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Mini Art Lesson #4: Oil Pastels for Beginners

Waiting, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 16 x 12 inches by Susan E. Brooks, based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, with their permission.

I discovered oil pastels while studying art in college.  I don’t know why I picked them up in the first place, and I remember being frustrated with in the beginning.  One of my early attempts was a ballerina whose face looked like that of an ape, sending my professors into spasms of laughter.  It’s a painful memory I’ve rarely shared publicly.

In spite of that failure, I kept at it, and I discovered if I used a textured board and kept my work large, striking portraits began to emerge from the background.  The pastels were so intense I had to mix the colors on the surface of the painting.  I found that not having the exact skin colors of pastels forced me to used a mixture of colors. Those mixtures became magic for me, and I developed my own style using oil pastels.  I’ll share a few oil pastel techniques below:

  1. Use a medium to dark color of textured pastel paper or mat board. The bright colors of the pastels will glow against a dark background.
  2. Try crosshatching layers of colors, allowing the background color to show through in some areas.
  3. Build up thick, buttery layers of oil pastel color, adding unique textures to the artwork. It’s almost like you are painting with oil pastels. Better brands such as Van Gogh or Cray-Pas Specialist artist quality oil pastels work best for building layers of color. I have found these at Preston Arts Center.
  4. For more on using color, see my post on the color wheel.

That’s enough for now. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. Experiment and enjoy!

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Thin Places, Mom, and the Milkshake

At Mom’s Window by Susan E. Brooks, 18 x 24, Oil Pastel on Paper

At Mom’s Window is inspired by a crazy photo I took while looking in at Mom on a visit to her window. Somehow, all the barriers blurred. The reflections from the window showed the happy sky that seemed oblivious to my grief, as well as the flowers we all sent to hang outside to cheer her. The photo also showed Mom and the faithful aid feeding her the milkshake, along with the edge of my phone, framing them in. It all seemed symbolic of the time we’re living in, and it looked like a magic door I wish I could step through, like in Narnia, to suddenly be inside the nursing home with Mom, giving her a hug.

This artwork also reminds me of a story I shared earlier this summer about thin places and the wonderful way the nursing home staff takes care of Mom. In case you missed it, here’s the video:

Let’s keep our eyes open for thin places, where barriers are blurred, and heaven touches earth.

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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/.

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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!

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Count Your Blessings and Bawl Your Eyes Out

Facing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Susan E Brooks

I wonder if I was the only one, sitting on the steps in the dark last night bawling my eyes out.

Last Thursday morning I learned that Mom had fallen during the night. I had already been worried sick about her because she’s in a nursing home in Leitchfield, KY, and we haven’t been allowed to see her for weeks.

My little 90-year-old mom is like the energizer bunny in that she just keeps going, and has fallen multiple times without breaking anything, but she has Parkinson’s, dementia, diabetes, and the list goes on.

When I got the call, it felt like a death sentence. Yes, she had broken her hip. Surgery was really the only option. Not doing surgery would mean a slow, painful death, but with surgery, she might make it, if all the stars aligned in her favor.

I am the sixth of seven children, and my younger brother moved out of state recently, so I was trying to sort out whether I could be with her at all, and where she would end up for the surgery.

Often, patients are sent to Louisville from Leitchfield for surgeries when the small regional hospital doesn’t have the surgeons or equipment that might be needed.

I called my son, the nurse practitioner, and asked his advice about how to stay safe if I were allowed to be with mom at a Louisville hospital. He said I should take some cloth face masks and wear those. I was asking whether I should quarantine myself away from Martin after leaving the hospital, when we got the call that mom would be able to have the surgery in Leitchfield.

That was the first big blessing!

The whole of Grayson County (where mom is) had only reported 2 cases of Coronavirus, and no deaths from it. I was very relieved that she would not have to come to Louisville, where the virus is spreading, people are dying, and the healthcare workers do not have the PPE that they need.

My sister, who lives in Grayson County, and normally takes care of mom’s medical decisions, was keeping me updated. She’s the strong one, who worked as a CMA in a nursing home giving out meds when she was younger. I’m the wimpy artist, who faints at the sight of blood, and is overly sensitive to, well—just about everything.

But now my sister is in her sixties and has a heart condition, so she and I agreed, along with my other siblings, that I should be the one to go be with Mom if that were allowed.

Sis heard that one person could be with Mom while she waited in the emergency room, but not after that, so I lead-footed it the 82 miles down to Leitchfield, only to find out I was too late. Mom had already been taken to her room, and I was not allowed to see her.

Dejected, I took my time driving back up to Louisville, feeling that I had failed mom and my family, because I hadn’t made it on time.

Back at home, I called the hospital, to see how Mom was doing. When I talked to the nurse in charge, and told her my story, she said that she would allow one family member to stay with mom because of her dementia.

