Joyful and triumphant

“Joyful and Triumphant,” acrylic on canvas by Stephanie Khattak.

Every year, from the time I was about eight until eleven or 12, our church would produce a live nativity scene. Community members of all ages were instructed to stand like statues for a few freezing cold hours over a weekend while cars from as far away as Lufkin and Nacogdoches slowly drove through the parking lot. No chewing gum or tobacco; no chit-chat; no silly dances, waving or hollering at cars we recognized, nothing. Just stand there.

The first year was contained to the walkway between the church sanctuary and fellowship hall; subsequent productions had shepherd fields out among the trees. The set was constructed from wood scraps covered with moss and other scavenged greenery.

The costumes were old sheets and ripped up cotton fabric; there were sneaker logos shining under robes; at least one king sported a repurposed Burger King crown. Fountain drink cups were barely hidden, as was the inevitable appearance of neighborhood dog. We never stood like statues when there was gum to chew, chit-chat to share and silly dances to perform. The best part of the evening was going inside for a hard-earned hot cocoa when it all got to be too much.

But “joyful and triumphant” are guiding words for the season, and that has never been lost on us.


*I talk a little more about the annual Christmas nativity and other traditions in my 2021 holiday podcast. Yes, I realize it’s now 2022 and almost 2023. The podcast has been down, but not out. Can’t say for sure when I will have a new episode, but it’s still cooking. Just on a back burner for now.

Recent Paintings

I’ve continued my Pine Curtain Project pieces with the folk/narrative art pivot, and as I do so, starting with a blank canvas rather than a photo or historical context, I am seeing more of a personal artistic style emerge.

I gravitate toward juxtaposition of bright and cool colors, which give the paintings kind of a whimsical, otherworldly glow effect. I also create some figures in more detail than others, which places my “characters” within a greater community. I also make sure there’s a little dog with a curly tail somewhere in there, representing my childhood dog Tater (1980-1997) who was always in the mix and lived long enough to bear witness to many life and community milestones.

With everything else going on and general life happenings, I usually do about one of these a month. So far, they have coincided with seasons or events, but that is more by inspiration than by design.

“Fall Festival” by Stephanie Khattak, 2022. Acrylic on Canvas.
“Too Much Sugar!” by Stephanie Khattak, 2022. Acrylic on canvas.

Happy Summer!

“Night Swimming,” Acrylic on Canvas by Stephanie Khattak.

Hello, why yes — it HAS been a while since I last updated my blog and my web site. What can I say, the first half of 2022 has gone by really quickly. And while in some ways it’s been really nice, it hasn’t left a lot of time for more creative pursuits, much less documenting those pursuits.

I secured a new freelance/contract client in January that takes up most of my weekday hours, and I published a travel book! The operative word there (after “published” I suppose) is travel. I haven’t been home many weekends in the past year or so. I am planning more travel books which entails more travel. So, it’s been a bit of a balance to learn, but I am getting better at it.

But I still paint as often as I can, and I still have the Pine Curtain Project going in the background. The above painting doesn’t look quite like the other pieces in the Pine Curtain Project. That’s another reason this blog has been quiet for a bit. I have felt compelled to bring the project into a more modern era, and am always tiptoeing around that a little bit. Some stories are not my stories to tell, but intersect with mine. So, what to do? My solution is to just focus on the scenes and feelings that I want the paintings to evoke while making everything else unidentifiable. This specific swimming pool didn’t exist, and neither did the specific girls in it. But what did exist, for me and I imagine many others, is night swimming with friends on a summer night. One of my besties had a pool, and my church rented one each summer from the time I was in middle school on out. There was a special kind of relaxed that we felt after swimming, and many pool nights melted easily into slumber parties. It was hot, and the June Bugs were loud, and we somehow felt sunburned even though we were swimming at dusk. And it was wonderful.

Creative Threads and Magical Thinking

Acrylic monotype on paper, 2020 by Stephanie Khattak.

Lately, I have been thinking of embroidery. And by extension, I have been thinking about my Auntie. She died late April 2020, but not of Covid. A distinction that didn’t matter once she was moved into a skilled nursing center for what we thought would be a few weeks of care and then home, or worst case, private hospice. When she went in, she was well enough to ask for a specific red jacket to be brought to her, already planning her outfit for her release.

For about a month her daughter and my mother, her niece tried their best to communicate through speakerphone, FaceTime, message relays from the nurses (for as long as she could understand them) and finally, the last goodbye. My cousin, my mother and I stood in a nursing home parking lot in Tyler and yelled into a stranger’s iPhone as Auntie slept fitfully, inside and many floors up and maybe heard us but who knows, really.

She was my second casualty of the last two years and the first involving a person. This kicked off a parade of horrors that marched on to include the deaths of her husband “Pete-o”; a cousin younger than me and both of his grandparents – another great-aunt and uncle of mine, and two other cousins – siblings. Within one week, I lost two classmates – one who I had adored since 1981 and another that I had happily tolerated for just as long. A married couple from the family next door warranted a double funeral, closing off yet another chapter of our multi-generational story. My friend from college died that February, and in October my ex was killed in an accident while experiencing a mental health crisis. Loss upon loss.

And of course, the Big Bad gas station looms large across from my parents’ house. The Final Boss that will send my family scrambling back to Hoot Owl Holler where we came from, four generations and nearly 100 years ago.

I know mine is just one story in many similar ones these days. I really don’t know where any of us go from here. For me, and for a lot of people I imagine, there is a strong sense that things will never feel normal again. And how can they, with such loss? And how could we even want them to?

Thinking of Auntie, and thinking of embroidery, I keep coming back to stitches and sewing. Perhaps it is my mind, as it often does, working things out creatively when it is hard to communicate in other ways. Piecing it back together, trying to bring out the beauty.


Auntie was the family seamstress, making most of my clothes for most of my life. All of my prettiest dresses came from her: the red strapless prom dress with a full petticoat skirt and bow on the bodice, so glamorous and timeless that it was altered to fit my very short best friend a year later and looked equally amazing. A black, off-the-shoulder floral Gunne Sax-inspired dress for the 1990 National Future Homemaker’s of America (FHA) convention in Washington DC, complete with hand-placed clear sequins over every pink and red rose petal and green leaf. That trip was my first time on an airplane, so of course I had to have two new wrap skirts made to wear on the flights – a navy one with a bright, whimsical crayon print, one in tropical pastels.

In researching my family history, I learned that Auntie’s auntie was a pattern maker, and her great-grandmother did professional needlework and embroidery for the community in the early 1900s. I didn’t inherit any of that. I did poorly in my Home Economics sewing unit, somehow stitching a needle into the pillow I was making. (My FHA success came through its public speaking components.) Once, I thought I’d sew a sundress for my little cousin and was feeling pretty good until my mother walked by, sighed and rolled her eyes. “Make something she can wear,” she said.

But still, I think about stitches, piecing together, making something plain just plain prettier. As with my prints, never obscuring or transforming, always honoring and enhancing. So, stitch by stitch, something new begins.

Work in progress, acrylic and embroidery on photo-printed canvas. Stephanie Khattak 2022.

When Auntie and Pete-o died, it fell to my mom and my cousin to clean out their house. There isn’t much in there that I really wanted. An oil portrait of my mother and a matching one of my cousin, if she or her child don’t want it. A framed 1993 Youth Fair needlepoint project depicting the million little things that make up a sewing room: thread, a sewing machine, scissors, spinning wheels…it was so big and complicated that I pulled tearful all-nighters to complete, sometimes working on one corner while my friend Jake worked on the other. It lost to a scene of a teddy bear eating an apple. A teddy bear! But that’s fine because Auntie liked it, and I liked it, and now I want it back.

But, what I really want is her sewing kit, a lidded basket in the shape of a beige house edged in blue and green. It sat by her machine for as long as I can remember, there with everything she’d need for each stitch and sequin, snip, button and flourish. There was never one thing out of place in that house, and yet that sewing kit is nowhere to be found. My other family members aren’t interested in it, and if they were they would just tell me. It’s simply not there.

Maybe it will turn up, but if not, that’s okay. I have a theory, or maybe some magical thinking. Perhaps she came back for it, took it with her to wherever she went. Her greatest joy was in her sewing, the satisfaction that can come from fixing a stitch, making something pretty, making something right.

There is a lot that is wrong right now. Who’s to say that the other side is so cut off from us that they can’t feel it? Maybe they feel helpless, too. So many gone, in such short time. To them they’ve arrived en masse somewhere entirely new with lingering, fuzzy memories of voices through smartphone speakers, unrecognizable shapes in hazmat suits, blinding lights. Who’s to say that they too, wouldn’t like to return to the comforts of old joys, to attempt to set something right, perhaps stitch by stitch. Who’s to say they can’t?

“Mimi and Auntie, 1940s” digital collage 2021. Auntie and her sister, my grandmother. By Stephanie Khattak.

Pappy and the Band

Painted gel plate in progress, 2022.

A reward of my interest in family history and research is learning not only who my family was as individuals, but how they influenced me. Both of my parents are musicians, my dad – a Gen Z wrapped in a Boomer wrapped in a lounge singer – has an impressive online music career with a bigger and more engaged audience than I could ever hope for. My mom sings and plays the piano and organ but mostly at church. They don’t collaborate because they have ….let’s just say creative differences. But music has always been a part of my life and our household.

I learned from my paternal grandmother that she had written and recorded a song back in the 40s in Houston. This tracks, because my cousin on that side is also a really talented musician – singer, songwriter and guitarist.

But what about my mom’s side of the family? She had a lot of formal music classes, but there had to have been something there for those classes to refine.

In our church archives, there’s a photo of a band in the early 60s, and the guitarist is my great-grandfather on my mom’s side, Pappy. Aha!

I really like this photo, not only because Pappy is in it, but also because it captures a time in the Homer community when it was really thriving – there were enough people to form a band and enough people to come hear them play. This was the case until I was about 17, and then it started to dwindle down. In junior high, my youth group friends and I stood on that same stage and lip synced into bananas calling ourselves “Banangles.” (Not sure why we didn’t go for the obvious Bananarama, but why be obvious when you can surprise and delight?)

I wonder what Pappy and his friends would have thought about the Banangles. But, I also don’t know what songs they, themselves were playing. Same place, same community, same (or similar) families – whatever they were doing, I bet it was fun.

“Pappy and the Band,” acrylic monotype on paper by Stephanie Khattak, 2022.

East Texas Family Photo Art

Setting up my workspace.

Almost one month into 2022, I am finally able to get back in my studio and make fresh monotype prints. Because this process must be completed in one go, it needs more dedicated time than other types of art. And time is something that has been in short supply!

For the my first print of 2022, I chose a vintage photo of my great-grandparents in the 1920s or 30s. Doing the math now, I realize this would make it close to 100 years ago. That seems hard to believe. While Beatrice died at 68 in 1978, Charlie, aka Grandy, lived into his nineties – almost to the year 2000! So, I knew him quite well.

What I like about this photo – other than the people in it – is how stylish she looks. I was too young to have memories of Beatrice before she passed, but I have always been told about her fashion sense and desire to keep current on trends. I see her angular 1920s bob and her shoes and think this was a person who had a sensibility beyond her rural environment.

Not sure if Grandy shared her fashion sense, but I remember that he didn’t like being gifted jogging suits at Christmas. So, maybe.

Dunbar Marching Band, 1965

This is another large piece in progress, inspired by a photo from The History Center, of Lufkin Dunbar High School’s marching band performing at a Christmas parade in 1965. So much to like about this photo that I wanted to capture – the uniforms, the mod-looking building behind the crowd. and while it is hard to see here, the Christmas decorations in the background.

This photo was taken in 1965, when Lufkin was still a segregated school district, and Black students attended Lufkin Dunbar High School. The school, named for *poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, was known for excellence in academics, athletics and leadership.

After integration, Dunbar became the district’s middle school, and it now serves as both Dunbar Primary and the Lufkin ISD education center, as well as hosting the Dunbar Hall of Honor.

As with so many other subjects I have researched, this photo was a valuable if much, much belated opportunity to learn more about Dunbar High School and its legacy.

*Note: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1899 poem Sympathy inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings!