• Tuesday, May 03, 2016 10:19 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Lucky Charms

    The beauty of a lucky charm is that it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. 

    Mine include shells and a stone with the word INSPIRE inscribed. 

    The shells recall the year I taught dance throughout the Caribbean and how afraid I was at times. “But it’s good to be afraid,” they remind, “you pay closer attention when you’re afraid.” 

    The stone is from a friend who said I inspired her daughter, Rose. “Really?” I said, “Because I remember thinking you wouldn’t like what I had to say.” 

    Why did I say it anyway? For the same reason I keep my shells close, to remind me how fear is a huge part of it. 

    And by “it” I mean my work, the most essential part of my life. 

    But saying this is what I was afraid of. It would have been safer to say not that my work is the most essential part, but second to love, family, the kind of thing people say all the time. 

    I wondered, too, if I should have directed Rose toward a higher paying career to help drive the economy. But my driving advice is more: inch along until you find the work you really want to do.

    You may be thinking, “What, are you kidding me? That won’t pay the bills.” 

    But I’ve come to believe that money is overrated. Too little is horrible, but less is not the end of the world. I don’t know how much of this insight comes from being a woman or an artist, or both, but I can’t stop trying to figure out the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we should want. And why it so often keeps us from pursuing our dreams.

    I told Rose that if we have the courage to do what we love, it’s our best career choice. But in order to continue, most of us can’t fall prey to owning all the things people buy to try and ensure their happiness.

    After college, I worked as a waitress…until I threw a drink at a patron who said an inappropriate thing with his hand on my behind. I’m glad I was fired. Because the money was good. I might have stayed too long and not got on with my dream of opening a dance studio. 

    Well, obviously dance studios don’t pay all that well, either. So I found an affordable town to move to. My life moved on. And so did Rose’s.

    Rose dreamed of becoming a writer. But she went to work for the huge, thrusting, economy-driven tech world dedicated to making more and more stuff we don’t need. The last time I heard from her? February 2014. She gave reasons why she had no time to write. 

    So often I’ve wondered what would have happened if she’d kept at it? If she’d allowed herself to go without mortgaging a condo and all the trendy furniture to fill it?

    I know how delicate a balance between passion and a lofty paycheck is. I also know how many well-paid people I meet who can’t remember the last time they felt excited about their work.

    Recently I came across a display of stones like mine. And I was thrilled to find my favorite noun inscribed: PERSISTENCE.

    I lost touch with Rose. 

    But I keep my eye out for that book she always wanted to write.

    Mary Lou Sanelli

    Mary Lou Sanelli works as a writer and literary speaker. Her latest book is A Woman Writing. For more information visit

  • Tuesday, May 03, 2016 6:21 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Thursday, March 03, 2016 2:13 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

    Michael Jackson looks down at us from his seat on a magnificent stallion in the first gallery of the Seattle Art Museum’s stunning exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.” Looking closer we see subtle references to Jackson’s famously changing color: from rear to head, the horse actually changes color from brown to white and, in the sky, a white and a brown putto place a garland on his head. Wiley actually met with Jackson and the singer chose the Rubens equestrian portrait of Philip II of Spain as the basis for his portrait (in the original the horse is brown and includes voluptuous women with a globe in the sky). Wiley titled his painting “Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II of Spain (Michael Jackson),” making his provocative purpose clear.  The 16th -17th centuries were the height of colonization and the slave trade, so placing Michael Jackson in the seat of power of that time  provides an intense contradiction and brilliant upending of history.

    Kehinde Wiley characterizes black masculinity in our contemporary media culture as “structured, manufactured and consumed” to create a “conspicuous fraud.” He repositions black men and women from their traditional role in “grand manner” paintings as slaves or servants or in our media as victims or perpetrators of violence. In Kehinde Wiley’s paintings black people become heroes and saints. Most of his models are ordinary people, rather than celebrities, making the transformation all the more dramatic and pointed.

    He embeds this driving purpose in painting and sculpture that overwhelms us with beauty, scale, and technical virtuosity. As he acknowledges the risk of aesthetics obscuring meaning, he encourages us to look beyond our first glance to the many understated jokes and surprises in the details of the work.

    The artist jump shifts from one historical format to another, keeping us dazzled by his references, but disrupted by his reinterpretations.

