…as I talked about celebration I was looking out the window. I could see the trees covered in snow and they were all glittery in the sun. I kept thinking that they looked like a giant party. A celebration of life. And I had this overwhelming download of feeling in that moment. I felt deeply connected to the reality that I, by the fact that I am breathing here now, am a joyous celebratory being.
I feel so lucky to get to be part of a world where there are things as magical as horses. Truly, these big majestic creatures are just so gentle and intelligent and yet so powerful. It is no wonder there is so much myth, legend and lore attached to them. I grew up in the horse country of Kentucky. I learned to ride by sitting on the back of a horse…
"Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards" - Soren Kierkegaard
Sometimes I am taken aback by how beautiful the world around me is, by my daughters laughter, and how fun it is to watch her with friends and then other days I find myself searching for something to spark my interest to capture.
I haven't been keeping up with posting the weekly images from my project here on the blog. So I am going to post several week at a time to catch up.
I have learned a lot about myself during the now 13 weeks since I started this project. I am constantly surprised by being a creative. How sometimes you don't feel inspired or creative at all. Some days the idea of finding something worthy to use as my one good image from the day is beyond daunting. And I feel like I failed myself. On the other hand, when I started I didn't know how in the world I would keep up. How I would find the time to take more photos (on top of my single mom running a business schedule) and then edit them too! What I have discovered though is that, despite the struggle some days, I really love carrying my camera everywhere again. When I was a teen I did this. It is what made me fall in love with photography. It taught me how to be quiet and wait. To see the world silently. To really look and SEE things and appreciate them. To slow down the world.
So yeah, I love this. I am wondering if I will stop after the year is over. I haven't hit my super busy season so I am not sure yet, but either way I love this challenge.
Here are weeks 6-8. More to come soon!
In dreams- Jen
Here it is. The second week in January. I have quickly realized this will be a great way to record all the things that happen in a year, the mundane, the hilarious, the walks to school, the fits of giggles, the regular sunsets up here on the Eastern Prom, the messy house, the games we play and much more. But also, the passage of time. How things are just the same in our daily routines and yet time passes so quickly regardless.
There are so many times every year that I realize I am so much more than a photographer. I am the secret keeper. The observer, the orchestrator, the calm presence or the one who stirs the pot for laughter! I hold your hand and tell you that you are indeed worth it. That it's ok to give yourself permission to celebrate yourself. That it's ok that your family fights in front of me. That it's ok that your children won't sit still.
Part of my goal for The Gardenia Project is to not only help women feel empowered by sharing their stories, but to shine a light on the realities of our lives that we are often too afraid or embarrassed to talk about publicly. I want to change the dialog. I think that by sharing our stories (however dark they may seem to us) they will loose their power over us. Things that are hidden remain big and scary. Things that are shared remind us of the ways we can connect to each other, that we are not alone.
Then the realization that this is it. This moment. This chocolate batter. This cake. This child.
This is the best. The best that life has to offer. I have it. It is mine. It is here. And now. So I savor this. I smell the rich dark chocolate, hear the harmonies of the background song, listen to my daughter chattering on. Drink it in. And smile to myself. I totally win.
This morning I am supposed to be finishing up a presentation for my networking group. A group of people that I have known for over a year now. They aren't my closest friends, but a wonderful group of people that I know pretty well. And they all know me. They are kind and open, and I have presented my photography to them in the past several times. I realize I am terrified to present my new project to them. The one that I am so excited to be creating.
I wonder why I feel compelled to write down what happened today. Then I think about the girls. And the one amazing little boy. I think about the details that maybe they will never know. Unless we grown ups remember and share. So I thought if I could write down a few moments from today they won’t be forgotten. I hope that will be the case.
When I looked back at my goals for 2015 I saw that I wrote down that I wanted to be brave. When I saw that I stopped in my tracks. I truly had no idea what that was going to mean for me. But man was that my word for this year. I have had to be brave in all the ways.
Sometimes you look back on a year and wonder at the sheer magnitude of it all. How did I make it through all that sh**?! 2015 was one of those years. But at the end of it all while sitting here writing and looking back...I discovered something. That I am so damn hard on myself. Sound familiar? I am always finding ways to say I wasn't "enough". When looking back I am pretty proud of how I handled the things that happened this year.
I also know I am damn lucky and looking back at the last year was a great reminder of that too. I hope everyone takes the time too look back and makes a list of the things they did right, not just things they need to do better. Especially all of you that are so hard on yourself. Like me. My friend sent me this great blog post today. It really helps put things in perspective. Thank you to Brianna Wiest for the great article :
I went to visit my mom in February. I saw her for the first time in 15 years and my daughter got to meet her too. Thank god I had my dear friend Misty with me. Oh the stories.
Just after I got home I found out that the woman who has guided me for the last 19 years, well, her chemo treatment had stopped working. It was the beginning of saying goodbye. She stayed happy and full of love and life up until the moment she left us. I am so grateful for her unselfish, Buddhist like, silly, sweet ways. They kept us all laughing through it all. I will never cease to be amazed at her grace, humor, and willingness to say goodbye peacefully.
In the late spring I met up with a mentor for my photography. I had wanted and asked her for help. Her new business turned out to be serendipitous to what I needed. I ended up hiring her to completely move my focus. She and her team helped me and pushed me to define my path more clearly. My new website and brand launch came the same week that my god mother slipped into the last days of her life. It all felt so crazy. How could I launch at the same time as watching her leave? And yet, I knew she was so proud of me and it is what she would want. A beginning and an end all at the same time. Oddly, the way life seems to work. I knew I had to continue moving forward.
I pushed my creative boundaries and loved the results. I saw that I am clearly supposed to be working with women more. It's tough to narrow your focus, but also just makes sense. I will not stop working with families, but will focus my marketing more on women and girls. I walked away from every session knowing how I want to do more and different and more and different. (:
I made a video of me working! Well, the 16 hoops team made it for me. But I got brave and did it. It really shows what my 'Dream Sessions' are about. Here is a link in case you missed it.
My daughter started second grade and we played a lot. I was there for her as much as possible. I was there for friends and I asked for help more this year. I relied on people. This feels big and brave too. It's so hard to ask for help and accept it. Because it's one way to admit that we aren't perfect and that we can't go it alone. Scary stuff, no?
That is the nutshell version of what has happened over the last year. I have spent so much time with a heavy heart. And yet, still somehow trying to focus on the work that I love and that drives me.
My new word / phrase for 2016 that I wrote down was to 'Be Seen'. I have no clue what that will mean, but I am excited to start another chapter in my life. I know that I carry the spirit of Catherine with me wherever I go. And, I have a the most lovely loyal friends and family. I have been really blessed (though I don't love that work I am at a loss for another that means the same) by my wonderful clients. They have trusted me to create something meaningful and powerful for them. To capture their essence, to tell their story, to help them see who they are. I am beyond grateful for them.
For those of you out there I have yet to work with, well, I can't wait to meet you. You have your story. And I want to hear it.
Now off for a run before I pop the cork on some champagne! Cheers!!
In dreams- Jen
I sat in one of the five green fuzzy cloth covered chairs in the front row. We were outside near a giant oak tree and row upon row of white headstones as far as the eye could see. As I stared at the black box of her ashes I had this realization. This is one place I would never have imagined myself to be in my life. In the front row saying goodbye to my god mother while sitting next to my brothers and father. I wasn't born into family. And yet, here I was. Exactly where I was supposed to be.
I guess the lesson is one my birth mother taught me that I love. She always said "You never know where life will take you." She was right about that. When I was first adopted by my god family twenty years ago I had no idea what direction it would take me in my life. I knew they were amazing people. They were the kind of family that you always hope for. Not perfect, but damn close. Coming from my world of chaos, the total instability of having moved over 60 times, and some real scary stuff these people were just so easy. Years of stability and happiness with this new family (and my friend family) has shown me that these kind of people really do exist. I wonder sometimes how I got so lucky. But then I realize too that I wanted and searched and was open to the opportunity when it came along.
