Workshops

Sharpening the Saw, or Barn Time

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It’s been years since I first read Steven Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” At the time I found it refreshing and inspirational. It’s back in my reading queue, and I’m curious to see how it’s stood up to the passing of more than a few years. I mention this book because I’ve always remembered that Habit 7 is “Sharpen the Saw.”

Let’s say you have a wonderful saw that cuts perfectly. Maybe it’s one of those beautiful, precise Japanese ryobas. If you spend all of your time sawing things and never take time out to clean and sharpen it, the saw will gradually become rusty and dull, and eventually useless. So too with humans—and I’m going to go further and say artists in particular. We all need to allow time for rejuvenation, growth, learning, and connection with both other people and nature. This week I had some of all of those things at the Crow Timber Frame Barn in Baltimore, OH.

The Barn is a study center for art quilting and other related media and methods (e.g., textile surface design, dye methods, and foundational art skills like 2D design and color theory). I’ve been here many times over the last decade, and it’s become a touch point in my life for learning and renewal. It’s that way for many people. and it’s evolved into a sort of community. Coming back is a little like a family reunion.

This week I had the wonderful experience of participating in an intense 5-day painting and collage workshop with Deborah Griffing. We drew, painted, screen printed, and collaged; we experimented with new materials, and I got some hands-on experience with oil-based media. It was fantastic. The things that I created are all workshop exercises, but they’re exciting nonetheless. Everything is a departure from the way that I’m currently working and from the marks I’m currently producing. I’m taking home new experiences and new ideas, but it all needs to simmer around in my head for awhile before I can really see if or how it will change my work. But—and it’s a big but—it was just good to break out and try new things; to exercise different parts of my artistic brain.

The piece in the photo above measures 9 x 12”. It’s ink, cold wax, oil pastel, and water color on clay board. The lines are engraved into the clay surface. It’s time consuming, but so satisfying. It also taught me about the value of spending even more time developing the surface of a composition. A few more of my workshop pieces appear below. Click any of the images to page through larger images in a gallery. They’re a mixture of works on paper, board, and yupo (a plastic “paper”) using a who range of media and technique.

Human Marks : Day 5 (final thoughts)

[Edited 5/28, 10:00 PM to correct typos] 

I took this photo on a walk after lunch Thursday for both inspiration and memory. It might sound a little precious, but I keep thinking "Rows of corn; rows of stitching." In some way that I don't yet fully understand, that seems to encapsulate this week.  One of the things that's really staying with me is the stitching--on fabric, on paper, alone, and in small circles of new friends. Stitch is transformative. It joins fabric into garments to cover and protect out bodies; it decorates functional items; it's a tool for artists. And yet stitch, like weaving, has become mechanized to the point that we hardly give a thought to its presence in our lives. 

I have sewing machines that can make 1,500 stitches per minute, and others that sew with 3 or 4 needles at a time. I treasure and rely on these tools to do my work, and I'd hate to be without them. Gosh, I wonder if I even managed to sew 1,500 stitches by hand this week! Not too many generations ago (and still today in some places) hand stitch and hand weaving were more the norm than the exception. Textile, thread, and needles were treasured. Garments were cared for and mended. As a consequence of industrial sewing and weaving, garments have become disposable. We replace rather than mend, and more often than not, we replace out of a desire for the new and chic.

More troubling than our cultural perception of garment and textile as disposable, is our expectation of an unending supply of product at an affordable price. Machine or no machine, someone is making the clothes you wear, even those purchased at a discount store for less than you might spend for lunch. Add to this thought the notion that hand stitched embellishments are time consuming and done entirely by people, not machines. 

I feel as though I'm rambling and grasping to draw these thoughts together. It's basically this: Somebody made my clothes, linens, etc. Even if I made some of the clothing, I didn't weave the fabric. Think of all the people involved in the production of a single garment and all of the folks taking their share of the profit. How much money makes it back to the person with his or her hands in the soil or on the sewing machine, or stitching away by hand?

I don't know what to do with that question except to be with it in the hope that greater mindfulness and better stewardship will follow. 

It's been wonderful to spend another week at the Barn, to reconnect with a few old friends, and make new connections. Stated simply, Dorothy Caldwell is not only a gifted artist, but a generous teacher. She has a talent for gently moving around the room, connecting with each of her students, and offering suggestions and words of encouragement that seem to keep each person on track--whatever that individual's track might be. Along the way she also interjects thought-provoking ideas, like our discussion and practice of hand stitching, which led to the thoughts above. If you're a visual artist of any sort then I say you can't go wrong with one of Dorothy's classes. 

Human Marks : Day 4

Today was all about bookbinding. Well, sort of. The task of binding our books superficially involved the mechanics of a simple stitched binding. On a deeper level it was an exercise in recognizing and solving a whole series of design problems. The pages that we've created this week all have a fold down the middle like a greeting card. Folded in half they form 4 pages. Assembling a book with some sort of flow involves sorting, selecting--and in come cases modifying--these groups of pages so that they work together, even though we didn't really plan how this was going to work from the outset. It was a great exercise. The photo above shows the end-of-day status for all of my projects for the week. Some things are not totally finished, but finished enough for the group review tomorrow morning.

The photos below show the binding for one of the books coming together. This was seriously fun and I think I might be doing more on my own.

Book signatures (groups of folded pages) assembled and ready for binding.

All of the signatures individually stitched with waxed linen thread and held together temporarily with a rubber band.

The final bound book. The signatures are all connected together by weaving embroidery floss through the waxed linen threads along the spine edge of each signature. That crazy nest of waxed thread hanging off the spine of the book is staying as a design element (it's art).

Human Marks : Day 2 + 3

Indian Kantha sample from Dorothy's collection.

Indian Kantha sample from Dorothy's collection.

Sorry for not posting yesterday. It was a LONG day. I got back to the hotel around 9 and continued stitching until about 1030. Yesterday started with a fantastic slide talk about kantha stitching in India (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantha) and the work that Dorothy and some of her colleagues have done to document and support the work of local women. As I said in the Day 1 post, we're collecting our work into a hand bound volume. Yesterday we spent the better part of the day stitching a kantha-style cover for the book. How hard or time consuming could that possibly be? The answer is rather. Most of us aren't hand stitchers, so there's a bit of re-learning and slow going, but we're all making great progress between yesterday and today. The underlying lesson is that the oh-so-affordable hand stitched souvenir from your vacation or that catalog item from India or elsewhere was made by someone who labored for days to create it. Think about that and then look again at the price. It's sobering.   

This is were I started: blank cloth and simple tools.

By about mid-day today I was here.

Betwixt and between bouts of stitching there've been more slide talks, more mark-making exercises (including taking a hammer and nail to paper!), great food, and wonderful conversation and camaraderie. We've got a really great group of super-talented folks in class and there's great energy flowing.  

Human Marks : Day 1

I'm here in Ohio at the Crow Timber Frame Barn (nancycrow.com) for a one week workshop with Dorothy Caldwell (dorothycaldwell.com) titled, "Human Marks". I've admired the mark quality in Dorothy's work for many years, and countless friends and colleagues have recommended her workshops. I'm thrilled to finally have an opportunity to study with her.

As the name says, this workshop is all about human marks made in a variety of ways--fingerprints, pen, paint, burning, stitching, etc. The tangible end product will be several small hand bound books containing the results of our mark-making exercises. The intangible "product" is that there really isn't a product per se. We're making these marks without purpose, and the books will be a collection with no purpose other than to be an artifact of the time. The marks aren't intended to be representational or patternistic. They just are. 

It's a rare thing for me to spend five days doing something that isn't driving toward a goal. I'm enjoying it. Here are a few samples of today's work.

Marks make with a pen (mine's the one in the center).

Marks make with a brush and india ink. The tall piece to the right make with fingerprints. The small bits on the far right are marks burned into cloth with incense. 

Elements of Design: Day 10 (the end)

While the sun has yet to set on Columbus, it has indeed set on my 2-week design adventure. I got to the Barn early-ish this morning and finished yesterday's composition--gluing down loose pieces and making a few tweaks here and there. David gave a short slide talk about his own recent work, and we did one last crit. Then, after lunch, slowly but surely, folks began to leave. Slow leave-taking, especially after having spent so much time together, is like slowly tearing off a bandage. It might be better if a bell rang, we all said our goodbyes, and then ran--one big "Ouch," rather than so many little painful partings. 

