Oriana Lewton-Leopold: An Important Conversation

by Yolanda Wysocki

Oriana Lewton-Leopold in her studioOriana Lewton-Leopold is an artist included in the summer 2014 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions. After completing an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Oriana took painting and drawing classes at the New York Studio School and was an exchange student in Germany that same year. She then moved back home to Portland where she married, had a baby in July of 2014, and also completed her Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA).

Oriana’s art school background weaves its way throughout our conversation and is apparent in the language she uses as well as how she approaches her work. Although she still considers it valuable to think about what and why artists make the choices they do – and she does think there are reasons behind all creative choice – she is finding herself moving away from the rigorous explaining and defending of her work as required in school. “I think the studio practice is far more important than all the thinking and writing and talking we did,” Oriana says. “It influenced our work but now that I think about it, I don’t remember some of what I said about my paintings, so it wasn’t as important as it seemed at the time. But I do think the work is more interesting when artists think and can talk about what they are doing.”

When I Love You Close, by Oriana Lewton-Leopold

When I Love You Close, by Oriana Lewton-Leopold

Oriana explains it further for me. “In school we start out with theories and meanings and fit our work into them, but in my last bodies of work – like the Manet and Rihanna paintings – I began by saying, ‘I love looking at these Manet paintings and love the tradition of artists copying other artists’ work and I love this pop star. What would happen if I juxtapose these images?’ It was only after the work was completed that I saw different meanings, made new connections and saw it differently.”

It seems this process is typical for Oriana. She often begins by perusing different mediums, looking for images that strike an emotional chord with her, and then copies them into her sketchbook. Sometimes she uses a repetitive image in her paintings. Oriana compares it to a musician liking a particular chord and wanting to hear it again in different contexts, maybe next to a saxophone or put in different combinations. She will recreate the image in different sizes; explore how it changes meaning if put next to this image as opposed to a different one, or she will put another image over it.  Can she evoke the same emotion in the painting when it is buried? She would like her audience to ponder similar questions, but likes when others create their own stories. “Putting my paintings out there is about placing my work in the context of a larger conversation about art and life. And I think it’s an important conversation.”

Don't Won't Two, by Oriana Lewton-Leopold 2013

Don’t Won’t Two, by Oriana Lewton-Leopold 2013

Her current work combines the idea of performance (What is real? What is performance and when does one become the other?) with interests in hysteria (her MFA thesis topic), dramatic moments and similarity of gestures in completely different situations. Talking about her Blackfish Gallery show in December 2014, Oriana says, “I want people to find my work challenging, both the content and formal aspects – composition, painterly choices, powerful gestures that evoke emotion, and to make different connections. I like to create questions and a little discomfort in the viewer. But I don’t think my work excludes people without an art school background. Everyone may not have the same ideas about the work that I did but I hope it is visually compelling to draw people in, whether it’s a powerful figure or colors that work well together or something that draws viewers in.”

Yellow Bird by Oriana Lewton-Leopold

Yellow Bird by Oriana Lewton-Leopold

Dilemmas: Our conversation took us to subjects all artists have to address at some time in their creative lives … how to combine what the market wants with their own interests and the ideas they want to explore.

“When I was at Hampshire they encouraged us to do exactly what we were interested in and not pay attention to what consumers want. I found that very valuable but it didn’t leave any room for how to earn money from my work. I look at beautiful, well-executed work – and there is great value in that and that seems to be what most people want to buy. I tried working on realistic portraits for a while thinking they might sell but I had no interest in them so I stopped. It’s a challenge. Eventually I would like to sell my paintings, teach, and have shows in different parts of the world. I would like not to be working in restaurants for the rest of my life, especially now that we have a baby, I think about all of this but I also have a broader perspective. I don’t feel I have to do my best work now; I will improve tremendously over the years and I will be so much better in 20 years than I am now. Looking at life in a larger context takes off some of the pressure.”

Family: Being surrounded by a supportive family allows her time to work, as well as care for infant daughter Anouk, as she prepares for her show. Our conversation was occasionally interspersed with baby Anouk making her own needs known.

“I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without my family’s support. My mom and sister help take care of the baby when my husband and I are working, or dad will pick up our dog, Hux, for some exercise and love. They’re really supportive. My husband is also a really talented artist, and chef too. Nathaniel got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting.”

When asked about possible collaboration: “We have really different styles; I’m very stream of consciousness and very gestural and he is very detail-oriented. We haven’t collaborated yet, but we’re are intrigued by each other’s way of working so we may collaborate some time in the future.”  She then points to their baby and laughs, “We did collaborate and we created a masterpiece.”

See Oriana Lewton-Leopold’s exhibition, Hushing the Crowd, December 2-27, 2014
at the Blackfish Gallery, 420 W 9th Ave., Portland, OR 97209 | 503-224-2634
Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m

Oriana Lewton-LeopoldOriana Lewton-Leopold is a painter based in Portland, Oregon. She received her MFA in Visual Studies from PNCA in 2012. Her work has been exhibited in New York and Portland, most recently at Blackfish Gallery, where she is represented. More of her work can be viewed on her website.


