When I was about eight years old, I used to suffer from chronic sinus infections. It was finally recommended that I get my skull x-rayed to see what could be an underlying cause. When the doctor was ready to put the x ray up on the screen, she told my mother to cover my eyes, and not let me look, because this could be shocking and traumatizing to a young child. Being the kind of kid I was (I would secretly peek at horror movies when told not to) I begged my Mom to let me look! So the doctor flicked on the light and there was my skull! At first I was shocked, because of how perfect it looked! I expected that maybe the eyes would look lopsided, or something would look wrong, but it was a perfect, little human skull. I then realized the awe and beauty in it and thought, ‘Wow! We All look like that underneath!’. That moment really made an impression on me. When I went home, I began studying the faces of my family, friends, and strangers and could see the skulls beneath them with fascination, awe and beauty. This experience inspired me to begin drawing them.
Later on in life, at age twenty four, I found a job that I could do at home; copying another artist’s paintings on needlepoint canvas. With this job, I first learned how to paint, and soon after began creating my own paintings. I painted, fairy tales, animals,flowers, and landscapes, but none of them seemed to be my signature style; they were missing an important piece of me! It was just on a whim, that in one of these landscapes, that I decided to add in the upper right hand corner, perched on a wall, a little, sitting skeleton. When I painted him, I thought, ah yes! That’s it! It just felt right and complete to place the skeleton there. And with that, many, many more skeleton ideas for paintings, came to me, where the skeleton takes center stage. All my paintings tell a story. Some are fun and humorous; others are deep and maybe have a hidden meaning (even I do not understand why I paint some of the things I do).
I’ve been called a “Day of the Dead Artist”. Around 2007 I began creating skeleton paintings, that were inspired by New Mexican family roots, where we would travel to twice a year throughout my childhood to visit my dad’s side of the family. These memories in Albuquerque of my grandma’s red chile, the view into the desert from her back porch, overlooking the rio grande and Sandias mountains, and the way I felt connected to the people and land, was the inspiration that I used to create another genre of skeleton paintings. I created a piece in 2008 called, ‘La Borracha’ that shows a woman, resembling Frida Kahlo, sitting, drinking alone in a Tiki bar, while a lone guitarist tries to lift her spirits by playing. I also painted skeletons, drinking, dancing, cooking, laughing, working, in the New Mexican/ Mexican roots inspired style. It was around this time that people started calling me a ‘day of the dead artist’. Although I knew what “Dia de los Muertos” was from my heritage, I wasn’t creating my paintings, inspired by the holiday. The painting ideas just flash before my eyes like a movie screen, and I paint them. I am grateful that such a celebration was created. The Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos that has been embraced around the world, and the reasons why we celebrate it , touch every one of us. We will all be skeletons one day, but our light continues to shine, through our memories of those we’ve loved and have loved us. We all come together in that light, and on this night, we celebrate that. To have my body of work be associated with Dia de los Muertos is an incredible honor.
My first childhood memory of wanting to become an artist, is when I was around 5 years old, and was in my mother’s bedroom, staring at a painting of a Macaw parrot, painted with great detail and realism. My Mom then told me the story behind that painting; that her mother, who I had never met (she died when she was forty two) painted that painting at just thirteen years old. She took it off the wall, and showed me her signature, Winifred Tolly, 13 yrs old. I was amazed that as a young girl, my grandmother had painted something so beyond her years. I asked if she later became a famous artist. My mother then went on to explain, as much as she could to me, a child, how life had been difficult for my grandmother. She had much drama and upheaval in her short life, and that her art, sadly took a back seat and was forgotten about. This story made me very sad. It also made me very determined; that if I was ever to become an artist, to fight for it no matter what obstacles I might face, and succeed in the remembrance of my grandmother Winifred.
