Good morning, my dears!
FriYAY at last! I'm sorry I haven't done a video in awhile-- too busy sewing! But more on that later. Today, I'm bringing you an interview with one of my very favorite people ever, Brenda Ehly, owner and artist at Artistic Remedies by Brenda. I first met Brenda when I was 9 years old and her oldest son, Sam, was one of my Mama's second graders. Five years later, Brenda, Sam, and I were on a plane to London and then Mumbai for a whirlwind two weeks playing music and dancing. And here, ten years later, we've continued our friendship, and we are both members of the Duluth Fine Arts League in our lovely town. I've heard Brenda play music at our church forever, she drew our precious Burrow after we got married, and her wit, creativity, and wisdom have seasoned most of my life. Enjoy!
1) Tell us a little about yourself-- your family, your interests, what ways are you creative, etc.
I am quite the homebody. After teaching instrumental music in schools for sixteen years, it felt hard at first to retire so that I could homeschool our two sons. I think it took me about a week to adjust! Our younger son just started college (not a homeschool college – don’t worry), so this is the first time in my life that I’ve really felt I had the time to devote to starting a small business and honing my art skills. Music will always be an important part of my life; I think it’s more naturally communal than art. Performing usually requires some collaboration and rehearsal. I love to practice on my own, but it’s working with other musicians that makes it exciting and fun. You build community when you’re regularly meeting with others, and you know how hard everyone has labored to carve out the time to be together. I’ve found that more difficult to translate to art, but I’m trying.
I’m still struggling to figure out if I’m creative. I love to emulate the techniques and styles of illustrators and painters that I admire. I think one of the attributes of a great artist is innovation. When Lewis Carroll wrote Jabberwocky, that was creative! When John Tenniel brought the Jabberwock to life in ink, that was creative! I can’t imagine dreaming up a Jabberwock, and I shudder to think what would have happened if Lewis Carroll had asked me to draw one. As a portrait artist, I see my job as using my technical skills to help my customers bring their visions to life. I’m not sure how creative that is, but it’s very satisfying, and I love doing it. On my list of things to do is to illustrate something that has never existed in reality. Painting a water-dwelling alien creature that is moving would knock out three goals at once. I’ve never painted water, and I have to admit that most of my subjects are rather static. I draw a lot of houses, and people generally don’t want those to be moving. I actually drew a mobile home once, but even it was pretty well-planted.
2) When did Artistic Remedies by Brenda get started? Can you tell us about the portraits and other projects you create?
Art has been a huge part of my life for most of my life, but I formed Artistic Remedies by Brenda as a sole proprietorship in July. It just felt like the right time to get my act together in regards to keeping tax ducks lined up neatly, and family vs. business accounts straight. That step has had a huge impact on me psychologically. It really motivates me to be more disciplined and structured with my time and goals. If I have a little space between commissions, I use that time to take a class online or work through some exercises that will help me with my next project. Most of my commissions in the past have been requests for renderings of homes, either in pencil or ink. Then, somewhere along the line, I started getting requests for subjects that weren’t in my online gallery. “Our dog just died. Could you do a portrait of our dog?” “My parents are celebrating their 50th anniversary soon. Could you do a portrait of them?” My cousin has an awesome vintage car. Do you draw or paint cars?” “Could you do our home in color?” At first, I thought, “No, no, no, and no. I draw houses in pencil and ink. That’s what I do.” Then, I thought, “That’s ridiculous. Everything has form and value. Dogs have form and value. People, houses, cars – they all have form and value. I just have to look at them carefully to measure the forms and values so that I can recreate them two-dimensionally.” The principles of design apply regardless of the subject. Once I grasped that, I stopped being afraid of drawing or painting subjects that were considered “hard”. I was wildly optimistic about color, though! Adding color is like trying to play three-dimensional chess. It’s just a whole other level of consideration. Still, I’m glad I took the plunge. After years of saying “no” to color, I think I’m finding that those are now my favorite projects.
3) You recently restored a National sewing machine. Can you tell us about the machine and the restoration project as well as your sewing skills and experience?