Yolanda WysockiYolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for more than 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.

Walking the Talk: Meet Sculptor Carole Murphy

by Yolanda Wysocki

Carole Murphy’s work appears in the 2014 Summer issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions. Carole embodies creativity; she is energetic and evolving, creating and collaborating in many arenas of her life, changing her world, impacting many artists. She is not only a sculptor but also a teacher. She is completing her term as president of Pacific Northwest Sculptors, and is organizing the remodeling of a building in Northwest into 30,000 square feet of artists’ studios, expected to be available in December 2014. Here are snippets from our conversation:

Becoming, 2004

Becoming, 2004

Looking at her early sculpture, I was amazed when Carole told me she had never taken art classes. When she was 40 she decided to get a degree in psychology, based on the work she had been doing. Later, realizing she didn’t want to keep working in the field, she asked herself what she wanted to do instead. “I always thought I could sculpt, but was afraid to discover I couldn’t.” She decided to work at sculpting for an hour every day. Slowly, while she ignored all resistance, the art eventually started to flow. Going deep into the process, she would sculpt for twelve-hour stretches, ignoring all bodily needs! She has been at it for 23 years now, never imagining her life turning out like this.

Enigmatical, 2013

Enigmatical, 2013

Having started in realism and wax, she was judgmental about abstract until she began to understand it. “Working in abstract gives me much more freedom; realism was a tighter way of working. Before I was trying to represent and duplicate; now I try to show what it feels like, what it’s about, the essence, and hope it speaks to others” She rarely works in realism anymore.

You have a vision and then ask yourself, how are you going to get there?

That is the essence of how Carole works. The starting point may be an idea, image, dream, or simply the look of a piece – she has no shortage of ideas – then she starts to play. “Whatever is going on inside – whether it’s joy or the ecstasy of being, spaciousness, or some detailed introspection – also shows up in the piece,” says Carole.

Her studio has several rooms with numerous shelves full of found nature objects and items that students brought her. It’s not hard to imagine how she manages to have 25-30 pieces developing at the same time. There is plenty of inspiration and possibility to feed her imagination, curiosity and creativity here, and everywhere she goes.

The Dragon Flying

The Dragon Flying

But it’s not just play; she is always learning, researching, stretching, and experimenting. Hearing about aerated cement online, she decided to try it and has been playing with it ever since; or pouring white cement into balloons, painting recycled paper clay, molding it, and seeing what it – and she – can do. When a piece seemed to call for a metal coat, she searched until she found a process that incorporates a metalizing gun that melts steel (at 6,000 degrees), so she could spray it onto her pieces.

“That is what you have to do to keep the sculpture alive and evolving. It’s the process that is so exciting.”

Walking around her studio, I see her students’ work takes up at least one wall. Carole expresses as much energy and enthusiasm for her students’ work as she does about her own.

Carole said, “I’m not interested in students going where I want them to go; I start with whatever they bring or are interested in and then I help them into that space beyond where they think they can go. I ask them where they stop liking it, or it feels wrong, and then help them work through it … same thing I do for myself. You have to be tuned into the piece and inside yourself to the place that knows, and everyone knows. Once you go to that place you never forget it. You can always access it again. It’s very important that I listen to what they want.”

A Devastating Turning Point
I wondered about the source of her abundant energy and optimism, her enthusiastic involvement in the art world, and asked her about it. Carole responded:

“I had been going through a really hard time that had lasted for years. The love of my life took his own life. After five years of mourning that encompassed my life, I was grasping for anything that could offer me a way out of it. I thought perhaps a change might offer me an exit door. I moved to Portland, Oregon from Vermont, with no relief.

Holding Preciously, 2014 "Within us all lies the beauty and the dance."

Holding Preciously, 2014 “Within us all lies the beauty and the dance.”

“Emotionally, I fell down once again and decided that I wasn’t going to get up this time, that I wasn’t going to hope for anything, any more. Giving up all hope doesn’t sound like a positive thing to do in this culture. But giving it up was the best thing I could have done. When I stopped hoping for tomorrow, I was left with only today, and my past.

“I found myself looking at who I was in the past. My past was riddled with what I have come to call ‘suffer well’ chips. I had been adding them up and subconsciously calling myself a good person because I had suffered so well. I had acquired quite a mountain.

“Having let go of the future by giving up all hope, I then let go of the past by letting the mountain of ‘suffer well’ chips leave. In response, I started waking up in the morning to ecstasy for no other reason than being alive.”

Finally, Last Words to Artists
“Just Play. Do it and play. Artists often work alone in our studios, but I say collaborate, cooperate, support each other. If you work together there will be more art; if you make more art, then there will be more call for art. Connect to others and make it happen. Art is about changing the world.”

And Carole walks her talk. Her life is art.

