Category Archives: Blog

Writings by Susan E Brooks

Mozambican Odyssey, #16: Car Trouble in South Africa

 

Here we are after losing a tire on the road in South Africa.
While Martin and Don haul the tire up out of the ravine, 6-year-old Joseph finds a tree to climb.

Car Trouble in South Africa

“Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”  — Beldon Lane*

By October of 1996, in Mozambique, we had managed to buy a small used car to get our family around until we could get something better.  Shopping in Maputo, Mozambique was very limited, so we wanted to travel to South Africa like our coworkers did for supplies and groceries that we could not find in Mozambique.  Our good friends, the Hulsey family, decided to go with us to show us around, and to make sure our little car could make the trip.

We waited about 2 hours just to get through the border between the two countries, and then, about 20 minutes into South Africa, we heard a strange sound.  All of a sudden, one of our tires flew off, speeding down into a ravine on the side of the road, and then launching back up into the air and disappearing again over the side of the road!

We were able to get to the side of the road without injury, and the Hulseys pulled over to help since they were following us.  My poor little 3-year-old Hannah was nearly hysterical, and I could hardly blame her after waiting 2 hours at the border and then this.

“What are we gonna do now? she wailed. Our car is broken!”

I wanted to wail too, but I didn’t.

We found the tire down in a ravine beside the road.  Don Hulsey had the always-prepared-seasoned-missionary-equipment in his car, lots of rope and hooks and such.  He held the rope as Martin rappelled down into the ravine by the rope to retrieve the tire.  I am glad I was not watching.

After the men hauled the tire up through the brush with the rope, we then piled both families of 5, yes, 10 of us, into the Hulsey’s landrover and went in search of a mechanic.

Today we laugh about this adventure, but had the Hulseys not been with us, it could have been horrible and dangerous.  There were rumors about little kids being kidnapped and used for “parts,” and the crime rate in South Africa was very high.  Had there been cars coming, the tire would very likely have caused a wreck.  God has protected us so many times through situations that could have been disastrous, and he has turned our “embarrassment into laughter.”*

This week in November, 2019, in Kentucky, again our family is having car trouble, but I am thankful that we are all safe.  Once again, I am so thankful for lifelong friends like the Hulseys who have been there for us so many times.  I am also thankful for my family, and how we take care of each other.

Finally, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a God who “turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.”*  I am still waiting on some of this to be completed, but I am also trying to focus on how much God has already done for me.  Praying you will experience the goodness of God this holiday season.

*Beldon Lane. Quoted in Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

This Artist’s Life, #12: Working with our Hands

 

Ancient Cedars in the Summer Sun, Oil on Canvas, 11 x 14 inches, by Susan E. Brooks will be on display at the Jane Morgan Gallery from December 5 – April 2020.

 

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”*

—Leonardo Da Vinci

I have to admit that I do not know exactly what Leonardo meant by these words, but this quotation is thought-provoking for me.  As usual, I am feeling a little sad with the approaching of winter and even the holidays.  I need some encouragement.  One way I can find encouragement, is to work with my hands.

I was having a conversation with an artist/teacher friend the other day, and we agreed that there is something healing about creating with your hands.  I find that whether it’s painting, drawing, or making a pie for Thanksgiving, I feel better and breathe easier when I’m working with my hands.

Too often, I am just “in my head,” worrying over the grandkids’ health or the latest car trouble, and I need the healing that creative work brings.  We sometimes act like we are only vehicles meant to carry our brains around while they do all of the important work.  The reality is, we are body, soul, and spirit, all connected and created to act as a whole.

Perhaps this is what Leonardo meant when he said the spirit needs to work with the hands:  Sometimes, when our hands are able to create what our spirits are needing to express, what results is art–something that goes beyond just one person’s expression and becomes universally true and impactful in unique ways to the viewer.

Simply working with our hands can be healing and helpful, but when the spirit shows up expressing truth through beauty, this is art.

 

*  https://renee-phillips.com/art-and-artists-statements-by-famous-artists/

Mozambican Odyssey, #15: Sometimes We Cry

Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E Brooks

Sometimes We Cry

The adjustment from one culture to another is called culture shock.  I had no idea what that was like, having never even been out of the country before the move to Mozambique, except on an anniversary cruise to the Bahamas.  Trust me.  Moving to Mozambique is no trip to the Bahamas.

The thoughts and feelings below are from my journal in August of 1996, just after moving to Mozambique, Africa:

I was excited to move into our house yesterday, but it has a few problems.  The toilet leaks sewage across the floor and into the shower stall.  I’m exhausted, and between a stressful team meeting last night and the toilet issues, I found myself in tears again last night.

(from 8/29/96, 3 days later)

What a week!  I tried to use the electric skillet, but it blew out the transformer.  All of our appliances from the states have to be plugged into a transformer to work on the 220 electricity.  Sometimes the transformers overheat, and it ruins both the transformer and the appliance.

We are supposed to have 220 electricity, but it fluctuates.  It’s really strange.  The lights suddenly become dim and flash on and off like a scene from a horror film.  This is also hard on appliances.  Our new refrigerator shut down after one of these episodes, so we called the electrician.  He pronounced our 5 day old refrigerator dead.  Desperate, we prayed, and tried one last time to get it going, and miraculously, it started running!

I needed that miracle.  Earlier today I was crying, again.  At that point we were nearly out of food, out of currency, no refrigerator, no vehicle, no way to manage.  What were we thinking, moving here sight-unseen with three kids and no overseas experience, at least none for me?  The tears flowed.

Somehow, by grace, by the end of the day we had a little money, and one of the local women agreed to walk to the market for me.  (She wouldn’t get swindled at the market like I would have.)  She came back with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we had a meatless spaghetti meal for supper.  We invited a veteran missionary couple to eat with us and were comforted by their company and their sage advice.

Now in 2019, back in Kentucky, I still cry, but not about electricity or money or food.  I would not trade our time in Mozambique for anything, but neither do I want to relive it.  A quote from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities describes it better than any words I can invent. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but God got us through.

Last week, I cried over the fact that my little grandson was diagnosed with diabetes.  I hate it because, barring a miracle or the discovery of a cure, he will face that disease for the rest of his life.  But I know that God is faithful and gives us the strength to handle whatever comes along, even though, sometimes we cry.

This Artist’s Life, #11: Inspiration from Fellow Artists

This is one of the few animal paintings I’ve created. I’m now inspired to try more animals. We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Open Studio Weekend is an event sponsored by LVA, Louisville Visual Art, and by the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.  During this special weekend, scores of artists around town open their studios to the public, and LVA sells tickets with maps and information about all of the studios.  I did not sign up as an artist this year; instead, I enjoyed visiting the studios of fellow artists. It was an inspiring weekend for me.

The first artist we visited was Helen Merrick.  Helen uses bright colors to paint just about any subject you can imagine.  Helen inspired me to think about painting subjects that I don’t usually paint, such as animals or historic sites, and to try different mediums, such a watercolors or alcohol inks.  Thank you, Helen!

The next artist we visited was Anne MacCracken Borders.  She showed me that  I could open up my back porch studio area to visitors, and reminded me that I have traveled to many interesting places around the world that I could paint.  I will be digging into my travel photos soon!  Thank you, Anne.

On Sunday I stopped at KORE Gallery to hang out, both as an artist and as a visitor to my gallery owner’s studio.  I had never taken in Don Cartwright’s studio, which is filled with beautiful abstract paintings.  Abstract painting has not been my purview, but sometimes I feel that it takes more creativity than working from life or photos.  Thanks, Don, for sharing your creative imagination with us through your painting.

Our last stop on the Open Studio tour was at Debra Lott’s studio.  I love her colorful, haunting, floating figure paintings and portraits! She inspired me to think about how I can communicate powerful messages and advocate for justice with my art.  Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, LVA and  U of L Hite Art Institute for a great weekend of art!  Perhaps I will invite you all to my place next year.  Meanwhile, here’s my next big event:

Mozambican Odyssey, #14: Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Our son Kirk, back in 1996, being friendly with an African Giant Millipede.

Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Moving to Mozambique, Africa, with three children was difficult for many reasons, not the least of which was that the insects in Mozambique seemed prehistoric in size and structure.  As if to confirm that impression, when I looked up “chongololo,” the name for the millipedes in Mozambique, the article said, “The giant African millipede can grow up to 15 inches in length.”*

Of course!  Just my luck.  Mozambique would be the home of the “giant” millipede.  We saw dung beetles the size of a young child’s fist, crickets that looked like a prehistoric armored version that could carry off a young child—okay, not quite.  But the worst were the baboon spiders that looked every bit like huge tarantulas!  Big brown furry creatures that hung out, literally, on the ceiling of our porch just outside the door.  They were terrifying.  I do not care if they were said to be harmless; those hairy monsters were nightmare fodder.  Having so many oversized insects in Mozambique, which were impossible to keep out of the house, was the bane of my existence, not to mention the mosquitos that carried deadly malaria.

We moved to Maputo, Mozambique in August of 1996 to do mission work.  I taught at an international school, and my husband helped start a pastoral leadership training program.  Living in our newly built house was described by one of our American friends as “like living in a bath house.”  We did have screens on the doors and windows, but we had no ceilings and only a concrete floor. Picture a bath house at a campground having three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room.  The roof leaked whenever it rained, and we placed buckets under all of the leaks, not knowing how to fix the type of roofing that was used.  Though we had screens, there was no keeping the insects out of that house, nor the geckos for that matter.

One time I was sitting in the bathroom taking care of business, when something came crashing down from the ceiling toward me.  I screamed and jumped up, not able to flee because of my state of undress, but it was just a gecko.  Geckos were crawling on our walls and ceilings constantly, but since they ate malaria-carrying mosquitos, we learned to consider them our buddies.  The insects, on the other hand, I could not stomach.

In my fervor to keep bugs out of our food, I would look for any container that might be airtight.  Containers were important.  Sometimes we would buy cookies that were sealed in a metal can that had a tight fitting top, similar to the tins we sometimes use in the states to give homemade Christmas cookies as gifts.  If I found cookies in a tin, that meant maybe they were fresh and not bug infested, and then I would save the container to use for storage after the cookies were gone.

One day I could not find my cookie tin where it was supposed to be in the kitchen.  I had looked everywhere.  I went looking around the house, and I found it on my oldest son’s shelf in his room.

“What is Kirk doing with my cookie tin?” I thought.

Nonchalantly, I opened the top.  As soon as I opened the tin, big hairy spider legs crawled over the edge, and I lost it.  I screamed bloody murder and flung the tin away! Out came one of those furry, tarantula-looking baboon spiders, followed by a huge prehistoric cricket, and who knows what else was in there, as it went flying out of my hands, clanging upon the concrete floors.

Hearing my scream, my husband came running.  He had a split second to decide whether to smash the big baboon spider all over the bottom of his boot or let it escape under the water bed where our son slept.  He smashed it, fearing none of us would ever sleep again knowing that it had escaped under the waterbed.

After the screaming and the slaughter of the monster, we laughed hysterically.  I learned a lesson: never open a container on a boy’s shelf without first inquiring about the contents!

* from https://www.animalstown.com/animals/m/millipede/millipede.php

This Artist’s Life, #10: Only One You

We are each one of a kind. Stachelle, 12×16 inches, oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

—Martha Graham

I love this quote, and it fits as I try to encourage myself to keep going.  We are created with unique creative minds and souls that are constantly coming up with ideas that no one else in the world is having in exactly the same manner, and if we don’t free ourselves to express and create, that unique expression will be lost.

We can get blocked, however, so what can we do when that happens?

I am writing these helpful hints to remind myself, and I hope you can benefit from them as well.  From the wonderful series of books beginning with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, these are some things we can do when the creative juices don’t seem to be flowing.

  1. Free write for at least three pages daily, in the morning if possible.
  2. Get out for at least an hour a week, and go somewhere different just for fun, such as a fabric store, museum, pet store, art gallery–somewhere that feeds your imagination and makes you smile.
  3. Go for a walk weekly, if not daily.  Walking gives a fresh perspective and helps you process your thoughts.

There you go.  Three easy steps to jumpstart your creativity and mine.  Thank you, Julia Cameron.

This coming weekend our city offers Open Studio Weekend, and for one small price you can visit lots of art studios in town.  One stop on the map is KORE Gallery, where you can see my work and the work of many other talented artists.  I plan to spend part of my time there, and also tour other artists’ studios.  This is a great opportunity to experience new ideas and get inspired for your own work.  Hope to see you around the studios this weekend.

This Artist’s Life, #9: “Art Is for Life”

 

I keep adding layers, scraping and sealing, painting and adding layers of pastel again to see what I can come up with on this experimental landscape.

“Art is for life, not the other way around.”  –Austin Kleon*

How does an artist keep going when life gets busy and hard, and everything seems to be pulling at us from every direction?  How does one find time to stay fresh and experiment when so many opportunities and obligations are filling the calendar?

Using oil pastel on a surface of textured acrylic paint is giving the foliage a unique visual effect.

With new shows opening every month at KORE Gallery, fall art fairs, and an opening in December at the Plein Air Gallery, nine grandchildren that need “Ony,” church work, and holiday activities, time management is a big challenge for me.  I know it is for all of us at this time of the year.

I have decided that at least for now, it is okay to not to apply for every art opportunity, and allow myself to focus on the art commitments I already have, and maybe even experiment a little, so that I can keep growing as an artist.  If I am so exhausted from going nonstop, my creative juices are drained, and the work suffers.

There are different seasons in life for all of us, and decisions have to be made daily that can make life richer in the things that matter, or make life more stressful than necessary for the sake of things that are not as important.

Art is important, but so are family, church, rest, health, and so many other things.  For too many years I put art on the back burner, and I’m not going to do that again–but I need to find a balance.  Sometimes, I can be overly dramatic:

“There will never be enough time or money to create the masterpieces that I have in mind.  One thing after another will keep falling apart until I am dead, and I will never accomplish my dreams, so I might as well quit all together!”

“Oh, get over yourself!” I have to say to myself at times.  “You can work for a few minutes today, and then again tomorrow, and maybe a few hours later in the week, and over time, you will have a body of work, and you will grow as an artist.  You do not have to do every art fair and every show this year.  ‘Art is for life, not the other way around.'”*

I know it’s a little scary that I not only talk to myself, but I also answer myself.  Weirdness aside though, I hope you can avoid running yourself ragged too.  Don’t take yourself too seriously, and slow down enough to enjoy the coming holidays.  I intend to do just that.

*from the book Keep Going by Austin Kleon, p. 127.

Mozambican Odyssey, #13: Sharing One Cup

Tanzanian Queen, 24×18, Oil pastel on pastel paper, by Susan E. Brooks

Sharing One Cup 

One of our early church experiences in Maputo, Mozambique was a stretching one for me.  Having grown up in the protestant churches, we always had lots of individual little cups for the communion service, and those were filled with grape juice and passed around for church members to take, along with the wafers or crackers that represented the body of Christ.

We had not been in Mozambique long when one Sunday we traveled out to the village, out from town a bit, to attend church with other missionaries and locals.  We were honored as special guests and seated on the front rows, which did not thrill introverted me at all, but we did as we were instructed to do.

There was energetic singing, dancing, and preaching which I enjoyed, but when it came time for communion, I started to squirm.  They were passing around one cup of wine, and everyone was watching us on the front row, so we had to take our turn, drinking after a bunch of strangers.

My mind spun with all of the different diseases in Africa that we had never been exposed to before, and one of my greatest fears about going had been one or more of us dying of some exotic illness.  All kinds of tragic scenarios ran through my mind as I sipped, fearing that we would catch something horrible.  I could imagine the headlines:

“Missionary family dies from ebola after drinking communion wine.”

I don’t even know how one gets ebola or if they have ever had it in Mozambique, but you get the idea.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, especially since we didn’t get sick, but back then, it was frightening for me.  I sipped and prayed that we would not become ill, and we didn’t.

God protected us so many times, and he still does.  How often are we exposed to deadly germs?  How many near wrecks do we have?  How many times do we nearly fall, but we are caught just in time as children, or even adults?  How many illnesses do we recover from if we do become ill?

We take countless mercies for granted every day.  God has rescued us from so many terrible fates that might have befallen us.  When I am discouraged, I need to look back at all of the fears that God has delivered us from, and then I can hope and expect that He will do it again.

This Artist’s Life, #8: My First Plein Air Paint Out

Morning Sunlight on Beargrass Creek, 12×12, Oil on Canvas, By Susan E. Brooks

Creativity takes courage.”      —Henri Matisse

I was so nervous about my first plein air paint out.  I wasn’t going to do it, and when I mentioned it to one of my artist friends, she said,

“I never do competitions!  I tried once and I froze up.  It was awful and I’ll never do it again!”

That kind of spooked me.  A plein air paint out means a bunch of artists go outside and paint something in the landscape, and then the work is publicly displayed, judged, and prizes are given.  This paint out was part of a celebration at the Regeneration Fair for the opening of the new Botanical Gardens at the corner of Frankfort and River Road, here in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

I have been going out weekly since last June, to paint with the Plein Air Painters of Kentucky.  I enjoy that, but it is understood among us that some  days it turns out well, and some days it doesn’t.  A paint out is something different.  What if I froze up or just had a bad day?

Not for me, I decided. But then as I ran into friends in the local arts community, I was urged to participate.  After some consideration, I said to myself,

“This is not about you.  It’s about celebrating the new botanical gardens and raising money for the Children’s Free Art Classes offered by the Louisville Visual Art Association.”

Some of my students have benefitted from those classes in the past, and I even taught one of those classes a long time ago.  Kids who would not normally be able to afford special art classes can take them through this program.

The night before the paint out, I was exhausted from the week and whining about the fact that it was going to be only 40 degrees or so for the 8am paint out arrival time in the morning.

“Why did I sign up for this?” I groaned.

As is often the case after I get so worked up about something, the event was anticlimactic and fun.  I did have to jog a little bit and jump up and down to keep myself warm as I painted.  But as the sun rose over Beargrass Creek, it lit up the trees from behind into a yellow-green glow.  I loved it!  I was able to enjoy myself and to paint something that I liked, so I didn’t mind much whether the judges would like it or not.  I didn’t freeze up, although I almost did just from the cold!

When I put my painting down among all of the others, I was happy.  There were so many beautiful paintings spread out, and I was just happy that mine didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.  I survived–not only survived– enjoyed my first plein air paint out.

Congratulations to my fellow member artist at KORE Gallery, Anil Vinayakan, for winning first place!  You can see more of his work and mine at KORE Gallery at 942 East Kentucky St. in Louisville, Kentucky.  My plein air work will be on display at the Jane Morgan Gallery at 4838 Brownsboro Center, with the next show opening December 4.

Mozambican Odyssey, #12: “The Thousand Natural Shocks”

“An African Madonna” by Susan E. Brooks, 20 x 30 inches, oil pastel on mat board

I love that line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for some reason.  Whenever I struggle, I think of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  We all struggle with a thousand things, but in the beginning of our time in Mozambique, there were so many shocks, literal,  emotional, and intellectual.

The electricity in Mozambique is 220, compared to our 110 in the US.  I don’t really know what that means, but I know that getting shocked is more serious with 220!  For some reason, we would get shocked if we touched the faucet in our newly built home when we tried to wash the dishes.  We had to wear shoes if we were to be in contact with the water, whether in the kitchen or in the shower.  It’s a wonder we are all fairly normal after getting shocked so many times.  It became a joke among the missionaries on the compound.  Maybe that’s what’s wrong with us!

In addition to the literal shocks in our house, there were the daily shocks of seeing how a different world operated.  My son saw a lady at the market selling roasted rats and bats.  I don’t know about the bats, but the rats were common.  They say it’s a vegetarian rat.  What exactly does that mean?  Is the rat picky?  He won’t eat his mashed potatoes with beef gravy? Or is the rat somehow how okay for vegetarians to eat? Does rat meat not count as real meat?  I have no clue, but I didn’t want any, vegetarian rat or not.

On the way to town one day we passed a pet baboon.  I don’t know what else to say about that.  Then we were again shocked at the high prices at the supermarket for anything that my kids might have eaten, such as boxed cereal.  The local people ate a lot of corn meal mush, but my kids wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and to be honest, I didn’t care much for it either.  So I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen, trying not to get shocked at the sink, and learning how to make chicken nuggets and fries from scratch.

Looking back on all of those shocks, I think perhaps I should have lowered my expectations of myself and others.  I now know that culture shock is difficult and demanding, and though I did enjoy some aspects of the newness of everything, I wish I had rejoiced in it more, and learned to go with the flow.  Instead, I often felt guilty about all of the things I wasn’t getting done, wasn’t eating, wasn’t enjoying, etc.

Isn’t it ironic that we can feel guilty for not enjoying something enough?  It kind of kills the joy when I’m always critiquing myself on how I am handling life.  “Never good enough” is a refrain that keeps coming back for me.

But when I listen to the right voice, I know I am enough because I am loved by my good God.  He knows I am human and loves me still.  That is enough.