Category Archives: Inspiration


So as Not to be Dead

As I wrote about in my last post, this week I have been in the midst of the Sphinx Competition, and today we finished up with SphinxCon. I’m writing this in my hotel room, and tomorrow is the final day, culminating with the Sphinx Competition Finals Concert. It’s been an exciting/inspiring/exhausting week!

So, I’m cheating (a little) this week. I don’t have the time to write a big ol’ post, but I thought I would direct you to some content out there that I found relevant, to a recent blog post by Callie Oettinger on Steven Pressfield Online. I loved this post. It struck a chord, and I feel the need to remind myself to keep “dancing and dancing and dancing, and writing and writing and writing, so as not to be dead.” (this will make sense if you click on the link to the post below)

AND…since I’m pointing you to his site, if you have never heard of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I highly recommend it…for anyone struggling with creating, whether it be writing, visual art, film, music, starting a personal venture…we all struggle with Resistance, and this little tome gives a shape to that thing “that keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do” and helps identify ways to conquer it.

Here’s to beating Resistance and creating, creating, creating, so as not to be dead:

Bradbury and Bowie: Dancing, So As Not To Be Dead

Guardians of the Studio

[ Guardians of our studio, helping to ward off Resistance ]



Also posted in Creative Life, Motivation

Not Stuck, Full

Things are moving slooooowly around here in the art-making department, but they are moving. I was really getting a bit down about it, not getting more done, but I realized I am not “stuck” in the Inspiration and Ideas departments, I’m just full at the moment.

There is no room, mentally and actual time-wise, with my current Work workload, to add a whole lot of art-making to my days. But that is typical of this time of year.

Julie Renfro-Still Life in progress

[ A section of the latest digital print for a Still Life, printed out this week on large format paper. It needs to be mounted on a panel and painted back into, and it will eventually go in an ornate frame I have been dragging around with me since living with my parents (I used it for a project in art school). It’s one of the art pieces that has been moving along, slowly but surely. ]

And when I say “Work” with a capital W, I mean the full-time job that pays me, but I in no way mean it’s Work as in dull, mundane, or thankless. Quite the very opposite.

Temping and Serendipity

Back when I was 25 and newly divorced from my first marriage, I worked for a temp agency. I liked temping, as it was generally mindless work (filing or data entry), and I would get to change it up every few days or weeks, depending on how long I was needed. It was easy work, a bit boring perhaps, but it paid the bills.

One memorable job (for all the wrong reasons) was for a large government-contracted business. They built parts for things that fly (like planes and rockets, and who knows, maybe a space shuttle). I was basically someone’s assistant, and the temp assignment was for a few months. The thing that sticks out to me, all these years later, was how unhappy some of the employees were. There was one room where the accountants lived, a series of nondescript desks in an uninspiring open room. The accountants were all youngish but older than me, maybe in their early 30s at most, and they hated their jobs. They talked about when they would be getting out (I seem to recall it was not soon), as if they had no choice but to show up for this work, and that some day their real lives would begin.

I didn’t want to be in a job like that. Ever.

Fast forward to fall of 2002, a couple of years shy of my 40th birthday. We had been in Michigan for a little over a year. Unemployed. Not for lack of trying, but nothing was panning out. One day, on a complete whim, I set out for a temp agency.

I always think of the word “serendipitous” when I recall that decision to go look for a temporary job. What if I had waited a week? Or gone the week before? What made me decide that I had to go that day? It seemed so impromptu, at the time.

The short of it is that I ended up working for the Sphinx Organization as a temporary Program Assistant (the job had initially been given to someone else, but my resume included web design, which sealed the deal for me). Temping morphed into a full-time job in January of 2003. And for the last 13 years, among many other events and programs, I have been a part of making the annual Sphinx Competition happen. And the 19th Annual is occurring this upcoming week.

