Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Special Gift From Creator

Bald Eagle, the road from Sheridan back to Jentel

The Only Indians I Ever Saw in Sheridan, Wyoming

Safely encased in bronze:

Bird Woman (Above) and Sacajawea (Below)

Sheridan, Wyoming

"I am sorry for that evil man.  I feel shame that he came from my country.  I am sorry for that Sheridan."--Damien Dempsey, "Choctaw Nation"

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Public Reading in Alamosa

On February 5th I had the privilege of reading before a lively crowd of 50 folks in the Alamosa, Colorado City Council Chambers.

The reading and reception heralded the advent of Alamosa's new literary journal, Messages from the Hidden Lake, founded by the Friends of the Southern Peaks Public Library. 

The Friends threw the authors, artists, and photographers represented in the beautiful, thick tome a lovely reception replete with plenty of food and an awards ceremony emceed by the Mayor! 

Below are photographs of yours truly with said Mayor, receiving the "Best Adult Fiction" award, and with head librarian Salai Taylor, our dear friend and a vital part of our extended community on the land, and spousal unit/head cheerleader, Mark Schneider.  

To purchase a copy of Messages from the Hidden Lake, please go to note that they are also currently accepting submissions of poetry, short fiction, photographs and other artwork for Volume 2.  They accept work from children and teens, as well as adults. 

Writer's Block

Three days left here at Jentel and I've a torrent of emotions swirling around inside.  I don't want to leave this amazing place, but I really miss my husband, my community, and our land; I'm proud of what I've accomplished but feel I could do so much more if only I stayed longer; I am rested but exhausted, wanting a break from writing yet slightly terrified about re-entering society and the workload we face on the land this warm season. 

Into this maelstrom yesterday strode Writer's Block.  The cow.

Yesterday, sometime mid-afternoon, I hit the wall.  You know, the one you hit after you've been running too hard for too long, or biking too hard for too long, or strawbale-house building too hard for too long?  At least that was my story, and I stuck to it for a good 12 hours.  "I have senioritis," I moaned to Danielle, my sister in community.  She wrote back, "Do you really miss emptying humanure buckets?"

Um, no.  Thanks for the reminder.

This morning, whilst journaling, knowing I had to get back in the saddle this morning and not waste my precious remaining time here it occurred to me that the wall I hit was not THE wall I thought I'd hit, the "you've been going at this too hard; you need to go watch Firefly for two hours" wall.  Nope, I hit the eyewall:  the wall that separates the eye of the hurricane from the main part of the storm.  I finally figured out, if you're stuck in the eye of a hurricane (which all writers are because the hurricanes are, of course, of our own making) there's only one way out.  You guessed it:  through the eyewall, and from there, through the rest of that miserable storm. 

In other words, "no one here gets out alive."

For me to move forward, I have to quit with the bs, and move from that clear, blue skied place where I sat and witnessed all the muck through the eyewall (where the most violent winds live) and get deep into it again.  I'm not looking forward to this, but I know it's the only way out.  

I've got a piece I'm working on in which I try to explain this a bit better.  If I get it done soon, I'll post it.

Love to you all.  Back to work now.  Best go find my galoshes. 

Required Reading Part 2: White Readers Meet Black Authors

A few Decembers back my friend Carleen Brice (Orange Mint & Honey, Children of the Waters) started "Give a Book By a Black Author to Someone Who is Not Black" Month.  Her rationale was simple: there's a tremendous amount of great writing out there by black authors, and everybody should be reading it...not just black folks.  But, with a few notable exceptions, black writers are not well-known to white and other non-black readers.  Gosh, I wonder why that might be...?

Out of this has grown Carleen's phenomenal blog "White Readers Meet Black Authors" which is simply one of the best literary blogs out there.  It's well-maintained, multimedia, always'll have a great time when you stop by while expanding your mind and your world.  Click on the title of this post to get you there, or just go to (best URL EVER!). 

So get your butt on over there right now!  Go on.  I'll wait. 

Required Reading: Nancy Stohlman's Searching for Suzi

From the Mid-West Book Review, which gave it 5 stars!

“The exploitation has to be turned around on itself at some point. "Searching for Suzi" tells the story of Natalie, an ex-stripper who reflects on her life as she returns to Omaha Nebraska where she grew up. Discussing the obsession with appearance and the concept of sexy that ranges from the glamour and stripping industry down to childhood beauty pageants, "Searching for Suzi" is a fascinating and very highly recommended read.”

