Category Archives: Art Stories


The Art of Practice

It’s been 1 year and 10 days since I wrote my last blog post. Wait….what? I seriously can’t believe that much time has passed. It’s actually quite a bit unnerving.

I can’t even explain fully why it’s been so long. We’ll leave it at “the last year has been a roller coaster.”

I’ll cut to the present to tell you the opening of Doors of Perception is happening this Sunday! Mike and I worked our artistic tails off to get work finished (procrastination and artist block were definitely alternating parts of the year….), and we’re both excited to see the show finally hanging.

100 64 Squares

One of the pieces I finished was a grid of 64 6″ squares, the largest piece I’ve done to date at 5′ x 5′. I started the project with 100 squares in mind. Such a nice even number, I thought. A challenge!

OK. That’s a lot of blank boards when you see them all stacked in a large box on the studio floor.

Not too far along into the project, after I had to completely redo the first 9 squares, feeling overwhelmed about finishing, I decided that removing the outer line of squares was going to work just as well and would be much more manageable.

Work in Progress Julie Renfro

It wasn’t quite entirely a Plan B-type of situation, more of a course correction.

Art Practice

I learned over the past year that it’s important to have an art practice. There’s discipline involved in going out to the studio, every day, and working. Working. Whether you want to or not.

It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s quite difficult, but you do it anyway to keep moving the art you do forward in some way.

Even if it’s a very small step. If you keep working, even little bits a day, eventually you’ll finish something. It may not look like you originally intended, but it may just be magical enough.

Wow. It’s really up.

Facebook post by Janice Charach Gallery



Also posted in Art Making, Creative Life, Doors of Perception

Fortune Favors the Brave – Part 5


Two weeks! Two weeks from today and I will have a finished Fortune Favors the Brave for Ann Arbor Art Center‘s Aquarium Gallery. Sunday, June 26th, I will be installing…something.

It was all going so well until three days ago…

A funny thing happened Thursday evening, while working in my basement, merrily humming along with my FFTB piece. It became apparent, dawned on me in a slow swelling of dread, that it wasn’t working.

I had been adding flowers and sparkly things to the side panels, layers of doilies and gold to the center panel. Using gold map tacks, I had placed the little gold squares that had images of the women in my family on to the center gold panel. I had been thinking about outfits for the mannequin, tying and taping stuff to her to get ideas (gold cape? pink tutu? should I sew something myself? how about a pink feather boa instead of a cape?)

Then Thursday night I decided to place Ms. Mannequin into the piece to get a feel for how everything would come together.

Julie and Miss Mannequin

[ Playing dress-up with Miss Mannequin…before, when we were still friends. ]

Pulling a Rabbit

Sorry to report, but she failed her audition. I had Mike come to the basement to get his opinion. Nope, not working.

Her attitude was all wrong (no smile, so serious), she was just so stiff. She didn’t fit the piece, at all. Mike and I talked through various ideas, but it all came down to: the mannequin has to go.


And now that she’s gone, it looks weird and off to have the center panel be all gold.


Now what? Panic, what else. I know you guys have all experienced, Artists or not, at least one time (more likely several) when a Plan B had to be considered. I could have just continued with Plan A, but I would not have been happy. The end result would not have “worked” the way I had envisioned.

The next part is what Mike and I refer to as Pulling a Rabbit (as in a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat). Although, because I have two weeks, it’s not a total Rabbit situation (those usually happen one or two days before something is due). But it certainly felt like I had to come up with something in a hurry.

Plan B

We talked some more, I panicked, bounced ideas around, more panic. But as we talked, the threads of a solid direction started to form. It wasn’t hopeless, wasn’t a total Plan B Overhaul, I just needed to, uh, change direction (a little), start one part over, and completely change the central focus of the piece. No problem!


[ Seriously, thought I was DONE with this cutting and pasting, but the gold had to go. I turned the center panel over and went at it. Unfortunately, this side is not smooth, so in certain light you can see the slightly raised lettering of the word LOWE’S. I’m hoping enough stuff will be on it that you can’t see it. The other end of the cat in the lower right corner of the photo is proceeding to chew on and eat the small scraps of leftover paper. ]

FFTB-large stencil

[ I knew this large stencil would come in handy some day. To be used on the newly collaged back panel. Purchased at Joann’s awhile back with a 50% off coupon. No specific plan for it at the time, but I knew it had potential. ]

FFTB-right panel 5

[ At least the side panels are still progressing. Still debating a couple of ideas for inside the frames. ]

FFTB-hanging things5

[ Final gathering of items to hang. ]

So around 10:00 pm, Thursday, June 9th, a new plan was formed.

In the following days Plan B got underway. I still felt all jelly on the inside at first (what the hell am I doing?), but I worked through it, and now I am really liking this direction. Actually liking it more than before. THANK GOD. I can’t even imagine: what if I had waited to put the mannequin in place? What if I had spent all that time, effort, and money, getting her all dressed up, only to find out she didn’t belong in the piece? Ack, gives me anxiety just to think about it.


