How did Roxanne Steed go from a Medical Record Administration major in college, to a water and oil alchemist teaching workshops in Ireland and France? Roxanne Steed, oil painter, watercolorist, writer, and teacher, has some answers for military spouse artists. From making the most of heartbreaking moves, to allowing the role of painting in her life to evolve through the different seasons of her life, Roxanne reflects on her career so far as a painter. We are just lucky enough to read along with her on her journey as an artist- underpainted by her role as a military spouse. Thank you so much for sharing your work, wisdom, and life, Roxanne!
Without further ado, here is Roxanne in her own words… Hi Jess, I love what you’ve put together with this blog! Reading all these wonderful and varied stories really was amazing. I’m constantly reminded that my military family friends are so interesting – and have some great stories to tell!
MilspoFAN: Tell us a bit about yourself, how did you meet your spouse, how long have you been ‘in’, where you are now?
Roxanne: I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember. Though it’s not how I started my ‘career path’. My degree in college was in “Medical Record Administration” (now they call it Health Information Management). At the time, back in the ’80s it was difficult finding the equivalent level of work without a long commute at some of the submarine bases where we were stationed. I met my husband ice- skating in Orlando, FL. It was 1982, I was living in Orlando, commuting to Cape Canaveral Hospital, and he was at Nuclear Power School with the Navy as a submariner. Over the next twenty-six years we moved ….well, too many times to count – and even though each move made me a bit anxious to leave the “current great spot that I had planted deep roots”…we moved after each tour to another amazing place and got to repeat some that we really loved! Though I’ve never lived overseas, we did have plenty of travel opportunities – which was the best thing ever! Finally, when our twins were twelve years old, we brought them along to Singapore (instead of leaving them with grandparents as we had always done before). My girls love travel as much as their mom! Even though we had never intended to end up in New England, we love the town of Mystic, in our southeastern corner of Connecticut. Our last tour of duty was here where my hubby ‘retired’ from the Navy as Commander, Submarine Squadron Two – and began his own consulting business. This is the longest we’ve stayed anywhere in our adult lives! So we are both southern transplants to New England!
MilspoFAN: -How did you become a painter?
Roxanne: Submarine bases are in some great places! We married and started out in Charleston, SC. From there we went back to Orlando, FL; then to Groton, CT, followed by northern Virginia; San Diego, CA; Virginia Beach, VA; then back to Connecticut. Once I had my twins, we were in back in Orlando, near my parents, where I had the luxury of “free childcare”, still working in the healthcare industry. Once we moved away, my girls had just reached toddler-hood and I realized that I really did want to be home with them. I spent their nap-times in any creative pursuit that I could get my hands on; mostly sewing, smocking, quilting, and knitting. About the time they outgrew the “little smocked dresses” of toddlerhood and started wearing jeans and t-shirts like their mom, is about the time I started painting. And I spent time getting them to draw and paint as well! I felt like I had re-ignited the spark from my younger self. From that point on, I knew that I would become a painter, and spent every spare moment exploring and bettering my craft.
MilspoFAN: How did your PCS moves affect your artistic endeavors?
Each duty station I would spend the first week scouting out art classes and art organizations to take part in. I also home-schooled our daughters during these early years- so there was a LOT of learning going on at our house. Homeschooling gave us great stability, and our Navy family friends were some of our closest. Our submarine wardrooms provided great support for each other during long deployments. My children found life-long friends there as well. By sixth grade though, I knew I had to seek out a school district that could offer what I no longer could (or was willing to). They had a transition year at a private school before we moved to San Diego. We all thrived there during my hubby’s first command of a submarine! The girls loved their school and new friends, and I loved the whole big fabulous art community in San Diego. It proved to be a real turning point in my life.
I had been working in oils and pastels for the most part. There were some great opportunities with local arts organizations to show my work there. But one of my first art friends that I met at the Escondido Art Association, was the fabulous Jane LaFazio. She’s a watercolor, multi-media & fabric artist and really opened the door to so many new insights for me! The biggest was joining the San Diego watercolor society. They had a large membership (at least 700 at the time), and could support a large gallery space where we would host demos and workshops each month with the best watercolorists in the nation. Also, we had paint-outs every Wednesday morning, where we would meet up at a designated location just to paint. From 9-noon we’d paint, bring a sack lunch, and we’d have a critic led by one of the ‘older members’. These older fellows were retired Disney illustrators, all in their mid-80s at the time! They had the most amazing stories of working with “Mr. Disney” on films such as Bambi, and Dumbo…. ah, pinch me- was I lucky or what? Every week for this three year tour, I was out there learning, watching, listening, from these guys who were so generous with their time and talent. When it was time to leave San Diego, it was yet another move where I felt up-rooted from something truly wonderful.
From there we moved to Virginia Beach. During the previous three years I became serious about selling my work. A mentor had recommended that I stick to a ‘serious medium’ like oils, as it has the “highest perceived value”. So I took the advice, and continued painting and began selling more. I joined an artist’s co-op called the Artists Gallery (which has been in business around 25 years) – and another wonderful opportunity for me! My girls were in high school at this point. My work day consisted of getting them out the door to school, going in to my studio at the co-op; painting, staffing the gallery, and getting home in time to take them to cross-country practice or Irish dance lessons, and competitions. It was a constant whirlwind, but it was all so much fun! Probably my favorite duty station yet! Life just kept evolving and getting better and better – even though I lamented every single move. My husband had to remind me that it was definitely a pattern for me: elation at developing a great support network in each place with my art friends, then desolation at leaving it behind. The toughest move was yet to come though.
What happened when a PCS and the ’empty nest’ hit at the same time? Leaving Virginia Beach was like closing the last page on a great story, shutting the book, and placing it on a shelf. My girls graduated from high school and had scholarships at Florida State University. Ron was leaving his job as PCO Instructor, and the TRE Board. His next command was Submarine Squadron Two in Groton, CT. This was the hardest move for me! While I thought I was ready for the ’empty nest’ of daughters leaving for college far away, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the comfort of my art co-op. Although I was moving back to an area that I loved, it had changed, and I had changed. Luckily- (and this is what saved me), the internet was the newest, great thing. Emails were great ways to communicate with far flung friends. Sounds so ‘quaint’ now. I mean, I already had a website that I could manage on my own, and felt fairly computer savvy – but those emails became my life-line. Especially when my former studio-mate recommended that I start selling online. Another turning point in my life! This changed the way I put my art out there in the world, and sold it. I decided this was way better than the outdoor art festivals, which I did during those Virginia years. I loved being out on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, selling my paintings, but the lug-work of hauling out tents, poles, panels, AND paintings in all kinds of weather and wind made me re-think how I wanted to spend my selling time. Selling online gave me the freedom (and a wider audience) that I was seeking. Things did come to a screeching slow down during the recession, but it has picked up again – and I continue to learn all things possible about social media and marketing and selling my work online.
MilspoFAN: How would you describe your artwork work and aesthetic? How has your work evolved over time?
Roxanne: As I developed as an oil painter, I had found that I was ALWAYS drawn to the colorists. When we moved to Connecticut for the last time (yes, that traumatic move) I learned that I could study with one of the painters whose work I had admired for years. So I began to take private lessons with Leif Nilsson. I can’t say enough about what a great teacher he is- he was another turning point in my art life. He really taught me to see color in a way that I had not ever before. He helped me break some bad painting habits, and learn more about painting in general than I ever had up to that time. It was truly a case of “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I took some workshops with Camille Przwodek as well. Both Leif and Camille had studied with Henry Hensche in Cape Cod. Hensche’s influence on colorists is remarkable – you can see the connections in his students works. After studying with Leif for a long while, I knew I had to ‘go on my own’ and just PAINT. And continue painting until the process was like breathing. Eventually, when you have the tools to get where you want to go, it’s exhilarating!