Click on the the title of this post for information on how to order from Monkey Puzzle Press. Support small presses!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The View From My Bedroom Porch

Moonrise, Moonset

The Artist Studios at Jentel

For all you artists out there thinking of applying to Jentel ....... get your own kitchen, dining room, and bathroom, in addition to the one in the house........

Each studio comes with it's own bed, desk, sink, and window.....

.......plenty of workspace and plenty of good lighting for work at all hours of the day or night....

....a printer for you print-makers (and dancing elves), and a drying rack thingie for drying your prints
 (Fanny is not included.  Sorry.)....

....and all this makes for.....

....happy productive artists, like Gail Grinnell, Elizabeth Emery, Yann Novak, and Fanny Retsek!

Update from Jentel

Hi Everybody,

Sorry to take so long to write.  I've actually been busy...writing!  Now, there's a concept!  Writing at a writing residency--who knew?

I've been making good progress editing, editing, and re-editing stories; now I'm in the throes of constructing first drafts of the long pieces that will complete my collection, hopefully by the fall.  I've submitted stories to a few a journals, both paper and online, and one longer piece to a Glimmer Train contest.  Please keep your fingers crossed for me!

Big news on the steepening of my bloggatista learning curve:  I finally figured out how to make pages.  Very exciting.  See all those things in the upper right hand corner, where it says "about the writer"?  Those are my pages.  One of the great blessings of being here is exposure to artists further along in their careers than I.  They've had lots of good advice for me, including the radical notion that I apparently need a website.  Well, perhaps some day when this blog grows up, it will become a website.  But for now, my geeky adolescent can at least afford the rudimentary furniture necessary (supposedly) for a working artist's internet studio.
My dear friend Kim (Transier) was asking how "Jentel Presents" went.  Well, I'm so glad you asked!  It went great, and I've heard rumor that Yann Novak, one of my brother artists here, has photos of me reading, though I've yet to see evidence of this.  If they are terrible he has promised to delete them without showing me, bless him.

The evening was beautiful and a lot of fun.  The good folks here at Jentel put out a nice spread at the reception they hosted for us at Sheridan Community College, and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with some of the artists, writers, patrons and other assorted glitterati that make up the Northeastern Wyoming art scene.

Folks proved a kind and receptive audience.  I read "Negative Space," which I think I am done reading publicly now, eventhough it's the only story I have that works for a ten minute slot.  I didn't realize until that night that I published it ten years ago!  Time to update the portfolio, n'est-ce pas?

The other artists' presentations were fascinating--I will devote a separate post or set of posts to them--and my brother-writer Zachary Watterson read his magnificent essay about teaching in prisons, the basis of his forthcoming memoir.  It was a beautiful evening.

I also wanted to update you on the "to-do list fast," which is officially over.  It was like going to a resort.  I think I feel more refreshed than after a real fast.  I got deep into a blissed out place with my writing, while simultaneously taking whatever time was needed to rest, run, walk in the sunshine, and nosh.  I've done some fun cooking, including participating in a delicious potluck dinner party with the other artists last weekend, where we first shared our work with one another.  I've also begun designing a teeny, tiny strawbale studio I hope someday soon to build on the land.

I managed not to feel neurotic at all without a to-do list, which shocked me (given that it's pretty rare I don't feel neurotic about something), but that is probably how it should be at a residency where one theoretically has no responsibilities whatsoever.  But now, it's the last week, finals week, the time of all-nighters and knuckle-downers, and cleaning the bathroom for no apparent reason, and I've a list as long as my arm and twice as fat. 

I'm going to download some photos now and see if I can figure out  how to post them without making a complete mess of them.   Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Yuxweluptun draws the line

Check out this article from the Vancouver Sun about this bad-assed Coast Salish artist who hasn't compromised his vision to make it in the world of modern art!

I was particularly impressed with his take on Guernica! 

"Jentel Presents" March 2 in Sheridan, WY

Hey Everybody!

On March 2 I'll be presenting my work in Sheridan at a public reading/art show.  Please click on the title of this post to see a nice photo of my fellow artists and me (okay, I look tired and needed some makeup and a blowdryer), and the info about the event.

If you happen to be in Sheridan, please stop by!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Residency at Jentel



Big Horn Mountains

Big Horn Mountains in the Distance
The view from the front of the residence

Fasting from the To-Do List

All my life I've striven to be as efficient and productive as possible. I judge myself, relentlessly, by what I accomplish, produce, have to show for myself at the end of the day to justify taking up space on the planet. This has never made me happy, and really, has probably made me more neurotic and less efficient than most every other mental illness I possess.

