When I was seven years old, my sister entered me in a beauty contest for first graders. That’s me on the left in one of the few photos I have of me from my childhood, dressed kind of like I do today, flowered dress and tights, hair cut with bangs and curly wavy long in back; some things never change. I did not win, and I don’t know who did. I guess it wasn’t important enough to remember.
I do remember that 1968, the year I went from first to second grade, was a very frightening year, and I remember the things that happened that year as I moved out into the world; I can picture me at that time, and remember. Two very public and very respected people were killed in public places. People cried in public. Riots happened and we saw cities burning like something from a scary movie, except it was real life, and people were hurt and killed, real people, like people I knew, and they lost everything they owned.
We heard about the Viet Nam war on every radio news cast and saw it every night on TV. Those people were being shot at and shooting at others in places with strange names, but it was difficult to determine who was who, and what was right and what was wrong, and the news didn’t really make that clear. A plane was hijacked to Cuba, people taken hostage, big words for a first-grader but I knew what they meant, and I knew it meant those people hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they were taken to a place they were frightened of and could be killed.
And black people, like the few I knew at my Catholic school, were also fighting, and being killed, like the people who had lost their homes in the riots. My black friends seemed safe, but from what some people were saying around me I really wasn’t sure.
It seemed like people were being killed everywhere, and that this country, and the world, were not a safe place to be as I emerged from my suburban neighborhood and went to Catholic School. My world was small. I thought these things happened in downtown Pittsburgh, six miles away, and in the tree-covered hills around us in Western Pennsylvania.
We called him Martin Luther King then, no Reverend, no Doctor, no Junior, and I realize now, not allowing him the respect he deserved. But when he was shot and killed, and time stopped as adults held their breath wondering what would happen, I remember hearing about the dream, and freedom and wondered why some people couldn’t have it like I did. In my simplistic first-grader reasoning I thought they should live like me and had no idea why things were as they were.
I remember the word “service”, and how we needed to help each other, no doubt echoing what I was also learning in Catholic school, which was very much about public service and reaching out to people with less than we had and sharing, making sacrifices.
And I remember hearing that we needed to do this in a hurry, we could not wait because…people were suffering, and they were dying, because they did not have the same rights as others, as I did. And other people didn’t want them to have those rights, either.
Children often feel they are responsible for needs in their environment. I wanted to do something, but had no idea what I could do, or when, or how. I looked to adults for answers, but they all seemed to be waiting for something to happen, looking for answer just like me.
I decided I would just be nice to everyone.
A decade later, after witnessing the strife and changes from 1968 to 1978, I read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which speaks much of time, and there it was, …”the time is always ripe to do right.” That concept of not waiting for the right moment, the “fierce urgency of now” would appear in many of what I read of Dr. King’s writings. And it answered the question I’d had a decade before.
The time is always right to do what is right.
Yet for many people conditions have not changed from what they were in 1968. The time is now.
“Aurora Borealis”, a sketch I did for an illustration for a book about two polar bears who…I don’t remember the story line, but I do remember checking my voice mail at home while I was at work that last autumn I was at my day job, and listened to the message from the small press publisher who’d found my art online. He had an idea for a book that incorporated text and art, and he liked the style of my pastels and how I treated animals in my paintings, and he also saw that I was a graphic designer and freelanced as a book designer. He wanted me to illustrate and design the book.
That one call was “it”. I had been freelancing full time nights and weekends as well as carrying a schedule of new paintings and art exhibits monthly and was still working full time, but knew the time was near. I could live on what I made from the book publishers and the other customers I had at the time, one of them a home builder who had me create artist’s renderings of his house plans, then flyers including those. The art sales were gravy. My office was set up, my car was paid off and the only other debt was my mortgage, money in the bank, health insurance and retirement set up. But was I really ready? I only needed one good nudge. That call was it.
In fact, I suddenly felt a little panic. Had I waited too long? Should I be home right now? Was I missing calls? That was why I checked my voice mail during lunch, but without caller ID, how would I know if someone had called and not left a message? I had to be at home!
