Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Roxanne Swentzell Sculpture Workshop - Abierta

"Let yourself be open and life will be easier.
A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable.
A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed."
Jack Kornfield, Buddha's Little Instruction Book

Last week I attended a sculpture workshop in New Mexico led by the amazing sculptor, Roxanne Swentzell.  Roxanne Swentzell is one of my all time favorite artists.  She is a sculptor of incredibly expressive and curvy figures.  The first time I saw her work I think I literally gasped with delight.  The body positions and facial expressions of her figures are able to speak without words.  Even the perfectly-positioned fingers and toes hold a message.  You can see her amazing work on her website here.

The week before the trip I felt a little nervous because I hadn't touched clay in about 15 years.  And the last time I attempted a figure was probably in high school when I sculpted a runner that had oogly-googly arms that appeared to be made of jelly and have no bones.  But on the first day Roxanne adeptly guided us in the art of making a torso from coils.  Each day I frantically worked 8 hours...and slowly but surely "Abierta" came into being.  


"Abierta" means "open" in Spanish and I thought it was the perfect name for my sculpture for several reasons.  The first question that everyone asks when they see her is "Why does she have a hole in her middle?"  My original idea was that the hole would represent infertility.  I wanted a form that expressed acceptance of a condition that I struggled with for many years.  But as I worked on her I could feel that it was more than that.  I wanted to convey the idea of not just acceptance...but joy and abundance. 

"Sometimes the dark moment you're in is, in the end, actually a gift..." Cory Booker

The infertility set me on a whole different path than I imagined.  I became a student of suffering during that intense time of longing.  It lasted for years until one day I finally had to surrender.  It was a deep and visceral surrender and with it came the understanding that I don't control everything.  At some point I had the idea to study Buddhism because they know a lot about suffering and how to end it.  I voraciously began to consume Buddhist and spiritual texts.  And before I knew it I was off to my first meditation retreat.  The story of the retreat is more than I have room to write about here.  But in a nutshell I had a life-altering experience that showed me there is more to this world than meets the eye.  And when I look back now I can honestly say that my infertility was the greatest gift I could have been given.  I learned the value of remaining open to what comes to you.

The "hole" also represents the openness, or nothingness, or the void, that resides in the core of all of us.  When I told that to someone at the retreat they said..."How depressing!".  But it is actually quite the opposite because "everything" comes from "nothingness."  In a sense abundance and nothingness are two sides of a coin.  For example, my "lack" of child allowed me to have an abundance of time and experiences that would not have been possible otherwise.  I have traveled and meditated and explored graphic design, sculpture, illustration, watercolor, writing, book-making, interior design, photography, etc.  The following quote is one of my favorites of all time and sums it up perfectly.

"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain."

Kahlil Gibran

And I would say if you let it carve long enough, eventually you will find there is nothing but joy.

"We must let go of the life we have planned,
so as to accept the one that is waiting for us."
Joseph Campbell


The course lasted five days and took place in a wonderful studio owned by Roxanne's uncle.  The first day Roxanne showed us how to build our torso using coils.  Below you can see I am happily smoothing the inside of my "pot".

The next five days were spent building out the limbs and adding all the yummy details.  You can see that all of the limbs are hollow.

Roxanne was an amazing teacher.  One night I couldn't sleep because I knew I had made my head too big (step 5 above).  When I came in the next morning and told Roxanne, she swiftly got out her knife, cut an orange slice shape out of it and mushed it back together in less than 60 seconds. It would have taken much fretting and time for me to do it. Below is a video showing more of the process.

“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child


The class was composed of 10 women and 2 men and I loved each and every one of them.  I have also never taken a class where everyone was as intense and serious about the work as I was.  I so enjoyed that we were all ardently working but able to chit chat at the same time.  There was such a lovely sense of comradery that I wish I could have at home.

Below you can see my eleven compadres and our sculptures.


I know I have already gushed about Roxanne's work, but I really cannot say enough.  There is such a tenderness and gentleness about her figures.  And I couldn't believe that she was able to sculpt this form so quickly.  She barely had twenty minutes each day in between helping us to make this whole figure.

