“Rehearsal did not take place.
Srabian is dead.
Petrov is sick.
Borishev is dead.”

This is an excerpt from a journal entry by Karl Eliasberg, conductor of a rag-tag orchestra that was asked to play Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. They were instructed to rehearse the newly written music and perform it in the Grand Philharmonic Hall. By that time, Leningrad had been under siege for over a year. People were eating rats, horses, and their pets. Thousands had already died of starvation.

The little orchestra lost three members during the weeks of rehearsal. Weak from hunger, sometimes they only played for 15 minutes before giving up for the day. Eliasberg mentions a trumpet player who could not produce a single note one day, and that some of the musicians could not lift their instruments to their mouths. The wind players in particular, were prone to fainting from the effort of playing.

Nonetheless, on August 9, 1942, the orchestra of starving musicians performed the entire symphony. They had only managed to get through the whole thing once before–three days prior to the performance. Speakers had been wired all over the city for everyone to hear the music. It was broadcast on the radio so the Russian military could listen, and speakers were also aimed over the walls, toward Hitler’s army encamped without. The Russian troops were sent out on a particularly harsh raid, in an effort to push the Germans back and prevent them from bombing the city during the concert.


Despite the poor artistic quality of the performance (the musicians struggled to finish), there was a one hour ovation from the audience—and it is considered to be one of the most important artistic performances of the war because of the psychological impact it had on both the Russians, and the Germans. Eliasberg commented, “in that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.” On hearing the music, many of the German troops wept. In an interview years later, some of them said it made them believe they would never take the city, whose people were so brave and defiant.

They were right; though the siege continued for another year and a half, in the end Leningrad (better known today as its original name, St. Petersburg) was never given over to the Germans.

During the time I was working on Olu’s portrait last summer, there were two very distinct and different things happening in the world outside my studio walls:

First, there were protests happening all over the country about police violence against black people. Shootings were happening in retaliation and people were taking to the streets in response to verdicts that were being questioned in regards to the true justice of the situation.

Second, my friend Timothy’s best friend Keith lay in a hospital, hundreds of miles from home, hovering near death.

Far removed from either of these, I started in on a new portrait of a man who just happens to be both black, and a former police officer. As my country descended into anger and fear, I pondered how to mix African American skin tones correctly.

One day as I worked, preoccupied by the latest news of unrest and violence, the story of the Cultural Revolution in China started whispering in my mind. Launched the year before I was born, this movement swept through China with a vengeance that is startling to read about. Simply having an education put one in jeopardy of arrest and imprisonment. Shades of the French Revolution, when any man, woman or child born with the wrong heritage was condemned to death.

Both of those sound utterly ridiculous. But it is important to remember that isn’t where they started. Sometimes things start with an innocuous idea–something like, “I think the majority of our citizens have become too far removed from their roots, and the work it took to make us a prosperous nation.” But taken too far, bereft of wise leadership and common sense,  such ideas have, in the past, descended into anarchy.

I heard the news about the protests here in the present US: race against race, police against citizens, citizens against police. Riots. Police barricades. Burned out buildings. There was talk about deportations based on religion. Fringe groups that had long been despised started showing their presence more brazenly, and finding support for their views.

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Photo by Jonathan Bachman. A young woman at a protest in Baton Rouge, as police in riot gear approach to arrest her.

At the same time these events and thoughts were running through my mind, Timothy called to tell me that Keith, already fragile from a lifelong, progressive illness, was in the hospital. He was on a respirator and couldn’t talk. He was in so much pain.

I had posted an early work-in-progress photo of Olu’s portrait on facebook, showing the underpainting and just the start of his face. Later that day I got a message from Timothy: “Watching Olu come to life is poetically haunting for me. He seems to be a spirit and silent guardian angel of music and sound emerging from the canvas. I feel his notes and the strength of the lion pushing me through my day. I needed that painting today. Thank you for letting it be in my newsfeed.”