    Among the portraits, “Mugshot Study” 2006, based on a wanted poster the artist found in the street, stands out as a point of departure and foundation for the more elaborate works. Wiley here simply enhances a traditional mugshot, humanizing the young man with classical chiaroscuro. Under the portrait we see the assigned criminal number of the young man, almost invisible in white on white—a reference to who gave him the number and his status in a society that incarcerates millions of black men. 

    A roomful of “Religious Subjects” glow with gold leaf on small private altars, echoing the format of Hans Memling’s fifteenth century portraits of Flemish merchants. Here contemporary young black men hold emblems of power, their names declaring their identity.

    Wiley began his project by finding volunteers in the streets of Harlem, what he calls “street casting,” although he presents only beautiful people (he also found models at a casting studio). Unlike for example, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres’s plaster portraits of ordinary people in the barrio, Wiley’s focus is on physical beauty, even perfection, set in precisely quoted historical formats.  If we are going to consume black men, he suggests, let us consume them as a supremely special experience based on elite status, rather than as criminals or victims or sports stars. 

    As we are bathed in the transparent colors of a room full of stained glass windows, beautiful black men as saints interrupt our expectations of religious clichés.  These windows were created by skilled German artisans who have inherited the secrets of the centuries—old techniques of medieval stained glass windows, a format normally reserved for dead white saints.

    Nearby, an alcove of small bronze portraits in the classical Jean Houdon style of idealized head truncated on a pedestal, features African and African Americans. Again interrupting an easy identification with an historical reference, the model for “Cameroon Study” had a shoe on his head. According to the artist, he based it on a shoe seller who balanced a shoe on his head as a way to advertise his wares. Such a surprise is vintage Wiley: a classical format tilts in a new direction.

    Michael Jackson’s equestrian portrait belongs to the theme “Symbols of Power.” As a partner to that, Wiley created “An Economy of Grace,” portraits of women. Again he found random women to participate, but in this case they were elaborately adorned in Givenchy gowns, with sensational hair arrangements by the celebrity hair stylist Dee Trannybear. By far my favorite of the women’s portraits was “Judith and Holofernes” in which an imposing black Judith holds the white head of Holofernes (also a women) against a lush flower background. Wiley’s flower backgrounds have a way of wending their way in front of the figure, and most of them have metaphorical significance.

    Aside from the triple bronze portrait “Bound,” of three women with huge braided hair intertwined, most of these portraits of women do not critique colonialism and its grand manner presumptions. Black women do not carry the same position as black men in our public media—we have Oprah for example. We think of black women as powerful, rather than as victims, as bearers of culture and home, as resistors to oppression, as fighters. Celebrity black fashion models date back several decades and Wiley’s insistence on lavish designer gowns and hair seemed to sit in that tradition, although perhaps the exaggeration of the hair and dress was itself a type of critique because it endowed these women as royalty not just objects of beauty.

    Wiley’s painting and sculpture overwhelm us with their scale and meticulous detail (he works with a team in China these days). He floods us with sensory overload, then provokes us with the unexpected at every turn.  

    Susan Noye Platt, Ph.D
    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D., art historian, art critic, curator, activist, published “Art and Politics Now, Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis” in 2011 emphasizing activist artists in the first ten years of the 21st century. She continues to address politically engaged art on her blog As a curator, her focus is art about immigration, migration, and detention.

    “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is on view until May 8, Wednesday through Sunday at the Seattle Art Museum, located at 1300 First Avenue in Seattle, Washington. For more information, visit

  • Thursday, March 03, 2016 1:42 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)


    Six years ago, I did a lot of research for a book I was writing about friendship. I wrote down things in one of those tiny notebooks I carry around, things like: “You don’t need a thick skin to have friends. You need a porous one.”

    And there was a moment last night when I thought I was about to share this quote with someone. I was giving a talk at a Unitarian Women’s Retreat. During the Q & A, almost everyone likes to tell a story about their own experience.

    One woman shared that according to an article she’d read, as many as fifteen percent of American adults don’t have a single close friend. “This means,” she said, whipping out her phone to do the math, except she couldn’t figure how to use her calculator, “well, anyway, a lot of people are friendless.”

    “Sad, considering how well connected we are,” I said, very much facetiously, pointing at her phone.

    “The author said she interviewed people who are turning to Siri for contact, but that’s not contact. Why should I care if a machine knows I’m lonely?”

    And then the question went around the room: What do we mean by close?

