Tuesday, May 29, 2012

50 Shades of Procrastination

Thanks a lot, Joe, E L James and the ladies at my boot camp.  I got NOTHING productive done this weekend thanks to you. 

As you know, I am supposed to be a) drawing,  b) taking my kids places or buying/making them endless food, c) cleaning my messy house, d) finding my keys.   Instead of any of the above, I was abducted by Fifty Shades of Joe this weekend and taken to Pittsburgh.  Joe planned a nice little family vacation to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Pirates. Not exactly this girl's dream get away.  Since there would be no cleaning or laundry to ignore, I brought two pencil portrait projects to work on. Guess who didn't do ANY drawing?  I read naughty books the whole trip instead.

If you haven't heard of the book Fifty Shades of Grey by now, you are probably one of those annoying people with good mental and physical health who go outside, eat right and don't watch too much television.  You know who you are.  You try to make me feel guilty by making your bed every morning right before you run a charity 5K while claiming that you have no time to watch the trashy TV shows that I keep asking you about.  Really?  You've NEVER seen even one Real Housewives?  Please.  If I can't talk to you about trash TV, I really don't have much to say because the TV is always on while I draw and bad reality shows make me feel better about my unmade bed and lack of charitable racing.

Every thirty seconds, Fifty Shades of Grey is mentioned in the news, on the internet, in my entertainment magazines, on SNL... it's probably even getting a shout out in church as I expect it's causing some serious sinnin'.  Why so popular?  Because it's "mommy porn."  Not to be confused with this mommy porn:

I can't wait to talk to my wife about her feelings.

I am usually way behind the curve in any trend.  I wait till blockbuster movies or popular non-reality TV shows have been out on DVD for several years and then eagerly try to talk to my uninterested friends about them when I've discovered why they were so popular in the first place.  What little fashion I attempt to rock is usually on the ragged edge of over and sometimes not age appropriate. I still don't understand Twitter or Pinterest. 

Normally, I would wait at least five years to read a best selling book until I buy it for 50 cents at a garage sale.  But when even my sweaty boot camp buddies were raving about it, I had to give in.

My Boot Camp Friend:  READ IT.  Your head will explode.
Me:  Wow, okay, maybe I will. 
MBCF: Text me as soon as your head explodes.

Not even close to what my boot camp looks like.

So in a rare moment of early adoption, I downloaded it to my Kindle.

I usually only read books on my Kindle when I'm running on my treadmill.  I realize that mentioning boot camp and treadmills contradicts my claims of laziness and constant bad TV-watching.  I don't WANT to exercise, but my love of wine and cheez-its leaves me no choice.  It's a losing battle. 

Due to my scorching ADD, I read a number of books at a time - one on the treadmill, one before bed, up to two in different bathrooms (where I am doing my HAIR.)  I need an exciting/interesting book for the treadmill to distract me from my misery and a boring book before bed, or I will accidentally read till 2 am and then be unable to fall asleep.

Because most of my books are from garage sales and thrift stores purchased for $1.00 or less, I had no interest in getting an electronic reading device.  I enjoy the fact that every book I've read is riddled with questionable smudges, spills, dog-eared pages and looks beat up, like everything else I own.   Plus I can lend my books to people, which I love. 

On the other hand, my "Only the Best for Joe" husband got a Kindle almost right away.  When Joe Zumpano wants something, he usually gets it, preferably right after he realizes he wants it.  Recently, Joe drove away from Max's hockey practice with his Kindle on the car roof, so now he has the fancier iPad-like Kindle.  I tried using Joe's Kindle on the treadmill when I was fresh out of garage sale books or trashy magazines to read.  I was hooked.  Pushing a button to turn the page is WAY easier than turning pages while running since I'm not that coordinated.  Now I have my own Kindle and it lives on my treadmill.  P.S. Joe will point out that I bought both his Kindles for him as gifts, but my point still stands.

Having a Kindle has allowed me to read popular books way sooner than I normally would, although I only read it when I run, so it can take me a while to finish them.  There are three books in the 50 Shades series.  The first one, 50 Shades of Grey, takes a while to get a head of steam going.  The writing isn't exactly Pulitzer material... it was published initially through an online Twilight fan-fiction site.  I'm not proud to admit that I devoured all those damn Twilight books.  Who doesn't want to be power-loved by a gorgeous though tormented guy, especially when you're a crabby Kristen Stewart type, sulking around with only a werewolf as a back up?  Apparently good ole E L James, aka Erika "Erotica" Leonard, enjoyed the crap out of Twilight too, because in Fifty Shades, she created her own Edwardian powerful/bazillionaire hot guy minus the fangs and her own innocent Bella-type girl primed to be swept off her Twilight-esque feet.

Only this Bella, who is named Anastasia like another sort of Disney princess, gets swept off her feet and into some kinky S&M bondage hijinks.  I'm no prude.  I've seen some stuff and read some stuff in my day, and this isn't the hottest thing I've encountered.  It's pretty darn steamy though, especially at first.  After awhile, I felt the need to call shenanigans on the nonstop ridiculously hot action between these two.  People really have mind-blowing, earth shattering experiences five times in a row?  Really?  Come on.

