Embroidery, Broken Glass, Wild Honey and Sonja Pawliw

I’m pretending to study the delicate hem of the dress, hanging on the Godfrey Dean Gallery walls, at Sonja Pawliw’s opening. My interest is feigned, not because the work isn’t incredible, but because I’ve already looked at the clothing. I’ve come back to this corner of the gallery only after spotting Pawliw; I want to get close to find out more about her.

Moments earlier I had surveyed the room wondering who, or where, she might be. I scanned attendees gathering around the high-heeled shoes covered in ceramic mosaic, the felted landscapes, alcohol and ink paintings, acrylics and photography and guessed she was the short, silver-haired woman surrounded by a crowd of older ladies fussing over her.

As soon as I move close and start eaves-dropping my suspicion is confirmed. Now that I’ve found her I have more questions. Where did she learn to work with different media? And who inspired her to become such a prolific artist? I can’t help but interrupt her conversation.

“Where do you work?” I ask when she glances my way. “Where’s your studio?”

“Studio?” she says laughing, then grabs my forearm. “My studio? It’s my dining room table! Oh, you should see the mess. Every inch is covered in broken glass, tile and grout. The floor, too! It’s been that way for years.”

I look at the skin around her lips, her eyes and thinning hair and figure she must be close to eighty. “Are you still making things?” I ask cautiously, hoping she’s not offended by my question.

“Of course!” she shoots back before she is steered away for another photo.

I came to the show today because I wanted to meet the woman described on the gallery’s website as a “maker long before the term became popular” and view her diverse body of work. Now I’m more curious than ever and decide I need to see her kitchen table for myself.

A couple months later the gallery director, Don Stein, agrees to introduce me to her. It’s a frosty December morning and I take a picture of her hand-crafted mailbox, covered in a mosaic of broken dishes and drifting snow, before knocking on her door. We step inside the small bungalow and I immediately see her table. It’s right beside the front entry and just like she had described, clearly with a project on the go.cell phone november december 042cell phone november december 043

Christmas carols play in the living room while Ukrainian music comes from the back of the house. She puts a tiny kettle on her stove and I wander around, trying to take in the paintings, macrame, mosaics, paper tole, knitting and art covering every available surface. I pull a stool up to her kitchen counter and ask, “How did you become an artist? How did all of this happen?” They’re loaded questions, ones that will take hours to answer, but Sonja loves telling stories. She talks quickly and takes big breaths so she can carry on with the next phrase.

She tells me about gardening with her grandma (who she refers to as an angel), beekeeping with her grandpa, catching sparrows, snaring rabbits and harvesting wild honey. It reminds me of the exuberant curiosity I sense in her art work. Everything from from her hand-dyed silk scarves to her embroidery to her writing and illustrations embodies her quest—even personal challenge—to curate beauty.cell phone november december 045

I’m trying to imagine how she did it all while she hustles me toward some rocking chairs covered in sheepskins. How did she have time for creativity, as the mother of eight children, while working on the farm and holding a job at the hospital? And what did other folks think when her sprawling art projects took over the home?

“Oh,” she says, grinning, “they thought I was crazy!” She chuckles. “Down right crazy.”

During our visit I’ve been trying to peg her age. Finally, she tells me she is 91.

“Ninety-one?” I echo, not sure I heard correctly. She is, after all, still producing more pieces for an upcoming gallery show in Saskatoon. In fact, she’d just told me she doesn’t have time to relax these days because there is always something she needs to make or do.

Suddenly she gets quiet. She looks down at her hands on her lap, the hands that have sculpted, molded, painted, sewed, gardened and shaped her work for nearly a century. When she looks up I see tears in her eyes.

“You know,” she says, her voice soft with emotion, “I’ve always prayed, Lord, if there are people who aren’t using the energies and talents you gave them, can you pass them on to me?” She pauses and looks at her snowy apricot tree on the other side of the window. My rocker creaks while I finger the knitted scarf she just gifted me. It’s apparent that Sonja Pawliw got what she asked for.cell phone november december 052

Note: I wrote this article for the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in December 2018. Many thanks to Don Stein for the invitation and Sonja Pawliw for the visit. It is an honour to write about such a remarkable woman… 800 words barely scratches the surface!