    “Someone who will offer to pick me up at the airport.”

    “Someone who will sit with you when your mother dies and let you cry for hours.”

    “I called my friend Lynette when my pressure cooker exploded,” I said. “Split pea soup everywhere. I couldn’t cope.”

    “I don’t have a friend who would clean up split pea soup,” another said. “Close, but not that close.”

    I had to think. Let’s see, I have at least three friends I can call when crises strikes. And a few more recent ones that I hope will be as long-lasting. But I’ve lost enough to understand that the closer friendships are, the more fragile they can become. Which reminds me of another truth I wrote in my notebook, “tread carefully.”

    Another said she found it difficult to keep friends, that she tends to wind up disappointed. And because so many other women at so many other Q & As have expressed the same problem, I assumed, wrongly, that she was struggling with friendship in the long run because of an unrealistic perfection quest. I think of all the pain I could have saved if I’d just brought my expectations down a notch or two over the years.

    I was about to say as much. And that in each of my closest friendships there has been at least one moment when we could have broken up, but we came through, stronger than ever. I nearly shared another quote, too: “Friendships are like marriages. We love each other, but we have to be able to hate each other sometimes, too. Even be bored by each other.”

    Luckily, before I said any of this, I asked, “What do you mean by disappointed?”

    She stared at me.

    “What disappoints you?” I repeated.

    And this was her honest, unabashed, and totally unexpected reply:

    “You mean, like, when she slept with my husband?”

    The room went silent. Then, oh, how we laughed! Her reply was so real, yet so unassertive, I’ve never forgotten it. The whole evening was intimate and special like that. That’s the most interesting part about the work I do: No matter how well I plan ahead — going over my notes, knowing my material—it’s usually something totally unplanned that makes the whole evening one of the more satisfying.

    And the most interesting part of writing is that it’s like having those evenings back.

    Marylou Sanelli

    Marylou Sanelli works as a writer and literary speaker. Her latest book is A Woman Writing. For more information visit

  • Wednesday, January 06, 2016 4:27 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Wednesday, January 06, 2016 4:19 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Crustaceans in a Bucket

    It’s Sunday, and I’m in my office, which is really just a little nook in my living room that doesn’t do justice to the word office. But it’s enough space for me.

    My famous-writer-friend calls my office “cute.” And when she phones to ask if I’ll look in on her cat while she’s teaching at a writer’s conference in Prague, something I ordinarily would have felt perfectly justified hanging up on her for, I am happy to do it. My husband is on a business trip and I’m a cat person.

    “Sure,” I say, trying hard to keep the jealousy out of my voice. “I could use the company.”

    I slip into a silent funk. In a word, I am green.

    But I like her. I’ve always liked her. When I think about her, I’m glad we’re friends, and as the years go by, I am more and more certain we will remain so. On the subject of friendship, it’s a pretty simple question I ask myself lately: Does the thought of her bring a genuine smile to my face or a wince?

    A smile!

    Unless I think of her in Prague.

    Or her trust fund status.

    Then, dang, it can feel as though the envy is never going to turn around.

    But it does. Eventually. It seems I have this large capacity for spending half of my emotional energy in a state of self-doubt, and the other half in a burst of confidence, with a dancer’s flexibility for balancing between the two. Until I wonder what on earth I was so jealous of until I want to kick myself.

    Have you ever seen sand crabs in a bucket? I’ll never forget the time I was walking the beach by the ferry terminal in Kingston and I came across a fisherman who stuck his hand into a white 5-gallon bucket full of crabs he said he used for bait. “Why don’t they escape?” I asked.

    “They’re crabs,” he said. “They ain’t too smart.”

    I watched as they scratched and scratched against the plastic, clawing over each other to get to the top, then as soon as one almost made it over the lip, the others pulled it back down.

    If they were smarter, I thought, they’d work together to make a kind of crustacean chain, like actors leaving stage hand-in-hand. Claw-to-claw, they’d file up and out over the rim until the last remaining crab is safely on the other side.

    I know why those crabs popped into mind just now. I’ve been caught in the scum of that bucket. I don’t want to spend one more minute feeling jealous of my friend. I’m glad there is no mirror in my nook. I would have hated to see myself scratching like that.

    And sure, I’ve written before about how jealousy can work as a beacon, too, steering us toward something we desire. But, like gossip, a little of it is fine, but too much and you’re one schlep away from embitterment.

