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“Untitled” from “The Emperor’s Pear Tree,” from an as yet unpublished folktale, © Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is repeat.

Have you ever been stuck in one of those no-win situations where the same unwanted (read: bad) results repeat over and over despite your well-intentioned and best efforts? Of course you have. It’s an all-too-human scenario that frequently—and maybe even necessarily?—precedes “learning,” that grand goal of Life. (more…)

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Little Suzie, with probably her first book. Circa age two?

Little Suzie, with probably her first book. Circa age two?

I have a long-standing relationship with books. It’s really more like a love affair actually, with a passion that has never cooled. Sure, the Internet is a vast source of information right at my fingertips and only a question, word or phrase away…but it is the deliciously slow unfolding and divulging of a book’s treasure that keeps me coming back, forever in love.

Books find me–the perfect books–like an answer to a heart’s call. I keep a Wish List on Amazon and often within months those same books show up in my life, whether through the funds out of nowhere to buy them new, through a gift or loan, or through a thrift store or yard sale. Magic!! Other people have this kind of attraction with parking places or money, I hear…

  1. Here’s just some of the things I love about books:
  • Books let me fondle their creamy pages, feel their delicious weight, and stroke their shiny or textured covers without ever once feeling used or abused, at least to my knowledge.
  • Books are content to be themselves, unique and not needing any reassurances from me.
  • Books don’t complain or care about wrinkles, sagging or aging. Indeed they often become more valuable with age. Good role models, yes?
  • Books don’t need me to make an appointment to see them.
  • I can laugh out loud, disagree, reject or walk away from a book, and there are no apologies necessary. I can even throw a book at the wall, though I wouldn’t ever. I don’t have to watch my P’s and Q’s or be tactful. I don’t have to give a book a certain amount of attention and time in order for it to feel loved. They are always there waiting patiently, and a book never holds a grudge.
  • I don’t have to clean myself up in any way to have a face-to-face with a book, no matter how expensive that book was.
  • I can ask endless questions of their pages and indexes, wear out their paper with thumbing…and they never get irritable or say, “Times up!” A book freely offers me entertainment and the full depth of whatever wisdom it possesses, and with no apologies. Unconditional love at its finest.

I, in turn, admire, appreciate and respect them immensely, turn to them often, praise and recommend them, lavish money on them when I should be paying bills, and give them an honored place in my home.

Relationships with people, on the other hand, are harder. Why can’t people be more like books, I sometimes wonder…

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll.
How frugal is the chariot
That bears the human soul.

“There Is No Frigate Like a Book”  by Emily Dickinson

SusanHillAnd ten points to the person who can identify the title of that book I’m holding in the photo! (My memory is not that good…) Click the image for a larger view.

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"Dancing with the Devil" c. Susan Sorrell Hill

“Dancing with the Devil” © Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is disguise.

A gregarious friend once confessed that he found parties and large gatherings exceedingly stressful. “How can that be?” this terminally-shy wallflower thought. He’d always seemed so confidant, so ‘in his element’ in a social arena that was stuff of my own personal nightmares. But then he went on to say that it was stressful because he was a different person in every relationship and with every person he knew. And that he didn’t know who to be when faced with all of those people at once.

That conversation stuck with me for a long time. Only recently I realized that neither of us felt good enough, essentially worthy. Neither of us was sure that people would like us, just as we were. My coping method was habitual withdrawal, and his adaption was wearing a disguise in each situation. But essentially the same dilemma. It was that same old impediment, a belief in a Hostile Universe.

Does a chameleon feels unworthy or stressed? Surely not. So there must be a healthy way to stay connected to one’s own essential Self—and still be adaptable to changing circumstance, environment and people. I’m still looking for that balance. Believing that the Universe is actually friendly seems to be the key.

“Dancing with the Devil”       (pen & ink)

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(detail) c. Susan Sorrell Hill

(detail) c. Susan Sorrell Hill

Our friend John died today.

We had known him for thirty-five years and a lot had happened to all of us during that time. John was a presence, a self-made man in the best tradition, a force to be reckoned with. He accomplished and adventured much in his span of sixty years.

