Kjersten's photo on the NYT website

A few weeks ago I submitted a few photos from my time in Kuala Lumpur to the New York times for a project they are working on about living in high-rises. Last week I got a nice note back from an editor saying my pictures were exactly what they were looking for. Cool!

Check out the submissions page. One of my pictures is an example! (You can't see it from a mobile device). Can you tell which one is mine?

(For anyone who doesn't know me personally, it's the one with the mom and her kid with the sun streaming in behind them).

Balancing goals with serendipity

How do we remain open to serendipity while still aiming at concrete goals? It's a pull back and forth, like a yoga pose, I suppose.

The day my husband came home from work 2 and a half years ago and said that he'd been offered a two-year position in Malaysia, my heart did a flip. Many thoughts went through my head.

Thoughts like, "

Wait, what? Huh? Malaysia? Do I even know exactly where Malaysia is? Near Thailand, right? Oh God, isn't it hot there? I know so little about Malaysia. That's embarrassing! Super embarrassing! How can I move somewhere I know so little about? WHAT THE HECK???


Petronas Towers with birds and a morning moon

It was totally out of the blue for me.

I was on a path, after all. We were on a path. Here. In Bellingham. Weren't we?

For myself, I felt like my artwork and writing were improving, I was getting lots of positive response, I felt closer to being able to better share my art. I felt entrenched in several networks that I loved. It seemed crazy to up and leave.

My husband loved racing his bike here, we had plans for my son for preschool. We owned a house. We were on a path!


Other thoughts went through my head too.


Is this really happening? We could travel a bunch, couldn't we? I'd get to see so many places in SE Asia.  I'd get to meet so many interesting new people. I could bury myself in my work when I wasn't traveling and just sort of retreat, couldn't I? Hmm... tempting. My son could be exposed to different cultures and languages when he's young enough for it to sink in deep. My husband could do something super cool with his work after supporting me for so long with my pipe-dreams. What a crazy opportunity, no? How can I say no when such a fantastic and fascinating opportunity comes my way?"

I couldn't.

We couldn't.

So I, we, said yes.

And I'll never regret that we did so.

The last few years I've grown and changed and seen so many interesting places and learned so many interesting things. My art has grown and changed. My son has grown and changed. My husband has. Our lives are richer, thicker with memory, more full of heart, because of our time in Asia.

But it did sort of mess up the PLAN. And now we are home. And I'm swimming in boxes and ideas.

Here's what my studio looks like right now...sigh.

Where do I go from here? How, exactly, has my work changed? What do I do with those changes? How has my family changed? How do I balance my feelings about previous goals not being met with my delight over serendipitous growth?

For me, the highlights of the SCBWI conference I attended two weeks ago — just over a day before our movers dropped off our container full of boxes from Malaysia (whew! It's been a busy month for me) — were hearing Melissa Sweet's keynote and also attending her playful collage workshop. She is one of my favorite illustrators. She incorporates collage in such serendipitous ways in her books. Yet the stories (in pictures) are certainly planned out. They have to be to get from the beginning to the end.

I made this collage during Melissa's workshop. The quote is from Picasso.

If you've never seen Melissa's work, do check it out (plus she's as nice as she is talented). My favorite two books of hers are

Balloons Over Broadway

(which she also wrote, about the man who designed the first puppet balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade) and

A River Of Words

, by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (an inventive picture book biography about William Carlos Williams). In both she uses collage in this serendipitous, spontaneous way, while still completely following a story arc in a clearly planned out way.

I love this about her work. I'd love to do this more in my own work. Balance the playful, unplanned serendipity with a carefully thought-through vision.

I suppose it's the yoga pose I'm in now. The pull back and forth between the spontaneous and the planned. The visioning and the surprises.

Here's to the journey.

Magic in the air

My life is in complete flux right now. Change is afoot. Things will soon never be the same.
I feel magic in the air.
Firefly art: a collage I made in the last few weeks of living in Malaysia
Today is my last full day in Malaysia.