January 1 is the anniversary of the day I began working at home and it’s very easy to remember what year I’m celebrating because that day was January 1, 2000. I still remember that first day, going to sit at my desk in the room downstairs even though it wasn’t really a work day. I’d been freelancing and working at that desk in that corner for several years already, and looking out the two big windows to watch birds at the feeders and observe the neighborhood, my desk and the windowsills lined with my family of felines, happy I’d be sitting still for a while so they could get in a good bath and nap on me and my papers.
I had done the sketch during the evenings while still working, but photographed it to send a print to the publisher on pretty much my first day working at home, along with photographing some other artwork, and some other photos on that same roll, reference photos that later became award-winning works.
Look somewhat familiar? Yes, it’s the reference photo for the art that’s in the header for my blog The Creative Cat, “Warm Winter Sun”. Only in January does the light stream all the way into the kitchen like that, not even in December is the light that color. And another photo next to that one…
That’s Moses sleeping in about the same spot as Namir in the other photo, but she had been there earlier. The sun is a little higher on the bookshelf. I remember debating between the two and I had intended to paint both, but only painted Namir. All these years later I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of my goals was to focus on photography generally, photograph my cats more often with my fully manual Pentax K-1000 film camera so I had lots of reference photos, and get around to painting them way sooner than before, like paint them as soon as I got the photos back. And so I did, because instead of waiting a decade as I had with other photos I entered the painting of Namir and won Best Pastel in South Hills Art League’s 2000 Annual Juried Show.
I’ve sold framed prints of the photo of Moses. In 2015 I decided that spring I would paint from the photo and see what 15 years of experience in painting has done to my style. Four years later, well…
Another photo on that roll…
Yes, Cookie really did lie about on her back like this, and I decided to take her photo. The image stayed with me, and a little later that year I suddenly visualized the hand-colored block print, “The Goddess”. I decided making a block print, something I could reproduce but was still an “original”, would be ideal for donating to shelter events and to sell at animals events I attended, and so it was. I didn’t get to do it right away but waited until 2001 when I had the time and the idea for a set including “The Roundest Eyes”.
A change in plans
And also because my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and became my responsibility as he moved through his recovery, and then my mother developed lung cancer and had surgery and barely recovered, both of them incapacitated with multiple medical conditions and in care for the next decade as I was legal guardian for my mother and POA and representative for my brother. We never know what will happen to change our plans, and those two medical emergencies certainly changed the business plan and list of objectives I had spent a decade determining.
But my felines were there for me, unconditionally, at the end of a long day at the computer; below, my desk in summer 2006 featuring Stanley curled next to Sophie, Kelly bathing, Namir and Cookie curled in front of me and Peaches having a good scratch on the file cabinet, six cats….
…or an all night project, or when I came home from a long day at one hospital or another, or a day of doctor appointments.
Over the years my customers and work projects have evolved as has my family of felines, though lying all over my desk never went out of style, even in the wee hours when I was up with a project as in the photo above from 2010 with Peaches on a box, Mimi on the windowsill, Dickie on my desk, Cookie having a good bath on my paperwork, and Giuseppe being vigilant. It really was 3:00 a.m.—there were plenty of times in my mother’s last years that I was off at a hospital unexpectedly for hours to see to her care that I just worked whenever I could, and my cats took it all in stride.
And yes, Stanley and Moses and Cookie and Sophie and Namir and Kelly and Nikka were very glad I just quit going to work one day, and we’ve never looked back. I’m so glad I was home for their last years.
Last autumn, after many repairs, the keyboard shelf on this desk finally broke in a way I can’t repair and I remembered that, including the time I’d spent freelancing in the 1990s, I’d been working in this same corner of the room for 28 years and at this desk for 21, and as much as I love the views out the windows, the convenience to the kitchen and outdoors and all the memories, I was really tired of that spot! About three years ago when my keyboard shelf first fell off my desk, rendering it unusable for me because of where I need to have my keyboard positioned to avoid repetitive motion strain injuries, I temporarily abandoned the desk and set up shop in my studio, and currently split my work between the two places, design as well as art. I resisted a computer in my studio for years because I would repeatedly check my email and other electronic things, but now I’m pleased to have two computers networked and two equally suited workstations.