Work space, the aftermath of panic.

[ The aftermath of panic mode. ]

A lot more gluing, tacking, stenciling, printing, hanging, placing, lighting to do, but this is it, the last update on FFTB before the installation! Can’t wait to finish, can’t wait to install it, can’t wait to share the final results.



[ The installation will have a central something, sitting on the small round table in this photo. I’m leaving it a surprise. No, it will not be a cat. 🙂 ]

Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Fortune Favors the Brave

Title No Longer TBD – Part 3

Several weeks back, as I was walking on the treadmill and staring at the parts and pieces that were the beginnings of my Aquarium Gallery piece, the phrase “fortune favors the brave” bubbled up from somewhere in my consciousness. Had a nice ring to it, but wasn’t sure I wanted to commit (what does it mean exactly?)

Regardless of meaning, it has taken up semi-permanent residence in my head, pulled up a nice comfy chair in a corner, sat down, and waited. Hung around. And it’s been sitting there all these weeks, so I decided to let it stay.

Fortune Favors the Brave.

This is now the working title of the piece.

It’s still a shimmering idea/shape, not yet fully formed (my guest is but a ghost), but we’re going to have a conversation over the next few weeks as I work. I’ve learned that I have to trust my intuition, my instincts, and not get too caught up in “meaning” initially. But you know my guest will have some things to say as she becomes more solid, I’m sure.

[ By Hans Sebald Beham - Private collection, Scan by Yellow Lion 2006, CC BY 4.0, ]

[ By Hans Sebald Beham – Private collection, Scan by Yellow Lion 2006, CC BY 4.0, ]

The above image has nothing, really, to do with my piece, but I liked the drawing of Fortuna (plus, not sure of their purpose, but those shin bracelet thingies with lions on them rock. I think I need some.)

Fortune Favors the Brave - Getting Started

[ Beginning to put things together (finally!) – purple pillow required for sitting and kneeling work on the floor. ]

The Home Depot Police

Even though he said I could, I decided I couldn’t bear to paint completely over all of Mike’s previous hard work (on the panels I’m reusing), so we went to Home Depot to buy the large sheets of foam insulation that would be the base of my piece. This way I could cover up Mike’s panels using Velcro to adhere the foam to the walls, and the foam will allow me to pin things into it (lots and lots of things).

The insulation sheets are 4 foot by 8 foot, and therefore will not fit in our Honda Civic without a little help. After purchase, we stepped outside the store and Mike wanted to cut the panels right there on the cement by all the carts parked against the building. I had brought a knife (stashed away in my purse), but I guess in my mind I had envisioned we would do this surreptitiously out by the car. Not in full public view of anyone walking out of the store. And the Home Depot Police.

As I have noted in other posts, I am a worrier. And I tend to be a Rule Book Follower. Problem is, since I don’t have the Rule Book (that everyone else secretly has), I will make up what I think are the rules. As I’m helping Mike cut the panels into manageable sizes, I’m thinking:

“This has to be against some Home Depot policy. You can’t be allowed to bring a box cutter to the store and start your DIY project right there on the premises. We’re going to get caught. We’re going to get in trouble.”

I hate conflict. I don’t want to get yelled at, or worse taken to the Home Depot Police room at the back of the store to be questioned. Until this moment I hadn’t really thought such a room (or group of burly men) existed, but now in my mind they do, for sure. Lurking in the back of the store viewing security cameras.

So as I’m working through this anxiety, we finally get the panels down to 2 foot by 8 foot and take them out to the car. But 8 feet is still too long, so more cutting needs to happen. I mentally start hopping from foot to foot, and I finally can’t help myself, I say something to Mike to the effect that this has to be against Home Depot policy.

Mike just gives me that look. It’s loving, and understanding, but it’s the Seriously? Look. I’ve seen it over the years, it’s the Just Stop, You Worry Too Much Look (which, I have to admit, is 99.9% true, but there’s always that chance that the Bad Thing, whatever it is, will happen).

He reassures me it’s all going to be fine, and as always I would like to believe him, but, you know, there are rules. And I’m convinced we are clearly breaking them. Mike takes the foam panels to the grass strip at the front of the parking lot, which in my mind is still too out in the open, and I’m mentally hurrying him along. Be quick! Eyes are watching!

But the Home Depot Police don’t come running and yelling from the store, and we get our newly cut insulation panels into the car. We are safe. This time.

And I have to confess … as I was writing this post, the thought came, unbidden, “what if Home Depot reads this?” … honestly, I’m not sure there’s hope for me.