Now, of course I loved those oils….rich buttery texture, intense lush color, what’s not to love? I painted outdoors on location all over the place- taking part in plein air competitions and shows. Even flying overseas with all my oil gear to either teach a workshop or take a workshop! About four years ago though, I got out my old watercolors. Oh my, getting familiar with them again was like going out on a blind date. My color was very pale and tentative at first. With a bit of practice, it started coming back to me, like riding a bike. Those years of painting with my ‘Disney buddies’ in southern California were a great foundation. I started taking my sketchbook out on location instead of all my oil gear, even though I still kept the oils going in the studio, and I’d paint in oils in my garden as well. But I could hike a great deal further to more interesting vistas with the lighter gear of watercolors! I was hooked!
MilspoFAN: How did you become the Artist in Residence Artist-in-Residence (AIR) at Manassas Battlefield National Park? What did that involve and what was your biggest takeaway from the two weeks in Manassas?
Roxanne: I had been selected to take part in an Artist-in-Residence program with the CT Audubon Society at the Edwin Way Teale property in the summer of 2015. There were great vistas right outside my door, so I painted in oils that entire week. I knew that I wanted to do another residency, so I began to search for possibilities.
My husband came across an application for an Artist Residency with the National Park Service at the Manassas Battlefield National Park! When we lived in northern Virginia, we lived in Manassas. At that time I owned a horse and boarded her at a farm that backed up to the Park grounds, so we rode all over that area! I had always wanted to return at some point in my life and paint the bluebells that grow in Spring along Bull Run. It’s a magnificent sight. But twenty years had gone by and I hadn’t made it back there yet. I submitted the application, and as luck would have it; I was selected to be their first ever AIR chosen for their new program this year! I got to stay two weeks, living in the park in one of the ranger- residences, paint every day, find areas in the park that I had never seen before and even teach a workshop on Nature Sketchbook Journaling with watercolor as an official park event! When I packed my car for the two weeks trip, I took all my oil gear, as well as my watercolors. After the first day of dragging oil gear in on a long hike to a vista I had been wanting to return to…I decided that this trip I would spend the rest of the two weeks with watercolors- and painting larger works in oil back at home. Making this choice really locked in this strategy for me. It gave me the freedom to cover a lot of territory with much less gear and gather so much more material for future paintings. (I also call it, “how to lose 50 pounds and still eat the chocolate, drink the wine”).
MilspoFAN: You value and deftly wield both rich, dimensional oil paints, as well as the weightless washes of watercolors. From reading your blog and seeing your work, I imagine that this play between bold and demure creates a vital tension, driving you along as an artist. Why is this dichotomy so central to the way your work as an artist and how does each medium feed you artistically?
Roxanne: “Who Says Oil and Water Don’t Mix?” – I don’t use both mediums in the same painting, but there’s a lot I love about each one individually. Sort of like children, I love them both, couldn’t live without either one of them. I have a fascination with surface texture – and the chemical properties of each medium. They behave in ways that the other one could never do. Watercolor flows and blooms and granulates into the paper in a way that oil never could. And oil holds a bit of surface texture in a way that watercolor never will. Understanding color, and knowing which ones are transparent, which are opaque give you a stronger way to express your thoughts in an image. My watercolor journals are personal, but they are also ‘data gathering’ mechanisms for future oil paintings.
MilspoFAN: There’s an intimacy in the work in your sketchbook entries that seems to show your personal and artistic lives seamlessly interwoven. Do you feel a need to balance your personal and artistic lives, or is it all just one life?
Roxanne: The reason I do love sketchbook work is for the very reason that it IS so personal. We don’t do it to enter a show, display, or even sell. It’s for our own pleasure, no one else’s. We can be as self indulgent as we wish. That’s what I find so gratifying about teaching this form of creativity. I have various sketchbooks for varied topics, and if I’m around my family where we have a lazy afternoon (after Thanksgiving dinner is a great time!) it’s really fun to include some of these moments in my sketchbook as well. They may or may not make it into a larger finished painting, but they are great memories for me. I haven’t always done that, but the more time I spend with sketching these family scenes, it does become easier. They’ve become personal treasures for me. I do think this has been something that has grown over time. When children my children were small, they were my priority, and my art was secondary. My husband is very supportive of my business and the time I put into it, as it has grown over the years.
MilspoFAN: How did you begin teaching? Tell us about your online classes, Connecticut classes, and the Watercolor Sketchbook tour of Ireland.
Plein air Oil Painting in Dingle, Ireland
Roxanne: A friend of mine from Virginia lives in Ireland part of the year. She began running an art retreat over 10 years ago, and her circle of art friends were her first ‘trial run’ to see how it would go. She began hiring teachers, and asked if I’d like to teach plein air oil painting – so I did. I had a few students in my studio at the time, but I still didn’t feel quite sure of myself teaching – even though I had painted in oils for at least 15 years at that point. Once I got back into the watercolor sketchbook keeping, I knew this would be something I could teach well! I love it, and it has been well received. So I’ve taught the sketchbook journaling class in Ireland the last two years, and we’ve scheduled another trip for August of 2018! I never get tired of going there, though I do have a few other places I’d like to return to as well! I’m wanting to return to the southwest area of France in the Lot Valley. It’s incredibly beautiful, I’ve been brushing up on my French, and at some point – next year? The following year? I’m going back to teach! Let me know if you’d like to come along! This September I’ll be starting a new group of artists in my home studio how to use watercolor and sketchbook keeping.
MilspoFAN: You’ve been blogging consistently for ten years. Recently you moved your blog and renamed it. Why the change and what (if anything) is going to change about what you are writing about and sharing?
Roxanne: Blogging, and the blogosphere – for the last 10 and a half years, I’ve been blogging. I really began in earnest to get juried into the original group DailyPainters.com. But I also found it a great way to describe my process, and share things that I thought were important about the location or any other information about what I was painting – or the meaning behind WHY I painted that. I started on the blogspot platform in 2007, then moved it to FASO (Fine Art Studio Online) which supports my current website. At a certain point, I moved it back to blogspot, then back to FASO- I liked the indexing of topics better. That being said; I am currently building a new website on SquareSpace, and will end up moving my blog there as well. I’m still working on trying to save some favorite blog entries, that I just don’t want to lose. Currently I’m making oil paintings (to sell), and using watercolor for my personal sketchbooks and teaching this process of keeping sketchbooks – so those are going to be the focus of my online journal (blog). I’m hoping to convey that joy of creating. I truly believe that we were all created to create – no matter if there are some among us who have convinced themselves otherwise.
MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as an artist – creatively, logistically, or otherwise? How did you meet other artists or plug into the local art scene when you PCS?
Roxanne: I’ll turn 58 this September. I’m still thrilled to wake up everyday and paint. And I love sharing this fun with others. The biggest and best opportunities I have had, have happened because we are a military family. The biggest steps of growth came from those painful times of leaving behind things I loved. But in the long run, I never lost those things I’d fear that I’d lose. The friendships I enjoyed most are the ones I’ve kept- both military and my civilian artist friends. My children have grown up with a confidence that I never had until I was a middle aged adult. Our PCS moves and travel opportunities have taken me places that I likely would never have ventured out of my hometown in Florida to see. Once it became possible for a bit of online research before a move, I was able to scout out artist groups, galleries, museums, classes before I left one home town for another. I’d show up (stepping out of my introvert self) make new friends and become involved in whatever way I could that would help me learn and feed my soul.
MilspoFAN: How do you cultivate your creativity?
Roxanne: “Notice what you notice”. As artists we are seeing beautiful things every day. I may find myself turning pages in a magazine or catalog filled with gorgeous pictures, when suddenly the image makes me draw in a sharp breath, saying ‘wow’ out loud, notice what that thing was that just knocked your socks off!
MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other military spouses who are artists?
Roxanne: Call ahead. Who do you already know in the ‘next town’ (location of your next PCS). Find out what art organizations might be helpful to you. Be ready to ‘hit the ground running’ in these new places to enhance your art life. Your military friends understand the deployments in a way that your civilian friends can’t. Your civilian friends will likely offer you support in ways that your military friends can’t. Have friends in both camps! You’ll need the support of both of them. Embrace the lifestyle and the opportunities that come with your military life. Remember that the painful times of leaving behind loved ones at your last duty station are followed by new opportunities for growth in your next town!
Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview Jess! I hope having the ‘long view’ of things, I can share some insights with younger military spouses, especially those that are artists. It is indeed an honor to be a part of this large military family.
Roxanne, I have been so grateful for this opportunity to get to know you and your artwork. I look forward to keeping up with your painting over at your blog!
MilspoFANs, do you have a question or comment for Roxanne? An anecdote or thought that your deeply relate to as an artist or art enthusiast? Please share your comments here or over at Facebook on ourGrouporPage.
You never know who will show. If anyone will show.
I have been to events with forty chairs set out most eagerly and expectantly, only to have two people show up to fill them.
You write your book and are ready to do whatever you need to do to bring it to readers. But you don’t realize how often your ego can get beaten to a pulp.
But on this tour for my new novel, The Confusion of Languages, I had a military grade weapon on my side.
And more specifically, military spouse artists. Who came out. Who dragged their friends and sisters and children and husbands along. Who smiled encouragingly up at me from chairs that would have been woefully empty without their warm and lovely bodies filling them.
So if you don’t mind, since I have only been back in Abu Dhabi for a couple of days and my four year old hasn’t yet gone to bed before 1:00 a.m., I’m going to do a mini photographic tour of these fabulous women, these writers, bloggers, dancers, yoga instructors, mothers, all of them busy women who surely had a million other things to do with their precious time but decided to come to my faraway reading and cheer me on.
What a beautiful community we are part of!
Please check out the astounding work of the women below, their Facebook pages, their books and blogs and book reviews (and in the case of Andria Williams, her crazy Lego literary scenes).
Sarah McCoy, international bestseller and author of The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico, The Baker’s Daughter, and The Map Maker’s Children. She drove out from Chicago to be at my book’s “opening night” at the Book Stall in Winnetka, IL. Her husband was a military doctor when we first met a few years ago. She ‘endorsed’ my new novel (which means she said something so nice about it that my publisher proudly put her quote on the front cover) and sat in the front row telling everyone how much she loved my story. She’s a dynamo and sweetly prolific, and, from her Facebook posts, makes a mean cup cake.
Andria Williams, mil spouse, author of The Longest Night, blogger and uniting force behind the most excellent Mil Spouse Book Review (https://militaryspousebookreview.com/), who drove a party van full of folks from Colorado Springs down to Tattered Cover, Denver, in a massive show of mil spouse artist support. Rebekah Gleaves Sanderlin, also a mil spouse writer and editor and a riot to have dinner with, merrily went along for the ride.
Another example of how awesome Andria Williams is: her “Book Tour First Aid Kit” gift—and I used every single thing. (The first thing to go was the mini bottle of Amaretto…)
Mary Chase, Army spouse choreographer and dancer, who was also featured on this fabulous Military Spouse Fine Arts Network site, also came out to Tattered Cover, Denver, even though she has a small child and the movers were coming to pack out her house early the next morning for an international move. MIL SPOUSES CAN DO ANYTHING.
The amazing Kathleen Rodgers, who had Tom, her retired Air Force pilot husband, drive her from Dallas all the way to the Barnes & Noble outside of Fort Hood, TX. Kathleen and Tom were THE ONLY PEOPLE who came to this event. Dear Lord, not sure what I would have done without her beautiful, smiling face. She wandered around this massive Barnes & Noble and started grabbing total strangers and telling them about my book. She was my fairy godmother that night and I will love her forever for making what should have been a total failure of an evening into a memorable night. Please check out her novels The Final Salute, Johnnie Come Lately, and Seven Wings of Glory.
Michele Crutchfield, whose husband just retired from the Air Force, a tireless yoga instructor and voracious reader, flew to Wichita, Kansas, in order to meet up with old friends and drag them all along to my reading at the amazing Water Mark Books there.
Hilary Barrineau, an Army Signal spouse and the events coordinator at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Va. Authors, this store was so warm and lovely, check it out if you are in town!
Sorry, this photo was clearly taken by the very drunk and tilted man at the bar we all ended up in after my event at Hooray for Books. Beautiful gals behind me are military spouses I first met when my husband was stationed in Hawaii back in 2001, and the lovely women to my right are mostly current State Department friends from US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Small world! And the little lady next to me in bright green is the military spouse writer Victoria Kelly, author of the critically acclaimed poetry, When the Men Go Off to War, as well as the great novel, Mrs. Houdini.
My final book tour event was at the most amazing DC book store, Politics & Prose. Here I am with equally most amazing Alison Buckholtz, author of the groundbreaking spouse memoir, Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War, and also author of a great review of The Confusion of Languages that got picked up from the Military Spouse Book Review and ran in a national newspaper. See how weirdly and sweetly connected military spouses and the networks we create can be?
Thanks to everyone who read this blog post all the way to the end! And thanks to Military Spouse Fine Art network for letting me shares these wonderful moments!
But my most heartfelt thanks goes to all of these ladies above, who not only supported a nervous author prone to stage-fright, but helped make my book tour an extraordinary adventure of meeting like-minded artists who are carving out meaningful careers and passing on a little kindness and generosity along the way. You are all beautiful.
Find out more about the artists mentioned in this article by visiting their websites:
It’s hard to believe that July is almost over. Maybe it’s the beautiful summer weather, or the travel, or trying to cram every summer activity in, but this month has just flown by in a deluge of hyper-colored delights. My littlest girl’s baby photos, my adventurous spouse away climbing a mountain, reuniting my older girl with her beloved cousin at grandma’s house, a long-awaited children’s concert at a Japanese garden, flying halfway across the country and back with my baby and preschooler, a 90 degree trip to the glorious but expansive Brookfield Zoo, a family reunion-slash-first-birthday-party, and on and on like a beautiful carnival.
And boy, was I in desperate need of a bit of a break when I took a moment (whilst crammed between two carseats on a drive to the airport) to enjoy this month’s Artist Interview. Please forgive the mixed up metaphor when I tell you that reading through Carrie’s words was as refreshing, like an aloe balm to my summer-burned brain, as my dish of dippin’ dots tasted at the end of that sweltering day at the zoo.
Carrie is a freelance stage director and professor of theatre, so most of her work is ephemeral- but I am adding seeing one of her productions to my bucket list, and I can’t wait to track her down. Carrie is a force of creativity, flexibility, and determination. Her story reminds me that the resume of an artist doesn’t have to look a certain way. Planning a career in the arts as a military spouse is going to be difficult and different than the plan I dreamt of before I met and fell for my service member, but Carrie shows us that setting priorities and being both assertive and flexible are some of the keys to cultivating your artistic career while on this extraordinary military spouse adventure.
MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Carrie: Hello. I’m Carrie Klewin Lawrence. I am a freelance stage director and professor of theatre. People in the theatre world know me as Carrie Klewin. I’m from… Well actually, I’ve been struggling with the “Where are you from?” question for a while now… I was born in Nebraska, and I credit my vivid imagination to the wide-open spaces and kick-you-out-of-the-house-to-play attitude of my mother while there. I largely spent my high school and undergraduate years in Maryland (there was also a semester abroad in Thailand during that time, and summers spent at our grandparent’s blueberry farm in Connecticut).
As a result of graduate schools and military spouse life, I have lived in an additional nine states, and Italy, and traveled all around the world. My husband, David, is a USMC Harrier pilot, currently serving as an attaché at the US Embassy where we are currently living in Madrid, Spain. We met swing dancing in Washington, DC just after he started his career seventeen years ago. He’s from Orange County, where most of our family is concentrated. Our three daughters were born in Monterey (CA), Montgomery (AL), and Madrid (Spain). The girls are on their way becoming proper TCK (Third Culture Kids), and every day I feel a little more like the adult version myself. I wouldn’t say that I’m “from” anywhere, although I mostly feel like a Californian with a New York state of mind. More than anything, I am a proud American, although I do not currently have a “home” there.
