A Mother’s Hope

This oil pastel painting is based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. In the photo, the child is sitting on a parachute, relaxed, surrounded by vibrant colors. The colorful painting communicates joy and shows an innocent, carefree childhood moment. Every mother hopes her children will be able to enjoy a happy childhood without adult-level fears, at least until they are a little older.

On the surface this is a happy painting, but as the artist, I cannot help but think that too many children do not have the worry-free life they deserve. One of the reasons for the current uprising is that the moment depicted in this painting is all too rare for BIPOC children. I hope we can all work together to make a better world where our children, including BIPOC children, can live happy and free. This is not the land of the free until we are all free.

A Mother’s Hope, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18×24 inches. Based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries

The Evolution of a Painting: Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

In January of 2019, I had an idea for a painting. Perhaps I could illustrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke. How would Jesus have told the story if he were living in the US in 2019?

As I thought about the painting, I wanted to emphasize the fact that in the parable, Jesus chose to identify the hero of the story as a person representing an oppressed minority, a Samaritan. Who could represent an oppressed minority in the US in 2019? I chose a Black Muslim woman as the heroine of my painting.

Stage one of Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

With the plan in mind, I drew a white man who had been injured, and a Muslim woman who had stopped to help. I used photos from downtown Louisville as references for the streets and buildings in the background.

As I worked, I became agitated, worrying about how some might respond to this painting. Then this happened:

Stage 2: In my angst over how this might be received, I started throwing paint at the canvas.

I started hurling yellow paint, then red paint, then more yellow paint at the canvas. All the while I was thinking, “Why should this be controversial?” (Paint splat!) “Jesus was always standing up for minorities!” (Paint splat!) “How can we be so divided that I’m afraid to paint what I feel or think?” (Another paint splat.) I threw paint until I was calmed down a bit.

Stage 3: The yellow lights reminded me of Merton’s epiphany.

As I continued to work, the yellow lights made me happy. They reminded me of Merton’s epiphany in downtown Louisville when he felt a love for everyone, and saw them all as “shining like the sun.” I hoped love would always be the background for my art and all my communications. I then added the male religious figure in the distance, ignoring the problem, matching the biblical account of the leaders who walked past the injured man without helping.

Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany
Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas
36 x 48 inches

This is how the painting turned out. The woman is looking straight out of the painting, confronting the viewer. Sometimes I am tempted to look away from my friends and the oppression they endure, but my God, help me not look away. I will try to see all people as Merton did, “shining like the sun,” but the heroes and heroines in the 2020 Parable of the Good Samaritan are my black sisters and brothers, the peaceful freedom fighters who link arms to protect lone policemen and sing worship songs in the middle of a downtown protest. If Jesus were walking the streets of Louisville today in the flesh, he would likely be standing with them.

Mozambican Odyssey, #26: Stuck Between Two Countries

Some of us feel stuck now, waiting for the chance to get on with life. Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E. Brooks

One of the best things about living overseas was having groups from the US come to visit. They brought excitement to our lives, and the groups were generally encouraging and generous to our family. Our kids especially loved the group visits because it meant trips to fun places we didn’t normally go. One of our favorite trips was to a game reserve just across the border in Swaziland.

This rhino used our bumper to sharpen his horn! That was a little nerve-wracking.
The elephants also came very close during the safaris in Swaziland.

I remember one such trip that turned out to be a little too exciting! Mkhaya Game Reserve boasted white rhinos, elephants, and a beautiful setting for a safari ride in close proximity to the animals. A group from Kentucky had arrived, and we loaded them onto a bus for the trip across the border into Swaziland.

At the Mozambican side of the border they checked all of the passports and sent us on across with no problems, but on the Swaziland side we ran into a snag. One of our visitors had a Mexican passport, and they said she would not be allowed to cross. We were stuck between the borders. As much as I wanted to do something to help, I could do nothing but sit and pray. Our leaders negotiated while the rest of us sat on the bus and waited—for hours. The reason they finally let us enter is a mystery to this day.

In some ways, what we are going through now feels like that time when we were forced to wait between two countries in a kind of “no man’s land.” Going back was not an option, and moving forward was not allowed. Now we sit still, mourning the past and fearing the future.