Most of all I also enjoyed the change in scenery and found the room conducive to writing as well, and began moving more and more of my writing up to my studio. As my work has included more fine art, writing and creating gift items and less commercial graphic design, I’ve been spending more time in the studio and enjoying every minute. For many years it was the “spare kitty room”, holding many memories of sitting in that room and looking out that window while trying to tame or comfort or treat a rescued cat, and may still serve that purpose again if it’s ever necessary, but I think I’ve moved that operation to the bathroom for now. I think my family of felines appreciates the change in scenery too, or they just like to make sure I am properly supervised as you see Jelly Bean, Mewsette, Giuseppe, Sunshine and Cookie on the chair.
Many things have changed in my commercial art life each year for the past four or five, the printers I use, the projects I work on, the amount of design work I have. Things changed in my art life too as I’ve loosened up and feel much more free in my work through the practice of my daily sketches, and I’m looking for more opportunities to market and sell my art and merchandise. I’ve also continued to find more places to publish my articles and stories, so I’m deriving more and more of my income away from graphic design.
When I talk to students about being self-employed I tell them two things I’m sure they don’t listen to: learning to run a business is more important than performing your skill, and expect everything to change on a regular basis.
As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the years I’ve lived here, beginning in 1990. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.
This yearI remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March 2009 which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.
The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and time outdoors with two of my cats who always joined me in the garden, ready to work it all down and get planting.
But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea so moving, that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died, that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images. The afternoon was fading and with it the light, so we packed it up for the day and returned the next afternoon just for a session of photography.
All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.
What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos in 2017 was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.
I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.
It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage, and my mortgage payment, was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me, taking all legal actions I could. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.
But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended the previous year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose just a few months after that day, who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and court dates that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day, and once I got home my inner voice, my inner guide, knew I needed healing. Instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.
Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.
EACH DAY THE DARKNESS COMES EARLIER, too early, and we talk about how this early darkness feels unbearable. The daylight is less and less, each day shorter, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger then by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate. Unlike my other essays this is equally photos and words so that you can see my inspirations.
In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.
The date of this “gray day walk” was December 15, just one day different from today, and just as gray.
. . . . . . .
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.
I featured this essay as part of my 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around”, inspired by moments like the one I wrote about above. You can read the poetry and essays I included in that poetry reading, and also see galleries of the paintings and photos I included, captured while out “walking around”.
My personal tribute to veterans everywhere, beginning with my father, veteran of WWII.
This is a small portion of the flag I fly on appropriate holidays, and sometimes when I just feel like it. It’s the flag that was presented to my mother at my father’s funeral, he a veteran of the U.S. Army and deserving of the honors at the death of a veteran. He’d been cremated so there was no coffin to drape, no taps or honor guard, just a few of his Army buddies were there but in the end it was the funeral director who handed the folded flag to my mother, not quite protocol, but the recognition was appreciated.
My mother gave the flag to me; she had a nylon flag that had flown over the White House that our congressperson had given her and she found it much easier to raise on the flag pole. I could see why—this flag is about 5′ x 8′ and sewn from heavy cotton bunting, and once when it was caught in a heavy downpour it was so heavy it nearly knocked me down as I pulled it from the pole and tried to pile it in my arms; I don’t think anyone would find it an act of disrespect to have tossed it in the dryer, and it did not shrink one inch.
Extremely well-made, and in the USA no less, the individual strips of fabric that make the stripes are stitched together with flat felled seams that fold in all the edges and stitch two seams across the bulk to ensure strength, and this stitched in the same way to the blue field for the stars. Each star is thickly embroidered onto the blue field, raised above the surface on both sides with the thickness of the threads. The hems, binding and grommets are likewise quality materials and stitching. Of all the other fabric items I handle every day, this flag always feels very different to me as I carefully unfold it and attach it to the special pole I have to ensure it doesn’t touch the ground when hanging. Instead of flapping in the breeze or wind, it waves gracefully as if under its own strength. It has a dignity all its own. I am glad I have this flag and will always take care of it in honor of my father who served in World War II.
Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.
Like so many others in this huge group of baby boomers, my father served in WWII, and like so many who served returned with untold stories and unhealed wounds; it’s actually presumed that the Parkinson Syndrome that shortened his life took hold of him as he fought the fevers of some tropical illness when serving in India.
But because of his service and my mother’s memories, I always felt like WWII was my war too, for better and for worse. But the war was not done when they came home. It changed their lives, and so it changed ours too. At their return, by their industry, the United States was transformed from an impoverished nation of immigrants to a wealthy and productive nation of members who would all win their place at the table, though for some the struggle continues.
And possibly because of the service of my parents’ generation I am a grateful daughter, and I fly my father’s flag with pride, especially on Veteran’s Day.
I’ve been organizing my art exhibits on my gallery and merchandise website Portraits of Animals. I’d intended to also include my November 2017 poetry reading “Walking Around” but couldn’t decided exactly where to add it, on that site or this one. I’d also wanted to record myself during the reading so that I could share that too; failing that I wanted to record the poems and essays.
Well, I didn’t get to either one. But for the anniversary of the event I thought I’d at least share the art and words I shared on that night. The theme was the things I found just walking around in my familiar space; inspiration can be found anywhere. Also, so close to Veterans Day and Carnegie having delivered up so many residents to conflicts over the years, part of the theme was dedicated to veterans and where they are found just in everyday life.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
Walking Around: Poetry, Photos and Paintings of Carnegie
November 2, 2017, 7:00 p.m.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall
Observations and findings from walks around Carnegie, finding insights in everyday things and events, the extraordinary in the ordinary, including a poetry reading and exhibit of photos and paintings.
It’s been a while since I had the chance to have a poetry reading, and I’ve always included my art and photography because all those inspirations come from the same place. The most amazing things and thoughts can be found just walking around in your own back yard, literally or metaphorically. I’m expanding the boundaries beyond Carnegie’s outline to the surrounding communities and areas along Chartiers Creek.
I read a couple of essays and a dozen poems, each one with a narrative about it, in a room where I’d hung art and photographs inspired by those walks. The poems I read were inspired by my neighborhood and neighborhoods around me, events, and details of daily life in a small town, and the thoughts I’m led to from that starting point. The essays and poetry below are followed by galleries of the artwork and photos, below…
I always enjoy visiting the printer where this poster is on the wall at the front desk because I love reading each section of this poster as a reminder. It’s business-oriented, about working with customers, but the lesson of listening itself is universal and applies to us all in whatever circumstance we come face to face.
We humans come equipped with this magical ability to take our experiences and turn them into words to share with each other the important things we take away from daily life. Because each of us is unique, we all have different things to say, and of course we will rarely fully agree with one another.
Each of us has something to say which is important to us, and we say it so that others hear and understand how we feel. But if we don’t actually listen to each other, how does anyone know who we are, or what we need? We drive each other farther apart by not actually hearing each other. We just end up yelling at each other, and insulting each others’ ideas. Insults are not derived from listening, and they certainly don’t foster discussion.
We expect others to listen to us, but what if we don’t give the time and attention to what others have to say? You may find what another says false, despicable, even criminal, but it’s their view just as strongly held as yours. If you want to counter another’s view, if you want to try to change their mind, how do you create a convincing reply, start a discussion, find a reasonable middle ground, if you don’t actually listen to the words they use to describe how they feel?
And even still, the best we can chiefly accomplish is a compromise. Getting one’s way, forcing your views on someone, may seem like a win, but it’s a superficial win. But humans also have another remarkable ability: negotiation. Discussing the details with full understanding and finding areas where we can give and receive to find a middle ground is truly the winning position.
I have some strongly-held views and opinions, there are some lines I will not cross, and there are also views and actions which I feel are so wrong they need to be stopped. Finding that middle ground is only achieved by listening.
Twenty-eight years ago today I signed the mortgage on my home and got the keys, came back and stood on the front porch completely surprised it had actually happened.
