This is the season of giving. So, I'd like to share with you an unexpected and rather wonderful gift I received from Art2Life (video at end of this post). Art2Life is an organization I'd joined during Covid, a program founded and headed by Nicholas Wilton, an extraordinary art-and-life coach, who, with his team of artists and technicians make art come alive in a virtual, online setting. Doing so was a new event for me, yet I found not only a program I enjoyed but also a huge community of creative persons who seemed both diverse and supportive of one another. It proved to be a very active and engaging lifeline for me and many others at all levels of accomplishment (novice to expert), especially during all the disconnection and isolation of pandemic challenges on social gatherings, art shows, workshops, and the like. You can check out the many facets of this approach to art and life on all the usual social media channels (FB, IG, youtube, etc.). There's much good and free instruction given, as well as workshops for a fee.

photo of an art "inspiration board" by Janet Strayer
my "inspiration board", a task done during the program

I'd been enrolled in one the Art2Life programs (Creative Visionary) for some months, and learning new things as well as important old things (that I thought I knew) in new ways that made them more potent and accessible-- pieces of from earlier experience and learning put into a "method" or way of approaching and handling the challenges and joys of creative artwork. It certainly fit my way of thinking about my art in my life and what I wanted it to do.

After I'd been in the program for some months, the big surprise came when Nicholas Wilton asked if I'd agree to be interviewed. I did, knowing him to be a very down-to-earth, engaged and engaging artist and teacher. "Why me", I wondered. No clear answer, but I suppose my story and my art might be of sufficient interest to reach people it might inspire. I enjoyed our one-to-one interview that lasted nearly an hour and half. Based upon this, and subsequent photo/video material I was asked to supply, the Art2Life team produced the video presented here (shown first at Art2Life FB page on Dec. 13, 2021). I think you might enjoy it, and (from the online comments) find it inspiring for your own creative path.

This video, created by Nick's team, distills my story: my great leap of doubt to becoming an artist. My comments are necessarily condensed without the full context of the original interview, so I'd like to clarify something important to me.

I became a researcher and academic in Developmental and Clinical Psychology because I loved (still do) the field of human development and my specialization in empathy development. As a child I loved art but knew (and was confirmed) that I was far more skilled in intellectual than artistic pursuits. So, my career choice to become an academic was both "natural" to me and encouraged. I never regretted that choice. It just became clear to me, after a good and satisfying time, that university life had changed and no longer suited the creative and artistic parts of myself that needed to be let loose-- to live the unlived parts of oneself. I'm sure many of you understand that feeling.

As for Now-- Making art is an ongoing revelation to me. I create art to explore and often to celebrate life in its variety, focusing on the intersections of worlds within and around us. I wish for my work to connect with others in ways that enliven the senses, the imagination, and the different experiences people bring to it.

Enjoy the story. Enjoy the art. May this video spur you on to your own creative adventures, and may you find many moments of joy along the way. I'd like to hear about it..

Dolls, manikins, puppets, masks, and the like are fascinating in their suggestiveness. They often appear in artistic productions that engage imaginative-real distinctions. We know their power for children who actively pretend and role-play features of their not-yet adult world. But what is their attraction for adults? It goes beyond sentimental recollections and into the uncanny.

photos of old dolls from Toy Museum, London


Dolls, manikins, puppets

Dolls of all sorts can be admired for their physical qualities such as human look-alikeness, cuteness, or sensory feel. But they also can serve as magnets for our personal projections and projective identifications. That's what leads us into in Uncanny territory. We attribute psychological qualities to these imaginatively animated-objects, which can be good and/or bad: innocent, needy, kind, cunning, mischievous, malevolent. We're then privy to whatever associations arise from our projections, and these can be bewildering.

The sense of the uncanny was a topic that interested Sigmund Freud, who described it in 1919 as strangeness come to life in the familiar. It applies to both life and art, taking a variety of forms to which individuals are differently susceptible. When we experience the uncanny, it unsettles us. That’s not a bad thing. Like other experiences that awaken us to our immediate world, the uncanny tends to rouse us from sleepwalking through reality. But it also taps into an ambivalence. The familiar object, which we typically take for granted, now generates something evasively secret, unfamiliar, or repressed. We enter disquieting territory, rousing us from the stupor of taking for granted the familiar and suggesting there's more to be known. Some of us enter such territory more easily and more willingly than others, expanding our imaginative scope. Some see irony, humour, surreal pleasures. But you never know for sure.