In any case, it's made me stay on the treadmill longer than usual.  According to a hilarious SNL skit, it's inspiring lots of ladies to do all kinds of other things more than usual, too.  I just want to get my mind off of how much longer it's going to take for me to sweat through my five miles.

I freed my Kindle from its treadmill shackles and brought it along to Pittsburgh.  During our three day family get away, I read the last half of 50 Shades of Grey and the ENTIRE second book, 50 Shades Darker.  I read through a whole Cubs game, I read while Joe watched a marathon of American Pickers in the hotel room, I read at rest stops, I read at restaurants.  Late at night, over wine and cribbage, I discussed the book at length with Joe and may have inadvertantly given him some unsavory ideas.  Okay, it might have been on purpose.

Now that I'm home and gratefully, I have lots of drawing to do, I am afraid to get the third book.  Discipline is not my forte.  And yet, what am I doing right now?  Procrastinating YET AGAIN and telling you about mommy porn instead of drawing.  

Laters, baby.


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Irish carnival ride at Apartment 21

As a kid, I loved to cut crap out of colored construction paper and write short stories with naughty words in them.  My father thought advertising would be a perfect blend of my glitter-gluing and story-telling powers. I had no other ideas, so advertising it was.

My mom and dad met on a blind fraternity/sorority date at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana.  There was never much of a question of where I’d attend college. Just to pretend I had a choice, I also applied to University of Missouri, because I was dating a guy from Missouri named Brad Wentzel.  Wendy Wentzel?  I went to U of I.

The torture of sorority “rush” occurs when freshmen are herded around from sorority house to house so that mean girls can mentally weigh you and approximate the value of your clothing while singing.  This process turns out well for some people.  For me, it was a repeat of my humiliating cheerleading tryouts.  Other than my mother’s bookish alma mater, only one sorority invited me to join.  I happily pledged before realizing that the perky blonde girls who’d rushed me were not typical of the rest of the serious, studious, devout JEWISH girls in the house.  I wasn’t serious or devout about anything and despite the fact that I looked the part, I didn’t feel like I belonged. 

So I was stuck in the dorms with horrible roommates in the only all girls dorm on campus.  If it weren’t for my glorious neighbor, Kari, my freshman year with an obese townie roommate would have been a complete loss.  My sophomore year was spent fake-crying, which is a story for another day.  I lived with a Swedish girl and a Japanese girl in a triple room.  Both chattered on the phone incessantly in their respective languages with occasional angry whispers while glaring at my messy side of the room.  The Japanese one made her boring, white boyfriend tell me to be neater and quieter.  I told the Japanese one’s boyfriend several things, loudly, while looking directly at my roommate, who looked at her feet. 

"She's a crybaby and a total pig."
Hey ABBA, you don’t have to whisper.  I don’t speak Swedish.
Across the hall was a room full of alcoholic Catholic girls who appeared to be reenacting an ongoing sequel to Porky’s.  They were FUN and I wanted in.  I barged into their party landscape as often as they’d allow.  When the year was ending and I’d finally stopped crying, they didn’t want to include me in their search for apartments.  Helpfully, they avoided telling me until the last minute. 

“I’m sorry, Wendy,” said the nicest, most sober one, “But you are such a drag.”

To make matters worse, I had a campus job at the University of Illinois Foundation calling alumni for donations.  Perhaps you heard from me between 1986 and 1990?  If you've never randomly called people to ask them for money, it is exactly like you'd think it would be.  I called for four hours a night, four nights a week.  It was one of the higher paying jobs on campus because it was miserable.  Here is how most of my conversations went:

Ring ring

Alumni: Hello?

Me:  Hi, This is Wendy from the University of Illinois Foundation calling to….

Alumni: Click!  Dial tone.

Me:  What’s that?  You want to donate $100,000 because you think I sound professional and super hot?  Okay!

My manager:  Way to go!

It was godawful.  They must have it much easier now with caller ID because nobody probably answers.  I know I don't!  All those hours of getting hung up on or cussed out really helped me later in business, but not personally, because I still can’t stand rejection.  Somehow I was promoted to supervisor and I got to listen in on everyone else’s donation calls.  This was excellent, as I am very nosy and super critical. 

One of the student callers I was supervising had red hair and a deep, south side Chicago voice, not unlike our biker friend Diane.  Colette seemed tough and I was scared of her.  I was scared of everyone then, especially south side redheads.  I’m a born complainer as you know, and I was whining to another caller about how nobody wanted to live with me.  I was doomed to live in the dorms as a junior.  I cannot think of a single thing that could have been more embarrassing at the time, and there were plenty of other embarrassing things that I was doing to choose from.   

Overhearing, Colette interrupted, “Hey, did you say you needed a place to live?”

I was about to fall in love with my very first portrait subjects.

