The Birch Tree Leaf Newsletter Issue 6 — Summer 2020

Me and the Pantocrator — been spending a lot more time together in the studio.

Hello Friends!

How are you?

How are you doing these days?

How have you been spending your time?


Is it just me or does 2020 feel like a season of questions?

In the midst of the pandemic, questions are rising — little questions and big questions — all manner of questions around every aspect of life it seems.

There are the questions centered around our daily lives like...

Can I visit my parents today?

Can we invite our friends over?

Do I need to put my mask on now?

Did I remember my mask?

Is it safe to travel?

Should the kids go to summer camp?

Then there are the larger, messier questions revolving around cultural and societal issues such as race, the role of police and the use of force, the treatment of women, how the pandemic is being addressed and the increasing political divide.

I’ll be honest, my prayer life feels like continually handing God a giant basket of questions every day: “Here you go, Lord... today I’ve even got a question in there about whether the sick kittens somehow contracted Covid!”

For myself at least... it’s easy to think of the Scriptures as a place to find answers. In this season of questions, I am gaining an awareness of just how many questions Scripture itself contains and how many of them are left unanswered! Mystery certainly weaves in and out of these ancient inspired texts.

Job, for instance, wants so badly to speak to God and get some answers. Yet when the time comes, it’s God who’s asking the questions:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Who determined it’s measurements — surely you know!

Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of the deep darkness?

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?

— Job 38: 2 ,4, 5, 17, 18

Once again, I’m excited to share some reflections and show you what I’ve been working on here at the studio. And because one of my aims in writing this newsletter is to help us all reconnect with the practice of living life to the full, I’m also going to be...

Can you guess?

Yeah, I’ll be posing some questions!




A few weeks ago The Jealous Curator whom I follow on Instagram posted this meme:

Danielle Krysa who runs the account said she shared the image because for herself and many of us who are creating art around our own experiences (and hoping to sell that art), our work feels “trivial” right now. We aren’t exploring racism, police violence, or the treatment of women and this can lead to feelings of “less than.”

Danielle says: “I feel like that all the time because my current work isn’t shining a light on any big topics, it’s just about my personal issues. BUT I’m gonna keep making and I hope you do too! The world needs artists!”

Oh, Danielle, how I can relate! It is so easy to get sucked into the vortex of thinking that what I make doesn’t matter when I start to play the comparison game or begin to believe the particular artistic voices the world is paying more attention to at this moment are are the only ones that will ever matter.

I am so glad there are artists out there who are moved to address challenging societal issues in their work. It’s amazing to see how what they create speaks in ways words cannot. Images are powerful. What they bring to the discussion of big topics is so valuable.

Several years ago I discovered the work of Titus Kaphar through his TED talk. Kaphar is one artist challenging me to change the way I see and understand.

Titus Kaphar, The Jerome Project (2014 – )

“Kaphar’s art addresses salient social and political concerns, but it also springs from his own life story. For example, his encounter with his estranged father, Jerome, has led to an ongoing multimedia exploration of the criminal justice system called The Jerome Project (2014–). This series of portraits began with Kaphar’s online discovery of the mug shots of ninety-seven African American men who shared his father’s first and last names. He paints gilded portraits of each man in the style of Byzantine devotional icons, and then dips them in tar. Initially, the depth to which each painting was immersed in tar corresponded to the time that each subject had spent behind bars; in later paintings, this has increased to represent the longer-term implications of social silencing that results from their incarceration.“ — Gagosian.com

Titus Kaphar, Shifting the Gaze (2017)

No subject or exploration is invalid. The voice of every artist IS needed in our world no matter how big or small. And though it is tempting to want to find a way into the spotlight on current issues, I find it is wiser to support, listen to and applaud those who are there now — this is their moment.

I can then go back to paying careful attention to what the Spirit is whispering specifically to me. I can remember how someone somewhere is helped by what I am about to create.


Dream scenes found in The Night World Vol. 2 Dream Journal Project

I’m still keeping up the practice I begin in March of 2018 to paint daily. My summer focus has been on creating a sister volume to the journal of dreams I created last summer. It was a fantastic project, but I decided I really wanted to have a volume of my own. I sent last year’s journal off to the collection of sketchbooks as the Brooklyn Art Library to become a permanent part of their Sketchbook Project (the largest collection of sketchbooks in the world).

I have been recording dreams in watercolor, metallic watercolor and pen and ink. Once I have completed the artwork portion of the volume, I will be decoupaging song lyrics onto the different spreads in the book just as I did with the first volume.