I was among the last to leave because my flight isn't until tomorrow. I did one more small composition in the afternoon as I reflected on yesterday's film about Ellsworth Kelly, seen below in by portfolio. I felt that I just needed to park this idea for future consideration. 

I'm going to need to take some time to reflect on my takeaways from these 10 days. I definitely learned. I hope that I can make (and keep) a commitment to doing more thumbnails and studies. I also need to give serious consideration to paper and paint in addition to cloth, if for no other reason than it seems to access a different part of me--a different voice. 

And so, I'll close with a few thoughtful photos.

Sometimes messy workspace can be productive. (it got even messier than this)

Sometimes (often) beauty exists right beneath your feet. We just need to take the time to notice.

Sometimes the shadow of a thing is even more interesting than the thing itself.


Elements of Design: Day 9

Today was probably (definitely) not the most productive studio day, but it was certainly active. After a bit of work time this morning, we did critique for 90 minutes. After lunch we had a little field trip to visit Nathaniel and Michelle Stitzlein in their home/studio--the former Grange hall in Baltimore, OH. You have to check out their site and see their amazing work on their website.

So, then there was a little more time for work, followed by an excellent film about Ellsworth Kelly ("Ellsworth Kelly: Fragments"), which I highly recommend. If you have any interest in modern abstract art, run, don't walk, to stream this on Amazon. It's an hour of Kelly discussing his evolution as an artist as well as visiting some of his larger installations. 

And then I got about 30 minutes to work before we trooped off to see Nancy's (Crow) new studio. It's a barn big enough to hold a barn! The interior is stunning--all locally milled wood, huge design walls, an entire floor for quilt storage, and her husband John has the entire basement level for his wood shop. I count myself lucky to have seen the space before she moves in, at which time it will be off limits to everyone.

It was a great day, but introverted me had a little more stimulation than I needed between all of the activity and the level of energy it brought out in everyone else. 

I did manage to at least start a new composition. I'm trying to do this one in 4 panels with the intention to join them, but along the way also trying to create compositions that could stand on their own. I'm not sure I can pull that off, but it's an interesting experiment. 

This is where it stands so far. I keep producing this stuff that's incredibly narrative compared to any of my other work. This only comes out when I work in collage...and I'm thinking maybe I need to do a bit more of that.

Elements of Design: Day 8

In case you're wondering how long this is going to continue, it's 10 days total, so just 2 more entries after this one. 

We started the day with a slide lecture on the categories of design (hierarchical, etc.), then, as promised, we spent the rest of the day much as we did yesterday--only bigger. Today's composition was 8.5 x 22". While I could have also worked 11 x 17", I chose this shape and aspect because it's radically different from my usual work.

Once again, we began with a restricted shape vocabulary and limited color palette, then added both shape and color in three distinct layers. With each layer, the goal was to create a composition that could stand on its own.

You can see the three phases of my composition below. I was surprised by how anthropomorphic and narrative the shapes became. Also, increasing the size of the design space really drove home the importance of proportion. It isn't enough to simply scale up the size of shapes from a smaller composition to a larger one. Neither is it sufficient to use the shades from the smaller composition in a larger one at the same scale. There's a sweet spot in between.

Tomorrow I'm working on a contiguous design in 4 panels that will total 17 x 22".

Elements of Design: Day 7

I'm energized, I'm learning, but I've got to say that it's Tuesday and I'm already Wednesday-tired.

The shape exploration continued today. The compositions got larger and more complex, and there was a twist. First David asked us to create 2 compositions using the same rules as yesterday (limited range of shapes, etc.), but using 4 colors. Not a huge challenge, and I was pleased with the results, shown below.

Then came the challenge: pick one composition and add to it to double the number of shapes and colors. I was hesitant at first because I liked the results that I'd already gotten and feared the mess I expected to make. I have to say that this turned out to be a great exercise. It really drove home the point that good design is built on a strong foundation. Limiting the variables (shape, color, number of elements) in the first pass made it much easier to focus on basic structure. If I'd had 24 pieces moving around at one shot, I'm not sure I'd have arrived at this solution.

Tomorrow we'll be pushing this idea further: 2x the size and multiple cycles of addition. I spent the last couple of hours today painting paper and prepping for tomorrow morning.  