Driven by sorrow from what I was seeing on the news, hearing the tears behind Timothy’s voice when we talked, I painted. I painted because that was all I could do. Late into the night, every night, I painted Olu’s beautiful pink fingers, his restful face. I sat through my job every day counting down the hours until I could get back to my studio, barely taking time to eat. I took a new photo and sent it to Timothy each night when I was too tired to paint any more and had to stop.

I typically give myself two months to complete a portrait from start to finish. I painted Olu in two weeks. And I titled the painting not only as an homage to the subject, but also as a message to myself.

“Undaunted Courage” Oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″

Painting Olu’s portrait during a time of great unrest in our country didn’t change any of the outcomes. But it felt like I was painting in protest of the events, bringing in a measure of peace, if only to my own studio. Many people have told me that they are inspired by Olu, and why I chose to paint him for the FAMOUS series; he is now a non-violent confrontation counselor, working to stem the progression of domestic violence from adult to child. Seeing the progression of the work helped Timothy find strength to face whatever news may have come to him each day (Keith, by the way, made a fairly miraculous recovery and is again home with his loving family).

History has shown us time and time again, that every once in awhile an entire society collectively loses its mind. When that happens, the horrors that are unleashed make the rest of the world draw back aghast. And when that same society eventually awakens from its demonic frenzy, it is aghast as well.

Then the questions are asked: How did this happen? How could decent people allow this to happen? What led up to it? How could it have been stopped?

And the inevitable affirmation: Never Again. Never, ever again.

And yet.

I feel we are teetering on the edge of something. The last six months have shown that we are so much more divided, and there is so much more anger and fear at work in our country than I had dreamed. Things we thought couldn’t happen here, are happening. Something has been awakened, and it remains to be seen what the repurcussions will be.

As I was driving to the store last weekend I heard a brief phone interview with a man who lives in the city of Aleppo, Syria. He was asked to comment on the situation, as he and other people were trapped, under active attack from both the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government fighting to win control of the city. I waited to hear fear, or confusion, or resignation. There was none. “We’re talking about regular people sitting in their homes. They don’t want to live in refugee camps; they don’t want to go to Europe. They don’t want to flee. As a human being who is living this horror, I demand a cease-fire.”

I slowed the car to a stop, slack jawed. “I demand a cease-fire.” One unknown man, caught in the cross-hairs of two warring forces, in a conflict that has the attention of every major government in the world, was demanding a cease-fire. Just like that. Standing up, taking the one small opportunity chance had handed him to have his voice be heard.

It is tempting to look at such a statement and think it is insignificant. One voice does not bring about large change. One demand from an unknown civilian does not stop a war. His statement will not make any difference.

But turn again to our great teacher, History, and we realize that governments and politicians have long understood that one person, one voice, can indeed rouse great change.

One of my college professors once said (referring to a time of political oppression), “First they round up all the writers, then they round up all the artists.” His words weren’t idle, as we have witnessed again and again. Stalin and Hitler both enforced a state-approved style of art, and the rest was condemned. The Nazis put on the notorious “Degenerate” art show, meant to deride the artists who were working in abstract or “modern” styles. More than that, artists who were deemed ‘degenerate’ were fired from teaching jobs and banned from creating art. Putin’s Russia has warned, jailed, and outright killed artists and writers who disagree with the State. Ai Weiwei drops a Han Dynasty urn in a video, in protest of the Chinese government’s human rights violations; his studio is bulldozed and he is jailed for three months. The list goes on and on.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Photo by Mikhail Evstavfiev.  This is not a staged photo: Vedran Smailovic plays Adagio in G Minor in a bombed-out library in 1992 during the siege of Sarajevo. Smailovic played in many destroyed spaces, and at funerals in protest of the war.

Everyone roots for the underdog in a movie. Everyone pulls for the forlorn hobbit, wandering over the endlessly treacherous landscape while the ever-present forces of evil try to find him. And here’s the thing: the hobbit always wins. The tiny speck of light out-does the greatest darkness every time. There may be much suffering along the way. It may take a long time. But somehow, the light eventually comes through in the end.

I believe it is time for every artist, writer, musician–indeed, every person in our addled society to step up to whatever microphone chance may hand you. Throw your voice into the vacuum that threatens to pull us down into chaos, believing that your one voice can indeed change the course of events. Raise your instrument to your lips, for as long as you have the strength.

