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…

Green Thumb

I bought a *Gelli plate and *brayer to experiment with printing techniques, and had some leftover test papers. I especially liked the way these bright rainbow colors turned out, and decided to work them into a new collage piece.

I used plain bubble wrap to make a dot texture on her skirt.

Leaping rabbits thanks to a stamp set. (TBH I’m not stoked about how the rabbits look. I think I should have used a thinner acrylic or ink vs. thicker ink. Ah well, that’s why I test and learn.)

*Affiliate links mean I may receive compensation if I recommend something you purchase. I don’t recommend products that I don’t endorse, and all content and opinions are my own.

Stargirl Untangles the Universe

Sometimes I miss painting Star Girls. When I first started creating art, I was in a place that was confusing and stressful, and I gravitated toward the idea that perhaps there were benevolent beings just beyond sight. If they didn’t have it all under control, they were there and that was enough. This was an early work that I’ve always liked. We all need a little help untangling the universe sometimes. Even if she can’t fix it, she gets it.

We’ll probably see the star girls again one day.

Vintage Children’s Books

I collect children’s books and had a bright idea to get some inexpensive ones to cut up in use in my collages. But, who am I kidding. I cannot take a pair of scissors to a book, regardless of the purpose! So, after a trip to Half Price Books last week, I have a few more books for my collection.

“Up and Down the Merry Go Round,” by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. I love the watercolor look of Ted Rand’s illustrations.

Hard to go wrong with the Beatrix Potter and Quentin Blake combo. “Kitty-in-Boots.”

I love the red, white and blue limited color palette here in “New at the Zoo,” by Peter Lippman. I also want to immediately run out and get a curly-haired dog to name Joshua.

“A Nose for Trouble.” I loved these Golden Scratch ‘n Sniff books and probably have this at my parents’ house somewhere. (We are not a family that parts with our books!) But I didn’t have it at my house, and now I do. Clara kind of reminds me of Molly but looks more like Stinky, the family cat (RIP.) But, she didn’t have a nose for trouble as much as she had a bias toward fury and an appetite for blood. In other words, she was pretty great. Anyway, the sniff stickers have held up surprisingly well in this book, and I’m enjoying being transported not only into the mischievous Clara’s world, but back to my childhood bedroom. I think one reason I loved this book is because like Clara, I could walk out the door and disappear into an exciting world of lilac bushes, tangles of violet and mint, and candy at the home of a friend (where, as everyone knows candy is always sweetest.)

Practice & Patchwork

Collage Supplies

“You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” – Miles Davis

Miles Davis was a musician, but his quote can be applied to any creative endeavor. It takes a while to get the basics right before a real sense of style and individuality comes through.

I’ve been a “practicing” artist coming up on three years in July. That seems like a long time, but I’ve needed every one of those years to evolve, first looking to others for inspiration and learning different techniques, tools and processes, and then using that knowledge to communicate my own message.

When I started writing Pine Curtain Stories, I identified a story I wanted to tell. The more I write it, the more I want to refine my art to support those stories and say exactly what I want to with the images and not just with the words. So, I’ve started taking more time with my art, both physical (time in the studio) and mental (time with my thoughts and intentions.) It makes for a longer road, but rather than being disheartening, it’s actually very exciting.

Earlier this week, I dug into my supply box and found all sorts of things I used in the beginning of this journey and hadn’t found a way to incorporate lately. I had a great time with it all, and I’m so pleased that nothing has gone to waste.

I’m incorporating more collage into my work, and I’m happy with the results. I’ve used packing tape collages, tape transfer methods and plain-old cut paper and glue/gloss gel methods to achieve the look I want. As a bonus, it’s also motivated me to find new resources, so on Friday I took myself on a field trip to Paper Arts and disappeared into its wonderful stacks for a half-hour or so.

Here’s my first “patchwork” piece. I’m happy with the way it turned out, and look forward to creating more.

Is Your Refrigerator Running?

“Slumber Party” by Stephanie Khattak. iPad and Apple pencil in Procreate.

I wasn’t allowed to call boys when I was growing up. To do so was a sin worse than murder. I might was well have been dancing on tables in my bathing suit. But that didn’t stop me from calling boys, I just found a loophole – prank calls. Probably because I didn’t actually know how to talk to boys like a normal person since doing so was such a Big Deal.

Anyway, we spent most slumber party nights on the phone dialing out with made-up scenarios, intriguing lines of questioning, new and exciting personas and in some cases, multi-call serial dramas. We even did sort of spoken word bits to different types of background music. (No, not rapping. Not nearly that cool.)

My friend had a Swatch “funky twin” phone making it easy to group up on the call. Of course this was before anything digital, like star-69 or even saving numbers in Contacts. I kept doing it into college, and only stopped when my friend and I got bored and called a random person while were were vacationing in Florida only to have him call back (justifiably) pissed off and asking for the person we were staying with, by name. That was our introduction to caller ID and the last time I ever prank called anyone.

To this day, prank calling was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. We were never hurtful or harassing, and in retrospect, it was probably entertaining for some. Like their own, personal, interactive podcast, just with more giggling.