Big Blessing number 2

I was told that I could stay with Mom in her hospital room, but I was not allowed to leave the room at all until I left for good. So I packed an overnight bag and drove back down to Leitchfield.

My heart was in my throat as I saw my mom for the first time since February. I wanted to hug and kiss her, but instead I washed my hands thoroughly, and then held her hand and told her I love her.

When the surgeon came in, he asked about my family, and we discovered that he had graduated from high school with my younger brother.

Big blessing number 3

I felt encouraged knowing that Mom was not just a stranger to him. Thank God for this surgeon who returned to his small town to serve the people he knows and loves, even when he could have made more money elsewhere. Thank God for all of our healthcare workers! They are all heroes.

Mom came through the surgery without any major problems!

Big Blessing number 4

Sunday afternoon, they sent Mom back to the nursing home. As of last night, she was doing well, and God has been so good to me. So why was I bawling my eyes out in the dark on the steps last night? Maybe I just needed to let it out. Maybe you do too. Go ahead. Count your blessings and bawl your eyes out.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #24: Cholera epidemic, Corona, and Grief is a wolf

“Grief is like a wolf we keep locked in the basement.”– Shelby Forsythia,* Artwork by Susan E. Brooks, 24 x 18, oil pastel on paper.

As I think about our time in Mozambique and what we’re going through now with the corona virus, I remember the cholera epidemic that we experienced back then. There was no internet, we hardly had television, and what newspapers we had, were all in Portuguese, so it was a struggle to read them. One huge difference between that and this Covid thing is that you can’t deny it or get away from hearing about it.

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

But somehow, back in the late 1990’s, we learned that there was a cholera epidemic in Maputo, Mozambique; and many people were dying, including children.

It was terrifying for us, and there was very little we could do. So many people living around us didn’t have running water or flush toilets; and neither did they have clean drinking water, so they were getting it through their water, if they didn’t boil it. I remember we printed up some flyers to pass out explaining the importance of boiling water and washing hands.

Other than that, we felt that all we could do or should do, was stay home and keep our kids healthy and away from the epidemic. I remember feeling frustrated with some cross-cultural workers, who were not medical professionals, who went around as if they were invincible, in the name of trying to help, but maybe spreading the disease, and putting all of our children and ourselves at risk.

It’s always hard when the thing to do is to do nothing, but it’s not about us, it’s about the community, and our friends and family around the world, getting through this.

This time has felt so sad and overwhelming for me, and I know others are suffering more than I am. We need to allow ourselves to grieve during this time. I came across this good advice in a devotion earlier this week:

revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing, so simply acknowledging or naming our disappointment to God is an important move. This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength. . . .  
—Brian McLaren
**

In this time of crisis, go ahead and let the wolf of grief out of the basement. It’s okay to cry, and please, talk to someone. Let’s not alienate ourselves from our best hope, but rather pour out our disappointments to Him, and find comfort and strength.

*Quote from Shelby Forsythia was heard on The Robcast, by Rob Bell **Quote from Brian McLaren was from Richard Rohr’s email devotions this week

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Mozambican Odyssey, #23: Malaria, Corona, and House calls

Joseph always took care of his little sister.

From my journal written in 1996, Maputo, Mozambique:

A couple of weeks ago Joseph, our 6-year-old got a mosquito bite on his leg and it started bleeding a little. He got quiet and tears started to form in his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Joseph?” we asked.

“People die from mosquito bites here. Does this mean I am going to die?” our little son asked.

Wow. How much stress are we putting the kids through? Is it worth it? This is so hard.

We assured Joseph that one mosquito bite was not a death sentence. But as his mom, I worried, because I knew there was a remote chance that any of us could get malaria and die before we left Mozambique. I lived with a constant, low level dread and fear that I might not return to Kentucky with all 5 of us, that one of us might die of malaria.

Thousands of African children die of malaria every year. Oil Pastel on paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks.

Malaria was a real risk, but every mosquito bite didn’t mean certain death. We were able to use mosquito nets, and we sprayed the kids with repellent, and we had access to treatment and medical facilities if we needed it; but Joseph was not totally wrong to be concerned. Malaria killed many children in Mozambique every year, and it still does.

Yesterday I was caring for my granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, when they decided it would be hilarious to jump up and down in the bathtub full of water to see how slippery it would be. I found myself panicking, thinking,

“I don’t want to have to take you to the emergency room for stitches in the middle of this crisis! What if they don’t have room for you?”

We are probably not there yet, but if we’re not careful, we could be soon. Now is the time to do something about it. Please “hunker down” with your family and do what’s necessary to protect the elderly and our children, who will not die from Coronavirus, but they may fall in the bathtub and need attention in the emergency room!

My granddaughters, demonstrating how not to act during the coronavirus outbreak.