MilspoFAN: How did you become a stage director and professor of theatre? (let me know if there is a different way you describe yourself and I will change the question for the blog post)?
Carrie: Although I had been attracted to theatre my entire life, I never thought to pursue directing until an independent theatre club at my college groomed me to be the director of one of their shows. I started off with a bang and picked “The Pirates of Penzance”. We had a full orchestra and a 35-member cast, and the largest, most cumbersome set I’ve ever encountered. I think that it still may be hiding in the attic of that theatre… Very soon after that I started creating my own work – first using the classic story of “Aladdin” as a jumping-off point. That was more than 20 years ago. It was a great joy of mine when I was asked to direct “The Pirates of Penzance” again for The Washington Savoyards. I was just finishing my MFA in Directing at the time. It was as if my work as an artist had come full circle and was starting an entirely new stage.
Currently, I would say that I am a very eclectic artist. I absolutely adore a good old-fashioned musical, but creating original ensemble-based work thrills me like nothing else. Oh, and I am just in love with contemporary opera. But I have also directed several solo shows. More than anything, I am drawn to stories focused on social issues, and artists that are using theatre to positively impact the world we live in. Whether that means helping a novice actor fine-tune their skills, or assisting a playwright to bring their story to life. It’s all about making art that will start a conversation and change things one small step at a time.
I think that directing and educating are extremely similar in that they both have goals of leading people to a specific outcome. So being in the classroom has come very naturally to me. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping others achieve their personal and professional goals. Recently, I have also focused on applying theatre to corporate environments – translating theatre skills to business and public speaking arenas.
MilspoFAN: You specialize in ensemble-driven, movement-based storytelling, developing your work through improvisation. Can you describe that process and why you work that way?
Carrie: In fact, I’ve been working with a good actor friend of mine, Eli Sibley, to try to articulate that process. We plan to write a book on it. We’ve developed several projects together, have a shared vocabulary, and a real partnership. She’s one of the best people I could work with to try to explain our development process, and one of my favorite people to say “yes, and…” with. I find that extremely important, the level of connection I have with the people involved in a project. In fact, there are several artists I have developed that kind of a relationship with – director/choreographer Pauline Grossman, playwright Stephen Spotswood, actor/director Neil David Seibel, director Ryan Whinnem, actors Lydia Real, and Erika Phillips – my own tribe, if you will. People I could call up and pitch ideas to, or just brainstorm wild hairs over coffee… Unfortunately, we are spread out across the globe, and I constantly think about how to collaborate with them from such disparate corners. We don’t have the opportunity to work together face-to-face very much at the moment, but I know we will work together again in the future.
But back to the process! I first find a theme or a source of inspiration to use as a jumping-off point. Then I gather as many artists from my tribe as possible, and put them in a room together. For one of my first original shows, “A Christmas Catastrophe”, I was asked to develop a show as a counterpoint for a production of “A Christmas Carol”. I had been teaching improvisation classes in Baltimore, and asked several of the students to become the ensemble – we brainstormed and played around with Christmas themes and characters for about a week. I wrote an outline for the script, which contained fill-in-the-blanks for the actors. I took all of their crazy ideas and wove them together. Then we worked to flesh out the show and incorporate their ideas. It was a real team effort. I have duplicated this process many times since, although I rarely rely on such an obviously structured process now – I trust my sense of development and timelines, having done this so many times. It can be frustrating for artists who have never worked with me before, however. A challenging aspect to being a stage director is that you can’t just show someone your work – like a painter does – so you often find yourself needing to articulate an “experience” of your work. I’m not very good at that. But I do find that when I discover artists who thrive during this kind of a process, and we really connect, there is very little explanation needed in the future. The foundation has been laid, and then it’s all about trust.
I have carried out variations of this process on almost all of the shows I have directed. Even when there is a script, I encourage whole team to work from a place of bringing themselves into the story. I find directing to be rather boring and lonely when there is a lack of collaborative energy. Also, I am very much a postmodern baby. The more layers and symbols I can pack into a story, the better – that way everyone can find their own way into the material. Maybe I read too many “choose-your-own-adventure” books as a kid. I also try to leave space and trust the audience. To me there is nothing worse than a production that beats the audience over the head with a message. I guess that’s why I find myself drawn to dance and physical theatre so much – there are so many layers of communication possible with just the body in space – and then you add lighting, costumes, props, song, dialogue, and the possibilities for profound storytelling are endless.
MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as an artist- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Carrie: You can’t just drop into a new city and expect directing opportunities to magically appear. It takes a lot of time and relationship building to find an artistic home. Every time we move (which has been five times in the past six years), I have to prioritize my goals for my time while in that location, always making decisions about who I want to be as an artist. This is both exhilarating and exhausting. Time is limited, and when you are only living in a place for a year, you have to very quickly decide how you will make the best of your time. And now I have three young rascals to factor into the decision-making. But they have been such a gift to my artistry. Watching them navigate such incredible, and deep cultural exposure has been inspiring. For example, they are attending Italian school with mainly Spanish-speaking students. On any given day you can hear a mix of Italian, Spanish, and English, in our house. My concept of communication and storytelling have been forever changed by watching the world through their eyes.
The job that my husband has now is a real departure from his time in a squadron. Being part of the diplomatic community has given me a unique opportunity to interact with people from all over the world. I actually feel more connected and proud of our military now than ever before. It’s like Take Your Spouse to Work Day several times a week at our house. You might think that I would be frustrated to not have more time for my own career, but there have been some incredible benefits. When we lived in Italy (David was working at NATO near Naples), we toured all over Southern Europe. We explored some amazing theatres and opera houses. The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Italy is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. To witness a place the originators of theatre created with the ocean and Mt. Etna in the background – you get an indescribable sense of the epic quality of their contributions.
I was also fortunate to study Spanish before we moved here – and the military even paid for it! As a result, I have been thinking about how to get more involved with theatre in Spanish-speaking communities when we return to the states. Recently, I have been teaching acting and improvisation classes at The International Institute of Madrid. I get to work with students who want to strengthen their English skills and develop an appreciation for theatre simultaneously. It has been fantastically rewarding for all of us, especially from the aspect of cultural exchange. I can’t help but imagine that there will be some unique opportunities in the future for me as a result of embracing my experience here to the fullest. And I have the military to thank for that.
MilspoFAN: Being a working artist, mother, and active duty (I’m assuming) military spouse creates layer upon layer of logistical challenges. What are some ways that you have found success managing your work and family?
Carrie: Luckily with the Internet the world is continuing to change in unexpected ways. After teaching theatre classes online a few years ago, I developed an appreciation of how technology can connect us. I continue to be inspired by artists practicing digital theatre, and look for opportunities to be a virtual collaborator. Recently I co-taught a workshop and directed a one-person show called “The Normal Giant” from overseas. I never thought that I would be supportive of the intersection of the Internet and live theatre, but the possibilities are truly limitless.
I have discovered that I really need to prioritize my goals alongside my family instead of just on my own. When I pass a project past my husband, and we start to dig into the logistics, I know pretty quickly how important it is to me by what I will sacrifice to make it happen. He’s a great devil’s advocate, so we make an excellent team in that way.
I have also found that a key to my happiness is simplicity. For example, I currently carry only about a dozen books from my theatre library with me. Although this was originally a practical decision based on space available, I also think it is also sign of not looking to others as much for the answers. I am trying to carry this over to our children as well – they get quiet time to play on their own every day. I love listening to them playing when they think they are completely alone. I need some of that too – quiet time – it’s the only time I really get to pay attention to all of the projects I have resting on back burners.
MilspoFAN: What does a day in your life look like? What logistical tricks do you use to balance parenting young children, military-spouse-ing, self-care, and your work?