Colette and her two friends were desperately seeking a fourth for their magnificent apartment.  They picked me up from my dorm in a big old dad type car to check it out.  Kimi had a disturbing pony tail coming out of the side of her head and her sister, Karen, was wearing a tie died shirt and mini skirt get up.  She had the skirt knotted on one side, about mid hip.  They were an Irish Catholic carnival ride and I hopped in because I had no other options.  I have a wealthy aunt who enjoys making me tell the story of what I wore to sorority rush at family gatherings.  She finds it hilarious and doesn’t seem to notice my shame spiral when I recount it.  I had NO business questioning anyone’s fashion sense.  But those three were a mess.  As it turned out, who cared?  That apartment was to die for. 

Apartment 21 was on the top floor at 1006 S. 3rd Street.  It had a long, shared balcony that faced south.  This meant all day sun.  To a college girl with large thighs, this private tanning bonanza alone was worth weird roommates.  It was a tri-level apartment with exposed brick walls and a kitchen that overlooked the living room.  Plus we could throw stuff on the roof of the sorority next door. It was fabulous.

I decided that I liked these three Orland Park girls and the bizarre assortment of men who came with them… brothers and friends and roommates of brothers.  The guys had briefly formed a freshman band called Leprosy, later christening their rented campus home, “Leper House.”  A few of them helped the girls move into Apt 21.  They talked weird, they looked weird, and they wouldn’t leave.  Most of them were named Tom.  I was concerned. 

Then they all became some of the greatest loves of my life.  

Colette wasn’t tough after all.  She’s a softy.  When she was happy, we were all happy.  When she was down, we were all bummed.  She became a barometer for whether we were having a great time or not.  I once tried to hit on her future husband, but he immediately threw up, which I like to think was just bad timing on my part.  In any case, it worked out just fine for Colette and their future three children.  Colette sends birthday, anniversary and holiday cards, on time, to every human being she knows, even my husband.  I just got a Mother’s Day card from her in the mail.  She’s insane.

Karen loved to laugh, especially at our expense.  Although she is Kimi’s older sister, she's happy letting Kimi call the shots.  Karen and I danced and sang while standing unsteadily on the arms of our living room chairs.  We ate food so fattening, I am still digesting it today.  I once walked with Karen to class, joyous to have some one-on-one time with her. I wondered aloud why we didn’t always walk together, until Karen helpfully pointed out I didn’t even have a class in that direction.  Or on that day. 

After a year together, Karen graduated first, a full year before Kimi and me, followed by Colette a semester later.  When Karen came back from the real world for college visits, we decorated and rejoiced.  She was furious we were having fun without her. 

Kimi and I attempted to replace Karen and then Colette with creepy roommates who don’t deserve much comment.   One slept constantly and hung out with a slew of flamboyant gay men at night until she forgot to go to class so many times that she got kicked out of school. Another one had an enormous, loud bird.  Enough said. 

For two years, Kimi and I lived together in that magic place between being a kid and a grown up.  She deserves her own story for having such a complicated, unexpected life.  She mothered me and managed me, harshly reprimanding me for driving her big dad car, partly because I didn’t ask, but mostly because I was drunk.  I babied her when her heart was broken and told her to stop bossing everyone around.  I knew she’d be a magnificent manager one day, which she was.

Before marriage, kids or jobs, we were stressed out and having the time of our lives.  It would be years before I’d be diagnosed with ADD, and I panicked over my consistently late projects. They still tease me about my American Express group project which I viewed as a slightly worse challenge than the AIDS epidemic.

I took one elective art class that taught me to use a grid when drawing a subject.  That would turn out to be the most lucrative half hour I spent during my four years at U of I, as I use the grid system for every single portrait I draw in my current life as a full time pencil portrait artist.  Nothing else really stuck.   

When Karen graduated, I decided to draw the whole Leper House group as her graduation present.  I thought it was a brilliant idea because I had no money and it provided a lengthy excuse to procrastinate in studying for finals. 

My first portrait.  Yikes.  At least Frewbud's not in it.

Kimi supervised my progress, peeking over my shoulder regularly to tell me to make her thinner until her legs looked like Q-tips.  I drew myself sitting in the lower left corner with my misshapen hand awkwardly positioned on my knee.  If you look closely, it appears that I’ve been punched in the face, twice.  This portrait is not good.  You can at least recognize Karen, because she has a graduation hat on.  I had a long way to go before anyone would commission me to draw a portrait.  But Karen loved her gift and I was encouraged.  Drawing thirteen people as my first real portrait attempt was pretty ambitious.

As graduation for Kimi and me approached, I couldn’t keep drawing pictures.  I had to find a job.  I had stellar grades and lots of work experience with my dad so I applied for credit cards left and right, knowing they’d be paid off in no time when I chose a great job from my many offers.


Rejection letters lined our Apartment 21 entryway from good companies who wanted nothing to do with us.  Most of them were for me, from Chicago ad agencies.  Advertising seemed like a great idea except that you couldn’t get an actual job in advertising without experience or a master’s.  I was horrified.  While my brother and I had been piling up tuition, rent, book and bar bills, my father’s business was struggling. I have no clue how my parents were able to put both of us through college when things were so tight.  I graduated in the top 1% of my class with an $1,800 student loan to repay.  I had no idea what a gift I was given.  When I think of the looming college expense for my boys, I want to turn to a life of crime and/or open several bottles of wine that I pour into one glass.