Especially so when dolls and puppets have human-like appearance with moveable heads and limbs. We face a rather primal uncertainty over whether such things are, real or representational, alive or inanimate, subjects or just objects. Psychologically, they call our established adult categories into question. No wonder some adults are uncomfortable with dolls and similar "in-betweens." To quote a science fiction author (Ellen Datlow), "Dolls, perhaps more than any other object demonstrate just how thin the line between love and fear, comfort and horror, can be "

Other forms of art, especially figurative art, can pull us into our imaginations and evoke associations, memories, and inchoate feelings. Some clearly pleasant, others perhaps not quite understood or resolved. Like transitional objects, dolls are more than they appear to be, full of projections and evocations. Their uncanny quality can feel somewhat surprising, even frightening to some. All the while, the dolls themselves remain indifferent. Often appealing, attractive, mysterious, or eerie, they remain poised elsewhere. Yet they have caught us in our imaginations.

Dolls, puppets, and masks often appear in artistic works-- given that art, itself, engages imaginative-real connections. You've perhaps experienced uncanny associations when looking at different works of art that have drawn you in. Many artists appreciate the uncanny quality of dolls and their ilk, working with them as content in their paintings, music (Tales of Hoffman), and media productions. Think of Cindy Sherman who deliberately exploits and pushes the doll-human interface to exceptionally vivid heights. So do historic and contemporary media, as in the horror-genre but also in appealing films like Lars and the Real Girl and the expanding depictions of android-human interaction across many varieties of experience.

I've incorporated dolls into my figurative artwork -- as tangible objects in early assemblage works, but more often as depictions in narrative paintings, shown here.You can see how my poorly photographed source (Pollock's Toy Museum) was rendered into a finished portrait of The Kewpie Family at Home.

imaginative realism painting of Kewpie Doll family by Janet Strayer
The Kewpie Family painting by JS (see actual dolls used as source below)

photo of vintage Kewpie dolls

Personally, I prefer painting from poor photos rather than good ones, which impedes me from trying to copying them and helps free more imaginative treatments. I've never displayed The Kewpie Family painting in an exhibit, and I'll explain why.

Here's the story. I once exhibited another story-painting, called Howdy's Girl, based upon a doll-puppet. It focuses on a very amiable cowboy-puppet, Howdy Doody, from a TV show I loved watching when very young. I especially liked the show because it had puppets and people interacting on stage, not separated behind a partition. That fit well with my active imagination. As an adult, I envisioned this painting as my story of how I'd looked up to Howdy as a child and then, ironically, pictured him looking to a doll-like adult female version of this child.

imaginative realism painting of Howdy Doody by Janet Strayer
Howdy painting by JS

When I showed this painting in a public exhibit, I overheard someone walk away from it angrily muttering with some disgust "that doesn't even belong in a garage sale!" Ouch. Was it that bad a painting? Even so, what could have caused the anger? Why not simply just walk on? She hadn't bothered to look at the other paintings, but exited the gallery. Putting on my psychologist's hat, I thought this was very likely one of those projective incidents stimulated by a doll/puppet. Yes, and I also then learned of a horror movie using a look-alike Howdy character. But that wasn't my story at all. Still, every painting reflects what others see in it. And that can be disturbing, even if unintended, especially if it invokes the uncanny.