The realization that my life could have gone so differently was so apparent yesterday. I could have not met Catherine. Then I would not have watched her go through cancer twice. And I wouldn't have had to lose her. I wouldn't have spent the last few months in a deep sadness. A place where it feels like there is constantly a hole in my heart and in my life. I could have avoided all this pain and not watched her body and life, all placed in a small box, be lowered into the ground. I always had a choice. I chose the pain.
The fear that I had growing up feels like something that is palpable. A thing I could hold onto and keep with me everywhere I went. And boy did I keep it. I operated from that place of fear for many years and still often do. Though it is so much better now. To be taught over these many years by my god mother all the ways to accept yourself, to face pain and fears then choose to use them to grow, and to learn to trust, has really has changed me. I believe that you always have a choice. In every part of your life. You can chose to have an open heart and trust that there are good people and that life is a good place or you can chose to remain closed off, fearful, and ultimately alone. I am grateful that I chose to trust and to grow. Even though I have had to say goodbye. I agree with the age old saying that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
When I was 16 I found a box of photos beneath my moms bed. She had always told me there weren't any photos of me growing up. In a long series of events I ended up with just a few of those images. The rest are gone. I am grateful for the ones I have.
I do think all the things we go through in life shape who we are and the choices we make. I know that part of the motivation for becoming a photographer in the first place was in large part to give families their memories and history. To give them beautiful images that show them their existence is important. That they matter. That they are loved. Even if the images are only for them. Self love being just as important to me and my journey and something I feel compelled to encourage in others.
Now my photography is beginning to morph. Turning into a dream world more and more. I am excited by the journey. And I am still afraid. Afraid of failure. And of the falling down. But less afraid than I used to be. I know that the fear will happen. It's guaranteed. I also know that any failure, fear, or pain is something I can chose to use to create and to grow. And that makes me really excited to keep trying.
I guess from here I go forward. Feeling fear everyday. But also feeling the love that I have been given. Exactly where I am supposed to be.
In dreams - Jen
As I drove up to the house I thought about 19 years of walking in those barn doors. I wondered if today would be the last time I would see her. Each day as I walked out I would think it again. Until it was true. I had, we all had, plenty of time to prepare. Sometimes cancer is good like that. No matter how prepared you are though, death is so god damn final. Catherine lived well beyond the few months they gave her 3 and a half years ago. And man did she live well. She told us all that her life was so full and she had no fear of dying. She lived every moment full of laughter, intense love, and happiness. I am not sure I will ever meet someone again who approached every person she met like they were potentially her new best friend.
I learned more from this woman than I could ever write in a single blog post. She taught me what real acceptance, for yourself and for others truly is. Not that fake - you should be nice to everyone you meet- kind of thing. Catherine saw through people. She saw that every single person had a story and that it was important. That we should treat each individual like we would want to be treated. She had friends all over the globe.
What solidified that for me, yet again, was the end of her life. I watched as people poured into her home. Those that I knew and people who's names I had heard over the years. They brought food, hugs, warmth and tears. They sat with her and held her hand. We told stories and laughed. So very many people. There there were a few new people too of course. Ones she had just met, but she had so much of an effect on them that they needed to come say goodbye as well. She left us completely full of love. Given back to her by all of those she gave it to so freely herself.
The whole family enjoyed the story of how we met. Catherine and Bob had come to an anniversary dinner at a restaurant and I was their waitress. Catherine said I had amazing cheekbones and she would like to sculpt me since she was a sculptor. (UH?!?!) Fortunately, my close friend was the manager there and he grew up with her sons. He told me they were wonderful. I went to her home and the rest is history. A few years later they formally adopted me as my god parents. We always joked that Catherine 'picked me up', typical of her ability to make friends with people while she shopped at the grocery store.