Elements of Design: Day 6

Dan and I had a wonderful weekend together, but this morning it was back to the Barn for week 2 of Elements of Design. David gave a great lecture on art paradigms and their historical context, which helped put our work these two weeks into context. 

Today's exercise was shape composition in color. We were presented with some basic ground rules: A palette of 3 colors, a consistent bounding size, and a limited range of shapes. It might seem hard to believe, but it took 10 hours with a couple of short-but-not-hurried food breaks to complete the work below. Part of it is just the time required to paint all of the paper, then the gluing is a bit fussy time-consuming. But, I'm happy with the result, I'm applying the design principles more readily, and I feel like I'm getting my groove back.   

Tomorrow morning, more colors and a bigger design frame.

Elements of Design: Day 5

This is getting harder, but I guess that's good. Perhaps it's also true that I'm getting tired. Today's exercises focused on the interaction of shapes with each other and with the negative space. The assignment was to make a series of 7x7" compositions using just 3 shapes in each, being mindful of interaction with the perimeter of the design space, varying shape scale, carving out lively negative space...the list went on.

So, here are some of the results, none of which met with particular critical acclaim. I'm trying to be mindful that there's often more to be learned from negative feedback than from praise. But, there's also a little, but rather insistent, voice in my head saying that it's very good to please the teacher. This is not the most helpful of my many internal voice.

The image below shows my first angular composition, which I tossed on the reject pile, only to be told later that it was better than my second attempt.

Here's that second attempt. I believe the feedback was along the lines of, "tight, static, vacant, and predictable." Ouch, but not inaccurate.

"Leaden," was the word for the following image. I'm struggling a bit with proportion. I love the quality of the curves, but I understand the comment. At least he didn't say, "phallic," which was not my intent.

I'll spare you the rest. Let's just say that I've got room to grow, and that's what next week is for.

For now, Dan is here. He arrived last night, and we're going to spend the next two days playing, eating, shopping, and relaxing in and around Columbus, including a trip to Athens tomorrow to see the Quilt National show. It's nice to be physically present in the same place at the same time. Between his travel and mine we've seen each other about 36 hours in the last 3 weeks.

Elements of Design: Day 4

As promised, today we began our discussion of shape, but not before a morning spent almost entirely with that same blasted 1X1" stamp. There's something to be said for deeply embracing the tool at hand--or in this case the one provided--but I'm really done at this point. 

I started out revising my last piece from yesterday after consulting with David. I think it's greatly improved. More importantly, I understand why it's better. 

Our final "official" challenge with the stamp was to create a design that referenced a surrounding border, again emphasizing size and tonal/depth relationships. I'm fairly pleased with the result. An early version was deemed "unfinished" during a late morning critique. I feel it's adequately resolved now, but that's just my opinion (which does count for something).

By afternoon we were discussing shape and creating cut paper inventories of different categories of shapes (angular, biomorphic, and synthetic). These concepts will be the starting point for tomorrow's compositions. 

We've also started painting colored paper for next week's color compositions. There's a sort of zen quality to this preparatory work: mix the color, paint the paper, repeat. Think "wax on; wax off." It was a nice end to a kind of frenetic day that included a lot of what I'll call "adult learning moments" in which we asked lots of questions and didn't always understand the answers. Let's just say that adults who are paying to learn have a strong commitment to getting what they came for.

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Elements of Design: Day 3

Today's topic was pattern. You would think that repeating patterns would be a walk in the park for a group where most everyone works in some sort of quilted textile form. Not so. Most of us made a few traditionally pieced quilts then followed our natural inclination away from that sort of structure and pattern. There was a good bit of grumbling today. But, this is supposed to be about learning to solve design problems.

All day we worked with a single blank 1x1" stamp. The first exercise was to develop a series of 4x4 patterns, pick the "best," and use that to build a 3x3 regular repeating pattern, including some combination of overlap, light, dark, and mid-tone values, and masking.

I'd rate my result as so-so.

The next assignment was to build an irregular pattern. I think that my result is only only subtly irregular. And, I can say that by now I was starting to not like being constrained by this particular 1x1" tool.