I decided this year to get REALLY brave and not only document and share videos of my work process, but also create video talks about the content of The Night World. Video is as challenging as I thought it would be, but I love what the experience is teaching me as video skills seem to more and more be a necessary part of sharing as an artist online.

All of my process videos and talks for The Night World Vol. 2 will be available in a video library at my website.

My new ceramic collection inspired by artist and teacher Bob Ross.


Not many people know I had the experience of a lifetime as an 8th grader. My parents agreed to let me take a painting class from Steve Ross, Bob Ross’ son. It meant I skipped school for a full week — that was cool. I absolutely loved every minute of it.

And then there came a point in my artistic explorations and studies where no longer held the experience in such high regard. I chose to tuck that bit of history away... “I can’t believe I ever made such cliched unrealistic landscape art.”

The television painting series, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, which aired on PBS for over a decade beginning in 1983 has been experiencing a rise in popularity once again. The artist’s calm nature, his wise sayings, reflections on life and art-making, and step-by-step painting demonstrations have become a hit with a whole new generation of viewers.

And this has caused me to look a bit less judgmentally at my early training and introduction into the challenging medium of oil paint. SO much in fact, that in seeing just how very formative Bob and Steve were to my techniques and mindset as an artist, I’ve been inspired to create a new body of work.

I am delighted to soon bring you a bit of scenic beauty and some simple wisdom through a new series of Bob Ross inspired ceramic pieces. The feedback I’ve gotten is already quite positive so watch your email and social media for this collection’s launch date.

How about you? Does Bob’s work and teaching inspire you in some way?


The earth and all that’s upon it belong to the Eternal.

The world is His, with every living creature on it.

With seas as foundations and rivers as boundaries,

He shaped the continents, fashioned the earth.

Who can possibly ascend the mountain of the Eternal?

Who can stand before Him in sacred spaces?

Only those whose hands have been washed and hearts made pure,

men and women who are not given to lies or deception.

The Eternal will stand close to them with blessing and mercy at hand,

and the God who redeems will right what has been wrong.

These are the people who chase after Him;

[like Jacob, they look for the face of God].


City gates—open wide!

Ancient doors—stand back!

For the glorious King shall soon pass your way.

Who is the glorious King?

The Eternal who is powerful and mightily equipped for battle.

City gates—open wide!

Ancient doors—stand back!

For the glorious King shall soon pass your way.

Who is the glorious King?

The Eternal, Commander of heaven’s army,

He is the glorious King.


The VOICE translation


Not all that long ago while browsing a bookstore, I came across a silly little book titled, Crafting with Cat Hair: Cute Handicrafts to Make with Your Cat by Kaori Tsutaya.

“Seriously? Wow. Now I’ve seen it all,” I thought.

There is nothing in this world, not even all that free-floating cat hair that eventually adheres itself to every black piece of clothing I own, which is truly a “waste.” I believe this.

I really believe this when it comes to God — God is constantly gathering up the bits and pieces we have declared useless and making them purposeful. I’ve had a hard time these past months with wanting to declare all of 2020 a huge waste.

When this whole pandemic began, I very much felt paralyzed by fear, the loss of gatherings and events and the disruption to my daily work from home routine now that my children were at home.

If there really are people in this world who find value in the clumps of hair my cats leave everywhere, then I was going to have to begin to look for the positives — the opportunities to be discovered in this new reality.

What is God inviting me to embrace during this time?

What about this pandemic is a gift?

Without the usual peppering of appointments, meetings, obligations throughout the week, I have ample time on my hands. Wide open days have allowed me to intentionally improve my daily routine. I am learning how to best structure my time in a way that follows my energy levels and alertness. I’ve found I quite like alternating creative tasks, writing or administrative tasks with breaks for exercise, reading or leisure. A nice oscillating rhythm to my day is taking shape and really... that is a gift.

2019 had really shown me what was possible in terms of running a studio business and I had looked forward to 2020 being an opportunity to really grow that. I have spent many moments hanging my head in disappointment and grief over the shriveled prospects of showing and selling my wares in person. The repeated question being: “Now what do I do?”

The answer has taken some time to solidify, but I am now turning my focus to the online arena. I had opened my first online shop last fall as a way to allow family and friends at a distance to view and purchase my work and it worked.

Much, much more difficult is building an audience of online followers who I’ve never met in person and who have no ties to me otherwise. To gain their trust and attention will be no easy feat, but it is what I wish to work at for the second half of 2020.

Realizing that I have tremendous potential in sharing my work and message in the larger world is another gift. I have already started locating and utilizing various resources and information to help me on this venture. I would be ever grateful if you would be willing to pray over my efforts. Fear and doubt will be right there in the midst of this challenge, and I will need to lean heavily into both God and those around me.

Those are just two of the ways that I am able to personally declare...

This pandemic has not been a waste.

How have new opportunities opened up for you in 2020?

What gifts have you received?


I took this photo just a few days before the kitten my girls named Zed died. He looks as though he is meowing, but he is real just trying to breath. Little Zed had developed a congestive condition by which he was breathing mostly through his mouth.

Zed spent a lot of time sitting on the sidelines. While his brother and sisters romped around, Zed focused on getting air into his lungs. I would often comment to Madeline and Claire as we watched the kittens, “Poor guy, he’s missing out on his childhood.”

As Zed’s condition continued without getting better or worse, I decided we would take him to the vet (something that isn’t usually done for the farm cats as this can be expensive). He came home having gotten both antibiotic and decongestant shots. That day was particularly hot outside. Zed stayed under a shrub in the front yard most of the day because of his heat absorbing black fur and we all waited for when he might start feeling better. The vet had thought his congestion should improve in just a few hours.

Not much changed as night came and I thought maybe tomorrow will go better now that he had gotten some medication. I was wrong. Instead, I found a Zed who was now clearly dehydrated (I had failed to think about this even though I knew the day before had been swelteringly hot). He must not have been drinking anything. I started giving him some fluids by syringe. He seemed to be going in and out of consciousness while still continually gasping for air. Not very long into my attempts to rehydrate the kitten, I could see that it was too late, he wasn’t going to make it.

I let Zed lay on my lap while I worked in the studio for the afternoon. He would occasionally cry or groan and I would talk softly to him. At suppertime, I laid him out front of the house and his siblings came and laid around him as if they too held the opinion that a dying creature should not be left to suffer alone. They did not wrestle or roughhouse with him.

When we checked on him again after eating, he had passed. We were both relieved and saddened. I was glad his suffering had ended, but incredibly heartbroken to have lost him. I wished I had recognized/anticipated his dehydration a day sooner.

For me, especially now that he is gone, Zed has become a visual metaphor for suffering. Life for Zed had amounted to days and days of suffering.

But can suffering have or be a purpose?

Can suffering be what gives a life meaning?

Is it possible to even see or understand suffering as something to “do well”?

If you are familiar with Victor E. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, this is exactly what he proposes. Having lived three years in German concentration camps during WWII, Frankl discovered that when suffering is at the forefront of a life, it can take on meaning. One can choose to suffer well. This is an accomplishment that God both acknowledges and will reward.

What happened with Zed also gave me a new insight on God. Often when I am suffering in some way, God feels distant. This feeling rises out of a thought that because God is not answering my prayers and removing the suffering He must not be seeing me in my pain.

It struck me the day after Zed died... God watches and cars for us in our pain just as my family and I watched and cared for Zed. I looked at Zed with immense compassion. I mourned his inability to play like his siblings. I went to the front door often to see where he was and how he was doing. I kept him as near as possible during the hours before his death.

This revelation was one where I was able to take something I’ve known about God for a long time — His watching over and caring for us — and understand it through a real world example. Now it clicks. The understanding has reached a new level of depth within me. The Scriptures take on new meaning...

I will never leave you or forsake you. — Hebrews 13:5

“I need to paint Zed,” I thought.

The mixed media collage featuring Zed expresses my own sense of suffering. The song lyrics I’ve chosen from Summer Here Kids by grandaddy makes the piece an open and honest lament.

Having a kitten die here on the farm is nothing new — happens every summer to be honest. Having a kitten die during a not so fun summer of cancelled events and gatherings adds to the grief and disappointment I feel this year.

Praise be to the God who...

hears me cry out in my distress

forgives me of my whining attitude

compassionately watches over me

comforts me in all circumstances

will never leave nor forsake me

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of Zed.


In closing, I want to leave you with two questions. They are not flashy. They will not require you to take a stance. They are not questions that involve moral reasoning or debate. They are simple reminders to be present in the moment and focus on the here and now. They are reminders that we are allowed to feel joy and have fun in the midst of current challenges. They are permission to receive the goodness that comes to us from the Divine Creator.

I pray that the months ahead, whatever might unfold in them, are ones where you are able to take your days as they come with grace and ease. May you know God’s hope and love then and now, friends.

Here are my questions...

What is making you smile right now?

What or who is making you laugh right now?

Created By
Michelle L Hofer