Settling In

It is taking time to settle into both my new home and new job. About two weeks into my tenure as an AmeriCorps Program Director a co-worker who is about to retire leaned out of the office she was emptying and asked if I would like a big map of Kentucky, and because I still have a partial office wall to fill, I said yes.


She delivered it a couple days ago, with a palm full of the lethal looking, unique mounting devices for it. But she didn’t just leave it. She wanted to talk about it. She explained that the map’s surface was writable, like a white board. She told me the best marker colors to use so the surface would stay clean. Several times she mentioned the name of the staff person who acquired the map in the first place, and with what sounded like affection tinged with sadness that touched me because I have been feeling affection and love tinged with sadness, sometimes despair, for eighteen months straight and wonder if I will ever stop. Our apparently similar feelings about loss, in this case of a several decade’s long job, made me connect with this woman and wonder: Did her coworker retire too? Did she work with him for a long time? Does she miss working with him?

This interesting encounter started in the hallway, as I returned from one of many deliberately long walks to  get away from my desk and computer. I am used to writing alone and in silence, spent the whole summer and fall of 2017 writing about late in life professional and personal losses, some of them profound, on blessedly quiet mornings in my old apartment, in public and private libraries in the afternoons, on weekends in coffee shops and, during the 2017 holidays, in a lovely dining room of a home I was helping to house-sit, so I am okay with solitude. But now that I am housed in an academic institution again and busy preparing to launch a new program I am eager for contact. First, however, I have to create many original forms and documents. This requires sitting in front of two computer screens that are not particularly companionable, and so loneliness is what I was escaping from when I saw that woman and she asked if I still wanted the map.

I almost said No, and I don’t know why. Maybe because she gave me the option. Maybe because I have a piece of Owen’s artwork taking up part of that wall, and it meant moving it and moving Owen’s things has left me drained and depressed and feeling bereft of a future, despite my new home and new job. Maybe that day I was afraid that map would be a daily reminder of his loss and the others that led me to a new life in Kentucky. Whatever it was I stifled it, and was glad I did, and for the woman’s company and the memories she shared over the map she is now entrusting to my care. Somehow, seeing the shape of state and the many roads that connect the hundreds of small towns to the much fewer large cities that comprise Kentucky, some of them places I visited with or lived in with Owen, makes me feel more grounded and not nearly so alone.



ArtVention Installation, September-November 2017

I’m Still Here banner, collaborative art from ArtVention September 2017

Gallery on Main, a community gallery in downtown Richmond, KY, invited SAFE project coordinators/facilitators to install ArtVention artworks for viewing from September to November.

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ArtVention is an art empowerment and healing project focused on suicide education, prevention and awareness, funded through the EKU SAFE program within the Psychology Department at Eastern Kentucky University. I coordinated and supervised the ArtVention event on 9/13/17, in which suicide bereaved and survivors engaged in three visual art projects, one of them collaborative, creating a sense of community and healing from suicide experiences.

ArtVention at EKU, September 13, 2017

On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable  people survive and thrive.

We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.

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Participants also created  a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.

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Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.

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The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other.  Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.

Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.


Upward Bound at EKU

Reminder on stairs in art building, EKU campus, Richmond KY

I had the pleasure of connecting with Eastern Kentucky University’s Upward Bound program in June and July 2017, and worked with many amazing, promising young people as a result and on several innovative art projects!

Our first project: Create a sign like those that the homeless carry, but put on it something about oneself that viewers couldn’t possibly know by simply seeing you. This yielded many touching and surprising confessions.

What You Don’t Know Is…signs by Upward Bound EKU students, summer 2017

Project 2: Create an artist book out of paper bags, and begin cover art on it. During this project I discovered how many creative types I had!

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Project 3: Thanks to a PFE sponsored artist workshop I attended as a VISTA Leader, I shared with enthusiastic Upward Bound kidz the construction of miniature “crankies” — storytelling devices used during music and vocal performances to better engage audiences.

