Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tammy Vitale, Mixed Media Artist, Tells Her Story

Let’s face it.  After you hit a certain age as an artist, you’ve tried a bit of everything.  And while my passion is working with clay, these day I do much more mixed media collages because they’re easy, immediately satisfying and I can throw in anything I have lying around.  Trust me, I have *a lot* lying around.

Here’s a good example:  I created this piece recently for a fundraiser for the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA.  It has ephemera (I love that word – it’s a fancy way of saying “stuff) and a raku mask, itself mixed media with clay and metal, mounted on the canvas.

But my current favorite mixed media these days is making Spirit Dolls. Spirit Dolls can take many forms, depending on mood and availability of materials. You can start with a bottle, buttons, bark and feathers, or with a stick and some fun canvas wrapping from a friend. Old jewelry, charms, yarn, lace and of course tulle can fancy an old stick from the yard up quickly.

Spirit dolls are a great way to use up old or leftover material and beads, too.

As you can see from the photographs, there isn’t much you can’t use to make a Spirit Doll.  While I use my own ceramic faces, you can also make faces from polymer clay, resin, cardboard, doll faces or anything else that captures your imagination.  You can either buy face push molds or make your own with two-part silicone mold putty for jewelry makers and an old doll face.

Locally, I teach Spirit Doll workshops and, this fall I will be teaching a Creative Workshop in Spirit Dolls at Life Is A Verb Camp at Asilomar: Retreat by the Sea, Pacific Grove, CA hosted by author Patti Digh.  If you can’t make it to a Maryland workshop, I’d love to see you in California!

Editor's Note: Tammy is in the process of updating her website,, so check back later to see more of her work. In the meantime, if you want to contact her, email her at

This is Week 11 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Tammy's story today!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Christy Diniz Liffmann, Painter, Tells Her Story


My first exposure to making art was more about a way to live – by doing. Juracy Diniz, my Brazilian grandmother, was a power-house of a woman …. all 4’11” of her! She was a professional artist and teacher of porcelain painting for many years. It was from her that I learned to truly look, to appreciate beauty in all of its forms, whether man-made or natural.

Most of our time together was spent at our family farm – a magical place in the middle of a tropical coastal forest not far from Rio de Janeiro, up in the mountains. There was an exuberance of plant life; flowers, trees, vines and fauna – it was a never-ending visual feast. Having spent most weekends and all vacations there gave me ample opportunity to commune with nature.

Making and doing was part of the daily routine; gardening, cooking, painting, drawing, as well as doing all types of needle work. One media led to the other and one of my favorite things was to paint designs on fabric. Then I embellished them with embroidery, sometimes incorporating local seeds from marsh grasses.

My interest in Asian arts had its beginnings under my grandmother’s guidance: the seed was planted way back then. She studied with a Japanese master porcelain painter and later spent many years sharing her knowledge with many dedicated students. Researching designs used in Chinese and Japanese painting and porcelain decoration was an ongoing activity on the farm.

Later, the path to my artistic career was hardly direct. My first obstacle came early on when I came to the United States for college. My choice of major, Art, was emphatically rejected by my father. He said I needed to pursue something that would support me, such as the study of languages. He also admonished me that college would not be paid for if I got married during college. So, I studied Spanish and French, which turned out to be quite useful when I left college early to get married. Ha!

It wasn’t until many years and two sons later that I was able to go back to college and get my B.A. in Painting and Drawing. With much support and encouragement from my family, I continued my studies, received my M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing, and delivered my daughter (my most creative effort), within weeks of one another!

In time I was able to practice my craft. With three young children I somehow made the time to paint, show and teach. Forty years after my first exposure to Asian arts, I had the opportunity to study with an acclaimed Chinese artist, Wan Ding, who was a guest teacher at Louisiana State University.

After our initial studies, I was selected to be part of a study group that traveled to his Art Base near Xi’an. We spent a month filled with cultural sightseeing, being introduced to the practice of Tai Chi, brush painting, calligraphy and seal carving, as well as having the opportunity to make prints from ancient stele. This amazing life-changing experience continues to influence the work I make today.

Then, ten years ago my world became filled with the endless possibilities of color, texture, translucency, the aroma of beeswax and instant drying time when I took a week-long encaustics class with Paula Roland, a superb teacher and accomplished artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

With Paula, I learned safe studio practice, was given examples of a myriad of ways to make marks, textures and patterns on a “hot box” (an insulated box heated with 100 watt bulbs and topped with an anodized aluminum top).

Pigmented wax “sticks” are used to draw on the heated surface. Paper is put on top - burnished and voila, a print is born! This was a great instant gratification experience for me. I was pulled in hook, line and sinker ... I literally could not pull myself away from the studio.  

With Joanne Mattera’s book on encaustic, The Ancient Art of Encaustic Painting, I proceeded to spend countless hours experimenting and then painting in earnest. This painting process is incredibly forgiving – paint on – scrape off – paint again!

