I'm posting the following copy of my latest newsletter (from July 25, 2022) for anyone who hasn't subscribed yet but would like to check it out. This is more or less what you can expect- new issues are released every few weeks, tops, and it's not meant to be spammy or a marketing gimmick. Instead, I try to offer an authentic behind-the-scenes look at my journey as a nature photographer/writer, what it's like working the art festival circuit and trying to build a career in creative pursuits. There's lots of introspection, stories from the road and links to all my latest work. (I have a tolerate/hate relationship with social media, and suck at playing the algorithm game, so this really is the best way to see my latest photos, follow and support me.) You'll find a Sign-up link at the bottom if you'd like to subscribe (and can unsubscribe anytime if you decide it's just not for you.) Just click that, submit your name and email... and that's all there is to it! You'll start receiving new issues in your inbox soon, and I'd love to have you follow along.
STEPPING OUT- July 25, 2022
-As mentioned in a previous newsletter, while it was about the last thing in the world I planned or wanted to do, I agreed to continue working the warehouse job I’d taken to get me through this past winter –even with my art festival schedule in full swing again. They promised to allow me some flexibility with days off when I needed to travel, and it would provide additional income to counter those shows that didn’t go so well, and to help offset the soaring cost of gas (and everything else.) While I hate the job and have yet to see a day that I don’t dread going, in the big picture it’s a way of giving my business a fighting chance to survive another season, and hopefully build to the point again that I don’t have to work these kinds of jobs anymore.
Survival is definitely the operative word right now. Leaving the warehouse for about five weeks this spring to go home for a run of Midwestern shows, and knowing I wasn’t coming back yet fulltime, I guess I kind of forgot how taxing the work is and how the schedule threatens to run you straight into the ground. Waking at three thirty every morning, the monotonous pre-dawn commute, the physical demand of lifting, stooping, climbing, stacking boxes for ten to twelve straight hours in sub-freezing temperatures, the sensory overload of a loud work environment with roaring refrigeration systems and racing forklifts, and returning after a long day to realize you’d have to go to bed almost immediately to truly get a full nights sleep (and never having that be a realistic option) –it wears you down fast. Add to it now the requirements of running my business full time- a commitment of 60-80 hours on show weeks, a greatly expanded role with Nature First, and trying to prioritize time with my son- even working the job a few days a week has been a challenge. It’s had me running on about three or four hours of sleep a night all summer; and it’s not just the physical exhaustion that gets to you. It’s the soul crushing cycle of returning again and again to a robotic regimen, motivated by nothing more than a paycheck, quotas and threats of disciplinary action if you don’t meet the company standard that really sucks the life out of you. You can easily fall into what could best be described as zombie mode- turning your mind off to just go through the motions. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get you through- but it will rob you of any creativity, inspiration or joy. And it’s dangerous. I’ve often thought of this job as having “one foot in the grave.” Both for the fatigue and how physically and spiritually it breaks you down, but also, if you’re not careful, it can quickly dull you from the point of just trying to “get by for a little while” to giving up completely and simply letting it be what your life becomes.
That phrase- one foot in the grave- is a pretty apt description of how I felt all of last winter; and I’ll admit that I allowed the job and routine to consume me as I fell into line and just drifted along. I felt broken and tired all of the time. I didn’t write much, I didn’t work on my photography- I devoted my days off to Caden, but otherwise felt completely rundown and didn’t have the energy or desire to do anything at all. I was angry at myself for this- but after stepping away and then coming back to see how quickly and overpowering the weariness returned, I get it now.
There’s another phrase that’s been on my mind a lot lately too though, one I actually repeated to myself quite a bit last summer when I was on the road and things weren’t going well. “Swing back.” If you’re really going to fight for the life that you want, you can’t just accept getting kicked around all the time. You have to throw a few punches of your own. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to find the grit to keep fighting. You always have to pick yourself up and keep swinging back…
June 29 started like most any day anymore. A three thirty alarm, out the door by four, punching the time clock at 4:55. I worked twelve hours that day- agonizing in its weight of drudgery but somehow still a blur- and stumbled back to my car. Only on this day instead of returning to Logan to tend to dishes and laundry and whatever else I’d try to cross off my to do list before falling short and passing out for the night, I hit the road and drove five hours non-stop into Idaho. I set up camp near the little town of Stanley, sat in my tent until after midnight trying to catch the slightest sporadic cell signal to answer some Nature First emails, and fell asleep with my phone still in hand. A few hours later I shivered away while breaking camp in the cold mountain air, drove to a nearby trailhead, and was in the woods by four.