There are so many words I could write about it all, about the changes, about the experience, about what's to come, even about just the last few weeks or last few adventures. Heck, I never even mentioned on my blog that I went to Laos!

But for now, I'm just enjoying the last few moments here in this city I've grown to love. Saying good-bye to a few lovely people. Oh, and taking care of all the stuff that one takes care of when one moves (uffda).

What a strange, surprising, turn of life this whole experience has been.

I'll miss this place. But I look forward to going home.
But first...
 *she smiles*
....I have two weeks of adventures that await during the in-between time.

Yay for adventure.

I'm off for Hong Kong tomorrow.

New Art

I've been busy in the studio, making new art and getting a portfolio ready for a conference that takes place not too long after I return to the USA in a few weeks. I always wish I could get more new art done before a conference. I'm also busy, busy, busy, getting ready to move...

It's only a few days before I lose all my studio equipment to a container ship for weeks and weeks. 

Unfortunately all this transition doesn't line up with my drive to make art and work on my novel project.

At least I made this one piece I like last week.

Here it is in color:
 And here it is in black and white:

I really wanted to get some black and white stuff made for my portfolio as I've been working on making it presentable in its own right (not meant just for sketches). But I'm feeling super picky about it, which I think is a good thing. Maybe I won't get it done for this conference. Perhaps the next one.

Meanwhile, I've only two weeks left in Malaysia. I have some adventures planned on the way home. Then, by the end of March, I'll be back in the USA for good.

I just have to get through these bumps with dignity and grace and hopefully a little work done and my relationships all in tact. If anyone else out there is going through any transitions, here's a shout out. I'm rooting for you!

Some moments should come with eject buttons. Oh wait! They do!

It didn't take even a full five minutes to realize I had stepped onto planet crazy by entering that particular taxi cab. I sighed, looked out the window and wondered how long the journey would take. I felt thankful, for once, that I'm a little deaf and can't always understand strangers' accents. Then, all in a flash, I realized I could do something about that unwanted moment.

I suddenly interrupted my crazy taxi driver's unwarranted tirade. "I guess I'm done with this experience," I said. And in the same heartbeat I threw five bucks at the guy and jumped out of his cab into the jammed traffic around us.

I put my hand out in front of approaching cars and wove my way through them, smaller then they — but more agile, to the side of the road. I took a deep breath of the humid tropical air and relished my freedom to be a little bit of my own kind of crazy.

I'm here to say that yes, do-overs are occasionally possible. Other taxi drivers do come along, eventually (especially when you huff it out, despite the heat, and seek another taxi stand). And sometimes it feels very satisfying to stand up for one's peace in small, but meaningful ways.

Here's to anyone who finds him or her self in a crazy chaotic space this week and chooses to say no to it. You have choices. I hope in just such a moment you are able to find yourself a little breathing space and a quiet moment of nice.
I love relishing moments of peace in the midst of a busy city. Here's such a moment: the Petronas towers with morning light, a morning moon, and morning birds.

The Year of The Dragon (Oh, and... I finished writing a novel, hooray!)

These are apples some Chinese friends gave us for the New Year.
 Chinese New Year is one of my favorite times of year in Malaysia.
 Celebrations take place for 14 days here.
And this year, for the beginning of the year of the dragon, malls really went all-out decorating.
 I especially love seeing the lion dances that take place all over KL.

 After the above lion dance, my husband and I decided to go to our favorite Shanghai Dumpling place, Dragon-I, in honor of the beginning of the year of the dragon.
I'd post picture of my food, but they were terrible pictures. Let's just say if you've never tried soup dumplings, I suggest seeking them out. They are yummy!
 My son likes the drums that go along with lion dances. And he likes how the lions hand kids oranges through their mouths (even though he won't eat the oranges, —ya he's that picky)
So all of this has put me in the perfect mood for doing some dragon drawing in my own studio..
 I'm working on some illustrations for the book I've been writing.
Here are a few early sketches of the dragon fruit dragon that's in the book.
Have you heard of dragon fruit? 
The strange looking fruits behind the oranges are dragon fruits:

And this is what they look like on the inside, although sometimes their flesh is purple-pink, not white:
And here's a picture of the tree they grow on:
Lion dance drum roll please...