Artist Blessing

I’m fighting with filing cabinets and piles of receipts and spreadsheets and my eye-lids feel heavy. I hate financial record keeping! Two hours later I’m still shuffling papers, trying to prepare my final Wonderscape report  for the Saskatchewan Arts Board. Maybe I need to eat. Maybe I need to sleep. Maybe I need to take a break from all this. A moment later I come across the Artist Blessing I read together with my fellow Wonderscape participants last September.

It buoyed me somewhat.

Here it is for all of you, wherever you are and whatever kind of shuffling you’re doing today:

Artist Blessing

You were created to create.

You are gifted with an original set of experiences,

sensitivities and passions that no one else can replicate.

You are uniquely positioned in your family and community—in

this place and time in history–

to give what nobody else in the world can give.

May your eyes be opened to the abundant opportunities.

May you hear the Universe shout and whisper,

inviting you to enflesh, name, and reflect Beauty.

May you be protected from the crush of jealously,

fear and insecurity.

May your work replenish, surprise and awaken you.

May you empty yourself and your ego

so that when you release your art into the world

you are, at the same time, filled to overflowing

with more new ideas than you could ever hold.

May you live in that deep place of always-enough,

open to Inspiration,

aware of Mystery,

connected to the Creator.

-Tricia Friesen Reed


My youngest daughter, during her first canoe-trip a couple years ago

…The only reason I can half-stand what I’m doing today is because I’m already excited about the next retreat (Sept. 2018). Still hooked on this.

Wonderscape 2017

It’s drizzly and cold when we stop the car on the side of the road on our way to Wonderscape. Belén sprints across the highway, towards the bushes in the ditch, and I open the trunk to get the pruning shears. I’ve been worrying about the table centrepieces for months. Stories? I can tell them. Contracting artists? No problem. Booking a venue? Done. But centrepieces, oh the centrepieces, how I dread tackling this overwhelming problem. And so, I leave it for the very last minute. Until I am on the road, centrepiece-less, driving to the retreat I am about to facilitate. Which is when we see them waiting for us, perfect branches with leaves turning from papaya-orange to apple-red. I cut them down and stuff them into our car. Tell me, what else should I have done?*

It turns out my mom is the oldest person attending the retreat and my daughter Belén, the youngest. Last year, the first time I tried organizing a Wonderscape retreat, Belén begged to join us. “Please,” she said. “I’ll eat the crumbs that fall from your table,” she said. “You won’t notice me, I promise,” she said. Her pleas didn’t work then because I was too nervous and preoccupied, but this year I am more relaxed. She and her friend Ainsly don’t eat the crumbs off our table but they do sketch, read, collage, run, walk, write, and paint feverishly all weekend. I admit, I lowered the registration age to 13 just for them. Tell me, what else should I have done?

Lesley stokes the fire and lights the candles and I call everyone to gather for our first session. I’ve been looking forward to introducing the artists I’ve hired for a long time. Each one fascinates, impresses and inspires me and I can’t wait to present them to the group. But even more interesting is hearing everyone else introduce themselves. I want to know: Why are you here? Where are you from? How did you find out about this? What gifts are you bringing? I know there are painters, poets, story-tellers, community-builders, movers-and-shakers, photographers, potters, knitters, bee-keepers, musicians and more. It takes time for all 33 people to introduce themselves and I have to strike other things off my agenda to make room for it. Tell me, what else should I have done?

Chef Mariana Brito intructing a culinary workshop

Daisy – mixed media workshop instructor

On Saturday morning I wake up at 5 am. My mind is racing as I envision how the day will unfold. By 6 am I’m dressed and slip out of my room to the lounge. The fire is out and the coals are black. I slide past the books in our weekend library with a longing glance. So many good books, so little time. I head downstairs, past the gallery with Kate’s poetry, paintings and tee-shirts. I am almost past the “giving tree”–where we left offerings to encourage our fellow makers–when I stop to stare at the bounty. Between us all we have so much wealth to share.