    After a good long talking with myself, I gain control over my envies. The writer Daniel Gilbert calls this “babysitting our own happiness.” I just had to remind myself of the golden rule of a satisfied life, or “Comparing Leads to Unhappiness,” words that, ever since they flashed across my screen in the film, “Hector and the Search for Happiness,” I try to apply whenever I feel the sides of the bucket closing in.

    Like my friend’s cat, I just like it better when the woman who babysits me is happy.

    Plus, my friend always takes the time to write a real thank you note. With a stamp and an envelope! And you know how much I love that.

    Mary Lou Sanelli

    Mary Lou Sanelli’s newest book is A Woman Writing: A Memoir in Essays, What writing about writing taught me about determination, persistence, and the ups and downs of choosing a writing life. For more information and her author reading schedule, visit

  • Tuesday, September 29, 2015 11:49 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    The Alaskan Way Viaduct sings a roaring in our ears,

    her hoary freight bears down—rebarred and quaking 

    to crush—we stop our ears at stria screeching to break 


    Sing a glacial aria. Picture her—she once rode 

    a surfboard ice floe ripping through solid water slipping 

    the firn, making breccia wakes, scraping 

    all matter of chattermarks.

    Harmonize a glacier-blue blush—she was whole mother of forward 

    surge for half an eon, could not be stopped, 

    shadowed the glacier that swept this same Sound. 

    Now we cannot hoist her out of her chair.

    Aphasia—she forgets the second verse.

    Words freeze midbrain, coda becomes hum. She falls 

    in a crevasse, off-ramps sequestering carbon—so much 

    concrete we recant, we can’t watch icebergs calving fast ice.

    She slows—cowers shifts direction like a white wind rose, 

    her petals shrivel in frazil. 

    She lies—this is not the full story. 

    Her tongue muddles in slush. Albedo lost, all reflection dulls.

    Once their song clamored.

    Now 99, glacier dwindle in cirques, caught in arête, 

    retreat since the last ice age, since the last 

    carbon storm.

    Janet Norman Knox

    Janet Norman Knox is a poet/playwright/performance artist who 

    bikes via the viaduct twice a day and shudders beneath its mass. 

    Her play, “9 Gs and the Red Telephone,” is forthcoming in 

    Feminist Studies, the first scholarly journal in women’s studies.

    Visit the online journal at

  • Tuesday, June 30, 2015 9:49 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Used to be what you’d see

    from back roads was random  

    bits of whatall going on

    pig lot wood lot cattle grazing

    whitewashed fences hay barns

    corn cathedrals looping on and on

    but now an open swath of road

    ravels away in the moonlight

    slow curves mown through the land 

    with ditches to gather the runoff

    country in its baffled emptiness 

    lain open to invaders

    with tumbleweed piling high

    against barbed wire till one 

    windblown survivor spills over

    Paul Hunter

    Paul Hunter is a Seattle poet and letterpress publisher who carves hardwood blocks to go with his lead type.  He won the Washington State Book Award for “Breaking Ground,” his first book of farming poems.

  • Tuesday, June 30, 2015 9:46 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Ode to the Seattle Viaduct

    She's lying

    on her side draped in Greek linen the color of concrete. 

    She flanks the waterfront, tides lapping her toes.


    She lounges her cold

    stone stare - not grin, not grimace - 

    the curve of cheekbone propped on elbow,

    no hint of heat welling

    from a pelvic floor - in fact, we're pretty sure 

    those pretty thighs are carved as one solid slab.

    We're not clear what she desires, 

    but we've got a hunch

    she'll get anything she orders.


    She lunches on mussels dredged 

    from pilings, steamed or bristling, 

    canned in cars careening

    up and down her spine craving 

    internal combustion engines

    to vibrate her cement skin 

    exhaust dusting the spots 

    where she shines - because horses once sweated, 

    men once perspired to build this highway,

    so she might glow with such gravitas 

    so elevated her position that she tests 

    the very fate she seals 

    as we dispense with all caution

    and come hither. 

    Janet Norman Knox

    Janet Norman Knox is a poet/playwright/performance artist who 

    bikes via the viaduct twice a day and shudders beneath its mass. 

    Her play, "9 Gs and the Red Telephone," is forthcoming in 

    Feminist Studies, the first scholarly journal in women's studies.

    Visit the online journal at

  • Tuesday, June 30, 2015 2:32 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

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