For the last 19 years I spent holidays decorating the house with Catherine, helped the family throw the big holiday party with the legendary chocolate cake!, went to countless dinners, sat and talked for hours, learned more things than I could ever recount, was part of her sons lives and weddings, and named my daughter after her.
Catherine's sculptures are a story unto themselves. She created a nativity, though she would say she didn't create it, that it came through her. This nativity was unlike anything most of us have ever seen. It takes place in a homeless shelter with people from every walk of life. People with all kinds of disabilities, a gay family, a mixed race family, a drunk, many more, and an empty chair for you the observer. It was her way of showing that it didn't matter who you were, that you, we, are all part of one big family of humanity. There are a few portraits of the nativity on her site here Catherine Stakel . com <- click on her name.
She continued to work until her last days with her project of creating a sudoku of humanity. Those busts are so captivating that as the woman from the funeral home walked through the studio she asked about them because the were so amazing.
It is so hard to stuff this relationship into one blog post. But I felt compelled to write. I wanted to share, my thanks, my loss, and her gift with others. We are all part of humanity and these are the things that connect us together. We, as a race, are all the same in some ways no matter where we live. Our connection to each other is through understanding and kindness. Again, something that this mother figure taught me so well.
Catherine gave me so much. But the one piece that may be the biggest for me is about family. That family are the people you choose. That there really is something called unconditional love. I try every day to live up to the person she taught me to be. And while she is not with my physically she will always stay with me. In her mystical presence.
I am truly beyond grateful that I still have my father figure, Bob, to take care of me. And her amazing sons, their wives, and their 5 children. They are all part of her and I am lucky to part of this family.
If you knew her (or not) this was one cause that she felt strongly about. A school in Bangladesh (that she visited) and which has grown over the years. If you feel so compelled...
In lieu of flowers contributions can be made to Catherine’s favorite cause:
The Bacha School
c/o Sr. Miriam Perlowitz
P.O. Box 317
Maryknoll, NY 10545
I will see you in my dreams, sweet Catherine. - Jen
When I first met with Geneve (who just re-did the website) about making some changes I don't really think I quite knew the journey I was about to take. I think those can be the best kinds of travels. I knew I wanted to make changes. To move forward. I knew that my work was changing and shifting and I wanted feedback and a mentor. I think Geneve saw an opportunity to give me something amazing. She knew what she could do for me long before I saw it.
So started the process of learning about what my brand was really, what I do in connecting to others, and how I want to share my heart. It's so scary to put yourself out there. As an artist you feel like your heart is always outside of you. I feel so passionate about what I do, but I think my website has always just been a slideshow of portraits....because that is what we photographers know how to design. (:
When I first saw the new website I was teary. I had this emotional reaction to my own portraits. Geneve had pulled my own words and thoughts and created this amazing emotional place. I feel like finally my work is presented to you in the way it always should have been. Not to say that this site won't change. I believe it will be in a constant state of flux and growth. And that is wonderful. But I am so proud of what I am sharing. I think that is how you should always feel about your work, but I cannot begin to express what a difference it made for me to hire someone else to do it.
It would seem that this post has turned into a giant plug for 16 hoops. And that is just fine by me. The process has been both directed and organic. They truly listened to what I wanted. They designed around my dreams, portraits and words - not their own. What I have now is an extension of myself. I hope that you enjoy learning more about my work, the process, my products, and why I am motivated to give you art that you treasure.
I can't wait to see where this journey takes me next. I look forward to seeing you along the way. In the meantime reach out and give me feedback. Tell me all the things. Or call me for coffee. You know how I love to talk . (:
In dreams- Jen
The dichotomy that is being a girl in America with all the elements of pressure that it entails. That is what I want to explore in a continuing series of portraits with girls of all ages.
The messages that we grow up with that inform us on the shoulds of being a girl...be pretty, be chaste, be smart, be passionate, be a career girl, be true, be a mother, be tender, be strong, be yourself.
Pursuing what it means to receive and translate all those messages into creating who we are from day to day. How to throw them off or embrace them depending on what's truly inside of us. The fear that comes from, so many things, like standing up and saying no. The drive that comes from endless possibilities.
