’80s Ladies

Looking back, I wonder if my hometown school system was inspired by the game Pick-up Sticks. Order, chaos, order, repeat.

Kindergarten through sixth grades were at small elementary school campuses across the city. In seventh grade, we were shaken up and thrown together on a huge campus with a residential street running through it. (Inspired by Pick-up Sticks AND Frogger?) After a year, just enough time to get our bearings, we were spit up again into two junior highs, East and West. An “Us vs. Them” division perfect for sports team rivalries, petty factions and bullies looking for a reason. For our final three years, we were all flung onto the single high school campus to try and get along until we graduated. Quite the social experiment.

Prior to the seventh grade, my friends had come from three groups: church, my mom’s friends’ kids, and kids who had been seated near me from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until I was twelve, my friendships were mostly “you get what you get” situations.

So, I was overwhelmed on my first day of seventh grade at the big Dunbar Intermediate School from the moment I stepped off the bus into moving traffic. I was immediately lost in a sea of kids who not only didn’t go to my church, but who I had never seen before in my life. Who were these people? Had they been in Lufkin all this time? And they were all supposed to be seventh graders? Teased hair, acid washed denim, puff painted sweatshirts…in my memory, those kids looked like 30-year olds. At least compared to me, in my long skirt, button-up blouse and red scarf tied “nicely” around my shoulders. Dressed from bow-head-to-squeaky-loafer in Wiener’s finest that was chosen by my mom, likely with some input from my great-Aunt Lucy, a saleslady there. Thus ensuring that my only school friends would be the lunch ladies.

I don’t think I blinked once that entire first day, and maybe not the day after, either. Getting from class to class was a wild-eyed obstacle course. I kept tripping over my skirt. I regretted all previous life choices almost immediately. My elementary school friends seemed gone forever.

But then came Computer Science class, or what passed for computer science in 1988-89. I remember two things from that class: one, that I met Valeria and two, that she taught me to say “I love you” in Spanish. (Don’t get excited, she wasn’t saying it to me. She taught me so that I could say it and impress some pre-teen twerp who didn’t care.)

This is important, because Valeria was the first friend I ever made on my own. I came from the rural “bubble” and she lived in town. I was an only child and pretty isolated. My life advice until that point came mainly from people who were raised in the 1940s. Valeria had a big, busy family and lots of neighborhood kids to play with. So, we were different in some ways but we still clicked immediately. Even when we were too young to fully articulate it, we looked around this bisected city block full of future “*Lufkin bozos” and wanted so badly to fit in, and also wanted so much more than what we saw. And neither of us had any idea how to be anything other than exactly how we were, which was mostly braces, eyebrows and imagination.

We tried so hard. We passed notes by the hour, updating each other on the highs and lows of the day, a cycle of plotting and rehashing that has continued for 30 years. (Now, we text and Instagram message.) We were on the newspaper staff and made a whole column about who was dating who, who broke up, and what we thought about it. (Strangely, our sponsor never actually published this.) We made up unflattering, permanent nicknames for, well, pretty much anyone that so much as looked sideways at us. (Sorry, Hobbit Man. How are the grandkids?) We were each others’ biggest fans.

Valeria was not my only friend in seventh grade, but in general, I struggled to fit in. I ran for student council but was disqualified because I mixed up the date and passed out my campaign materials early. I was targeted by a group of “devil worshipers” who were going to “get me” at the mall. Groped in Science class. That sort of thing.

And there were other little dramas, some that I instigated, and right or wrong Valeria was there to egg me on or pick me up, whichever was called for. We have seen beginnings, endings and entire story arcs over the course of our lives together. She was there when I finally got a boyfriend, and she was standing at my side when he walked out of a school dance and broke up with me instead of inviting me to the dance floor.

At our ten year high school reunion, she was next to me when he approached us, recounted that day down to the detail. “I made a left out the door, and there you were.” He said it was something he deeply regretted. He blamed the whole thing on a mutual friend who had died in the 90s and could not defend himself, and implied that another shot would be pretty cool. I knew he had a wife at home. I never liked her, but I wasn’t going to do that to her either. Anyway, if you didn’t want me with my unibrow, then you don’t want me, mister. Valeria and I laughed it off. Our feet were hurting in our class reunion heels. (No more Wiener’s finest for me! I had since discovered Nordstrom Rack.) We were eager to go to Sonic and talk about all the people we’d seen. Maybe some new nicknames were in order.

Between seventh grade and our class reunion, Valeria and I did get the things we wanted from life, even if it hasn’t always gone how we imagined it would. But does it ever? We both muddled through junior high and high school, friendship mostly intact but our paths diverged a bit as friendships often do. She went to Nashville and I went to Austin. We found each other on Classmates.com sometime in the late 90s and resumed our “note passing” almost immediately. She eventually moved back to Texas. She got married in an actual castle! We were in each others’ weddings, our husbands get along and I saw her a few months ago with her baby. She has a little girl and twin stepdaughters who are in college. I look at them and know they will have great lives because Valeria is their mom.

As I said, Valeria was my first chosen friend. This is important because growing up in the “bubble,” it was implied that people outside the bubble were scary, and possibly even mean. Valeria was proof-positive that this wasn’t true. Meeting her, finding our commonalities, our shared goals and humor – this was the first step for me toward something different than was being handed to me. I have had someone to figure things out with since 1988 and that has been priceless. It was the first step in making my world bigger, in trusting myself a little bit, in seeing that maybe it was okay and valuable to trust in and care about things that I had to cross the street to get to. Valeria wasn’t mean – I am much meaner than she is – so maybe others wouldn’t be, either.

If not for my friendship with Valeria, I would not have had the courage to form close friendships with Courtney, Michelle, Mallory or others who came after.

