Following the Orange Leaf

The first book I ever illustrated was “And the Light Comes In”—a picture book that I wrote and my husband designed. When we finished the book we wanted to have a book release party and have all the original artwork from the book displayed and for sale there. But where to have the party? That was the question. 

I was having coffee at a bakery near my home and considering this question as I stared out the window. It was nice outside, so I went for a walk. As I walked down the sidewalk I prayed about where to have the show, and without really thinking about it I began following a leaf. It was a brilliantly orange and red leaf, tinged with spring green, and it was tumbling along the sidewalk in the wind. Isn’t that a pretty picture? Sorry I’m going to have to ruin it. It was a fake leaf. Pretty, but definitely mass-produced.  

I followed it past a number of stores. I stopped when it stopped ,and I continued  when it continued. Finally it rested in front of a store I’d never seen before. I picked up the leaf and went in. The first thing I noticed was an enormous tree at the front of the store. It was beautiful! The other thing I noticed was that the whole store was full of sparkly lights, little chandeliers and pendents. I went to the front desk, still twirling the leaf in my hand and spoke to the manager about having my release party there. 

Prayers are not often answered with fake foliage, but that one was, and it’s such lovely memory.



I had an encouraging art teacher in high school and some other encouraging art teachers later in college. Today, however, my story involves a discouraging and unpleasant art teacher I will refer to as Professor Shmoo. I’ve written about him before, but it’s been a long time. 

Professor Shmoo was unimpressed with my painting skills. You know how I figured that out? Because he stood behind me as I painted and he said, “I am not impressed.” That took the guesswork out of it. And the reason he wasn’t impressed with my painting skills was because I had none. Growing up, I spent a ton of time drawing, but zero time painting. I really wanted to learn how, so I enrolled in this class with Professor Shmoo. I guess he thought everyone came into his class already knowing how to paint.

Throughout the semester I improved, but never nearly to Professor Shmoo’s standards. He said I needed to abandon the small brushes I had been using and use really big brushes—try to get away from painting details and go abstract. If you’ve ever seen my artwork, you know I don’t tend toward abstract. But I listened to Professor Shmoo, because after all, he was the teacher. I used big brushes. He was still not impressed. He suggested that I try painting with my feet. I did, and guess what? It worked—my paintings were suddenly fantastic! Just kidding. They were awful. They looked like they had been painted with feet. 

At the end of the semester Professor Shmoo called me in for a conference about my final project. He said, “If you choose to paint something small and detailed, I will not give you anything higher than a D.” I reminded him that I’d been following his instructions all semester, even painting with my feet, and that he hadn’t  been happy with the results so far. He said, “A good student knows when to disobey the teacher.” Doesn’t that sound like a fortune cookie? 

For my final project I painted a small detailed painting. It was the best I’d ever painted, though it still was not great. I hung my painting up on the wall along with another larger foot-painting I’d done earlier in the class (we were required to show two examples of our work for this final critique), and all my classmates hung their enormous works of abstract art on the wall too. Then Professor Shmoo stood before the class and said, “Today, we have a guest artist who will be critiquing  your final paintings.” 

The guest artist stood up and inspected the paintings, looking carefully at each one. When she came to my small, detailed painting, she stood looking a long time. “Who painted this one?” she asked. “I did,” I said, raising my hand. “This painting stands out,” she said. “There’s a lot of detail here. It looks like it needs some work in places, but it’s got a wonderful mood.” She scanned the wall trying to find my second painting. “Where is your second piece?” she asked, I pointed out the terrible foot-painting I had done earlier in the semester. She looked at it and said, “Wow. This doesn’t look like it could have come from the same artist.” “I painted it with my feet,” I explained. She pointed to the small, detailed painting. “Clearly, this is your style. You need to stick to it.”

The guest artist was a breath of fresh air. She called out my potential instead of focussing on my flaws. It’s so important to look for and call out potential in ourselves and others isn’t it? To be willing to withhold judgement and instead, look deeper for the possible emerging good, and then to say—I see you! It stirs hope and perseverance. When we focus on flaws it makes us weary. We might even be tempted to abandon our dreams and start painting desperate, half-hearted pictures with our feet. 


Windows to Wonder

I heard a sermon once where the pastor talked about how, particularly when life gets hard, it’s tempting to keep your head down. I knew just what he meant. It's when your own life, with all of its specific challenges and complications becomes like a small room that you live in and you can't see out— and you forget to look for a door or a window.

I've been thinking about that lately because I've had my head down a bit too much the last few weeks. But when I remember the stars and tree tops and moss and mushrooms, and the incredible stories that set
my mind traveling down strange and wonderful paths, and when I remember God and how He never leaves and is always trustworthy and full of mystery, my little world opens up and I can see out again.

Don't you think that we all tend to look down too much for one reason or another? This week I'm hoping to do a better job of intentionally keeping in mind all those things that are windows to wonder.