So I've decided that one of my goals during my Jentel residency is to be inefficient, for one reason if none other: inefficient people don't commit genocide. To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, to succeed in committing genocide one must get up very early in the morning.

I haven't been getting up early, and today, I napped. I didn't mean to, didn't want to (I don't nap well as a general rule--never have--I'm afraid I'm missing something). But after lunch I was feeling woozy, rather dizzy and ill, so I lay down. I was well-caffeinated, as I always am by that point in the day, so I was certain I wouldn't fall asleep. I promptly did.

I woke 90 minutes later feeling guilty as hell. For what you ask? Well, resting. And in the middle of the day no less, when there's work to be done. I mean who do I think I am, Mrs Astor or something? (Oh my God; I'm channeling my mother).

I think I am a tired woman fighting a bug. Unfortunately, in the minefield that is my mind, that's not good enough. Not for napping in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Not when there's work to be done.

Now, there is a part of my brain that is sufficiently not crazy that I recognize that maybe this is kind of a little bit crazy. And that part of my brain notices something else: it is winter.

In our new life on the land, we have been trying to live more seasonally, which is to say in the warm seasons you bust your ass, you work crazy hours all day and very hard, and in the winter you rest, in no small part so that you will actually have a self to work hard when the earth thaws.

This is the last month of deep rest I can expect till November. The fine folks who host this residency have already told us we should feel no pressure here to produce or perform, essentially that we should view our residency as a time to rest, recuperate, dream, play, do whatever we please, within the limits of decorum of course. Or at least, if we're going to go outside the limits of decorum we should "keep it in town." These good people recognize that creativity is an expression of play and imagination and does not follow a 9-5 schedule.

I told myself when I got up this morning (after putting in 12 hours yesterday) that today was a day off. Unfortunately, the working definition of "day off" in our culture is, of course, a day to get everything else done that you didn't get done during the week.

Enter my class politics. "Oh, how nice for you, Ms. Privileged, Ms. You-Call-Yourself-Working-Class? YOU don't have to work all day on your days off because YOU are being spoiled rotten for contributing no more to the planet than your stupid imaginary characters, your words. You're not sweating, not breaking your back for your family, or the people, or some evil master. Why are YOU entitled to rest?"

It's fun, isn't it, being me?

So, I've decided to fast. Not from food of course (hello, it's me). And certainly not from caffeine. From to-do lists. For the next week I am not permitted to make or follow a to-do list (of course, I have plenty of them hanging from the bulletin board--overall, general, organized by category, organized by day, yadda, yadda, yadda...really, it's impressive). The two to-do lists I have for today, sitting to my left, are getting crumpled up and thrown away even though most of what is on them hasn't been done yet.

I can't tell you how much anxiety this causes me. You see, I have a terrible memory. Have my entire life. My mother said it was because my head was in the clouds, my husband says it's because I have too much on my plate, a physician who hasn't known me long would probably say it's because I'm approaching menopause. I don't know what it is, just that it is. To-do lists give me the illusion that I will not get in trouble for forgetting to do something.

Since at age 42 an unemployed feminist without children should not, in my opinion, feel fear about the possible repercussions of forgetting to do something, I'm trying out this little decolonization step.

My theory is this: if it's important, if it's something I want to do, something I need to do, I'll do it. If it fits those categories and I don't do it, maybe it's because I'm exhausted, or sick, or ran out of time, and not because I'm inherently defective.

It's partly about trying to live in the moment, to be a more natural person, "out of my head" in a good way. And it's partly about trying to accept myself for being rather than doing.

I also have a theory that, sans to-do list, I will actually be very productive. I just won't remember from one moment to the next what I've been producing.

As for those things I don't want to do? Well, if I've given my word, I'll do it, mostly because I really dislike the person I am--a person I can't trust, and neither can you--when I give my word and I don't do it. But someday, in the next year or two, I hope to be a mother as well as the caregiver of dairy goats and laying hens. I will have other breathing beings dependent upon me for survival. This may be the last time in my life I can ever not do something because I don't want to. I think I need to take advantage of that.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Margaret Petrosky Gabrelcik - April 1, 1929-February 20, 1996

It's the 14th anniversary today of my Mom, Maggie's, death. She was 66. She died too young of poverty, lack of access to decent health care, stress, loneliness, and a broken heart.

The doctors would say otherwise. They would say she drank too much, smoked too much, worked too hard, didn't get enough R & R. And they'd be right. All those things are true. But they miss the entire context of my mother's alcoholism, workaholism, and rageaholism. And those diagnoses utterly fail to capture the complex beauty of my mother.

