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THE BIRCH TREE LEAF Newsletter Issue 1 - November 2018

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Hello everyone! Welcome to the first issue of my newsletter from Birch Tree Studio. Yay! This feels like a very big deal to be honest. 2018 has been a game changing year for me as an artist with a lot of “firsts” that I’m really proud of. FYI…this newsletter is a tad longer since I’m reviewing the year - future issues shall be briefer. For the first time I’ve:

  • Started a blog
  • Started painting daily
  • Launched a collection of art pieces
  • Launched a line of retail items
  • Was commissioned to create an artwork specifically for a church’s youth worship space - First Evangelical Free Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Completed wall mural and worship art piece at First Evangelical Free Church, Sioux Falls, SD

What’s amazing to me is how long it has taken me to get to this point. What’s also amazing is how this all came about while I’ve been carrying a decent amount of stress and anxiety — something that’s always been a personal struggle, but which in the past year has been particularly overwhelming.

I can easily look at what I'm going through as the serious hardship it is, but instead I’ve worked to use it as catalyst for personal growth and change. When life gets challenging, it can also become incredibly clarifying when you seriously have to ask yourself: Now what do I do? I’ve made decisions and choices I know I wouldn’t have made if I wasn’t facing the circumstances I currently am. I needed to prove to myself I do have something to offer the world and I can push through all that threatens to hold me back in order to deliver.

God has also given me incredible opportunities in 2018, placed some really helpful and encouraging individuals along my path,and has provided me the strength to keep going when I’d rather crawl back into my bed.

365 DAYS

Midnight Warrior, 2018 - dedicated to all who suffer nightmares

I was thrilled to be asked by my high school, Freeman Academy to present a selection of my recent work at a special fundraising event this past spring. As the date approached and I began planning works of art to share, I faced the fact that I really hadn’t produced much of anything for a number of years. It made me really sad. It was more than high time I got my act together and got back to making. I also knew I needed to do this for my own mental and spiritual health in light of going through a rough patch.

My plan was simple. Every day I would get into the studio and paint.

Step 1 — explore color and texture by making small abstractions
Step 2 — explore various forms and imagery of personal interest and incorporate these into the abstractions

The plan worked. In the 30 days leading up to my talk in April, I had completed 6 new pieces that I felt really, really excited about. After seeing the results, it wasn’t hard to then roll my 30-day project into a 365-day challenge. It’s been going strong and with pretty great response from my social media audience too. I’d put off the daily practice of art making WAY TOO LONG. At this point, I’m already telling myself to shoot for 1000 days. I haven’t missed a single day yet and have no intention of letting myself give this up.

LET ME EXPLAIN — AN ARTIST STATEMENT

Most of the new pieces I’ve been producing are part of a series I call The Battle of Enchantment. The series is an ongoing exploration of some of my personal beliefs around the existence of a spiritual realm, the angels that occupy this space and the divine interaction between it and our world.

Recently I completed an entry for the 2019 South Dakota Governor’s Art Exhibit (something I’ve also been needing to do for a very long time). I submitted three pieces from the Battle of Enchantment series and spent some time working up the following artist statement and explanation of key subjects within the series:

Entry pieces for South Dakota Governor's Art Exhibition 2019
Our world is one of enchantment — there is an element which eludes our physical senses yet speaks to our souls. It is the mystery of divine dwelling.

Though life may feel nothing more than a random string of events, to discover meaning woven into such occurrences is to encounter the Divine. The challenge comes in trying to hold onto such findings in the face of reason and science. How does one begin to explain a feeling, a vision, a word or a touch that defies logic? Many persons have had such experiences, but have hidden them deep inside lest they be deemed foolish for believing such miracles can occur. My work in this series is an exploration of the internal battle raging over the adoption of a new perspective on and understanding of the world.

What is the fusion between sacred order and apparent chaos, between spiritual and physical realms? Can we ever share what cannot be explained without receiving reactions of doubt and skepticism?

Enemy: Stoke the fire, toss in your mysteries and questions, stories of miracles and angels, visions and dreams…

Give up on your all-things-are-possible God, Christian…

Can you not understand just how disenchanted this world really is?

You are a fool…and no one will believe you…

What say you, Christian?

Me: No.

