Trees

My house last October 19 (it's raining today).
My house last October 19 (it's raining today).
My house last October 19 (it’s raining today).

Each day in the 29 years I’ve awakened in this house I’ve tilted my head back to look up through the branches of a silver maple right outside the window to see the morning sky. Many a night I’ve looked up at the stars before I’ve settled into sleep.

 

This morning, last look.

 

This silver maple took seriously her role as guardian of my cats and I and all who would be here, steadfast in front of my bedroom upstairs and my office downstairs, providing a screen from the outside world, the street outside a little too close for privacy, an aviary to observe the birds. She cast a cool green shadow in summer, a bright yellow glaze in autumn, permitted winter’s cool afternoon light to illuminate generations of cats sleeping, safe and warm, on the bed.

Kittens at the window
Kittens at the window

She even made an appearance in two of my paintings. “Biding Time” was inspired by seeing the mourning doves just sitting for hours in their places on the gnarled branches, and all the different textures of individual branches, sketched in pencil with a tiny bit of a watercolor wash for the cool and warm colors and the green of moss.

Biding Time, pencil, 15 x 21, 2002 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

“Snowy Morning” shows rescued former feral Bella in her first winter indoors intently watching a heavy snow shower outside the window, watching it from the inside instead of trying to survive in it while living outdoors, an emotional moment for me.

"Snowy Morning", watercolor, 5.5" x 8.75" © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
“Snowy Morning”, watercolor, 5.5″ x 8.75″ © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I had three of my trees taken down today, including this beloved silver maple. These were in the sextet of trees that greeted me the first time I came to see this house, whose leaves I happily raked that first autumn in my new home, whose presence made my little house on a medium lot seem like a cottage glimpsed through an enchanted forest, as many people commented.

Entrance

They whispered through the summer as they kept me cool, flashed their colors in autumn, and stood sentinel through winter storms, providing visual inspiration on snowy days and frosted moonlit nights, then emerging once again in spring with a haze of green.

In snow.
In snow.

I hated the thought of it, but knew, as the maples dropped large branches often enough, and especially after my wild black cherry tree fell on its own on a hot summer afternoon three years ago, that it was only a matter of time before one of the new style of wild storms would toss one of the trees over onto my house or a neighbors’. One was largely leafless with peeling bark, the other two were sparse, but with a twisted, battered beauty, like a bent and wizened old human. While I know birds and squirrels and insects use dead trees for life, endangering them and humans within the trees’ reach was too much risk.

Before this morning’s work…

I had noticed that birds had still roosted in the trees but had stopped nesting there a few years ago, perhaps a sign they felt the trees were too fragile to entrust their family’s future there. The maple by the driveway had dropped a large branch representing almost half of the tree’s canopy on top of my car in a windstorm in 2011. My Escort survived with a dented roof and a busted out rear window, but the tree had not only lost half its canopy but also a large portion of the side of its trunk, revealing a hollow interior with lots of squirrel treasures. I would stand and look at that and wonder if it would topple over onto the sparse blue spruce that never had a chance to grow much without enough light.

After this morning’s work…

The silver maple in front of the house was hollow too, I knew. When generations of raccoon families had squealed their way across the back yard to the front and scratched their way up the trunk of that maple tree they would stop and look at my cats and me looking right at them from the bedroom window, then disappear into the center of the trunk of the tree, either hiding goodies or finding them in there. Once I climbed the tree and shone a flashlight inside, and saw that it was even more hollow than the other silver maple. The tree’s diameter was roughly 24”, and when it was cut down today the wood of the trunk was only four to five inches thick around the tree’s circumference, and it was hollow not only all the way down the trunk but down into the tree’s root system at least 18” under the surface of the soil.

I plan to plant another tree in its place, and when I saw the hollow trunk I decided I’d fill that trunk with soil and plant the tree right inside it and the old maple could nourish it as her roots became part of the soil once again. Maybe a crabapple, so I’d see the flowers and reddish leaves and twisted branches and the birds could have the fruits (except for the ones I’d use for pies and jelly), or perhaps a magnolia, which would provide a good bit of shade and privacy without endangering the house.

Just before work started.
After work was finished.

Seeing the slices of the trunk I also decided to keep several to fill with soil and plant flowers inside, like the half barrels I had when I moved here. I’m really excited about that idea.

The silver maples had always had an odd shape, or shapelessness, in the way that trees carelessly trimmed back too far grow sprouting branches up at all angles from one spot in the trunk, rather than spaced out up the trunk. Though the area where I live is not known for tornadoes, though they happen all around us, a tornado came through town in 1963. I was only two, but I’ve heard the story, especially from my realtor, who told me that the tornado had gone up this street but rolled backward when it couldn’t rise up the hill right outside my house, snapping the tops off of both trees. They stood there branchless for a few years, then started sprouting branches, developing their unique shapes.

