Category Archives: Motivation


Gold Rush

Keeping it simple and shortish this post. Lots going on in preparation for the Sphinx Medals of Excellence celebration in DC this week, followed by a visit to my sister’s in Virginia. Looking forward to both!

Still Life No. 6 and I are getting along again. For a time there we were not, I didn’t like it, but now I’m loving it again. Art making tends to be rollercoastery like that for me, and thank God the “loving it” part happens often enough lately to remind me that I’m meant to be creating art. Even if just for my own enjoyment.

I also had a realization this past week that was actually pretty significant: until recently, most of my artwork has been the result of “outside” influence. By that I mean, the process was more like having an assignment of sorts. I would be invited to do a show that had a certain theme, and I would set about creating a piece or pieces that fit the show. And there was a deadline, which forced me to work, otherwise I would be letting someone else/the gallery down. Looking back, I was really rather fortunate to be given so many of these types of opportunities early on (being invited to participate, rather than having to apply and be juried in).

But I’ve been “on my own” for a while, and I’ve worked out that creating a new body of work, from scratch, with no one but myself to give me an assignment, is really quite a different sort of beast…it’s way harder! No wonder this last year, art-wise, has been such an up and down struggle! Now that I see this, I think I can step up to the challenge vs. feeling like I’m floundering around with no purpose.

Interesting! Well, to me anyway…:)

Gold, Gold, and More Gold

More Gold Dots

[ Tiny Sun Gold dots put on Still Life No. 6 this weekend. I was feeling stuck yesterday and said to myself “Dots. Come on Julie, you can at least do some dots.” And I did. Sometimes getting unstuck is relatively easy. ]

In case you haven’t noticed, I love gold. I don’t tend to wear gold jewelry much, which is kind of odd, but I love my gold paints, gold beads, gold glitter, gold thread…I even have a Pinterest Board dedicated to all things gold.

[ Thread, wire, and beads currently on my studio table. Been experimenting off and on with some jewelry ideas...that may or may not come to anything. ]

[ Thread, wire, and beads currently on my studio table. Been experimenting off and on with some textile jewelry ideas…that may or may not come to anything, but I’m having fun. ]

[ Container full o' stars. Always a good thing to have around. ]

[ Container full o’ stars. Always a good thing to have around. ]

Art in Progress - gold washes

[ Gold washes allow the underlying pattern/texture to remain visible but add a metallic sheen. ]

Gold Circles

[ Sun Gold circles on top of Royal Gold stripe. Plain ol’ Gold and Antique Gold are two other favorite acrylic paints. The subtle differences in color make for some nice variation. ]

Winter Blues Be Gone

Two evenings ago we had our first BBQ of the season (ok, so we pushed it a little. I was sitting outside with hat, gloves, and a big coat, but we had our BBQ turkey burgers with cheese, dammit). Today was rainy and gray, but there is hope in the snowdrop flowers blooming and tiny green shoots peeking out of the ground in our backyard. A few fantastic, sunny, warm(er) days have been welcome indicators that spring and summer are not far away.

Between the official first day of spring coming a week from today and new understanding of my art-making motivation (or lack thereof), I’m excited to kick some Art Butt when I get back (perhaps not the greatest metaphor, but you know what I mean 🙂


Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Inspiration


“Stop over analyzing. Life is simple.”
— The Holstee Manifesto

You see, a Flying by the Seat of My Pants Operation still…

This is not my usual blog post timeline, but I was in the studio for a good portion of the weekend so that counts for a lot. I would like to be able to say I chose getting paint on my hands over writing, but it wasn’t that calculated. Some times days just roll as they will. It would be oh so nice, but my new Planner can’t account for everything.

The quote at the top is part of The Holstee Manifesto which I have printed out and taped to the wall in front of our treadmill. It’s a wonderful manifesto, and I like rereading it for motivation. The “stop over analyzing” part speaks to me, I need to take that to heart. A tendency towards over thinking and making things more complex than they need to be is part of my makeup, a pattern of thinking and behavior that I’m trying to change. Trying.