I push out the doors and head to the beach to scope out a route for my Hike n’ Write workshop. Soon I am following a path that lines sloughs and field on one side, and the lake on the other. At the end of my walk I see the lights are on in the old church where Kate and Daisy are busy working. They show me the canvases textured with drywall mud and tell me about the next step of the process. How they’ll cover the mud with black paint, and how it’s a metaphor for grief and pain. How sponging off most of the dark paint transforms the painting into something deeper, like a relief map. How loss and sadness lessen but continue to shape our story. How adding paint to the contours gives us joy. I think of their own story of grief–losing a husband and father in a tragic accident–and others here who have lost their own husbands and dads. I wipe my eyes with my fleece gloves. I cannot speak. Tell me, what else should I have done?

When I first thought about planning a retreat such as this one, I expected I would literally “retreat”. I envisioned myself doing whatever I wanted and my schedule would look something like this: Walk, write, eat. Paddle, write, eat. Repeat. Of course, this is not what happens. I am realizing that my creative project is designing and executing the experience itself. I take pictures of Krista playing the ukulele while “Stand by Me” and laughter surround her. I catch snippets of conversations. About organizing Lawn Artz and harvesting sea buck-thorn berries, about publishing poetry and illustrating children’s books, about connecting first nations people from different continents and travelling abroad. I have no time for making anything except this thing that is happening right now. Tell me, what else should I have done?

Hike n’ Write

wonderscape 051

Shannon Shakotko leading the vocal/ukulele workhsop

After a farm-to-table dinner we listen to Sweet Saturday begin their set with a Civil Wars cover. Their harmonies are perfectly-fitted puzzle pieces, they pause at all the right moments and I know it’s going to be a good night. At one point they perform an original tune they’d never rehearsed before–they want to show us how their creative process works instead of tell us about it. One plays the mandolin, the others focus on each other and try to find their harmonies. They stop, start and try again, laying bare the raw process of collaboration. When their concert is over we ask for an encore. Then another. The band glances at me for direction. One of the them laughs about not having any songs left. I hold up my index finger. We want more, I mouth. When they hesitate I announce, “I have 35 women to back me up.” Tell me, what else should I have done?

Sweet Saturday

Before our final meal on Sunday I tell the story of Babette’s Feast, the tale of the French refugee who flees to Norway to work for two spinster sisters. When the maid, Babette, wins the lottery she spends the entire sum on a decadent French feast for the sisters and their friends. She uses every cent to prepare a single meal, holding nothing back; no wine is too expensive, no delicacy out of reach for Babette. She is an artist, compelled to share her gift, if only for her own sake.

I have the notes from the story in my hand, but I hold them to my chest the whole time. I have no need for them. I almost forget I am in the room with the other woman and can nearly feel the snowflakes falling in the fjords of Norway. I take my time, savouring each image, and fall deeper into the story. When I feel the peak of the narrative coming, like a wave swelling in the distance, I begin to tremble. I catch Shannon’s eye. Even though she’s probably read this story a hundred times her eyes are shinning and I can tell it’s carrying her too. When I interrupt myself to explain the pause she keeps nodding and speaks for the rest of the audience, “I know… I know… I know…” Suddenly I can’t coax my voice out of my throat and there are tears in its place. Tell me, what else should I have done?

At the very end, just before we read the artist blessing I wrote for the group, I disclose that I cannot untangle my creativity from my spirituality. I explain that I am swept away by the story of Jesus and redemption and that it’s impossible for me to contain all the abundance of the Creator. I tell them that the more I write, the more ideas I get; the more I use and give away, the more inspiration floods and fills the cracks. I bear witness to my source of ideas, dreams, visions and seeds. Even so, when I hand out the words for the blessing I tell them to interpret it according to their own sensibilities and worldviews. Tell me, what else should I have done?