Demand a cease-fire.

You are the light. You are the light. You are the light.



Anatomy of A Portrait, Part 1

I paint using a classical approach, following a technique developed centuries ago. One difference is that I prefer to tone my canvas with a blue-gray to start, rather than a more traditional earthtone (my foot helps show the size of this large 30×40 canvas).

1 canvas

I draw my composition onto this toned canvas in graphite, and then paint the whole thing using only very thinned-down raw umber. This establishes the lights and darks.


So, by the time I begin to paint with color, I have been over the entire thing twice, and am very familiar with my subject.


Anatomy of a Portrait, Part 2

Starting with the face, I now start setting color in and establishing the planes & angles. This is my favorite part, as it seems to emerge and come to life and it almost feels like sculpting at times. Pushing and pulling forward and back to set the form. I rarely have a good likeness at this stage, as is the case today.


Anatomy of a Portrait, Part 3

Anatomy of a portrait, part 3: Bring your saxaphone, I said. That will be really cool, I said. ‪#‎socomplicated‬ ‪#‎whatwasithinking‬ This is gonna take a while……





“My Father’s Tie (Sanctuary)”
Oil on canvas, Deb Marett

As a freshman in college I saw the movie “The Highlander,” purely because our school mascot was a Highlander (think Scottish guy in a kilt with bagpipes), so we thought that a movie named after us was pretty cool. There was a scene set in the middle ages, where two men, whose basic purpose in life was to kill each other, met in a church to discuss the terms of said killing of each other. They could do this safely because the church was Holy Ground, and therefore any violence within its walls was unthinkable.

Having grown up Protestant, this was a new concept to me. In my childhood, the actual church building was the place we went for Sunday services, Wednesday youth group, choir practice, and even New Year’s eve all-night parties. It was a fairly plain building where we spent a lot of time; but it was just a building.

Since then, I have learned and experienced a broader range of denominations and ideas, and while doctrine-wise my protestant roots are where I remain, the idea of a holy place that is held apart, where safety is assured, calls to me and seems very right–and very needed in this weary world of ours. In our quest to remove any barriers between the common laity and God, we protestants may have gone overboard in letting go of certain traditions and ceremonial acts that serve to keep an awe and solemness to our approach of the Almighty.

There is in all of us, I think, a hard-wired need to find our sacred, holy places. Most of those tend to be a certain place that holds great meaning or where we find peace and clarity of mind. I have found that I flee to my easel or drawing board when things get bad, as there I can control the outcome of

the worlds I create. As a figure skater, the ice has also always been a place a refuge for me, where the troubles of the world cannot approach.

I met Travis when he was the Director of a retreat center that is housed in a 19th Century college full of stained glass, creaking radiators and well worn wooden floors. The place fairly breathes you in as you pass though the heavy front door. You would walk past huge paintings in gilt frames and displays of ancient silver, until you found Travis in his office/study, lined floor-to-ceiling with books, and dimly lit with a late winter afternoon sun.

Though he is now retired, to me he is still the walking embodiment of that quiet, restful place. As I’ve been thinking about who to paint for “Famous,” or telling people about my chosen subjects, I continually find myself saying things like, “Melinda is a pediatric cancer researcher, Ann works in South Africa to save a species of endangered cranes, and Travis is…..well, Travis is.”

I could of course list many things that he is or does, that make him well known and well loved in our community. But for me the bigger description is that Travis is one of my “Holy Ground” people, representing and offering sanctuary to those who walk into his sphere.

Travis is peaceful.

Travis is peace.

Travis is.



I had been going to tell this part of the story later, but something happened this morning that made me decide to tell it today:

I dropped off my “Operation Christmas Child” shoebox this morning. The lady coordinating things at the drop off location asked if we could pray over the box. Of course, I expected her to pray for the refugee child who will be getting the box. Instead, I listened, stunned, as this woman whom I’ve never met, prayed for…my hands.