Each piece begins with color and texture — studies in chaos. I then contemplate and select various images representative of sacred presence and care to balance the randomness of each color study. The clean lines and stylized forms found in Byzantine and Orthodox Christian art inform my work. I combine these with a technique found in Celtic Christian illumination: to outline/fill the space between forms with tiny red dots — a visual indicator of the life embodied on the page. I use a dot pattern to likewise add a sense of life and divine energy to my work.

The following subjects/themes are part of this series:

Elijah’s Raven — There are many beautiful representations in Christian icon imagery depicting the story of the prophet Elijah having been fed by ravens while hiding in the desert. Elijah raises his hand in anticipation of receiving the bread (a disk reminiscent of a communion wafer) brought by the raven.

In a number of my works, Elijah’s hand is also directly in the path of the raven’s extended wing — the feathers have separated and bear resemblance to knife blades. This stands as a symbol of vulnerability and the potential to be wounded as we extend ourselves into the world and towards others.

Woundedness is naturally something we seek to avoid, and yet ironically it has the potential to serve as a catalyst for tremendous personal growth and maturity — a hidden gift we can receive from the Divine. Now, the disk of bread brought by the raven becomes the representation of that possible gift in the midst of all that we receive as struggle and suffering.

Archangels Michael and Gabriel* — I am ever intrigued by those who testify of angel visitation — they speak of such encounters as bringing them deep peace and encouragement at a time when they needed it most. Pieces featuring one or both of these two angels mentioned by name in Scripture are meant to be a symbol of hope in life’s darkest moments. In the wake of increasing suicide rates, mass-shootings, and social media induced loneliness, it stands as a reminder that no one is ever truly without God’s love or care.

*Michael the Warrior is depicted holding a sword and Gabriel the Messenger/Ambassador is pictured holding a staff and disc bearing an emblem of Christ. Both have a ribbon woven through their hair with ends floating out on either side of the head representative of their constant listening for divine direction.

Hand of the Divine — The hand gestures commonly found in Byzantine icon imagery carry special meanings of blessing and comfort. Just as individuals carry experiences of angel appearances, there are individuals who say they have seen a hand or hands appear at intense moments and extremely critical/scary situations in their lives. These hands provided deep reassurance or even miraculous intervention.

Art remains a way for me to investigate the emotions and thoughts tucked into the deeper recesses of my soul. It is a pathway to personal healing and growth. It provides hope to face continued difficult life circumstances and outcomes. Life does not unfold for any of us without troubles — something Jesus clearly pointed out during his ministry. I find myself leaning into His words following that pronouncement and wanting to give visual testimony through my work: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” The Divine has meticulously woven itself into the fabric of this world. Having discovered this on a personal level, it has become a great source of strength, resiliency and courage.

I wish to convey to others through my art a sense of empowerment and encouragement.

A HORSE AND A PLAN

If we all were asked right now to vote for our very, very favorite creature on this planet, I would without hesitation choose the magnificent animal known as the HORSE. I have been a horse-lover for as long as I’ve been an artist. In fact, for many years the line between the two interests was unidentifiable. I drew and dreamed one day of riding horses in races and steeple chases and wherever else my imagination took me.

Why am I telling you this? Earlier this year I had a plan, a really great plan in my opinion. I was dreaming of seeing one of the greatest horses of all time run his his big sweet heart out. His name is Justify, and this past June he did what few horses have ever done…win the Triple Crown of horse racing here in America. He was then scheduled to end his racing career in November running at the Breeder’s Cup at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

A few months ago, I could hardly wait for the first weekend of November. It was going to be amazing, until…Justify's trainer and owners declared his career over when he injured his ankle during training this summer. And just like that, my super awesome plan came to a screeching halt. Bummer.

