A Lovely Workshop with Leah Macdonald

"In one way and out another"

“I came in one person. I left another person, and for that I am forever grateful.” Yesterday I posted this quote by Evangeline Lilly on my Facebook page. It said everything I wanted to say about my experience at “A Lovely Workshop” in Poitiers, France with Elizabeth Messina. I don’t think the sentiment is all that original, but maybe a link to a famous person will do wonders for my web traffic. Ha! The truth is, I find that aspect of our culture terribly annoying, even though I am as guilty of reading Page Six as the next person. (that’s NY Post gossip for those of you not as addicted to NY as I am).

I’d like to believe Leah Macdonald doesn’t read tabloids or gossip. She seems too much herself to care what celebrities are doing. She was celebrating something more important. Just for now, I’ll leave her on that pedestal I have made for her. I went to “A Lovely Workshop” largely because she would be teaching there. I had no idea she and Elizabeth were such longtime friends; I only knew I had seen one example of her encaustic paintings (wax paintings) at a friend’s house the previous summer in Canada, and I wanted to know more about it. I always wished I had gone to art school and learned more about the various techniques and processes of making art. It is one thing to study the great frescoes of the world; it is another to try to paint on wet plaster.

In high school, I wanted to go to a school in San Francisco called Lick Wilmerding where every student took wood shop and machine shop and a bunch of other hands-on courses that sounded like heaven to me. My mother forced me to apply to a more academic school nearby, and so my path was set in a more academic direction. I had one art teacher at University High School that really inspired me. John Bloom was my photography teacher, and his personal work could best be described as paintings on giant photographs, similar to some of the work one of my now favorite artists, Gerhard Richter. As a teenager I just thought his work was a bit weird and I didn’t think the photos were particularly good. I would really like to seem them again now. I imagine I would love them.

When we went to Leah’s makeshift studio at the chateau, I thought of Richter and Robert Rauchenberg, two of my favorite artists. For me, both men are playing with layers and things that are seen, and unseen by the viewer, and a photograph covered in wax and oil paint must be related to that. I knew I was in the presence of a great talent, and I was so aware of this that I could barely stay in the room. I felt my head was about to explode as so many doors and pathways flung open at once.

"Old Church"

The encaustic wax session was our second rotation of the day. Our morning activity was a trip to a nearby medieval church. Pretty, yes, but honestly I have seen so many amazing old towns in France that I felt a bit lost in this church. I really didn’t need any more old church photos to file away. Why was I here? Was I supposed to take photos? I wasn't really feeling any. I played with a few of my oddball lenses, the 15mm fisheye which does very wide angle distorted images, and the Lensbaby, which does very selective focus if it is in focus at all after squeezing and tilting the bellows. I was messing around with gimmicks, but feeling nothing inspired in my images. Most of our group ended up lying on a stone wall in the sun, just enjoying the improved weather in France.

In Leah’s mobile studio, she had several examples of her work laid out on the tables. They were so beautiful, so full of soul, that I could barely look at them. I understood a lot about Leah from those books. I forget the exact story she gave us, but I remember she said how much she liked to work with her hands and get dirty. I used to love that too. Where had I buried that part of myself? Why did I abandon that desire to fingerpaint and make a mess? Leah had turned that into a business, no, two businesses: Bliss Books and Waxworks.

I was falling in love with these amazing women I was meeting through Elizabeth Messina. They were all so damn authentic, and I couldn’t believe how they were really following their passion. I had done that off and on over the years. I became a wedding photographer out of that kind of love and passion. Twenty years later, I was only feeling it from time to time, always while traveling, and mainly at weddings where couples were truly, madly, deeply in love (which is not every wedding, if you ask me) In the name of having a business, I was losing some of my passion. In the name of giving my clients what they wanted, I was forgetting to create what I wanted. Only when you are older, do you truly realize that life is not getting any longer. The Nike slogan, "Just do it" still resonates with me because it is so simple and free, yet complex and heavy all at once. I told Leah I had always wanted to go to Yale for an MFA. Guess what she said?

It turns out, Leah teaches encaustic painting at her studio in Philadelphia. I could have read a lot about her on the internet before I went to France, but I’m glad I didn’t. She studied at the Art Institute in San Francisco, an enchanted place (I thought), that I regularly passed as a child on my way to the original Gap store on Chestnut and Columbus. How often have I passed by a wellspring of art on my way to buy clothing? I remember peering into the school’s courtyard through iron gates. I wanted to go in, but that place scared me. Art and clothing have always motivated me to dream, though too often the pursuit of clothing has blocked my impulses to be more creative. Too often, I find myself wearing the uniform, and hiding my feelings (my figure?) Not always, but too often. I kind of love the fact that I had all the wrong clothes in France. I had planned a perfect wardrobe of sunny dresses, only to change to more practical cold weather gear after reading the weather forcast. In the end, none of it mattered as much as I usually think it does.