Carrie: Luckily, here in Madrid daily life is very conducive to healthy living. The food is incredible, the sun shines almost every day, and we live in the city so we walk almost everywhere. There is a lot of running around, but we have everything we could want right in our neighborhood. I have found that I work best when I have a schedule, even if it is self-imposed. Of course my three daughters (all five and under) have their own opinions about how the day should go, and they have a knack for sabotaging my plans when I over-schedule. So it has been a process to figure out how to balance their needs with my own. I really need (and want) to get out of the house and work, but it has to be the right fit for me to want to sacrifice family time. I feel like I have “paid my dues” in my field, and don’t need to take on a job “for the experience”. After studying and working more than full time for years, I am seriously trying to enjoy the opportunity to focus more on being a mother, because it is also a job I wanted very badly. I know the opportunities will be there when I am ready to go back full time. This is definitely not the easiest attitude to maintain. When I see colleagues and friends of mine achieving enormous professional success, it can really stir up feelings of anxiety. Being okay with slowing down and being present for myself and my family has been the singularly most difficult challenge for me. Lucky for me, Spain is the perfect place to practice the art of slowing down.
MilspoFAN: What advice would you give to other military spouses who are artists?
Carrie: I will not pretend that I have the artist work/life balance figured out. However, I have definitely identified a couple of survival techniques for the artist relocation toolkit…
*Say “yes, and…” Not that you should say yes to everything (in fact saying “no” can really pay off), but that you should evaluate the opportunities you are presented with – you may find real pleasure in doing something on the periphery of your career – for example, through the US Embassy Mission Speaker program here, I have been teaching workshops using theatre techniques to prepare young students for job interviews. Not only have these young students been an inspiration to me, the workshops have led to additional job opportunities.
*Find your tribe. Facebook is an easy place to start, but also read books, blogs, and watch documentaries. It’s so much easier to be creative when you don’t feel isolated. And of course, get out and see other people’s work. It’s amazing how many times I have started a conversation with someone after seeing their work, and it has led to a future collaboration.
*Create. Find ways to be creative. This may be obvious, but it isn’t always easy. When we were living in Italy, I started a blog about our adventures, and foodie hobbies. I find that I get a lot of artistic satisfaction as a writer, and I have connected with some very interesting people that way. I also had an excuse to work on another creative outlet of mine – photography. That blog has nothing to do with theatre, but it fills a void, and has become an excellent way to keep connected to our friends and family. Here in Madrid I have created a garden on our terrace, which fulfills a need for camouflaging an ugly view and gives me a reason to get some extra vitamin D every day. I have also continued to explore opportunities for writing and criticism, and as a result I was recently invited to be a regional editor for The Theatre Times. I am looking forward to getting involved in the theatre scene here in Madrid and reporting on it for an international audience.
*Tell people what you do. I think that sometimes we forget that we (spouses) all are creative, had a career BML (before military life), have a degree in something… have aspirations past changing diapers and shuttling kids to school. I choose to look at motherhood as a type of sabbatical. I try to focus on activities that really nourish my creative spirit, until I can get back to my work as an artist full-time. I think that taking some time to meet your personal goals is a very important step to becoming a successful artist. And it’s probably why so many artists do their very best work when they are older. I share my business card and my website as much as possible. I also don’t hesitate to send out my resume and a cold introduction letter via email. I try to work my job as a theatre artist into the conversation whenever possible (and appropriate). It’s who I am, even if I’m not in a theatre directing a show every single day.
*Get excited about designing a cobblestone career instead of a straight boring path. As artists we live on the edge of “normal” in society – strange hours, contracted projects, multiple jobs simultaneously… Accept that you are an exception, especially in the military communities, and embrace the weird. For me, it’s starting to feel like all of the crazy pieces of my life are finally coming together, and they are starting to make an incredibly beautiful picture.
Carrie, thank you so much for sharing your story and all of your wisdom with us! Now, dear readers, are you inspired, engaged, or curious? What part of Carrie’s story resonated with you? Post a comment below or on our facebook group or facebook page. MilspoFAN artists love to hear feedback (and adoring praise, or course!) from you.
Can’t get enough Carrie Klewin? Me neither. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Check out Carrie’s web presence at the following links:
This month I had the opportunity to get to know Amanda Shields, Adventure and Travel photographer, and what drives Amanda’s creative work. Amanda’s stories of travel shine through both her writing and her photographs. Just take a look at her answer when I asked about her favorite places and you will get a taste for the long list of stunning experiences she has achieved.
Her soaring passion is tempered by a warm and down-to-earth sense of humor and appreciation for the simple pleasures of travel right alongside the spectacular ones. Amanda practices genuine appreciation for making the most out of the opportunities in front of her, even when those opportunities might appear as obstacles at first. Her artistic philosophy is one of breaking down barriers between cultures by highlighting the transcendence of both common shared experiences as well as awe-inspiring wonders. (Don’t worry, she explains that much more elegantly in her own words, stories, and photographs, so read on!)
After the article, be sure to check out Amanda’s work at:
Now, without any further jabbering, I’m so pleased to share Amanda’s words and images with you…
MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Amanda: I’m Amanda! I was born and raised in Chesapeake, VA. My dad is a Marine (retired), my grandfather was Navy, and my sister is a Coastie; pretty much every generation dating back to the Civil War someone in my family has been in the military. I wanted so badly to go into the Air Force, but migraines medically disqualified me from the military. So it’s of no surprise I accidently ended up with a Sailor! My husband Chris and I have known each other since about the 6th grade! Crazy, I know…I have this photo of my 8th grade birthday party and he was there! Looking back, he’s sort of always been there. We didn’t start dating until many years after high school. He was already in the military and stationed in San Diego, CA. His family still lived in Virginia, so he came back to visit post-deployment and we ended up running into each other again through a mutual friend. We immediately hit it off and the rest is history! We did the long-distance thing for a while and were married in April 2011 and I moved out to California to be with him! I’m a Hufflepuff, he’s a Slytherin…we make it work! 😉
I spent the next year in San Diego and loved every minute of it!! He was deployed or underway for well over half of it, so I found independence and a great support system out there. I grew roots very quickly and it was extremely difficult to leave. But we were headed to Napoli, Italia! Italy was the greatest adventure of my life. We spent almost 4 years there, then the Navy sent us right back home to Norfolk, VA where we are now.
MilspoFAN: You have described yourself as an “Unsuccessfully Repatriated Expat”. Can you tell us a little more about that feeling and the story behind it?
Amanda: Well, you come back “home” and expect (hope?) to be able to pick right back up where you left off, but you can’t. Life has moved on. You’ve changed. Living in another country was the most eye-opening experience of my life. It challenged every value and belief I had. …every belief about our society, about my country, my religion…everything. It turned my world upside down in the best way possible.
film prints made in dark room
My first film photo exhibition
It was difficult at times. REALLY difficult. My first outing was to a mall…on a Sunday. It was so busy and I was really hungry and just wanted to eat something. I could speak the language quite a bit already. I had been studying hard since the moment we found out we were going to Italy. But it wasn’t until that moment that I realized they are going to speak back to me and it’s probably going to be kind of fast and I’m not going to understand them and they’re going to look at me in disgust, become impatient and I’m going to put a black mark on the reputation of every American there forever. (It was a lot of pressure) I burst into tears. I think that was my first “culture-shock” moment. And ya’ know what? NONE of that happened. I ordered my food in Italian and then my worst nightmare came true. I didn’t understand the questions she asked me, but I guess the look of abject horror came over my face and she was so incredibly patient with me. She slowed down and together we figured it out and it was far less painful than I had made it out to be in my head. And to this day I am still forever grateful to that young girl behind the cash register. There were lots of times where I missed the conveniences of the United States. When I just wanted to get from point A to point B without getting lost, or my car stuck on the teeny tiny roads between two stone walls unable to turn around, or when the electricity went out for the 5,643rd time that month. These things happened a lot. But then sometimes, the most precious encounters and adventures would happen to make it all worth it! The skipper in the boat going into the Blue Grotto serenaded us, some retired guys just riding around on a bus would strike up a conversation and both parties learned so much about each other’s country! You could be out and about in the city and stumble upon a Punch and Judy puppet show, a band in the streets, or even a Nutella Festival! You might be given a bottle of wine by a restaurant chef on your birthday, go to a Christmas market in a castle or experience the craziest of crazy firework displays that lasts for 2 hours on New Year’s Eve. You just never know in Naples! Seeing your country from the outside-in was a staggering experience. There’s an excerpt from a poem called, “Diaspora Blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyuo, that says
“So, here you are too foreign for home too foreign for here. Never enough for both.” I can’t think of a better way to sum it up. Even after being back in the U.S. for 2 years now, I still don’t really feel like I fit in anywhere anymore. I’m just a different person.