Anyway, work has begun:

Fortune Favors the Brave, base collage closeup

[ Color laser prints of my original collage pieces, Mod Podged to the foam. Not sure yet if the entire surface will be this…I may break it up with something else. But this is just the base work, there will be lots of stuff attached to the walls. ]

Fortune Favors the Brave, in progress view from the floor

The view from my purple pillow on the floor. The left and right panels of this side have the foam attached via Velcro. Center panel with Mike’s painting is yet to be covered. ]


Fortune Favors the Brave - getting ideas

[ Getting ideas using the fake flowers from the original Barbie Cake project. I had covered many fake flowers with glitter…cant’ wait to use them in this piece! ]

Old Work

[ Since I’m reusing parts of older work, I’m thinking I might incorporate some *other* older work I’ve done, hang these small pieces on the walls perhaps? Maybe the whole installation becomes an amalgamation of previous works into one?…just an idea. ]

So the real work has begun! There has been actual attaching of parts and cutting and pasting of things. This is real progress.





Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Fortune Favors the Brave

Chances Not Taken

One of my first assignments in art school was a total flop. I didn’t listen to my instincts and instead made what I thought I should make. What I wanted to do was take a pile of my old, worn pointe shoes from my very recent days as a dancer and create something three-dimensional (would have been my first use of recycled/found objects). But that idea felt too “out there” and risky. I couldn’t guarantee my fellow would-be illustrators wouldn’t laugh and the instructor critique it as being a really bad idea, therefore I didn’t take that chance.

I can’t remember what the final, two-dimensional piece even looked like, but I do remember it had a nice, formal, white matte frame around it. And I remember how it felt when I brought the piece to be critiqued.

When I got into class and saw some of the unique, creative, and “out there” pieces the other students had done, some of which sat on the floor, some on a table or desk, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I placed my nicely matted piece on the “crit rail” (the metal rail under the large white boards that lined most of the rooms) and felt like an idiot. I had made the wrong choice.

My review did not go well. A very big lesson in listening to my instincts (the pointe shoe idea may have flopped too, but at least it felt more like me).

What Could Have Been…Maybe

Flash forward three years, towards the end of my time at Art Center. By this point, I was doing things I wanted to do, trusting my instincts more. It took three years to build up this (more) fearless attitude, to be able to create what I wanted to create, what felt right, and then take whatever criticism followed.

For one of my assignments in a Fine Art class (vs. the Illustration part of my degree track), I created a “necklace” that was made completely out of paperclips.

Small Obsessions - Paperclip necklace

[ Pardon the bad photo, this was back before cell phone cameras, or even before digital cameras that could preview the photos…when you had to actually get the film developed, and then you got to see that, oops, you hadn’t quite focused the camera correctly. Anyway, this does not do the piece credit, it was actually quite cool and much more lovely in person (in my opinion 🙂 ]

The exact assignment escapes me, but the necklace received a good review in class. And as fortune would have it, we had a guest artist from Italy visiting, and she critiqued during this class as well. I can’t recall her name, and unfortunately I was not writing much back then so I don’t have any other documentation, but I remember an older woman, very kind, warm, yet intense and focused when she spoke to you. She pulled me aside after class and told me how much she admired the piece.

And…she said I should come to Italy some time, that she was interested in my work. She gave me her contact information.

And…I did nothing. I didn’t contact her.

Fear won the day.

Me? An artist? I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t have “work,” I can’t go to ITALY for Pete’s sake! That’s way too scary.

So the opportunity came and went. I let it slide.

Small Obsessions

Small Obsessions - Show Promotional Card

But I did muster up the courage to put together a show. As a Fine Art student, you could reserve the undergrad gallery to show your work (technically Fine Art was my minor). A fellow student had shown in the gallery, and his show was a resounding success. Lots of people came to the opening. I decided I wanted to do that too (envy?), so I decided to take this leap. I was too afraid to go to Italy, but I could quietly create a show for the undergrad gallery (which was on the first level, in a far corner, at a point where it was below ground level, and on the day of my opening there was water leaking through the wall, onto the floor, from the outdoor sprinkler system…)

This was my first encounter with using a deadline to create work: you have reserved the space, now you have to make stuff to put IN the space. And try not to embarrass yourself.

Small Obsessions - paper chains

[ Construction paper chains for my show at the Art Center Undergrad Gallery. ]

Small Obsessions

It’s embarrassing now to look at photos of the work, most of which is pretty bad (I’ll spare you), but at the time I was really proud of my work, of the fact that I reserved the space and took the time to think about, and work up, enough pieces to fill the space.

The opening reception was not well attended, which was my first lesson in marketing and popularity. If you are well-connected, know lots of other people, this makes a difference in how many people show up for you. If you are shy and don’t have a lot of friends, your marketing efforts need to be amplified…a tad.

Fear and Letting Things Slide

Embarrassing or not, I do still love the ideas of the paperclip necklace and the construction paper chains (one professor said I hadn’t taken the paper chains far enough, it would have been better to fill the room with them…I agree!) I think my current work, however different, contains some DNA from those works.

And I still think about the Italian artist every so often, and I wonder what would have happened, how my life would have been altered, if I had taken her up on her offer. If I had taken that chance. I don’t have a big feeling of regret really, I don’t think I was ready for it, but what if I had felt the fear and gone anyway? Pushed myself beyond where I was at the time and just said what the hell, let’s see what happens?

