About beckyblackpowell

artifiquestudio is an online art gallery that specializes in small, affordable art. Each piece is hand made and one of a kind. Becky Powell is the owner of artifiquestudio and her work is available on Etsy and on artifiquestudio.com.

Nothing Stays the Same

Downtown Nashville

Image via Wikipedia

One aspect of home schooling – for better or for worse – is that the student as immersed in the peer pressure cooker.  My son is independent in lots of ways, but that fact remains that he and I are together a whole lot of the time.  It doesn’t seem to bother him, for which I am grateful, but I do worry that he’s going to be lost when he goes off to college.

But then, on Thursday, we had one of those milestone days.  For example:  the first day the kid pulls themselves upright and toddles across to your outstretched arms.  They day they figured out they could dress themselves, or when they squiggle their hand out of yours as you’re walking them to school.   Thursday was one of those days.

He got up and did his school work.  He studied for the SAT math test.  He did a lesson in Arabic, and one lesson in graphic arts.  We had a discussion about the history of film, and talking about how readers add meaning to texts.

Then, he had a bagel with peanut butter and brown sugar and an apple for lunch, took a shower and gathered his things and drove himself to Nashville for a meeting with a college recruiter from a small liberal arts college in Ohio (Almost all small literal arts colleges are in Ohio, I’ve discovered.)  He met her at Bongo Java in east Nashville.  He wasn’t sure which one she was.  All the grown-ups had laptops and notebooks, he said.  She recognized him; he was the tall skinny kid in a hat.  They had a good meeting by all accounts. Then, he drove to an apartment complex across town to teach aikido to a group of middle school refugee students.

On the way, he stopped at Church’s Fried chicken and got a box of chicken legs because he was hungry.  Now, this may not sound like much, but for some reason it struck me as momentous.  This is the kid who expect mom to fix him breakfast, lunch and dinner to order whenever he’s ready.  And, he used his own money.

He brought his own mats for the class and he and his sensei set up on the tennis court where all the children in the apartment complex gathered to watch and try to copy the moves of the seven lucky kids who’d signed up for the class.

My son drove home – thirty miles or so on a winding two-lane highway in the truck he bought for $100.00 before he could even drive.  My husband and I were relieved, as always, to hear that rumbling engine pull into the drive.

At dinner last night, my husband asked me if, a year ago, he’d told me that my son would drive himself to Nashville, meet with a college recruiter, drive across Nashville, picking up and paying for his own dinner, then teaching martial arts to refugee children, if I would have believed him.  No, absolutely not.  Not in a million years. It’s the small things, those little milestones that remind us that nothing stays the same.

Getting into Fights

So, I’m working on my novel.  I know who’s going to be in it.  I have lengthy files documenting their life stories and psychological profiles, their wants and needs and hates.  They are as real to me as any of my neighbors I might wave at when going out to check my mail.

Unfortunately for my characters, it’s taking a little longer than expected to put them in place.  I could set them down in the streets of my story town and they would be right at home.  What I forgot, though, was how these characters would interact.

Two characters in particular hate each other, loathe one another, despise the very idea of the other.  But, that does my novel no good unless I can get these two fellows into a fight.  I’m good at getting them into conversations, or contemplations, or even a lively contretemps.  I’m having a hard time doing a fight.

My son, a martial artist, studied stage fighting, in which two or more actors appear to be having a real swashbuckler while in reality it’s all a choreographed dance.  Maybe if I see my characters’ fight as a dance, I can infuse my story with the dramatic tension it needs.  Look at the success of the movie The Black Swan.  Dance can be quite dramatic.  Ooh, I think I’m on to something!


The Buffalo Wife: A retelling of a Blackfoot Myth

by Becky Powell, Based on an old Blackfoot myth

“Things do not look so good for the tribe,” thought the chief, pulling fragrant smoke from his pipe.  “Those stubborn buffaloes.  They run to the edge of the cliff but refuse to jump off.  There is no way I can feed the whole tribe if we have to pick those arrogant creatures off one by one,” thought the chief. 

The sun made him crinkle his eyes as he looked up to the top of the cliff where the herd of buffalo stood still as statues. ” I believe that large one is laughing at me.  Ahh, what can I do?  The burden of leadership is a heavy one.”