Yesterday I typed the words "The End" on my first ever attempt at writing a novel.
I wrote it through to the end. YAY!
I can't believe how fun it has been to write mid-grade fiction.
I mean really fun. Like, I-want-to-try-again fun.
I also can't believe how fast the whole thing went.
It took me just under three months (and that includes lots of travel and the holidays).
I am not accustomed to working so fast. But it felt good to work so fast and with such focus. 
Really good.

Although now I'm nervous to begin the critique and revision stages.
Perhaps that will not be so fast...

Never mind, at least for a small moment, I'm relishing the wonderful feeling of having completed it:

I hope your year of the dragon is prosperous. 

Redefining a year

Last January, when I wrote in my journal about my year to come, 2011, I envisioned it as a year of “persistence.” That was the word I used to frame my goals and dreams for 2011.

And here’s what I think about that now, having just lived through and experienced 2011 for real:

Wow, lame. That vision for my year was about as shortsighted as I’ve ever gotten in the history of my dreaming life. It’s kind of pathetic just how shortsighted that was, actually.

Does a year that looked kind of like the photo below, seem to you like a year well-defined by the word "persistence?"
Christmas in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Okay, I live an ocean away from home. This has had many challenges associated with it that I suppose are what narrowly led me to think last year on the word “persistence.” After all, persistence isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Right?

And when I look back on the last year, I’d probably be glossing over stuff if I didn’t acknowledge aspects of my year that were at least somewhat suited towards a goal of “persistence,” even if any of my hardships abroad were roses and daisies in comparison to real heart-break or tragedy in life.

Like, I did miss my friends, family, community and support networks back home; I missed them a lot. Or, I've hated filling out customs or visa paperwork that asks for my “occupation,” and for logistical reasons I sometimes feel I can’t write “artist,” as I wish to, but instead write “housewife,” which makes me kind of cringe — and more to the point, this action kind of sums up insecurities that I can be prone towards when I'm not at my best, that I've definitely persisted through at times this year. Also I suppose there's more petty things, like the tireless traffic here, the sweltering heat here, the barely-usable sidewalks here and other various whiny issues that sometimes make me sigh. Or there's also always rejections. Those suck. So, yes, I can acknowledge these sorts of things and note that I did “persist” through them. 
Hmm, next time I whine about traffic in KL, remind me about Ha Noi, Vietnam...
And, yes. I can and probably should acknowledge the more positive side of my original goals of “persistence” too, the parts that I wrote and dreamed about at the beginning of the year. In other words, I can and probably should acknowledge that I met goals and kept promises to myself that I made for last year:

I persisted with my biggest dream of writing and illustrating for children. I overcame some submission and perfectionism issues (or at least faced them and handled them admirably, I think). I kept up habits and practices that generally make my life happy and good (yoga, gratitude, blogging, drawing and writing regularly). I persisted with my art even when I felt worlds away from home and community and assurances of success.

All well and good, yes, and I’m happy to reflect that I did do all of those things. I met some specific benchmarks, exceeded others and I did “persist.”


Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam with my son, Oscar.
 What about all the crazy huge momentous fantastic adventures I took this past year?
Both in travel and in my work? 
And what about the huge potential for all the amazing wow that I started the year with? Did I just not see it? Was I only focusing on what I could improve, and not how I could thrive? 