I seek to find and reflect back the ideas and emotions surrounding these conflicting demands from our culture. I want to explore these ideas through portraits of girls in a storytelling way. I haven't figured out my exact path. I tend to work more as I go along. I have ideas I will try and fail at and will share what I can as the process unfolds. I also still, always, wish to creates works of art. Art with emotion is how I would describe it.
Here are two different directions a recent session with my own daughter took. I have been planning on portraits with this red backdrop and a red dress. Charlie and I went into the studio to play and she directed much of what happened. She is like a wee sage to me. She is clear on what she wants and feels. And yet, I still see in her the mixed feelings from everywhere that influence her too.
May these images capture your imagination and heart. Each frame is it's own story and dream.
Call me if you want to join this project and create art with me. 207-318-0467
In Dreams - Jen
Yah for toothless grins!
This is my whole life. This daughter of mine. I want to show her what it means to be a whole person. A real woman of courage, confidence, and grace. I think this post explains why I was drawn to glamour (makeover) photography and what I seek to do with it.
Domestic abuse – a tricky subject for a laundry list of reasons. We all have our take on pretty much everything about life, from religion and politics to the psychology of why people do the things they do. Everything can be approached from so many perspectives and opinions and, some people find that they don't talk about a lot of these subjects openly. I can understand why.
Then there are the subjects that I think we would benefit from talking about but we still don't. Subjects like mental and emotional health issues, and domestic abuse. I think these subjects are hard for people. There is a huge stigma that goes along with all of these subjects. You know, the subjects that makes you cringe when they come up.
I want to talk about domestic violence and abuse. I could get into statistics of victims of domestic abuse. They are always appalling. How about I just share my story. Because we all have a story. For those that have experienced domestic abuse our stories are ones of fear coupled with courage, with a strength of spirit that is a sheer force of will. It is our stories that I want to capture and celebrate in my photography.
Here is my courage, my story- in the nutshell version. By the time I was five my mother was marrying her third abusive husband. Though he never hit me, he did count how many sheets of toilet paper I used before I was allowed to flush, among other random insanities. After many failed attempts to leave, my mother gathered her strength and left for the last time. That time he chased us down, tore the car hood open, and ripped out wires as we were driving away.
He threatened to kill us many times. So we lived in hiding. For 6 months we lived with friends and made plans to move across the country. He found us shortly after we moved. He followed us, found our neighbors and waved the gun at them. He was serious. He was going to kill us. He stalked us everywhere we went. Hid in bushes outside friend’s houses. Left gifts on our doorstep. And, generally just scared the living shit out of me. We lived like this for an amount of time that, for a child, seemed like an eternity.
Eventually he gave up. My mom married again. He left our lives. But his memory stayed with me for much of my adult life. For over half my life I slept with nightmares that someone was trying to kill me in some horrible way.
Then there is my own mother. Abusive herself. The kind of bat shit, lock herself in her bedroom for weeks at a time, screaming fits of rage, cut off all her hair, periodically suicidal, beat the shit out of you, and tell you that you will never be loved kind of lady.
I grew up with no confidence at all. My mother and her husband’s had me living in fear and hating myself quite thoroughly. Moving beyond that was an immense amount of work. Sharing this out loud is a very scary thing to do. I worry, like everyone does, about being judged. Even though intellectually I know this was all outside of my control.
Now I am a photographer and I work with women whose courage and strength of spirit still prevail. Through portraits I work to capture who they are - inside and outside. There are some clients though that come to me who truly don't realize how beautiful they are because they are too afraid to really look. All too often they can't see it. For those who find their way to me, it's like taking another step in the healing journey. Maybe no one has ever taken the time to nurture them; to look them in the eye and tell them they matter... to see that they are beautiful and lovable. That is something I understand. I have had clients cry when they see their portraits and realize how beautiful they are inside and out. I feel so fortunate to be given the chance to capture the grace, wonder and fun of being female, while showing women that it is ok to see themselves as beautiful as well as strong.