Early the next day, the chief’s daughter stepped quietly out of the tent and went to fetch water for her family.  Early mornings were her favorite times because the tents were quiet and she could hear the sounds of nearby animals that would be impossible to hear once the tribe fully began their day.  As she filled her containers with cool water, a shape moved and caught the corner of her eye.  It was the Buffalo King.  He had lowered his head as if he is looking at me, thought the chief’s daughter.  Hmm, she thought.  Perhaps if I reason quietly with him in the cool sweet air of early morning, I can persuade him to let the herd jump off the cliff.

“Buffalo,” whispered the chief’s daughter, so as not to wake the sleeping people.  The buffalo shook his bushy head up and down.  “Buffalo, you must order your herd to leap off the cliff.  If you do not, my people will have no food for the winter and will starve,” she said.

The wind carried the Buffalo King’s message back to the chief’s daughter.  “You are brave, such a young and tender girl, to talk that way to a beast as proud and fearsome as I.”

“I do not fear you,” she said.  “I fear what will happen to my people if they must face the fierce winter without meat to fill their bellies and hides to keep them warm and dry.”

“Yes, you are brave.  Brave and kind to care so for your people.  I will strike a deal with you.  I will give the order for some of my herd to leap from this cliff.  But, in exchange, you must marry me when the deed is done.”

“Yes,” said the chief’s daughter.  “Whatever you wish.   Just give the order to leap.”

The Buffalo King brayed loud and long and a veil of buffalo soon descended the high cliff wall.  Then, a brown haze of dirt billowed up from the ground below.

The chief’s daughter was elated and she turned to run get her father to show him that the tribe could now survive the winter.  But, as she turned, the Buffalo King stood in her way.  “You have not forgotten your promise have you, girl?”

“No, of course not,” said the girl.  She didn’t want to go with the Buffalo King, but her nature was of truthfulness and honor.  So, the chief’s daughter became the buffalo king’s wife and left her home with her new husband and the remaining members of his herd.

Meanwhile, the chief had been awakened by the tremendous roar of the leaping and landing buffalo.  He rejoiced for now his people would not starve.  But, when the dust settled and he looked around for his family, he realized that his daughter was not there.  “She goes to the stream to fetch water every morning,” said his wife. “She is the reason you have something cool to drink when you wake.”

The chief ran to the stream, fearful he would find his daughter’s trampled body.  But he found nothing.  No daughter.  He knelt down to read the ground and then he knew the truth.  She has run off with a buffalo, cried the chief.

His wife packed him a lunch and the chief set out in search of the herd.  He soon came upon a place where the buffalo enjoyed wallowing in the cool mud.  The chief knelt behind a large bush in case the herd was there they would not see him.  A raven landed on the ground near the chief.

“Wise Raven, I ask you.  My daughter has run off with a buffalo.  You have such a good view of things when you fly.  I ask you, have you seen my daughter?”

“Oh yes,” said the Raven.  “Indeed, there is a pretty girl amongst the herd on the other side of the waddle.”

“This is good news, Raven.  Thank you.  I ask more of you now.  Will you go to my daughter and tell her that her father, the chief, is here on the other side of the waddle.  She should come to me at once and I will take her home to the safety of her family.”

The raven flew off with the chief’s message.  The buffalo were all asleep, but the chief’s daughter was awake, thinking about what her life would be like now that she was the buffalo king’s wife.

Raven landed near the chief’s daughter and gave her the chief’s message.

Oh, no, Raven.  I cannot go to my father.  The buffalo would be angry and would trample him to death.  Tell him to stay still and I will think of some way out of this.

Raven flew back to the chief with the message.  At the rustle of the Raven’s wings, the Buffalo King awoke.  He pulled off a horn and gave it to his new wife.  Take this to the creek on the other side of the waddle and bring me a drink.

The chief’s daughter did has her husband asked, thinking she might see her father so she could kiss him good-bye so the safety of the tribe would be protected.

When the chief saw his daughter, he ran to her and took her in his arms.  “Thank goodness I have found you.  Now you must come with me back to your family where you belong.”

“Oh no, father.  I cannot go with you.  I gave my word to the Buffalo King and he has a fearsome temper.  I am his now, and if you take what is his, he will trample you to death and then trample our people.”

The chief took a deep breath in preparation for a lecture to his daughter on the roles of father and daughter when a deep rumbling shook the ground beneath their feet.

