Slowing Down to Reach Beyond

 Many years ago, when film was just beginning to wane and digital was new, I scored a Mamiya Polaroid 600 camera, similar to this one. Completely manual — no light reading, no auto focus, even a manual shutter! This is a dream of a camera that shoots exclusively Polaroid smaller format film.

It’s heavy. It’s bulky. The film is expensive or hard to find. It’s time consuming. It’s messy.

In other words, it’s a throwback. And exactly what an artist needs in this world of fast, now, digtial.

As I packed and unpacked photo equipment for an upcoming shooting trip, my eyes kept returning to this Mamiya. I have too many cameras from which to choose — film and digital — but my everyday “go-to” is a full frame Nikon digital. I wish it were lighter, but it gives me everything I want…. until I want something else.

That “something else” generally is film. And my film of choice is Polaroid. I have entire body of art built entire body of art built on SX-70 filmon SX-70 film, which was discontinued in 2008. Yes, I know, there is new film for those cameras, but they don’t have the same artistic quality as the old film. Better to move on.

The new film for this Mamiya Polaroid camera is good. At the studio, I check the fridge for film…. How did I forget that I had six boxes of sepia film in there? How long ago did I buy them? Popped one in the camera… yep… Good as new. Sharp, rich browns. Good tone. White whites.

So the Mamiya Polaroid is making the trip. She’s so big that she displaces two other film cameras. I’ll make do.

The film made this decision for me: this trip will be about slowing down. Working in the field. Settting up the tripod and staying put until the film is processed… or transferred to watercolor paper … and new visions evolve. 

This art is intended to reach beyond.



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Artwork’s Life After the Studio

Sometimes I wonder about it: what happens to my art when someone buys it?

I’ve had collectors show me the art they purchased and framed in a way that makes me cringe… or applaud. I’ve had people send me pictures of my work in their homes or office. There have been invitations to visit the work, and requests to install it for them.

Each of these encounters cements my relationship to the patron, and the patron’s relationship to the work. The collector loves it, finds it inspiring.

Once, I got a message that my work had been sold at auction at Selkirks! Exciting! Well, “exciting” until I went to the Selkirk’s website and saw the price it fetched. Let’s just say that is was a very humbling moment.

Thursday I got a call from a collector. A tentative voice on the phone.

“Claymera? Is this Claymera?”

Oy. I thought that was dead. In 1999 I made and sold passable functional pottery along with very traditional film photography, mostly nature prints. Now, photography has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but there were STILL a lot of nature photographers out there in the ’90s. Mine were fine… mediocre at best. Technically good but pedestrian. It’s hard to be a good nature photographer.

I sold this work under the business name Claymera…. clay… camera.. I thought it was clever. It lasted about 2 years before I gratefully found a niche in alternate process photography… and left pottery for commissions and personal work.

The caller bought the piece at an estate sale. It was still in the protective plastic sheath it was sold in.

Oy. That means it sat in a closet.

“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

Thank you. Don’t tell me how much you paid.

“Is it valuable?”

Well, I said. … I’m still alive.

She got the joke. A C-print of a butterfly, no matter how good, is unlikely to be valuable.

But it was to her, in a way. She told me she loved the piece; I almost begged her to visit my website and see my current “good” work!

Still, it reminded me that, in the last 20 years or so, I have sold thousands of photographs, mixed media paintings, and other art pieces. Where are they living? Are they loved? How many of my photographs or paintings are sitting in closets, or on their second or third owners?

Art has a life beyond the studio.

And that woman made my day.

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An Artist’s Journal: Namibia, Genocide

There is a buffer of land, between the dunes of the desert and the last streets of the affluent white residents of Swakopmund: a cemetery. One-tenth is modern. Tall palms are planted between neat plots with stately carved marble stones and benches and plants that are watered daily against the arid heat.

There is a field of mounds enclosed by the same wall, ten times the size of the modern plots, keeping the desert at bay.  There are no paths or plants or benches. There is one large stone marking the graves that have been abandoned. Maybe these dead are not important. Maybe these dead are an embarrassment. Maybe these dead are forgotten.