John was: lightness and darkness, sweetness and sometimes less so, massive self-confidence and sometimes a little wiggly, independent and sometimes lonely. He was boundless energy personified and sometimes he was nailed to the floor. John was determined to make things happen and sometimes unable to let things happen naturally. He was adventurous and brave and yet there were some places he probably just could not go. John inspired great love, and occasionally the opposite.

In a word…John was human, just like me.

In his last days of consciousness, all of his light and sweetness were very much in evidence, and all of the less-so’s of the human nature had been surrendered. It was a good death, with time for closure with his family and many friends. He was seen and appreciated in abundance for his essential qualities, and I think that had always been his secret goal, perhaps even unknown to him. Perhaps that is all of our secret goals as we machinate through life trying to prove ourselves…?

Watching it all unfold over the course of a month taught me something important. I saw clearly that the light, soul-centered side of one’s nature is always there in the background, sometimes in evidence and sometimes well-disguised. But in the end, the side of Light is the only presence that holds sway. It is the essence of who we each are, and the only part that continues to live on, somehow and somewhere. Watching John go through his dying taught me that each of our essences, the spirit of wholeness and loving peace, is always available, just underneath all that stuff we humans tend to ‘lead’ with in this life. We never lose it, and we return to it at the last, even if we’ve been a bit estranged for quite some time.

Thanks for that lesson, John. I will endeavor to deserve it and practice letting my own light shine more often. Godspeed on your next adventure.

“A New Life”      (watercolor, pen & ink)       

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

(detail)

The Illustration Friday word of the week is time.

I have a friend who is—on the surface of things—about to run out of time. Though he has always run faster than just about anyone, one of the diseases of our age has caught up with him. “Dying,” I think, “What’s wrong with this picture?” It’s Mad-Tea-Party surreal, and accompanying the experience is a tinny voice in my head singing that Second World War era tune, “We’ll Meet Again.” You might remember it from the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

We’ll meet again…don’t know where, don’t know when. But I’m sure we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

In response to the news, a friend in the market said yesterday, “Well, we all have our expiration date.” Such a dreadful way to put it…so very final. Having no personal evidence, I cling stubbornly to the belief that we dance again with those who have been significant in our life, maybe even over and over again. It just makes sense, and my heart-knowing agrees. When another friend’s mother passed on last year, I quietly assured her father that he would see her again. His bitter response was, “I don’t believe in all that.” I could feel his pain, and wanted to at least plant the seed of hope there, for isn’t life all too brief and difficult if we believe that this is all there is? “Well, you’ll be surprised then,” I replied. Perhaps I should have kept my thoughts to myself and mumbled the usual  social condolences…

I can’t say I understand the mechanics of it all, nor do I believe in the standard version of a Heaven, but I have always been a firm believer in the idea that there is much more going on down here and ‘out there’ than we can even begin to grasp or imagine. If it’s just us, and this is all there is, it “seems like an awful waste of space,” as the young Jody Foster’s father says in the 1997 film, Contact. My personal version of a Higher Power wouldn’t make that sort of error in judgement.

No, I am sure we will meet again.

“Mad Tea Party”     (watercolor, pen & ink)      The original is available here

"Mad Tea Party" c. Susan Sorrell Hill

“Mad Tea Party” c. Susan Sorrell Hill

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"Persona" c. Susan Sorrell Hill

“Persona” c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is spirit.

‘Tis the season for gentle reminders and reassurances

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. ❦ If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. ❦ Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. ❦ Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. ❦ Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. ❦ Strive to be happy.

This brilliant summation was written by the American writer, Max Ehrmann in 1927. Still works, yes?

SusanHillAs promised ages ago (and I’ll get better at this) — photos of the painting in progress:

“Persona”    (watercolor, pen & ink,gouache)      ❅❅ Prints and the original will be available at some point…

Traced down, inked, stretched and resist masque in place. Now for the watercolor washes...

Traced down, inked, stretched and resist masque in place. Now for the watercolor washes.

The first watercolor washes safely down and the resist masque removed.

The first watercolor washes safely down and the resist masque removed.