Karen, Kimi and Colette each have three children and they all have at least one daughter.  They still live on the south side of Chicago with their families.  I’m over an hour away, in the far north suburbs, near Wisconsin with my boys… no little girl for me.  Over twenty years later, we meet halfway and eat pizza and drink beer like we’re still one step away from the real world.  We laugh so loud and tell such obscene stories that everyone gives us dirty looks and one time we were even asked to leave. Every year there’s a Leper House Christmas party. Sometimes we have a slumber party at Kimi’s. 

Every time I'm with those wonderful, hilarious girls, it’s a carnival ride back to Apt 21, where we remind each other along the way of every last embarrassing thing we’ve ever done.  If I drew their portraits now, I don’t know how I could ever capture how very much they mean to me.  But I'd still draw a side-pony on Kimi.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Mood swinging with a biker chick

While I’m dripping sweat or cursing my shivery lack of a jacket at an art show, there are hundreds of people wandering around.  As much as I love to whine about being ignored, many of them chat with me.  Some are pretty interesting and/or hilarious.  In one case, that would be a leather-clad understatement. 

People sometimes have an emotional reaction to my pencil portraits.  Many a visitor has cried in my booth (see, I’m not the only one) out of family love or loss, picturing their own special somebody.  Just because they cry, doesn’t mean they call me.  They usually don't.  But at least they get it.

With a bazillion people at up to three shows a month, it's a blur after awhile.  In my first year or two of drawing full time, I apparently met a woman at an Arts in the Park event.  The only thing I remember about that particular outdoor show was that beer was plentiful starting at 10 am, plastic cups in almost everyone’s hand. 

A couple years later, I got a phone call.  “Remember me?” a husky, gruff voice asked.  “You know, with my husband and the Harleys?” 

I have a horrendous memory.  It is feeble.  I can’t remember why I’ve come into a room, when I am just reentering that room after just forgetting why I was there.  My initial fear of motherhood was that I would forget I had a kid. 

I had no idea who this biker chick was.  So I lied. “Of course I remember you!”  Why should I hurt her feelings?  Plus I am always eager to tap into new markets that I fantasize will lead to my eventual fame.  Motorcycles aren’t cheap and there is a whole consumer subculture there, like Deadheads or Jimmy Buffet or being a Republican.

From the moment she walked in my front door, Harley Diane was a bleached blast of in-your-face personality.

"I need you to draw THIS," she rasped, proudly showed me a photograph of herself and her husband standing in a parking lot full of motorcycles.  I’m talking hundreds of motorcycles. 

“Wow.” I said, my meager math skills failing to calculate drawing time vs. her potential budget vs. how much I didn’t want to piss her off.  At a loss, I suggested, “Wouldn’t it be better to just draw you and your husband on one bike together?” 

Diane cocked her head and thrust her chin at me in a quick aggressive movement.  FIRST of all,” she said loudly into my face, “they’re not BIKES.  They’re HARLEYS.  There’s a fucking DIFFERENCE.”

I may have peed a little. 

“And I DO want ALL of it in the picture,” she went on.  “It represents the biker life, you know?  We're totally in it, it’s all around us.  It’s a big fucking deal.” 

If one motorcycle is $20 or if I do three for... I give up.

“Okay, great!” I said, nodding agreeably like someone whose ass didn't need kicking.

“And I want it BIG.”  Diane said firmly.  “It’s going over my new leather couch and it’s a big wall.  How big can you draw it?” 

Yikes.  I looked at all the detail involved  - this was going to be a huge job.  We decided on 24”x36”, but I think she’d been thinking even bigger.  At the time, almost all of my drawings were 8x10" or 11x14"... I didn’t even know where to get drawing paper that big yet.  In the photo, their faces were about as big as a thumbnail and too blurry to see clearly.  In the finished drawing, their faces would be about 4 inches high. I need to see more detail to do a good job.

“You should give me some photos that are clearer and closer of your faces,” I told her.  “That way I can get a better likeness since I can’t see you that well in this one.” 

Diane stared at me a second and yelled,  “WELL WHY THE HELL DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT?  I could have brought more!” 


So Diane stomped out and then stomped back within a couple days.  “I brought my modeling photos!” she hollered. 

MODELING?  Reading my surprised reaction, she explained, “All my friends say, ‘Di, you got pretty eyes.’ So I figured WHY THE FUCK NOT?!”  Diane looked to be in her mid 40’s, hard as nails with heavily mascara-ed eyes so blue, she must have been wearing neon colored contacts.  Suddenly a little shy, Diane handed me her modeling album.  Turning the pages, I found myself disappointed in whoever took them.  They were lit harshly and taken with a cheap camera.  Model or not, the photos didn’t flatter her.  Diane was growing on me and I felt strangely protective of her hopefulness.  We chose a softer photo that Diane liked.  Then she presented a big, close-up photo of her husband. 

Burt, not Mr. Harley.
“Isn’t he HOT?” Diane asked with pride.  Mr. Harley had a 70’s moustache Burt Reynolds thing going that wasn’t really my cup of beer, but I could see the attraction. 