Carole MurphyCarole Murphy’s sculptures have been shown nationally in such places as the Maryhill Museum; the Coos Bay Art Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon; New Mexico Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Robert Paul Gallery in Burlington, Vermont; KGB Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona; and Brueton La in West Hollywood, California. Moving from bronze figurative realism, Murphy’s art has morphed into a more organically fundamental aspect of form using cement, steel and mixed media. Carole also writes poetry and essays and is presently writing a book. Find more at her website.

Yolanda WysockiYolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for more than 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.

Botany by a Natural Talent: Meet Mary McCarty

by Yolanda Wysocki

Mary McCarty was the featured artist in the Winter 2014 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions. Seeing Mary’s drawings, I was delighted by the skill, excellence and the wonderful restraint in use of color. I was curious to learn more about the artist who created them. Although she has taken numerous art classes throughout her life, I was surprised that Mary never went to art school. Meeting in Starbucks one summer afternoon, we chatted about her journey and the well-earned successes she has experienced recently.   –Yolanda Wysocki

Yolanda Wysocki: What got you started in art?
Mary McCarty:  In fourth grade, I had rheumatic fever, and in those days – I am pushing 80 – you were on complete bed rest. I was allowed one visitor a week. I couldn’t even listen to most of my radio programs because they thought excitement was bad for you. My sister-in-law showed me how to draw simple pictures, so mostly I drew dresses for my dolls but that’s how I started. When I was nine, I couldn’t believe it – my parents were very strict – but my mother let me paint this scene on the bathroom wall with swans and water lilies in oils. Then I was always doing something with my hands. I knit, weave, spin; I’ve done pottery … you name it, I’ve done it. As an adult, I was the artist for two tool companies. I taught classes for them and traveled with them; I demonstrated uses for their tools in booths at national shows.

YW: So art has been part of your life for a very long time.
MM: Yes, but I never really made much money at it. I raised four children by myself, so to earn money I became a psychiatric nurse, and later an administrator of a retirement home. I have always done art but mostly for myself.

YW: When did you start doing these detailed drawings?
MM: I signed up for a watercolor class about four years ago, and was told to bring a photo of something I wanted to paint  – I brought a photo of a sunflower  –  and to draw it the size I would paint it. I had never done details in my watercolor painting before, but surprisingly I knew exactly how to make the proportions, every detail, do the shading … it was like magic!  Everyone else had gone on to watercolor but I spent the rest of the six-week class still drawing that sunflower; I was thrilled with the new realization that I could draw!  All my paintings before were nice, nothing exceptional, but this was magical, like a gift that was waiting to be used.

By accident, I discovered a way of shading. All my shading is done with tiny circles … it was natural for me to do it that way. Then, after doing a few drawings, it started feeling like they needed a bit of color so I started adding bits. Every time I put some color in it, I get terrified, afraid I will ruin it. I am working hard to improve.

But I just followed my instincts. It became my signature style but none of this was planned or thought out. Now people recognize my pieces and remember me.

Chinese Lanterns by Mary McCarty

Chinese Lanterns by Mary McCarty

YW: How long does a drawing take?
MM: It takes 40-60 hours. I go to the Portland Nursery or Fred Meyer and buy a plant. I always feel sad because I know this plant is going to give its life for art. I take it apart, looking for all the details. I have learned so much about every plant I have ever drawn. I really enjoy that part of it as well.

YW: What is your favorite drawing you have done?
MM: I did a very large narrow one of Chinese lanterns. It’s the only one I have ever done that I have never felt any need to do anything more to it. I really wish I could have kept it.

YW: You sold that one?
MM: Yes. Early on I decided that everything I did I would sell. Anything I really, really want to keep I put a higher price on it (laughter).  The only three I wouldn’t sell are the sunflower the very first drawing I ever did, and the ones that were chosen for this book, Strokes of Genius.

Double Geranium by Mary McCarty

Double Geranium by Mary McCarty

They accepted two of my drawings including “Geranium” … I’m so excited. When I found out, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.

YW: Will you be in the Art of the Pearl coming up?
MM: No I was in a small gallery downtown; the owner loved me and she said to me, “Mary you could really be a hit here in the Pearl if you made your work a little edgy.” (laughter) Now how do you make a botanical drawing edgy? What do you do, make a little skull on it?


Zinnias by Mary McCarty

Zinnias by Mary McCarty

YW: You’ve been in numerous shows and the city of Tualatin recently bought one of your drawings, Zinnias. You take your art very seriously. Some people do it for the meditative quality and pleasure it brings them, but you take it more seriously than that.
MM: Yes, I do. For some reason I feel I was meant to do something with this drawing gift. It is such a joy and pleasure. It was like someone handed me a present and said, now do something with it. I want my drawings to be as beautiful and detailed as I can make them.
I am very fortunate. I have found something I love. I have 20/20 eyesight, a very steady hand, and at my age I am very lucky. I am very grateful; it’s such a pleasure and a joy that people like my work. You can always do it for yourself, but there is an added pleasure when you can share it and someone enjoys it almost as much as you did when you were creating it. I love it when they really look at it, and start noticing the little details.

My collectors don’t want me to, but I do want to make a change in my drawings; I don’t know what yet but I’d like to experiment again; it’s been a long time.