“Oh, no,”  cried the Chief’s daughter, “he has seen me with you.”  But it was too late.  The Buffalo King let his head down and led a fierce charge.  The herd trampled the chief so thoroughly that his body disappeared.

The chief’s daughter began to weep.  “Why are you crying, wife?” asked the Buffalo King.

“He was my father and you killed him.”

“Many of my herd was killed to feed your people and you did not cry for them.”

“I’m sorry, husband.  He was my father, my family.  He raised me and taught me and my love for him runs deep and strong.  I will cry many tears for a long time because my father is dead at my husband’s hooves.”  The Buffalo King saw that the chief’s daughter’s feelings were strong and would prevent her from ever having tender feelings for him. ” I’ll tell you what,” said the king.  “If you can raise your father from the dead, you can go back with him to your family.”  Some of the herd snickered, which only served to increase the resolve of the chief’s daughter.

” I accept your challenge,” she said.  To the raven, the girl said, “Please, Raven, see if your sharp eye and advantageous perspective can spot some small fragment of my father’s body.”  The Raven hovered above the ground for some tense moments, then dived to the ground, picked something up with his beak and returned it at the girl’s feet.  It was a single vertebra from her father’s spine.

The girl laid the vertebra tenderly on the ground and covered it with her shawl.  Then she began to sing a powerful song.  The song told the history of her people.  She sang of the beginning times and the times of great sorrow and of great joy.  She sang of heroic deeds and the things done every day that carried her people through time.  The girl’s song was so powerful that the Buffalo King cried, much to his embarrassment.

Then, the shawl seemed to grow.  Underneath it the form of a man took shape.  The chief’s daughter pulled on the shawl, and there sat her father – alive and whole.

The buffalo king was dumbstruck by what he’d just seen.  Who would have dreamt the little girl’s song could have such power, thought the king.  He knew he had to let the girl go back with her father and he grew sad at the thought.  Then, he had an idea.

“Girl who used to be my wife.  If you hold such power, why couldn’t you bring my buffalo family to life after they die from the leap off the chief?  Your people could eat and my herd could continue to roam the prairies.”

The chief’s daughter thought a moment, and then agreed.  “It is only fair that, because you provide food to my people, I give your herd the chance to live on.”

The Buffalo King gave a signal to his herd, and the beasts turned and walked away.

Noble creatures, buffalo, said the chief.  “Come, daughter.  No more excuses.  It is time to go home.”

Naming Rights

Over the summer I bought a couple dozen wooden tic-tac-toe games gathered small items, icons and images that seemed to go together around a theme.

I called them  “shrines”.  When the pieces went up on Etsy, someone messaged me to ask why I called them shrines.

Uh-oh.  I’m in the Bible-belt.  I recognize a challenge when I see it.  What right do I have to use a religious-ish word any old way I choose?  Or, maybe the word “shrine” has some evil or graven-image-like pall to it so that I was perhaps advocating Harry Potter worship of some kind. It was a question, I thought, designed to flush me out into sacrilege territory, where I’d be an easy victim of religious certainty.

I hit the dictionary to determine if I could back up my shrines as shrines in a literal sense.  Various dictionaries defined “shrine” as:

  • A place of religious devotion or commemoration; a place where devotion is paid to a deity, or where the bones of a venerated person are interred; a container for sacred relics; a site hallowed by association with a revered person or object.  Under this last meaning, Independence Hall qualifies as a shrine to American Liberty.  (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • A place that is connected with a holy event or a holy person; a place that people like to visit and respect because it is associated with a venerated person or event.  This definition means that it’s okay to call Graceland a shrine to Elvis.  (Longman Dictionary)
  • A place or object hallowed by its associations.  (Merriam Webster)

So, at this point, I was satisfied that the word “shrine” could be used to describe something other than religion.  If it’s a good enough word for Independence Hall and Graceland, its good enough for me.  But, the definitions raised other questions about the appropriateness of my nomenclature.  What does it mean to “venerate” someone or something?  Is that the same as worshipping someone?  That would spit me right back out into sacrilege territory again.

And, what does it take for a place or person to be “commemorated” or “hallowed”?  Is this a decision to be made unilaterally by, say an artist, or does it require some sort of group action?  My head was spinning.  Had I misnamed my artwork?

Then, in an I-could-have-had-a-V8 moment, I realized it was my artwork.  And here is the rule for naming my artwork:  I get to call my pieces any damn thing I want.  Problem solved.