I hiked a couple miles into the Sawtooth Wilderness in the dark. Coursing beside a loud stream raging with snowmelt, I eventually pulled away to hear the first chorus of birds waking to announce the coming dawn, and looked skyward over a break in the silhouetted pines. There, in that moment, the exact same when my dreary-eyed coworkers back in Utah would have been arriving for another shift, I watched the tops of nearby peaks begin to wash in early orange hues of alpenglow. Though tired I felt something stirring within me again, something painfully absent the day before, and hurried my pace to get in position for the sunrise show.
This is what swinging back means to me right now. This is how I continue to fight. No matter how tired, how overwhelmed, how hopeless or seemingly impossible things can feel at times, I have to just keep moving forward in pursuit of what touches my soul. My shows this year have been very up and down. I’ve had some of my best, and some of my worst. And that’s why I held onto that warehouse job. There’s sacrifice in it- not just in spending my days doing work I don’t enjoy- but it’s also meant I haven’t had the chance to do some of the things I intended to work on this summer. My on-again, off-again book project, teaching myself new photography skills, catching up on old editing work and even some personal fitness goals. I’m doing the best that I can, and trying to figure out how to squeeze more in- but the hard truth is I do still need that job to survive. Like I say, the hope is to buy time and keep growing, keep building, to the point that I can count on my photography business to provide steady, reliable income. In that for now, holding onto this job is emblematic of the grit required too. But the bigger fight is in accepting that sacrifice without letting my inner spark go out. Without giving up, and sliding into an existence void of dreams, passion or reason.
Fortunately, experiences like this morning in the Sawtooths, and the weekend that followed in Montana, can be profoundly invigorating. Still exhausting of course- following that sunrise I quickly hiked back to my vehicle and drove nine more hours up to Whitefish. I spent another five hours unloading and setting up my booth that night, drove to my friends’ house near Columbia Falls, and was back to town shortly after sunrise the next day so I could finish getting ready before opening to the public.
The Whitefish Arts Festival is a three day event, and it takes a lot of physical and emotional effort to do these shows. Especially when doing them by yourself. It’s three long days of talking to people, carrying the same conversations over and over, and trying to sell them on the very personal subjects of yourself and your work. Then once that’s all said and done it’s another several hours of tearing your booth down, carefully packaging everything again for transport, loading up and heading back down the road. But wrapped within all that busyness are lots of special little moments, the kind that make it all worthwhile. And maybe I was just in an extra pensive mood that weekend, but these felt even more meaningful than usual.
Montana is really special to me anyhow. There are few places that have a way of connecting to something deep within my spirit the way that it can, and this was evident in the way my heart felt the direct glow of sunrise that Friday morning as I drove familiar back roads into Whitefish, and watched dappled clouds light up over Big Mountain. Throughout the weekend I had wonderful conversations with old friends, doled out advice to tourists as if I were still a local, and was able to join extended family that was in town on vacation for dinner at Whitefish Lake. I’ve found myself connecting more with fellow artists this year, and met some really inspirational people while making new friends at this show. Of course I couldn’t miss the chance to be that close without paying my respects to Glacier- my favorite national park- and drove over Saturday morning for sunrise at Lake McDonald.
As far as sales go, it was one of my best outings so far this year, and all considered I probably smiled more (certainly more authentically) in those three days than I did all of my 2021 season combined. It felt the way I thought things should be when I envisioned a career on the festival circuit; hard work, but deeply fulfilling and worth every minute. It furthered my confidence and reassured me that this is one of the things that I want to continue to do with my life.