MilspoFAN: Tell us more about your tagline, “Breaking Barriers through Travel,” and why that is important to you.
Amanda: Traveling broke down “walls” in my own mind and I have learned that hate comes from a place of fear and lack of knowledge and understanding. Not everyone is able (or willing) to travel to another country and have these experiences. Humans love what they know and if I can use my art to bridge the gap that divides us and bring just a small piece of that into the lives and homes of Americans, I’ll feel like I’ve made a small difference. To me, it’s more than making pretty pictures, it’s about showing the world that we’re all not so different and in the aspects where we are different, there’s strength in that if you allow it to bring you together instead of tear you apart. I’m sure all of this sounds very naïve and “wishful thinking,” but I truly believe that.
And it’s not just about taking photos to bring those moments home either. It’s about being present in a different culture and immersing yourself in it. When you go to a different country, you are an ambassador for yours. That ideology stuck with me. I want citizens in that country to see an American who appreciates their culture, just as much as I want Americans to see and appreciate the culture of that country. I can’t count the number of times I was told how well I spoke Italian and how rare it was to see an American willing/able to speak it. Or when an American would try an exotic dish and surprise the locals because “Americans won’t usually eat these things.” I want to work to break down stereotypes and preconceived notions on both sides of the fence.
MilspoFAN: You’ve done a great deal of traveling and living around the world, whether for work, pleasure, or PCS-ing as a military spouse. What advice can you give to other military spouses about how to quickly connect with other artists and locals in each new location?
Amanda: Thanks to technology nowadays, you can get so much information before you even get to your new duty station. Find local Facebook groups for expats, military spouses or maybe a Command/Unit group you can join and ask questions. I also adore Meetup.com. You can find a group there for anything you could possibly be interested in…hobbies, religion, language, sports, anything! It’s a great way to get out and meet new people who share your same interests or lifestyle. Another fantastic program is COMPASS! It’s a spouse-to-spouse mentoring program that introduces you to all aspects of military life over the course of 3 days. So if you’re new to military life, take the class! If you’re quite experienced navigating the murky waters of the military…volunteer! Another spouse recommended it and I am still good friends with several spouses I met through my COMPASS class in San Diego. The course gave me so much helpful, practical advice that I definitely used. We received our official orders to Naples, Italy while my husband was still deployed in Bahrain. I was still in San Diego and he wouldn’t be back until a week or two before we officially left California, so most of the logistics of the move fell to me. I certainly utilized what I learned in COMPASS to prepare for all of our PCS’s since then. Also, any sort of volunteering for something you’re passionate about is another way to meet new, like-minded folks. I volunteer for Dogs on Deployment which finds foster homes for pets of military members if they’re deploying or moving or have anything come up in their life where they are in need of temporary shelter for their pets. It’s a wonderful organization through which I have met some amazing people while supporting our military members and their pets.
MilspoFAN: What has been your favorite places to photograph, to live, and to visit?
Amanda: Ummm…everywhere? HA! I think I have sort of reinvented myself at every new duty station. I have picked up a new hobby/interest, worked in different settings, so there’s something special about each one that leaves its mark on your heart. My favorite city in the world to visit is probably Prague, Czech Republic. Its beauty and history are hard to beat. I don’t think I could pick just one 2nd place. I loved Florence, Venice, the Island of Capri, all of Ireland, Ravello, Positano, just to name a few. I visited about 10 countries in the 3+ years I lived in Europe and I could tell you something I loved about every single one!
I really enjoyed photographing Venice. Venetian architecture is so unique with a blend of Byzantine and Islamic influences. Everywhere you turn is picturesque. I woke up before sunrise on New Year’s Eve to head down to St. Mark’s Square in attempts to catch the sunrise. It ended up being way too cloudy and overcast to see a sunrise, but as soon as I walked out of my hotel room, I was greeted with snow flurries! It was biting cold down by the water and my fingers were numb through my gloves, but the photos I took that blue morning are still some of my favorite!
I loved Munich, Germany! Biking through the English Gardens and watching the surfers in the river, and of course, the beer. My dream destination since I was young was to visit Neuschwanstein Castle just outside of Munich and I finally got to see it! I literally cried when I got my first glimpse of it out of the bus window. We passed a clearing in the trees and there it was, sitting up on the hill. Then I cried again when we walked in and more when we saw the breathtaking chapel inside. Lots of happy tears that day! After seeing my dream castle, my mission was complete. Anything we saw or did after that was just icing on the cake.
The ancient city of Matera, Italy was like nothing I had ever seen before. It’s where Passion of the Christ was filmed and it really looks like a town straight out of Biblical times. We stayed in a cave hotel!! And everything from churches to homes were built in the rocks! But remember what I said earlier about getting lost? We had a…”hard time” getting to our hotel (to put it lightly). Haha! Near Naples, there was an ancient Colosseum called Capua, sort of like the famous one in Rome, but smaller and better preserved. It’s where the famous gladiator Spartacus fought. I took photos there all the time!
And not just in Europe! My husband’s family lives in a rural area of western Pennsylvania and it is paradise! Full of family farms, parks and covered bridges and the most beautiful autumn season I’ve ever experienced! If I could live there, I would. And Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia is one of my favorite places that I visit all the time! I’m a history buff and it’s such a photogenic place, so it’s a win-win for me.
As a photographer, I am dedicated to being able to take photos wherever I go…even underwater. While in Italy, I earned my SCUBA certification, but that meant I needed a slightly different way to take photos, so I bought a small underwater camera! We explored the sunken city of Baia just off the coast of Pozzuoli, Italy which has been turned into an underwater archaeological park. It was incredible! Statues, mosaic floors, even some parts of walls still stand. They’ve even put plaques down there you can read to know what you’re looking at. I think that might have been my favorite just because not very many people get to see that part of Naples, so it was special.
MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Amanda: Short-term – Next month, my friend and I will be making a cross-country road-trip that I’m super excited about! Towards the end of the year, my husband and I are planning a trip to Florida. We’re nerds and we have yet to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Haha! I know, I know…what kind of fans must we be?!
My husband will be up for new orders at the end of the year and we’ll be PCS-ing some time next summer/fall. Where to? …we have absolutely no idea. It’s whatever is available when it’s time to choose. Who knows? I’ve learned to not stress about that until the time comes. So I have about 6 more months until we have to worry about that! 😉 One thing at a time.
I’m currently attending college, majoring in Anthropology. I’d like to minor in Archaeology, but we’ll see where we end up with the upcoming PCS. Until then, I’m going to keep practicing my craft, both digital and film, and taking photos of everything…with an overwhelming percentage of those being of my dogs! 😉
Can’t get enough of Amanda’s work? Check her out at:
Amanda, it has been such a treat to get to know you. I wish you all the best and I am sure that I speak for all the MilspoFAN readers when I say that I look forward to following your ongoing adventures.
MilspoFANs, do you have a question or comment for Amanda? An anecdote or thought that your deeply relate to as an artist or art enthusiast? Please share your comments here or over at Facebook on our Group or Page.
It is my pleasure to introduce a dear friend of mine this month, Anna Librada Georges. Anna and I met in Virginia Beach last year, and a few short months later both of us moved away on PCS orders, she to Rota, Spain, and I to Poulsbo (Bremerton), Washington. But it was one of those instant connections that was so sparkly and easy that I know will prevail over distance and time. Anna is a dancer, and she is one of those people that embodies every beautiful image that the word invokes- impassioned, twirling, loving, vivid, young of heart, wise of soul. I can’t wait to dance with her again the next time our paths intersect.