Can you relate? Ever set your hopes and dreams on something (maybe a bit bigger than wanting to see a champion horse run a race) only to have it not work out, circumstances not align as you wished they had, or even the whole thing fail miserably? It is only with time and distance (sometimes A LOT of time and distance) we can look back at what seemed like a door slammed in our face or whatever and realize that things ultimately worked for good in spite of the pain and struggle:

  • We found a new way
  • We dug deep for inner strength and courage
  • We discovered our voice
  • We said goodbye to one relationship in order to begin a new one
  • We learned a hard lesson about ourselves
  • We faced a personal weakness or fault
  • We grew in our capacity to extend compassion, forgiveness or grace
  • We learned to trust God for our well-being and future
  • We learned to take others and ourselves a little less seriously
  • We stood at the crossroads and chose a path forward

The past year has proven to be challenging on a personal level, I find myself down a road I hadn’t planned or hoped to be on. Much of that has involved an internal struggle - insomnia, nightmares, depressed feelings, lack of motivation, and lack of confidence in myself. It takes a toll on me. As a result, I’ve made some critical decisions. God continues to remind me that one day I will be able to look back down this road — the one I’d rather not be on right now — and see how it was part of the divine plan for my life.

THE ROAD AHEAD

River Road by Michelle L Hofer - infrared photograph, 2005 - available for purchase at Vintage Vault Floral in Freeman, SD

Lord willing, I am excited about the things I’m planning to work on in the coming months in addition to my daily painting routine.

First up, I’m looking to complete the murals I’ve been contemplating the past several years for my studio space. I’ve got a massive white room that I’m itching to give some personality to while showcasing more of the large-scale work I so enjoy. I plan to document this process on social media. If you don’t already, go follow me on Instagram or Facebook so you can follow along.

Something I’ve done the last number of years is design the Christmas card sent by the conference ministers of Central Plains Mennonite Conference. I’ve accepted the opportunity to create something special and specific for their ministry again this year. In the coming weeks I will begin exploring Scriptures and image ideas to develop an art piece for the cards. It’s a process that very much involves careful listening to the Spirit’s guidance and is one I enjoy.

Come January I will be rolling on set design for the 2019 Freeman Academy Schmeckfest musical, The Boyfriend. Working on theatrical design and scenic painting is something that is like an extended working vacation for me. I love the challenge, the collaboration, and the camaraderie — it’s just so enjoyable and helps winter pass quickly.

There will also be a reboot on my website/blog (by necessity, not by choice) and some changes to my social media accounts. I’ve got a couple of topics rumbling around in my head for blog series — it would be nice to roll one out in 2019 especially once the website/blog has been revamped. Maybe I’ll even get an online store up and running.

Sadly, I have to put my Book of Saints Project on hold for the time being. One just can’t keep all the plates spinning. I’ve got ideas and plans brewing for when the time is right for picking that back up again.

I just want to say thanks to all of you for your continued support, encouragement and enthusiasm. What I do means nothing if there aren’t folks to share it with. God has been kind and gracious to me through all of you.

KEEP GOING

Let’s go back to Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown Winner, for a sec. I totally nerded out reading articles and listened to podcasts about him this summer. The thing about this horse beyond his huge muscular stature are his big heart and laid-back personality. Everyone says how he’s is a rare gem. The crowds never fluster him, the other horses never set him off, rain or sloppy tracks won’t deter him — nope, Justify just walks out there calm, focused and ready to win. His jockey said he’s never had a horse stand so still in the starting gate.

All Justify wants to do is run. He loves it and he thrives even in high-pressure challenging conditions. He ran all three of the Triple Crown races in first place from start to finish. Not bad. Frankly, I want to be like Justify — run my race, do my thing, and not be bothered by the competition or the onlookers or the crappy conditions of the road I’m on.

The though has occurred to me: Justify’s demeanor and determination bear some similarities to a certain New Testament writer…the apostle Paul (not that you can really compare a horse to a man):

“I can be content in any and every situation through the Anointed One who is my power and strength.” — Philippians 4:13 Voice

“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” — Philippians 3:14 NIV

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8

“Finally, brothers and sisters, fill you minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praise worthy.” — Philippians 4:8 Voice

The one piece of advice resonating with Justify’s example, Paul’s writings and divinely reappearing in various ways during my recent struggles is this: KEEP GOING. Two simple words that have been popping up everywhere for me. Some days I find I have to repeat them to myself many times. But I have faith that Christ will see me through to the very end whenever and wherever that is.

Prior to the final race of the Triple Crown, I made a snarky little graphic for my phone lock screen (because I can be weird that way) — a reminder to keep on keepin’ on. It’s a picture of Justify with the caption: losers quit when they’re tired — winners quit when they’ve won.

I’m in this to win iT.
I’m gonna fight for that glorious crown.
LET’S ROLL.
Created By
Michelle L Hofer
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