Lately I’ve been contemplating the “life is simple” part. I’m not sure I agree with that. I would like to. We certainly can make things more simple by eliminating a lot of the noise in our lives (TV, internet, incessant looking-at-cell-phone apps). Working on that too.

I can also choose how to react to circumstances in my life, not make them Bigger than they are, and work to keep things in perspective as far as my tiny spec of a part in the Grand Scheme of Things.

But in some ways life is very, very complex.

I mean, just physically, we, and all living things, are walking miracles of complex engineering. Think of all that goes on in our minds and bodies to make a day happen in our lives. There’s some serious complexity that allows you to sleep, wake up, hear the birds chirping, feel the sun coming through the window, move your limbs to get out of bed, walk, get dressed, brush your teeth, remember to feed the dog (or your kids), get in a car, and drive to Starbucks so you can order your (complex) latte.

Then add in emotions, trying to be in the “now” and not the past or present (memories and worry), relationships (good, bad, and ugly), shitty days, really shitty things occurring out of the blue, and I’m not sure I could ever call that “simple.” Not to mention all the super shitty things happening to people in other parts of the world.

I realize they are not speaking of life as physical Life/Nature, but in my mind, it’s all wrapped up together in one big, terrible, beautiful ball. But I like the statement, it is nice and clean, and there is something at the edge of my consciousness, perhaps some Buddhist principle I can’t quite recall, that tells me, yes, life really is simple. Some say it all boils down to Love.

So I contemplate “life is simple.”

Art in Progress

For 7 out of the last 10 days, I’ve been in the studio for a minimum of 1 hour working on art. Not too shabby! My attempt at focus, using my new planner (still working at a system, but there’s progress), seems to be helping to create quality blocks of time for art making. I’m not moving very fast (small steps Sparky), but that’s not the point. Creating on a regular basis, immersing myself in creating, is the point.

Testing out some art making processes

[ Experimented this weekend with using stencils to add layers of paint. I love going to sewing and craft stores and searching for tools to use in my art. I learned through a YouTube video that the best way to use stencils is to use a sponge roller and to make sure to get excess paint off the roller before applying. It seemed to work! ]

Some of my time in the studio (maybe a lot more than I want to admit) is spent stewing over what to apply to a surface next. With Still Life #6, the pressure is on because I started with a lovely (expensive) color print from our Epson ink jet printer. Some may say, “well, just leave it alone then”…but I can’t! At this point in the evolution of my work, I still need to go back in with paint, add layers and texture. Add more.

So I stew, and finally just start in one little area. There, that wasn’t so bad, right? And, I can always make another print and start over. That may very well happen. I don’t have a great Plan for the finished piece, it needs to evolve. And it may evolve into a big muddy mess.

Still Life #6 - In Progress Detail

[ I’m loving this corner so far, the colors and layering. This is when I really start enjoying myself, getting immersed, when I’ve taken the leap to start, and then little corners and sections start coming together in a way that I like. You can see the shadow of the butterfly in the base print. I plan to collage the below image over it, create another layer of (perhaps) pristine color print. But we’ll see… ]

The Butterfly - Still Life #6

K.I.S.S. and My Weekly Trivia Lesson

“Keep It Simple Stupid,” aka the KISS Principle. It kept coming into my head as I thought about Life is Simple.

“Simple Stupid” not “Simple, Stupid.”

KISS is a design principle that came out of the U.S. Navy in 1960, specifically the Lockheed Skunk Works. The lead engineer who came up with the phrase, Kelly Johnson, apparently did not place a comma between simple and stupid, although the comma was widely used after the fact. He was not calling his engineers “stupid,” rather:

The principle is best exemplified by the story of Johnson handing a team of design engineers a handful of tools, with the challenge that the jet aircraft they were designing must be repairable by an average mechanic in the field under combat conditions with only these tools. Hence, the “stupid” refers to the relationship between the way things break and the sophistication available to repair them.
— Wikipedia

I recall KISS was around a lot as a saying when I was growing up. Coincidentally, Mr. Johnson was born in Michigan, went to school in Flint, and graduated from the University of Michigan! My current backyard…nice!

