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This Artist’s Life, #1: The Gate into the Unknown

 

“The Gate into the Unknown” Oil on canvas panel, 11×14, Plein Air Painting, Anchorage, KY by Susan E. Brooks

When people ask what I am doing, I tell them I quit my teaching job to pursue my art, and they don’t seem to understand my answer.  I get it.  Rarely does one meet a fine artist, as opposed to a commercial artist, who is making a living with her art.  People assume that I have “retired” from teaching to kick back and enjoy the grandkids and dabble in art as a hobby.  The fact is that I do enjoy a little more time for the grandkids, but I have no retirement package, and I’m too young for social security.  I have made a leap into the unknown, and it is yet to be seen whether I can replace my teaching income with income from my art and writing.

So how do I spend my time?  So many different art and writing deadlines are looming that I’ve had to make a spread sheet which I update each week.  The columns are for things that need to be done “this week, this month,” and in the “near future.”  It also has a place for a shopping list.  Here’s a link to the weekly planner I made for those who might like to use it: my one page weekly planner

To keep up with the demands of the two galleries that represent me, KORE Gallery and the Jane Morgan plein air gallery, I need to do at least 2 large oil pastels per month, and go out every Thursday to paint “en plein air,” which means painting outdoors.  In addition to creating work to sell at these galleries, I have juried invitational shows and art fairs for which to create work and a solo show coming up next year.

On the writing front, I am working on a book of stories about our time in Mozambique.  From emails and journals that I wrote while in Mozambique, I publish a devotional blog story every Wednesday, which is a short excerpt from the book. Here’s a link to the first of those posts if you are interested.  Mozambican Odyssey, #1.  I am also sending off articles and stories to publishers each month.

What makes me think I can do all of this and maybe make a little money at it?  I ask myself that all too often, but when I need encouragement, I remember the words of a beloved college professor of mine.  Many years ago, when I studied art in college, the professor in charge of the art department called me into his office one day.  He asked what I wanted to do with my life.  When I told him I wanted to be a fine artist, he said this:  “I tell most of my students that they should go into commercial art because so few can make it as fine artists, but you could make it as a fine artist.  You can do whatever you set your mind to do.”  That dear man died of cancer a couple of years after giving me that encouragement, but I’ve never forgotten it.  It has taken me about thirty years to get around to trying it full-time, but I think that professor is watching from heaven, cheering me on.

 

 

 

Mozambican Odyssey #6: They All Said Yes

A Light Has Dawned, 17×20, pastel on paper, by Susan E. Brooks

I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized, and they all started shaking their heads “Yes”!

“Wait a minute,” I thought, “let me make sure they are saying what I think they are saying.”

You see, I was still learning Portuguese, and Portuguese is also a second language for these children.  They speak Changaan at home, but school is taught in Portuguese because Mozambique had been colonized by the Portuguese.  I had these illustrated Bible story posters with the story written in Portuguese on the back of the big, colorful illustration.  I would practice reading the stories in Portuguese, and the other missionaries told me my pronunciation was good, so they asked me to teach the children on Wednesday nights.  The truth is, I could read the words and pronounce them well,  but at times I didn’t comprehend what my own mouth was saying as I read the story to the children.

Sometimes having good pronunciation can get you into trouble because people think you have better language skills than you actually do.  The other night for example, two babies came to class with their older siblings, who looked to me to be about 6, and just as the class was starting, a baby toddled out into the dark night.  I tried to ask the children to go get her, but in my panic, my high school French popped into my mind instead of Portuguese, and the children all just looked at me blankly!  It’s as if my brain has a foreign language switch, and when I’m panicked, trying to think of a word in the new language I’m learning, instead, my brain supplies the word from a language I haven’t studied for years, sometimes a word that I wouldn’t be able to think of if I were trying!  I’m curious as to whether this happens to other people, or is my brain broken?

After I realized that I had used French instead of Portuguese, I corrected myself, and the big brother went to retrieve the baby.  After the story ended, I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized.

They all started nodding their heads and saying, “Yes!”  I was super excited, but not quite sure they understood.  It would have been great to just baptize them all and report the wonderful results to our supporters; but instead, I questioned them further, finding out that many of them had already been baptized, and things were not exactly as they seemed on the surface.

Most of the time these days, I’m not trying to communicate in a second language, but do I still make the same kind of mistakes?  I make a judgement, based on someone’s brief response, not really taking the time to ask questions and make sure they understood what I meant, and maybe I plow forward based on mistaken assumptions, not taking the time to get to know people or listen to them because I have an agenda for them.