(YW: On our way out of the coffee shop, we pass a shop window with antique children’s clothes hanging in the window.)
MM: Those would make great drawings, not everything works in black and white but these would. I wonder if the owner would let me come and draw these.

(YW: I could see the wheels turning )


Mary McCartyMary McCarty’s art has been in numerous juried shows including Celebration of Creativity in Beaverton, Oregon; Portland 5; and the Hood River Gallery. She has won many prizes including Art Splash, Best of Show. Her work was chosen for a highly competitive book of drawings, Strokes of Genius, coming out in November 2014. McCarty also juried into the Bush Art show in Salem, honoring the work of David Douglas, the first botanical artist of the Northwest.

Yolanda WysockiYolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for more than 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.

Shapes of Place, Shaped by Place: A Conversation with Roya Motamedi

by Yolanda Wysocki

Roya Motamedi, the featured artist in the Summer 2014 Issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, comes from a rich cultural background. Her Afghani father was an archeologist, her Japanese mother an art historian. Archaeological sites in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley — the land of giant Buddhas — were her “playground.” In 1979, before the coup d’état, her family moved to Kamakura, Japan — the town where Zen Buddhism started; her father stayed in Afghanistan.

Yolanda Wysocki: What role do you think art plays in culture?
Roya Motamedi:  It’s very interesting how in some ways art is so insignificant; it doesn’t bring income, but it feeds the soul. Without it we are empty inside. The culture gives birth to art but art turns around and feeds the heart and soul of the culture, of individuals. It becomes part of the rhythm, richness of life, of the earth. On so many levels it wakes you up, alerts you to the moment, and makes you smile. I think of the culture that is not allowed to paint or create; you feel death inside you even though you are alive.

YW: And I assume that is why you paint?
RM: Yes, it definitely feeds me; it’s the only place I make sense. I truly love it. I go to my messy studio and I get really excited. I am never not excited to be there. It’s like a meditation, like a journal, like turning a stone and seeing how the light hits today, within me, within this place. It’s a safe place.

April 19, 2012 by Roya Motamedi

“April 19, 2012” by Roya Motamedi

YW: Would you feel as satisfied if you didn’t show your art?
RM: There is something in me that needs to show it. Sometimes I go to a museum and question my relevance, but because of the way I was raised, I see color differently than a person who has been disciplined in only one culture, so I feel I have a small but valid voice. I know what I had – the country I lost – doesn’t exist anymore, so I have to be strong, and have a voice and show for them.

YW: With such a rich cultural heritage, you state your painting is beyond language and culture. Will you say more about that?
RM: Culture has a boundary, and I don’t fit in any boundaries. Paintings are beyond the restrictions of culture … so people can enter into them; they can communicate beyond cultures. Abstract art is a language, another doorway for a new paradigm.

YW: Yet your art is so much about place.
RM: Yes, like writing letters. I relate to the place where I am now, and write letters from that place. When we lived in Mexico for two years, the light, the life reminded me of my time in Afghanistan. I hope my paintings are like sending letters home, stopping time, capturing moments, the feeling of them.

YW: Do you ever go back to Afghanistan?
RM: No, it would take me years to process all the sadness. What I had doesn’t exist anymore; it would be like going to a burned house. I feel like someday I should write about my life. I know a place that is no longer; I should save it.

YW: What would you write about?
RM: Watching my grandmother cook, the light, the way the door hit the frame whenever I went in, the echo; the quiet of the museum that I walked within with my father, on weekends; the archaeological sites I went to with my mom and brother. The Buddha’s head was my height; I wasn’t sure why I only saw his head. It was beautiful and I related to it as a person, from a child’s perspective.

YW: You have many sense memories.
RM: Yes, because I lost it all, I put it in a box, all these memories.

YW: How does that come through your paintings?
RM: I think it’s emotion. I translate these into the emotion of color: shapes and juxtaposing color. I first started painting blocks of the city and myself in relation to color in New York; they became so ingrained that it became the structure of my paintings: I am feeling this — I may be a red dot — and this is how I feel next to this color.

YW: I imagine you have a specific memory that comes with an emotion and from that you allow a painting to come through.
RM: Yes. For example, if the feeling of walking around Bamiyan is the feeling I bring to my studio, the colors of the murals of Bamiyan are very much in my paintings. When I did the blue and white paintings, it was surprising how Japanese they were, like my grandmother’s kimono. I don’t intentionally do it. It doesn’t work if I try to think it and make it happen; it comes through.

Blue and White Series March 14, 2014 (a) by Roya Motamedi

“Blue and White Series March 14, 2014 (a)” by Roya Motamedi

Blue and White Series March 14, 2014 (b) by Roya Motamedi

“Blue and White Series March 14, 2014 (b)” by Roya Motamedi

In my last show, I was processing the choice my father made to stay in Afghanistan. It’s always been a question, why did he choose to stay? A tear, the rain healing, healing the sadness. It’s like making sense of my life through paintings, but also a kind of letter to him, too.