“Sure,” I agreed.  “He’s a good looking guy.” 

“I keep trying to meet people on Match.com,” Diane confided.  “It’s hard to meet cool people to hang out with, ya know?”

Wait, what now?  Match.com?  Images of why Diane and her wild Hooper husband would want to “meet” people flashed through my head.  Were they swingers?  Was I getting my first swinger invitation?  What do you wear to a swinger party?

“But… I thought you were so into your husband?” I stammered, stalling before I made my final swinging decision.

Diane glared at me, stunned.  There was a big weird pause.  “It’s been TWO fucking YEARS!” she finally snapped, guardedly. 

Um, I don't understand what is happening.

“You do know my husband fucking DIED on his Harley, right?  Two doors down from our house?  I TOLD YOU about it at the art show!  REMEMBER?  I had to walk away from you because it was too hard?  It was only a couple months then.”

Oh my God, I am such an idiot.  I did remember.  The fog faded and I could see her bright blue eyes filling up with tears when we first met as she talked about shock and pain, trying to describe the portrait she had in her mind… a tribute to their 22 years of marriage, to their biker life, so full of joy. 

“He knew the risks of riding,” she said, quiet for the first time since I’d met her.  “It was our life and he lived it to the fullest, on the edge.  He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

The day of Diane's last visit, my friend Vicki was over.  When Diane called to tell me she was on her way, I nearly peed again, this time with glee.  “YOU’RE GOING TO MEET HER!” I yelled at Vicki, Diane style. 

Diane didn't let me down.  “GET FUCKING THIS!!!  I just saw a sewer truck!” she announced, as she strolled in familiarly, kicking off her boots.  “It feels like it’s meant to be that I’m picking this thing up today!”  The truck had something to do with how her husband had died.  “You know, the guy that was riding with my husband that night never stepped up to the plate.” Diane roughly wiped unwanted tears away, then suddenly leaned her head back and yelled, “That MOTHER FUCKER!!!!  HA HA HA!!!”  She laughed lustily and loud and with complete abandon.  Vicki and I were frozen to our seats, jaws gaping.  Diane could change moods so quickly and intensely, it spun your head around.   

“You know, I tell it like it is!” Diane cried, “I’m not afraid to put it out there!”

After instructing me to adjust her hair (more feathered), Diane wanted me to fix her husband’s biker hat, which I had drawn like Chef Boyardee.  “It’s flatter,” she said, disgustedly. “You know, like a biker’s hat.”

“I don’t know what a biker’s hat looks like,” I admitted with shame, exposing the poorly hidden secret that I am an uncool dork.  I prayed that Vicki wouldn’t laugh and get us both killed.

After I made the changes, Diane was happy, smiling a big tearful smile.  “I’m having a baby shower for my daughter and I wanted to have this ready in time.” 

Off she went, cussing happily with her portrait rolled into a kitchen garbage bag. 

“Don’t you have anything better to give to your clients?” scolded Vicki.  I do now.  Good friends like Vicki and Diane always tell you like it is. Once Vicki finished making fun of my half ass professionalism, she echoed my exact thoughts.  "Diane was wild, wasn’t she?  Don’t you love to meet people like her?  She was so different than us.  I loved her.  She told me that she’s from Crestwood, which explains a lot.”

“It does?” 

“That’s south side.”

“Oh,” I said knowingly, not knowing.  I really don’t know anything about anything.  And besides, when did Vicki have Crestwood discussions without me?  Maybe when I was pulling out my fancy garbage/sales bag. 

I loved Diane, too and I was so glad that I got the chance to share her high decibel, wonderful self with Vicki.  I can’t get over the amazing range of people who actually pay me to draw something precious to them.  I fall a little bit in love with so many of them.

I hope Diane has found a new hot biker guy who appreciates her strength and respects how much she loved her husband.  I also hope that Diane isn’t pissed at me for writing about her. 

Seriously.  She could hurt me.  But you kind of love her too, don't you?


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Holding my Ham Hostage

Often when people are first getting used to the idea of me drawing random stuff, they are confused about the process and they'll make some incorrect assumptions, such as:

"Do we bring Grandpa and the cats to your house so you can draw them?"
"Is 5 am an okay time to call you?" 
"Are you going to sit in our front yard and draw our house?  Or... what?" 

I draw from photographs.  I drew from life in college during the one drawing class that I took as a part of my useless advertising degree.  Naked people came into the room and we had to draw them.  There was a lot of excess girth and hair. So live drawing is out for me. 

Just in case you were planning for me to come over to your house to draw you, let's establish that I like to think of myself as the pencil portrait store... you're supposed to come to me.  If you want to buy some deli ham, you don't tell the deli lady to come to your house.  Speaking of deli ladies, the last time I bought ham at Jewel (the Signature ham off the bone is cheap and delicious and my damn kids eat it like potato chips), one of the Jewel deli ladies was smiling beatifically, like the 40 Year Old Virgin poster of Steve Carrell. 

Intrigued by her joy at slicing my ham, I said to the deli lady, "Wow, you sure look happy!!!"