And I am not even mentioning that her personality is every bit as beautiful as her figures.  She had a lovely, humble way of helping and pointing out when we were going astray.  She was always constantly monitoring us in case we were getting in a bind.  One day I needed help with my smile and had been struggling to get it just right.  I wanted it subtle but it was basically non-existent.  Roxanne came over and adeptly showed me how to push the corners of the mouth back in less than 10 seconds.  She knew exactly what I was going for.  I have never worked with someone before who is such a complete and utter master of their material.  If you ever get the chance to work with such a master, take it!

Notice the intricate way the fingers interact with the toes on this sculpture, not to mention the difficult body position!


Although I had to leave Abierta behind to dry and get fired, I will certainly bring home her spirit of openness. I have a tendency to try and control every little thing, but life keeps trying to show me how to relax my grip a bit.  During my voracious consumption of spiritual material I came across this story about "openings" that spoke straight to my heart:

"There is an ancient story from China that makes all this very clear.  It stems from the way traps were set for monkeys.  A coconut was hollowed out through an opening that was cut to the size of a monkey's open hand.  Rice was then placed in the carved-out fruit which was left in the path of the monkeys.  Sooner or later, a hungry monkey would smell the rice and reach its hand in.  But once fisting the rice, its hand could no longer fit back out through the opening.  The monkeys that were caught were those who would not let go of the rice.

As long as the monkey maintained its grip on the rice, it was a prisoner of its own making.  The trap worked because the monkey's hunger was the master of its reach.  The lesson for us is profound.  We need to always ask ourselves, What is our rice and what is keeping us from opening our grip and letting go?"
Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

"The purpose of life is not to be safe. It is to be open. To be dedicated to the truth, to the joy as it streams through your life. Because if you are not, then no matter what you have, you will always want more, you will be forever hungry. And if you are, than no matter what happens, you will one day discover that it is you who you have been hungering for. It has been you, not the food you eat, the clothes you buy, the people you love, the money you make. For lifetimes, for eons, for as long as it takes for a mountain to become a mountain, it has always been you. You are the feast. You."  Geneen Roth

Friday, June 8, 2018

Ixcacao, Fruit Vendor, and Tuk tuk

My friend came to visit last week and the weather was so good we sat on the porch for days and played with watercolors.  There were a few last sketches I had wanted to do from Guatemala and Ixcacao was one of them.  When I was in Guatemala we went to the Chocolate Museum and there was a statue that I fell in love with.  At the time I didn't even know her name, but I was struck by the voluptuous cacao pods all over her body.  When I looked her up I found out she used to walk those who were being sacrificed to the top of the pyramid where she held their hands while they took their last drink.  The chocolate drink helped give them enough strength to overcome their fear of death.  If you are interested in her story you can read more about her here.

The image above is the whole sketch in my sketchbook.  When I was at the chocolate museum I bought some chocolate jam and the bag had their cute logo on it.  I liked it so much I tore it off to put in my sketchbook.

Below is a drawing I did of a fruit vendor in Antigua.  I thought the tile-roofed carts were adorable.

My friend Joan on the trip made everyone copies of this wonderful list by Keri Smith about "How To Be An Explorer of the World".  Another friend I met on the trip, Rosemary, gave me the Japanese envelope you see below and Joan's list fit perfectly inside.  You can also see a sketch I did of a tuk tuk.  I am always amazed that these little carts can handle the cobblestone streets of Guatemala.  I ended up walking everywhere so I didn't get a change to ride in one.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by the recent eruption of Volcan Fuego.  While I was there I could see lava spurting out the top of the volcano at night. I had no idea that is would erupt a few months later.   A friend recently shared this link to this Guatemala Relief Fund if you are interested in donating. 

If you would like to read the other posts about this trip here are the links:

Friday, March 30, 2018


After the sketchbook course in Antigua, Christina and I took a short trip to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal.  We took a half-hour flight from Guatemala City to Flores, Guatemala.  We heard that the bus ride was 18 hours so we chose to fly.

I have always had an interest in Mayan culture because my great great grandfather, who was a Danish missionary, married a Native American woman from Merida who we believe may have been Mayan.  Our history is a bit murky...but it is very possible I may have a drop or two of Mayan blood.