It’s so easy to just let things slide. Getting your creative work in, keeping connected, in contact with people, doing the work, whatever that is…takes hard work. Diligence. Taking yourself beyond your limiting beliefs (my 1994 self that felt “you’re not an Artist!”), beyond what you think you are capable of…this is the challenge.



Also posted in Creative Spirit, Motivation

Title TBD – Part 1

Gotta love a deadline.

I may be procrastinating on all my other projects, but on one, at least, I have a due date. Can’t get around it, someone is expecting something creative from me, delivery and assembly to be done on a specific date. Three months from today, on Sunday, June 26th, I am committed to installing “something” in the Aquarium Gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center. The title of my installation is yet to be determined, and the whole concept is still not fully formed, but this weekend I began the process of building this “thing,” this Art Piece, and I thought that, here and there, I would share the process with you. Make you my accountability partners, so to speak (whether you like it or not. Hey, thanks for being there for me!)

To give you an idea of the space for which I’m building something, the photo below is a pic of the Aquarium Gallery installation that Mike did last summer:

Mike Sivak, Aquarium Gallery 2015

It’s a lot of window to fill (about 7′ x 7′ x 2.5′ deep), and, as you can see, I have my work cut out for me if I want to live up to the standard Mike set. Damn you, Mike Sivak…I mean, thanks for the challenge, Sweetheart! (BTW, Tuesday we celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary 🙂

Getting Started

Coincidentally, 10 years ago Mike and I collaborated on a piece titled Feminine Mystique, aka The Barbie Cake. It was for a show at The Gallery Project, during the time they had a storefront space in Ann Arbor. Mike made the “dress” that looked like a frosted cake (it really did look like frosting), and I made the inside of her dress: a lush, sensual, glittery, floral world inspired by the insides of those hollow sugar Easter eggs we would get as kids (another coincidence: happy Easter!)

Feminine Mystique

[ “Feminine Mystique,” aka “The Barbie Cake”, 2006. Featured in the Humor Show at the Gallery Project, Ann Arbor, MI ]

As I’ve been mulling over the idea for this installation for the last several months, I thought of possibly recycling parts of The Barbie Cake. So yesterday I asked Mike (nicely) to get the parts down from the attic (including the floor and walls he used for his Aquarium piece), and to also please help unearth other pieces from that one corner of the basement that is impossible to get to because of all the crap piled up (BTW, I found a mouse nest in the Barbie Cake…probably TMI, but this is the life of an Artist Hoarder).

Title TBD - in progress 1

[ Floor and walls from Mike’s piece, bins of fake flowers, foam insulation for walls I can pin things into…all good stuff. ]

Title TBD - in progress 2

[ The mannequin from Ms. Mystique…hello old friend! ]

Title TBD - in progress 3

[ Pink fur, sparkles and fake flowers from the inside of the “Barbie Cake” – all potentially reused materials for this new installation. ]

Title TBD - Mimi helps check things out

[ Mimi helps inspect materials. ]

Title TBD - work in progress 4

[ I dunno, this dusty aquarium figurine seems like he has to go in the piece somewhere…. ]

Title TBD - art in progress 5

[ Silver mirror balls, gold shiny/sparkly things…of course! ]

The Hardest Part is Done

Getting started is the hardest part. The momentum has begun, the pieces are in place. All the stuff I’ve gathered may not even get used, but it’s there to play with. So much potential! I’m excited. And scared. Over the next three months, a lot has to happen. I don’t want this to be simple, it needs to be complex, “over the top.” Lots of glitter and sparkle is imperative, lots will be going on in this small space.

Title TBD - work in progress!

[ A lot of time will be spent sitting and contemplating…coffee a must. ]

I want people to be compelled to look closely. Weird is good.

The whole thing may work, or it may fall flat. But I’m going to have fun (at least some of the time) either way. We shall see.

Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Creative Spirit, Fortune Favors the Brave, Motivation

Self Help

[ Note: I started this post yesterday, my normal scheduled Saturday, with every intention of finishing, but a major Cleaning The House Episode ended up consuming most of the day. I would like to say that it was because I was actively working on my “get clean and organized” aspiration, but that would be a lie. Bottom line, we had company coming over, and I was attempting to avoid embarrassment. But I made the mistake of turning on the lights and looking in corners and at the tops of things, and…Oh. My. God. I texted Mike: “what happened to us…we’ve turned into pigs. My mother would be appalled.” Seriously, I’ll spare you the graphic detail, and I don’t want to write a whole post about how grimy our house was, but I spent most of yesterday with my face scrunched up in a look of disgust…anyhoo, back to our regularly scheduled post, a day behind…]

Over the years, I have personally contributed to the growth of the Self Help Book movement. Mike has poked gentle fun at me for the piles of self-help books I have purchased. He would quietly smile as I announced, yet again, that I needed a trip to the bookstore (this was before Amazon).