It’s maybe worth noting in all of this talk about fighting and fulfillment, the sacrifices we make and paths we follow, but it was heading to this very Whitefish show two summers ago that I lost my brakes en route. I spent days in Belgrade waiting on a fix, missed part of the show and was teetering on the brink of total despair. That was my first year trying to make a living on the festival circuit full time- 2020, as the world sank into a global pandemic (impeccable timing on my part as always…) Nearly every other show was cancelled that year and I was burning through my savings and credit lines at record pace, trying to stay afloat. I seriously flirted with pawning my camera while waiting on those repairs, and was scared to death that I was going to have to “go get some factory job” when I got back to Utah.
It wasn’t a matter of thinking I was somehow above any line of work. I’m not. The fear came from having done those types of jobs before, and honestly not knowing if I was strong enough at that point to get through it again. I wasn’t doing well. My struggles with depression and anxiety were pretty bad that summer. I think maybe worse than I even realized at the time, and worse than I was letting on. The only strength I could really find was in my own idealism (reflected in my newsletters from that month- HERE & HERE if anyone wants to take a stroll down memory lane) and clinging with adamant determination to finding purpose in what I wanted to devote my life to. I knew how these types of jobs would grate on a person (and I’d lump warehouse and factory work hand in hand), the risks discussed at the top of this issue and how they break your spirit and wear you down. I didn’t know if I was strong enough anymore to keep from succumbing to that. The prospect seemed so awful at a time in my life that was already so to begin with, and I was scared with the uncertainty of my photo business and the pandemic and everything else; with little in terms of hope or anything tangible to look forward to, that I might simply give up and slide into oblivion. Or worse. And I was scared that it might finally force me to discard the idea that my life could be different, be my own, and matter in the ways that are important to me. I spoke a big game in theory (or wrote it, again referring to those issues linked above) but deep down wasn’t sure how much fight I really had left.
Ultimately I wouldn’t have to find out then just yet. On my way back from Montana that weekend, I got word that I’d received a pandemic related artist’s relief grant. This is what helped fund my bike trip later that fall (the same tied to the book project mentioned earlier) and helped me to somewhat scrape by awhile longer. I held out until the following summer, thinking that finally getting a shot at a full slate of festivals was going to turn everything around. I was wrong. It was a disaster. But by then, I’d stood long enough in the fire to know that I still had my grit. I’d learned that I couldn’t simply wait for things to get better. I knew there was a rough road waiting ahead, one where I was going to get kicked around and where my resolve would certainly be tested. But I couldn’t shy away from that anymore. I knew it was time to start swinging back.
I pulled away from Columbia Falls around three o’clock the morning of July 4th under dark, drizzly skies. Montana did have one parting message. While driving near daybreak on a vacant two-lane highway hemmed tightly by forest on both sides, a black bear lumbered across the road in front of me, almost ghost-like in the foggy blue hour light. Again, this place speaks to my soul in ways that go far beyond words. This wasn’t a “goodbye,” –it was “I know I’ll see you again…”
Twenty-four hours later I was on a forklift back in Utah. Beneath the oppressive thunder of overhead fans, surrounded by the long faces of tired co-workers. It feels sometimes like I am always adrift- playing different parts as I float between different places, different experiences; different lives. And in this I see the worlds of others as I look into their eyes. There are the familiar knowing gazes of people I love back home. There’s the exhausted, solemn look of folks in the warehouse- giving their best, trying to hold on, trying to get by. There’s the relaxed curiosity of patrons at art shows, the happy wonder of those who are traveling; and among my fellow artists I see elation or dejection, depending on how a weekend goes, as each show brings dreams closer or steals them further from their grasp.
I sometimes wonder what people see when they look back into mine. Any combination of the above, perhaps- and probably different levels of enthusiasm, depending on the situation. But through it all, even as I struggle to keep up with my workload, feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, sometimes even have to stop and remember what state I’m in… I’m still me. I’m still the same person inside. I still have the same ambitions, offerings and dreams. And while I’ve certainly made mistakes and had my setbacks, that person is still driven by the same heart and soul.
I think that’s been one of my lessons in all of this. Or at least something that the trials of recent years have allowed me to grow confidence in. And it goes for all of us. The outer world doesn’t get to determine how our inner light glows. It doesn’t get to decide what we do with our lives, our potential, or who we’ll become. It doesn’t get to assign our lives schedule or path; and it doesn’t get to extinguish that spirit within us- though it will sure as hell try. As long as we keep fighting, keep ourselves from giving up and growing numb, our lights will continue to shine. And they’ll carry us through when we need them.
I know my road ahead won’t be easy. I have to keep working this job, and in reality will probably have to go back to it full time after this season is over. I’m going to have to keep coping with the exhaustion, the fatigue, the soul-crushing regimen. Life is going to continue feeling like I have one foot in the grave. But there’s a little spark inside of me serving this reminder- it doesn’t feel that way because I’m sliding in.
It’s because I’m on the verge of stepping out.
After reading what my summer's been like, it's probably not much of a surprise that I've struggled to keep up with my "Pictures from Last Week" blog series. I always have the best of intentions with these things- and again, if I'd had the freedom to focus fully on my photography as originally thought this summer, things like this would be much easier to see through. (I'd also hoped to be writing this newsletter with a little more frequency again, for what it's worth...) But this is just how things have played out, so all I can do is try my best to publish these as often as I can.You can see photos from a quick weekend trip through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks back in June HERE and HERE.And my photos from those mornings in the Sawtooth's and Glacier can be found in a post HERE. Also- even longer overdue- but since sharing links in my previous newsletter I've published a couple of follow-ups to last spring's March Madness Photo Tournament.You can read a post just published today telling which prints I actually submitted to the state fair in Des Moines, my reasons, and the judging results HERE.And to read a fairly in-depth personal account of what this year's March Madness winning image "Weathered Soul" represents to me, please click HERE.
Well, I suppose I should probably be wrapping this one up. I've taken enough of your time and tossed around enough links to fill a summer reading program. Plus, you know, I've got dishes and laundry and a 3:30 alarm. But before I go I just want to express a heartfelt thank you again to all of you who continue to follow this journey and support me. And especially to those I was able to see and spend time with while in Montana... TJ and Katelin for their continued friendship and hospitality, Renee and kids for dinner and the laughs, and my friend Kjell for stopping by the show with his beaming smile and ever-present words of encouragement. It was so great catching up with you all. Also, I spent some time down in Colorado last week, which I'm hoping to write about soon. I've got a break between shows this coming weekend and my intent ( and we all know how that goes...) but I'm going to try a quick turnaround this week and get another newsletter out to coincide with blog and social media posts, and the story from that trip. Hopefully you can watch for that toward the end of this week or early next. In the meantime though I want to say thanks to my friend Chad, and his family, for all of the above as well. I've been spending the night with that guy since we were in middle school (though the last time was probably more a case of passing out on his apartment floor freshman year of college...) and we've been close since Pre-K. It's always nice to be able to reconnect with childhood friends like this, see where life has taken us and talk about where we go from here.
Going back to my spring shows earlier in Iowa, this year has just felt different. There are still challenges with inconsistency in sales, weather, gas station burritos (a little foreshadowing there...) and just all of the ups and downs of running an art based business. But the conversations I've had, and the outpouring of encouragement and support- this year it's all touched a little deeper. I've had a lot of you reach out and tell me to keep going, say that you're proud of me or respect what I'm trying to do. And frankly, it wasn't that long ago that I couldn't have imagined anyone ever saying things like that to me again. I know that this was greatly due to my own internal struggles, and there have been some of you who have tried to get me to see different all along. I remember, and that means every bit as much in reflection now. But anyway, please know- even when I don't have a chance to reply right away to an email, or seem a little awkward when such words are spoken in person and I don't know quite what to say... please know you're getting through.
This ride that I'm on- it can be really, really lonely sometimes. Most of the time, actually. But lately, thanks to all of your kind gestures and caring words, I haven't felt so alone. I'm not sure if that's really going to make much sense to most people- but it means a lot to me.
So thank you. With all my heart. Be well, everybody, and have a good week. More to come soon.