Watching Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out in 1992, much too long ago to write a relevant review.  Think of this not as a review, then, but an interpretation out of context.  I saw the film for the first time a few days ago.  Afterwards, slightly teary and numb, I realized three things.  First, I realized I had made it to over 50 years knowing next to nothing about Malcolm X.  Second, I realized that Spike Lee must have been born with the ability to punch his audience in the gut.  Third, I realized that when you watch a film outside the box created by its immediate cultural construction, it can signify other, more universal truths.

I knew that Malcolm X was a controversial figure; the opposite bookend to Martin Luther King.  I knew that he converted to Islam and said things that scared white people.  I knew when the movie came out that there was controversy over whether it was too black or not black enough. But that’s about all I knew.

When you go to the theater to see a film, you usually have read reviews or heard things about it so that you go to the theater with certain expectations.  In a sense, you’ve already been told how to “read” or see the film.  In 1992, I would have gone to see Malcolm X at a theater expecting to decide for myself if he was a scary, militant black figure, or a misunderstood one, portrayed too harshly or too softly.   But, through the magic of passing years, I had no such expectations this time, allowing me to experience a different reading of the film.

To me, Malcolm X was about a man searching for who he was and what he believed in (shiny suits, booze and drugs, white girlfriends and money).  That didn’t work so well for him, and he landed in prison where he continued his search (converting to Islam, taking pride in being a black man, finding a mentor/idol, becoming an advocate and speech-maker).  Perhaps to Malcolm X, at this point in his life, he felt he had arrived; his search over and his life dedicated to advocating and helping others in their search.  But, that’s not the way it happened.  Malcolm X found out that his mentors were hypocrites not heroes.  Suddenly, everything Malcolm believed in was on shaky ground.

What Malcolm X did next is what made the film so powerful to me.

He admitted that he’d been mistaken to trust his mentors.  He admitted that some of the positions he’d taken before, he could no longer support.  He said, essentially, “I was wrong.”  The triumph for Malcolm X was that he was able to throw out the bath water without pitching out the baby, too.  He continued to be a fierce advocate for black people, but had the courage to reject the hypocrisy of the leaders in whom he’d invested so much time and devotion, and the skill to determine which pieces of his belief system were corrupt and which still rang true.

Take all the racial and religious and civil rights issues aside, (just aside, not away) and the film has a different, more universal story.   Who hasn’t struggled to define themselves and the beliefs they hold?  Who hasn’t been disillusioned by those in whom we place our trust?  But, how many of us would have, afterwards, turned bitter, become jaded, fed up with the whole lousy thing?   The real lesson here is that the story of a black man is the story of us all.  Malcolm X stood for many things.  His life is something all of us should know more about.  But, his story, as told by Spike Lee, is a mythic tale of a hero.  Like a true hero, Malcolm X searched, failed, searched again and failed, then searched some more.  May we all have such stamina.

Mind Reading: A short, short story


Don’t look, I told myself.  I didn’t want to see what the anchor woman liked to do after three martinis.  But it wasn’t as easy as turning away, this new sense of mine.  At work, I looked inside my boss’s head, a shallow crevasse.  I always knew he was an ass.

In the afternoon, disaster was averted because I saw the trucker dreaming of his Lazy-boy.  And what confidence I felt when challenging my son on his undone homework that night.  Exhausted, I wore my green gingham gown to bed because I saw it reminded my husband of his mother.

–by Becky Ruth Powell


The Wedding: A Short Short Story

The Wedd

The Wedding

Short, short story by Becky Ruth Powell

She looked at the name on the wedding cake.  She couldn’t remember whether she was Lisa, or Beth, or Mary.  She was Lenora this time.  She looked at her new in-laws, who adored her.  Mother, aunt, sister, like three scoops of sherbet in pastel dresses, strands of pearls buried in folds of neck-fat.

Lenora considered whether she’d rushed things by spiking his cup of wedding punch, but when his head plopped onto her shoulder she dismissed doubt.

Amid the chaos of death, she inherited his sizable estate.  Her in-laws fussed so over her well-being, she grew fond of being Lenora.