Now, in her own words, Anna Librada Georges…
Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as an artist and a military spouse, and where you are today.
There was never a doubt in my mind that dance would be part of my life no matter what I did. My mother always impressed upon me that I NEEDED to dance. “You will always be ok if you are dancing,” she used to say. I dance. I always have and always will.
My husband and I grew up in the same town and dated through high school and most of college. We are from a small, liberal college town in the Hudson Valley, NY–about 70 miles north of NYC. Growing up in the Hudson Valley shaped me as an artist. I had my first experience with modern dance when I was 9 years old. A local modern dance teacher brought Earl Mosley from Alvin Ailey to teach us parts of Revelations. This burgeoning bun head threw away her bobby pins and toe shoes (and yes, I had a teacher who put me on pointe at 9) and never looked back. Of course, I continued with ballet all the way through college but I had found the dance technique that looked like I felt when I danced.
At 15 years old I was invited to join the Vanaver Caravan Dance Company; a modern and percussive dance company run by a couple that started traveling the world in the 1970’s learning and preserving world dance. Working with Livia and Bill Vanaver shaped who I am as a dancer. We studied percussive techniques from Appalachian Clogging, to Rhythm tap, flamenco and Irish step dancing. The training and exposure I gained from working with them has made me the artist I am today. I am a veteran performer, I have danced everywhere and anywhere from a rickety stage at a rolicking folk festival in Nowheresville, NY to a full run at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow. Bill Vanaver’s insistence that I follow my Southern Spanish blood led me to the art form that has changed my life and become my passion: Flamenco.
I majored in Arts Management and Dance at Emerson College in Boston. My junior year found me in Granada, Spain where I finally decided to heed Bill Vanaver’s advice and give this flamenco thing a try. My first class left me feeling like a complete idiot as a dancer and a disgrace to my Andalusian blood. But I was hooked. Despite my protests to let me drop out and use my tuition money for dance classes, my parents made me go back to Boston to finish my senior year.
Jack, my husband– then boyfriend— and I parted ways before I returned to Spain. He went on to graduate from Northeastern University and enlist in the Navy as a Combat Photographer and Navy Diver. I was so distressed at his decision that I told him if he enlisted he’d never see me again. He told me I would never find someone who loved me like he did. Fast forward five years. Jack found his passions of diving and photography and traveled the world with the Navy. I had been living in Spain hustling to stay there and dancing at every free moment. To support myself I became a certified TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher and yoga teacher. I also started my Masters Degree in Social Work because of a very loud voice inside that had been telling me that I needed to help people heal through dance and movement.
Jack and I reconnected and got married. Now, he is a Public Affairs Officer. I have my MSW and we are living in Spain with our two beautiful daughters. Life is miraculous.
How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as an artist- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Agreeing to become a military spouse was an easy decision for me to make. It was terrifying, but the choice to share my life with the man I love was simple. As any military spouse will tell you, we never really know what we are getting into. I knew these things:
I wanted to be with this man and start a family with him more than anything in the world.
There would be a possibility to live in Europe and perhaps Spain.
I would have health insurance and financial support so I could finally stop hustling and focus on what I really wanted to do: performing/teaching flamenco and using my MSW to practice somatic movement therapy.
On good days, I love the military and the opportunities it has offered me. I am back in Spain. I am sitting in a cafe in Jerez as I write this. Spain feeds my soul. The military has challenged me to fight for my art. I am a multi-faceted artist. I can get my creative fix from yoga, sewing, quilting, knitting or drawing (something I have only recently returned to), but as my mother has always reminded me; I NEED to dance like I need to breathe. When I become complacent about this, I get unhappy.
Yes, moving every two to three years has impacted my career. The nature of flamenco as an art form is that it needs a group of musicians and dancers to exist as flamenco is meant to be performed. It’s improvisational structure means you simply cannot dance to recorded music. This makes it hard when you don’t have a community of flamenco artists. I work around that by swallowing my pride when necessary and “dancing” to prerecorded music. It is not ideal, but if it is a question of working or not, I choose to work.
I maintain strong ties with the Vanaver Caravan and other artists in New York. I try to organize master classes and performances when I know I am going to be in the area. I dream of the day that my family can plant some roots and BE in a place long enough where I can form a “cuadro flamenco” (flamenco group), a body of students and start working on my Social Work licensure and Somatic Movement Education and Therapy certification with the goal of opening a private practice.
You’ve recently moved (back) to Spain for a PCS. What are you up to or planning during your time in Spain (artistically or personally)? What tips or advice do you have for artists getting back to work after a PCS?
Life in Spain: A gift from the Navy Gods.
Being a flamenco dancer in Spain is my dream, but it is impacted by motherhood. My daughters are 5 and a half and 2 years old. My eldest daughter is in kindergarten in a school in our neighborhood and I am home with my two year old. Full-disclosure: I find that my role as a MOTHER is much more challenging to my artistic career than the military is. I am trying to balance everything. I have two young children and a husband who works long hours, I have to be realistic and efficient about what I can accomplish in the three years I have in Spain.
I believe that life is lived in seasons. Certain passions, projects, and aspects of life need to lie fallow while others are nurtured and cultivated. It is NECESSARY to allow things to lie fallow in order for them to be healthy and grow. This is my mantra as a military spouse, mother AND as an artist. How do I implement this rather ethereal thought?
I try to keep focused on my art and career through the perspective of the current season. What I was able to do during the last four years, when my husband was away more than half of the time, is different than what I am able to do now.
Before we moved to Spain I came up with three artistic goals relating to my flamenco. These new skills and experiences one can only gain here in Spain. I have found two teachers who can help me achieve my goals and each week I take a private class with one of them. Currently, that is what I am able to do. Privates are the best use of my time and my money. I teach a few private flamenco classes when asked. The Americans in my classes like that I speak English. I also teach creative movement classes to offset the cost of my studying. Next year, I might be teaching yoga at my daughter’s school. I keep Morning Pages in my bullet journal/planner and am constantly checking in to make sure I am staying focused on my goals. Because of my particular quirks, I have to reality check almost daily to assure myself that I am being fair in light of what season we are in. For some reason my inner critic still judges me as if I were a single twenty-three year old. Anyone older than thirty can see the negative implications of that!
What’s next for you?
My “up next” goals have to be in list form. If I go too deep into depth I will never stop. I would love any input or ideas that could help them move along…
Produce the First Annual Hudson Valley Flamenco Festival in 2018.
Plan three gigs for the three weeks I am in NY this summer.
Choreograph the basics of one new piece before September.
Work on my Social Work Licensure when we return to the States
Begin work on my Somatic Movement Education and Therapies Certification.
In this season:
I have three daily goals: do something for self-care, do something creative, do something toward my flamenco goals. It can’t be five hours in the studio, in the zone, sweating and weeping over my outpouring of brilliance. My daily flamenco goal is usually a stolen half hour whilst trying to ignore wails for my attention. But that is life right now. It won’t be life next year or even next month. This is my season of mothering; of having young children who need my caring love and nurturing focus all the time.
Thank you, Anna, for sharing your work and your words. Now, dear readers, are you inspired, engaged, or curious? Don’t be shy, post a comment below or on our facebook group or facebook page. MilspoFAN artists love to hear feedback (and adoring praise, or course!) from you.