Single women in their late 20s didn’t buy houses too often in the late 80s, especially not fixer-uppers. I was regularly asked where my husband was, what he thought and why I didn’t wait until I had one. I was also told, literally told, that I didn’t want a “house” because I was a girl and it would be so much easier to buy a condo because then there would be someone around to fix things and take care of the yardwork–I might not know what I was getting into and I should be careful.
I chose this house specifically because it was a fixer-upper, so I could turn it into what I wanted without having to pay for a bunch of things other people thought were improvements, like new wall-to-wall carpet and fresh paint. I never cared for wall-to-wall, and I can apply my own paint, thank you. And I’d been taking care of my parent’s house for years, inside and out, and rented a house for five years where I learned all the ways an old house needs love.
That house was due to be updated by the owners and I had to move out. Rent was so expensive in the late 80s and felt like a waste of money when a mortgage payment was less for more. I also had six rescued cats and wasn’t about to give up any of them for anyone’s lease. In fact, I wasn’t going to have anyone tell me how I was going to live. I’d paid my way through college, always worked full-time plus at least one part-time job, paid off my parents’ mortgage, paid to put my father in a nursing home, bought my mother a car, I didn’t feel I could continue with my master’s and any other degrees so I was at least going to have a house.
I had a savings and was easily approved for an FHA loan for no more than $30,000, and after looking for several months and finding a realtor who actually helped me look for the house I wanted instead of one more expensive because “you’ll be making more in a few years” or “you’ll get married and be able to sell”, I looked at just a few serious, good houses and found this one, and knew this was it. The house was small, but I walked into the back yard with all the trees around and the deck and felt right at home. The seller just didn’t know it yet, and still wanted $39,000.
A few weeks after I’d seen it I drove my mother to see it. As we drove up the street I saw fire trucks and people milling in the street. “I think that’s near the house,” I said. “In fact, it’s at the house!” The owners had moved out nearly a year before and the tile in the basement was picking up so the realtor had advised removing it and painting the floor because it looked bad and wasn’t going to stick anyway. The man attempted lifting up the glue with gasoline, with the hot water tank still lit. He survived with serious burns to his hands, and the house survived too. He quickly agreed to my offer. I spent some time with FHA issues like lead paint and leaks, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The basement was professionally cleaned and repaired and there was a brand new coat of plain white paint on the walls for the smoke damage.
I spent my first year or so undoing some of his other good ideas, like the gray smoke warped and stained wallboard and amber light fixtures in the bathroom, and the metal casement windows that had been painted and sealed shut with homemade plexiglas storm windows that completely covered the window openings and bolted to the wall. Between that and the unkempt back yard, I knew these people seriously did not want the outdoors to come in. I tossed open all the windows and doors when I’d been working on the FHA compliance and let the air inside.
I have heard by anecdote and small bits of proof that this little place was originally a two-story addition to another house on the corner. My realtor had told me this, a few older neighbors, and a customer service rep a the electric company who had grown up across the fence from this house. He was very young when they built the foundation and took the two-story sunroom off the wood-sided mansard-roofed Victorian on the corner and set this house on it; there is a two-story porch there now that is exactly the size of my house. My house is 15 ft x 22 ft, the joists run the short way as if they had attached to a house, it was clearly two rooms up and down because the walls don’t match upstairs and downstairs, and the pipes go up to the bathroom in a square bump-out in the corner of the kitchen. The roof does not have a soffit and fascia. The back wall sags a bit, and I presume that was the side attached to the house.
It was intended to be a starter home, inexpensive, easy for me to do a few repairs myself to save money, then pay for a few updates then sell it for a larger house where I could stay and run my business and do my artwork. I guessed I’d be here about 10 years. But the stress on my hands from all the fixups I did early on worsened the tendonitis and other damage in my hands from setting type and working on computers, and I decided to turn toward my art career instead.
My mortgage was sold through three corrupt mortgage companies from 2003 to 2009 and it’s been difficult to keep up with their bizarre requirements. I’ve been involved in a class action suit as well as gone to court and had several modifications. Finally in 2014 I was moved to a very nice mortgage company who lowered my payment as soon as possible, then offered me a settlement after reviewing my history with the other companies, and I managed to pay it off two years go.