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Project 4: Tagging, stencil cutting and spraying! Upward Bound @EKU students learned about the style of graffiti alphabets, how to brainstorm and create their own tag, the fundamentals of stencil cutting (which is more complicated that one might guess!), then sprayed their creations. A lot of these kidz already had impressive spraying skillz!

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O’s Cover Art

Late in April, the facilitator of my bereavement group asked if I had any artwork of Owen’s — or any artwork we made together — that might suit as cover art for a book she co-edited and is about to be published. And I immediately thought of this stained glass mosaic Owen created in 2015, and finished in early 2016.


Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying, 2016

This, and many additional stained glass mosaics were part of an economic empowerment project I created at the homeless shelter where Owen and I met in 2013. Dozens of artistic shelter and Art In The Annex guests engaged in the project, and were willing to have their mosaics shown and sold (with a percentage of the proceeds going to the artists) at an area gallery, then a special sale space called AIM (Art In The Margins) in the church across the street from the homeless shelter.

Here are images of Omega RedWolf Flying in progress, including two of Owen working on it:

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It was so painful to shut down that space in the fall of 2016, and collect Owen’s artworks from it as well as the Annex at the shelter, and bring them to Berea. It was also painful to read the title of Dr. Moore’s book: The Suicide Funeral or Memorial Service.  But there is also something incredibly redemptive and hopeful in that image of a wolf flying through a blue portal, and in knowing Owen, through this artwork, will live on and hopefully be of help to others impacted by suicide.


Book cover, with Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying.

Healing/Empowerment Work With Military Women — Athena’s Sisters

me_Liz@VOICExposmallI am now connected to and art-working directly with military women and women vets via a wonderful organization: Athena’s Sisters — thanks to this engaged and empowered woman vet who reached out to me last fall, who is working hard to start and sustain an Athena’s Sisters chapter in Evansville, Indiana.

From their website: “Athena’s Sisters is an organization for all military women to use revolutionary expressions to grow in dignity and honor. Our members empower themselves through a sisterhood created by mind, body, and heart healing. Our artistic advocacy is building a community of courage.”

We met at the 5/13/17 VOICE Expo, held at the Evansville Armory, to promote the new chapter of Athena’s Sisters and to promote our summer art project: stained glass mosaics, similar to this one, created by Owen and about to be published on the cover of a book that helps educate those who help the suicide bereaved.  Owen came from a military family, and although he did not serve he admired those who did. So I know he was proud to be part of this event.


Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying, 2016

VOICE (Veteran Organizations Involved in Community Education) acts as a sponsor and clearing house for events that help veterans and their families, as well as engage them within the community.




My artwork at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, 4/22/17

Thanks again to the folks at the Kentucky Arts Council for jurying me into The Illustrated Word. The exhibit traveled to the 35th annual Kentucky Crafted event at the Lexington Convention center last weekend. It was a real thrill to see artwork about O in public for the first time.

Marching, Marching

In the last week my art and creative activist self marched twice.

MLK Day of Service, AmeriCorps VISTA:

VISTA Volunteers and AmeriCorps members participate in two National Days of Service, and MLK Day is one of them. We began by joining Berea College and the Berea community at Union Church for several speeches and inspirational music.  Then we marched down Chestnut Street.

In the afternoon, my fellow VISTA Leader organized a letter writing campaign for women at the New Opportunity School for Women and seniors in local high schools, with the help of KyCC VISTAs from northern KY.

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I also joined the historic Women’s March in Lexington, KY on 1/21/16. I really wanted to be in the original, in D.C., but the time and cost became prohibitive. Lexington did not disappoint though!

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Highlights: Getting there early and walking to Cheapside Bar in order to sit the same booth I sat in with O in August.  On my way I saw a rough looking character setting up to play street music. He had several musical instruments: guitar, harmonica, something on his foot that looked like a little cymbal but I didn’t want to stare.  I must have been oozing activism because he smiled and asked “goin’ to the march?”

Cheapside was almost empty at first, but by the time I was scarfing my salmon it was full of sports fans bleeding blue, and women wearing glowing pink pussy hats. The waitress called me “lady bug” — an endearment I haven’t heard since living near Owensboro.