On the right side of this spread I sketched the Great Jaguar temple.  It was the final stop on our tour of Tikal and I was hot and tired, but I  managed a quick pencil sketch. (You can see Christina's sketch here.)  I added a famous image of a Jaguar shaman to the upper right.  It is from a vase used for drinking chocolate found at ceremonial site not far from Tikal called the "Altar de Sacrificios."

While we were in Antigua we visited a small jewelry store where a man had a book that would tell us our Mayan nahual.  Nahuales are Mayan spirits or totems, sort of like the zodiac.  A person's nahual is determined by their date of birth and has an influence on your character and demeanor.  Each nahual is associated with an animal of importance to the Maya as well as associated traits, qualities and tendencies. It can be spelled "nahual", "nagual", or "nawal."  (Source: The Guatemala Insider).  If you would like to calculate your sign click here

My sign is "Ajpu" which is associated with a conch or snail.  It is also associated with the sun, king, Lord, time, energy and the blowgun. (I find this funny because I used to be pretty good at using a blowgun when I studied bears.)  Ajpu also "represents the holiness in life, the divinity in the physical world, and our search for it" (Source: The Four Pillars).  

After I sketched the Temple of the Jaguar I decided I wanted to dedicate the left page to nahuales and another famous classic image, the "Mayan Vision Serpent."  This image is from "lintel 15" from a site not far from Tikal called Yaxchilan.  The Vision Serpent  was often depicted "with the spirit of a god or ancestor emerging from its jaws" and was thought to serve as a direct link between the spirit and physical worlds (Wikipedia).  There are twenty nahuales and I only had room for three around the vision serpent, so I chose Ajpu (the conch shell), Ix (the jaguar), and Kan (the serpent).  

Source for hand-written text is from the Four Pillars.

"Ix is possibly the most feminine of the nawales. It represents the spirit of Mother Earth and could easily be seen as a Mayan representation of Gaia. Ix can be seen as a mothering energy, nurturing all things, but this should not be confused with weakness – the animal totem of Ix is the jaguar and it is as the jaguar that Ix is often known. The jaguar is, of course, powerful and stealthy. Ix also embodies these qualities. The jaguar is an animal of the night, slipping magically through the darkness, the spots of her back a representation of the milky way. She carries the sun on it’s nightly journey through the underworld." -The Four Pillars

We had perfect weather the day we went to Tikal.  It was hot and dry as we followed our tour guide through the jungle.  Below is a photo of the Temple of the Grand Jaguar.

For all those Star Wars nerds out there, Tikal was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope.

I should have counted how many pyramids we climbed.  Below is a photo of Christina looking fresh as we climbed our first pyramid. 

Of all the things we saw in Tikal, the giant head of Chaac, the rain god, was one of my favorites.  This head was maybe twenty feet tall and very impressive.  It was under one of those palapa huts you see in the photo above.

Below is a carved stela of a Mayan figure wearing a large headdress (and an unfortunate-looking person laying behind them).

I had to take a photo of Christina with this giant leaf behind her.  The jungle was full of monkeys and all sorts of bird life. 

If you look closely below you can see me taking a rest break on the steps of a pyramid.  I think I drank all of the water in my water bottle and three Cokes that day!

Worn out by our day of pyramid-climbing, Christina and I celebrated a wonderful trip and our last night in a restaurant overlooking Lake Petén Itzá. 

Watching the boats and the sun slowly slip into darkness it is easy to see why the Maya settled in this area.  I have always been fascinated with the Maya, their rituals and cosmology and their mysterious demise.  I just spent the past hour searching for the perfect quote to end this post but couldn't find one.  I usually take that as I sign that I should write what it is that I am looking for...so here it is.

La Tela Maya

Although echoes now live in the pyramids
They are still very much here.
We are woven together through time and space.
Our eyes both spy the same big dipper.
The patterns repeat over and over.
The fabric is living and breathing...
Made of tooth and bone and blood and sinew
Mountains and rivers, caves and oceans
Men with big brooms, jaguars carrying the sun
Women balancing baskets on their heads
Wooden saints, magical doors, crumbling ruins
Processions of saints, mermaids and millstones, breathing volcanoes
The long arms of galaxies woven through and through.
And who is weaving this masterpiece?
You and I.
We are the warp and the weft.
Through the eye of the needle
Over and under we go
Weaving the world into being.