Writing the MilspoFAN Artist Interview blog posts always tickles my “vicarious bone”. I love hearing the unique stories of each spouse and getting to put myself into her (we have had all women so far) shoes for a long, fascinating moment. Without fail, this process brings me a lovely and refreshing perspective, and a sense of wonder and possibility of what this unique lifestyle can be. This month, our interviewee’s personality bounces off the page. I find myself giggling along with her in one moment and in the next I’m swept up in the verve with which she tells her story. Becky Hepinstall Hilliker is an historian, Navy wife, mother of four, and author. Sisters of Shiloh, which she co-wrote with her sister Kathy, is the story of two sisters who disguise themselves as men in order to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Becky’s effervescent enthusiasm for history and delightful sense of humor come alive in her interview and I am so pleased to share her story here on the blog. After reading the interview, be sure to connect with Becky and the MilspoFAN community– ask a question, tell us your own related story, or pull your favorite quote from the interview and post it in the comments below, or over at our Facebook page or group. Then grab a copy of Sisters of Shiloh(here’s a link!)
Itching to know more about the real women who inspired Sisters of Shiloh? Becky has included some links to a few more articles (which she wrote!) about the real women who fought in the Civil War at the bottom of the interview.
But first, here’s Becky in her own words… MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Becky: I was raised outside of Houston, Texas and have been a lover of history my entire life. I had intended to write history textbooks after I graduated from the University of Texas, but ended up working in the Internet industry just as it began to boom. Yes, I’m that old. While working in Austin, I met my husband, Jesse, where every good Christian girl meets a boy…in a country-dance bar. He was up from flight training in Kingsville for the weekend visiting friends, and the rest, as they say, is history.
MilspoFAN: What are some of your favorite places to have lived? Becky: I have to confess, I love moving. Not the stressful mechanics of it, of course, but the excitement of change. Both Jesse and I left for college from the homes in which we were born, so we had never experienced getting to alter your surroundings every few years. We’ve lived in Lemoore, England, China Lake, Virginia Beach twice and Newport, and now we’ve recently been stationed back in China Lake. I’ll admit that the desert isn’t my favorite place, but it has its own kind of unique beauty. Our family motto is that of many other military families – “bloom where you’re planted.” So we try to make the most of any duty station and see and do all there is to offer before we move again.
My very favorite place we lived was definitely England. As a history enthusiast, I was fascinated every second. The very ground there just feels…ancient. We lived less than 3 miles from Stonehenge. The night before the summer solstice, where the sunrise lines up exactly with the stones the same way it has for 5000 years, we actually hiked in the dark using old Roman paths until we joined a huge group of people in the stones to watch the sun come up. That was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I know I should probably mention the birth of my four children as another one of those moments…but really the whole Stonehenge thing was so much better than labor and delivery.
MilspoFAN: You co-wrote Sisters of Shiloh with your sister, Kathy. Tell us a little about that project. Becky: Sisters of Shiloh is the story of two sisters who join the Stonewall Brigade during the Civil War and fight disguised as men. One sister, Libby, vows to avenge the death of her husband after he is killed at Antietam, and her older sister, Josephine, follows her, determined to keep her safe at all costs. Along the way, Libby begins to descend into madness, and Josephine finds love amidst the turmoil of war, but cannot reveal herself without betraying her sister.
In 2002, after her second novel, Absence of Nectar, was published, Kathy asked if I would like to write a book with her. Although she never shared my passion for the past, when I told her about some of the women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War, she was equally intrigued. That led to mountains of research and months of writing, but we couldn’t find a publisher at the time. Ten years went by as Kathy went on to write other novels and continue her work in advertising, and I had four children and seven moves to occupy my time. In late 2012 Kathy showed the first half of the novel to her agent and he ended up getting it into the hands of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. We rewrote the back half and it was finally published in hardcover in 2015 and paperback in 2016.
MilspoFAN: In 2015, Joe Holley wrote that you are a “history fanatic and “indefatigable researcher” (to read his article, click here). How did your passion and academic experience in history lead to co-writing Sisters of Shiloh? Becky: Growing up Kathy was always a creative genius – you know, the kind that was writing poems at 3 and publishing short stories at 8 and annoying…I mean wonderful… stuff like that. I was obsessed with history and had my nose in a book most of the time. I tried to convince the neighborhood children that I was Queen Elizabeth I, reincarnated and transported to the Houston suburbs by a tornado. And I wonder why no one wanted to come to my birthday parties.
As I began to formally study history, I developed more of a non-fiction writing style and fell even more in love with the true stories of love and loss and triumph and tragedy. I wanted to pursue a career writing textbooks in the hopes that maybe I could write one that wouldn’t put students to sleep.
But, as I said, I stumbled into the world of Internet marketing.I continued to work in that field after Jesse and I were married, but moving overseas for a one-year assignment ended that. It was during that year that we spent in England while Jesse attended the Empire Test Pilot School that Kathy suggested we write together. She was in Los Angeles at the time, so writing a book together (no FaceTime back then), was a challenge. We communicated by email and phone and faxed pages back and forth.
When we began this process in the fall of 2002, there had been very little written about the subject of the women who fought disguised as men. There were few vetted historical sources available on the Internet, so it was really only used in the process of contacting local historians and experts. We researched this book for about a year and a half, and continued the process while we were writing (undoubtedly, some question would arise within the narrative – what kinds of objects might be in the scene, what flora and fauna would be nearby, etc.).
During trips back from England, I dragged Kathy to all of the battlefields and walked the fields with Park Rangers, trying to envision what it would be like for the characters. We spent a week at Antietam and were lucky to get to meet repeatedly with a National Park Service Archaeologist. We met with local experts in the Winchester and Sharpsburg areas. I also researched in the Handley Library in Winchester, and in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park Archives at Chatham Manor. We poured over scores of books we found about the period, including several first-hand accounts. We studied what people of the period wore, what they ate, how they spoke and how they acted.
I loved every second of the research. Kathy started drinking. Just kidding…not really.
MilspoFAN: Holley’s article also mentioned an upcoming project about Nachthexen. The description sounds completely fascinating. Can you tell us a little about this project and if this book still in the works?
Becky: I’ve developed an appreciation for aviation, having been with a pilot for nearly 20 years now. That’s a nice way of saying “I have been to 763 airshows, mostly against my will.” But I was really intrigued when I learned about the “Nightwitches,” Russian female bomber pilots who played a big role in Russia’s air combat during World War II. Much like with the women soldiers of the Civil War, there has been very little written about these incredibly fierce women. Kathy and I originally thought we’ d write another historical novel about them, and that may still happen, but right now I’m thinking that I might like to try my hand at a narrative non-fiction book about them first.
MilspoFAN: Many MilspoFANs and Military Spouses are interested in balancing creative work with family and the demands of their spouse’s career. What does your work-life balance look like on a typical day? What logistical advice can you share with readers about how to keep working passionately through PCS-ing, raising children, deployments, and all the rest of the excitement that comes with the Military Spouse lifestyle?
Becky: I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Right now I’m in a new town with four kids playing six sports and a husband who travels frequently (but, thank goodness, not currently deploying). I’m lucky if I manage to feed them all on a daily basis. I am trying to work on another book, but the days just slip by. But as my oldest just turned 13 (Lord, help me), and my husband passed the 20 year mark in the Navy, I see how very quickly it all goes by. Before I know it, I’ll have plenty of time to devote to writing.
My only advice to my fellow military spouses is this: GIVE YOURSELVES A BREAK. We are our own worst critics and it is so easy to get into a shame spiral. We feel guilty that we’re not giving enough attention to our careers, our kids, our spouses, our communities or our spouse’s groups. Our houses aren’t clean enough and the laundry is never done. It’s. Never. Enough. Carrying around all that guilt and frustration can really start to drag you down. And that’s not even touching the stress that comes with deployments and frequent moves.
I’ve really struggled with this habit of beating myself up, so I’ve been actively trying to create little victories for myself. And to carve out a few moments of time just for me every day. Just a few minutes where I sit with my notebook and jot down whatever I can. And then I tell myself “I have done something that matters to me today.” This makes me feel like I’m making progress and really helps me to build positive momentum and not obsess about all of the ways I feel like I’m failing. It’s amazing how one simple change like that can transform your whole outlook.
MilspoFAN: Where can I find more information about the women who inspired Sisters of Shiloh? Becky: If anyone would like to know more about the real women who fought in the Civil War , below are links to some articles I wrote for Ancestry.com -.
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