Jesus, on the other hand, took the time to walk, talk, and eat with people.  He didn’t push an agenda, but he asked what they wanted, sometimes even when the answer seemed obvious.  He spent time daily with his disciples, teaching them by example and with stories and conversations.  I need to be reminded to slow down and listen to people.  It’s not all about my agenda for them.  Maybe they don’t need what I think they need, and I won’t know unless I let go of my agenda for them and listen.

Mozambican Odyssey #5: The Rich Dog and Ernesto

Ollie and Bob, 18 x 24 inches, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper by Susan E. Brooks
Ollie and Bob, 18 x 24 inches, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper by Susan E. Brooks

The Rich Dog and the Ernesto

Let’s just say giving dogs a flea bath, then drying them with a towel, then giving the dog the towel because it is gross after drying a flea-covered dog—not my favorite thing to do!  I didn’t have many towels to spare, I was thinking, and towels here are so expensive.

The kids wanted a dog, and it seemed like a good idea for security, but it wasn’t working out so well.  We had heard about a full-blooded German Shepherd puppy that was for sale, so we said we were interested. We sent the money for the dog, and it arrived completely covered in fleas and sores.  We bathed him in flea soap, and seeing him pitiful and shivering with cold, we dried him with one of my old towels.  After that, I let the puppy keep the towel because it was filled with fleas and flea medicine.  Then, as luck would have it, we found out we had the wrong dog!

We were supposed to get the female puppy, and this was the male.  The owner of the puppies brought us another flea-ridden, scabby puppy, and left with  our clean puppy.  We went through the clean up routine all over again, ruined another towel, and the puppy ended up with two of my bath towels.  I wasn’t thrilled about this, but I had nothing else to use for him.  There isn’t the abundance of rags and materials available here that I had back in Kentucky.  In addition to two towels, it so happened that the dog had also claimed one of my washcloths; maybe it had fallen off the clothesline or something, so he had his own collection of linens, too disgusting  for me to reclaim for the family’s use.

During that time we employed a young man to work in our yard.  When we first hired Ernesto, I thought he was about 14. Then I learned that he has 3 children, the oldest as old as Kirk.  We had no mower, and not much grass, but the tradition was to hire a local man to cut the weeds with a machete, and he also did some simple landscaping for us, planting flowers and plants that we wanted to have in the yard.

Naturally, Ernesto had been watching everything that was happening with the puppies.  One day he got my attention, showed me the dog’s towels and washrag and said,

“I need one of these,” all in Portuguese, of course.

I thought maybe he intended to wash the car or something.  “For what?” I asked.

“Para mim!” he answered, which means “for me,” in Portuguese.

He went on to explain that all he had at home to dry off with was a capulana, which is a very thin, colorful piece of fabric that Mozambicans use for everything from a skirt to a picnic cloth, and, as I am learning now, for a towel, but a very sorry towel it would be.

Like a punch in the gut, it hit me that my dog is richer than my yard worker.

Ever read the stories in the Bible like the one about the rich man and Lazarus and identify with the poor man?  I used to always identify with the poor characters mentioned in the Bible, never the rich.  I couldn’t be the rich guy storing things up in barns or the rich man with the beggar just asking for some crumbs from his table, could I?  But now I realize that I am the rich person, and  I am haunted by that realization to this day.  Try reading the New Testament and putting your name in where it says “rich man.”  It will make you squirm.

Mozambican Odyssey: Babies Carrying Babies (Excerpt #4)

In Mozambique, it was not unusual to see toddlers carrying babies on their backs.

Lately I’ve been going through old photos from our time in Mozambique.  The photo that this artwork is based on reminded me of an eye-opening experience I had after we first moved to Mozambique, when my daughter was only 3 or 4 years old.  We had hired a young mother to help me with the housework and with learning the language and culture.  One day she needed to bring her children to work with her, and she brought her little daughter who was the same age as ours, 3 or 4, but strapped onto the little one’s back was a baby!  That little one, very much a baby herself, I thought, was expected to bounce that baby and keep her happy while her mommy worked.  I couldn’t believe it.  I watched as she entered my house, carrying that heavy load, and I worried about the little head bobbing up and down as big sis–tiny big sis– carried her around.  The little girl walked through the kitchen, and then she caught sight of my daughter’s bedroom.

At this point I feel the need to say that my kids left so many of their toys behind in the states, and there was very little around Maputo that we could afford to buy for them, or even that they would want when we first moved there.   Hannah did not have very many toys compared to her friends back in the states.  But when that little toddler entered her room, still with the baby on her back, her eyes got huge!  It was as if she had walked into Disneyland.  She had apparently never seen so many little girl toys, baby dolls, etc., and she just wanted to play in there all day.  That she did, as I recall, occasionally stopping to comfort her in-the-flesh baby sister on her back, as she played with the dolls.