One of the Lucky Ones

I know, now, that you can make your own luck, or at least do a lot of work to move your life in a particular direction. But most of my life has not been charted by design, and by sheer chance (or divine guidance) I ended up in a job that has been life-changing.

This is a very simplistic way to put it, there is so much more to the work, but I can say I’ve helped kids get free violin lessons (that otherwise would have no music in their schools), assisted in giving talented musicians a chance to open doors and further their careers, and in the broader arena helped move diversity in the arts forward (I make it sound like I’m out there in the forefront, but in reality I’m a designer/bookkeeper/hr person/office manager and mostly sit at a desk…but hey, I’m part of the Team that makes this all happen, and that counts).

The team I work with is, I honestly believe, extraordinary, and I feel very, very fortunate to be working with and for this group of smart, passionate, hard-working, supportive individuals.

This next week is my favorite week of the year at Sphinx, possibly because the Competition was the first big event I participated in (have to say, though, I cried a few times that first year, sometimes growth is thrown at you…in a good way). We not only make a 5-day national string competition happen, in addition, for the last four years, an arts industry conference (SphinxCon) as well.

The people who attend both events, that participate, are always inspiring. No matter that I am a visual artist, not a musician, the talent, dedication, and hard work that is evident when the final three senior Laureates perform on Sunday spurs me to work harder at my own art form.

I may be exhausted come next Sunday at 5:00pm, but how lucky am I to get to do this Work.

SphinxCon – Ignite to Action February 5-7, 2016. Westin Book Cadillac, Detroit.

Sphinx Competition Finals Concert, February 7, 2016 at 2:00pm. Orchestra Hall, Detroit. Tickets through the Detroit Symphony Box Office.


Julie Renfro-Still Life Detail-2

[ Another Still Life detail from this week’s print. I know, one print for the whole week, but hey, I’ve been busy 🙂 ]


Also posted in Art in Progress, Creative Life

Consider the Peacock


We live in a world where peacocks exist. Think about it. No matter if you believe in God or not (or to quote Anne Lamott, “God, Goodness, Love energy, the Divine, a loving animating intelligence, the Cosmic Muffin”), somehow peacocks came to exist. Could you or I come up with a peacock? Sorry to doubt your abilities, but I think you and I would be hard pressed.

Although, I wholeheartedly think we should try. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” and all that.  (Norman Vincent Peale).

It’s not enough that the peacock has exquisite coloring, the stylish hat, and those complex, iridescent feathers. He gets to be a performance artist too. It’s almost too much to take, that big, swooshing display. Peahens must be hard to impress.

When I was looking online for a peacock photo, I also did a search for rare or exotic birds. The images are mind-blowing: the variation and vibrancy of colors! The intricacy of feathers, the iridescence, patterns, unique “accessories” like the crest on the peacock’s head (how could a peahen not be charmed by that beautiful, delicate adornment alone?)

The number of awe-inspiring bird species out there makes my head spin.

Bird Watching

I’m not a “birder” but I am fascinated by birds in general and love to watch and listen to them in our backyard. You can’t compare them to peacocks (you can’t really compare anything to a peacock, can you?), but we do have some beauties in our part of Michigan: red cardinals, yellow finches, blue jays, the occasional orange and black oriole. And cute ones like the chickadees that get just one seed at a time from the feeder and then fly to a nearby branch to eat it. Tiny, shimmering green hummingbirds in the spring and large flocks of black crows flying high over the house in winter (not sure where they are the rest of the year, but hundreds flock each evening during winter, sometimes roosting in the trees around our neighborhood).

And the whole flying thing. Not only are they lovely to look at and listen to, birds are little (or sometimes not so little) aerodynamic feats of engineering (or most of them anyway, turkeys are another story). I am inspired by their existence. I am grateful to be sharing the planet with them.

Create a Peacock

The peacock is my visual hero in the natural world, a shoot-for-the-moon, over-the-top inspiration. When I watch one doing its thing, I think: WOW. That exists.

While I don’t approach my own art with the end viewer’s reaction in mind, I do know what art out there makes me go WOW when I see it (or OMG or WTF), and I think that’s what I strive to make. The finished work doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful, but it would be nice if it stirs a feeling or reaction (from someone. One person at least. OK, maybe two).

How did she make that?
Why on God’s earth did she make that?
That’s such a cool/tacky/ugly/gaudy/beautiful work.

Perhaps some day we’ll have a huge studio so I can make 10 foot 20 foot variations of my Play piece. I might just have to buy more gold beads and glitter.

Also posted in Creative Spirit

Furiously Jealous

Well, this first week of 2016 went by way too fast. During the holiday break, I seem to have misplaced the ability to organize my days in a productive fashion. The “get clean and organized” item on my list of aspirations is still just that, an item in a list, written down in a blog post (see? This is why I choose aspirations over resolutions). I had such high hopes for hitting the ground running this past week. I don’t know what happened.

The funny thing is I started using the Hours app on my iPhone to start tracking where my time was being spent. I really love the app…when I remember to use it. After a couple of days I kept forgetting to start it and then use it consistently. I guess I need another app for reminding me to do things.

Good weeks + bad weeks + gray-in-the-middle weeks = Life. Small steps Sparky, right?

2016 first work in progress

[ I touched all my projects in some way today. Feels immensely good. ]

Looking at Lots of Art

Austin Kleon (writer, artist, blogger) had a really good post last month about How to Find Your Voice. In it he quotes poet Billy Collins, from a workshop Mr. Collins gave to students at the White House. Part of that quote really struck a chord:

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

It struck me because I’ve recently been looking at the work of a lot of other artists, work that makes me jealous. And mad.

Pinterest has been fueling the fire. I have yet to really use Pinterest as a “social” tool: I’m not following a lot of people, and I have very few followers. But what I LOVE is the ease with which you can collect images that inspire (artwork!), that you find beautiful, or interesting, or just darn cool.

If you’re not familiar with Pinterest, within it you create “boards” for grouping similar things, and on each board you can “pin” images from all over the web. Or you can pin images that other people have pinned. Once you start pinning, Pinterest generates “related” pins, plus you start to see other boards of like-minded Pinners, and this is where things have gone nuts for me. I have discovered so many artists whose work inspires me!

I created a board called Art that Inspires, and it has more pins than any of my other boards. When I bring it up on my screen, it’s just this Wall of Visual Joy that I love admiring. It’s addictive, really, and I could spend my time looking at this wall of other people’s art rather than making my own (and apparently that’s exactly what I’ve been doing).

On the one hand, this can be demoralizing (as I talk about in a post about letting go), and the truth is, it can be (I want to do that! Wow, this artist is so prolific!) However, I think that perhaps looking at many artists, in a grouping on a board, might take the focus off the individual and generates a more abstract collage of inspiration. Although, all that creativity and talent together can be overwhelming…I don’t know, I’m working at cultivating the put-a-fire-under-my-ass way of looking at it.

More Tortoise Than Hare

I’m off to a slow start this year, but I did spend all day today moving all my projects forward in some way. Most of the day was spent driving around to various stores so we could spend money on things I “needed” for various art projects (illustration board, gesso, panels and wood to make abstract paintings…and oh yeah, while we’re at it, let’s decide we need a new table saw today), but that’s all part of the process.

Could I plan better for my tool and supply needs and be more organized with my time? Absolutely. I did manage to get some paint on my hands, though, and write this post. Whew!

I’ll do better next week (no, really).


Also posted in Creative Life, Creative Spirit, Motivation

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 Art Stories, Creative Life, Creative Spirit

Butterflies in Peru

You know how sometimes you anticipate one thing about an upcoming trip or event, even want it very badly, but something else entirely happens?

In 2013, Mike and I took a two-week trip of a lifetime to Peru. We had come into some unexpected money, and I had recently been obsessed with visiting Machu Picchu someday. I hate to say the desire manifested the money, but it sure seemed that way (I like thinking of it this way, that we were meant to spend all of it on this trip, rather than hear the voice of our Financial Guy, “What? You spent ALL the money on one trip?”) Anyway, it was worth it. Two weeks of heaven and hell plus a bonus five pounds lost.

I could write pages about this adventure. But the short of it is: for several days I experienced the absolute worst headache of my life due to the altitude; we did a hike that was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done (part of the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu); and I experienced peace and euphoria in a boat traveling up the Madre de Dios river in the Amazon.

Mike and I at Machu Picchu

[ On top of the world with the love of my life. ]

Mr. Pain

Pain is a good instructor. I don’t wish him on anyone, but one can learn a lot from Pain.

We were a little worried about altitude sickness and the lack of oxygen at the altitudes we would be, but when we got off the plane in Cusco I was like, “Breathing? No problem! This is a piece of cake.” Hmmmmm. I’ve blocked out the memory of exactly when it hit, but the headache I ended up with, for days, was brutal. Think glass shards stabbing into your brain.

I eventually begged off one of the daily excursions and just slept for a day. The relief of waking up without that headache! After experiencing great pain, you can really appreciate life lived without it. I’ve had one other recent occasion where I experienced real physical agony, and I tell ya, it puts Life and Gratitude into real, clear perspective. I feel for people who are in intense chronic pain. I had a glimpse into that abyss.

Lesson learned: I don’t take my mostly-ablebodied being for granted. While I haven’t lived completely pain-free for years, I’ll take it. I can walk, jump, and wave my arms. Each morning I wake up is a gift (Practice #6, Gratitude).

Butterfly Coaches

I was so very thankful that the headache subsided before our big hike on the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. This was, afterall, the whole point of the trip.

When we got to our hotel room in Aguas Calientes (where we stayed during the Machu Picchu portion of the trip) there was a butterfly on our door. It was just hanging out, like part of the decor (included in your hotel stay is your very own butterfly greeter!)

On the day of the big hike, we took a train to our starting point on the trail (surreal side note, we sat across from Joe Lynn Turner and his wife. Lovely people, nice conversation). At the designated place, the train literally just stopped on the tracks, and our party jumped (a seemingly great distance) to the ground. No station, no people. Just the forest, a path to a bridge, and the beginning of a six-hour hike.

Getting off the train before starting our Inca Trail hike

[ that’s not me in the foreground, that’s a way more fit person ]

Things started off ok, although the heat, sweating, and smell of bug spray were flies in the ointment (haha). Then the uphill part started. Hiking in that altitude is interesting (slight understatement). It makes things harder, but if you stop, you quickly regain your strength. At least for a while. The trail is paved with stone, which is awe-inspiring (people placed those stones there! on miles of trail!) but it also makes things tricky, especially when you begin to get tired.

On the Inca Trail

I started to notice the butterflies. Various sizes and colors, but appearing regularly alongside the trail. Sometimes they would fly next to me, going in our direction up the path. As the thoughts of “what the hell was I thinking” floated in my head, I began to think of the butterflies as my coaches: “Come on, Julie! You can do it! Forget that your knee hurts, your clothes are soaked, you have to pee, and your backpack seems to be getting heavier! Just keep going.” They kept appearing, and I kept going.

At one point, a couple in their twenties literally bounded past us. Bastards.

The Gringo Killer steps

[ You have got to be kidding me. Our guide just laughed and told us they call these “the gringo killers” ]

The butterflies kept encouraging me to keep going and to appreciate…and notice. We are in f**king PERU! On an ancient trail! Headed to an ancient city situated on an incomprehensibly precipitous piece of land 8,000 feet up in the air!

Machu Picchu

[ my wish come true ]

A Life Moment and More Butterflies

For the second half of the trip, we stayed at the Tambopata Research Station located on the Tambopata River in southeastern Peru. There they study macaws, and one of the highlights of our stay is a trip out to one of the clay licks where the macaws hang out (I’m sure the scientists don’t say it quite that way).

[ The "Chicas" outside our room at the research station ]

[ The “Chicas” outside our room at the research station ]

Traveling up the Tambopata River, Peru

The journey to the research station was one of those big Life Moments for me. We boarded a long, low blue boat near Puerto Maldonado (where we landed after the Machu Picchu portion). It’s a four-hour ride upriver to the first stop, a stay at Refugios Amazonas (both lodges are part of Rainforest Expeditions).

I have to say, on that upriver journey I was in heaven (the cynical side of me says, “well duh, you got to sit on your ass for four hours on a river, instead of hiking for six hours in the Andes getting your ass whooped.”) Shut up, Cynical Self, it was a joy. I felt so at peace…with the world, with myself. I hadn’t felt that way, that deep contentment, for a really long time.

And again there were butterflies! Hundreds would appear at the side of the river along the clay banks. Sometimes, they would appear to be moving along the river with us. My guides were here too.

The Tambopata River, Peru

It Takes the Amazon

This trip was during the year before my 50th birthday, a year of being lost creatively. But by the very end of this adventure, I had a re-awakening of creative spirit. On the last of our daily hikes in the jungle, the last one before starting the journey home, something shifted for me. I had been looking at the same jungle for days, but that day was different. I became inspired by the many variations in patterns and textures found in the dense foliage.

The creative side of me was energized, and awake!

Butterflies in the jungle of Peru

The whole Big Point of this trip had been to experience Machu Picchu. I was looking forward to some sort of spiritual experience up in the Peruvian mountains, but the site itself, while breathtaking and amazing, was really, well, just full of tourists (like me).

What I got though, was a rich experience full of the extremes of pain/struggle and euphoria/calm, and some great coaches and lessons that led me, eventually, back to art. It didn’t happen immediately (some ruts are really hard to get out of), but I was on my way.

Starting our hike on the Inca Trail


Also posted in Creative Spirit, Motivation

If Only in My Dreams

Is it possible to go through the holiday season and not get nostalgic? All that unavoidable sad Christmas music (“I’ll be home for Christmas,” anyone?), old movies (watching “White Christmas” always makes me cry, and there’s some evil Christmas elf spirit that compels me to watch it every year), tree ornaments laden with memories of who made them and when…I guess it all depends on how old you are, how sentimental, and/or if you even celebrate [insert your holiday] during this time of year.

I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot. She is everywhere at Christmas: the Christmas stocking she made specifically for me, the stuffed elf she made (sitting on the mantel with Grandma Irene’s needlepoint cabin), the Christmas quilt she made, memories of her driving me and my sister to seemingly endless Nutcracker rehearsals and performances. Christmas shopping.


[ Muriel's Christmas elf in red shares the mantel with other beloved keepsakes ]

[ Muriel’s Christmas elf in red shares the mantel with other beloved keepsakes ]

Dots and Stitches

But then, Mom is everywhere in my art, all year round.

[ a log cabin quilt made by my mother as a wedding gift to me and Mike. You can't see it, but it is lovingly hand quilted with hearts and Xs and Os. She passed away less than 3 months after completing it. ]

[ Detail of a log cabin quilt made by my mother as a wedding gift to me and Mike. It is lovingly hand quilted with hearts and Xs and Os. She passed away less than 3 months after completing it. ]

Mom’s quilts have been an inspiration since art school, where I made a self-portrait “quilt” using 12-inch squares of masonite. Actually, I never finished it, but I did enough for a critique, and I cut a lot of masonite squares. Each individual square was to be its own painting/collage, but together they made a whole grid of “me” (we’ve been hauling those masonite squares around since then…20 years! Do you know how heavy a stack of masonite is?)

When I finally “found my voice” as they say, I was still incorporating quilt-like elements into my work. I love working with squares and grids, and the tiny dots that I make are my quilting stitches. That’s how I think of them anyway. I was going to write that I’m too impatient for stitch work, but that really makes no sense when you consider how obsessive (and some times annoying) those little dots are. I think it comes down to preference. Brush and paint over needle and thread.

Julie Renfro abstract - detail

[ “Still Life” detail. Digital print as a base, acrylic paint layered on top. Obsessive white dots added last. ]

When I’m working on my still lifes and abstract squares, I measure the success of my studio time by the ease in which the dots come forth. I have good dot days and bad dot days (like hair days). Sometimes the magic happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll come in from the studio and tell Mike, “today was a good dot day.”

Julie Renfro abstract - detail

[ Abstract Square detail. ]


There was a small fabric store in Dana Point, where I grew up in California, called Sew-n-Sew. Mom made many of our clothes (and Halloween costumes), and I have vivid memories of being in that store, walking among the narrow aisles of colorful fabric bolts, admiring all the shiny and sparkly notions. And that smell! I love the smell of a room full of fabric.

[ Mom in her sewing room, Dana Point, CA ]

[ Mom in her sewing room, circa 1990. Dana Point, CA ]

[ a selection of the fabrics in my studio ]

[ a selection of the fabrics in my studio ]

I have my mom’s old sewing machine, and on occasion I will get it out and sew together squares using bright-colored or metallic thread and then use the result as a base for a piece (and I generally do this quickly and poorly, but I can get away with it because it’s the background and mostly gets covered up). I do not consider myself a textile artist, and I’m not a sewer (see previous sentence), but I do like working with textiles (a great source of information and inspiration has been Fabric Mod-Podged onto board makes a great base to work from (I used fabric squares as part of the base for my piece Play).

For a while, when we did our annual Art Institute of Chicago visits, the textiles section was closed. When we went earlier this year it was open, and when I opened the door and walked into that room…that old familiar smell! Beautiful cloth hanging from the museum walls, and that fabric smell took me right back to my childhood. It reminded me of my mother, Muriel Jeanne (Moore) Renfro, and going to Sew-n-Sew, the little corner fabric store in my hometown.

I miss my mom (and dad) and Christmas in the Dana Point house.

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Thanks, Bing, thanks a lot.







Also posted in Art Making

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 Art Stories, Creative Spirit

Happier by Practice

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
Dalai Lama

Practice makes perfect, or “use makes mastery” as the saying used to be (kinda like that version better). I’m not sure about getting to the perfect part, but over time I’ve discovered that working on certain habits, what I call my “practices,” is necessary if I want to feel my very best.

When I do these things daily, I am more creative, more productive, and overall happier. These practices are part of the work necessary to be my best Self, and I feel obligated, by virtue of being a unique human being given certain talents/gifts, to work towards my best Self.  As the saying goes, “be the best you can be” (I’m full of sayings today, it seems.)

Do or Do Not, There is No Try

You would think, then, that I would just DO all of these practices, but there is that human tendency to do the opposite of what is good for us. You know, the good-for-you things take effort. They are not easy. It’s easy to sit on the couch eating bonbons out of a box, watching TV all day (although, thinking this through, if my goals were to be a jolly Christmas Santa and good at playing Trivial Pursuit, perhaps that’s exactly what I would have to do…anyway, you get my point.)

I would rather be a happy-creative-best-self person, so I work at my practices. Some days I do better than others, some practices are harder than others, but over the last year I have begun to make many of these stick.

My 10 Practices

Sorry, I know I’m being cliché with my list of ten, but I didn’t try to come up with ten, it just worked out that way.

1. Exercise, especially cardio

Exercise is at the top of my list because it’s the good habit I’ve done the longest, and it consistently makes me feel better, physically and mentally. If I’m not exercising regularly (and I’ve tried this experiment), then I feel pretty crappy.

Currently I’m only doing 30 minutes on the treadmill (walking mostly, 3.8 max speed, level 4 incline sometimes, intermittent low-level jogging) and doing some stretching 5-6 days a week. It’s not much, but it makes a big, positive impact.

2. Ingesting only good-for-you stuff

Back in spring, Mike and I tried the Whole30 program. There’s a lot more behind it, but essentially, for 30 days you eliminate any food/drink that is potentially inflammatory or harmful to your system, and you eat only real, whole foods (nothing processed). While I did not make the full 30 days (some Life interrupted), the mental and physical change I experienced after two weeks (and Mike’s best cholesterol/triglyceride numbers ever) convinced me that what you consume in food and drink makes a HUGE impact on your health and how you feel. This seems obvious, but I didn’t really know the concept until I experienced the benefits for myself.

Do I keep up with it? Not always, but I’m striving to be more consistent.

3. Meditation

I recently read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, “…an unexpected, hilarious, and deeply skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help” – basically a cool book about meditation. If you have never tried meditation, I highly recommend it (and the book). I meditate every morning, currently for 15 minutes. Sometimes I’m “good” at it, mostly I suck, but it is immensely helpful in calming the inner chatter and helping me be more focused and mindful.

4. Keeping a journal

I used to feel really stupid doing this, but I kept at it, and now I write (mostly) every morning, and I love it. I have a cheap composition notebook, a favorite purple pen, and I get to practice my penmanship while I’m at it (on a side note, I feel sorry for generations growing up without learning cursive writing! If nothing else, I find it very satisfying putting pen to paper.)

5. Being mindful

Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”
Psychology Today

As an artist, I think I am already prone to be “aware” and take notice of visual details, but living in the moment is a challenge.  The Most Important Moment by Leo Babauta really put “living in the moment” in perspective for me:

Something I forget a lot, and have to remind myself about a lot: I’m not on my way somewhere. This moment isn’t just a stepping stone to get to another place. It’s the destination. I’m already here. I’m not on my way to a more important moment. This current moment is the most important moment.


Milkweed seeds

[A side note on being mindful and seeing the details: have you ever really looked at the seeds that trees and plants produce? Just amazing little things of beauty and feats of engineering. These are Milkweed seeds. When the pods open, the seeds get carried on the breeze by the beautiful, feathery soft filaments.]

6. Gratitude

By some standards, Mike and I live a pretty “simple” life, but I consider us very wealthy in so many ways. I take a moment every morning to be grateful for all that is good in my life, and I try not to take anything for granted.

7. Living by, not against, my values

Took me awhile, but I figured out that living my life going against what I believed in = feeling crappy. I wasn’t really even aware of what my values were, but once articulated, and once I measured my thoughts and actions against those values, I could see where and why I was unhappy.

8. Helping others

I believe helping/supporting/loving others is part of our “job” on this planet. It’s just the right thing to do, but it is also immensely satisfying. I’m working at being more deliberate about this instead of thinking about my own wants and needs all the time.

9. Compassion, for myself too

To be honest, I’m nowhere near being good at this, especially for myself (and all the “idiots” I encounter on the internet). But, I have high hopes for myself (and the idiots), and I work at getting better every day.

10. Simply trying to be happier

Lastly, I’m simply trying to be happier. In 1988, Don’t Worry, Be Happy was on the radio and MTV. Constant and everywhere. Cute, fun, eventually annoying, BUT Bobby McFerrin had a point. I’ve been a worrier all my life (I inherited this from my mom), and I decided recently to just stop. Stop thinking of myself as a worrier and just stop worrying. Be happy! Easier said than done, but worrying is not helpful in the least.

So, 27 years later I’m taking Bobby’s advice plus adding a few practices I’ve learned (and am still learning) along the way. Use makes mastery.



Also posted in Creative Life, Motivation

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, Art Stories