 Amid reviewing whether I met my goals or not this past year, those adventures sat like the elephant (the friendly one that you’ve always wanted to ride who is just waiting for you to hop on) in the room. How could I have barely touched upon dreaming of the wow that real life would deliver when I visioned for myself a year of simple persistence last year?
Riding an elephant in Chang Mai, Thailand.
This past year I went to Sri Lanka, Bangkok, The Perhentian Islands, Melacca, Krabi, Penang, Sarawak, Los Angeles, Western Australia, Chang Mai, Cameron Highlands, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. And I went to all of these places with a super adventurous fun husband and kid in tow. And I LOVED LOVED LOVED the experiences we had. I also explored favorite places all around KL and ate tons of interesting and delicious food here and saw amazing things within my own city and fell in love with so many aspects of Malaysia.

I played with my child and showed him the world from a unique viewpoint. I fostered his learning and growing and own budding wanderlust. I listened to my husband and took many dates with him and explored lots of interesting topics of conversation that several years ago I would have never imagined I would have time to discuss (or read about) with a kid around the house.

Enjoying the view in Hong Kong
 And, huge pat-on-the-back-for me, I read 101 books in 2011! (And no, that does not include picture books).

And, on the art front: I submitted my art the amount of times I had hoped to, I made many, many, new art samples I’m very proud of, I kicked butt with some collage challenges I decided to face, I explored new ideas and methods for drawing, I explored new ideas in writing, I wrote several new picture books that definitely broke me out of a previous mould I had been working in, and perhaps, most stunningly to myself… I began and nearly finished writing an entire mid-grade fiction novel in the course of the last two months of the year… (hey, that’s the first I’ve admitted that here! Ta-da! Still working on finishing it ­– hopefully before I move home two months from now, wish me luck!)

Does the word “persist” describe a year of prolific and fantastic adventures? Does the word “persist” describe a year traveling the world with my family? Does the word “persist" describe a year of dancing with my muse and creating some of my favorite art I’ve ever made? Does the word “persist” describe the exciting and thrilling risks I took with my own work, especially with writing, this past year?

My husband, "flying" in Nha Trang, Vietnam

“Persist,” is a small part of last year, sure. But I think it might be useful to come up with a better, more-encompassing word (or words). A new name for my last year.

2011 was not the year of persistence for me, even if I did persist. It’s been a year of wow with my family and my muse. I want to acknowledge and have gratitude for this fantastic unforgettable, incredibly wonderful year by finding a good new name for it. So how about two words:

Christmas, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
 2011 was the year of HUMONGOUS EXPLORE.


Happy New Year! Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

So what about 2012?
What kind of vision do you have for the coming year?
Maybe you can make room, at least a little, for some humongous explore? I dare you.

Or maybe fate has something else in mind, just perfect for you, waiting behind a spot where you too, are selling yourself short.

Anyway, here’s what I’m aiming for this coming year:
I’m thinking and hoping that 2012 will be the year of 

From a descent into Vancouver International Airport, near my home in Bellingham, Washington.
Cheers to manifesting!
Cheers to the possibilities!

Ornament suggestion for travelers

We've been enjoying the holidays in Malaysia, where people take their mall decorating, very, very seriously.
 Christmas decorations are EVERYWHERE here.
 But I confess I kinda miss my happy collection of more humble ornaments that are back in Bellingham, WA, in a box in my basement.
 Still, my son really wanted to put a tree up. So we did.
And thanks to my souvenir of choice when I travel, our tree is actually pretty full (because we've been traveling a lot while living in Asia).
What's my souvenir of choice?

It's anything that looks like I could turn it into an ornament. Key chains. Silly small stuffed bobbles.  sometimes even bookmarks. Especially if any of the above are handmade. I throw them in a box and before Christmas, I turn them all to ornaments.
That way, when I'm decorating my Christmas tree, I'm reminded of all sorts of fun adventures of the past. 

Thought I'd share in case anyone out there will be traveling for the holidays too.

Merry Christmas!

In the Tree Tops, walking with trust

The above picture was taken in Australia and the picture below was taken last week in Kuala Lumpur.

What do these pictures have in common (besides both having my son in them)?

They marked the beginning of two different canopy walks.

In Malaysia it was at the Forest Research Institute, where they reclaimed an old industrial wasteland and made it jungle again (above). 