The second childhood inspiration of becoming an artist, happened when I was least expecting it. I was on a camping trip with my parents. We lived in Colorado and my Dad used to hook up the camper to the bronco and travel to high up destinations in the Rocky Mountains. After driving for hours, we finally arrived at the campsite; a higher elevation with sparse, large pines and large, white boulders everywhere. As my parents were setting up camp, I was anxious to be out of the car and set out with my sketchbook to explore. My mother warned me to stay close by and “don’t get lost!”. I was always afraid of that myself, and listened to my Mom; but after only taking a short walk, I looked back to where I thought I would see the trailer, but saw nothing but boulders and pines. I then thought, oh I made a mistake; it’s this way back. When I then saw again, nothing but boulders and pines, I became totally disoriented. Everything looked the same. I walked, in yet another direction into what looked like a clearing. It was a circle of large pines, and right in the middle was a baby pine. I then began to panic. I called out to my Mom and Dad, but heard no response. I remembered, that when one becomes lost, to just stay where you are. Since I had my sketch book with me, I decided to sit on one of the boulders, and sketch this little pine tree, that seemed so vulnerable, yet protected by the larger, wiser pines that surrounded it. Sketching this little tree, I felt a wave of peace and light wash over me. In that moment, a gentle voice spoke to me. It told me to sign the bottom right corner of the sketch. I had never done this before. When I added my signature, I heard the voice say again, “It is now complete.This is what you will do in life”. After this moment, that seemed to stand still in time, I came to, and I was drawn like a compass back with great relief to the campsite. I kept this experience from my parents at the time, because I didn’t want them to know I had been lost, but also because it felt like a secret treasure; this moment, that I wanted to hold close to my heart. It wasn’t until much later in life, when I became a painter, and was signing the bottom right corner of one of my first paintings, that this memory came back to me vividly. My heart swelled with gratitude with the memory and for the present.
I created this painting, inspired by the death of my father this past year. My Dad was diagnosed with Leukemia in September of 2018. Prior to that, he was a fit 70 year old, who was very active. His passion was taking his jeep up into the mountains in his home in CO and climbing what seemed impossible trails. No one ever suspected that he might not be well. I had just seen him that summer in June, and he took me for a ride in the jeep with him up there in the mountains. The road he took to "Miller Rock" was very narrow, rocky, and steep (I was nervous) and he operated his jeep with control and ease over every slippery boulder. When we reached the top, we exited the jeep, and he told me, we were going to climb this incredible Rock. When we first began, I was full of adrenaline, because, I'm terrified of heights, but I looked at my 70 year old father, ahead of me, and thought, I can do this! Wow my Dad really pushes me and I love him for that! When we reached the top, it was a 360 degree view of the Colorado Rockies. My breath was taken away at the beauty and there was something so special in that moment I shared with him. The word, Grace is all I can use to describe it. After we climbed back down the rock and back into the jeep, the trail began a decent, and we ended up in the most beautiful meadow, I've ever seen. There were wild columbines growing everywhere and a vibrant river, flowing through it. We spent some time there, just walking around, talking, and taking it all in. On the ride back home, I felt so much gratitude in my heart, that I could experience something so beautiful with my father. I felt it was a gift for us.
Just two months later, is when my Dad started not feeling well, and tests were done, and it was what you don't want to hear; Cancer. My Dad underwent chemo therapy immediately. I flew back home to CO, and hadn't seen him since I left him well, in the summer. Before entering the hospital room, it was shocking because we had to gown up and wear a protective mask so we wouldn't expose him to any outside germs which could threaten his almost non existent immune system. When we entered the room, I couldn't believe the sickly man, laying in this hospital bed was my father. He looked so sick; like he had gotten into a fight and was on the losing end. He looked up at me and asked, "well how do I look, Heather?". I said, "not too good, Dad". He thanked me for being honest. So many people don't know what to say or do in this situation and he hated the lies; "oh you look good!; you got this!'. He knew deep down, I think that his chances of beating this were slim.
He hardly spoke or moved the first few days I was there, but on the fourth day, he perked up and even got his appetite back. I was wondering if perhaps all of our prayers were beginning to work. He told the nurse, I'm ready to go for a walk. We were all amazed. The walk he took, with all of us around him, was just a walk around the cancer ward in a loop. When we reached his room again he said he wanted to go for one more lap. When we returned the second time, back to his room, he made it to his bed and was thoroughly exhausted. When he sat on the edge of his bed, still trying to catch his breath, a card someone had given him, that sat with many others on the ledge of a window sill, inexplicably fell and landed on the floor. It's like someone had flicked it with their fingers, and it caught the sunlight when it fell. We all turned to see it was a holy card of Padre Pio, a Catholic saint. When my mom bent down to pick it up, she read what it said:
"Walk cheerfully and with a sincere and open heart as much as you can, and when you cannot always maintain this holy joy, at least do not lose heart or your trust in God."