For a while it was quite the habit. I just knew there was a book out there with some answers! Ooh, this one will help with my anxiety, this one will help me be more Zen, this will help me with my self-esteem, this one for my confidence, and this one will help me be more positive/creative/happy! This one, finally, will fix me and make everything better.

I guess I thought that by reading them I would somehow absorb by osmosis the ideas and lessons therein. Ta da! All better! Nice idea, but guess what, it doesn’t work that way. Anything you want to change takes focus, discipline and work. Practice.

And some of it’s hard. Many a self-help book got set aside. Well, please, I don’t want to have to get off my mental or physical ass and do that.

I’m older and dare I say somewhat wiser now (somewhat being the operative word, it’s all relative).

These days, when I wander down the virtual self-help aisle (on Amazon, with the older, wiser me), it’s more about growing (not fixing), reminding myself of the things I am capable of, and nudging/working myself in the direction of my Best Self, which is the one that already exists: anxieties, quirks, phobias, worn down body parts, and all.

Best does not mean Perfect.

Self Help the Art Piece

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Inside

In 2010 I created a piece for a show called Wordage at the Detroit Artists Market. I titled it Self Help, and it was an homage to my little obsession with fixing myself through books. I wanted it to look like an old, magical tome, something you might find in an old library full of secrets, gathering dust, up on a long-neglected shelf.

The piece has a little clasp to latch it shut, but it would have been great if it had a lock and old key (which, of course, the heroine who finds the old tome in the library would have to go on an adventure to find…)

The front of the piece has “the greatest danger” imprinted on it, which is part of a quote from Michelangelo:

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

( I think that quote alone is worth a whole blog post.)

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Front

The main body of the piece was created using a cigar box, tilted up on its side. When you open it up, the left panel is a series of quotes from some of my favorite self-help books. I put them together to create a page of wise words.

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Life is Difficult

[ Close up of the left panel. This detail quotes M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” – “Life is Difficult” is the first sentence in the book. ]

In the center of this side is a jewel-encrusted niche, an abstract of my “center,” my “soul” and that inner sparkle that exists, like a treasure needing to be found. It exists, quietly, among all those words.

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Inside Close

On the inside right panel, I collaged a jumble of things: fortune cookie sayings that I had collected over the years (that seemed fortuitous and/or full of wisdom); a kneeling angel figure; lots of jewels and tiny sparkly things. I wanted someone looking at this to get lost in the tiny details, the layers of things. I wanted it to feel old, and mysterious.

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Happy

Julie Renfro - Self Help - Angel

Looking at this piece again is like greeting an old friend. A friend you had way back when in your life, before you had everything figured out. I enjoy bringing it out every so often, cracking it open (literally, it tends to stick).

I do wish it had a key, although, you know I would lose it.












Also posted in Creative Life

Small Steps Sparky

Don’t worry even if things end up a bit too heavy
We’ll all float on alright
Float On, Modest Mouse

This post is off schedule due to Art (the creative act, not some guy). I do believe I will let myself off the hook with this excuse (I could blame it on my sister, but it’s right after Christmas, and I want to be nice…or it could be I just don’t want to take responsibility for my actions…I’ll go with blaming Art).

When we arrived at my younger sister Tina’s house in Virginia for Christmas, there was a very large work of art in progress on the floor of the garage. It was meant to be a family project, so I got a chance to “add a little something.” That was Saturday morning. Two full days of painting, [joy], listening to music, [joy], making a mess, [more joy], gluing (Liquid Nails Heavy Duty Extra Strong), and a really sore and achy body later, we finished.

Well, mostly. My brother Scot added a couple of coats of clear varnish this morning and we are waiting for it to dry. Then we will see how good that Liquid Nails stuff really is, when we attempt to get it off the garage floor, in one piece, and turn it over for some additional screws into the back to bind everything together.

Focus on Your Shoes

“Small steps Sparky.” Mike and I have been saying this to each other for years, and now my recently widowed sister says it too. It’s written on the family whiteboard. The line is from the movie Contact, although I’m not sure we’re quoting it correctly. The dad in the movie says it to Jodie Foster’s character when she’s just a kid (see, I can’t even remember the characters’ names, and I’m too lazy to look them up). The accuracy of the quote doesn’t matter though, it’s the phrase that helps keep the forward momentum when the task at hand seems daunting. Even the tiniest of steps are moving you forward.

I like to say this phrase of encouragement out loud to myself, especially since I began this whole Scary Business of putting myself out there (here).

Incremental change over time is a concept I have run into more than once through various online coaches and self-help books. You don’t have to do a lot each day, or each week, in order to get to your goals. And sometimes, you can’t look at the Big Scary Goal way out in front of you. Sometimes, you have to just look down and focus on your shoes. Taking those smallest of steps will still get you where you want to go (of course, looking up occasionally is necessary to prevent you from running into things).