Painting is a relationship. I have a conversation with my painting, and rather than doing too much, sometimes I go to my studio and just watch the painting. I listen and watch and wait. It takes 6-7 months for a painting to develop from beginning to end. I cannot map out what I’m going to do. If I do too much I am not allowing that other dimension to happen; I’m killing it.

Paul Guston said,

When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics … and one by one, if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting, you walk out.

That’s what I want, to be affected by the relationship, to become one with it. I become so much part of it that it influences me.

YW: What is your favorite painting, one you may never sell?
RM: One of Brooklyn, I  felt strong there, I felt myself, like I belonged. I keep it to remind myself.


Roya Motamedi with daughter MinaRoya Motamedi has been living in Portland with her husband and daughter Mina for six years, drawn by the Japanese immersion school. She also chose Portland because it is beautiful and more possible to live here than in New York, where they had been living. Roya started taking painting classes at Guilford College, NC, where she earned her BA in oil painting. She won first prize in the student art show in 1992. She is represented by the Blackfish Gallery in Portland.

Yolanda WysockiYolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for over 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.

Meet Jan Ice: Blending Nature and Inner City

The VoiceCatcher Art Gallery
Curated by April Bullard

This is the last in a series showcasing the work of VoiceCatcher6 artists. Each artist shares her work, her sources of inspiration, the “why and how” of what she does and a challenge to use her work as a springboard for your own. We hope it will prompt a lively dialogue among authors and artists that will expand creative possibilities for everyone.

Jan IceAbout the artist
Jan Ice is a home-grown, self-taught, country woman transplanted into the roaring city. She balances her job, children, grandchildren and adult care, and still finds time to be an active member of the artistic community and express herself in her work.

About the work
Jan is a natural, intuitive photographer who started with a 110 Instamatic and continued into the digital age to capture profound moments in the everyday. “A picture may be worth a thousand words,” Jan says, “but with the right words, you can enhance the power of a picture. Plucking random thoughts and phrases from among the din, and twisting them into heart-felt meaning, is how I practice my art.”

Natral LoveI found it unique that the natural world could choose to show us love in a symbol that we recognize. We speak such different languages most of the time.

Soul Mate

Soul Mate

One of my combinations of photography and poetry, this shot of raccoons was total luck because I could not see them through the camera lens. On a personal note, this is my Mom’s favorite piece.

Cinna Kitty

Cinna Kitty

My cat, just doing what cats do best with the sun rain-bowing over her, was too much to resist. I took my shot.

What’s next
“Being accepted into VoiceCatcher6 was only the beginning of my artistic dreams. I plan to work with my sister to bring art and poetry to the everyday man, woman and child. I want to make them mainstream-accessible and understandable as well as desired and even longed for. “I have set a few goals for myself in regards to writing: I have two chapbooks and two full-length books of poetry/prose that I’m working on to publish in the near future, and maybe some of my photography will make it into the books as well. After that, I have at least five novels waiting to be written. So you can see, my imagination is never as still as my pen, nor as quiet as my keyboard. I play an active role in the local writing community by leading the free Writing Workshop at the Vancouver Community Library, where we meet every first Thursday of each month. I do my best to maintain a welcoming, supportive writing environment no matter what style a person’s writing take on. May it be poetry, prose, short stories, novels or anything in between, I am there to support everyone’s efforts and cheer their successes.”

The Artist’s Challenge
Jan claims that a “picture may be worth a thousand words, but with the right words, you can enhance the power of a picture.” Find a photograph of your own and enhance the power of the picture with the power of your words. Enjoy the collaboration of art forms.

Thank you, April!
After curating the Artist Gallery for most of 2012, April Bullard is taking time off for her own art and writing. VoiceCatcher is grateful to her for spotlighting eleven artists from VoiceCatcher6 in her monthly series, and helping us appreciate the richness and diversity of our photographers and painters.

April will be joining artists from VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions for the first month-long art exhibit of 2013 at Space Monkey Coffee House in Portland. Meet her at the opening reception on Friday, April 5 at 6 p.m. and thank her personally for her exceptional work.

Capturing the Essence of Things: A conversation with Willa Schneberg

by S. H. Aeschliman

The first thing I notice about Willa Schneberg when I meet her in person at the Oregon Jewish Museum is that she’s wiry, compact and energetic. She gives off an aura of strength, or maybe it’s resilience.

The second thing I notice about her is the accent: East Coast. New Jersey? Later I’ll be reminded that she’s from Brooklyn.

She has invited me to join her and her friends today on a tour of her exhibit, “The Books of Esther.” She is business-like. Certain. She reminds me of a teacher giving instruction to a class. In a way it makes sense: She is the expert here. But I can’t help thinking that her manner is a little at odds with the subject of her exhibit.

My larynx “The Books of Esther” is about the life of Schneberg’s mother, who is dead. She had cancer of the larynx, her larynx was removed, and for the last several years of her life she wrote down everything that she would have otherwise said aloud. Esther’s notebooks are here, as are excerpts of her writing that Schneberg has scanned. There’s a photograph of the mechanical voice box Esther refused to use. A video with snippets of Esther speaking in a time before her larynx was removed.