In Australia we walked among the giant tingle treetops (above).

But at both I found myself walking on tiny, looooong bridges, high, high up in the trees.

Amazing. Fantastic. I loved it.

But... these walks were not exactly for the faint of heart.

They felt like small practices in bravery (not to mention yoga breathing).

They were exercises in trust.

They felt a bit like what it feels like when you put your art out in the world, actually.

You trust that the journey will be a bit thrilling, you'll be glad you did it, you probably won't crash to the ground, but things will feel a little shaky and uncertain, even if exciting.

And your view on the world will be different, at least for a bit.

 There may even be anchors along the way, to help calm your nerves, even while keeping the view.

You probably won't fly, but it might feel a bit like you are.

You might even decide to go for it again...

What a cheesy post.

 But a bit of truth is there somewhere, I'm sure.

If not for being an artist, then at least for being an adventur-ess.

Now, back to the ground.

Photo play with dragonfly pictures

 During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan I attended a break-fast (not breakfast, but break-fast) meal at the Islamic Art Museum with some friends (for those back in the U.S. who may be unfamiliar with Ramadan customs, Muslims generally fast during daylight hours during Ramadan). The Islamic Art Museum is one of the most beautiful places in KL. It's a quiet haven of contemplative art; I always feel renewed or inspired after spending time there.
 While we were waiting for the sun to set and for the restaurant to open, I noticed a dragonfly that had died in the most lovely spot, looking out of the most lovely window.
A window in the Islamic Art Museum.
I took way too many photos of the dragonfly.
It caught my imagination; it looked haunting.
Using a couple of arty photo apps on my phone (hipstamatic and instamatic amongst others), I tried to capture the mood and emotion the dragonfly evoked in me . 
 Some of these I made later, using the photos I took while there.
But anyway, here are a few of my favorite results/experiments.
RIP, beautiful dragonfly.

More color in Penang, this time using the Hipstamatic

 I took these pictures in Penang, Malaysia, using the Hipstamatic photo app on my Iphone.
 Pretty cool for phone pictures.

 My sister's been using an app called Instamatic. Supposedly it lets you change your pictures retroactively for similar results. I'm very curious if I'll be able to use any texture photos taken this way for my illustrations.
Time will tell...

Dragon Boat Races

 Last month my family traveled to Penang, Malaysia for a weekend trip to watch some Dragon Boat races.
 It's such an interesting practice. If you are interested in it at all, click here to learn more about the tradition.
 My favorite part of the experience was listening to the drummers beating out the pace of the strokes.
 We couldn't get too close to the boats in the race, but I did manage to see a few docked boats.
The boats have dragon heads and tails. So neat!

Paper Sculptor in Melaka

 Trickshaws and Satay aren't the only draws for taking a trip to Melaka, an historic town about 2 hours away from KL.
There are also dozens of artist studios, most of which are open to the public, around the Jonker Street Chinatown area.
One of my favorites from my last trip to Melaka (a few weeks ago) was the studio of a paper sculptor. He was piecing together teeny tiny paper figurines meant to be burnt as offerings at gravesides.
I felt shy to take close-ups of his work, but you can see a bit better if you click one of the above photos. It was hard to imagine burning such intricate miniatures. In the back of his studio I could see larger kite-like paper sculptures too.
 So that's where some of those trickshaw drivers find the funny-shaped shells to decorate their rigs with.

More crafty fun: Batik

So, like I've been saying, my sister is crafty -- like me.
So I had to take her to the nearby KL Craft Complex to try Batik while she was visiting KL.
We also took my son, Oscar, who loves art projects lately.
Painting with Mommy and Auntie Kelli was a big treat (he made 4 batiks!).
I made a tree of life with a labyrinth in it.

The craft complex had a new offering too -- they sewed our batiks into pillows for just a few dollars more.
 I added the ribbon and button onto mine. 
Happiness is making crafty projects with my sister and son.
(Unless maybe those projects involve bike trickshaws...)