[ Photo credit: Scot Renfro ]

When I started this blog at the end of September, I set myself the goal of one post a week for the rest of the year. An arbitrary timeline (heck, the start date was random), but it seemed natural, and three months of writing, only once a week, seemed doable. I had no real agenda or plan, just wanted to write thoughts and stories that were floating around in my head, hopefully some posts about actual art I made. Maybe some folks would find the posts interesting and/or useful in some way. Maybe they wouldn’t.

Without a real plan (other than, that’s What You Do when you Blog), I signed up for several of the Social Medias to support my endeavor (still on the fence about certain ones, and not posting very consistently, but dare I say it…SMALL STEPS SPARKY)

I started out writing on Sundays, then switched to Saturdays so my blog emails would go out on Sunday morning rather than Monday. No real supporting evidence for a reason to make this switch, it just felt better, and I found writing on Saturdays felt less urgent, like I somehow had more time.

This whole meandering “winging it” framework, bound by a once a week commitment, hasn’t been a total disaster (even if it wasn’t very comfy at times). I don’t have many followers yet, but this is only (only?!) my fourteenth post (that is awesome!), the last of 2015. I have to say, I’m pretty darn proud of myself for making it to my goal post (heh, didn’t get the pun when I wrote it, but cool).

The really, really hard part…really…was just starting.

Wintery December Sky in Virginia

[ Taking a break from the Big Art Project. Beautiful winter sky, Virginia ]

The Magic is in the Mess

Brené Brown shared “the magic is in the mess” a couple of days ago on Facebook, and what she wrote really resonated. As she says, “the gremlins don’t go on vacation.” Doesn’t matter that it’s Christmas. Life is messy 365 days a year.

The Big Art Project here in Virginia was just what I needed to get me out of my year-end-holiday funk. I cannot come close to comparing any of my current life “struggles” with the unfair s**t storm that a good chunk of this year became for my sister and her family. Or my brother, who is dealing with his own, but different, unfair Storm O’ S**t. But we all got to work on this big, beautiful piece together, and that made the storms (temporarily) a little less crappy.

Big Art Finished

[ Liquid Nails worked. There were a few crackles and creaks turning it over, but the pieces held. Lots of screws added to the back. The piece weighs 85-90 lbs (we know this because of a neighbor’s borrowed scale). Thanks to the patience of brother Scot with the level, measuring tape, stud finder, hardware for hanging, and power drill, we have a final piece on the no-longer-big-empty wall. Just needs some direct lighting to bring out the color 😉 ]

Goodbye 2015

There are a couple days left to get my thoughts together for what I want out of 2016. I would like to have more focus, have some bigger goals, with more purpose, not be meandering so much. I would like to make lots and lots of art and continue this blog. I’m not sure what the whole picture for next year looks like, what I want it to be, and you know, I might not figure that out before January 1st. And that’s OK.

Thank you, my dear lovely reader peeps, for joining me on this adventure. I so appreciate your feedback and encouragement. Looking forward to more adventures.



Also posted in Creative Life, Creative Spirit, Inspiration

Grandma Irene and the Needlepoint Cabin

Since it’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, the Christmas decorations were retrieved from the attic (please, all the Christmas decorations displayed in stores before Thanksgiving? That’s just not right.) Among our decorations is a prized possession of mine, a Grandma Irene original. I adore this piece, and it sits on our fireplace mantle each year, among all the other memory-filled Christmas crafts and keepsakes.

I don’t have a clear memory of how I acquired the needlepoint cabin. It might have been in my mother’s possession, and I inherited it.

Grandma Irene's Christmas Cabin

[ For reasons unknown, Irene put the cabin (8″w x 5.75″h x 5.5″d) on a thin piece of white card stock, and darnit, I’ve kept that crappy piece of white card stock because it’s part of the whole. She glued a sparse amount of silver glitter to the cardboard and placed random figurines and trees on it (evidence suggests there was a third pine tree, if not other tiny elements. Most have long ago come free of the board). It also plays music! The wind-up key sticks out of the back wall of the cabin. It still works. You would think something Christmasy, but it plays “Edelweiss” from the Sound of Music. Perhaps the cabin is in Austria? ]

Back in Time

Irene RenfroI actually know very little about my paternal grandmother. I know Clara Irene (Engle) Renfro was born in 1901, in Ohio (and I only know this from ancestry research). She never attended school, she married my Grandpa John in Texas when she was 19, my dad was one of 5 kids, they ended up in Huntington Beach, California, and when I knew her she lived near us in a trailer park (next to the sewage plant…bad neighborhood to be in on certain days when the wind was blowing in a particular direction).

Irene did needlepoint and sewing projects. Each year the trailer park community center would have a holiday gift shop, and she would have needlepoint ornaments and tchotchkes for sale. I remember being slightly terrified of Grandma Irene. She laughed very loudly and made horrible oatmeal (too much salt).

But I wish I could have an adult conversation with her. Ask her about the needlepoint cabin she made. Hear her whole story, if she would share it.