Willa's exhibit I am surprised to see ceramic replicas of some of Esther’s things. Why has Schneberg recreated her mother’s notebooks and WAAC cap in clay?

She says she wanted to capture the essence of the things. It is her act of interpretation, her way of drawing the viewer’s attention to what she finds important: the designs on the notebooks, the names on the cap.

I will take care We have finished our tour, and Schneberg wants to know if we have questions. “Why did you choose to make this a public exhibit?” I ask. “Why not keep these mementos of your mother private?”

She says the exhibit is to help anyone who has ever experienced loss and grief. For anyone who has lost a parent or who will lose a parent. Which is all of us.

I try to imagine how it would feel to refashion my dead mother’s things in clay with my own hands, as Willa has done. My mother is still alive. The word loss haunts me.

When I start to cry, Willa touches my elbow and asks, “What’s coming up for you right now?”

In my head I’m already calling her Willa, though she has not given me permission to do so.

The stories behind the work
A few days later, Willa and I have a Skype date. We talk about her process for her most recently finished work, A Good Time to Die. It’s a collection of linked poems about her father, her mother, and herself: line poems, prose poems and “found poems” – poems she found in transcripts of conversations between her and her parents.

Because the book is a mixture of poetry genres, she’s been having a hard time finding a publisher. But she says, “I’m interested in breaking through traditional genre constraints.” My heart beats a little faster when she says this. I too am interested in defying conventions.

Though she doesn’t say specifically how long she’s been working on A Good Time to Die, I get the impression it’s been a long time. Years. As evidence: the original title of the project, Three-Way Conversation, inspired the name of her website.

Her husband, Robin Bagai, was her first reader. “He’s a great editor,” she says. “He has a wonderful ear [for poetry].” Then John Morrison and Francis Payne Adler – two writers from her monthly peer writing group, The Odds – read her manuscript. She also relied on Barry Sanders, a professor at PNCA, about whom Willa speaks with respect and affection. When he said he thought the manuscript was ready, she started sending it out. “When the rejections start coming in, then you look at it again,” she says. Every time she sends it out, she finds something new to revise.

“Writing is about truth telling”
When I ask Willa why she writes, she tells me the story behind a poem from her third collection, Storytelling in Cambodia. In Cambodia during the genocides, a woman living in a village controlled by the Khmer Rouge was able to get an extra ration of soup – just weak broth with a few grains of rice – because she hid the body of her dead son. “People need to know about stories like hers,” she says.

I ask her why she makes her work public, and she gives “The Books of Esther” as an example. “We all know what it’s like to lose someone,” she says. “Everyone has a mother, and everyone’s mother will die. It’s a metaphor for people who don’t have a voice. I wanted her words to be sung.” She’d wanted to show her mother’s ability as a thinker and a writer. To make people think about their own mothers.

“There is a universality about personal experience,” she says, and I start getting really excited. “That’s what we know is the best writing anyway,” she says. “You use specific descriptions. You paint a picture with words.” This is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to do with my creative non-fiction: connecting with others through the specifics of my experience.

She explains her work as an artist as looking carefully at the world and transcribing what she sees. “Writing is about truth telling,” Willa says. “Emotional truths, not factual truths.” One advantage to writing poetry over memoir, she mentions, is that there is “a seamlessness between emotional and factual truth.”

The company of people who care about creating
But Willa also makes her work public because it’s a way of participating in community. “It’s wonderful to feel there’s some validation coming from the external world,” she says.

Some of the communities she’s involved in include Oregon Book Award winners, Friends of William Stafford, Literary Arts, The Odds (her writing group), VoiceCatcher, the Jewish community, and a Buddhist Sangha in Portland. She’s also on the board of Calyx Press, a feminist press out of Corvallis, Oregon. And she’s participated in communities through winning fellowships and residencies. She appreciates feeling respected by other writers and being in the company of people who care about creating.

Willa encourages other writers to find support through their local writing communities. When I ask her for ideas, she suggests going to open mics like the ones at Stonehenge Studios or Back Fence. Willa also suggests going to readings, joining or forming a peer writing group, and taking classes at The Attic Institute.

Where truth and beauty intersect
Later, after the interview is over, I reflect on what we’ve talked about: social justice, community, process, concrete details. I think about Willa’s poem “Tiny Monuments,” the one that was published in VoiceCatcher6. The image of these rusted metal canisters shining like multi-colored jewels. Whole worlds in themselves. I think about the poems from Storytelling in Cambodia that are on her website and the photo she took of a pile of human skulls. I think about the ceramic sculptures of Esther’s notebooks and about the notebooks themselves.

Willa’s art is where truth and beauty intersect. The subjects she chooses are often painful or horrifying. But she chooses details that bring out the beauty in those subjects. Not in a way that romanticizes them or downplays the sadness. The beauty and the sadness exist side-by-side. She helps us see both. Somehow her art manages to present the horrible truth while offering comfort at the same time.