The Rough Draft

This summer I finished the rough draft of a novel I’ve been mulling over for several years.  It felt good to have an entire draft completed.  It was better than I was afraid it would be, but worse than I’d hoped it would be.  Now, all I have to do is revise and edit.  That I can do.  I could probably revise and edit for years.  And years.  Anything’s better than finally saying, okay, this is it.  This is my best effort.  I’m ready to be judged.  The rough draft has been sitting in a tatty file folder on my ottoman for about three weeks now.   The days go by, and the pile of newspapers, sketch pads, half read books and paper plates with sandwich crumbs waxes and wanes on top of the folder, hiding, then revealing, then hiding again my secret:  I may never complete my novel.

And Letters: Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke.  What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer.  Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes.  With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving,  comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands.  Hamid is such a novelist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques.  This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.

The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation.  The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his  experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm.  While Changez  always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises.  His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.

As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation.  I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money.  It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty.    No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”.  No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard.  But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins?  Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.

Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story.   It’s a guided meditation.  Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.

Evocative Sights

Mother of God Santa Francesca, Rome 3rd-4th century Encaustic icon

A recent customer shared with me the memories and feelings that one of my collages evoked for her.  It got me thinking about the feelings triggered by things we see.  We’ve all seen people who so resemble someone else that we are compelled to call that person and tell them we’ve spotted their doppelgänger.   A glimpse of something similar to something else evokes memories that may feel good or terrible.

The way the brain processes information when we read is a good example of how we processes what we see.  A veteran reader reads faster than a new reader because, through her experience, she’s looked at so many letters, words, sentences, and patterns that her eye doesn’t have to register every single letter.  Instead, her eyes take in chunks and her brain fills in the rest using its own complicated system of probability.  What are the chances, our brain might say, that “a_d” is anything other than “and” . (A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

But what about when visual images evoke connections and emotions that don’t relate to any memory we’re conscious of?  For example, recently I’ve been looking at medieval art – in particular icons – in preparation for teaching medieval history next year.  The images have taken my breath away.

French historiated initial with men slaying a monster, from a theological manuscript. 1110-1115

Until recently, I don’t think I’ve known how to appreciate art.  Until I began doing art myself, I don’t think I knew what to look for or how to feel about art.  So, it is as if a new dimension has opened up for me – an entire new way in which to view the world.  For a girl who has always dreamed in words rather than images, this is a big deal.

Mary Magdalen announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St Albans Psalter, English, 1120-1145.

I know that these centuries-old icons are not touching me because I’m particularly religious, so it isn’t so much the subject matter that moves me.  Nothing in my past is sparked by seeing these images.  I’ve tried to figure out what it is that I “like” about the images I’ve been viewing, and the first thing that came to me was the color.  The vividness of the colors – blues, ochre, reds–give me a palpable rush of pleasure.

Romanesque interlace, "inhabited" with figures, England, 1190-1200.

But, why does a color make me feel good?  I started to research how colors affect our moods, but it didn’t hold my interest for long.  All I could thing of was how an old neighbor of ours was convinced that our son’s bright red nursery would emotionally cripple him for life.  Articles about “color trends” have always struck me as kind of superfluous, and anything I could have written in that vein would have been pulp.

So, I contemplated the colors and the feelings some more.  The vivid colors created an immediacy to the image.  It was real, in-your-face intensity.  And I wondered, how did those vivid colors survive all these centuries?  What power did those brushstrokes have to leap across centuries to reach out and touch me?  My husband suggested it was lead paint and all kinds of other terrible stuff that can’t be used anymore.   (see note below)   Maybe.  Probably.  But I prefer to think of it as something more elegant.  I love reading history books, but I could read all day long and not experience the visceral feeling I do when I look at one medieval icon or illuminated page.  I’m not creating new historical insights or anything like that.  It’s just an emotion.  It’s just the feeling that we are connected throughout the centuries and across the globe by the humanity and passion of artists.
NOTE:  I did find some info on the make-up of paints used by medieval artists on wikipedia:

“The medieval artist’s palette was surprisingly broad. In addition to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments[13].”

Red:   Mercuric sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; “red lead” or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colours such as cochineal, kermes and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth compounds
Yellow:     Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or saffron; yellow earth colours (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide, As2S3)
Green:    Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries; copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue:     Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and folium or turnsole
White:     Lead white (also called “flake white”, basic lead carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black:    Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold:     Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called “shell gold”)
Silver:     Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; tin leaf

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminated_manuscript