The machine was a generous gift from my mother-in-law, who is moving. She bought it years ago with the intention of restoring the machine and cabinet, but it didn’t happen. I’m not a great seamstress, but I’m old enough to remember when home economics classes were the norm for girls, and I am so grateful that I learned to sew and can follow a pattern. It’s a skill I can’t imagine living without – like hammering nails. A family of four comes with its share of mending, alterations, costumes, etc. Can’t stand the curtains at Wal-Mart? No problem. It’s not brain surgery, and someone on the internet will tell you how to get started. Same with this machine.
I had no idea that there were vintage sewing machine groups on Facebook and Yahoo. Well, there are, and the people who hang out there are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Talk about community! With tips from these folks, I wasn’t afraid to completely disassemble the machine and cabinet, even though I’m not terribly mechanical. This particular machine was badged out to Montgomery Ward as a Damascus. I think it’s a VB2 model, but I haven’t been able to pin down the year yet. I’m guessing around 1910-20. This machine makes me think of Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas, where he sees potential in that pathetic little tree. The thought of this lovely machine sitting idle and useless made me sad. Now, it’s purring like a kitten, sews a beautiful stitch, and treadling is just flat-out fun and relaxing. Until now, I’ve been sewing on my grandmother’s very modern, electric 1963 Singer 223. It’s a workhorse and will outlive me. She’d probably think I was nuts to be sewing unplugged, but this treadle machine is actually pretty quiet and easy to control. Thanks to my online community, I’m learning hacks for sewing zig-zag stiches and button-holes, so it looks like the National is becoming my primary machine. For the record, I am not becoming a collector. They’re like crazy cat ladies. They sleep on the porch because vintage sewing machines have taken over the house. I plan to find a new home for my Singer in time. I know; that’s what they all say.
4) You're an artist of many, many talents-- how do all of those loves interact with each other? Do you think each skill is richer because of the others?
Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes, I think it would be really cool to be a stand-out in one particular area. That has not been my story. The up-side is that having a wide variety of interests can lead to all sorts of unexpected adventures. I was once in a meeting where a colleague and I were attempting to persuade an administrator to allow us to paint a wall black in a room that was often used as a staging area. I brought reams of paper documenting why flat black was the way to go. I think he was concerned it would look gloomy. Finally, I said, “I’ll tell you what; I will create a large, cheerful flag with the school’s logo in school colors that will hang on a curtain rod in the middle of the wall whenever it’s not in use as a stage. It’ll be great!” He gladly assented, and we shook hands. On the way out, my colleague asked, “Can you really do that?” I said, “I don’t know.” Well, I did, and it was a success. Fortunately, my next-door neighbor was a quilter, and she told me how she would approach it. It later showed up on the cover of the school’s promotional folder, and I got to have a fresh chuckle over the affair.
There’s definitely been a lot of overlapping of my gifts. When presented with lackluster rooms to teach in, I painted murals. At my second job, I became very close to the drama director. I didn’t really have a drama background, unless playing in the orchestra pit counts. But as her friend, I enjoyed taking on some responsibility for her productions so that she could focus more on directing. Need a cast shirt? Let me take a crack at it. The set needs wallpaper? Hey, maybe some students and I could stencil a pattern. Door needs a wood grain? Let me read up on that. That was one of the beauties of teaching in a small school. In return, she helped me program my band concerts in such a way as to make them flow more smoothly and engage the audience more.
5) I've shared a bit on the blog here about how quilting has helped me through my journey of Postpartum Depression-- would you like to share about creativity in the midst of grief?
Last summer, our older son, Sam, died unexpectedly. He was 21. I saw him on the day he died. We hugged and kissed, and he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” But, he didn’t, and obviously, our lives were changed forever.
Some months earlier, I attended a band parent meeting at our younger son’s school. The director said we’d be discussing The Hall, also known as The Long Grey Mile. It’s a wonderful school, but the interior appeared to be designed in "Early 20th Century Penal Institution Chic". This delightful lady had the glorious idea to hang 2'x3' framed poster prints of her students that could be swapped out for more current ones after each season in the hallway that leads to the band room, but she didn't have the heart to hang them on such a bleak background. I gamely volunteered to paint a mural that would provide a more attractive framework for those posters, and make The Long Grey Mile a thing of the past. I did not immediately grasp the reality of the fact that the wall is 60’ long. Now, you may be thinking, "That doesn't sound so bad." Well, then you're nuts, too. I confess, it looked manageable on my 18" computer monitor, where I designed it.