To the relief of all, our final assignment was to continue working with the same 6x6 grid of 1"squares and begin layering, using the grid as a foundation with which to interact. My two efforts thus far appear below. The second is definitely the more successful of the two. I think there will be time for one more run at it tomorrow morning before we move on to the next topic: Shape.



Elements of Design: Day 2

Today we continued our exploration of line, with emphasis on using line to build structure.

This is what I was thinking yesterday. They look like root forms, and I'm completely in love with the quality of the fine lines. 

This morning, switching from ink to charcoal and pencil, we produced another round of line studies. The study below shows the same branching structure that I've been fiddling with in a combination of ink, pencil, and charcoal. The same branching structure is there, but it's simplified. 

By afternoon we were working on creating thumbnail ink sketches of structures built from lines. A couple pages of these resulted in the idea at bottom right. The branching structure has simplified into sort of a budded stem.

Then we explored variations on an individual design with more thumbnails in black, white, and a mid-tone gray. Clearly some of these are better than others!

And finally, we did a larger scale rendering (6x6") of one design...

...which we then produced as a cut paper collage. I have to say that I'm pleased with both the process and the result. It's really nice when it turns out that way in a workshop, and a fine way to end the day.

At the Barn for "Elements of Design & Composition" with David Hornung

I'm in Ohio (about 45 minutes east of Columbus) for the next 2 weeks at the Crow Timber Frame Barn studying with David Hornung. Not having been an art major in school, I've never had a formal 2D design class. This is a chance to spend some quality time with a great teacher and a group of tremendously talented students focused on learning and relearning those fundamental principles of line, shape, etc.

Day 1 was all about line quality and tools (stick, brushes, straws, and more). Here are two line studies. I'm hoping to bring home a nice little portfolio and a lot of learning. 


David Hornung's "Collage" workshop

It's Wednesday, and a week ago today I was in David Hornung's "Collage" workshop at the Crow Timber Frame Barn in Ohio. It was the second workshop that I've taken with David (davidhornung.com), the other being "Color: A workshop for artists and designers" back in 2009. Where the color workshop was predominantly a carefully programmed and exercise-focused experience, the collage workshop was almost entirely unstructured studio time with a general rhythm of slide show, discussion, working, and critique. We started Monday morning with a sideshow and discussion of collage as a medium and looked at examples from previous students. It was only then that I realized that several of my fellow students were "repeat offenders", returning for a second year for another week with David. He's a good and gentle teacher, and I find that he's particularly adept at creating a peaceful and contemplative environment in the studio. I think that might come in part from his own habit of working in silence. It was a real treat to work in the beautiful sunny upstairs studio at the Barn with something like a dozen people, all of whom were able to work in relative silence for hours. I confess that I went into this workshop hoping for more structured design exercises. [As it turns out, I'll be getting that in a two week design principles class with David next spring.] As a result of the open ended collage composition assignments ("Try to make 3-6 compositions per day") I was free to follow whatever path I found myself on. And, the paths turned out to be interesting. The image below show most of the work that I completed in the week. They're all small studies, but they revealed some interesting things about my thinking and aesthetic sense.

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A few observations:

  • In spite of my obsession with circles, when you put an Xacto knife in my hand I seem more likely to cut a straight line. I should probably be more thoughtful about my choice of tools, and mix things up a bit.
  • I'm analytical about my design (e.g, straight lines, numbers, math, balance, and carefully planned imbalance).
  • I really enjoy neutral backgrounds.
  • The drawn line combined with the cut/pieced/collaged line is beautiful. Others do this far better than I, but I love it in almost all instances.
  • Linear does not have to mean tight.
  • Nerdy is OK.
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Toward the end of the week, having completed so many analytical compositions, I intentionally created some very loosely brushed paper that I could cut up and rearrange. The images below show the result. I think they are pointing to possibilities--heck the whole week is pointing to possibilities.

In sum, it was definitely time well spent. Many thanks to David and my fellow collage warriors for creating such as supportive and productive environment.

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Carol Soderlund's "Neutral Territory"--way more than 50 shades of grey

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I've just returned from two weeks at the Crow Timber Frame Barn in Ohio for two outstanding workshops, one with Carol Soderlund (carolsoderlund.com) and one with David Hornung (davidhornung.com). I'll write about David's workshop in a future post. This one is all about Carol's workshop, which was titled "Neutral Territory: 50 Shades of Gray + 50 Shades of Brown."

