On Meeting Gemma Taccogna, My Mr. Miyagi

Hi darling readers, I am taking a break from the creative alphabet today. I sat down to write “C is for…” but then this poured out instead. And you know what, I am glad it did.

If you’ve ever talked to me for more than 5 minutes, chances are I’ve talked to you about Gemma Taccogna. But just in case I didn’t, or if you’re always up for more of my many Gemma stories, I have a new one for you today.

A peek into my studio. As you can see, I have not kept up the lesson to keep the paint organized by color.

I met Gemma in the spring of 2002. I had been in Los Angeles for just about a year and I felt like an alien. I knew almost no one and the prospect of feeling as connected and loved as I had with all of my friends and family back east felt slim to none.

Then one fateful day I met Gemma. I was 25, Gemma was 79. Her dear daughter Gemi inspired the whole meeting. See, they were my neighbors. But I, in all of my focusing on being an alien in martian territory, failed to realize this. Gemi came over one day and introduced herself. After just a few minutes she proclaimed, “You have to meet my mother.”

My eyes tear up every time I think of this. Right now, they are tearing up. For me, it feels like my soul has been struck by some magic chord. It felt like it then and now, almost ten years from that day, it still feels that way.

That summer, I joined Gemma’s classes that she taught in her living-room-turned-studio, right next door to where I was living. I’d stay long after class, for hours on end, talking to Gemma. She would invariably put me to work, which I loved.

Another peek into my studio. Paint bottles everywhere...

One of my first jobs was organizing the paint by color. That is, remove the hundreds, dare I say thousands, of small paint bottles from their racks, and order them by shades of colors so that from a distance the bright whites led to the beiges to the yellows to the oranges to the reds… you get it.

This took not just hours, but days. Was there a moment when I wondered what was this woman trying to teach me? YES! And I didn’t figure it out until years later. Part of it was commitment. Was she testing me out to see how committed I was? Part of it was she could use the help. Part of it was she enjoyed having me around and the job kept me there. The truth is, I so enjoyed being there I often did the dishes and scrubbed the counters and replaced the paper on the table just to stay longer and longer.

Eventually these charades were no longer necessary and Gemma proclaimed I was part of the ‘famiglia’ – a phrase I will forever treasure. Perhaps my biggest theory is that she was preparing me for some future I could not even imagine yet. It occurred to me recently I was not organizing the paint by color. I was “waxing on and waxing off.” I was Daniel-son and Gemma was my Mr. Miyagi. That whole summer and for the next five years – until her passing in 2007 – I studied with Gemma and had the honor and joy of calling her my darling, dear friend. A legendary creator took me under wing and now I could swear I have wings.

I would love for you to meet Gemma, too. If you have not seen this mini documentary by her granddaughter Evie Elman, I would love you to check it out. You can also check out this bio of Gemma that I wrote. It originally appeared as Gemma’s obituary – her family gave me the privelege of celebrating my dear friend’s life in this way.

PS – I am having so much fun with Pinterest right now, are you? Check out my Gemma Taccogna Board here.

B is for Bravery

I’m only on letter two of the creative alphabet and already I’m having a fight with myself. Because I have two absolute favorite “B” words. Balance and bravery.

Balance means being healthy and aware in all aspects of life. It’s about knowing when to start and when to stop. It’s about knowing when to “do” and when to “be.” It’s about creating harmony between work and play and rest and all the other “things” that go into this amazing thing we call life. “Balance is beautiful” is one of my top-selling Said The Butterfly cards. People tell me it keeps them centered. I love that.

"Dream Brave" is about the balance between dreaming and bravery.

But… It’s bravery that allows balance to be possible. You have to be brave to be willing to take the steps of creating balance. I can still hear Gemma telling me to be brave. To put myself out there creatively. To be willing to shut my eyes and trust myself to create something wonderful without the pressure of my eyes and mind judging it the whole time. And then, to leave the comfort and safety of her studio to enter the world and apply those same philosophies to life. To live it. That’s bravery.

Bravery makes things happen. A dream is only a dream until you’re brave enough to act on it. Even if you’re terrified and there are a million sometimes tedious and painful steps, it’s bravery that keeps those feet moving. Then one day, you wake up and your dreams are coming true. Only because you were brave.

So my dear readers, the battle between balance and bravery is over. Bravery always wins.

Good things,
Melissa

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Lessons from Twelve Resting Caterpillars

I have twelve caterpillars lying on my coffeetable. They’ve been there since last weekend resting and feeding and growing. But they are by no means ready to fly. Sometimes they scream at me:

“Hey you, get over here and work on me!”

“Don’t you wanna get a little creative?”

“Come on! Stop everything else. And start painting.”

“Can’t you finish what you start?”

But mostly, they whisper to me ever so sweetly:

“It’s ok… you’re doing your best.”

“We’ll be here when you’re ready for us.”

“You’re doing so many good things right now. We’ll wait.”

“Thank you for making us. We wouldn’t even exist without you.”

And then they confide in me…

“We’re in no rush. We are so happy to be resting and at peace.”

So I am reporting to you, darling readers, and I’ve made peace with it in my mind, that the major studio time that I told you was coming, has come and gone. And I have twelve half-sort-of-started caterpillar paintings to show for it. They are farther along than the blank panels you see above. But they are by no means ready to share with you. So I am faced with the great unknown. What to tell you? What to make this post about now that we are already this far into it? The truth. I promised this to you in my very first post, I just didn’t think it would be happening so soon. My creative process is taking a little longer this time. I need to listen to the lessons from my own writing and artwork. To have the faith to “just see.”

Another lesson? Balance really is beautiful. And I am proud of myself for not just writing that and painting that and selling cards that say that… but I believe that. And I’ve had a remarkably balanced few weekends. I joined a new gym. I’ve had some extra-special quality time with my husband. I even had a day-long business and budget meeting for Said The Butterfly. These things are so important. Almost as important as the paintings themselves are the managing the details that allow me to make them, sell them and share them with the world. I even took two naps and got a mani and pedi. I know! Indulgent and amazing.

I also think of my frustrated self this time about four years ago. I hadn’t painted or written one thing in what felt like forever. I confided in Gemma like I always did and she reassured me with clarity and brilliance like she always did. “You’re living it,” she said. “When you’re ready, you’ll make a million paintings and write a million books. Right now, darling, you are living it.” * Gemma made everything make sense. Everything was exactly as it should be.

I can’t wait to share with you completed works of art that emerge from these resting caterpillars. Until then, let’s have the faith to listen to the message from the mellow tree. Let’s remember that balance really is beautiful. Let’s live it. Good things, Melissa

*Please note it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken in person to my dear friend Gemma Taccogna. She passed away in May of 2007, the day before her 84th birthday. Any attempt I make to quote her on this blog is the essence of these beautiful memories that I am so grateful for. “You’re living it” is an exact quote that I will never forget. The rest is the essence of what followed.