On Brokenness and Mercy

Art in the Barn 2017 is soon here! I’ll be there, centrally located at space 45, and honored to be among such a fine group of artists and artisans. Mark your calendar if you’re local—it’s Just one more month until this enjoyable show opens! It’s a great size (175 artists, so not overwhelming) and the quality of art is wonderful. It’s a perfect time of year to appreciate a Midwest fall, and not too early to think about holiday gifts. If you’ve never experienced a Green Sheep blanket in person, come wrap up in one!

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[Please visit my Etsy shop, The Green Sheep Studio, for purchasing information for “Blessed are the Merciful.]

With Art in the Barn coming up quickly, I’ve continued work on The Beatitudes blanket series enthusiastically. There are now four completed blankets, with ideas for the rest.  “Blessed are the Meek” and “Thirsting for Righteousness” were posted earlier. Today I have two more.

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” (61×74) Felted wool sweaters

This is “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” The original verse says this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
— Matthew 5:3

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” (61×74) Felted wool sweaters

When I went about collecting colors and ideas for the vibe of this blanket, I dwelt on what it is like to feel scarcity or poverty in my spirit.

The spiritual side of me is where I want my living to be rich and full, where I want to make a priority of significant things in life and be faithful to those.

But it’s also the place where I am very aware of my shortcomings and inadequacies—aware of the poverty of my spirit. With these thoughts, I quickly chose the gray, charcoal, and neutrals.

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” (61×74) Felted wool sweaters

Of course this verse doesn’t end with the sorry state of an empty, broken, and poor spirit. That’s how it made the beatitude list, after all, because there’s a Part Two!

And Part Two says, “…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

My understanding of the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God, used interchangeably in some places in the Bible), is that it is both something for the future and something for now.

If I take my poor spirit and turn to the God who made me, concede my inadequacy and accept his sufficiency, then right there, in that place, I’m pretty sure sits the kingdom of heaven.

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” (61×74) Felted wool sweaters

Is this exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke these words? Of course I can’t know. But this is what those words stirred up in me, thus this is where the blanket began.

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” (61×74) Felted wool sweaters

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[Please visit my Etsy shop, The Green Sheep Studio, for purchasing information for “Blessed are the Merciful.]

This next blanket, offering quite a contrast in color, is “Blessed are the Merciful.”

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Merciful” (61×75) Felted wool sweaters

The original verse says,

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
— Matthew 5:7

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Merciful” (61×75) Felted wool sweaters

I can’t explain this one so well; it’s abstract even to me. So this will be brief:

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Merciful” (61×75) Felted wool sweaters

Mercy.

It is hoped for but seems unlikely.
It comes when it is not deserved.
It comes in waves, on a swell of relentless love.
It comes in layers, emotional, immense, overwhelming.
Its arrival throws one off-balance.
It comes with surprises and it surprises when it is given.

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Merciful” (61×75) Felted wool sweaters

Where in the world would we be without it?

©Joan Olson “Blessed are the Merciful” (61×75) Felted wool sweaters

[Please visit my Etsy shop, The Green Sheep Studio, for purchasing information for “Blessed are the Merciful.]

“Thirsting for Righteousness”

Thirsting for Righteousness

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
—Matthew 5:6

As far back as I can remember, I have done my thinking first in weight and image, in spatial impression and juxtaposition, in line and shade, and finally—at the very very last—in words. I can’t help it; it’s how my brain fires. (You can imagine what this does to having a conversation.)

I tell you this because this is how the images for each blanket in this series on the Beatitudes have come to me. I’m not researching the theme first, seeing what Bible scholars say about what Jesus meant, although I think that’s important. Instead, I imagine what might have come to me if I had been sitting on that hillside, listening to those words being spoken twenty centuries ago.

Last month I posted “Blessed are the Meek.” Now here is “Thirsting for Righteousness.”

The word righteousness in present-day usage can carry some negative stuff: a whiff of moral piety, a haughtiness, an outward appearance of being upright. But when I hear Jesus’ statement afresh, I imagine something different: a longing for right-ness, justice, fairness, deep caring, and the making of choices for the good of many, rather than the good of one. I think of humility, not pride.

Of course I don’t imagine those things in WORDS though! It was hard work to transform that last paragraph into verbal units for you!

Now I’ll forge ahead toward more words to attempt to convey how this blanket came to be.

The muted colors of the background are like daily life—lovely and comfortable, but not brilliant. In my mind, this background encompasses personal life, community life, life in our world. There are a few spots that stand out as highlights, but they’re still relatively subdued.