We took it that day as a sign that maybe, he would be healed, but for sure that our prayers were heard and he was not alone.
After spending weeks in the hospital, his treatment and chemo regimen was moved to out patient which made him happier. He was feeling better, despite being poked and prodded and given endless bags of blood, since his own blood he was making, was poison to his body. I flew back and forth to CO as much as I could, since I live in Fl. I decided I needed to be there with him for his birthday on Nov 12th. Of all days to receive the much dreaded news, he was told, the treatment was not working and there would be no hope of beating this disease. We sang happy birthday to him on his 71st birthday,back in the hospital, knowing he had about two weeks. His care then turned to hospice and just making him comfortable until the inevitable. I prayed he would still be alive by Thanksgiving, when I could fly back out again. Thankfully, he was able to enjoy his last Thanksgiving surrounded by his three girls, his wife, sister and granddaughter, in his home. Soon after thanksgiving he was ready to go into hospice at a very nice facility where his family could be present as well as the 24 hour care he needed by a caring staff. After entering hospice, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Within, days, he completely stopped eating and drinking. He slipped gently into a coma. They said he was at that point, caught between two worlds. His soul was in and out of his body, flying around. He would mumble, like he was talking to someone, He called out "Momma!" like he could see her, and "Grandma"! He also said something peculiar. He said "follow the girl. She knows what to do". His final words were "I love you" to my sister, which he seemed to gain consciousness in that moment. After that he never spoke again. On the eve of his passing, my mom, sister and I were at his bedside. I decided to step out for a moment, and call my family back home in FL to give an update and check in with everyone. After hanging up, I looked up at the night sky, and asked God to just please take him. He had been holding on in this coma and I just wanted him to finally have peace. When I went back inside and entered the lobby, I saw the black grand piano they had in a little sitting room. I've played the piano all my life, and I had wished to play for my Dad, just one last time, but that time never came. I decided to just sit down and play one classical piece from my childhood. One song, turned to two, and inspiration took over, and I played like I never have before. I ended with my Dad's favorite piece, "Pachelbel Cannon" , George Winston arrangement from his December album. When I played the last chord, emotion filled my heart. I felt a rush of tremendous love, and I knew that somehow, even though my Dad was in a coma down the hall, that he had heard me. When I got up to go back to the room, a nurse had been listening close by, and she approached me and said that she has always loved classical piano and that what I had just played was touchingly beautiful. I broke down and said, that it was for my Dad. She said, "I know. I felt it too", and gave me a hug. I went back into the room, and hugged my Dad and told him thank you for inspiring me to play the piano and sharing so much of his music with us. Around 10:30, we all decided to go back home after being there since morning. We all said our goodbyes and headed out. When I got back into the car, I said to my Mom, it looks like I left my hat inside the room. I thought, maybe, I'll just leave it; but it was my good hat! My mom said, "just go get it!". I went back into the room, and there it was on a chair. I picked it up, and walked over to my Dad. I looked at him in the eyes, although I don't know if he could see me. I said, "Dad! I forgot my hat!". Somehow, I think he knew and had a hand in making that happen. We had a moment together, just me and him. I told him again that I loved him and see you later. When I left finally, I walked down the hall and spied the nurse that hugged me earlier and gave her a wink and smile. My Dad died just a few hours later in the early morning hours on a Saturday of December 1st. I was the last person to see him alive, I believe it was a gift for me. There are many more gifts like this surrounding his death like the surprise that when we received his clothes back from hospice, that he had passed in, that he was actually wearing my white t shirt as an undershirt. It somehow was mixed up in his clothes from a previous trip to CO! Also at his wake, something went screwy with his video slide show right at the end when everyone shared their stories, and it was stuck on his face with a weird blank square that said "error". I think that was his sense of humor coming through, to let us all know, he was there and had heard the funny stories. My sister and I looked at each other and just laughed. At his funeral, the single, little carnation that fell from his beautiful bouquet, and when I went back to retrieve it, the good friend of his that I'd heard about for years, and he of me, that I finally got to meet. My dad wanted that to happen.