The deli lady looked half busted and half triumphant.  She glanced nervously at her coworkers who were enthusiastically NOT making eye contact with her.  "I'm just going to say it!" she blurted... "It's Jesus!!!" 

Deli lady went on to talk extensively about Jesus and her relationship with God while her coworkers continued to look as pointedly away from her as possible. She was holding my ham hostage.  While having a chat about Jesus with the deli lady wasn't what I had planned for the day, it made for a memorable Jewel trip. I was intrigued by the nervous behavior and her defiant preface, "I'm just going to say it..."  Clearly maybe she'd said "it" quite a bit and maybe it had been suggested by her boss and/or coworkers to save the Jesus talk for another time. 

Like most trips to the deli, drawing portraits doesn't usually involve Jesus discussions.  But sometimes it does.  Lots of people I meet take the time to tell me how blessed I am, how God has given me a precious gift.  Most are very kind.  Some stare me aggressively in the eye while they tell me I'm blessed, measuring the churchiness of my reaction.  I agree that I am blessed in many, many ways. And yet, my particular upbringing and religious experiences haven't made me super comfortable with sudden, unexpected chats about the Lord.  You might feel yourself becoming eager to discuss God with me right now.  That would make me feel like you're holding my ham hostage.  Everyone is different and I'm not big into God chats.

I had my longest, most involved religious discussion with a very special client, who also demanded a pencil portrait store house call. 

I met Gilbert Stoddard at my very first craft show in 2005 with one of her many daughters. Not only did she automatically assume that I was going to her house for our portrait transaction, she tried her hardest to save my poor, confused soul. 

For a woman well into her 80’s, Gilly is a true lady - accessorized, curled and sparkling every time you see  her.   She stays extremely busy with her big family, church and friends, which was why I think we didn't get together until nearly a year after we met.  For some reason, I kept following up with her.  I'm not always all that conscientious in following up with my prospective clients.  Perhaps I sensed that she’d be important to me. 

Gilly is good through and through. She welcomed me into her house with open arms, eagerly showing me photographs of her four daughters and ten grandchildren.  The same daughter still attends my shows and I heard there are three great-grandchildren now as well, and counting.  On a wall behind Gilly's dining room table, there were ten columns of 5x7 photographs of each grandchild from babyhood through high school or college graduations.  Beautiful photos of weddings and family gatherings were everywhere. 

The occasion for one of my pencil portraits was their 59th wedding anniversary. Gilly wanted to celebrate her husband's Naval career with images of him throughout his service.  Since it was for their anniversary and they so clearly had a beautiful life together, I suggested that we include both of them in the portrait.  She liked that idea and guided me into her bedroom where she pulled a big photo board out from under her bed.  It was covered with pictures that one of her daughters had put together for their 50th anniversary. 

The photos were gorgeous.  I thought Gilly and her husband looked like movie stars when they met in the 1940’s.  He was a young sailor and she was a dancer.  Gilly said that all her friends thought that Mr. Stoddard was a looker.  After she saw him for the very first time, she turned to her friends and said, "That's the man I'm going to marry."  They've been married over 65 years now.  She told me about how wonderful her marriage had been and all the special times her family had together.  She hit the jackpot.

“Families that pray together and play together, stay together,” Gilly announced.

I told her that I was so happy for her, that she was really lucky.  I was having a terrible time coping with some relationship problems with family.

“Do you have a relationship with God?” Gilly asked. 

Uh oh. 

If you haven't smelled the swiss cheese by now, I am Switzerland when it comes to religion.  Plus I love swiss cheese and Triscuits with my wine if I'm out of Cheez-itsI respect faith in general.  I envy those who have their spiritual life figured out.  Amen to you.  Meanwhile, I am very busy over-analyzing, questioning, doubting and obsessing over whether anyone is mad at me.  I have yet to have that transcending religious experience that compels me to quote some scripture at the DMV.  But for those who do, I get that it is no joke.

Back to sweet, lovely Gilly.  She is a true believer, and spent her youth as a traveling evangelist.  She feels she was blessed with the name Gilbert because she was invited to speak by churches who assumed she was a man at a time when only men were welcome to speak at the pulpit.  She told me stories about how she helped non believers become evangelists themselves.  She’s the real deal and packs a serious religious love punch. 

Gilly made an impact on my business and in my life in such unexpected ways. The portrait of Gilly and her husband over sixty years of marriage has touched more people than any of my other portraits combined.  I've drawn dozens of "then and now" anniversary portraits, thanks to her.  People at my shows sigh with appreciation when they see the caption, "Sixty Years Together".  We all wish for that, for our parents, for ourselves. All that precious time in one image.

During a portrait meeting (there were quite a few), Gilly remarked, smiling, “Our God is a wonderful God, don’t you think?” All the light in the world shined bright in her eyes, but she also had that deli look… the questioning look.  I felt a tug of uncertainty.  Was I missing something that these kinds of questions always make me so uncomfortable, even with a dear lady like Gilly?  She stood up, walked behind the couch where I was sitting and put her hands on my shoulders.  She said, “Jesus, please help this dear girl cope with her worries.  Help her sleep at night and take her fears away.  Help her know your love.” Call it my achilles heel for true kindness, call it a true religious experience... I wept like a baby under her gentle hands. It moves me still to think about it.  You know I'm a crybaby, but this was different.