When the ivy grew all over it.

There is a hand-drawn map of my town from 1897 in our library, borough building and historical society. Seeing a map of my town I always need to find my house, but my house didn’t exist yet in that year. There were in the empty lot where my house would one day be, however, two trees in the approximate place where my two silver maples would stand along the street, protecting the front of the house and shading the driveway. The map has many trees on it, and I had thought they were general representations of tree-covered areas in our early neighborhoods.

Map detail.
Map detail.

But these two trees, one on the level of the street just before it began to grow steep, and one higher, partway up the hill, are so specific, just those two, and grass all around, that I think they must have represented two very real trees. They correspond with the tree that had stood by my driveway, on the level, and the one in front of my house, guarding and shading the front. I’m not sure if those two trees were my maples because silver maples are notoriously weak and messy trees, easily damaged in storms and, as mine did, dropping branches regularly. Their lifespan is usually about 70 years, though some can live twice that long. The trees on the map are not saplings, but don’t look like mature trees, so possibly 10 years old at the time. That would make them 132 years old now. That’s entirely possible. I’m so glad I had the chance to live in the shade of such august trees.

My house with all the trees.
My house with all the trees.

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Rachel Carson, From Pittsburgh Farmhouse to International Conservation

Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson

Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie is a place I’ve visited my entire life and is also one of my customers for commercial art and design. In 2018, as part of the plan for Library Park, the community was invited to help create a mosaic that would be mounted on two low seating walls in the park. The design included features of the Library & Music Hall, around Carnegie, and the Pittsburgh area. Rachel Carson, because of her impact on our local environment and green space, of which the park is a part, was included in the design.

While I typically design the Library & Music Hall’s newsletter, the executive director asked me to also write an article about Rachel Carson’s work, explaining science in everyday terms but in an evocative, poetic style that made her work very popular to scientists and everyday people alike, her findings leading eventually to the environmental legislation in the 1960s and 70s that changed our lives here in Pittsburgh, and many other cities in this country. That was my pleasure entirely. When I read A Sense of Wonder I was proud, as an adult, to still be picking up neat rocks and identifying wildflowers, interpreting it all in my own way.

Rachel Carson’s name may immediately bring to mind “Silent Spring”. Though that is her best-known work she was an award-winning writer long before its 1962 publication, and found her way to that subject and international fame from a distant starting point—a log cabin in a rural community near Pittsburgh.

Born in 1907 in a 50-year-old log cabin with no utilities on a farm north of Pittsburgh, she was a pioneer in her education and practice as a female scientist who brought her understanding of the natural world to readers with her graceful and descriptive prose, and stepped from there to conservation with writing that inspired the environmental movements and legislation of the 1960s and 70s.

She was born in Springdale, 18 miles north of Pittsburgh. You can still visit the house, now managed by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, which preserves her legacy in the place where she began. The family’s 65-acre farm on which she explored her surroundings is much reduced, but this was the place where she first met and fell in love with the natural world, finding her own “sense of wonder” in her adventures on the land with her mother and later on her own.

A brilliant student, publishing her first story about the natural world at age 10, she graduated high school at the top of her class in 1925 and went to what was then the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University. Originally majoring in English with the goal of being a writer she changed her major to biology but continued submitting to the school’s literary publications. After graduation her next stop was Johns Hopkins University for graduate study in zoology and genetics. Working her way through financial setbacks she graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1935.

Her father’s death in 1935 prevented her from moving on to doctoral studies as she sought a job to help support her family. In the midst of the Great Depression jobs were few but she was encouraged by a mentor to take a part-time position writing radio copy for the US Bureau of Fisheries, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her manner of translating the science into literature that was not overly simplified nor pedantic was so popular that she rose through the ranks to become editor of publications, and stayed with the bureau until 1952.

At the same time her writing also caught the attention of magazine and book publishers and soon she was publishing articles and working on her first books, not about conservation, but about the life of the sea. The Sea Around Us published in 1951 was on the best seller list for 86 weeks. Also in 1951, in a crossover with science and art, she was invited to write liner notes for the RCA Victor Recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer with the National Symphony Orchestra. Chapters of her books were published as freestanding stories or serialized in The New Yorker and The Yale Review among others, she won prestigious literary awards, received honorary doctorate degrees, other book proposals were accepted, and in 1952 she could have her career as a full-time science writer.

And then came Silent Spring.

Carson will always be remembered for the message and legacy of Silent Spring, that the way the pesticide DDT was overused in the 1950s would cause irreversible damage not only to wildlife and the environment in which it was used, but its carcinogenic effect would also sicken and kill many people. Synthetic pesticides were new then, developed along with many other chemical agents with funding from the military after WWII. Not much study had been done about their effects outside of killing target insects, but along with other uses DDT was liberally sprayed aerially, mixed with fuel oil, to kill the gypsy moths that chewed their way through any forest they populated, including onto private land.

Begun in 1958 the book was four years of research with government and private scientists and doctors, writing that proved with scientific evidence the detrimental effects of overuse of such chemicals, and a recommendation to use them in appropriate, targeted amounts. She was refuted as “hysterical” and her abilities as a scientist were questioned in part because of her sex, but in the end, after hearings and reports, it was her science that held firm and convinced the US government that DDT and other synthetic pesticides should be regulated for public health and safety.

The general public agreed and through the 1960s, on the back of the science and impact of Silent Spring, a slew of environmental pollution control regulations of air, water and land were passed along with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

But Rachel Carson never saw the final impact of her work. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960 and even with surgery and radiation it metastasized and she died in April 1964.

She was only 57 years old. Imagine what she could have carried forward if she had been around for the next decade and the spread of environmental awareness both for public health and safety and for land conservation.

We stand now where two roads diverge . . . The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962


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About My Mother

Mom

My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.

She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.

Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.

I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.

I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.

About My Mother

Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.

All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.

I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
and great-grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.

When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.

Poem About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski


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The Time Is Always Right to Do What is Right, and the Fierce Urgency of Now

That's me on the left.
That's me on the left.
That’s me on the left.

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.

http://www.thekingcenter.org/news/2013-04-king-center-marks-50th-anniversary-mlk-s-letter-birmingham-jail

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/letter-from-birmingham-jail/552461/

http://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/MLKmainpage.html

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/christianityfortherestofus/2011/01/martin-luther-king-jr-fierce-urgency-of-now.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_in_the_United_States


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A “Work” Anniversary

"Aurora Borealis", pastel, 18" x 12", 2000 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
"Aurora Borealis", pastel, 18" x 12", 2000 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
A Work Anniversary

“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.

Reference photo for "Warm Winter Sun".
Reference photo for “Warm Winter Sun”.

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…

Contentment
Contentment

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.

Warm Winter Sun, oil pastel, 10 x 12 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Warm Winter Sun, oil pastel, 10 x 12 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

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…

tortie cat on back
Reference image for “The Goddess” linoleum block print.

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”.

block prints of tortoiseshell cats
The Tortie Girls.

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….

 Desk with six cats, taken in 2006, but typical of my desk at any given time.
Desk with six cats, taken in 2006, but typical of my desk at any given time.

…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.

It’s 3:00 a.m., do you know where your human is?

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.

five cats in studio
The Curious Quartet joins Cookie in getting ready for a day of work.

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.

You can read more about my background in my 13-year anniversary post from a previous year and about my education in my ten-year anniversary post and on my About page on The Creative Cat. Also visit my blog What’s New in Bernadette’s Studio? to see current commercial projects and visit my main website in Graphic Design and Illustration to see projects by product and by customer.


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What Stays With Us

Tiny Foxtail
Tiny Foxtail
What Stays With Us

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.

Here is a link to a slideshow of the photos I took that day: Winter Leftovers.

And here is a poem this day also inspired: To Come Again in Spring.

(2017)


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The Light in the Darkness

Oh
Oh
Oh

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.

Winter Lilies
Winter Lilies

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.

Exotic
Exotic

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.

Frozen Flowers
Frozen Flowers

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.

Portrait
Portrait

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.

Grass
Grass

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.

Soft Pattern
Soft Pattern

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.

The Empire Shriveled
The Empire Shriveled

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.

Warm and Cool
Warm and Cool

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.

Patterns and Transparencies
Patterns and Transparencies

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.

Armor
Armor

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”.


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The Thanks of a Grateful Nation

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.

My father in his uniform.
My father in his uniform.

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 written a few other things about my family’s experience of WWII and my father’s service and armed service in general in Memorial Day, “Soldier” and “Memorial Day Parade”


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2017 Poetry Reading: Walking Around

Walking Around: Finding Extraordinary Things in Ordinary Places, poetry and art
Walking Around: Finding Extraordinary Things in Ordinary Places, poetry and art

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.

Lined up, waiting for the sun.

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…

Click here to visit the exhibit.


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Listen

Listen

LISTEN.

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.


Read more:   Essays   ♦  Short Stories  ♦  Poetry

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

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