree, breaking seventy-five years of ornaments. What do you do? After unsuccessfully trying to hunt down replacements, if you’re Christopher Radko, you find a glassblower, design new ornaments from memory, and revolutionize the Christmas ornament business.

Believe it or not, Christopher Radko’s story is not uncommon. Many people change the course of their lives based on a one-off experience or suggestion of a stranger. Take Victor Wong, a video game designer who had a midlife crisis in a hotel room. He found himself revived after sniffing the hotel toiletries. He was so inspired that he became a perfumier and launched the very popular animalistic-scented perfume, Beaver.

Then there’s Tommy Hilfiger, the clothing designer. After seeing the Who playing My Generation at Tanglewood in the 1960s, he was inspired to open a clothing store in New York. Richard Horowitz, a timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra became the maker of bespoke batons after Karl Böhm broke his baton. Mr. Horowitz crafted a new one in the Met’s boiler room and his second career was born.

A number of years ago, I was caravanning with a group of parents to pick up my son from summer camp in Pennsylvania. We stopped for lunch after the pickup and I found myself sitting with one of the dads who I’d never met before. He spent a bit of time talking about the food and the restaurant and his love of pizza, I found myself saying, “You should open a pizza place.” Years later I had learned that he had.

As we all know, it can sometimes be difficult to take our friends’ and loved ones’ suggestions but somehow a stranger’s ideas seem more palatable. A stranger is not invested in our choices, they don’t know what baggage we may be carrying, and they don’t have the concerns of our family members. They may see something in us that we are passionate about or good at and feel compelled to make a suggestion. I do it all the time. I was eating in a local restaurant last weekend and our server was fabulous. She told us she was a student at the local community college.

“What do you think you want to do?”
“Open an animal shelter.”
“Cool, are you taking any animal science classes?”
“No, just business classes; I don’t like blood.”
“You’re one of the best waitresses I’ve ever had. Have you considered hospitality?”
No. I don’t want to be a waitress forever.”
“What about having your own place or working for a corporation?”
“Hmm…That’s an interesting idea.”

People outside our situations can often see them better than us! I am just coming off a fabulous family reunion and I have my buddy, Joanne, to thank for it. A couple of months ago we were discussing our plans for the holidays and I told her that I was unsure of whether to travel to see family or not. She suggested spending Thanksgiving at the beach in New Jersey. My family hadn’t celebrated an off-season holiday at the beach since my Dad’s last Christmas nearly twenty years ago. So I floated the idea to my siblings and was shocked when they all agreed to come. It turned out to be a wonderful holiday, which included some of the kids taking post-Thanksgiving dips in the ocean!

It is not uncommon for me to make life-changing choices in this random manner. Three years ago my entire family vacationed together in Mexico. My sister taught a yoga class every day, while I did an art project. By the end of the week, she said to me, “You need to open a place and teach art.” I was like, “That’s crazy!” I found myself mulling it over for months and discussed it with my husband. He was naturally concerned about the amount of work it would be, the cost, and if I would be available to our kids. A year later, I ran the idea by a stranger who’d order a dog from the same breeder as I had. We were waiting at O’Hare for our puppies to arrive. She was a small business owner and told me to go for it. So I opened Doodle Art & Design and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.


For Better Memories, Leave Your Camera Behind


My sister-in-law created such a beautiful setting we felt like we were attending a wedding!

My sister-in-law created such a beautiful setting we felt like we were attending a wedding!

My husband and I were walking our dogs a couple of weeks ago when I looked up and saw the supermoon. I had forgotten that it was due to appear, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was big, gilded, and delicious, and I vacillated between wanting to grab it out of the sky, and wanting to run home and grab my camera. Over the next few days I’d spot it, no longer gold but faded to silver, through the trees on my early morning run. I promised myself I’d get my camera as soon as I got home but the sun and my rising kids got in the way. As it waned, still spectacular, so did my chance to capture it.

I take a lot of pictures pretty much on a daily basis. When my kids were little, I missed entire school shows because I was always behind the camera. I look at the world as groups of compositions and am often compelled to photograph what I see. I ask strangers for their iPhones so I can photograph them when I see a great moment. They never say no. So for me, not to photograph the supermoon was odd but may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I now have a picture of it permanently imprinted on my brain, along with the feeling of delight I had when looking at it.

Some say that when you look at a photograph of an event, it changes your actual memory of it, and when you recall an undocumented memory, it changes according to where you are in your life. If you are in a good place you may embellish your recollection in a positive way. I believe that this phenomenon enriches your experience of the occasion. So I’ve been thinking that perhaps not every holiday or milestone needs to be photographed. Since the moon has left with no physical trace in my life, I have found great pleasure in calling up my memory of it. Unlike a photo to be happened upon, I recall it at will. I turn it over in my head, and like a delicious dessert, savor it. I see its sheer size, glowing yellow, as it sits behind the trees. It makes me believe in magic and I don’t think a photo can’t conjure up that same feeling.

I have tens of thousands of photos that I have made over the years. There are so many that I can’t always find a particular one when I need it. I feel like the well-documented times in my life are the times I remember the least. My wedding day is pretty much contained in my album. It’s as if recording an occasion gives us leave to not remember it. My mom didn’t have a photographer at her wedding and I have a strong visual of how it must’ve been from her descriptions. I can see the huge tea roses that she got cheap because they were in their last bloom, the flowing champagne, and her in her tiny, lace wedding dress.

I’ve often feel regret that I didn’t have a way to record every important event in my life. But would I remember them so richly if I had a photo to fall back on? While I took a lot of pictures of my kids, I never got photos of the more mundane aspects of motherhood, like comforting them, reading them the same book twenty-five times in a row, or nursing them. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and she wisely responded, “Some things are just supposed to be experienced in that moment and then never again. The enjoyment is that it is a beautiful and fleeting part of your life.”

So I’m rethinking my relationship to making photographs, especially as I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. I will be with my entire family, something that is rare these last few years. I have brought my camera with me but I’m not sure that I am going to use it.

Afterward: I did end up taking some photos at Thanksgiving; the staged ones of the jumping cousins are keepers but the others are not. It is difficult to capture a dignified photo of your mom, who is well into Alzheimer’s, with her grand kids but it didn’t stop me from trying. I will always remember Thanksgiving 2016 as beautiful and festive, a time of laughter during a post-dinner Family Feud game, and of my mother turning to me after our feast and saying, “Don’t ever change, you make people laugh.”