Leah’s arms and chest are covered in tattoos. She wears a permanent dress of this particular design. I wish I had that level of commitment to a single design. I don’t. One day I love modern architecture, the next I want a vintage car. I love a clean and simple website design, and then I want to photograph decaying peonies in a stone niche and cover them with wax and oil paint. Leah made it all ok. Her thinking was so free. “Add and subtract, add and subtract. If you don’t like it, change it. You can always melt all the wax off the page and start again” she said. So I made a mess, didn’t care, used big brush strokes and gold paint and just went with my instincts. So what if it wasn’t the most beautiful painting ever? It was a lot of fun to do.

We were painting on photographs that Elizabeth had made around the chateau over the previous week. I loved the layering implied in this: a blend, a fusion, of three artists in one piece of work. The two of them were inspiring the artist in me. Perfect.

"My thinker"

We each chose a large and a small image….one color and one more monochrome/sepia. Of course I agonized over these choices. I was intrigued by the psychological component of the exercise. What did my choices say about me and my experience? As I look at it now, I think I chose the right photos for me. The larger one was the easier choice. I picked an image of a statue of a woman in a pose close to that of “The Thinker” by Rodin. This was a statue I knew well from my childhood. We even had a sort of mini version in our home. I was taking my ‘thinker’ and making a mess of her, thoughtlessly layering wax and paint over the woman frozen in thought, or possibly grief.

I am tempted to go on and on about Leah and what she was unlocking in me. Suffice it to say that she gave a little talk after dinner that night, and opened it with a slideshow of her work on her laptop (the small size did not do her work justice I am told by people who saw it large in an auditorium). During the show, she read the words that were part of the work, written across the images, but illegible at that small size.

From about the second slide, tears began rolling down my face. Midway through, I could barely see through the blur, but I was too embarrassed to try to wipe off my face….and for what purpose? She kept reading, the images of the 27 dresses continued, and the tears kept falling. I could barely breathe. Since I was in the front row, I figured no one would know.

But Leah did. After her talk, I had to go to the library and write. I tore a page from my journal to write a letter for Leah. In my 43 years, not a single piece of art has moved me like hers did, and I thought she should know. She said, “Of course it touched you, because you are a woman”.


She photographed one dress, over several years, worn by many different women, photographed by one true artist who was able to reveal all of life through her art, which had nothing and everything to do with the dress. When the project was done, she burned (cremated?) the dress. I hope she has the ashes in her studio somewhere. Leah taught me a simple, profound lesson about things I have always known, but have been hiding under beautiful dresses for years.

I just finished writing. Surprisingly, or not, the time is 10:23, also the day of my birth. Leah knows what this means to me.

Point Au Baril

My head is swimming with new ideas, creative projects, and so many possibilities. I have so many more stories of France to tell, but I find I can't rush it. If I still lived at the beach, I'd be taking a walk there. The best I can do for now is to see Canada in my mind.

Sans Titre

Chairs and Light

Stairs and Views

A Lovely Workshop with Yvette Roman and Elizabeth Messina


About six months ago, I heard the garbage truck approaching my house, and knew I had another bag to take outside. I grabbed it and ran out the front door. I held it aloft like a prize, and flew down the stairs. I flew, until I fell. After catching one foot on the opposite pant leg, I tripped and fell down the stone stairs, onto the concrete path, tore my pants and gashed my leg. The garbage man came running, not to get the bag but to see if I needed an ambulance. I honestly didn't know. I saw some blood, couldn't breathe, and was in pain all over that I couldn't identify. It is a miracle I didn't break both wrists as well. He took the bag, and I managed to get inside to the sofa and my laptop.

I was scheduled to fly to California to see family and friends the next morning. Instead I spent the entire day under ice packs and bandages, and made plans to undo my plans. The first thing my aunt said was, "Maybe this is a sign you need to slow down. I can't even keep up with you on Facebook". She was absolutely right, and I knew it. I have been running and chasing I don't know what for I don’t know how long. Sometimes I am running toward something, and other times I am running away.

France was one of those mixed up experiences. I wanted to be a part of Elizabeth Messina's Lovely Workshop since the day I learned about it. I was running toward it, and away from something else at the same time. Imagine my surprise when Elizabeth said, on our first day at the workshop, "slow down". I knew I was in the right place. I still didn’t know exactly why I was there, but I was getting some good messages. Sometimes my intuition is better than my logic. In fact, it always is, but often I forget to listen to myself.

On our second morning at the chateau, I got into a conversation with Yvette Roman about her website. I hadn't seen it, didn't know her or her work, and was asking questions because I was feeling frustrated about my own website that was recently completed and about to go live. I had approved the design, but I didn't really like it. I was frustrated that the process took me a whole year, and still the final product didn't feel like me.

When you meet and listen to Elizabeth Messina, you understand that her being infuses everything she does. She pours herself into her photographs, her website, her art, her workshop, everything. One night, she said she is always photographing herself and her life through her images. She sees and shoots women the way she see herself. I noticed that long flowing hair plays a big part in this. The paradox here is that she despises being photographed, and yet she is in every image she makes (more on that later).

"Gina's smile"

I wasn’t sure what I was seeing in my work. I can’t even say whether I have a style. I have many styles, many interests, many looks, and a lot of passion. I really like to capture real moments between real people. I want them to move and laugh and run. I don't want them to sit still for me. I want them to look like I am not there, and they do not see me. If I had a show, I might call it “Searching for Intimacy”, because I am always looking for those fleeting moments when people are being most themselves, and I am the voyeur.....able to show them something about themselves or their loved ones that maybe they don't always see. Or maybe the show is called "I Am Not Here". Ouch. It hurts to say that, but I know it is true on a few levels. Not being there certainly played a role in the failure of my own marriage.

Yvette said she gave her website designer one sentence to work with: "I want it to smell like an old book", she told him. Of course, when you are married to your website designer, a single sentence will do. I would love that advantage any day. I looked at her website and from the very first page I was swept away by the beauty of it. To say that he "got her" is an understatement. Surprisingly, she didn't know that 'Roman' in French meant 'novel' in English, but she seemed pretty thrilled when I told her. On a very deep level, Yvette Roman's website reflects who she is. If I could only figure out who I am, I could probably have a nice website too.....but honestly I have been trying to get to the bottom of that question for decades.

"Carnets du Voyage"

In a separate conversation, I showed her a picture I took of my hotel room in Paris where I stayed for a night before heading to Poitiers for the workshop. It was just a bad snapshot I took with my iphone, but I was really moved by the place. She said, "show that to your web designer", and THAT was the beginning of the unlocking of my mind and heart in a way that I could never have anticipated.

Suddenly I was talking about incorporating sketchbooks into my website...travel journals…. because so much of my life and work is about travel. I can't draw, but my father has a real gift for sketching, nurtured for about 60 of his 70 years on earth. I mentioned to Yvette that the one thing my sister and I will fight over when he dies is who gets his sketchbooks. (Sorry dad, we don't want you to go at all!) And then it suddenly came to me that I can scan them now and incorporate pages of his work into the website of my dreams. I can even ask for more. Yvette said “Do it!”

My father gave me my start in life as a person and as an artist. I've always seen him as a sort of Renaissance man. He knows a lot about a lot, speaks a few languages, and is a true artist in many media, though he an architect by trade. When I have a medical emergency, I call my father. he knows what to do. He gave me my love for travel (we went around the world in 1970 when I was 4 and my sister was 2). He nurtured my creative urges with clay, crayons and pastels. He taught me to make jewelry using lost wax when I was 15. He has always been part of my inspiration, and my foundation as an artist, and it seems right that my website would incorporate him in a big way.

Of course I am now even less happy with the site that is about to launch, but at least I know where to go next.

There is one book I read in high school that affected me deeply: "The Garden of Forking Paths" by the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. I didn't understand it. I sat in the hallway crying because I had to write some paper on it and I had no idea what it was about. My teacher saw me, took me into an empty classroom, and tried to explain it to me. Everything fell into place and I understood. Years later, in college, I ended up dating that teacher (now THERE is a story), but it was that moment of clarity that really gave me what I needed.

I understood the garden of forking paths, the endless series of stories that can be created in our lives due to the choices/paths we take or do not take. I have been so overwhelmed by choices, that I have felt unable to choose. Elizabeth talked about the importance of editing ones work. She talked about how she publishes/posts things that are a reflection of who she is. She said she started her blog: Kiss The Groom, as a way to publish what she liked, for herself. (All of us who have had work published know that art directors always choose to publish the images we like least) It turns out when you are 100% authentic in what you say, people tend to like it more. No wonder we are all so drawn to Elizabeth and her work.

I still wear a pretty ugly scar down the length of my right shin. It reminds me to slow down, be patient with myself, and let the inspiration come quietly. My first day at the workshop frustrated me because I wanted someone to give me some answers and direction. By the second day I knew I already had them. Yvette and Elizabeth gave me a flashlight for my path, but the path was there.

The Workshop of a Lifetime with Elizabeth Messina in France

As I sit alone in my Paris Hotel, Hotel Apostrophe, anticipating my mouth watering breakfast in bed, I have to chuckle at my little exchange with Roman, at the front desk, who just said "no wonder you are always glowing". Ha! A week ago I thought I was near death. My creative fire was nearly extinguished and I only knew that I had come to France with some small hope of rekindling it. An experienced photographer heading to a photography workshop? My friends asked why. Good question. This was not an inexpensive whim. I think I just really needed to feel inspired again, and Elizabeth Messina's work truly inspires me. It is so different from what I do, and I love different. If I were an agent, I would want to represent her. Selling the talent of someone whose work is so beautiful is easy.

I am only beginning to reflect on this workshop that ended yesterday at our lovely chateau in Poitiers, France for 18 lucky-to-be-included photographers from all around the world (USA, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Japan). My life will never be the same after meeting Elizabeth, and her powerful circle of friends, particularly Leah Macdonald. Every person I meet after today will benefit because I have met these women.....and the many others who worked so hard to make this workshop the unbelievable success that it was: Kristen Bliss, Yvette Roman, Kim Bamberg and her husband Adam of Junebug Weddings, Ulrica Wihlborg from People magazine, Jacqueline Tobin from Photo District News, our gorgeous models Julie Falconer and Gina Moore, our makeup artists Erin Skipley and Lauren, and our amazing set designer Eden Rodriguez, plus many more behind the scenes working hard on our enormous feasts and endless need for amazing french bread and cheese.

It was an enormous undertaking a year in the making by Elizabeth. No doubt it was well publicized and over-subscribed on her "Kiss The Groom" blog. I happened upon it quite late and almost by accident. I saw a tiny mention by Elizabeth on Facebook about Waxworks, a company I had always wanted to try out, and Leah was going to teach her encaustic wax painting technique. Between that, and a chance to meet Jackie Tobin, I was determined to attend. Jackie wrote an important book on wedding photography,Wedding Photography Unveiled that explored the evolution and look of the current wedding photography and highlighted the work of twenty top wedding photographers. Though I was sad not to be a part of that project, I was really looking forward to meeting a woman who deeply understood and appreciated the work of wedding photographers all over the world. For nearly two decades, I have been waiting for someone to write about all of the incredible women who have changed the way that we all look at wedding photography. I know that "wedding photojournalism" is the big buzzword of the decade, but I would have to argue that an equally important, though less obvious trend has been the contribution of the feminine perspective. Jackie seemed to get that, without necessarily calling it by name. I wrote to her about this "trend" if you will, and learned much later that she was afraid to meet me because she thought I wrote her a "scary letter". Geez. Sometimes email is not your friend. I was the one who should have been scared. She is the photo editor of the best photography industry magazine out there: Photo District News.

For me, Elizabeth's workshop, and her work, embody this theory. You can be a woman, shoot like a woman, see like a woman, and it can be different, and it is ok. It is powerful. It is beautiful. Sixteen of the eighteen attendees, and all but one of Elizabeth's team were women. Girl power! I wished I could have experienced this 20 years ago, when I felt deeply alone in a world of male photographers whose perspective and opinions couldn't have been more different from my own.

I love to learn new things, and I love Elizabeth's photography, so while I had "no business being there" (Elizabeth's words, spoken with kindness and a wink) because I have been shooting stunning weddings all over the world for the last 20 years, I had a lot to learn about being kind to myself, and finding my own voice, and doing things that I wanted to do instead of things I felt expected to do.

I'm not sure I took many good photos at the workshop. In fact, I was so frustrated (plus jet lagged?) after the first day, that I thought I should quit and go home. I didn't like the pictures I was making, and wasn't sure why I was making them anyway. I was disappointed with my portfolio reviews, because we were all so tired and honestly no one felt I needed any help with my photography. But I did. I wanted direction. I wanted someone to tell me what to do or how to do it better. Something. Anything. I went to bed in tears, and sent a sad little text message to my wonderful man at home who was looking after my son for ten days so that I could do this workshop. As I reflect, I can't believe I had the nerve to complain. He reminded me I was in France. Sleep was my only option. I decided to wait for the church bells in the morning, and try to have a better attitude about everything.

The next day, my life changed forever. All the usual cliches about death and rebirth apply.

But if I don't get to the marche down the street soon, I'm going to feel like a real bum for sitting on my computer in a hotel room in Paris all day.

Evolution of an album cover

These designs show a typical evolution of wedding album cover. The album style has a contrast linen binding so to help the client visualize the book, I added the binding color and matched the type to it. Typically, I send 2-3 options to the client to get feedback on what she likes...the type style, the strength of the image, the colors. Sometimes we have multiple image ideas for the cover. In this case, we knew early that we would design using a photo of her bouquet. The design process started with the bottom image, and ended with the top image: grey type and spine, less close up on the image, and a little texture and layering to soften the overall look. I love the way the text is not too bold and legible, but blends softly with the image. I'm no master designer, but I think the evolution of these is pretty interesting.