Tiny Dudes

[ Tiny dudes. Mr. Snowman is hiding on the side of the house, smoking (he’s attached to the side of the cabin, so I know that’s where she wanted him. Bear and duck are also still attached to the cardboard) ]

Specially Hand Made by Irene

[ This is sewn to the bottom of the cabin. ]

The Kitsch in Me

Grandma Irene’s needlepoint Christmas cabin has been a direct source of inspiration. In February 2011, Mike and I participated in a group show at Siena Heights University (Adrian, MI) titled Reclaim, Revere, Regard. We created an installation that honored the women in our lives, with specific homage paid to our mothers and grandmothers. I created nine shrines that sat on tables created by Mike. This one shrine in particular was for Irene:

Julie Renfro - Shrine with deer and palm trees

[ Irene’s complete disregard for scale in her work inspired Large Deer With Small Palm Trees 7″w x 5″h x 3.5″d ]

On a Related Tangent, Shrines

I haven’t been working with shrines lately, but my newfound love Pinterest (we shall have a chat later about social media, but I have to say, Pinterest is the hands down favorite at the moment) has led me to discover other artists who do shrines or shrine-like work. My interest has been re-sparked. Plus, Mike just unearthed a treasure trove of cigar boxes we had collected (one of the positive benefits of organizing, you find s*** that you forgot you had.)

For this post, I wanted to take photos of Irene’s cabin and the shrines from Reclaim, Revere, Regard. Taking the shrines out of storage or off shelves, dusting and handling them, taking photos, has put them in a new light. Eventually I will get them all posted under Artwork, but here is a sampling:

[ Untitled. 5″w x 15.25″h x 4″d ]

Julie Renfro - Shrine, Blue Velvet

[ Untitled. 6.25″w x 11.5″h x 3.25″d ]

Julie Renfro, Shrine - The Wedding

[ Untitled. 4″w x 10.5″h x 3.5″d ]

[ Untitled. 7″w x 7.75h x 2.5″d ]

I like to think I’ve inherited Irene’s sense of craft and multiplied it by 1000%. Perhaps gone where she may have feared to tread (way more glitter needed on that cardboard, Irene.)

Grandma Irene, I wish I could have known you better. Here’s to your inspiration and legacy.

Also posted in Creative Spirit, Inspiration

Still Lifes

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”
— Iris Murdoch

I try not to take it for granted that I live in a world where flowers exist. Their color, their complexity, their variety, their beauty: all for us to enjoy. So truly amazing (I really mean this, the true “causing great surprise or wonder” definition of amazing, not the “this meatloaf is amazing” use of the word). My ongoing “Still Lifes” series was inspired by Baroque still life paintings of flowers. My Still Life #1 was also the first piece to get me going after my 50th birthday.

Taken from Wikipedia:

A still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on).

Some of the earliest examples of still life were paintings of flowers by Northern Renaissance, Dutch, and Flemish painters (I make it sound like I already knew that, and it just rolled out of my head onto the page, but I found this tidbit somewhere in my quest for still life images. I’m not even certain where Flemish painters live.)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573 – 1621) Still Life with Flowers

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573 – 1621), Still Life with Flowers


Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Bouquet

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Bouquet


Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683/1684), Flowers in a Vase (gotta love the snail)

Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1683/1684), Flowers in a Vase (gotta love the snail)

Can you see why I love these? Besides the fact that they are paintings of flowers, they are sumptuous, rich, elaborate, and just plain splendiferous (this is an actual word! Who knew? Adopting it.) I wanted to capture this splendiferousness into original work, but with a Julie Renfro spin.

A Digital World

Nothing against digital art, but for my own work, just composing on the computer and printing it out is too neat and tidy, too “clean.” Plus I lose the satisfaction of painting. So for my Still Lifes, I decided to start on the computer, but finish with paint.

The computer, Photoshop in particular, opens up so many options for creating art: scanning (photographs and textures), changing colors with a click, adding layers, adding effects between layers, changing the transparency of a layer in an instant, and then changing it back…the options are limitless. While I don’t prefer to work on the computer with most of my work, it really is an invaluable and necessary tool to get the results I want for this series.

Still Life Process

I begin with photographs I’ve taken of flowers, plus scans of lace patterns and various Baroque and Rococo ornament (Dover books are my friends). For the background, I essentially like to work with anything that will add a base of ornateness and textural elements to the work.

In Photoshop, I extract the flowers from their backgrounds, then start layering! Textures go on the bottom layers, flowers get layered on top. I play with Blending Modes (overlay, hard light, multiply, etc) and image Adjustments (color, saturation, brightness/contrast, etc) between layers to get the results I want.

Screenshot of the final "base" for Still Life #2

Screenshot of the final “base” for Still Life #2

One issue I have with working digitally is that the colors on the screen look bright and gorgeous. Then I print them out and…not so much. It takes some tweaking to get some semblance of the color and contrast I want (it can never be exactly as I see on the screen).

For the first two Still Lifes, I printed out the base in parts, cut up the parts, then collaged them back together on cradled wood panels using matte medium. I was going for a subtle, layered collage effect, with the flowers sitting on top of the piece and outlined in a dark color. This wasn’t as successful as I would have liked, and moving forward I think I will just print the base out in one piece. We’ll see.

Paint, Wonderful Paint

I love acrylic paint (oil-based paint, not so much, but I do love the smell of an oil painter’s studio). What’s not to like about water-soluble paint that dries to be, basically, plastic? It’s so versatile and durable.

I take my newly mounted digital print and start painting back into it, working within a grid of sorts. I have a vague idea of what I want (a butterfly to be added some place, for example) but for the most part I play, letting ideas flow as they come to me, using the base print as inspiration. I do know that there has to be plenty of color, gold paint, yummy detail, texture (paint strokes and washes), and more detail (dots…we’ll have to talk about tiny dots one of these days).

Still Lifes #1 and #2

Still Life #1 (9″ x 12″) on the left, Still Life #2 (11″ x 14″) on the right. The edges of the cradled panel are painted gold.

I know, you’re thinking I covered up everything but the flowers, but not completely. If you see the work in person, you can see the background image underneath the paint, more so in some areas than others. It’s part of what I like about the finished work: the sense of layering, the “depth” created with paint upon the digital print, the delicate and subtle nuance of the shapes/colors/textures underneath.

Up Next

Last year we visited the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden at the University of Michigan for the first time (took us 13 years, but hey, better late than never). What an inspiring treat! I didn’t know there were so many different kinds and, dear lord, variation in textures and colors! I took many…many…photos, and peonies need to be in my next Still Lifes. Also, my friend and fellow artist Carol Morris gave me three old, oval frames (brass I think) that have rounded glass, each about 10″ wide by 13″ tall. I think they are perfect for a triptych of Still Lifes.

This weekend I began work on the digital base for one of them. Stay tuned for Still Life #3, #4 and #5.

Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Inspiration


“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Julie Renfro - Play Detail

Don’t Forget to Play

Seriously, it can be hard sometimes to remember that one of the reasons I make art is because it’s fun. Sounds moronic, but it’s true. I have to remind myself, constantly, that making art makes me happy. For the most part. The problem is usually found in the getting started part, but there are also times when what I’m doing isn’t working quite right, or I’ve committed myself to do, say, tiny blue dots around the edge of a 2 foot by 4 foot piece, and in the middle I’m asking myself “whose idea was this anyway?” But ultimately it makes me happy, the hard parts just a part of the process.

The idea for Play actually rolled into my head over two years ago. It was during my Sculpey Phase (I have learned that I strongly dislike working with Sculpey. Another story…) and I wanted part of the piece to be decorative tiles made with the stuff. I built the 2 foot by 4 foot frame (I wanted it to be fairly large), made the Sculpey tiles, found my P, L, A, and Y blocks….and that was as far as I got. My directive to myself (Play!) apparently wasn’t working, and for two years it sat gathering dust in my studio.

The Collage Show

Earlier this year, I was invited by Detroit artist Jack O. Summers to participate in a show featuring several artists that “collage” in different ways. I thought Play would be perfect (at least in my head, since it didn’t really exist yet). This was the kick in the pants I needed to bring the piece to life (nothing like a looming deadline!)

Play in Progress


The base of the piece consists of fabric squares, doilies, gold paint, and the Sculpey tiles with blocks. I found decorative round wood pieces at Michael’s that looked interesting and they ended up being incorporated too.



I knew I wanted a “doll” for the center of the piece, and I wanted her to be an assemblage of doll parts and other found objects such as jewelry pieces. I tend to play around with putting objects on the piece, sitting with them for a while, moving them around, taking them off, replacing them….until they “feel” right. Treasure hunting through my studio can yield unexpected gems.



Dots and detail…I added things as I progressed: small plastic figures painted gold, glitter in various colors and sizes, sequins, shiny gold things (Martha Stewart gold decoupage pieces from Michael’s were a find), more gold paint, blue and green dots, beads. The goal was to make it as shiny/sparkly/over-the-top as I could.

The Finished Piece

Overall, I’m very pleased with the finished piece, although I have to say it did not end up looking like I thought it would. Initially, the piece was to be more jumbled and loose, less organized, but once the grid pattern was set, I couldn’t help myself. I started working from that and kept things fairly symmetrical.

I have to admit that at the end I was pretty darn sick of the thing, was definitely not having fun, and actually didn’t like it very much! But after a few days of separation, then seeing the piece on the gallery wall with light shining on it, I came back around. Play and I have reconciled.

Thank you Jack Summers! And thank you to Chris Schneider and the fine folks at the Hatch Gallery. The Collage Show was really great, and I am honored to have been a part of such a fine group of artists.


The finished piece. Photo courtesy of Hatch Gallery, Hamtramck, MI.

Also posted in Art Making