I write cheques out to artists, pay for the venue rental and mentally calculate what is left over. I haven’t tallied the hours spent making Facebook posts, researching locations, processing registrations, collecting materials and programming. It might be too discouraging and it’s clear that if I wanted to follow common sense I wouldn’t be blogging about Wonderscape right now. I wouldn’t have stayed up in the middle of the night, proposing the idea to friends a couple years ago. I wouldn’t have paid attention to a whim that would grow into a place where strangers gather from hundreds of kilometres away. But tell me… What else should I have done?

*If you know Mary Oliver, you’ll recognize the line from her poem “Summer Day” repeated throughout this post. I used the poem as a primer in the Hike n’ Write workshop and it seemed like it wanted to get in on this piece too.

**Follow Wonderscape Retreats on Facebook to see more pictures and updates on upcoming events.

**A huge thank you to the Saskatchewan Arts Board and Sask Culture for supporting Wonderscape 2017!

Ideas Are Like Cats

Ideas are like cats, seemingly calm and peaceful from afar but suddenly ferocious once you start toying with them. I say this because I know how it feels to be the squeaky toy mouse clenched between the teeth of a crazy-house-cat possibility. One moment I’m innocently dreaming up an idea and the next moment–just when I’m deciding whether to commit–it pounces and bats me around with all its power.

It all starts benignly enough. I’m out cross-country skiing one night in January and with every lunge I think about poems, words, and essay hooks. By the last hill I might be able to write a thousand pages if someone would just hand me a pen and paper. Of course, instead of penning a masterpiece after clicking out of my skis, I go home; home to a kitchen sink with rotting lettuce floating in dirty water, home to two daughters asking me to lay down with them until they fall asleep, home to a pile of utility bills yet to be paid. I know then the clever phrases will have to wait until tomorrow when I will have more time, or next weekend, or next month, or when the kids leave home. And that’s when the idea is born.

What if I don’t have to wait until I’m seventy-five? What if I set aside a weekend, just one weekend, where I have space and time to create without the distractions of normal life? I swoop into my kids’ room with kisses for both of them, adding that I can’t lay with them tonight because I have something important to discuss with their dad instead. I run out to the garage where Stan is bent over plywood and parts of an old bed frame (he’s constructing an ice-boat which deserves a separate post of its own) and share my idea while my cheeks are still red from my ski. He keeps working while I talk, asking a few questions but not saying much, which isn’t out of the ordinary–he likes grappling with wood and steel more than half-thought-out ideas. I interpret his neutral response as full-blown encouragement.

The next morning I wake long before dawn and start a new page in my notebook titled Wonderscape; A Creative Wellness Retreat. The idea has now taken on the frenzied cat persona. For weeks I lie in bed at night unable to sleep. I try deep breathing, praying, and stretching to trick myself into slumber but all I can think about are the singer/songwriters I want to invite, the fresh cinnamon buns I’ll serve, and hiking in the October sun. One night, when sleep proves elusive I turn on the computer even though I know I shouldn’t. “Dear women whose opinion I value…” I type, addressing a few of my close friends, and then pitch my idea:

“Imagine hours to commit to your craft, whether it’s writing, origami, song-writing, painting, or juggling. Imagine doing it after a run or hike through the boreal forest. Imagine an inspiring speaker, or evening festival of art. Imagine choosing from 2 or3 workshops to learn something new, or hone your skills.”

The next few days responses trickle in and fuel my excitement. Maybe I’m not crazy! Maybe I can really do this! I start talking about it with almost everyone I run into, casting my net wide in hopes of snagging other leads. I gather names of people I should contact, venue options, and all kinds of other suggestions. During one of these brainstorming sessions with an acquaintance in public I see another woman sitting within earshot of our conversation. I cock my head in her direction and raise my eyebrows while whispering to my friend, “What about her? Do you know her? Would she be interested or have ideas?”

My friend shrugs her shoulders, which is all I need. Soon I am introducing myself to the strange lady and when I finish my spiel I sense I may have just ambushed her.

“Wow,” she says slowly, like she’s buying herself more time to come up with an appropriate response. “That’s really, um…” Long pause. “That’s really artsy-fartsy.”

I smile weakly and try to lighten the mood, wishing I had just told her about schlepping my kids to soccer practise instead of baring my passion.