But then: those day lilies! When I look at them I want to cry. It’s that longing rising up—for justice, for caring, for goodness. The plant is not big, nor is it loud, but it stands in sharp contrast to what’s around it. It isn’t there simply due a will to do good or spread beauty; it’s there because of where its roots are.

The lily plant is rooted in a strip of blue, a nod to the prophet Jeremiah’s insight: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

I’m fairly certain the day lilies appeared in my head because of something Jesus said just upon the heels of his beatitudes. He addressed the topic of anxiety. (Apparently it’s not just a modern malady.) He pointed to the lilies in the fields near where his listeners sat, and noted that if God dressed the short-lived lilies so beautifully, he would care MUCH more fully for those who trust him (Matthew 6: 25-34).

So. Righteousness? True righteousness? I’m not capable on my own. But with my roots in the right place, amazing things can become possible.


“Thirsting for Righteousness”  (62″ x 76″)

“Blessed are the Meek”

“Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.”

— Jesus, in the book of Matthew

Just over a month ago I decided to try my hand at a blanket series, creating several large blankets around a theme. At that time, two friends and I had started reading and discussing the book of Matthew together. When we got to the Beatitudes in chapter 5, I knew I’d found my subject matter.

The word “beatitudes” comes from the Latin beātitūdō which means “happiness” or “blessing.” I remember thinking: what better attribute to imbue a blanket with.


May I set the scene for Matthew 5? Jesus is about 30 years old, he has recently left the home where he grew up and has begun to travel and teach in public places throughout the region of Galilee in Roman-occupied Israel. He has asked 12 men to accompany him and learn from him, like apprentices, which they do. Also, quite notably, Jesus has begun healing the people he meets of all sorts of diseases and ailments. Interest and crowds are growing. It is in this setting that he begins to teach, just as a rabbi would, and with an authority and credibility that surprise people, especially as he is a carpenter by trade, and from a small town.

It was on a hillside one day, surrounded by such a crowd, that he said (among many other things) “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

What? Meek sounds so unflattering! I don’t know anyone who longs to be known as the meek one!

But over at Dictionary.com I learn this (with italicized notes in brackets added by me):

          Meek
          1. humbly patient or docile, as under provocation from others. [Worthy traits!]
          2. overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame. [The “meek” we don’t think highly of.]
          3. Obsolete: gentle; kind. [Check out these older meanings! They’re great!]

And Merriam-Webster offers these synonyms: demure, down-to-earth, lowly, humble, modest, unassuming, unpretentious.

 Sheep of course aren’t ideal representatives for meekness, but they’ve got some fitting characteristics. They’re docile. They’re unable to protect themselves. They depend on their shepherd. Yet when they feel assured that the shepherd is watching over them and tending to their surroundings, they go about their day at peace.

However, they’re also not so smart. (Sorry, sheep!) But perhaps that keeps them humble?

If Jesus insinuated that meekness is a quality worth having, then I propose that it’s worth reconsidering how we think about it in our modern-day world, maybe in these terms:

gentleness
humility
kindness
modesty
endurance
patience
healthy deference
and even…trust.

Then there’s the last part of that verse—whoa!

What is the blessing that the meek will receive? They will inherit the earth. What can that even mean?? I don’t know, but it sounds amazing. Is it like a fairy-tale king entrusting to his beloved daughter a sound, cared-for kingdom, with peaceful people tending beautiful, full fields and lands? Even that picture is poor next to the possibilities contained in the blessing of this beatitude.

But someday perhaps we’ll know :)

“Blessed are the Meek” (62″ x 72″)

This blanket has already gone to a good home.

“Honorarily Dutch”

[Hope’s paintings will be opening May 6 at the Button Art Gallery in Douglas, Michigan, a lively arts center in West Michigan connected to Saugatuck. The gallery’s original roots go back 200 years to London, England. It later moved to New York City, then Chicago and now West Michigan. If you’re in that area, consider stopping in! Her works will be on display a year. Her proud dad and I will be there on opening night, 6-8 p.m. May 6.]

Until recently, the daughter who got me started with repurposing wool sweaters had no genuine article of gratitude from me except for a pair of mittens. (Or maybe three pair? All of which would have benefited from a connecting string through her coat sleeves. She’s 25. Can I still say things like that? I say it with pure affection!)

This year as her birthday approached—her 25th—I wanted to have a blanket for her. FINALLY.