In her "Color Mixing for Dyers" workshop, Carol teaches the basics of full-immersion and low-water immersion dyeing with Procion MX dyes. The tangible products of the class are a head full of knowledge, Carol's stunningly detailed handouts, and THICK binder that her students affectionately refer to as, "The Bible". This reference volume contains thousands of dyed 1-inch square fabric samples (made in class) to document the cubic color model for several combinations of different yellow, red, and blue dye. It's amazing, and I use my notebook almost every time I'm in the dye studio.

So, why all of the description of a workshop that I took 6 years ago? Well, "Neutral Territory" builds on "Color Mixing." Every combination of three pure MX dye primary colors has the potential to create a neutral black, warm black, cool black, etc. The trick is finding the right proportions of yellow, red, and blue. What I'm telling you is that I paid good money to spend 5 days with Carol and 19 other students mixing untold numbers (way more than 50!) of very carefully formulated mixtures of dye searching for good black candidates, then creating 10-step gradations of the best candidates to see if what we thought was black was really neutral or had a hue leaning. And, we only scratched the surface of the 80 families (i.e., possible combinations) of yellows, reds, and blues. It was as much about the investigative method as it was about the end result. That said, I'm now the proud owner of another mighty sample book, which might come to be known as "The Apocrypha".

For me, the culmination of the workshop came late on the 4th day when I washed out some silk samples that I'd just discharged and realized that I'd managed to combine what I learned in this workshop with what I'd previously learned in Carol's "Dyeing to Discharge" and "True Colors" to select a dye combination, mix a black by eye, and create a predictable result that I've been wanting for some time now--a black that grades down to a silver-gray and discharges to near white. I love that feeling that comes when deep study in a subject area produces learning that all begins to overlap and intersect.

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I count this workshop as another great week spent with an outstanding teacher and excellent mentor. If you have any serious interest in dyeing, I urge you to seek an opportunity to study with Carol. Rest assured, you'll be a better dyer for having done so.

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A week of color

Guess where I've spent the last week. Well, that's probably not a fair question. The sign will be both familiar and evocative to some, and won't register at all with others.

Mystery solved. Since last Sunday afternoon I've spent most of my waking hours at The Crow Timber Frame Barn in Baltimore, Ohio taking a special 6-day version of Carol Soderlund's "True Colors" workshop.

The workshop was great and, as usual, Carol and my fellow participants were inspiring. I'm on my way home tomorrow morning and ready to get back into the studio so I can apply some of what I've learned this week.

I haven't abandoned my independent study of MX dyes and their behavior, but this class has given me valuable direction that's going to save me lots of time and money. Thanks Carol! Another home run.

Continuing workshop efforts

It's the end of Thursday and I'm pooped. I'm the last one in the studio, enjoying a little peace and the luxury of a working Internet connection. It's been a good week. Although I have nothing finished to show for it, I've got some new direction and about 5-6 pieces that, while they will require substantial work to finish, can be finished at some point in the future.

One piece in particular has been presenting an interesting challenge. I've been working from a practice watercolor in my sketchbook, trying to come close to the same look and feel on cloth.

Here's the sketchbook page. Love it.

The cloth. The image is too strong. It's not nearly this high-contrast or saturated in person

Here's the same cloth with an overlay of painted organza (the dark circle). I'm really happy with where this is going and I think I know what it needs next, but that's a project that requires more time, space, and concentration than I have right now. At least I know what comes next.

OK. Off to bed.

Getting ready for Kerr

Sunday morning I'm off to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for a 1-week workshop with Kerr Grabowski. It's a very small group, just 6 of us, and all former students of hers. It should be great. Friends ask me what these workshops are like. Well, there's just no one-size-fits-all answer. Some are incredibly hard work. Others are lot's of laughing (and really hard work). It depends on the mix of teacher, students, and the phase of the moon. In every case there is learning and growth.

Now, Kerr is a special person. She's given me some of the most helpful critique I've ever received. And we laugh. It's hard to put a value on that. This YouTube video might give you a little insight into what her workshops are like. It's lots of what-if and "Oh, now I like that." There's lots of discovery and a good bit of laughter.

I'm talking myself into a big smile and a real sense of anticipation.