My first solo show was a series of monochromes called Child Out of Time (Garlands, shown here). The exhibit invoked an uncanny experience in the gallery director, who reported dreaming about these images of timeless children for days. The dreams took her places she did and did not want to go. You can click here for a video experience of some of these works.

award-winning digital painting of young girl by Janet Strayer
Garlands, digital painting by JS

Personally, I have little attachment to actual dolls. One exception: Columbina, a small rubber doll in a navy blue corduroy outfit and beret that accompanied me as an immigrant toddler on my voyage to America. But, like others with a high curiosity quotient, I'm open to the psychological dimensions that dolls and similar objects can channel. I like that they can animate our world and that we can imaginatively partake of “theirs”. Artists like Cindy Sherman may even choose to depict human portraits as doll-like self-presentations while simultaneously venturing behind the pose. Imagination is the key, and is itself a transitional realm, an in-between place, beyond the real but improvising from it. And the limits of imagination, as Einstein said, are unlimited. May you delight in your own experiences of the uncanny.

or The Trials and Tribulations of Crating and Sending Artworks.

This column deals with a collision between the wonderful act of donating art and the work of properly crating it as well as the especially grueling job of arranging with an international carrier to transport it securely to its destination. The last item is the worst.I'll describe the details and pitfalls to avoid for your benefit. May you have an easier time of it than I did!

I've donated art before and it was a breeze. Donating art is a gift worth giving and not a problem -- unless it's large and you're giving it across borders.

two large art assemblages by Janet Strayer Art

It all started with my having created two large assemblage art works, shown in these photos. They were very engaging to make and others reacted to them with interest and delight. I especially enjoyed watching children interact with these works during a pre-gallery installation. I decided, given my long-standing commitment to developmental psychology, that they would be excellent items to donate to a NFP setting like a hospital or care centre involved with children and families. I spoke with several colleagues in the area of human development, and all was arranged with an excellent recipient, the Amego Foundation near Boston. They were delighted to have such a gift, and I was delighted to send it.

Crating the Artwork:

My next task was big: how to package the work for shipment. A friend volunteered and enlisted another for the job of making custom-built wooden crates for these unusually dimensional artworks. Each work contains 3D decorated birdhouses and other fragile protrusions of natural items like twigs as well a "laundry line" of feathers strung between two of the birdhouses. I supplied the materials for the crates and two friends built them in their workshop. They appreciated the art and did a great job, as you might see in their impromptu photos. Inside each of the wooden crates, the artwork was securely fastened and buffered against abrasion. The outside of the crates were securely sealed and built to withstand the rigours of truck transport. The crates were built to protect the art from movement shifts and abrasion. The green circles on the BirdCentral photo are the first places to detach the artwork on arrival, noted in the set of instructions sent to the recipient. So far so good! Next comes the awful part!

custom-built crate for artwork by Janet Strayer
Custom-built wooden crate for BirdCentral - the art lies on cardboard protection from wood abrasion

custom-built shipping crate for Assemblage by Janet Strayer
Laundry Day in Birdland inside its crate

International Shipping: Arranging for international transport can be an ordeal. I wanted to keep shipping costs reasonable, so went the common route and chose UPS international freight services. BEWARE. They are used to dealing with businesses who probably have a person or department dedicated to shipping issues, not to helping private individuals send large crates. It took forever and many conversations with multiple personnel to get the information required to fill out a bill of lading. I had to begin at the beginning with each person, sort out contradictory information, and finally arrive at these "facts". I hope they will be helpful to many of you.

First off, the UPS international freight site has been renamed TForce Freight. Curiously, this name change was not mentioned on the UPS online site that started me on my long journey to get the shipping details straight.

Every field has its acronyms. Shipping is no exception. You get to learn fun terms like "LTL" which means "limited truck load". I decided the safest and economical choice for my "non-stackable" crated items would be LTL.

international shipping BOL shown as an example for shipping artwork -- for Janet Strayer Art
Bill of Lading for Janet Strayer's shipment

The required Bill of Lading, shown here has features you need to know. The dimensions and weight of your crate are easy enough to supply. Now comes the arcane feature: what "Freight Class" is your item? That refers to what's inside the box. You are to enter a number from 50 to 500. Don't try the roulette wheel! This number matters a lot in determining shipping costs, and you'll be penalized if you underestimate. The sections highlighted in green show the most troublesome part.

Freight Class: Since no one at UPS can or will explain "freight class" to you, you look it up on the internet. The information I found was on a site speaking to shipping specialists (so that's what you have to become). The Freight Class helps the carrier determine how much to charge for your shipment, along with other factors such as weight, distance traveled, and any additional services. Typically, the higher the freight class number, the more expensive the freight class fee.

These factors determine Freight Class: density, storage, handling, and risk liability. Of these, the least obvious is Density. Contrary to what you may think, the higher the density, the lower the classification and the lower the cost. A crate containing bricks will cost less than the same crate containing sacks of feathers! Why? Because feathers are less profitable to shippers due to their lower weight per density. Sacks of feathers can take up just as much space as the crate of bricks, so the shipper needs them to earn more than their weight warrants. There are some online tables that list the freight class for different items to help you determine yours. When I got my head around some of this and had the info ready, I called UPS and asked to speak with someone there who could help me confirm an exact number. I had to plead. She said 110 and, though I'm not sure exactly what "110" means, I was grateful for a clear response.

Customs clearance is another critical factor in international shipping. I kept explaining to UPS that mine was a donation, yet they still told me to contact a US Customs broker. Gads, this donation was going to cost a lot! I reached said agent, listed online by phone, who assured me (no charge), just to write into the lading form "Section 321 Entry" because it was a donation. Highlight that.

Given the two crates were over 6 ft. and weighed about 65 lbs. each, I had UPS/TForce pick them up from my storage in Vancouver on Friday afternoon. They arrived within the allotted afternoon time slot. Good thing, because I had to catch a ferry back to Saturna Island home and studio the same evening. Only one driver came, but he and my friend were able easily to load the crates onto the truck.

I handed the driver the lading form I'd completed, thinking all was done. Then he asked for the Commercial Invoice. My understanding was that I didn't need one for a donation, and showed him that "Section 321 Entry" was clearly highlighted on my lading form. The driver didn't have a clue about this, was new to his job, and insisted I needed a commercial invoice. "OK, I'll fill it out, just hand it to me". He didn't have one and didn't know how to get one. Talk about job specificity! That was the straw that nearly broke this already-broken camel's back! The driver allowed me to speak on his phone with his supervisor. I recited my "Section 321" mantra. The supervisor said OK and told the driver he could pick up my crates. What a relief! I'd been stressed-out by this shipping stuff for much too long. I went to Saturna, happy as ever to be there and have this shipping stuff settled. Now I would just wait to see that all was delivered well.

Not so! Monday's email from TForce told me to fill out a Commercial Invoice immediately and that I'd be charged $30/day storage for any delay in getting this to them. I completed all I could of the attached form and was able to reach the agent by phone about the unfilled sections. He explained that, even with Section 321, a commercial invoice is required that essentially states no commercial transaction is involved. You still must put a value on the items, so I declared the material costs and described the items concretely. The agent's return-emailed confirmation that he'd sent the form onto Billing and they'd let me know if any further issues occurred. So many different departments for possible vexation! That's the secret weapon of industrialization: no one person or department takes overall responsibility. Each employee lives in a mini-fiefdom. I do think, though, that companies can at least be better integrated. After writing that, I received a most welcome call from the agent I'd spoken with about the Commercial Invoice. He told me the truck was en route! Thank you, kind Mr. R. Chan!

That's how it stands as of writing this now*. My gut has been wrenched silly by this process. Now my fingers are crossed that all will proceed well. I know the recipients love the gift. I'm hopeful they won't suffer any shipping-related difficulties because of it. Please cross your fingers with me on this one!

It's gotta be easier than this, folks! Hope this column helps should you ever face similar issues. In the meantime, keep a creative and generous spirit alive.

*P.S. GOOD NEWS: all was safely delivered to its destination about two work weeks after pick-up. It took longer than expected, but we're all so relieved that all arrived in perfect condition. There were, correctly,, no customs duties , though I don't know if it the crates were held for inspection.The crates were intact upon arrival. Yippee.

So I leave this column wishing you HAPPY TRAILS to your art-shipping ventures!

I hope you enjoy these columns about art, ideas and travel adventures. I write them from my perspective as a a mixed-media artist and creative life writer with diverse cultural interests. -- Janet Strayer

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