SCBWI Malaysia

I finally connected with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in Malaysia!
They put up a booth at the Kuala Lumpur Book Fair that I attended several weeks ago (I went knowing they would be there). The top photo is of the SCBWI booth, the next two are random pictures from the book fair.
I chatted for quite a while there with the wife of a renown Malaysian Illustrator, Yosof Gajah (fun fact: Gajah means elephant in Bahasa Malayu, the Malaysian language). Yosof's wife, Zakiah, is an artist in her own right and offers batik classes. It was lovely to chat with her. Hopefully I'll get to try one of her classes out while I live here.
Then, last Monday, the chapter had a special get-together (they are just starting to organize regular meetings and haven't officially started having them yet) to greet Steve Mooser, one of the co-founders of SCBWI!
It was a fun get together and I'm happy to have mingled with some other artists and writers from KL as well as Steve and Sally.
Thanks to Linda T. Lingard, the local Regional Advisor, for organizing.
Cheers to SCBWI!

The School Of Hard Knocks

My sister and her husband have been visiting us the last few weeks.
 They just left yesterday. We had a super fun few weeks together.
When Kelli and I get together we tend to make crafty stuff.
So it isn't surprising that we had a few crafty adventures while she was here.
Like visiting the Royal Selangor Pewter visitor center (touristy? YES!).
We took a tour and watched craftspeople work away at making pewter objects.
Then we participated in something called "Whack and Snack" at the "School for Hard Knocks."
We got to fashion our own pewter bowls by hammering on a flat round sheet of plain pewter.
Too bad I didn't have any pent up anger to hammer out or anything -- this would have been the perfect place to do so.
I pounded my bowl into a nice partial orb and then opted to ornament the bowl with...
A knock knock joke.
Cheesy touristy goodness at it's finest, especially when you get to share the whole experience with your sister!
Oh, and kudos to whoever came up with the idea of decorating the walls with pewter hand prints of all people who work for Royal Selangor. I loved those walls.
FYI: the snack part of "Whack and Snack" involved tea with croissants. Yummy.

Batik factory visit in the North

Painting detail by Yusoff Abdullah, a Malaysian artist
During my recent trip to Kota Barhu my family and I also visited a batik factory.
I've watched Batik being done before,
and have even tried it myself.
But this was a neat experience because the Batik being made at the factory I visited is the kind that I often see local women wearing.
It's not made for the tourist market, in other words.
It's fun to watch how fast these women paint.
And how fast they draw with the wax tool. I tried that, it's not an easy thing to draw with.
I love these open spaces where the women work, even if it was really hot in there. It was fun to watch my son's surprising interest in the whole process, too.

I gotta say it, I love traveling with a kid.

Kite Maker or Collage Artist?

Last week my family took a short trip north to an area of Malaysia called Kelantan.
Many artists around one of the main cities of Kelantan, Kota Bharu, are especially known for practicing several traditional Malaysian handicrafts. The painting above and detail of it below, done by a Malaysian artist named Yusoff Abdullah, hung in the airport at Kota Bharu. The painting depicts many of the local handicraft traditions*.
One of my favorites of these traditions is known as Wau, or kite making.
Kite makers use large wooden frames that they bend out of thin sticks:
And the patterns on most traditional kites are intricately cut out of colorful papers and layered over one another.
Here's an artist at work cutting a pattern using an exacto blade on a folded sheet of foil.
I watched him use a blade sharpener. It made me pause because most paper artists I know back home throw out their blades rather than sharpening them. (I personally most often use a scissors, FYI).
Here's a close detail to give you an idea of the layers of paper. Every color below is a different colored paper, glued on top of one another.

* The signature here is from the painting at the top of this post. I mentioned that the artist's name was Yusoff Abdullah, a Malaysian artist who I could find little information on, which is why the uncertainty and the lack of links. Please accept my sincere apologies if I've given credit wrong! Also, please correct me, if someone out there knows better, I'd prefer to properly give credit and links if they exist.