By the time I got back to the square in front of the Fayette Circuit Court a vast crowd was gathering. I was so inspired by the mix, a beautiful balance of and young/old, single/couples, men/women, able/disabled. Everyone was waving clever, pointed, vicious, hilarious signs – except me, it seemed. So I found a group with stacks of Planned Parenthood signs and was gifted a big red one with a message to the current administration about keeping their hands off my uterus.

The speaker line up was impressive, but the talking went on too long.  They almost lost me and most of the crowd after #6, when I milled around a bit and found a couple of fellow co-workers as well as my old friend April, who is recovering from a loss similar to mine, of O.

But I decided to walk alone. A great surge of us finally started moving to the march route, right in the middle of downtown. While walking we chanted, we sang. Our numbers were so many we could see streams of ourselves moving in opposite directions at the end of the long side streets. Later I heard we had over 5,000 marchers.

So amazing, so much fun and felt so good I couldn’t believe it took me 58 years to march political.


New Year, New Artworks

I am proud to announce that two of my artworks, one the first in a series about O, will be part of a long term traveling exhibit sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council, entitled The Illustrated Word. The exhibit will travel to libraries across Kentucky from February 2017 through 2018, with a special exhibit in Lexington at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, April 21-23, 2017. I am thrilled that O will go out into the world in this way, giving viewers a chance to experience the incredible person he was and the impact he had and continues to have on me and my creative life.


Ode to O: Inordinate

Ode to O is one of a six panel series that I began with a matrix of dictionary pages collaged during the time we shared a studio space in Haynie’s Corner, Evansville, in 2015. My initial intent was to make them a single, multi-paneled piece with a tree form visually tying the panels together. However, when we had to move out of the studio due to irreconcilable differences with the gallery/studio owner (which included insistence on collecting commission on artwork created by the homeless) the panels languished. I left them stacked in a corner of a guest room in Indiana when I left for Berea, KY in May, and didn’t work on them again until the day before O took his life.

By November I was finally able to pick up where I left off in August, rendering words from the dictionary pages that reminded me of O — and with his tattoo ink.  As I worked it soon became clear that in both form and content I was mimicking an older and much smaller artwork, entitled Obsessions #1 that is also about a man I loved and lost that will  be exhibited along with Ode to O in  The Illustrated Word.


Obsessions #1

The Lone Tree Planting, 11/12/16

The Owen quote

The Owen quote

On November 12, 2016, friends and loved ones had a small memorial ceremony for Owen Chaney in downtown Evansville, Indiana.  This world lost Owen on August 22, 2016, when he chose to take his life in Berea, Kentucky after a long battle with addiction, mental illness, and three years of chronic homelessness.

Everyone who knows me knows I loved Owen, and I join many who knew Owen to be a loving, kind, generous, talented person even while plagued by the stresses and illnesses of his adult life. Or maybe in spite of them.

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In memory of Owen we planted a sycamore tree on the lawn of the Zion Church opposite the homeless shelter where Owen and I met and made art between 2013 and just a few short months prior to his untimely death. Owen loved nature and he loved sycamores, which he called “ghost trees” in keeping with Native American lore, and in reference to the color of their trunks and limbs. They literally glow in the dark on moonlit winter nights. Sycamores are also called “trees of life” because they have tremendous longevity, up to 600 years, and symbolize intuition, shelter, nurturing…among other things.  They also grow very fast and, to me, symbolize the surviving and thriving that Owen was never able to accomplish in this life.

A pack of Marlboros, the smokes Owen preferred, will show up at the base of The Lone Tree now and then, so those of you who are desperate for one can help yourself. I often witnessed Owen giving away his last cigarette to someone he thought needed it more than he. You are also welcome to stop by and put a memento on the sycamore, which will be nurtured by members of the Zion congregation. Many thanks to them, Pastor Kim, and the generous donations of Owen’s friends in attendance for making the tree planting possible.