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is shadow. Psychologists write that when two lovers are in bed, there are actually six people between the sheets: him, her, his parents and her parents. “Ewww,” I can hear you saying with that all-too-clear image in your head. But what those clever head shrinkers are implying with that creepy phrase is the fact that all of us are influenced by our environment and relationships, particularly those from our family of origin, and most especially by our relationships with our parents. Think about it: don’t you find that your partner or ex-partner has been heavily influenced by his or her familial past? Can’t you still hear that particular teacher’s judicial voice in your head? Don’t you find that you react to certain people in a predictable way because they remind you way too much of that overbearing parent of your childhood…? A friend said to me recently, referring to her current relationship, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just have a relationship with just that one person, all by themselves, without their relatives and often without their friends too? Amen to that! Alas, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Even when the aforementioned influences are not physically in the picture, their influences (as psychologists note) will always be ‘in the mix’ somewhere with each of our personalities. As much as we would each like to view ourselves as a unique, autonomous free-thinkers and do-ers, the shadow of our families and our past experiences infiltrates and influences much of our personality, actions and view of life…for better or for worse. We are complex beings, are we not? “No Rest no. 2”    (watercolor, pen & ink)  Collect the original here.

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is secret.

I’ve been thinking about secrets a lot lately, actually. Family secrets, political and conspiratorial secrets, and those garden variety skeleton-in-the-closet personal secrets. Things that were done and shouldn’t have been, secrets as simple and seemingly benign as socially unacceptable emotions–everyday feelings like anger or fear or desires that would upset the status quo and the comfort level of people around us.

It’s not that I have any answers to those nasty, moldy things we all carry around or have buried somewhere in the dark and dusty, but I do see how they eat away and harm like slow-growing cancers. And how, as much as we try to cover them up, gloss them over with polite smiles or new paint, secrets ooze out and inexorably impede and poison everything around them. They also drain the Life Force of the carrier with the energy required to repress the secrets, and the loss of energy can be such a subtle thing that it’s impossible to put a finger on the source. But common expressions like clearing the air and such a relief! point to the very real burden of things and feelings withheld.

If traditional and contemporary energy healers alike are correct in their perception, we humans are ‘reading’ each others’ auras (that energy field around the body where things like emotions, blocks, trauma and secrets show up in living color) all of the time, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. To read each other like this, they say, is part of our innate survival mechanism, similar to the instincts that creatures of other varieties rely upon. And we are all making choices and decisions and taking actions based on the information we are getting through this perception. It’s not the kind of information-gathering source one can point to like the rational approach of 2+3=5, but it surely predates the development of our brain parts responsible for our hightly-touted (and often fallible) human reasoning ability.

This subject of secrets reminds me of a quote by the American anthropologist and author, Hank Wesselman. (And I may be paraphrasing here because I can’t find the exact wording at the moment…)

“The Gods are everywhere. They see everything…and they never forget.”

If I believe this idea of an inherent human ability to read auric fields, and, going even further, if I substitute the word Consciousness for those words, “The Gods,” it’s pretty clear that none of us is really getting away with anything down here. Perhaps it’s time for a little housecleaning…?

 

“Untitled”    (pencil)

 

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“Transformation” (detail) c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is whiskers.

“American Gothic” by Grant Wood

My mother’s parents were staunch churchgoers, strict parents, active members of a large and close-knit family, and always very hard workers. Remember that famous painting by Grant Wood? Like that. Hiram and Clara Sorrell, in my child’s view, were serious about everything, and I can’t remember either of them ever smiling.

My grandfather was a house painter, and his large garage on the alley behind the house was a place of business: carefully stored ladders, stacks of folded drop cloths, paint buckets and meticulously clean paintbrushes. There must have been a work truck, but it was his Town Car, the pale green (if memory serves), round fendered Ford, complete with leather upholstery, shiny chrome and careful wax job, that I most associate with him. Hiram’s persona swung between the khaki cap, suspenders and baggy khaki work clothes of his trade…and the dapper suit, perfectly polished leather shoes and felt hat of town and church. He taught me how to whip butter and dark sorghum molasses into a sweet spreadable paste for slices of white bread. He ate his every morning with a cup of hot water, cooled by ‘saucer-ing’ it. Before breakfast and then again after his workday, he shaved his considerable whiskers with a lethal straight razor, stropped on a long strap that hung behind the bathroom door. To be nuzzled by Hiram’s pre-shaven face was an unpleasant experience, and perhaps the twice-daily shave was my grandmother’s idea.