They are the resting places of the Herero who were “disappeared” during German colonialism at the beginning of the 20th Century. The Herero, the indigenous people of the land when the German arrived, called the “disappearing” a Genocide. It was.

People who live on the street do not even know the graves are there. We asked. No, they said. That is the town cemetery. We don’t know about Herero graves. They do not look over the wall. But dead are here. Silent. Murdered.

This place is not in a guide book, not on the maps. Our Namibia friend, Ferdinand, whom I’ve known for more than 30 years, brings us here. It’s important. People need to remember.

As the Germans colonized Namibia in the early 20th century, there were people in the way. It’s a story American native people know too well. The Herero know it too. They were rounded up by the thousands and placed in… wait for it… concentration camps. Jews and Gypsies can pick up the story from here. The Herero were killed in the camps. Experimented upon. Butchered. Eliminated. Buried in the sand. By the tens of thousands.

The colonists wanted the land and the people who already lived on it, in peace, said, “yes, we can share.” The colonists said what colonists always say. NO.

Row after neat German row. A mound. Then another. And another. For acres.

A way of life was wiped out; 85 percent of the Herero were killed or left to die in the desert.

Many people have forgotten about this holy place. We will not.

Hammy suggested we add a stone to the collection at the primary marker, as is our custom when visiting a grave. It’s a reminder that the person has not be forgotten. I’m sorry I didn’t think it first. We will remember them.

The cemetery is on the edge of the city, where civilization meets the sand, the dunes, timelessness. There is silence, except for the crash of the surf in the distance, the wind in my ears, and the pad of my sandal on the sand. I step lightly, careful not to step on a grave.

This is a holy place.

I cannot help but wonder: were the Nazis were so efficient in killing Jews because their fathers practiced on the Herero a generation earlier?

Postscript: We visit the modern part of the cemetery and happen upon Jewish graves. Dozens of them. Older than any we have seen. 1876, 1885. 1890. This is before the Germans. Jews were here. Many, many families.

We wonder: what were their lives like here? I want to believe they were friends to the Herero.



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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Safari

There is no trip in the world like a safari. Lions roaring at night as you try to sleep in a tent… happening upon ANOTHER herd of springbok, and feeling a bit jaded, hoping desperately to find a rare black rhino and are rewarded with a mom and calf. Words do not do it justice. Pictures might….

Note: All images ©2015 Jeane Vogel Studios

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Heritage Stolen

When you steal a culture’s art, you steal their soul.

When you vandalize their art, their ritual objects, you attack an entire people.

Tonight, I feel violated.

This is not a happy story. It is certainly not an expected story.

It is the story of the Jews of Windhoek, Namibia, Africa.

There are 30 families, at most. There are barely any children. My daughter, Hannah, just became the most eligible woman of marriageable age among the Jews here. I know because someone tonight made a point of mentioning it. She is moving here to attend university.

But that is not the story. The story is about a small congregation that was defiled twice in the last two months. Everything of value was stolen…. furniture, catering equipment, books, dishes, prayer books.

The last robbery occurred last Shabbat –the sabbath marked from sundown Friday to an hour after sundown Saturday. The lights are on a timer, because observant Jews do not turn on and off lights on the sabbath. It was after 11 pm, when the lights go off.

Unable to switch on the lights, the robbers tore pages from prayer books and copies of sacred text, and set them ablaze to light their way.

First violation.

Then they used the Hanukkah menorah to pry open cabinets. It broke.

Second violation.

Then they stole all the furniture they could, the dishes for meals, silver flatware, silver kiddush cups and other valuable ritual objects.

Third violation.

Then they headed for the ark, where the Torah, the sacred texts are kept. Maybe they knew that the Torah scrolls have no market value. They left them alone.

First blessing.

Then they tore the tzeddakah box (charity box) from the wall. How much could it have contained? $10?

Fourth violation.

The cupboard that protected all the items for Passover, which may only be used then, was broken and ransacked.

Fifth violation.

The shul is old….built in 1924. There are no funds to replace these things. Holiday celebrations as a community are ruined. There are so few people left, will they bother to go on? Staff hasn’t been paid in three years. They show up anyway.

This is community. But it’s soul is shattered. Religious art is the oldest, most dear to us. When our places of worship are defiled, our souls are sullied.

Still, tonight, in a 91-year-old shul, we celebrated the Sabbath… with four men and four women — not enough for a minyan, even if the women were counted, which we weren’t.

Still, there was community. There was hope. There was joy.

Greatest blessing of all.

Damaged Hanukkah menorah in Windhoek shul. The ark is in the background.

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Sister Artists

20 January
Windhoek, Namibia

I thought it was going to be an ordinary day in Windhoek. Hannah and I are navigating the bureaucracy of getting her registered for school (my daughter is attending university here for the next three years. It is complex and foreign.) There hasn’t been time for touring… we’re here on business. Secure housing, get a phone, learn where the good supermarket is, learn the safe routes around town on foot. It’s daunting to move across the globe when you are 18.

As we walk from place to place (then back again to retrieve a forgotten passport — OY!) we see street vendors selling their wares. Tourists are few and the vendors are aggressive. They have bills to pay.

I have spent a lot of time over the years doing exactly the same thing, hoping the next browser will pick up a piece, love it and hand over the money.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Most vendors have the same things for sale. Most will admit they did not make the item. Most have been imported from outside Namibia.

I want authentic. Baskets, wooden bowls, trinkets, carved animals — all the same.

Hannah and I finished lunch and walked several blocks to a spot when vendors set up shop. More of the same. I can resist until I decide. Or walk away. In India and China I got pretty good at bargaining. China was easy. I knew they were trying to overcharge me by 90 percent, and many were brusque and rude. I can be that, too.

In Namibia there is a difference. There is a desperation in their eyes, not just their voices. They need this sale.

As we walked and I looked and waved off vendors, we came to four Himba women. They pounced on us with warm smiles. Within seconds I had a dozen beaded and corded bracelets on each arm. Necklaces rounded my neck without my knowing how they got there. If I took off a bracelet, three more appeared in its place. How much? No, too much. We bargained, we talked. Then the most remarkable thing happened. We started talking to each other as women. The six of us. Four bare-breasted, two western dress. Women. Some of us mothers. All of us daughters. Sisters.

I noticed the ochre that is all over their bodies, making their skin an exquisite deep red, was covering my neck and arms. We exchanged names, we shook hands warmly, again and again. We agreed on prices. I bargained a little, but I knew I was paying too much. And I was buying more than I wanted.

They had made these treasures. And customers were few.

“Here’s a free one,” one of the four said. Hannah started to say no, thank you. No, never refuse a gift.

I asked if I could return tomorrow to take portraits. I’m not walking around with my camera on days when we are trying to get administrative tasks done. It’s too heavy and it makes me look like more of a mark than already I am!

So I will return tomorrow, they will pose for me. We are no longer strangers. We are sister artists and we know how to talk to each other.

Hannah getting fitted by a Himba woman. Note the massive number of bracelets! We couldn’t buy all of them! ©2015 Jeane Vogel Studios

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, Katutura Township

19 January 2015
Windhoek, Namibia

I’m still trying to figure out what the guidebooks mean when they say that a trip to Katutura Township near Windhoek is a “must see!”

Tourists have more money to spend on a dinner than many of these residents have in a month. Many live on US$200 a year, or less.

So, is it to see the unemployed men hoping for some money? A boy who follows us around hoping for some food (my friend gave him some meat he just bought. Hannah and I had nothing.) Or maybe to witness the poverty. Not every home was desperate, but many were.
The people. That’s the only reason to go anywhere.

A boy, begging for a coin, earned it with a pose instead. Look at those eyes.

To say that Hannah and I stood out in the Katutura market, where mostly meat was being butchered and cooked on the braai (bbq), is to state the incredibly obvious. I was first met by a boy who begged for a coin. I said no, but I would pay him for a picture. He agreed. The sadness in his eyes troubled me deeply. But he is one of millions of children in this world who earn his meals this way.

There were no tourists at the market on this Sunday afternoon. There was meat, and there were animal parts not needed this moment. Hooves, cattle heads, entrails. Most of the meat not on the braai was covered in flies. Covered. In. Flies. These are the sights of which vegetarians are made…or confirmed! There were a few baskets of beans, and meal worms, purchased by the pound. And spices of course! In an adjacent building were small shops. Two tailors who made beautiful, colorful dresses and bright green and blue school uniforms were happy to pose for me. Their work was exquisite!

But these are not the reasons to come to Katutura. Come for the people. Talk to the people!

As we drove slowly through the streets, I tried to smile and wave to people. Everyone, to a person, responded in kind. I saw a group of women sitting in their yard and asked if we could talk to them. As in China, when Helen and Iris were invaluable in helping me communicate with people, my friend Ferdinand made wonderful introductions. Besides, he is tall and handsome and speaks all the languages. What woman could resist? Of course they say yes to him!

Anastasia was there with a few other women, and many boys. No girls in sight. The boys wanted to pose with American gansta signs, and we laughed together as I called them on it. Anastasia fixed her make up for the portrait and struck a pose. She was magnificent. We talked, shook hands Namibian style (do your cultural homework!) many times, chatted with the boys and shot and shot. I shot A LOT, and she finally laughed and waved me off.

The visit was warm and friendly and genuine.

The people. That’s the only reason to go anywhere.

Anastasia, A Herero Woman, resident of Katatura Township

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An Artist’s Journey: Namibia, First Impressions

We woke to African birdsong.

The travel was from St. Louis was long. Three planes, more than 36 hours travel time. Namibia is not set up for travel from the US. It’s easier to get here from Asia or Europe.

Americans simply do not have a concept of the size of this continent, partly because our maps are wrong. Africa is drawn smaller than it is. It’s really time to change our maps. But that’s another issue.

The drive from the airport to the city, about 45km, shows the beauty of the desert. Springbok were everywhere! Windhoek was founded by German Colonialists who were shown the deep water sources here… an oasis in the desert. The surface is dry but the water flows below. Life can be sustained and lived well.

It is hot. And the altitude is that of Denver. I felt it this morning on a walk to the market for supplies.

Just a brief description. Namibia is bordered by South Africa on the southeast, Angola on the north, Botswana on the east. It is the twice the size of California, but with only 2 million people. It was part of the South African Apartheid system until Namibian independence in 1990. The first free election in South Africa was 1994. This is a young country. Inequities still exist, of course, but Namibia has done a better job of finding reconciliation between whites, blacks and mixed race people. Many people still live in traditional ways, though much of their land and cattle stolen by colonials have not been returned. It’s still an issue, but one that is managed in the Namibian way.

What is the Namibian way? Slower, kinder, friendlier. People are helpful and open, but unemployment is 40%, so there are men who will watch your car for a coin or offer you directions. They aren’t beggars, but they do want a little something.

I was told that white women generally do not walk. White tourists walk. And students, I suppose! The taxis “beeped” at Hannah and me constantly as we walked to the market. The city is not “city like,” but more like a rural town with lots of room between homes and businesses. There is no bustle, there are no “blocks,” but wide roads lined by walls and gates that protect the homes or businesses within. There is petty crime, not violent. Mostly the walls create private outdoor living spaces, not armed fortresses.

The feel is organic, slow-paced, and not as materialistic or commercial as North America, Europe or Asia.

We are staying in a guest house that is a compound of smaller buildings.
We have access to a kitchen in a separate building. There is no AC but the slower pace and the building construction — and the lack of humidity — make it bearable. The city does not generate a lot of heat from air conditioning and industry, so the temperatures dip to the 60s at night and the sky is remarkably clear. The air is clean.

There is a garden of succulents, a small pool, a patio and an open eating area. The food is wholesome, fresh and tastes amazing.

Today, we rest and explore a bit. Still I hear the African birdsong.


View from the garden.

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Jumping Off a Cliff: The Next Journey Begins

Queens, NY

It’s almost midnight and my daughter, Hannah, and I have arrived at our hotel for the next 7 hours. Tomorrow morning we board a South African Airlines flight that 24 hours from now will land us in Windhoek, Namibia.

Haven’t heard of it? Most Americans haven’t. It’s ok. Look it up. It’s stunning.

But this isn’t a story of geography… it’s a story of trust.

Hannah is the main character, but every student I’ve met, ever aspiring artist and photographer who has ever asked me for advice, also plays a role in this play.

Just a little background: my daughter was born to me when I was 40. I was of an age when dreams start to fade. Moms of my generation often realize that we have to launch our children early, or not at all. From birth, she wanted to be around animals. And she has my love for travel, longing to experience new people, new places, new sensations. Long story-short, she is attending university in Namibia to study natural resource management. Not semester abroad… four years.

How can you let her go? I’m asked that a lot. Because that’s who we raised her to be.

But why? Because dreams are unreal until you are brave enough to take the first step. How many dreams are deferred because it’s not practical, or expensive, or misunderstood?

There’s a cliff looming in front of you. And you have to be brave enough — and supported enough — to step off into the unknown. And you have to be trusting enough to know the net will be there.

That brings me back to the artists who call me for advice. They seem to think I have “made it” ( I haven’t), or I know the secret (I don’t.)

What I do know, is that fear stops 90 percent of people from taking that first step toward their goal.

So, what’s my advice? KNOCK IT OFF! Be brave. Take that step already!

You’ll be surprised who’s holding your net.

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An Artist’s Journey: China, 11 July 2014


The Western at the Great Wall,” photo by Iris Lau

Every student in the workshop had to have their photo taken with me. I was a “famous artist” from America, even though I told them I wasn’t. They thought I was being modest. No, really. I’m ordinary. Not to them.

And I expected that many artists wanted a photo op after my lecture and presentation. Only one artist wanted to yell at me… the rest wanted to be close to a “famous American artist.” Again, not so famous. Pop, pop, pop. I hope I was patient, as much as I hate to be photographed. Ironic, eh?

It happened a couple of other times. Someone would approach me: picture? Then every member of the family had his turn.

It’s fair. I ask to take pictures of people I find interesting or exotic. Not that many Westerns still venture here, so exotic. And I was somewhat approachable. I was traveling with a group of women, but was often separated from them as I sought the best angle or light, or examination of a detail. I hope I looked friendly. I know I looked odd.

The group at the top of the Great Wall were the most insistent… At least a dozen people had to have their photo with me. What were they thinking? They were friendly, but were they mocking me? Did they want their friends to see how large Americans really are? Were they just excited to put their arm around a stranger?

Was I friendly enough? I tried, but it was a strange sensation all around. All I hoped was: one more photo for world peace!


Today was my last full day in Beijing, in China. A few brief impressions:

–This is a land of contradictions.

–The proper Chinese way to hand something to someone is with two hands, and a slight bow. It took some practice but now feels natural. I’m insulted when handed things with one hand. I’m being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, people seem surprised and honored when I do it the “right” way. Another “world peace” moment.

–Young people here don’t have hobbies. They work. They go to bars. They sing kareoke. Volunteer opportunities are rare, too.

–Chinese are a deeply spiritual people, many practicing Buddhism and Taoism. Western religions might have problems here, but traditional Chinese religions seem to have many practioners. Anyone who says China is godless is a Cold War bore.

–Roaches are everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

–I’m open to new foods, as long as they are vegetarian. I tried and liked dozens, including bamboo root, seaweed noodles, candied taro, dragon fruit.

— On hospitality on restaurants: there isn’t any.

–Also no napkins. Carry tissues. Handy for the squat tiolets, too.

–Police and soldiers are everywhere… and they are unarmed. Still, they are scary.

–Children are allowed to run wild. Conformity comes later. I’m not a fan of this practice.

–Make no mistake: Capitalism reigns here. Everyone has a business. Everyone is trying to make a yuan. Everyone.

–Chinese are a fiercely patriotic people. Their middle class is stronger than ours. Don’t get cocky.

–There is pork in everything. EVERYTHING.

–Flowers are nowhere to be found. I was delighted to see roses growing along the highway in Beijing, but that was the only place. This is a land of extraordinary natural beauty, but there is no beauty in thier lives. It’s a gray place.

–The people who know you are wonderful. Strangers are not, with the exception of older women. Always a connection there.

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