Hope is an artist. She lives in Holland, Michigan. She works diligently and enthusiastically to get her work and her name known. And this in a town where Dutch pride runs deep and the Dutch network is strong. She’s not Dutch herself, but has been warmly taken in and is thoroughly enjoying living and working in her adoptive town.

Making something for a daughter is no simple thing. (Can I get an “Amen” from any other mamas?) You want them to like it, and you know them awfully well, but you also know they, like us all, have particular preferences—which are often not your own! Above all you don’t want to disappoint. So my very first step was to be gracious with myself, do my best, and not consider this a be-all end-all gift. It was much easier to begin with the weight of expectations off my shoulders.

From there, my thinking about this blanket began with Hope’s love of blue and white porcelain. She hunts resale for vases, bowls, plates, and leans towards ones with Asian art. She has included these in several of her paintings. I took that porcelain theme but put a delft spin on it to honor Hope’s lengthening roots in West Michigan soil.

Making this became a lot of fun! For years Hope has loved watching British-made shows like Clatterford, Miss Marple, Doc Martin, and Rosemary and Thyme. She admits it’s the scenery in the shows that charms her most of all. Over the years she has shared that love with her sister and me, and now our bucket list includes seeing old and quaint cottages somewhere in the world. That is how these two little cottages came to be on this blanket. Then the windmill. The birds, river and sailboat brought the whole scene together.

Artistically, it was surprising to discover that several blues make up each blue-and-white scene on porcelain pieces. For the blanket, I chose three: a dark (navy), a medium (a truer blue), and a light (approaching sky blue). The two darker ones are pretty close to each other in value, especially in the photos. Can you find them all?

The blanket had a final addition that I nearly missed: The ripple of water by the boat. It was actually fabric trimmings left over after I cut out all the birds. The boat had been floating in mid-air until I saw that wavy scrap with new eyes. It offered the perfect weight for that lower right corner and provided the boat a lake of its own.

And there you have it: A Dutch town for my English-countryside-loving Norwegian-German-Scot daughter who lives and paints in the American Midwest. To me, this blanket includes it all.

For Hope,
with much love from Mom.
It’s a joy to be related to you.

“Honorarily Dutch”

This blanket lives happily in its new home,
surrounded by many companions of the blue and white sort:

[Photo credit: Lindsey Peterson. From hopeolson.com. Used with permission.]

“Garden of the Gods”

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Two Christmases ago I gave my husband a card with a repeating pattern of camping tents on the front. Inside, I confidently announced my Christmas gift to him: a road trip to the national parks of southern Utah. It was on our bucket list! It would be our first road trip since our kids have grown up, leaving us on our own! We could start a new tradition!

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What I neglected to note as I wrote that card, however, was the actual fitness of my trip-planning skills to the requirements of the task. Was I confusing myself with someone else? Oh, THAT’S RIGHT. While this skill-set does exist in my household, it does not belong to me. It is my husband’s.

Hubby’s M.O: Go online and plan the trip.

My M.O.: Read a little, brainstorm (with hubby), go look up more stuff, bounce ideas (off hubby), write things down, float possibilities, write things down in multiple places, lose track, get overwhelmed, make impulsive decisions. Give hubby the impression that the plan is shaky. Does this sound even remotely Christmas present-ish??

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My guy was tremendously patient with me and allowed my slow, uncertain method to still be a kindness to him. I fumbled around just about as described in my M.O. above, with him providing only enough structure for my halting efforts to actually bear fruit. (I’ve mentioned before what a gift my husband is to ME.)

And in this manner it finally came to pass that we indeed took our two-week road trip to “The Mighty Five” national parks of Utah in September of last year. Two heads are better than one, and all that.

But about those parks! Have you been there? Do you live near there? IT’S MAGNIFICENT. The landscape makes you feel tiny but at the same time fills you up and enlarges you (somehow!) with its glorious spaciousness.

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In September I blogged an overview of the trip, including a handful of our photos. Then this last weekend we had some friends over for dinner and to see our pics from the trip (they’ve been asking!). And I realized I needed to share this blanket—a wedding gift and offshoot of our Utah road trip.

En route from northern Illinois to southern Utah, we stayed a night in Colorado (worth its own road trip, of course, but that will need to wait). We arrived at the end of a long day of driving, and our friends in Colorado Springs popped us into their car at dusk and drove us about a mile from their home to a favorite spot of theirs, the Garden of the Gods. It was our breathtaking introduction to the rich reds and vibrant greens we were about to see throughout the next 10 days. So as a very belated wedding gift to them and as a way for me to express our joy with the place and with them, I made a small throw/large lap blanket.