My grandmother was an imposing, unapproachable figure, who mostly lived between kitchen and the basement laundry room. My memories show her with a large apron and flowered house dress, standing over a stove or sink, or hanging up wet laundry from the wringer-washer. Clara was an exacting cook and baker, in the era when everything was made from scratch, as were all of her many female relatives. Perhaps it was di rigor then? In a room off the basement, stored away with canned peaches and dill pickles, a very large collection of salt and pepper shakers was the only clue I had to another side of her. She was much taller than my diminutive grandfather, but they were not a couple you could joke with about that. Not at all.

For a child, their Saint Louis, Missouri brownstone was a mysterious place…spotlessly clean and filled with the heavy wooden furniture, leather-bound books, ancient wind-up clocks, and gorgeous rugs of every antique dealer’s dreams. Everything creaked, especially the stairs, and there was that particular fragrance of shaving cream, black soap, flour, lavender perfume and old wood that I now associate only with them (and antique stores). There were puzzles, glider planes (not in the house!), comic books and boxes of Lincoln Logs in the closet, and although we were permitted to make tents with blankets over the dining room table, I can’t imagine that a visit from the grandchildren was anything less than stressful for the elderly Hiram and Clara.

On good weather days, we lounged in metal lawn chairs and sliding rockers on the wide porch which overlooked the neighbors and street below. It was a street of quaint brownstones in that time before freeways cut up cosy neighborhoods and turned them into low-rent districts. I can still hear the melody and electric light hum of the Mr. Softy ice cream truck as it came slowly closer in the fading evening hours. We ate our cones while parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles played cards and drank sodas at the dining room table. Once in a while we were permitted to rake maple leaves for quarters, quickly spent at the corner market, four adventurous blocks away. I see those kind of markets in old movies sometimes now: wood floors, candy and Wonder Bread racks, reach-in coolers for the sodas and the bottle-cap opener by the door.

I was the oldest child of three then, and the fourth child did not come along until many years later. I was in grade school, still playful enough to blow gum bubbles in the back seat of grandfather’s Ford or soap bubbles on the porch, run through the sprinklers in a silly bathing suit, and wade in the creek for rocks and frogs with my pants rolled up at the family’s farm in rural Missouri. I had no idea, back then, that it would all change so quickly.

I suspect that my mother didn’t know that either, when she married an Air Force mechanic who took her far away from the familiar, small world of her childhood home. I don’t think she ever really adapted, and now her dwindling memories are all of that time, long-gone.

“Transformation”   (oil on board)   Another from the archives.

Only a few more days to cast your much-appreciated vote in M. Graham & Co.‘s first Online Painting Show and Competition. View the entire exhibition and vote for your favorite three paintings before November 29th. Three winners will receive loads of M. Graham & Co.’s luscious paint. My own entry, Parlor Persona, can be voted for here. Read the main post for this competition here.

“Parlor Persona”
c. Susan Sorrell Hill

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The Illustration Friday word of the week is water.

A shiny black enamel box of flat, dry paint and a cheap brush was my first introduction to watercolors. With an old jelly jar full of water and some equally cheap paper, I was probably painting horses. Wasn’t every young girl? My sister, the only one I had at that point (much later, another one came along) was in bed with chicken pox, or maybe tonsilitis. I looked at my very purple rinse water in that jelly jar and thought, just for a joke, I’d give it to her and tell her it was Welch’s grape juice. To my horror, I discovered later that she’d drunk the whole thing. I didn’t tell her until years later. I know so much more about Health & Safety relative to Art Materials now, and I do hope that there is forgiveness for that crime wherever artists go when they die…

Time lessens guilt and self-recrimination, and so I renewed my relationship with watercolors in high school. My twelfth grade art teacher was a short, energetic, balding man with a bushy mustache. Mr. Crocker put us through lots of interesting and creative mind-expanding exercises. We transferred magazine photographs with lighter fluid (probably illegal now) and turned them into collages, we drew portraits on paper and crumpled them up with staining inks to look vintage, we drew each other without once looking at the paper…and we painted trees outside on the quad with tiny watercolor palettes and cups of water. Watercolor and I didn’t hit it off. I was so bad, and my friend Kirk was so  good, just naturally. I just couldn’t get the concept of “put the paint down and leave it alone.” I fussed and scrubbed, trying to make it look good, and it always dried looking like mud. Alas. Fortunately for my artistic self-esteem, most of my classmates also sucked at watercolor. And I was much better, I told myself, at other mediums.