It’s my little place. It’s a little small for all the things I want to do, but some days the world is too small for all the things I want to do. I’m happy to celebrate. It’s one of my early accomplishments, and it’s an anniversary I always remember, just by enjoying my home. I took a hiatus from improvements when I decided to focus on starting my business, and that was extended by caring for my mother for a decade. Now it’s time to get back to business.
Here’s the first photo I saw, and what my house looked like the year before I bought it. We’ve come a long way.
Thank you, whoever was the person who made the autumn decoration I purchased in the Family Dollar this week. Out of all the piles of things scrambled in displays as I headed for a roll of tape it completely caught my eye through the blinders I usually wear in stores like that, made me stop and focus on this display of little sprays of autumn leaves and ornaments, and I immediately wanted one.
I don’t usually purchase this sort of imported item, made cheaply and sold for next to nothing. I don’t like to support that cycle of enslaving people in foreign countries to fulfill our need to have stuff, not that my lack of purchasing on its own really makes a whole lot of difference, but I don’t want to give any energy to it, and don’t want it in my life, and I want you to have a job that keeps your health and safety in mind and pays you a living wage. I rarely shop in these types of discount stores too because they make this cycle of cheapness and enslavement necessary, and don’t necessarily treat their own employees very well. I do my best to protest this cycle financially, socially and politically. But for just a quick roll of tape on a busy day, one place is about the same as any other.
But perhaps I was meant to be charmed by your skill and talent in this little bit of decoration, as it truly is lovely and well made. I make things myself so I know what goes into them, and most often with these decorative items the workmanship is barely sufficient for the thing to hold together until you get it home, let alone through a season to be kept for future years as used to be a tradition. Now we anticipate that we’ll throw something away and get a new thing the next time we need one, filling up landfills with cheap stuff, and if it doesn’t last the season, well, we didn’t waste more than a dollar and change.
Your skills, though only Impressed me after the little things caught my eye, and of all the stuff I passed walking quickly through the aisles your creation made me stop, look, visualize, and consider making something similar. I picked up each one of the dozen little flower picks and decided, of all things, that I would buy two and add them to the autumn entrance to my home I’d been imagining in place of the ribbon I’d been considering shopping for.
I juggled all 12 for several minutes and chose two with bright autumn yellow and rich harvest orange and carefully paid for them along with my tape and carried them home. I wrapped the wire stems, carefully wrapped in dark green floral tape, around the top rung of the salvaged wooden chairs I decorate for the seasons, adding flowers as they mature or I find them in my favorite greenhouses, but I haven’t done much, sometimes nothing at all, for the past few years. Your ornaments gave me the incentive to follow through with putting my own small mums from cuttings into pots and fluffing up all the plants I keep from year to year, tired now after the summer, and visiting the family-owned businesses to find their own hand-grown bargain chrysanthemums, the ones they’d started from cuttings and fed and watered and trimmed all summer to be perfectly shaped and covered with buds that would bloom over several weeks.
Mostly, though, I was impressed with your talent at composing colors and shapes and textures with this limited choice of inexpensive materials, to make something beautiful. I know it’s unlikely you have the opportunity to use your talent as your career, or even to make other beautiful things when you choose to do so, as I do. I doubt you have the opportunities and choices I do, but I wish you did. I can’t imagine myself in your place, the frustration and unhappiness I would feel. I have given up many things to serve my creative efforts but that is my choice and my life is not deprived; you have had these conveniences and niceties taken away from you, or simply never had them.
So I don’t think my purchase has changed your life, but I hope the energy I send you in truly admiring your work will put some ripples of change into the universe. I think of you each time I look at these little ornaments, and I send love and support your way, that maybe someday you will have the opportunities I have, and your life will be different, and you will be able to fulfill your potential as an artist.