It was another of many such moments in which I realized that I was the rich white American, and my employee’s kids could not imagine living like we did, despite the fact that we felt we had given up so much to move to Mozambique.

I’ve been processing this stuff for years, and I still don’t have many answers.  Being ashamed of having more than someone else is not helpful, but I do think we need to struggle with what can be done about income inequality and find ways to be compassionate.

Micah 6 : 8 comes to mind.  “And what  does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I need to be concerned with justice, mercy, and humility.  These three are so needed, now more than ever.

Mozambican Odyssey: Story 3, Kites from Garbage

 

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

Kites from Garbage 

I just heard Kirk scream—the kite string has broken and it’s lost.  The kite carefully fashioned out of garbage had flown so high! I’m surprised that it flew at all.

With the help of his Mozambican friend, Gerito, my 12-year-old son Kirk unraveled a length of nylon rope into many short strands, and spent hours tying them together end to end for the kite string.  They used a plastic grocery bag over two sticks for the kite, scraps of rope for the tail, and—believe it or not— it flew sky high.  We dodged dozens of kids flying kites as we drove home from school on our sand road the other day.  It must be the season to fly.

What season is it for you?  Maybe it looks like all you have to work with is garbage, but God doesn’t see you or your situation that way.  God, the original creative artist, loves to make masterpieces out of messes.  He loves the people that are society’s  “throw aways.”  He is mending you and lovingly crafting your life so that you can one day “soar on wings like eagles” (Isa. 40:31).  Some days it’s hard to believe, but then again, I never thought Kirk’s kite, made entirely out of “garbage,” would ever fly.

Mozambican Odyssey: (2) “But they live in mud huts!”

Curious children were everywhere as we settled into our new home in Mozambique.

Getting off the airplane, it felt as though we had traveled back in time.  Mozambique was said to be the third poorest country in the world at that time, and they had just survived 30 years of civil war.  Kentucky seemed like a bright, shiny Disney Land compared to the devastated country we had just entered.  Many people lived in mud huts and cooked outside on a fire.  War had ravaged the countryside and further impoverished the people.  There was the feeling of “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”

As we bumped over the asphalt roads, and then the sand roads on the way to our compound, we saw that some Mozambicans did live in apartments or houses of concrete, and others in houses of mud and sticks or grass.  I had been told that an American missionary had built our house, so I was expecting, not anything fancy, but an average, finished house.

Upon arriving at the compound, I discovered that the house wasn’t finished to the level I was expecting.  The floors were concrete, and I was told that I would need to wax the concrete floors before we could move in, or maybe I could hire someone to help me with that.  There was no mention of tile or carpet or anything of that sort, just

“Wax the floors before you move in so you won’t be sweeping up cement dust every time you sweep.”

And this had to be done on hands and knees, and then the wax had to be buffed off, by hand.  Finished, to me, meant floors and ceilings.  There was no ceiling either.  We looked up at rafters and the underbelly of the roof.  A friend later commented,

“Your house is like living in a bath house, with the concrete floors, no ceiling, etc.”  She was right.

Nothing brings you face to face with your own self-centeredness and  presuppositions like moving to another culture.  I had just arrived, and nothing was like I had expected it to be.  This was hard—in so many ways— hard concrete floors, no furniture, no air-conditioning, and unreliable electricity.  Yet many of the Mozambicans lived in mud huts.  In the US, I never had to struggle with wealth inequality.  I was nearly always surrounded by people of about the same socioeconomic status that I have, and I felt comfortable being kind of in the middle.  I had enough, but not a lot more than those around me; and many of those around me had a lot more than we did, so I felt righteous enough, at least when it came to material possessions.

Then I moved to Mozambique, and the rug was pulled out from under me, landing me flat on my hard, soon-to-be-waxed concrete floor.  What was I to do? Complain to God and my coworkers that this was not what I expected, when I could easily walk to a dozen or more mud huts in our neighborhood?  Maybe I should have tried to buy one of those huts to live in, but then we would have starved if I had had to cook everything on a fire that I had built, since my fire-building skills are laughable or non-existent.  Then too, we probably would have all died of cholera or malaria if we had not had a house with screens and running water that we purified with a water purifier.  I could go on and on, but you get my point.  Do we all need to plunge into poverty, or can we lift up the impoverished to a higher level instead?  Does God have enough to go around?

I think God does have enough, but I also believe I should learn to be content with a simple lifestyle.  God loves the homeless, the refugee, and the individual living in third world countries as much as He loves me.  He hates greed.  What does greed look like? Having a floor and a ceiling?  What does it mean to be greedy in light of the suffering in the world? I wrestled with these questions  as I waxed my floor, down on my hands and knees.

Mozambican Odyssey, #1: Culture Shock and Stress

“All the World” by Susan E. Brooks, 20 x 30 inches, oil pastel on mat board

 

Every day is filled with incredible stress, guilt, and fear.  My husband nearly died from an unidentified illness, and I fear for the health and safety of my kids almost all day, every day.  It’s easier just to stay on the compound with the other American missionaries, but that’s not why I came.  God, help me get through this.

The women here are so strong and persevering.  They work incredibly hard everyday, many with absent husbands, caring for children in addition to working a job if they can find one.  Most prepare their food over a fire and carry water some distance from a pump.  Their lives seem like constant struggle and pain to me, and yet they sing and smile and are so beautiful in their laughter.

I am a pampered child who cannot handle much stress, apparently.  Many days I wonder what it would be like to have a nervous breakdown.  How can you tell if you’re about to lose it?  What are the signs?  I can’t talk to anyone about this because they’re all stressed too, and I’m supposed to be a hero to the people back home.  What a crock!  I’m a wreck.  The kids are the only ones who seem to be okay, most of the time.  I try to hold it together for them.  I keep my  inner turmoil  hidden.  God does help me and carry me through, but I wonder if He will keep us safe.  I wonder if all 5 of us will make it back home to Kentucky.

I know that God is good.  I see it in nature and in the beauty of children and in the Mozambican people all around me.  How can the creator of such beauty not be good?  But I also see the suffering around me.  Children are dying from cholera all around.  I saw my 20 year old brother suffer and die of cancer within a few months.  My dad died at age 63, just before retirement, as a result of a car wreck.  Life is suffering, beauty, and glory, all mixed together.  Sometimes I could hide from that back in Kentucky, but not here in Mozambique.  Extreme poverty slaps you in the face as children beg for bread every day; but at night, the stars crowding the sky seem so close you could throw a rock at one and send it crashing down to earth.   This beauty is also undeniable.

Looking back in 2019, I did survive 3 years in Mozambique, but one of my teammates did not.  He was shot and killed by armed robbers that entered our compound one night.  I did not feel free to write about how difficult it was for me back then, but now I am free of the pedestal and the expectations that were put upon me at the time.  I don’t know why I am safely back home, and my friend is not.  God allows suffering, and He is is good.  These truths I have to hold in tension, and probably always will.  I hope I can live in such a way as to celebrate the beauty and goodness, and at the same time, maybe I can alleviate a little of the suffering, or at least, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, as Jesus does.

Facing the Jury

This oil pastel portrait, along with 2 more of my oil pastels will be on display at the KORE Gallery for the month of March.

Don’t worry.  I haven’t committed a crime or anything like that, but sometimes, artists have to submit their artwork to to be judged by a group of jurors, and either we are judged to be at a level of accomplishment that warrants a title “juried member” or gets us into a show, or we remain in a not-yet-juried position, when it comes to joining certain groups of artists.

I am still learning about all of this, so I thought some of you might find it interesting as well.  Artists face a lot of rejection as we enter juried shows and try for various opportunities that come our way.  I’m learning to accept rejection as part of the artist’s life; but I am relieved and excited to share that I made it through the jury process of the Louisville Artisans Guild, and therefore was invited to show my work at the KORE Gallery in downtown Louisville, along with  the other new juried members of the guild, during the month of March, with the opening reception happening this Saturday, from 6-8:30pm.  Hope you can come join us!

Sacred Places

Sacred Places,  Oil pastel on paper, 18×24 inches, by Susan E. Brooks

Sometimes–no, all the time–I want be aware of the sacred all around me.  We tend to separate life into categories: sacred versus secular, art versus life, one category or discipline versus another, and we seldom connect things in our minds.  Yet, in reality, it is all connected.  Academic disciplines overlap, art influences life, and all of creation is sacred.

My art grows out of special times when my eyes are opened to beauty, which for me is a gift from God.  The above pastel painting was inspired by a time when the sacred danced into my ordinary day, and demanded my attention.

It was one of many summer days that I kept my granddaughters, who, though they look like little angels, do not always behave like angels.  We went out into the backyard to play, and the sun was streaming long yellow-green stripes of light across the grass, and these tiny yellow flowers were shooting up straight and thin, up to the blue-violet sky, and the tulip tree was spreading its delicate, pale pink blossoms.

The invitation to bask in the glory of the moment was not lost on the girls, who  ran to gather the tiny yellow flowers for their mommy.   It struck me that this was a sacred, beautiful moment, and though I was tired, this time I noticed, and I started taking photos.

How many times have I not noticed and just kept pushing through my day?  Too many, I’m afraid.  This year, open my eyes, God, to more and more of the beautiful and sacred around me, and help me listen and see You at work in all of this painful, yet glorious existence.