While I contemplate “life is simple,” I can still try to make mine as simple as possible. Or perhaps, less complicated is a better view from which to approach it. Stop over analyzing. Your planner doesn’t need a rainbow of colored highlighters, three different color pens, and stickies to make it work (although, I have to say, it’s more fun. But don’t get carried away).



Also posted in Art in Progress, Art Making, Creative Spirit

Flying by the Seat of My Pants

“To use one’s judgment, initiative, and perceptions as events unfold in order to improvise a course of action without a predetermined plan.”

Another week, another saying for a title, another chance to search for the origin of the saying…yay, Internet! And, many wasted minutes trying to figure out if the saying is technically an “idiom” since that sounds so much more cool – but I can’t be sure, I’m not an English major People! So without wasting any more time “saying” it is…

“Flying by the seat of one’s pants” came out of the days of early aviation, before fancy instruments, when pilots had to fly by feel and instinct, especially when visibility was poor. The seat of the airplane, being a fairly large source of contact between pilot and plane, was apparently useful beyond being a place to sit in the cockpit.

In regards to this blog, I definitely feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Each week I sit down to write, without a real plan of action, with a vague direction from a list of ideas I keep, and generally (except that one stuck time) several hours later I have some words down that make some sense. I hope.

It’s really a little weekly miracle, at least to me.

Julie Renfro - Still Life #6 - in progress

[ If you’re wondering where all the “art” is in this Artfull Life blog, it’s mostly been in my head lately, but today I spent a good 4 hours at it, mostly in the studio. Nothing much to report at this time, except that there’s Forward Progress and forward is always good. I hope to have this Still Life finished in a couple of weeks at the most. ]

Planning to Develop a Plan

I need a plan. If I had a dollar for every time I have either written those four words in my journal or had them float through my head, I would not be rich, but I could buy a nice lunch for myself and Mike. We could even have wine.

But I’m serious this time, I need a plan. And by that, I mean a better way to engage with my short and long-term goals (starting with actually writing those down someplace official), to be intentional about how I spend the minutes and hours of my days. I tend to get done what needs to be done each day, but each week flies by and then it’s been a month and I realize I haven’t been in the studio! How did that happen?

This needs to stop. I can no longer have my life just whiz by without me taking notice.

So I have been on the hunt for a daily planner, because that will make all the difference in the world, right? A new, blank, Book of Planning Potential, finally, will help me make a plan (does this enthusiasm, perhaps, remind you of my Self Help Book addiction?)

Years ago I used a Franklin Planner at work, and I loved it. Made me feel organized and together (at least at work). Then everything gradually went digital, and our organization’s task management moved online.

For my project and task lists, I’m currently using Trello, online and on my iPhone. And while this works for keeping all my To Do list items organized, it doesn’t help me with looking at my months, weeks, and days to see where and how I want to focus my time. And my Google Calendar has no…warmth. I’m a paper and pencil person at heart, so the idea of adding a paper planner back into my system appeals to me (not to mention all the sticky note and highlighter potential).

But I had no idea that my search for a planner would make me feel like Goldilocks: this one is too big, this one not laid out right, this one too frilly, this one too antiseptic. None just right. My criteria, apparently, are hard to find all together and with nothing else. I just want:

  • Month views
  • Week views, with a daily column for SEVEN DAYS. Many planners make Saturday and Sunday these little half columns…or Saturday is full but Sunday is half…my weekends are just as full as my weekdays!
  • Days broken down in time increments to suit me (my day starts earlier than 8am and goes later than 6pm)
  • Places for notes
  • A pocket/sleeve for additional papers

I do not want:

  • Inspirational quotes (I’ll pick them if I want them)
  • Sections titled something I would never call them or that are not of use to me (“hot”…really?)
  • Pages for figuring out my life’s purpose or goals (I’ll work those out elsewhere)
  • A planner that weighs more than my laptop
  • The above mentioned half day Saturdays and Sundays
  • A planner that costs as much as a decent pair of shoes (or more!)

Sorry to go on about this, but I’m sharing what turned out to be a QUEST! If I didn’t have enough on my plate, I would design my own damn planner and start a Kickstarter campaign to fund it (I’ll put that in the Someday/Maybe pile).