I have created a life that fills me with contentment. I get to play with my daughter, have work I love doing, read my favorite books, drink wine with my friends, and make enchiladas and cake (my favs)! I am very fortunate. I have known for some time that I want to give back and been working on what that would look like. The people in my life who did not protect me or hurt me are my past, but they no longer define me. My story is so much more than my past. My story now will include women who invite me into their life as they change their story.
From January 1, 2015 moving forward, 10% of all profits from Radiance Sessions will go into a fund for women who have experienced abuse to come have a Radiance Makeover Portrait Session. If you are interested in donating to the charity please email me at email@example.com. If you know of someone you would like to nominate for the charity please talk to them first and then get in touch with me. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that it has given you something to think about and that maybe you too will become part of an open dialog about domestic abuse.
Love who you are. Right now.
PS: I owe a big thank you to my friend-family who read and edited this and who encouraged me to share it.
I have been a reptile girl since I was 5. I used to catch blue belly lizards in California and keep them as pets. I moved onto frogs, and snakes in West Virginia and would make my step dad pull over in the car so I could rescue the turtles that came out to walk on the roads during the rain storms.
I have no clear idea why reptiles have been my thing. And to be fair I really love all animals. I used to think I would grow up to work in a zoo. I'm a sucker for anything with a heartbeat really.
For some reason I have had snakes on the brain in the last little while. They came up repeatedly for some time and suddenly I knew I needed to do self portraits with snakes. I have never attempted to do self portraits nor been interested in them previously.
The irony that snakes represent the duality of good and evil is not lost on me. Growing up in a very strict cultish religion and having recovered from that, I have long felt that duality in myself. Snakes are also symbolic of both wisdom and death. The argument has been made that as the only significant predators of primates snakes were the symbol of danger and death that so many humans still are terrified of. Also they are therefore the symbol of death and rebirth.
That rebirth and transformation symbolism is where I found myself drawn in. As someone who identifies with the idea of rebirth, from leaving a religion I grew up in and then in other ways since then, it seemed an appropriate symbol for me to use.
As a, do I dare call myself, "creative" I have found myself torn. Torn in looking for more time, for relationships, making a living, trying to be a good mother and finding a creative outlet. I feel many others must know this feeling too. Anyone who wants to create in this world and also needs to be a mom first, have friends, cook dinner, pay bills, watch movies, paint the house, and shop for sneakers...feels torn. How do I find the time and energy for what I want to be and how I want to create? I feel resentful at times for the lack of time and all the demands on me. So I jumped into this session headlong, like most things I do. I followed the Nike slogan to " Just do it ".
It was way harder that I could have imagined. First I was terrified. Not of the snakes. In fact once I was holding them I relaxed completely. A nice side effect. No, the idea of taking portraits of myself was way more intimidating that I had expected. Also, everything was outside my control and moving fast. Tripod. Tethered camera to computer. Stylist. Snake wrangler. Friend to push the button every time I said so. There were about 500 photos of me talking or laughing or generally looking like a goob. Which is fine since I decided the out takes are some of my favorite shots! They crack me up. (: (I will post those soon too)
But the session taught me a lot. I learned that shooting with animals is a whole different ball game. It's all outside your control and you have to roll with it. That portraits with snakes can look cheesy really easily. (I have to work on that one) And that just doing something is the way to go. Because now I am so proud that I did it! That I did something that I wanted to but was intimidating. And now my head is full of ideas for further sessions. I want to work with more animals and more clients that want to do this with me. I feel inspired all over again. I know what I would change and what worked. Working with snakes was awesome. And I'm ready for the next venture. Whatever that may be. So... screw having too little time. I'm just going to plan the next project. Who's with me? (;
PS- A huge thank you to Dominic Kane who breeds snakes and brought them to me and patiently helped out. And my stylist and friend Stephanie Dudley of
who is an amazing stylist and just rolled with the snakes!
In life and love - Jen