As such, Willa’s poetry is a form of witnessing. She gives voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Like the woman in Cambodia. Like her mother, Esther. Like the people at the mental hospital whose cremated remains went unclaimed. And that’s exactly what Willa has set out to do: to archive, to be political, to narrate the emotional realities of those who would otherwise go unheard. Willa Schneberg, too, is a catcher of voices.

More examples of Willa’s ceramics and photography

Willa SchnebergPoet, ceramic artist and photographer Willa Schneberg moved to Portland in 1993 after spending a year doing social work in Cambodia. Of Portland, Willa says, “It suits me. I love living here.” She has a private psychotherapy practice in the Pearl and teaches poetry workshops. Willa’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and her book In the Margins of the World won the 2002 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. She’s currently shopping for a publisher for her manuscript A Good Time to Die. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website.

S.H. AeschlimonS. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance writer, editor, educator and learning assessment consultant. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.

Meet Deb Scott: Digital Impresario

The VoiceCatcher Art Gallery
Curated by April Bullard

This series showcases the work of VoiceCatcher6 artists. Each artist shares her work, her sources of inspiration, the “why and how” of what she does and a challenge to use her work as a springboard for your own. We hope it will prompt a lively dialogue among authors and artists that will expand creative possibilities for everyone.

About the artist
Deb Scott is a dabbler who sketches using words, pencils, camera, and her iPad. She shares a Portland home with her husband, pets, and backyard birds. Deb went back to college in 2004 to complete her undergraduate degree and discovered she still loved poetry and would learn to love writing prose. While at Marylhurst University, she also took an environmental photography class that reignited her artistic impulses.

Deb’s writing and art have been published in VoiceCatcher3 & 6, Qarrtsiluni, Right Hand Pointing, and Tinywords, among others. Deb has been active in online poetry and photography communities and managed Read Write Poem for a couple years. She blogs at Stoney Moss.

About the work
I can’t help trying to make art. It’s a part of who I am and how I experience the world. I work with color and black and white photography, most recently digitally, using a little Nikon camera and Picasa, an easy and free editing tool. I started drawing with charcoal, pencils, and conté while a teen, and added an iPad to my art box several years ago. I generally use the Sketchbook Pro app.

Thistles have blown their coats

Most of my favorite photographs come from being present at a particular place at a particular time. Often, as in this piece, I hope to find something interesting in the odd or in the everyday.

Window Tint

I want to train my eyes to be surprised. One early morning the car windshield was frosted with bird-moths. I was delighted to be awake and able to capture this image before the sun drew it away.


From Where I Stand

An occasional project I participate in is the “Small Stones” series (a daily-for-a-month-writing-habit or ritual or bit of mindfulness). One month I doodled daily on my iPad to create small stones like “From Where I Stand” in word and image.

What’s next for Deb
One of my word/image “stones” was selected for an upcoming Qarrtsiluni edition, “Animals in the City.” And I will again doodle stones in January. I find using that daily hour to sketch with word and image restorative. It’s the perfect new-year tonic. I’ll also help publish the next edition of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. As the Design Manager, I created the online journal format this past summer and fall, and will continue to support the organization by maintaining the site and being the online editor. That said, we can always use more technical assistance, if anyone wants to learn or help with that side of things!

The Artist’s Challenge
Choose an image from VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, or any magazine. Pretend it was an image from one of your dreams and write about it. Or join Small Stones for a once-a-day writing (or doodling) project in January.

Meet Denise Hrouda: Art as Self-Expression and Awareness

The VoiceCatcher Art Gallery
Curated by April Bullard

This series showcases the work of VoiceCatcher6 artists. Each artist shares her work, her sources of inspiration, the “why and how” of what she does and a challenge to use her work as a springboard for your own. We hope it will prompt a lively dialogue among authors and artists that will expand creative possibilities for everyone.

Denise HroudaAbout the artist
Denise Hrouda graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in psychology. She also holds minors in biology and chemistry, as well as a teaching certificate. “Currently,” Denise reports, “I am working part-time at PetSmart while nurturing my artistic talents. I enjoy journaling, eating dessert, and spending time in nature.”

In addition to her work appearing on the cover of VoiceCatcher6, Denise is a contributor to the Fall 2012 edition of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, with “The Commuter.”

About the work
“My art work brings me closer to myself, helping me to understand more about who I am. I also often paint what I perceive in my surroundings.”

Shedding Old Skin — VoiceCatcher6 ‘s cover art.

Shedding Old Skin” can be viewed as an abstract representation of processes occurring within me. The painting inherently portrays prior experiences traveling abroad and at home. To me, the painting is overall a strong reminder of the distinctiveness of my path, my “Way.”

Rolling the Die

“Rolling the Die.Deuce” is a reflective piece, most importantly highlighting the necessity of “being” in life – along with self-acknowledgement – in order to move forward into a brighter future. Within the painting you’ll see an upward ramp, yet the bird itself is at a stand-still.