ANYWAY…after visiting every version of those “Best Planners Ever” websites, I found Seize the Day Daily Planner. It does not have the full week view, and I wish it were a brighter color (it looks gray but it’s “mint”), but it is a good size and weight, has month views, and each day gets a page with a layout I like: hourly list section on the left (starts at 6am, goes until midnight) and large notes section on the right, plus space at the bottom. Clean and simple.

Month names and dates are blank, so I can start now (it’s almost March! Again, how did that happen?) It only has 120 pages of daily planning, but if it works for me, I’ll buy another 2 for the year.

If not, the Planner Quest continues.

A Course of Action

This blog is likely to remain a Flying by the Seat of My Pants Operation, at least for a while (I’ll just consider it a weekly challenge), but I need to be more intentional with how I structure my days and weeks in order to:

  1. get the art-making in that I want
  2. get all those practices (that make me feel great) done daily
  3. get to all the things I want to see, and do, and read/learn

Essentially, to live that artfull life I’m in pursuit of! I’m hoping that my new planner will help. Or to put it better, that I can create a new habit of planning (with my new planner assisting). We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.



Also posted in Creative Life, Creative Spirit

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, Inspiration

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, Inspiration

Hello 2016

plural noun: aspirations
  1. a hope or ambition of achieving something.

Gotta love the New Year, it’s just such a perfect let-go-of-all-the-old-crap-and-start-fresh point in time. All the sucky parts of last year get to be swept under the big ol’ hand-braided rug of In the Past, and all those things you didn’t achieve, or even get to, they can go back on your New List(s)! If you want them to…or they can go under the rug too.

I don’t really make resolutions anymore, but I do write down something more like aspirations, Things to Reach for BUT it’s OK if I Don’t Quite Succeed. I like that the definition of “aspiration” has the word “hope” in it. A resolution is “a firm decision”…way too much expectation of success riding on that for me.

In addition to getting back on track with my practices that help make me happy (been a little off course), my list of aspirations includes:

  • Keep up the blog, write consistently.
  • Engage more, with social media, other artists, and followers. I’m shy and introverted in person, and tend to lurk rather than engage online. I’m much better than I used to be, but have a ways to go in the “social” department.
  • Play with creating larger, more loose abstracts (the Big Art Project was inspirational!)
  • Submit work to more juried art shows. I have not been proactive about this, and feel the need to push myself in this area.
  • Get clean and organized. A rather vague goal, but seriously, our house is a Mess. The studio is getting better, but needs some more work. I feel strongly that if we can get more cleanliness and order around here that this will help boost my mental state towards the positive and help me be more productive when I’m working.
  • Be curious, not fearful.


December Clouds 2015

[ December 23, 2015. I took this photo on our drive to Virginia for Christmas. I love it when nature paints something wonderful. In Photoshop I tweaked it only slightly, adjusting the saturation, vibrance and contrast. ]

Choose Curiosity over Fear

Perhaps due to Life events this past year, with family in particular, over the last couple weeks I’ve been feeling this low, constant humming of fear, anxiety, and vulnerability. It sits in my stomach, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, in that first moment there is a split second current of fear that jolts through me as if something evil and dangerous was chasing me in my dreams. I can distract myself with tasks and chores, parties and conversations, but every moment, every day, has been feeling…tenuous. Like the thinnest of threads. Which, in reality, this fragility is and always has existed, but I’ve become more aware of it (Time is ticking!)

Today was better as I got back into a routine and started working on some of those aspirations above, including that last one: I want to actively cultivate curiosity as an antidote to my fear.

While I was embroiled in the beginnings of my blog, struggling with a laundry list of fears, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. The book was so in tune with my inner state at the time, it was truly like magic (I love it when the Universe puts a book, a piece of art, a person, a movie, a song, in front of you at exactly the right time.)

In an online interview for, Gilbert states

I have a tremendous amount of respect for my fear, and even gratitude for it — we all hate it so much, but we also have to take a moment once in a while and thank it for the reasons it has saved our lives. No, you’re not getting in the car with that guy, you’re not walking down that suspicious-looking street. We’re all here because our ancestors had fear in our lives.

So you can’t just throw it away, and you can’t really hate it. It’s just that it doesn’t have a lot of subtlety — it’s a really old part of our brains, it’s not very sophisticated software. So what you have to do is appreciate it, and then try to have a conversation with it. I know that you are very vigilant. All I’m trying to do is write a poem here. No one is going to die from it. It’s just a toggle switch. It’s having a very gentle conversation with that reptilian part of me to say, Thank you, but your services are not needed.

“Thank you, but your services are not needed.” I really like that response to fear. And it applies not only to fears surrounding creativity, but also those free-floating fears, that humming I’ve been feeling that has no tangible root cause (nothing is currently chasing me in an attempt to make me its dinner).

And yes, I realize that my fears are nothing compared to what other folks are dealing with around the world. True fear, real causes, matters of life and death. What I’m feeling isn’t rational, but it’s there nonetheless.

All the Best for 2016

Sorry, that wasn’t very cheerful there in the middle. I really am very optimistic about the future and very ready to get to everything on my lists. So much to do, see, and experience! I just need to work out this little argument I seem to be having with Fear regarding who’s in charge.

Here’s a toast to Fear in 2016: Happy New Year! Thank you for all you’ve done for me, but unless my life is being threatened, I’m choosing curiosity over you (perhaps this will allow me to be a little more adventurous too).

And for you real live humans out there, may your 2016 be full of whatever you aspire to do and/or be.

Happy New Year! Love & Peace, Julie






Also posted in 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, Inspiration

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, Inspiration

The 50th Birthday

Have you ever had certain things happen to you, seen or read something, met someone, at exactly the right time in your life? And it felt serendipitous, the planets had aligned, the world conspired with you, not against you, and it couldn’t be chance, because it felt so perfect and perfectly timed?

The day I turned 50 was one of the best days in my life. Quite possibly THE best. Two days before I turned 50, I hadn’t made any art in two years, I was out of shape, unhappy and depressed, and not particularly excited or looking forward to being 50 years of age. Where had the time gone?

Somewhere in Ohio, April 5, 2014

Driving to Chicago. Somewhere in Ohio, April 4, 2014

The day before I turned 50, Mike and I drove to Chicago for the weekend. We had been making this trip on My Birthday Weekend for a couple of years, and this time my actual birthday was on Saturday.

Mike and I are creatures of habit when it comes to our Chicago visits, and we generally stay at the same place, eat at the same restaurants, and do the same things (sad, I know, but this makes us happy). We stayed at the Congress Plaza Hotel again, splurging this time on a room with a lake view.

The Art Institute of Chicago in April

Our first stop is always the Art Institute of Chicago. We visit our favorite paintings, among them Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, the Monet’s, and Gerhard Richter’s paintings. The featured exhibit at that time was the work of abstract painter Christopher Wool. Here was inspiration! I loved his textures, the work with flowers and patterns, and I felt invigorated! I finally had that itch again, anxious to make some art of my own.

My last day at age 49 ended on a high note too. We were adventurous this trip and ate at a new place for dinner, Exchequer. I love a good pub, and this was hands down the best deep dish pizza we had ever eaten. My birthday weekend was off to a great start.

The Planets Align

My birthday was a beautiful day. It was still chilly, but the sun was shining (we had been dealing with a lot of gray days), and the sky was a perfect and clear blue. Another first, we decided to walk along the lake, north towards the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a perfectly wonderful walk, with the lake to our right and the city to our left, sun shining, people walking/running/biking on the path. It was one of those “life is good” moments that you try to relish and absorb.

We get to the Contemporary and wander into an exhibit of an artist I had never heard of: Michael J. O’Brien. Walking around and viewing his work, I felt shocked by a feeling of familiarity, and I literally said out loud, in a museum (ok I said it quietly), “what the f**k?” Here were works with textiles and safety pins, paint and glitter! I was seeing and experiencing validation, that my inclination towards using sewing and craft materials is “ok,” and more importantly that my instincts as an artist are. I just hadn’t been trusting them.

The zinger came when we rounded the last corner and came upon large drawings, one of which drew me to it like a magnet:

William J. O’Brien Untitled, 2012 Colored pencil, ink, and glitter on paper

William J. O’Brien
Untitled, 2012
Colored pencil, ink, and glitter on paper

It’s hard to get the feeling written down right, to convey the impact on my soul, but experiencing his work was such a kick-in-the-pants revelation. GLITTER! And bright pink ink! And it’s beautiful and cool and sophisticated! And this piece is in a collection. It was a sign, a huge billboard, telling me to f**k insecurity and self-doubt and get to work. Start making art again.

Don’t Break Your Heart

I hate that I (most likely) am more than halfway through my life, and that I keep drifting off the path and into the weeds. And before turning 50 I was in the weeds for a while. But at least I’m (working at) living a creative, art full life, and my 50th birthday experiences got me out of the weeds and set me back on my creative path.

I love this quote from Anne Lamott:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.”



Also posted in Creative Spirit, Inspiration

When in Doubt, Clean Something

“Nothing happens until something moves.”
― Albert Einstein

I hate to admit this, on my third blog post no less, but I haven’t been making much art. I know, right? My studio is right in our backyard for Pete’s sake. And what about all that earnest I Won’t Let Anything Stop Me talk in my first blog post? Sigh. I really meant what I said, and my intentions remain, but putting it all into practice remains the challenge. After all, this is why I put “in pursuit of” in my tagline.

Cleanliness Leads to Artfullness

From an Art Full Life perspective, my surroundings matter. I’m inspired by the color of our walls, the art we collect, the books we own, and the dining room set we obsessively painted. Also, the more organized and clean the house is, the more energized and happier I am. A cluttered, dirty, and/or ugly space do not engender creativity.

One of my mottos has always been “when in doubt, clean something.” Not only is it forward motion when stuck, but it’s useful too! I love being organized and having a clean house. Unfortunately Mike and I are borderline hoarders (we can’t get rid of that, it’s a perfectly good piece of cardboard!) I am also domestically lazy, therefore cleanliness and organization are a challenge. This means though, that when I’m stuck in some way there are always plenty of choices for “something” to clean.

The Bookcase Project

We recently moved our collection of art books back into the house. They were in the studio, which tends to get damp, and we weren’t using them out there like we thought we would. Bringing them back into the house, however, meant reorganizing our living room to accommodate the bookcase. This, in turn, had us taking a hard look at our living room (yikes, that cat tree is really old, dirty, and trashy looking!) A couple weeks ago we brought the books and bookcase back in, bookcase replacing gross cat tree. We lived with it there for a bit, but the bookcase was not in quite the right place yet.

So, yesterday’s “hey, let’s move the bookcase today” turned into an entire day of moving not only the bookcase and books, but dusting every little piece of art and tchotchke on the shelves (and we have a lot…and I couldn’t remember the last time they were dusted. Don’t judge me.), rearranging (and dusting) all the art in our living room, and then hey, since we’re at it, we might as well make decisions on which keepsake and dollar store “kitschy” purchases (a ceramic pirana, no joke) to keep and what to give away (a long overdue task).

The Renfro-Sivak Living Room

The Bookcase Project. Before and After.

Beating Inertia

One might say the Bookcase Project was simply me procrastinating on doing art, but I have to say, this project was immensely satisfying and re-energizing. Each piece of art or trinket that I dusted and moved was seen with new eyes and appreciation. Some evoked memories. Not only was the cleaning/organizing/rearranging satisfying (and much needed), but taking another look at all the art we own was motivating and inspiring. It is a joy, now, being in this “new” room.

I’ve been reading a book that could not have appeared at a more appropriate time for me, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, about “creative living beyond fear.” Truly, it is simply eery the timing of this book in my hands, and there are now numerous sticky note tags bookmarking pages. In one section she talks about moving beyond a failure, but for me this also reinforced my cleaning motto:

“If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else…any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.”

Take that, Inertia!

Also posted in Creative Life, Inspiration