My mom grew up the youngest of 9 children in a small Peabody Coal Mining town during the Great Depression. Both her parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, folks who, until the 1920s, when my mother was born, were not considered "white" in US culture.

My grandfather was a coal-miner who helped organize and found the United Mine Workers in rural Western Pennsylvania. My grandmother was a farmer who raised nine children and also managed to get arrested in support of my grandfather.

My mother grew up during the Great Depression, and lived to tell those stories--of begging for shoes, of hunger, despite my grandparents' incessant hard work. She dropped out of school and went to work for the phone company when she was 17, lying about her age, so she could bring some income into the family.

She married around 20 or 21--there's no wedding photos, as it was all done quietly, and the dates of the marriage in relation to the births of my brother and eldest sister are a subject we don't discuss. Her marriage lasted 12 years, long enough to produce another daughter.

The version of history my mother told me quite late in her life is that her husband physically abused her, and she threw him out. There was a lot of drinking in their home. He became involved with a much younger woman, whom he eventually married and with whom he had four children, before succumbing to a heart attack in his early 40s.

My mom used to cry on some nights when she drank, telling me how she lost custody of her children to her ex-husband and his wife through ignorance of the legal system. I suspect my sisters and brother might have a different story, but that was my mom's to me.

By the time I came along, my mother had moved to Southern California and was waiting tables to support herself. My brother, Kuk, and eldest sister Diane, were both grown. Kuk had married and was working at the steel mill in Youngstown; Diane was living in Northern California putting herself through college. Sam (Saundra) my youngest sister (12 years my senior) was living with my brother and his wife in Ohio.

My father, different from siblings' dad, was separated from his wife when I was conceived. The family folklore holds that he told my mother he was sterile and so no birth control was used. I look quite a bit like my dad, so clearly the gentleman wasn't sterile. But by the time my mom learned she was pregnant with me, his relationship with my mother had ended (according to my dad because of my mother's rage which he could not handle) and he had reconciled with his wife, to whom he remained married the rest of his life.

My mother then was left unwed and pregnant, 38 years old and divorced, with no high school diploma, 2500 miles from her family, and damned lonely, in 1967. I'm 42 now, four years older than my mother was then, and I have to say, it's not hard for me to imagine why she would drink.

She raised me alone, and despite the anger, the abuse--emotional and physical, the scars of which I'm still healing from--the beery nights, the financial instability of our lives, she did a good job. I'm here. I'm educated, happily married to a fantastic man, I have great friends, loving siblings, awesome nieces and nephews, I'm in good health. I've traveled the world, published stories and articles, worked at the UN, studied astronomy in Puerto Rico, gotten arrested for my beliefs, continuing the family tradition, built a strawbale house, learned to farm, and begun a life of simplicity and sustainability of which I'm really quite proud, though it certainly has its challenges.

All this is possible because of my mom. My dad provided child support for 21 years, and I'm grateful, but it was my mom who was there for me, who taught me about social justice, about economic and political repression, about lipstick, and through it all, who loved me unconditionally with her whole heart. For all her faults--on which I generally choose to focus--my mom was a good, strong, intelligent, extremely funny, generous, hard-working woman, and I love her. And I miss her something awful. I hope wherever she is she is enjoying the peace, love, ease and luxury she knew so little of in this life.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Greetings from Wyoming!

Hello Everyone,

Well, here I am at writing residency #2 of winter 2010, the insanely gorgeous Jentel Center for the Arts in the Lower Piney Creek valley, under the watchful gaze of the Big Horn Mountains. I feel like I won the lottery. First wonderful Kimmel Nelson Harding and now this?!?! I'm in a dream--please don't pinch me!

My beloved Marcos drove me the 600 miles up here so I could spend a month writing, reading, napping, walking, getting grounded in the rural West as a writer, and hopefully getting close to finishing my collection of short stories. We arrived yesterday to a warm welcome, a breathtaking residency house for artists, and an idyllic studio. The residency, and all its buildings, were designed by the benefactor/founder, Neltje. I haven't had the chance to meet her yet, but it's clear from the design and interior decoration of the buildings that she is an artist of consummate skill and vision. I have taken and will continue to take photos while I'm here, but they can't begin to do the place justice. The colors, the textures, the quality of light, the use of geometry, the melding with place...I am just in love with this woman's style.

She and the other fine folks here have created a space that is simutaneously peaceful and energizing, which provides sanctuary from the elements yet keeps one connected to the outdoors, in a truly beautiful setting. I feel hugely honored and privileged to be here.