And here’s another option if you’re in the Louisville area and need healthcare. That smart, sensitive little son in the picture has grown up to be a nurse practitioner in a medical practice that sends out nurse practitioners to your home. They are now accepting new patients. Here’s a number to call them if you need medical help, but don’t want to risk going to the doctor’s office or the hospital. Call 502-327-9100 to set up your appointment.

More than ever, we need to care for each other; and for now, for most of us, that looks like staying home and not hoarding hand sanitizer. Joseph’s group has already had to ask the community to help by donating cleaning supplies from their homes, because their medical personnel were running short. Let’s trust God to provide for the future, stay home, and wash with soap and water.

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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!

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Mozambican Odyssey, #21: A fever Of unknown Origin

This is my husband Martin, reading to our granddaughter Dorothy. Oil pastel on paper, 24 x 18″ by Susan E. Brooks

Realizing that your husband, your high school sweetheart, father of your children, and best friend for life, could die at any moment, has a clarifying effect. All of the unimportant pressures you were concerned about—job, money, paperwork, laundry piled up, appointments, and deadlines— disappear from your consciousness and you are focused on one thing: Is he going to be all right?

Missionary friends brought us food and took care of our children, while I just sat in the small clinic beside my husband’s bed, praying that he would be okay.

After a trip to the villages in the north of Mozambique, Martin became very ill. It came on suddenly. He could barely get out of bed. We took him into town to see a Nigerian friend who was a doctor. The doctor immediately put him on an IV and did blood tests which showed a raging infection.

We still don’t know, but we think it was from something he had eaten while spending a week out in the villages. There he was, all hooked up to an IV in this clinic that seemed to have very little besides beds for the sick, IV equipment, and a metal chair for me. The doctor didn’t have the medicine he needed on hand, so I sat with Martin, and waited.

We spent two nights in the clinic. Cecil Byrd, our friend and teammate, drove all over town to different pharmacies asking for the medicine that was needed. He eventually found the drug the doctor wanted. That drug seemed to do the trick, and we were back to our compound with the kids and the team after a couple of days.

When we returned home, we called our doctor back in Kentucky to discuss the illness, which had been diagnosed as “a fever of unknown origin.” When we told him the name of the medicine given to Martin, he said that it was no longer used in the US because it kills too many people!

Nevertheless, Martin was better. God kept him from dying from the illness and from the sometimes lethal drug that was administered. We didn’t know exactly how he got sick or how he got better—still don’t, but God healed my husband.

I don’t want to go through that ever again, but there is something about the clarity that comes in the face of death that can help us savor life. Life is a glorious gift. Yes, it is filled with suffering, but also with joy. Some days I have no choice but to grieve, but most days, I can embrace life and choose joy. Today, I choose joy because my best friend still lives, and God is with us, even if we are diagnosed with “a fever of unknown origin.”

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Mozambican Odyssey, #20: Swaziland Safari

African Queen, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

Safari in Swaziland

Swaziland is a fascinating mixture of African traditions and western civilization. As we drove into the country, we saw a man in full tribal feathers walking along the road, carrying a brief case while talking on a cell phone. So cool! I wish we Americans were more like that. I want to wear a hoop skirt and a feather hat while talking on my cell phone.

Swaziland is a small country that is landlocked between the southeastern border of Mozambique and the country of South Africa. We heard that one could go to Swaziland and have an overnight safari for a reasonable price. A sweet friend offered to keep the kids while we went away for a night, so we decided to go for it.

The safari was in a white rhino reserve. We rode around in an open Landrover jeep, seeing elephants, large lizards, colorful birds, and of course, rhinos. At one point, a rhino came up and started sharpening his horn on the front bumper of our jeep! Granted, maybe the rhinos in this reserve were slightly tame, but still—this guy could have easily flipped us over. He could have hooked that big horn under the bumper, and we would have gone flying out. We sat still, holding our breath until he finished the sharpening and went on his way. That was a bit scary.

After a short afternoon safari and some supper, they took us to our accommodations for the night. Picture an Arab princess tent—not sure that even exists—but it was luxurious. Inside the huge tent was a soft, comfortable bed with a proper frame, covered with a thick white comforter, situated on a wooden floor with a table beside it. This tent also had a private flush toilet and shower inside. We were warm and cozy through the night, and in the morning they brought hot tea and toast to the bedside table. I could live in that tent!

The best time, however, was when we all gathered around an open fire where they cooked all of our meals. That was an African tradition that I loved. That night we gathered around the fire and discussed witchdoctor stories and local fables about the rabbit, the hippo, and the elephant. The rabbit was always the clever one. I asked our African guide about the practice of sitting around the fire at night. He said,

“The grandmothers used to tell stories around the fire, but now there are no more stories. Now we go in and watch TV, and I have to get away and go find some quiet.”

How sad for us, East and West, that the TV has taken the place of story-telling around the fire or around the dinner table. Maybe we can choose to be different. Maybe with our families and friends we can sit together, facing each other, sharing a meal and sharing our stories. Maybe we could learn a lot from the African grandmothers.