In my life as a commercial artist I’ve worked hard to find customers whose work I support and believe in. One of my happiest finds has been my own public library, Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie PA. This is the one I’ve been going to all my life, and my mother and her generation before me; there are even deeper connections as well. In 2016 the executive director who also became a good friend, Maggie Forbes, asked me to write up the story with a liberal spread of some of the many, many photos I’ve taken of the place for one of the newsletters we put together.
September is “Love Your Library Month”, but any month of the year is a good time to love your library.
Fine artist, poet, photographer, graphic designer and Carnegie resident Bernadette Kazmarski has been the ACFL&MH’s “secret weapon” as her artistry has helped tell and document the Library & Music Hall’s story over the last ten years…though her love affair with the ACFL&MH began much earlier.
Though some of my earliest memories are of bi-weekly visits to the Library with my parents, my relationship with the Library reaches back to before I was born. My mother and her brothers and sister attended Carnegie High School; the connection between the Library & Music Hall and students from the high school at the bottom of the hill was fond and deep. At family gatherings the siblings would exchange stories of stopping at the Library after school to study, and the fear of turning a page too loudly and receiving the stern glare of the librarian. My mother often mentioned how happy she was to sing in the chorus of high school musicals that were performed in the Music Hall, and commencement ceremonies were staged in the Music Hall as well.
But I’ll take a step even farther back. My mother’s parents emigrated here in 1912 as very young teenagers. Both were orphans, and both were illiterate in their native language, Ukrainian, and knew no English. Relatives who were here had already found them work and taught them enough English to get started. My grandmother cleaned houses and my grandfather worked at Union Electric Steel and learned to speak English well enough, though not to read and write. But during the Depression their scholarly daughter, my mother’s older sister, taught them to read in the Reading Room of the Library, using newspapers and books that no one could afford to have at home. Their experience confirmed Andrew Carnegie’s vision of the public library giving the working class opportunity for advancement. My grandfather became a shift manager at Union Electric Steel.
When I graduated from college in 1983 I found an apartment two doors down from the Library, and began visiting all over again after a four-year hiatus. I found books in the collection to refine some fine art and crafting interests that have become part of my professional life.
I also bought my first camera in 1983. One of my first subjects was Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and views around Carnegie. I was practicing with black and white film and the ACFL&MH’s massive, elegant building surrounded by tall trees was a feast for my eyes. I read every book on photography I could find in the stacks. I also began wandering into as many rooms as I could gain access to, peeking into the darkness of the Music Hall, imagining myself on the stage and remembering my mother’s stories.
As the years passed and I developed as a visual artist, I discovered recorded books, listening to stories as I worked. I also discovered Stage 62’s performances in the Music Hall. What a thrill to have a theater within walking distance of my home!
In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was housebound. I remembered her love of reading, now lost to cataracts and macular degeneration, and introduced her to recorded books as well. Later I brought her to the Music Hall to enjoy opera performances in new comfortable seats. She and I remembered the sad days of the ACFL&MH’s decline. When she died in 2011 I asked family and friends to donate to the Library & Music Hall in order to “purchase” one of the new seats in the Music Hall with her name on it.
New leadership arrived at ACFL&MH in 2003. Renovations began and I became as involved as I could be, all the while wishing I could add the Library & Music Hall to my list of clients for my commercial art business as well as all the other things I enjoyed about the place. In 2006 Executive Director Maggie Forbes asked me to design the ACFL&MH newsletter. As events and activities at the place became more frequent I undertook more and more design projects to promote the events and began photographing them on my own as well. These projects give me great satisfaction.
In February 2006 I held an annual solo exhibit featuring wildlife and nature artwork in the Reception Hall (now the Lincoln Gallery). In December, 2006, two of my poems were chosen to be published on a section of the Prairie Home Companion website entitled “Stories From Home/First Person”, submissions about the place we feel most familiar. Maggie invited me to read those poems and others and display my art as well. February 2007 was the first of five annual poetry reading/art exhibits at ACFL&MH.
The Library has always been part of my life, but even today looking at the shelves of books interspersed with the tall Corinthian-topped columns, I can remember feeling very small standing in the quiet of the big room and thinking it was the grandest place that could ever exist.