50 Percent Opened-Gateway

“50% Opened-Gateway” signifies a loss of willpower, as the painting is an outline of a human with a hurt shoulder. Smaller attributes include the opening to the throat chakra, a tiny tree near the ear, as well as a magenta-colored bird. The symbols indicate my current growth process.

What’s next for Denise
Right now, I am mainly focusing on painting as often as possible, allowing my art work free reign so it may flourish. I plan to offer more individual art pieces for sale at smaller venues, such as coffee shops, as I’ve had success with that in the past. In addition, I’ve been creating illustrations, paintings and writing, with an intent to connect and expand the three modes of art into a larger work.

The Artist’s Challenge
Using one of the titles of Denise’s paintings – “Shedding Old Skin,” “Roll the Die. Deuce,”  “50% Opened-Gateway” – let your imagination fly where her images and insights take you. Find your own personal experiences in her vibrant abstractions and express it in either poetry or prose. Share your creation here.

Meet Sharon Chatkupt Lee, Psy.D.: A Sense of Life and Place

The VoiceCatcher Art Gallery
Curated by April Bullard

This series showcases the work of VoiceCatcher6 artists. Each artist shares her work, her sources of inspiration, the “why and how” of what she does and a challenge to use her work as a springboard for your own. We hope it will prompt a lively dialogue among authors and artists that will expand creative possibilities for everyone.

About the artist
Sharon has been living in Portland for nine years and says, “It feels like the home I always knew was out there somewhere.” She is a psychologist with a busy practice as well as being the mother of two.

About the work
“I have been interested in photography for as long as I can remember, but it was only last year that I finally bought myself a camera I could really learn and grow with. I strap it on my back and go for walks on my breaks or after the kids are in bed. Photography is something I can get lost in without worrying about ‘doing it right’ or making something for anyone else. I follow my eye, I play and get lost in how to capture the incredible beauty of this land or its people. I can’t seem to take enough pictures of trees, especially at night and with a fisheye adapter.”

Sharon’s pieces seem to capture a sense of history and promise, of where we have been as well as the life that continues.

On The Banks

This photo was taken on a very familiar stretch of the Willamette River. I have taken hundreds of photos of this river, some rich in detail, some landscapes. In this shot, I let go of capturing the facts of the place and just felt the spirit of the river and its banks.


Crawford Farm

This photo was taken near my parents’ tree farm in the Ozarks. For me, the landscape with the storm clouds and rich terrain speak to the nostalgia of the place.


Self Portrait in Lake Inez

This is another photo taken on my family’s tree farm. I love the reflection captured in the lake named for my grandmother. It is home, family, past, and present.

More of Sharon’s work:
Sharon’s photo titled “Limbs” appeared in Voicecatcher6. She also has a photo and an essay in the parenting zine, hip Mama Magazine #50, The Home Issue.

The Artist’s Challenge
In your imagination, return to the place where you were grew up. Select an object – your house, street, playground, school, favorite hiding spot – and find your reflection in it. That reflection can be the “you” of the past or the “you” of present. What can you capture about yourself by using a concrete image – like Sharon’s Lake Inez or Crawford Farm – as a springboard into your writing? Share what you create with the VoiceCatcher community.

Meet Lea Barozzi: Just a Pinch of Dark

The VoiceCatcher Art Gallery
Curated by April Bullard

This series of articles showcases the work of VoiceCatcher6 artists. Each artist shares her work, her sources of inspiration, the “why and how” of what she does and a challenge to use her work as a springboard for your own. We hope it will prompt a lively dialogue among authors and artists that will expand creative possibilities for everyone.

Lea Barozzi

About the artist
Lea started off as an actress in Los Angeles but, after deciding that acting was not for her, she went back to school where she discovered art. Art spoke to her in a way that acting never had. Now she is much happier painting demons than becoming them. When she is not covered in oil paint, she also enjoys tennis, bike riding and beating her husband at pool. Lea lives in Portland with her husband, her boy and her cat.

Birds Want My Flower

Meaning behind the art
The aesthetic world of Lea Barozzi is a purgatorial realm where a living fog sustains a sense of static tension and freezes the emotional states of its subjects in contemplative introspection. It is punctuated by symbolic props that engage the viewer with instant metaphorical recognition and elements of surprise which draw on our love of mystery.

Her canvases are populated with little maidens and echoes of discarded dolls who are no strangers to loneliness, but who persevere to find their way in the dark out of the corners they have found themselves painted into.

Fading Memory

I don’t really talk about my art. I’d rather viewers draw their own conclusion from the images and titles. I want my work to explore the perils and peace in the isolation we all find ourselves reluctantly enjoying when no one else is there.


Where to find Lea’s art
Her graphic design projects include punk bands, coffee shops, foreign cities and non-profit organizations. Her illustrations have been featured on CD covers, books, jewelry and apparel. Lea’s art work currently hangs in galleries around Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, California.

Lea Barozzi Design
The Art of Lea Barozzi on Facebook

The Artist’s Challenge
Image you are sitting across from one of the women in Lea’s paintings. What is her story? What questions would you ask her? What might she tell you about how she got inside this painting?