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My aim was to represent the land, the space, the juxtaposition of the brilliant colors that we stood over and under and among at all times. I experimented with some free-style stitching to capture the line and texture of the monolithic stones. And if you look just left and below the cloud, you can see my nod to Pike’s Peak, whose eminence is constantly felt in Colorado Springs.

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GO, friends. Look up The Mighty Five. Look up the US National Park Service. Look up AAA and get some old-school road maps that will rewire your brains. And if you need some trip-planning advice, you know who to call. I will hand my hubby the phone ;).

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“Garden of the Gods” (45″ x 55″)
This blanket has already gone to a good home.

“Happy Winter”

"Happy Winter"

Books have always been a big deal around our house. We spent a lot of time reading when our girls were little and certainly had our favorite books, as most families do. So when the calendar flipped to December, when winter winds shook the fir trees around our house and the snows began to come, a particular book got pulled off the shelf regularly. Titled “Happy Winter,” it depicts a day in the life of two young sisters who awake with a thrill to fresh-fallen snow. Author and illustrator Karen Gundersheimer captures the pleasures of childhood in a wintry climate perfectly: sledding, baking, playing dress-up, reading books, getting ready for bed in a warm house. We fell in love with “Happy Winter” because everything that happened in their fictional household also happened in ours.

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This past month I’ve been absorbed in thinking about moms and little girls and winter, as I worked with customer Elsa’s box of wool sweaters to make a blanket “big enough for my daughters and me to cuddle up under.” They know about wintry climates: they live in Minnesota. Elsa sent a gorgeous assemblage of her own bright sweaters—various reds, pinks, purples, blues and blacks. The sweaters presented LOTS of contrast. So lovely! So warm and welcoming! And yet I felt intimidated. I’m more in my wheelhouse working with lower-contrast colors. How would I bring these together into a cohesive whole?

I challenged myself to put as many of Elsa’s sweaters as possible into this blanket without launching chaos.

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To face this challenge, I did what I so often do when I feel at sea. I sit down with (what else?) books. In this case, I grabbed a well-worn one, “An Eye for Color,” by Olga Gutiérrez de la Roza. (Also mentioned here and here and soon in a forthcoming post.) The photo below, from the book, let me know I could be successful with the mix if I worked to rein the colors in by applying some order.  I plotted a beginning symmetry and then quickly laid out colors to balance each other.

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I focused on two common denominators in this collection. 1. Nearly every sweater is highly saturated with a strong, bold color. 2. Those colors sit in large part between red and blue on the color wheel.

After finalizing the pattern of strips, I needed to figure the sequence for sewing them together. Here’s my sketchbook. I referred to it constantly till the final border was stitched on.

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It worked. I love it. I love the strong red “figure-8” that runs diagonally across the surface. I love the sweet pinks in the corners. I love how the blues and blacks provide a weighty border while the raspberry binding keeps everything light-hearted. And I love love love the four landmark rectangles that center everything.

This blanket has necklines galore, buttons on the front of a V-neck pullover, an Abercrombie label, and three pockets for secret messages or for tissues during a sad movie. I had to swipe the pockets from other sweaters in my stash as Elsa’s didn’t have any. But pockets just seemed right for a mother-daughter blanket.

How did I do with the personal challenge? There are parts of 17 sweaters in this blanket, 13 of them Elsa’s. (The other four were for the pockets and for filling out the red figure-8.) Mission accomplished!

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Elsa, thanks so much for asking me to make this for you and your family. In honor of you and your girls and keeping warm together, here is “NIGHT,” the final chapter from Gundersheimer’s “Happy Winter”:

Happy Winter, evening time —
I like how little star-specks shine
Or blink and sparkle cheerfully —
They almost seem to wink at me.

And now switch on the bedside light
To shoo away the dark of night.
We read until we yawn, and then
With one last flick it’s dark again.

The big black night is soft and spread
Just like the quilt upon my bed.
I’m warm and toasty, very snug,
Then Mama comes for one last hug
And sings a winter lullaby,

“Hush and quiet, close your eyes,
The moon’s a night-light for the sky,

Where sprinkled stars are twinkling high
And far below, the deep drifts lie
‘Til Northwind spins and flurries fly.
A snowy blanket’s tucked in tight
And so are you, and now good night.
A happy winter day is done,
Now close your eyes and dreams will come.”

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“Happy Winter” (68″ x 76″)

This blanket has already gone to a good home.