There are five other artists here: one other writer, Zachary, and four other artists, three visual and one sound, Gail, Fannie, Elizabeth and Yann. I'll definitely share more about them, including links to their websites, as we get to know each other better. They seem like fabulous, brilliant people so far.

We had a lovely time together last night eating a delicious supper prepared for us by program director Lynn Reeves (who accommodated both mine and another artists' dietary restrictions with a grace and culinary talent reminding me of my sister-in-law, Jenn) and a HUGE bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, which we all delightfully finished together. Everyone here, I think, is a coffee drinker, several are runners, all are gourmands. I look forward to sharing stories of this blossoming, albeit temporary, community of artists.

In the meantime, enjoy the photos. I'll work on getting more up soon, and more reflections as things progress.

I always appreciate snail mail as well as email. You can drop me a line at

Val Phillips
Jentel Center for the Arts
132 Lower Piney Creek Rd.
Banner, WY 82832

Monday, January 25, 2010

Greetings from Nebraska!

Well, my lovely, glorious, incomparable time here at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City is sadly coming to a close soon. This is my last week here, and unfortunately, I'm spending the first day of my last five rather ill. I'm hoping it's just a weird bout of food poisoning (my own, not Nebraska City's lovely restaurants).

I've had a splendid time here and feel so incredibly blessed to have been given this opportunity. I've met and been befriended by three beautiful, extremely talented, smart and kind visual artists, and two brave, exciting, lovely writers. All women, all amazing.

My writing has benefited enormously from the combination of solace and the community of other artists. Janice Baker, my roommie, is a one-woman band of supportive, encouraging energy, positive spirit, playfulness, compassion and fun! Her art is so cool! I'll send some pictures. Every day Janice gets up happy, and she's so excited to get in the studio--she's like a little kid getting to go out and play. No drama, all joy. She's my inspiration.

Nadine Stefan, a visual artist from British Columbia, makes these tender, arresting, understated but completely captivating installations using local flora and paint and wood. Her work is completely grounded in the natural world, and she seeks to celebrate balance between the masculine and feminine, and other so-called opposites. She's Miss Power Tools. If there's some weird loud noise reminiscent of our home-building efforts in Gardner coming from the studios, nine times out of ten, it's Nadine (the other time it's Janice and her power sander). Nadine is funny, and smart, and super sweet, and--like Janice--a delicious conversationalist (I'm the quiet one in the group, if you can imagine). Oh, and like every other woman here, she's also drop-dead gorgeous.

Skye Gilkerson grew up on a dairy farm in South Dakota. Her work has this delicate brilliance about it that I just love and that kind of reminds me of the stark, quiet beauty of the Plains (our Northerner calls them "Prairies"). There's a grace, a subtlety of form and thought there, with rods of steel running through the middle of it...I don't know how to explain it, but Skye's work just takes my breath away. I am floored to be in the midst of such amazing talent. If she doesn't mind I'll post some photos of her work.

Skye is a wonderful cook, and is really smart. She is as lovely a woman as her work, and she seems to me feverishly, fantastically dedicated to her craft--actually all three women are. I haven't gotten to know Skye as well as Janice and Nadine because she's not always decadently parking herself in front of the boob tube at night, like we are, but it's been a real privilege to spend the time with her I have.

My sister writers, Stephanie and Suzanne, have each been here only 2 weeks, in succession. My time with them was precious, but too short. Stephanie is this delicate, stylish, genteel-seeming beauty from Missouri with a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for dive bars prone to fights. I love her. I was so grateful to be able to hear her read some of her poetry while she was here--she's exceedingly gifted, and very, very skilled. Her poems really touched me, landing as they did on several important social themes with lyric use of language, syntax and metaphor.

I've really enjoyed my short conversations with Suzanne so far, in which we relish in sharing our stories of wailing and gnashing our teeth (metaphorically of course; we're writers--everything we do is a metaphor!). I look forward to hearing her read tomorrow night.

Pat Friedli and Denise Brady, the staff here, are super competent, friendly, down-to-earth women who have done a tremendous job of making this place work so well, and also of endearing KHN to the wider community such that we are welcomed with open arms and kind smiles everywhere we go in town. They're also just really interesting, smart women to talk with, and both are artists themselves. We got to see some of the gorgeous printmaking work Denise has done a few weeks ago, and I'm hoping we'll get to see some of Pat's work in fiber arts before we leave.

Well, that's my update for now. I had hoped to find some photos to post with this, but will have to look around and find them first. Next time!