The school gave the green light, and I decided to begin during drum line camp, which our son, Ben, would be attending. Sam was going to assist me, because he was quite an artist, and had some free time while he was waiting to return to college. Then Sam died, and part of me did too. And that part forgot all about the mural, until I was driving Ben to school. He innocently asked, "So, aren't you going to start painting today?" All I could think was, "Paint what? What are you talking about?" But God prepares good things for us to do in advance, and I decided that a promise was a promise, so after dropping Ben off, I went to Home Depot to purchase supplies.
So, instead of staring at the carpet at home every day, I drove to a school that I love, and painted my brains and heart out for nearly six months. I was usually working on my own, but sometimes others would lend their artistic talent, muscles, scaffolding, or a tall mocha. Occasionally a student or parent would just sit with me and cry. The project I thought would be finished before school resumed dragged on into December, and I believe it’s a good thing. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging at a time when I sorely needed both. When Ben graduated in the spring, our family left behind something that I hope will tell all current and future band students that they were worth it, and that I love them, even if I didn’t know all their names. Though Sam wasn’t there to help, his style and influence were felt, and when the mural was finished, the school treated me like a rock star. I was presented with generous gifts (my favorite is a name badge that says, “Band Director Emeritus”), there was a ribbon cutting, reception, and warm acknowledgement during the Christmas concert. It felt like a scene from a movie, and was very affirming. As a surprise, the band director chose to have the first set of posters feature the seniors, so there was Ben, framed on the mural. To see our son honored in the band that I started 25 years ago felt like a dream come true. When I packed up all my supplies, it felt like time to return home and figure out my next step, which turned out to be Artistic Remedies by Brenda.
6) What advice would you give to artists that share any of your many abilities and passions?
Be curious. Don’t ever be done learning. You can learn from anyone, even if what you’re learning is how not to do something. I read a book by Jimmy Carter (The Virtues of Aging), where he said, “I’ll only be old when regrets take the place of my dreams.” I liked that quote so much, that I put it in a song. I would encourage anyone to not be afraid to try new things. Don’t fear mediocrity. There will always be someone smarter, faster, and more talented than you. Jump in anyway and see what happens. I think the world would be a better, healthier place if more people played flag football and stopped watching the NFL. If more people tried skating and stopped watching the Olympics. If people spent more time teaching their children how to do home repairs instead of farming everything out. Artists may have leapt over that hurdle, but even artists can fall into a rut and suffer from insecurity. I am amazed at the many opportunities that have come my way when I tried, even when I failed. Auditions where I didn’t get the job, but which allowed me to meet people who led me to a different job. Scholarships I didn’t receive that led to scholarships that I did. Paintings I didn’t sell that improved my skills so that the next painting did sell. Reach out to people who you think are more successful, and ask them how they got there. Chances are, they’ll be flattered you asked, and glad to share their stories.
Thank you for sharing with us, Brenda! You can find Brenda on Facebook and Instagram. Her work makes amazing gifts, so get in touch ASAP to have portraits and renderings done for Christmas. If you are here in Duluth, you can see Brenda's portrait of City Hall near the men's restroom of City Hall, and I believe she will have an installation in the City Hall rotating gallery starting in January as well.
You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram, and I want to hear from you! Stay up to date on my work and engage in the conversation about art and creativity by liking and following. Also, Brenda and I are both members of the Duluth Fine Arts League. If you are a local artist or supporter of the arts or person who loves volunteering who wants to help promote local artists, we need you! Our next meeting will be in November-- like them on Facebook or follow my pages to be reminded about the meeting in a few weeks. Our next event is the Fall Art Walk, next Friday, October 14th. Food trucks will be out as early as 5, and the official "art walk," where you can meet local artists and musicians, is from 6-8pm. I will have a table set up with quilts for sale and enjoyment, I'll be working on a couple of hand sewing projects, and Brenda will be floating about. We would both love to meet you!
In the meantime, much love, friends. Enjoy FriYAY and go make something!
PS All photos but the first (my wedding picture, taken by the amazing Anne Simone) were provided by Brenda.