Despite her efforts (she gave me a bible for dummies and then quizzed me about it), I can’t help but feel that Gilly's is just one interpretation of something huge and unknown to us, at least to me.  It is something different to people all over the world.  Each belief is as precious and true to the believer as the next.  Whether you go to a place of worship regularly or make the world a better place in your own way, you are alright with me as long as you aren't a meanie.  Gilly understands and prays for me. 

I was blessed to have had Gilly Stoddard hold my ham hostage.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Boo-Hoo Water Balloons

It can be humiliating to sit at an art show; especially a craft show.  People power-walk by, eyes darting around in search of jewelry or clothes for their cement porch goose.   It's kind of like when you have a garage sale and you feel protective of your junk when someone does the slow drive by without even stopping.  What?  Is my junk not good enough for you?  I get it... you don't want to make eye contact, because it feels like a buying sign.

The art show people who walk by and ignore me don't know that I spent between $150 and $600 to be sitting there.  I know they don't know it took hours to pack up my 500 lbs of gear, haul it all out of my Durango, cart it to my spot, spend hours setting it up.  People have no idea that each of my portraits has a sweet story... that a part of me is hanging by paper clips on my mesh display walls.   

I know they don’t know, but it still hurts my big fat feelings when they ignore me. I am such a baby.  I mean, really.  My husband told me over martinis and cribbage the other night that I really need to be more positive.  Translation: why are you such a crybaby?  I could fill up water balloons with my self pity blubbering. I sit home all day drawing pictures and writing blogs about myself, what do I have to sulk about?  Sadly for my husband, plenty.

I do intend to be more positive.  But not before I complain a little more.

Last weekend, I had a huge show at the Odeum in Villa Park.  It’s a great show, even though it is held in a creepy, dark, old, tin shed of a building with godawful cell phone reception.  My booth was across from a big ole blingy display of cheap jewelry that took up TWO spots.  Women are nearly drunk with joy when they find cheap jewelry at art shows.  They’ll try it on with their friends and yell stuff while laughing too loud, which feels like a deliberate attempt to hurt my feelings.  They are practically jumping up and down.  I spent the entire weekend looking at the backs of these women. 

Okay, I sort of lied, because it doesn't matter whether the jewelry is cheap.  It usually isn't, but it's JEWELRY and chicks dig jewelry and most of the people at craft shows and art shows are skirts on the prowl for more jewelry.  JEWELRY!

By the time they were done trying on every single item on display and convincing each other to buy those earrings or that bracelet, the women at the cheap jewelry display across from me would immediately sober up and skulk out of dodge with their guilty jewelry purchases.  They’d spent too much time in that spot, no time left to check out the pencil chick.  To make matters worse, a nosy jewelry vendor wandered into my booth and helpfully gave me an earful about how my display wasn’t good enough and looked like it only belonged outside, but not at good shows, where he’d get in but I wouldn’t.  What a dick.  Wasn’t I just telling you how I worry about my display, and feel like I am trying out for cheerleading when I apply to fancy shows?

Sometimes the jewelry drunks give me the briefest once over, which makes me wince even more inside.  A glance with a quick look away is way worse than being ignored, which I'm sort of used to.  Some art show patrons will give my booth a good sniff as they're wandering slowly but steadily by.  That’s a little better, but I still sulk because they don’t stop.  When I say sulk, I mean I have cried in my car on the way home.  I obsessively wonder what I'm doing wrong.   If my husband calls at the wrong time, as soon as I've heard his rumbly, kind voice, I've started to cry in my booth, too.  In front of people.  Yikes.  I really do need to be more positive; this blog may force me into therapy. But hell, at this point I've been pointedly ignored by several million people. Even a mentally balanced normal person with non-crybaby tendencies could get discouraged. 

If I'm not getting blown off, I am being chatted up by people just killing time, waiting for their jewelry-shopping friends.  They'll chit-chat about my pictures, ask questions, maybe even fill out an inquiry form, but it's all hot air and they're not fooling me with their fake interest. Others like to talk about their cats in great detail, or their artistic grandparents or neighors who like to draw. I am trapped and at their mercy. Most don't call me, even if they swear on their cat that they will.

Thank goodness, every once in awhile, I meet someone who gets me immediately.  It’s as if a cartoon lightbulb appears over a smiling face, and it’s such a relief. 

Sandy Smith got me the moment I met her.  As soon as she saw my display at one of my very first shows, she struck a dramatic pose and said, “WOW!” She was one of the very first people I met who made me feel like I could have an art career. 