Both of my older daughters are beside me and witness the entire exchange. Belén looks at me, looks at the other woman, and then looks away. I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed or bored. Later Susanna chides me, “But mom, you don’t even know for sure if you’re going to do this. What if you don’t? What if nothing happens?”

“Well then I’ll just tell people I had a good idea but I changed my mind. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it great to have ideas?”

Neither daughter looks convinced and I don’t blame them. I’m not really convinced myself, but I can’t stop from moving forward. Sharing my idea with the world is risky–I might look silly after all–but not pursuing the inspiration would be even worse than looking silly. How will I know if this kind of retreat could work if I never even try it?

Slowly my scrambled notes turn into budget pages, schedule outlines, and session details. I get confirmations from an accomplished jazz singer, a storyteller, and other artists. I create a website, print posters, and even file for a business name. Then I sit back in my rocking chair and wait. The cat is still there but it’s a little calmer. It even jumps onto my lap and I pet it for awhile. Yes, I think while I relax for a moment, this idea is going to work out just fine.


Now I need your feedback. Have you been to something like this before? Do you have any suggestions? Wanna come? Can you share this with others who would love a weekend like Wonderscape? Please feel free to post links on your social media platforms to help me get the word out.



Finally, I’m still looking for a caterer for the farm-to-table dinner on Saturday evening, October 1. Is cooking your art form? Would you like to create a meal for 25ish people? Do you know someone who might be excited about this? If so, leave a comment or contact me at wonderscaperetreat@gmail.com and I will get back to you with the financial details.

So grateful for ideas and opportunities to share them,



Depressed and Surprised

Kids these days depress me.

When I start working with new students I ask them open-ended questions to get to know them: What do you like to do after school? What are you good at? If you could do anything you wanted, what would you choose do? Their responses to my inquiries are consistent and predictable. The answers always involve video games.

I work next door to a speech therapist, and a lot of conversations I overhear resemble my own with students. It seems the only reference point children have for dialogue is their gaming life. It’s not about what they did or made on the weekend, who their friends are, or where they went, but what they accomplished in a virtual world with their thumbs. The dearth in their vocabulary and lack of basic concepts is frightening, but not inexplicable. If children never communicate and interact verbally through diverse, real-life experiences, it’s no wonder they’re in grade two and still can’t carry on a decent conversation. Did I mention kids depress me?

But, kids surprise me even more.

Last night my girls told me about the storyteller on their bus. I’ve heard about her before and how even the big boys sit down and lean in close when she starts talking, but it’s still hard for me to believe.

“You mean all these kids want to sit beside her and listen?” I ask.

“Yep. And when she starts we settle down and get less hyper.” Then Belén qualifies, “Well, a little less hyper.”

I imagine this nine-year-old casting her spell on a gang of kids smushed between hard seats and backpacks, all of them anticipating who will be the next hero. Even at her age she understands her audience will be more engaged if they’re a part of the story. Today two fourth-grade boys were pirates. Not long ago, Belén and Susanna were kittens and I know of others cast as geriatric patients. Once, she picked up pebbles from the floor of the bus and wove a story around them, describing the plight of two peers turned to stone.

“Where does she get all her ideas from?” I wonder.

“Oh, she takes an imaginary card and swipes the top of her head to unlock the files in there,” Susanna explains, then adds in a confidential tone, “When she finds an idea she likes, she has to unlock it with a special key so no one else can steal it.”

No teacher has given her this assignment or demanded these performances, but she gives them anyway. No adult coordinates her program or guides her stories, but she keeps on telling, and her friends keep listening–even the kindergarten babies, and the fifth grade football players. This is her gift. Her magic. And she’s using it.

Did I mention that kids surprise me?

Have a great weekend,


Oh, and here’s a couple of pictures from yesterday. The girls decided what they wanted to be, but needed their dad for some technical support. He hates Halloween (I think it has something to do with flooding an over-entitled nation with slave-produced chocolate while celebrating evil) but he’s like a moth to the flame when comes to making stuff…


getting the costumes ready…


“the band” (Susie, our friend Sarah, and Belén)