I have to say, that his death was a spiritual experience for us , that brought us all together. I am grateful that we all could have time to say goodbye or as I like to say instead, "see you later".
About the painting: I originally began the painting while he was still in treatment, that was going to be for him of Padre Pio. As I progressed the painting, after he died, I saw that the figure actually began to look like my father, himself walking down a path. I decided to add "the girl" in the form of an angel, leading him down a lighted path, in a heavenly forest. I then decided to instead, make the figure to be a heavenly figure, that could be anyone, even male or female. The red on the hand, could be the stigmata that saint Padre Pio, experienced in his life, but also represents the human struggle in our earthly lives.
This painting was months in the creation and the end result of my entire experience of my Dad's transition to the other side. Like the majority of my paintings, I believe that I create for others and not for me alone. I hope that this image will mean something for someone else and somehow bring healing, and love.
Thank you for reading my story. It has been healing for me to share. Blessings
This is the last painting to complete my 2017 series of 3 Frida Kahlo inspired pieces. all 3 paintings, this year, represent an emotion of Frida, and this one is about love. I wanted to put her and Diego in the happiest place, which was their home, La Casa Azul. I pictured them in their courtyard garden, holding one another. In my vision of the painting, I saw some sort of alter in the courtyard, that I wanted to insert another one of my tiki men on top, right above them. I was shocked, when I began researching images of the real "Casa Azul" and discovered that there is actually a mini pyramid in the courtyard. I had no idea! It was perfect to then place my tiki man on top and looked exactly like how I had envisioned it. It's crazy, how things fall into alignment when you just listen to your inner intuition about things. I felt like Frida herself was instructing and guiding my hands when it came to creating this series.
This is the first painting of my 2017 Frida Kahlo inspired pieces. It is one of three. This year I'm focusing on the emotions of Frida and the first one is about sadness. She had so much pain and suffering throughout her life with having poor health, a horrendous bus accident, and also heart break. I show cased all of it inside this painting, with her sitting in a wheel chair and also a portrait of Diego. She said, " There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst" . I added a light shining from the top right corner as a symbol of hope, like never give up; always, look up, and you will see the hope in the light. I think that is what she did, despite all of her pain
This is the second out of three of my Frida Kahlo inspired series for 2017, focusing on the emotions of Frida. This one is about anger; being fed up! It portrays the event in her life, when she cut off all of her hair as a rebellious act to destroy who she formerly was for Diego. She dressed so pretty, with her Mexican dresses, and jewelry, and long hair with braids and ribbons. She was done and no longer wanted to please him, since he cheated on her with her own sister and didn't deserve her! I included a quote on the wall from one of her paintings (self portrait with cropped hair) from an old Mexican folk song at that time which says, " “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” I also included a copy of one of her own original paintings, inside this painting (A Few Small Nips). I imagine that this is how she must have felt to be so betrayed by Diego. A clever follower of my art, gave me the idea to merge titles for 'A Few Small Snips'.
This painting is different than some of my of my other, light hearted, works, because it is a deep and personal subject for me. Growing up, I discovered George Michael (thanks to my teen sisters) at just 5 years old, when he was still with Wham. My favorite songs were, "Careless Whisper", "Club Tropicana" and "Everything She Wants". I loved the videos and especially the one of careless whisper. Living in Colorado, I could only dream of being in the setting where the video was shot in Miami; the ocean, sand and sun. As I got older, I was thrilled when George Michael went solo with his "Faith" album. I told all my friends and family that I would ALWAYS love GM and I wasn't kidding. So, I was pretty much devastated when I heard of his passing on Christmas 2016! It affected me greatly, and I was moved to put all my feelings on canvas, of just how much this artist meant to me and inspired my life. It was the "Careless Whisper" video that I feel, in some way, played a roll in me relocating to South Florida, after living in Longmont, CO, for over 30 years; pretty much my entire life! When I would watch that video, it was like a glimpse of the future or premonition of what was in store for me. In 2011, I moved with my kids and 4 pets, to be with the love of my life. I felt like South Florida was a world away from the small town I grew up in CO. It was clear to me right away, that I belonged here. I felt at home immediately. I kept thinking of the "Careless Whisper" video and also "Club Tropicana", and I was like; this is so strange. It's like I ended up being a part of those videos or something but for real! So let me try and make sense of what I painted, the way I see it. My interpretation: I wanted George Michael, to be in the center. I have him on a dock and in the dark, with light surrounding him. He's a star after all. To the right, is the sax player, which begins the sad solo intro of this famous song. Your eye, travels behind them, where you are being pulled to a really big party. The party happening is the party called Life. I included the theme of the video of "Club Tropicana with the lyrics:
"Club Tropicana, drinks are free
Fun and sunshine, there's enough for everyone
All that's missing is the sea
But don't worry, you can suntan!"
George Michael is also some where by the pool, enjoying a cocktail.
Although, I had a reference photo of the actual building that the "careless whisper" video was shot from, I created a fictional building. It is an analogy of life, and it's many levels, stages and years that pass us by. So George Michael is in a pose, where he's singing, "Please Stay!". We all wanted him to stay forever, but he had to join the party, and go back up all the way, to the very top of the building, where it slowly disappears and becomes part of the heavens. George Michael, in his last days, is now at the very top, before he ascends into the final stage and leaves his body; and now George really is a part of everything and everyone. He is still and will always be a star. Although the painting, is vibrant with color, it feels a little sad to me because during his life, George felt very alone, despite being surrounded by so many people and fans.
So this painting took quite a bit of explaining and I gave it my all to capture all these emotions of the canvas. Thank you George Michael, for being such an inspiring artist. Your life and music have made this world a better place. I hope you like the painting.
I created this painting, after a vision I received during a meditation session. I saw a figure sitting quietly in the meditation pose, that was surrounded in Red clouds or mass. The Red represented our earth. It was full of sadness,sickness, anger, corruption; everything the opposite of peace. The figure was in a black cage in this Red, not able to escape. As I continued to meditate, I realized that just outside the cage it was in, was Green. The Green, represented everything good. It was Nature , Love and Peace. It calmed and contradicted all emotions in the Red. It was in all directions, surrounding the cage. Although the being seemed to be trapped within the cage, it was only a temporary illusion. The being could easily bypass the cage and reach for the Green. The peace surrounded the being all the time, and what connected it to the Green, was the inner light that was within the being itself. It was kept safe, despite being seemingly caged in the Red. It was constantly connected to the light. I tried to paint exactly what this meditation experience was but changed one thing. I decided to paint the sitting skeleton, in front of the cage, instead of behind it. At the end of this mediation, the cage disappeared completely, and there were no obstructions anymore to the light. When I came back from this mediation, I felt cleansed and healed. I believe this vision was intended not for me, but for me to share with others. I hope this art brings Healing, Love and Peace to all people who see it.
I created this painting as the last piece for my upcoming exhibition 'Life in Skeleton' at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society (New River Inn) Florida Day of the Dead (Oct 25th -Nov 2nd 2016. I wanted to create a piece that represented the spirit of the season and our celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I had remembered a photograph a friend sent me from her trip to Oaxaca, Mexico during Dia de los Muertos. You can't get any more authentic than this, since this is the heart of where Dia de los Muertos originated. I used the photograph below of two women carry baskets of offerings of marigolds and pan dulce to their loved one's altars. I created the scene around them using inspiration from 'Grave Sight'; an acrylic I painted in 2010
Frida and her Doll' is painting #2 out of 3 in my Frida series for 2016. It was inspired by two images; one a beautiful black and white photograph of her in a dress with intricate designs, and the second is an original painting of hers titled, "Me and my Doll". When I first began this painting, I was only going to recreate her in the dress, but I felt something was missing. In the preliminary sketch I put a couple of cats with her, and on the wall beside her was going to be a different original painting, created by her. I changed my mind about the original painting, and decided to base it on her original titled, "Me and my Doll". I identify with that one more, because my Mom was an avid doll collector, and I grew up with a lot of dolls. I replaced the cats idea with inserting a baby doll; one created from my imagination to correspond with the doll in her painting. These two subjects, then brought balance to the piece. I enjoyed coordinating the colors of her dress with the colors in her original painting.