I have a book of sample portraits and photos on my table that almost everybody ignores.  Sandy carefully looked through the ENTIRE book, pointing out her favorites and pausing occasionally to look at me, shaking her head.  “I LOVE it!” she gushed, “This is fabulous.  Who wouldn’t love to have a beautiful portrait of their children?”  I remember one time my friend Nancy stopped at my booth during a local outdoor summer festival and yelled, "These portraits are so BEAUTIFUL, I'm having CHEST PAINS!"  That was almost as good, even though Nancy already knew me and was just being hilarious.  Mothers tend to be the ones who get it, who share my passion for sweet little moments caught on film. If there was a fire, I would grab the old photo albums of non-digital pictures. The photo booth pictures when my husband and I fell in love… that photo of Joey at two years old in a plaid wool hat with flaps. What if they were just gone?

Sandy Smith knew what I was talking about. 

“I have the PERFECT photo!” she told me, “it is my favorite picture of my girls. Just wait till you see it! You’re going to love drawing it.”  She was so appreciative and delighted, I loved her instantly and more than a normal person should love a stranger.


Here’s an embarrassing example of my affectionate nature causing problems. When I’ve drawn someone, I have spent hours staring at my subjects, often thinking about what I know of them or wondering about what I don’t know about them. I develop a bit of a bond during all those hours of drawing. One time, I spotted one of my subjects walking by at a show, and I cheerfully called out to her, “Heyyyy, I know YOO-UUU!!!” in a singsong greeting. Startled, the woman stopped, and I gave her a big ole hug. It turned out that her portrait had been a gift from her husband’s cousin. She had never met me, didn’t know me and clearly was not a member of the hug and kiss club, of which I am president. This was awkward, and not the first time it had happened, but I have a learning disability when it comes to this kind of thing and many other kinds of things.

Months later, I emailed a request to my list of clients and friends, asking if they would consider forwarding my website to their friends. I do this occasionally when I am feeling desperate for work and I usually get a job or two out of it. Sometimes my dear friends or clients actually copy me in on their emails, touting my portraits as a swell gift, which really touches me.  I get such a kick out of kindness. One dear soul also forwarded me a response to the email she’d sent on my behalf. It went something like this:

“Hey Wendy, I sent out your message and my coworker wrote this back to me:

I know this portrait weirdo.
She attacked me out of nowhere at a craft show.
She’s a nut case and I suggest you steer clear.”

Can you believe that crabby broad popped up again? What are the chances? Sometimes the world gives you a sign that you should calm down or change. I choose to ignore these signs and keep doing the same dysfunctional stuff. 


Sandy Smith, on the other hand, was HAPPY to be hugged, which was good, because she was so sweet and complimentary about my work, I could not have held myself back from hugging her. The portrait of her three girls turned out to be one of my all time favorites...

“I call the photo of my girls ‘see no evil, hear no evil,’” she told me.  ”You’ll see why.”  She sent it to me in the mail and it cracked me up.

Eat no evil, poop no evil, whistle no evil.

While they aren’t covering their eyes or ears, the girls’ distinct, silly expressions have that monkey feel, like they are giving us different subliminal messages.  Let's think of some thought bubbles for them.    

Plus, they have water balloons shoved down their bathing suits.  Sandy insisted this was a very important part of the photograph and needed to be included in the drawing. I’m intrigued by this… were the balloons supposed to be boobs?  Why so many?  Were they just trying to see how many they could cram in there? Like clowns in a little clown car?  It’s an enigmatic picture when you consider the possibilities.

"Water Balloons" has been one of a few rare portraits that I've kept in my display for a very long time.  It has sparked many conversations with art show patrons.  Sometimes they make a general happy comment, sometimes they want to know what's going on with the lumps in their bathing suits.  The girl in the middle looks a bit like an Olsen twin, especially in my drawing, which lots of people have believed they are the first to point out.  Not only was the portrait a hoot to draw, it has been an unexpected ice breaker and a beloved part of my portfolio. 

I've drawn thousands of perfectly smiling kids.  Most people are not willing to invest hundreds of dollars in goofy expressions.  But sometimes the silly faces are the ones you love to remember.  I am tempted to add some grade school photos of my friends here, but will exercise a little restraint for once.  (I'm thinking of the Aunt Jemima photo, Vicki.)  Hooray for happy, goofy portraits! 
I want to be adopted into this family

It gives me a joyful little jolt every time I see Sandy's water balloon portrait.  I’m so grateful to her and for all my clients for not ignoring me and for getting me.  When she received her finished portrait, Sandy hand wrote me a beautiful letter, pouring her heart out about what the portrait meant to her.  When is the last time you received a hand written letter in the mail, with a stamp rather than an email?  They are rare and delicious.  All the kind things that my clients say help to stave off my natural tendency to mope and be neurotic. 

Sandy has visited me at the same show where we first met under my big pencilHer happy, growing girls crowd into my booth and they are so tickled to see their portrait on display or in my sample book.  Sandy and her girls stand close together, peeking over each other’s shoulders to find their page and to look at the new stuff.  As they stand together, Sandy’s hand gently brushes a stray lock of hair back from one daughter’s face while her other hand absent-mindedly rubs the back of another.  Sandy is a lovey-dovey, uber-mother like me.  She's in the hug and kiss club. 

Each time Sandy and her girls suddenly appear, unannounced among a sea of averted strangers’ faces, I feel the absolute opposite of ignored... and it's all worth it again.