The not-so-forgiving part came in the fusing stage. Every mark you make with encaustic (Greek : meaning, “to burn in”) must be fused with heat – from a heat gun, or a torch, or even from the heat of the sun. This is definitely a challenging experience but once you become familiar with the process, it has its own unparalleled alchemy. Combining the ancient media of Chinese brush painting with that of encaustic became my preferred way of working.

When I start a mixed media landscape, I use quick ink or gouache sketches from nature. These studies become my “painted papers” which I then use for collage. Working with gouache, I build up surfaces before I switch to encaustic.

Using a heated stylus, I make myriad marks to create a textured surface not unlike a translucent tapestry. The ability to stop and start at will, without having to clean a brush is a very freeing experience. I often find myself losing track of time as layers are built, scraped, scored, and fused. Every time I do this, new and enticing opportunities present themselves.

These “archeological digs” keep me searching and discovering the endless possibilities inherent in the medium. When I finally come to a stopping point, an encaustic medium (beeswax and Dammar crystals), can be applied over the surface to create a smooth, glass-like finish, or it can be left as is. Stopping is so very hard to do!

Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of being a painter is to see people drawn in by my work. Encaustic pieces have a special light – one that invites the viewer to not only see but to touch. It is that very draw that keeps me warming the paint and giving thanks to the Greeks and the bees.

Observation and interaction with the natural world are crucial for me on a daily basis. Visual meditations become notations on place, space, color and pattern. I work on location or in the studio. When on location, I document en plein air through quick sketches.

Recurring concepts in my work come from my emotional connection to nature, thoughts on impermanence, life cycles, growth and renewal. When observing my work, I invite the viewer to revisit similar connections.

To see more of Christy’s work, please visit her website,

This is Week 10 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Christy’s story today!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Zazel Chavah O'Garra, Dancer, Tells Her Story

I became a disabled 13 years ago. Up until then I was a dancer, actress and model, appearing in musical theatre productions, featured on covers of Essence magazine and acting in numerous commercials. One day I noticed a series of unexplained strange symptoms beginning to emerge ... my handwriting started changing, I was constantly fatigued and I started having seizures. I ended up in the emergency room and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor. The aftermath of the surgery left me partially paralyzed and needing to wear a leg brace to walk.

In order to accept my disability, I had to transform my thinking so that I could face this new life. A year into rehab, I saw that I still had the talent, energy, and drive to continue my life as an artist. And, I realized I could show other disabled individuals that they could live joyful, creative, expressive and meaningful lives. So, proving the system wrong, I became a disabled performer and teacher despite my disability.

I share my resurrection as a disabled artist by giving motivational speeches and teaching creative movement classes spreading the words “with faith everything is possible”, demonstrating that physical challenges need not limit your passion for living.  I strive to convey an upbeat energy to provide everyone moments of pure joy.

In 2011, I competed and was chosen to be one of 25 National VSA (Very Special Arts) Teaching Artist Fellows with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Through their training, I refined my capacity to design and deliver highly engaging, effective expressive-movement programs for disabled individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Rehearsing for the DVD

That work eventually led me to create a DVD called Dancing Beyond Disability, a fun, jazzy, funky creative-movement DVD produced for disabled and able-bodied individuals. The sequences presented are designed to increase participants self-confidence and self-awareness, improve muscle coordination, enhance motor skills and balance for all abilities.

I ignore the changes in my body … 
the fact I have a “damaged” brain … 
and I am disabled. 

Instead, I value each and every day of my life. Dance has given me the power of living life through hope. Dance helped me when I was in the rehabilitation facility trying to face the complete change in my being. Through dance I have gained a deeper understanding of the path that has shaped my creativity, and me.

And, the journey continues. In 2013, I started ZCO/Dance Project, a dance company comprised of ten artists “dancing beyond disability” with pure joy! We perform jazz, modern, African dance, ballet and creative movement with passion, energy, skill, technique, and soul!

ZCO Dance Project Dancers

At times, I have noticed we are not treated as professionals because of our disabilities, which causes me to work even harder. Educating people on the importance of accepting everyone and seeing beyond their disability is my mantra. I don’t believe that our differently abled bodies should overshadow our talents and steal our humanity. Each time we have a sold-out performance and people come on stage to dance with us, I know my work is making a difference.

ZCO/Dance Project is valuable to everyone because, at its core, it is about expressing our humanity and embracing the spirit of our circumstances.  We, as artists, want people to realize that everyone can feel and dance despite their physical and emotional challenges. 

ZCO Dance Project Dancers

Our first performance was held last fall at the Dixon Place Theatre in New York City and was a huge success! We had a sold-out standing room only audience! We are currently rehearsing for our spring performance entitled Celebration to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)!  If you are in the New York area and would like to see our performance this spring, please see my (soon to be completed) ZCO website for details.

Note from Brenda:  Zazel is currently serving as the Ambassador for Voices Against Brain Cancer. She is a sought-after participant in the annual New Jersey Disability Pride Parade, as well as a motivational speaker, social worker and teaching artist. Her work can be seen on her ZCO website,, and her personal site, You can purchase her DVD on either site, if you like.

Zazel Celebrating Life!

This is Week 9 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Zazel’s post today!