In 2012 I was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and went through 6 rounds of chemo. Halfway through the treatment, my fingers started tingling. I learned that this is the first sign of neuropathy; a word I didn’t even know the meaning of. Caused by nerve damage to the extremities, neuropathy begins with tingling, progresses to pain, and can end in complete numbness.

For some people the effects reverse, and for some they don’t—some people end up with numb hands/feet for life. And it takes 6–12 months after the chemo is complete to find out what the end result will be.

Up until then I had handled all the treatment/side effects/uncertainly relatively well. But with the normal use of my hands in potential jeopardy, I started to unravel.

I had been a commercial artist for 20 years, and I also coach figure skating—I literally make my living with my hands and my feet. But my main concern was, ‘what if I can’t paint anymore?’ About the time I had devised a way to strap a paint brush to my wrist, it started to dawn on me that perhaps painting was more important to my life than I had previously realized.

After 6 months the tingling and numbness began to subside from my fingers and eventually disappeared completely: my hands were spared. I started painting with a newfound urgency and sense of responsibility to the work. I found my voice in portraits and telling other people’s stories. And I found a purpose—yes, even a gratefulness—for the cancer, for waking me up to what I believe my role is meant to be in this life.

In a portrait show, it is traditional for the artist to include a self portrait. For “Famous,” I will show this painting of my hands, which were given back to me, and with which I intend to speak for as long as I am able.

Coincidentally (or, you know, probably not), today is the third anniversary of my diagnosis.

“Voice” Deb Marett, Oil on Canvas

Click here to see a video of the painting in progress.



Exactly one year ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in my friend Timothy’s apartment, writing my artist statement. For those of you who haven’t encountered this particular vehicle of torture, the artist statement is supposed to sum up everything about your inspiration, message, vision, and world view in 200 words or less.

It is one of the standard things asked for when applying for grants/shows/competitions. It is a Big Deal, as evidenced when my friend who is working on her MFA at the School of the Art Instsitute in Chicago told me, “for us, the statement is almost more important than the work.”

I had been turned off from artist statements ever since I read the one by an artist who puts motion sensor cameras in the woods & then frames the resulting photos of passing woodland animals, and….well, that’s it. Her statement made it out to be critically important, groundbreaking work.


My favorite one ever is by Anthony Howe, who makes kinetic sculptures that move in the wind which are truly mind blowing (If you do nothing else today, click on that link). His artist statement? “Let’s sit out on the patio and watch the whirligigs.” I love this man.

Nevertheless, faced with the edict to come up with something or lose out on the opportunity to enter in a show, I sat down with Timothy, (who loves artist statements, and the type of art where someone puts motion sensor cameras in the woods), and got to work.

After 5 versions, during which Timothy would read what I wrote, give me feedback, and leave me to it while he got on with his life, he finally took the ipad away from me and wrote out a very thoughtful statement about my work. I pounced on the free help with profuse thanks and called it a day.

Having spent a restless night being chased by words about intent, voice, purpose, and Why I Paint, I got up in a strange mood and wandered around the house aimlessly for awhile before stepping into the shower.

Most creative people will attest to specific times when something comes upon them from quite outside their own minds or beings. Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk discusses this beautifully: in ancient Rome, artists were believed to have a “genius” living in the walls of their studios. Note, the artist was not himself a genius. He had a genius–an external creative force that helped him create his art.

When that happens, it is as if someone unscrews the top of your head and pours a whole bunch of stuff in: fully formed ideas that had never occurred to you before. In this case, I ended up wrapped in a towel on my bathroom floor, sobbing as image after image came into my mind: the statement, the purpose for my work, the very reason I am painting. The next series I would paint. Who I would paint.

That’s big. That’s huge. I had never found my voice with painting before, and had pretty much dabbled with anything and everything that I felt like, wandering from still life to plein air landscapes, to animals, and lots in between.

Now I knew. I knew that portraiture is my voice, and I knew that I have work to do. I sat down and wrote out a whole new artist statement. It was quick, it was easy, and it was all true. And it brought back a memory of a poem I had read many years ago, which was about to become the basis for the next 2 years of work.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, 
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse. 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom 
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets, 
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, 
but because it never forgot what it could do.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright ©1995.