If you would like to read the other posts about this trip here are the links:

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Guatemala Sketchbook Trip - Part 4

One of my absolute favorite parts of the Guatemala Sketchbook Trip was the hotel we stayed in, "Posada San Sebastián."  When the owner, Luis, showed me to my room and opened the door, a soft breeze entered from the open veranda door.  My room was on the second floor and overlooked the courtyard where I could hear water falling in the fountain down below.  My bathroom also had adorable half-windows that opened and every time I took a shower or sat on the toilet I would see the gorgeous palm flower above.  I finally sketched it the last day and thought it would be fun to draw the room next to it.  Below is a close-up of the room.

I haven't even mentioned the amazing collections that fill the posada.  Everywhere I looked there were interesting antiques ranging from religious icons to miniature chairs to an adorable collection of rusting enamel mugs. (In my first post I sketched a collection of wooden santos near the lobby).

Below is a photo of the second floor hallway leading to an outdoor veranda and steps that lead to the rooftop terrace with an incredible view of Volcán Agua.

As soon as I entered the hotel, I knew I wanted to sketch the beautiful "Nazareno" vine that was blooming in the courtyard.  When sitting in the courtyard, the blooms would slowly fall around you...sometimes spinning like our familiar maple helicopters.  The space is truly lovely and it was always such a relief to walk in to such serenity after a long day of sight seeing.  It felt like coming home. 

Also while sitting on the loo, I noticed the play of light against the textured glass of the windows.  It is amazing the things one can see when we are still! 

In addition to the blooming vines, I also loved the potted plants in both the front and back courtyard.  This little succulent cascaded in such a fun way around the Mayan pot below.

The one sketch I didn't have time to do was a sketch of the markets.  When thinking back on it, of course I didn't have time, because when I am in the market I want to shop!  I LOVED shopping in the markets and taking in the sumptuous colors and textures.

Above is a photo of Clara who I met the first day and whom I returned to the last day to make a few souvenir purchases.  As if the whole market wasn't juicy enough, this particular market was set against the backdrop of ruins that had amazing carved columns.  The whole experience was delicious!

We also visited a store called "Nimpot" that was jam-packed with masks and wooden trinkets.  It is a shopper's paradise.

The sketch below didn't fit in any category so it is getting thrown in here.  He probably should have been in the second post next to the plaza fountain.  In any case, I just loved that the central plaza was swept each day with these giant brooms made of palm fronds.

Being a colonial city, Antiguan buildings are set up to enclose their green spaces which means the buildings extend right up to the sidewalks.  One of my favorite things to do as I walked the streets was to try to look into the lush, enclosed courtyards.  If the doors were open, it was like dropping into paradise for a brief moment.  I was often treated to scenes of great beauty...of colorful flower gardens, fountains, and ornate, hanging lights.  But if the doors were closed I was equally just as happy to stop and admire the gorgeous old doors with their incredible ornaments.  I thought about doing a whole post on this alone but decided to end this post with a grouping of these photos.

Somehow it seems apropos for a city named "Antigua" to have doors that look like this.  The doors and the town seem as old as time with just a hint of magic.  I can imagine that if one closed ones's eyes, felt the nub of one of these ornaments and whispered just the right words, one could be transported to another time...or at least that time would stand still for a moment.  Whether the doors were open or closed, I fell under the spell of this ancient town.  And if fortune has it I hope to return one day and wander its enchanting, bougainvillea-lined streets and again visit the land where both volcano and I breathe. 

“Unusual doors often take you to ... unusual worlds!”

― Mehmet Murat

“I love doors. All of them, without exception. Doors lead to things and I’ve never met one I haven’t wanted to open. All the same, if that door hadn’t been so old and decorative, so decidedly closed, if a thread of light hadn’t positioned itself with such wretched temptation across its middle, highlighting the keyhole and its intriguing key, perhaps I might have stood a chance; remained twiddling my thumbs until Percy came to collect me. But it was and I didn’t; I maintain that I simply couldn’t. Sometimes, you can tell just by looking at a door there’s something interesting behind it."

― Kate Morton, The Distant Hours

“Four simple chambers. A thousand complicated doors.
One of them is yours.”

― Jill Alexander Essbaum

If you would like to read the other posts about this trip here are the links: