My eyes half opened as the sound slowly registered into my sleep-filled brain. A distant, persistent drone of a motor was somewhere in the vicinity. Burrowed under the pile of blankets, I vaguely registered the sound, took note that it was still all but dark, and drifted back into my dreams.

Hours later when I got up, it was to a bright new snowfall. While I like snow, the work that comes with it to clear away walks and driveway is one of my most hated chores. I dutifully bundled up and shuffled outside, so that I shovel and then shower away the sweat and get ready for work. I stepped out of the garage and stared, blinking in the morning light, at my freshly cleared driveway and sidewalk.

I moved to Wisconsin in January. It was a very cold, snowy winter that year. Almost every time it snowed, my walks and sometimes driveway were cleared by a mystery visitor whose presence was announced by that very early morning drone of a snowblower. Once or twice I caught site of someone bundled up to the eyes, wrestling with the large machine in the dark. I didn’t get a chance to meet him or thank him, all that first winter. To my shame, it was actually a few years before I did meet him–my neighbor 2 doors down, Norm.

He stopped to say hello as I was raking leaves, and when I asked if he was the angel who cleared my walks, he said, “I don’t know about the angel part, but I do like to clear the walks.” Turned out, he’d been doing that for many years, for all the neighbors around us.

After that we bumped into each other on occasion, as I walked my dog or worked in the yard. We didn’t know each other well. He knew I was a graphic designer. I knew he was a Vietnam veteran. When he told me they were planning to move south to Missouri, I was sad because he was one of the few neighbors I knew at all.

Their house went up for sale, new people moved in, and I got used to shoveling my walk and driveway. A few years later when I began the FAMOUS portraits project, Norm was one of the first people I thought of, and knew I had to paint. He was the epitome of the spirit of being “Famous.”

One problem: I didn’t know his last name.

By this point they had been gone a couple of years. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to find him. As my friends can tell you though, I am the queen of internet research. After puzzling about it for a few weeks, it occurred to me to look up the city tax records on their old house—and there it was.

From there, I googled his name and “Missouri”, and actually found him on facebook. Sent a message off, and was overjoyed to receive a message back almost immediately. He gave me permission to paint him, and from a photo I chose from his facebook profile, I painted the first portrait that was specifically for FAMOUS.

“Snow Angel” Oil on canvas

This was actually fairly soon after I started being able to admit to people that I was even an artist. I don’t have an art degree. I didn’t really think of myself as a true artist. When the concept of FAMOUS was given to me, that started to change. I now had a direction and a voice, and I knew where I was going with the work. A small sliver of confidence began to grow within me, starting to own that title: “artist.”

What I love about Norm’s portrait, besides my connection to his kindness and helpfulness, is the story about finding him back after he’d moved away. Because you see, that in itself gave me a directive that I have been striving to be true to ever since.

Because you see, Norm’s last name is Goforth.

So today I pass that along to all of you, where ever you may be in your journey. Maybe you’ve found your voice; maybe you’re still looking for it. My wish for you is to keep striving, keep looking, and once you have found it, stay true to that calling. It is sacred.

Find your purpose. Be famous. Go forth.




Every year, the National Portrait Gallery in London hosts a competition for portrait artists: The BP Portrait Award. The work that gets included is the ‘best of the best’, and entries pour in from around the world from artists hoping to be selected; in 2015 they chose 55 out of 2,550 entries.

This year one of the reviewers complained that the curators had gone a very traditional route when choosing the contents of the show.

“A visitor to this exhibition may be fooled into thinking contemporary portraiture has barely moved on from the Van Dycks in the gallery upstairs.” He writes. “… it seems this discipline has stagnated.” (In case you are unfamiliar with Van Dyck, he was an 17th century portrait artist, lived at court, painted kings and lots of other miscellaneous royalty, and pretty much lived a darned good life.) He adds, “These works are excellent but they lack a sense of the new; there is nothing …that makes us approach a painting in a different way or to makes us challenge what portraiture can be.”

This is an ongoing discussion in the world of portraiture, revolving around what makes for a good “modern” portrait. It is part of a larger stance in the art world of denouncing realism and applauding the abstract and conceptual. Part of the idea is that if you are not doing something new or different, if you are not trying to push your genre “forward,” then you are not a serious artist. Maybe you actually aren’t an artist at all.

The reality is that if someone commissions you to paint a portrait, they generally expect the resulting painting to unmistakably resemble the subject—but now portrait artists are being criticized for doing that very thing. There is art and there is Art, and a traditional portrait, however well executed, is being relegated to the lower case. There are artists, and Artists.

A lot of this comes down to your definition of “forward,” in the line “pushing your genre forward.”

When a portrait artist paints a faithfully rendered likeness, with true-to-life colors, proportions and perspectives, it appears they may now come under fire for repeating something that has already been done. When did working your whole life to master a very difficult skill become a worthless goal?

There is an episode of MASH where Frank and Margaret hire a wood carver to create a bust of Colonel Potter. They go to the carver’s tent to meet him, and ask to see some samples of his work. He reverently holds up a plank of wood with the comment, “Used to be round.” Frank sputters, “But it looks like a two by four!” To which the carver, with great pride, replies, “Thank you.”

No doubt Mr. Khan thought his comment about modern portraiture resembling “ the Van Dycks upstairs” was an insightful jab at a group of artists who continue to paint in a traditional style. I for one would be cartwheeling through the halls if someone thought my work in any way resembled a Van Dyck.

And if anyone ever looks at one of my portraits and protests, “but it looks just like her!” I can only bow my head, like the old wood carver, and proudly say, “Thank you.”

Click here to read the original review of the BP Portrait Award Show:

wood carver 2



I recently had a long ride on the New York subway, coming into the city from the airport. When I got on there was a man sitting in the farthest front seat, his body hunched protectively over the 3 ragged bags around his feet. A frayed woolen cap was pulled low on his brow, and he was dressed more warmly than the balmy weather outside might dictate. He stared at the ground.

Homeless. Possibly unbalanced. One glance took this in, as I and everyone else moved farther down the car. No one sat across from him, even though for some of us it meant having to stand. As the car filled up more and more at each stop, still no one chose to sit across from this man. I clung to the pole I had claimed as I tried to learn the unfamiliar movement of the train.


As soon as someone got up to leave a few stops later, I quickly slid into a seat. From my new vantage point I watched as a young man dressed neatly in a sweater and long shorts walked to the middle of the car and set down a small paper bag with a few dollar bills peeping out. One of his legs, from the knee down, was a gleaming metal prosthetic.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he began, as the train swayed into motion again. “I do not enjoy being homeless, and I try very hard to stay clean. If you could find it in your heart to help out in any way you might be able….thank you,” as a few people held out dollars and coins to him.

“Here, brother,” a voice came from the end of the car, and I turned to see the original “homeless” man moving forward, a five dollar bill clutched in his hand.

The man with the paper bag immediately waved him off. “No, no, I couldn’t let you do that. You need that. Thank you so much for your kindness, but no.”

“Yes, I want to!” The other insisted. “I’ve had a good day, and I’m not like that. I want to share it with you.”

“God bless you, God bless you,” murmured the young man.

The courtesy passing between them put all of our presidential hopefuls to shame.

The older man clapped a hand to the younger one’s shoulder. “You’ve done service for us, and for me. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I used to be out there, without hope or anywhere to go. I know how it is. But I got my life back together, with God’s help.” He flung one arm wide as his chest puffed up proudly. “And look at me now!”

Perception is a tricky thing.

When first starting the “Famous” portraits project, I looked for a way to contact Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Famous” is the inspiration for the series.  I wanted to see if she would consent to being included as a portrait subject. To my surprise and delight, she responded almost immediately to my first note, with a warm and very kind letter which included agreeing to let me paint her portrait.

Given that she lives in Texas, I live in Wisconsin, and she travels all over the world almost constantly, it was another matter to try to coordinate a meeting for a photo shoot. While not ideal, I don’t always get to do my own photography for portrait subjects—I suggested that I could work from a photo, if she had a good one of high enough quality.

She responded to that idea enthusiastically. Over the next few months during her travels, she sent me photo after photo, all of which were completely useless as reference material for a portrait. She sent a photo of herself in Abu Dhabi with a group of about twenty school children, her face almost lost in a sea of little smiles. There was one from Ireland: a snapshot of her with two men (“I’m the girl in this photo”), she sandwiched in the middle, all of them grinning happily with arms entwined. Hong Kong: a lovely view of lush forest—and Naomi in silhouette in the foreground.

hong kong

Eyeing this last one gloomily, a phrase from her original letter came back to me: “Certainly I would consent to be painted, and it would be an honor to be included,” she wrote, “though I am no longer at my youthful sizzling best.”


I sent off an email: “I’m noticing a theme in these photos, which is that you seem to want to be hidden as much as possible.”

“Busted!” was her immediate reply.


What to do with a portrait subject who doesn’t want to be seen? I assured her that I took the responsibility of painting her very seriously. She assured me that she trusted me.

As luck had it, we did get a chance to meet in the fall of 2015 when she was speaking at a book festival in my state. Contrary to her internal dialog, she is very photogenic and I came away not only with some good material to work from, but an enhanced respect for her as well. I spent 2 days trailing her, listening as she spoke in schools and talked to kids about poetry. I watched her keep a large audience at a university captivated for an hour and a half, and duck her head in apparent surprise when they gave her a standing ovation. I learned that she doesn’t allow someone introducing her to list her awards (which are many); instead she wants them to talk about how her writing may have spoken to them personally, or which particular poem they like.

She didn’t read “Famous” while I was there, which was just as well since I would have undoubtedly burst into tears. She did read several of my favorites, including “Kindness” (the kids all call it ‘the kindness poem’):

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

(excerpt, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye)

Perception, humility, kindness. Two homeless men on the subway. A brilliant writer shrugging away accolades. People who don’t know me, opening up their time and energy to help propel this art project forward.

I understand that we all have an internal view of ourselves, and “know too much” as Garrison Keillor says, to really take ourselves all that seriously. I started working on Naomi’s portrait about a month ago. The painting is almost life-sized, which makes me nervous given her reservations about being prominently featured. Maybe she will forgive me. Maybe I will manage to capture not just the likeness of her face, but something of her spirit which refuses to believe she has done anything unusual, while traveling the world and inspiring people who have also found that kindness can be a rare event. That it can be like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish cheek. Or a five dollar bill offered on a subway.

“Look at me now!” The man’s proclamation still rings in my ears, weeks later. Who knows what paths have brought each of us to where we stand today?  Who knows what obstacles have been overcome to get here? Before casting our mental vote assigning someone to a particular class or group, how often do we consider that they may well be proud of where they have gotten themselves?

While ruefully lamenting the loss of her “youthful sizzling best,” I dearly hope that Naomi has not missed the blooming of the beauty she has spread to the world, in a way that few of us ever will. She may wish (as most of us do) to turn back the clock and erase some of those lines we all earn with the daily effort it takes to navigate the world.

But oh, Naomi, look at you now.