It’s a difficult place, but in these times God can do something new if we remain quiet and listen. Richard Rohr explained it this way:

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled.*

Eventually, God made a way for us, and we entered the land. In time, we will be able to move into the next phase of our lives, but while in this liminal space, maybe we can look forward with expectancy, “receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.”*

*Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020, https://cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26/.

Hacks for the Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

Young Girl Wearing a Capulana, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

I find it amusing that we are so worried about toilet paper right now, and in the spirit of fun and laughter, I thought I’d share a few TP hacks that I learned in our travels overseas.

The Capulana Shuffle

First, we have the Capulana Shuffle. The young lady in the pastel above is wearing a capulana. Fortunately, for women in Mozambique, there were these big rectangles of brightly printed fabrics that were inexpensive and available everywhere, called capulanas. Women and girls used these as skirts, table cloths, picnic blankets, dresses for little girls, towels, baby carriers, and the list goes on.

While traveling in remote areas in Africa, I was taught by the veteran missionary wives that one can do the “capulana shuffle” if there’s no toilet around. So you tie the capulana around your waist, over your normal clothes, and you go outside where you can’t be seen, and squat, keeping your capulana around you as a shield while you do your business, and you use whatever biodegradable wipe you have or can find as your toilet paper, just make sure you don’t use poison ivy leaves, as has happened to somebody I know. I was never very good at the capulana shuffle, I confess.

Another hack I learned from our African travels is this: You could also dig a big hole in your backyard, about 2 x 4 feet, and pretty deep. You put two wooden slats across the hole for squatting, some kind of wall around it, and carefully do your business there, again using any biodegradable wipe you can come up with, but be careful, people have been known to lose their underwear forever in this type of outhouse situation. Just sayin’.

And with these hacks you can use any paper substitute instead of TP. In Mozambique, Martin learned this the hard way. He worked so hard to learn to preach in Portuguese, and when he did preach, he had to print off his sermons word-for-word, so that he could have the Portuguese in front of him.

One Sunday, after delivering a 10 or 11 page sermon, one of the Mozambican church leaders asked if he could have Martin’s sermon notes. He was flattered, thinking they wanted to study his sermon and remember the inspiring Bible verses he had shared.

A little later, Martin and his friend and coworker, Don Hulsey, traveled to visit that church leader at his home. After a trip to the outhouse, Don let Martin know that his sermon was shoved onto a nail in the outhouse, being used as toilet paper. Thinking there was surely some mistake, Martin checked it out for himself. There it was, all of his hard work and inspiration, being torn to pieces, strip by strip, and put “where the sun don’t shine.”

The Middle Eastern Watering Can
Some places where we’ve traveled, such as Cyprus, do not need toilet paper because they use water—no, not a bidet, but a much less expensive option, the watering can.

You can just put the watering can that you use to water your flowers, filled with water, beside the toilet, and rinse off with that. There you go. I honestly have never done this. I’ve just seen the cans in the bathrooms, so you are on your own as to how to dry off, etc.

The Portugal Plumbing Predicament

Back in 1999, we spent 6 months in Portugal, studying Portuguese, because it was the official language of Mozambique. Portugal was beautiful, with mosaic tiles, historical monuments, and castles everywhere, and we loved our time there in many ways, but they had plumbing issues.

In our apartment building, and I think in most places in the country, we were not allowed to flush toilet paper. Portugal was quite modern with flush toilets, but you had to have a trash can lined with a plastic bag beside every toilet, and that was where you put the TP.

So if you run out of TP, just get a trash can, preferably with one of those lids you can open with your foot, and put your used paper there. It doesn’t have to be toilet paper. Any paper will do if you’re not flushing it—you can even ask your pastor for his sermon printouts.

Transformation and Resurrection

Embracing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24×18, by Susan E. Brooks

Easter Sunday

Embrace your grief, embrace the cross, and know that God is in the business of transforming that grief and resurrecting you as a new person, full of compassion and hope for the future. Because of the resurrection we have hope. We have hope of seeing our lost loved ones again, and we have hope that those dreams that have died, or may feel like they are dying, will be transformed and resurrected by God in the future.

It’s an Easter like no other, but if we can focus on the new life and resurrection that is coming, in so many different ways and in so many areas of our lives, we can celebrate today. Much grace, peace, and resurrection hope to all of you dear ones today. Happy Easter!

Mozambican Odyssey, #22: When Our Son was attacked

When I write it like that, it sounds so terrible, and it was, but it could have been a lot worse.

Our son Kirk was 12 when he was attacked in Maputo, Mozambique.

Over our Thanksgiving holiday we had traveled to Nelspruit, South Africa, for our Christmas shopping because there was very little in Mozambique that was suitable or affordable at that time. We all chose some items that seemed special to us; and Kirk, our 12-year-old, had picked out a nice wrist watch.

When we returned to Maputo, Mozambique, Kirk was wearing his watch and enjoying it. After school one day, he and a friend were jogging around the school, just running around the block for fun and exercise.

Our kids attended an international school located in downtown Maputo, run by a mission agency from the states. We all loved the small school, and the staff became some of our closest friends for life.

As the boys were running, a local boy ran after Kirk and grabbed his arm. Kirk’s friend ran on to the school for help. The boy pulled at Kirk’s necklace and burned his hand with a cigarette, as he stole our son’s new watch. His main Christmas present was stolen, and worse, he was traumatized by being grabbed and burned.

He rushed into the school to tell us all about it, breathless and teary-eyed. I was glad he wasn’t hurt worse, “and he seems to be okay,” I wrote in my diary back in 1997.

I guess he was okay, but traumatic experiences can have a profound effect, and I still wonder if we should have done something more for him.

As I think about it, I wonder about so many children in the world who have had traumatic experiences so much worse than what happened to Kirk. Not to minimize what happened to him, but the fact is that countless refugees around the world have overcome incredible trauma, and a few of these courageous, beautiful overcomers have come to our city, Louisville, KY, to find a safe home.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries is an organization that helps resettle refugees that arrive in our home town. How can you help? Come to the opening reception to my solo show at KORE Gallery on April 11 from 6 – 8:30pm to learn more about Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). You will have opportunity to donate to KRM, and a percentage of all artwork sold that night will be donated to KRM. KORE Gallery is located at 942 East Kentucky St., Hope Mills Building, Louisville, KY 40204. Hope to see you there!

Mozambican Odyssey, #19: Baptism in Mozambique

Joseph was baptized while we were in Mozambique. Baptism in Mozambique, 24×18, Oil pastel, by Susan E. Brooks

Baptism in Mozambique 

On March 23, 1997, my husband Martin was very happy to baptize my son Joseph in the baptistry on the mission property in Maputo, Mozambique.  The baptistry was a concrete box that we filled with water just outside the church.  Joseph was seven, but quite intelligent and mature for his age.  He was also small for his age, so in some ways he reminded me of a little drowned rat when Martin held him up, dripping with the baptismal waters, but he was a lot cuter than a rat.

He is the only one of our three who was baptized in Mozambique, Africa, and it was so different from any baptism I’ve ever seen in the US.  We were outdoors, and local children and were pressing in around all sides, so excited to watch the event.  There was no stage, and no safe distance between the spectators and the baptism.  There we were, all smashed together, a vibrating mass of humanity, with a man and his son in the middle, and the little boy saying I want to follow God and have a new beginning.  In his seven years he probably had not done much to be forgiven of, having always been a kind, sensitive child who looked after his little sister and adored his older brother, and never complained, even when his mom accidentally gave him chili powder toast instead of cinnamon toast.

Whether he was too young or not, whether we did everything right or not as we tried to raise our kids, I don’t know—I doubt it.  But I do believe God’s mercy is great and that He will honor our trying.  I think He will honor your trying too, because His grace is big enough to cover us all, and He knows we are made out of dirt.

Just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get by, and yet there is also something divine about humanity.  We are made in the image of the divine at least, and I saw that day, dripping with water, sparkling in the African sun, one of God’s kids declaring his love for his Creator, and all of the glorious God-made people pressing in close enough to touch him, and I think that’s as it should be.  We need to press in close at times, and open our eyes to the glory of God in each other, and celebrate the sacred moments when we get a chance.

Mozambican Odyssey, #18: Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

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

Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

He told us he had been threatened with a knife.

I don’t know if this has happened for anyone else, but it seemed like whenever Martin needed to travel, the craziest things would happen while he was gone.  If Martin left, one of the kids would spike a fever of 105, armed robbers would storm the compound, or some kid would say he was going to die if we didn’t let him move in with us.  I wish I were exaggerating.

I may have mentioned before a young boy who became friends with Kirk. We had been happy to have him visit in our home with thoughts of discipling a future church leader. I had studied the Bible with him and taught him a little English at his request. He seemed like a wonderful boy, but that week we found out he had some problems.

He started by telling us that his family was going to kick him out of the house.  We were skeptical, but with all of the street kids and orphans around, we knew it could happen.  We told him we would help if he got into a bind.  Kirk was all torn up, begging us to take him in.  The story became more questionable when he said we shouldn’t talk to his family, or they would beat him.  Kirk was beside himself, believing that his close friend would become a street kid if we didn’t help him.

Then one day he came and said he had been threatened with a knife.  He was in tears.  Martin had gone to Nelspruit for the day. Now what was I supposed to do?  I consulted the other missionaries on our team, and we decided that his family had to be confronted.  We found out that he had told many lies, and that his very nice family wanted him to come home.

He was at our house with Kirk, and he refused to even go outside to talk with his aunt, who had come to fetch him.  It turned out that  this boy of about 14 had to be literally carried out kicking and screaming by one of the men!  He wanted so badly to stay with us. What a scene!

It seemed that our young friend so wanted to live with us that he devised a scheme to accomplish that end.  It’s not so surprising really.  At that time, everyone wanted to go to America, and we had so much more of everything than he did.  No doubt he was hurting.  It was difficult to tell him that he had to go, but of course, I couldn’t kidnap him from his family— not that I wanted to.  It was just hard.

Kirk learned that you can’t trust everyone, a tough lesson at age 11, but his friend survived and seemed to be fine.  Later he came back to help Kirk make kites and learn the culture in many healthy ways, and nothing like that ever happened again with him.  Many Mozambicans seemed very happy with the little they had, and put me to shame, but poverty is a scourge that I have never had to suffer.  I have no room to  judge those who cannot escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  I don’t blame him for trying.

Mozambican Odyssey, #17: Kids Are Terrifying

Judith loves life and loves everyone she meets! She looks a lot like her mother did as a child in Mozambique.

Kids are Terrifying 

Little children have always terrified me.  Yes, I have 3 grown children and 9 grandchildren, and I know that sounds crazy, but this is why I never taught elementary or younger children if I could help it.  You never know when they might do something crazy and die.  They might drink bleach or fall out of a tree, or run in front of a passing truck, or pick up a poisonous snake.  One negative aspect of having an artist’s imagination is that I can imagine all kinds of terrible things happening.  Add that to losing my 20-year-old brother to a rare form of lung cancer, and later losing my dad because of a car wreck, and well, I am terrified of a lot of things. When each of my children reached 18, I was relieved that at least they had lived to adulthood under my watch, and now it was up to them to keep themselves alive.

As I continued reading my journal from Mozambique, I realized that something else scary happened on the same trip out of town when we lost the tire on the car, and the Hulsey family had to drive us around. (You can read that story here.)

After losing the tire, we stayed at a hotel in Nelspruit, South Africa, for a couple of days while the men tried to get the car repaired.  The hotels in Nelspruit are clean and comfortable, and I was enjoying having carpet, a bathtub, and tiled floors—things I had taken for granted in the US, but did not have in my house in Maputo, Mozambique.

One morning at the hotel, Aleta Hulsey and I thought we would let the little ones, her nearly 4-year-old Zach and my barely 3-year-old Hannah, play in the little swimming pool in the hotel lobby.  It was such a small pool that we thought the kids could play around the edges and be fine, so we didn’t plan to get in with them.  We ladies were talking, and then Aleta stopped short and motioned toward the pool.  Hannah was floating in the deep end of the pool!  I dived in, fully clothed, and rescued her, of course, but good grief!  Little kids are really scary, always trying to get themselves killed or drowned or something stressful like that!

I went dripping back to my hotel room, kind of embarrassed, and yes, thankful that I didn’t lose a child in addition to losing a tire off the car on that first trip to Nelspruit.

God rescues us and our children from disaster so often, and I tend to take it for granted.  Just the other night I lost track of my one-year-old granddaughter for a minute, but we soon found her sitting in the bathroom, holding my toothbrush in one hand and my razor in the other.  Kids are terrifying—and so precious.

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/