Earlier, I used the term “Lufkin Bozo.” It is a given that any time something weird is in the news, it will have a Lufkin connection. Second only to “Florida Man.” The most recent “Lufkin Bozo” is the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker. Our hometown crime blotter is famously weird. Valeria and I are fanatical about the adventures of the Lufkin Bozo, texting constantly when they appear in the news, mapping any possible connections to us, our family or friends. We know that but for the grace of God, etc.

What would have happened if I hadn’t met Valeria? Would I have erased all my eccentricities, or completely devolved? If she hadn’t met me, she would still be just fine. If nothing else, she had a pretty, popular, older sister that has no problem making people correct themselves. But I had an echo chamber. An echo chamber that cared for me, but an echo chamber nonetheless.

If I had not met Valeria, I wonder if she’d be somewhere in her life reading online about a new Lufkin Bozo, because they are definitely created in echo chambers. Or if this Lufkin Bozo would have ever had the courage to be seen at all.

Gallerinas

In my other life, I have an art blog and work in the art sector. This means that I have spent the past few years being practically submerged in the art world, learning about it and how people find, engage with and collect art. I don’t really mix the two streams because I am not looking to be a professional artist in that respect. I am happy to work to help others engage with and discover art, and keep mine just for fun with the occasional transaction.

With that said, sometimes the inspiration does overlap. Particularly when I see a beautiful piece hung on the wall and think how it might work in a different way.

These thoughts have inspired what I call the “Gallerinas.” They’re mixed-media pieces that incorporate fine art pieces as collage, either repurposed or just reused. I take the images from magazines, ads or promotional brochures and cut them up to form new shapes.

Here’s the first “Gallerina.” If you look closely, her dress is a collage of David Park paintings. I saw Park’s retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth earlier this summer and loved it. (It’s up until Sept. 22 if you’re near D/FW or can get here.)

“Gallerina 01” by Stephanie Khattak. Collage, acrylic, gold ink and gold leaf on canvas board.

More Abstract Gel Printing

I’m really enjoying making these prints, not only the process (pulling the paper up is so satisfying!) but seeing where it can go adding different types of media and techniques.

I admit that I have not really been called to abstract art. I enjoy looking at it – my favorites are Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler and Gunther Fjorg. And, I’m crazy about them, but the list is pretty short after that. But, I also admit that I’m not the best at drawing, so I get frustrated when what’s on the page doesn’t match what’s in my head.

In loosening up my notions of what I do and don’t like and trying more abstract pieces, I have learned that I enjoy making color combinations, marks and other abstract techniques while I work over the more figurative stuff to get it just right.

In other words, where art is concerned, never say never and rule nothing out.


I am also experimenting with adding other types of art techniques and media to the page, incorporating Gel Pen details:

Acrylic, block ink, gel pen and gold leaf Gel print by Stephanie Khattak.

And Gold Leaf:


As is my process to avoid wasting products, I pulled a second print that came out with much lighter ink. To add interest here, I incorporated a portrait.


We will see where it takes me next.


“The courage to imagine the otherwise is our greatest resource, adding color and suspense to all our life.” – Daniel J. Boorstin

Looking for Our Names

“Looking for Our Names” by Stephanie Khattak. Mixed-media watercolor, ink, gouache and acrylic tape collage.

We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.

Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.

Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.

It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.

We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.

But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.

As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.

I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.

There is a light and it never goes out.

When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)

There is a light and it never goes out.

My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.

There is a light and it never goes out.

Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”

It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”



*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too:

Abstract Gel Prints

I don’t have a lot of time this week, but it’s important to commit to at least a few hours in the studio, both as a commitment to my art, and a way to make sure I prioritize something important to me. So, yesterday afternoon, I took out my Gelli plate and made some quick prints. I’m still learning this method and I really love it! It’s great for making quick pieces and having the validation of finishing something while taking my time with other things in the background.

I started with a few colors. Payne’s Gray is my all-time favorite color. I believe I have it in every medium – it’s just so versatile. Sometimes it looks blue, other times gray…it’s a good way to paint something “black” and still keep some nuance in the shade. I also used gold and a pale lilac. I use a mix of block print ink and acrylic paints, because I didn’t want to invest too much into the inks right away. As far as I know, they both work fine – I’m happy with my finished pieces, and both mediums wash easily off the plate.

Next, I take a small brayer and spread the colors. As you can see, a little goes a long way.

This is the first print. Pretty Straightforward.

One thing I really appreciate about this type of art, is that I can make many different pieces from the same paint spreads, and each looks a little different. (I could also have done more pulls of the first print for more similarity or a series.) Nothing is wasted. Here, I’ve laid out paper of different sizes, just to see what comes out of the process.

Before I placed the paper, I scratched some designs into the color. While I am sure there are specific tools or methods for this, I just used a plain palette knife, very gently.

Pretty cool. I like how, similar to clouds or ink blots, there are a lot of things to discover in these abstract shapes.

For example, I see a lot of city scapes or even highways here. The middle two remind me of a city and mountains. Maybe because I’ve had the Pacific NW on my mind. (I live in Texas – great barbecue, no mountains haha.)

I used a white gel pen to add in the smallest of details to guide the eye into seeing what I see here.

By now, the plate is pretty faded. But there’s still enough for one more pull. I use plain craft paper for the final print each time. Eventually, there will be enough to look like a series of abstracts that would look good displayed together.

Ta-Da!

All of this, plus cleaning the plate and tidying my materials took roughly an hour. While my heart will always be in figures and more narrative work, this was a great way to spend an afternoon, and got my wheels turning on how I can start selling art again without making it a whole “big thing” as they say. Stay tuned…