Several years later watercolor made another appearance. I was on my honeymoon, complete with newly acquired, long-haired husband and vintage VW bus, cruising the first leg of our weeks-long trip up the coast of California to Canada. We had stopped at a garage for river-rafting inner tubes, and a hitchhiking hippie wanted to know if we’d take him along to Canada. My new husband immediately said yes. I should have immediately put my thumb out for the opposite direction on that freeway, but it took me seven long years and much more of the same difference of opinion about privacy to disengage. But I did buy my very first set of professional watercolors in an art supply store on that ‘honeymoon.’ A big splurge. I don’t actually remember using them, but I must have because a tiny tube of Ivory Black is the only one left, pinned to my studio wall, reminding me of that honeymoon and that Monterey, California art supply store.

Fast forward many, many more years to a two-year Energy Healing class. (Yes, still California.) We’re sitting in meditation, asking for a word or a symbol for what our True Work is to be. I am a fully fledged artist by now, with years of fine art and commercial art experience (and sales) under my belt. Though I’m not aware of it, a Mid-Life Crisis is about to descend upon me, and my parents are about to descend into their twilight years. I will spend most of the next two years wrestling with old and infirm parents, state medical forms, doctor’s visits, hospitals and airplane flights. And spending much of the rest of the time in a tiny room, late at night, with a new watercolor palette and a stack of Arizona library books about watercolor. But in that meditating moment in California, I seem to be a relatively secure oil painter, following my artistic nose to success. I don’t see any of that other stuff coming at all.

The mediation turns out to be a wake-up call, though it will take me years to respond fully to the message. The answer to the query, “What is my True Work?” is the no-nonsense reply, “Your success will not come from oil paints,” accompanied by a clear symbol that could only be interpreted to mean watercolor. Mind you, I had periodically dabbled in watercolor over the years, as a break from low-level dissatisfactions with oil paint’s ‘muscular’ feel and snail-slow drying time, and my very favorite artistic heroine was a watercolorist…but I had never seriously considered watercolor as my main medium. It was a shocking, unexpected message. In retrospect, perhaps some part of me was looking for a change: I took that message quite seriously.

When all the dust had settled with my parents, I realized that a watercolor palette (and a library) had been my lifeline to sanity. To be honest, I have looked back quite a few times since then and oil paint still sends out its siren call when the watercolors are being particularly obstinate, or I am reminded that oil painters get much more respect than watercolorists. But in my artistic maturity, I realize that I am, first and foremost, a Colorist…color is my joy, my main focus, my barometer of success or failure. And for a Colorist, there is no better medium than watercolor for clarity, immediacy and the intricate relationships of one pigment mix to another. There is no better medium for depicting light and atmosphere either.

Which brings me back to that friend who had a natural talent for watercolor in my high school art class. I received the sad news that Kirk had died recently. A few emails over the past two years had renewed our friendship, and I knew that he had parlayed his natural talents into a successful graphic design career in the new digital world. He was a proud father, a homeowner and husband, had many friends and an active lifestyle. But Life was beating him up (as it will), and a more creative life was calling him. I reminded him of his natural talent, and my admiration for his innate skill with watercolor. He blessed me with his opinion that I “had far surpassed him now.” It was one of the last things he wrote to me. I wish I could have communicated to him the simple joy, the immediacy, of color and water on paper…despite whatever else is going on in one’s life. Perhaps if he had known, it would have been enough.

On the subject of water, and all things related, I close with this powerful quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu,

Man, born tender and yielding,
Stiffens and hardens in death.
All living growth is pliant
Until death makes it rigid.
So those people who have hardened are kin of death.
The people who stay gentle are kin of life. . .
How can a person’s life keep its course
If you will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
They need no mending, no repair.

 

“Running on Water”   (watercolor, pen & ink, colored pencil)

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