Category Archives: blog – 2: SAW

SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop) in Gainesville Florida specializes in teaching sequential art (“comics”), and it’s where I work, draw, and teach. Check us out: www.sequentialartistsworkshop.org

FOUR: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Justine’s Gainesville Period)

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FOUR: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Justine’s Gainesville Period)
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/
Part TWO: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/two-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-part-2-of-2/
Part THREE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/24/the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-part-3/

(Barefoot) Justine comics illustration

(Barefoot) Justine comics illustration

Since I’ve been in Gainesville, I’ve taken on a number of projects, some of them very surprising. I’m afraid the gripping narrative of the blog may give way to the act of simply sharing for a page.

Look at this as Justine’s show and tell!

But along the way I will share some insights and stories about each project. Oh… and I don’t think I’ll be talking about any of this in any kind of order. I guess the order will be “whatever Justine feels is groovy enough to talk about now.” I think this will set the stage for how the work of my “Gainesville period” led to the lovely project with the Matheson illustrating “What The Lions Saw.”

OK, so who would have thought that barefoot batshit crazy hippie Hindu Justine would one day work for the Department Of Defense (actually DARPA)? Well, not me, but never one to turn down a chance to pay rent and buy groceries I went at it. Actually, that’s a tad flippant. The project was great, a comics version of the Odyssey. And my ambition was not to pay my rent and eat, but to learn how to render more like Al Williamson. Yeah, I like to set the bar frustratingly high.

The image below was a favorite page, and the detail image of the head to the left was inked with toothpicks while the rest of the page was inked with a brush. Yeah, you heard right, I inked that with toothpicks!

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen - Odysseus 6: final inks

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen – Odysseus 6: final inks

But, one of my favorite jobs was the animation we did for the library at UF. This was one of those amazing jobs where the topic was dry as stale melba toast, but the “committee” in charge trusted me to do my job. OK… RANT WARNING… I hate hobs where my status as a “creative professional” is reduced to that of “plebeian renderer.” They were open to whatever I had in mind, and essentially left me alone, free to write, storyboard, illustrate, animate, direct and color this thing, with a ton of creative and technological help from Tom Hart at SAW. If you have 6 minutes, it’s worth watching. The challenge was… how do I make this dry information so entertaining that people will WANT to watch it rather than watch it because they need to understand the concept. One of the things I try and do with every job, be it an annual report or infographic, is I try and create something that is NOT disposable. I try and make everything I do something the people who encounter it will keep and enjoy. Most graphics, as I’m sure you know by having ignored them, are hot and trendy, but wholly disposable and forgettable no matter how “daring” and “hip” they were with their fonts.

It was really fun to be able to work in that cartoony style, so different from my work on the DARPA project.

Painting Stage Sets

Painting Stage Sets

On Stage

On Stage

As amazing as those projects were to work on, the job I never could have seen coming was when I got a call to design backgrounds for a ballet that would be at the Thomas Center. I had to design elements that would be sculpted, as well as the props and set dressing elements that decorated the pre-existing backdrop of the castle interior (which I did NOT do), the stairway and so forth. Add to this that I had to paint a 10 foot skull, as well as paint the stairway facade, based on how the backdrop was painted. Keep in mind, I am NOT a painter anymore than a set designer. In other words, it was a lot of work recklessly outside my comfort zone.

Here’s a secret, if you, as an artist, are offered a job outside of your comfort zone, take it, do it, and NEVER let on that you are nervous, you know, like the old deodorant commercial… never let them see you sweat. If they see one drop of sweat they will cast you aside and look for someone less sweaty. Clients are like deer… very easy to spook, and they will run for cover.

In the end I painted the giant backdrop with local artist Margaret Tolbert. It’s funny, I always scold my students for how they hold their brushes while inking comics, and that day Margaret scolded me for how I held my brush. I needed to learn to hold the brush like a painter, not a comic artists. I needed to learn to “say something” as she urged as I meekly went about trying to find volume and proportion on a 10 foot canvas. To be honest, when we began painting I had a panic attack, was in tears. I knew I was in over my head, and figuring out how to draw on a 10 foot canvas was very intimidating, but eventually I got it figured out. In fact, after a half hour of panic, all at once I saw the skull on the canvas, and practically shoved Margaret out of the way saying… “Wait! I see it… I can see it now!” and I saw it and painted in the basic form that we then brought to life, mostly thanks to her confident skills as a painter.

To the upper left are the stairs I designed as painted the day a former student and I had done it, and directly below, that same stairway on stage.

Below, the final stage in my design for the stage set itself. I hand intended for this to be a rough only, but the client looked at it and said, “What’s wrong with this?” Nothing… so it became the final sketch. Below all that… well, that was what I saw when the curtain opened… awesome! I mean seeing it on stage, then the music and the ballet, I felt like a part of something grand. I was… “The Ballet.”

Stage Design

Stage Design

On Stage

On Stage

Yeah, it gets interesting, doesn’t it? Mythology, Cartoon Modern animation, and ballet set designs. And this ain’t the half of it. I’ve done tons of stuff in Gainesville, not all of it for local clients, but it’s more fun when it is. A few years back we did a great project in Gainesville for the CRA, it even won 2 awards, but I think of all the things I’ve done in Gainesville, the animation below is my favorite.

Nothing I have done has come as much from the heart, and there is nothing I’m more proud of than this animation. There are jobs I’m equally proud of, but none I am more proud of. This project pushed all my buttons, as a seeker (see “Hindu”) the thought of doing animation to preserve wild India, it’s elephants and indigenous people from being raped and destroyed by corporate crimelords… appealed to me. Jai Sri Ganesh!

Note that many of the images (as Ganesh at the beginning) were not drawn by me, but were taken from books and processed the same way as my drawings through Adobe Illustrator. It’s obvious which ones I drew… they share a similar line quality. The landscapes and stuff I inked with a brush, the elephants I inked with toothpicks. Why a brush and toothpicks? Because I despise most Flash animation, so cold, those horrid paper doll-like “bone” people that move like lousy shadow puppets. I want my animation to look hand drawn even though it’s all processed through “live trace” in Illustrator, and Flash. The limitations of a tool should never inhibit an artists vision, but should challenge them to shine through the limitations.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

I guess with all this work (award winning work, at that) under my belt here in town, I’ve become rather cocky. Ever since I’ve moved to Gainesville I’ve been the bold brash woman I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve come to realize something at this stage in my life, and that is that people really do not respect or understand artists. They expect us to go into the studio and be innovative, brilliant, unconventional and sensational in our work, but expect us to act like middle-management bankers at meetings.

NOPE! Not me. I go to all my meetings (whether they be with university librarians, city officials or museum administrators) barefoot and in cut-off denim shorts. I travel at one speed without regard to the circle in which I’m flying. The raw passion, rhythmic heart, and vivid imagination it takes to produce great work is the same imagination that makes us envision other ways of being, of living, of acting. I didn’t become an artist to play by the rules everyone else has to play by. I am the same passionate imaginative person in meetings as I am in the studio. I speak in the same way, and the emotion and passion it takes to make cool art is the same high emotion I bring into the boardroom. A lot of clients can’t handle it, but I’m not playing their game, I can’t, I never knew how to, and I do not want to. Oh… and I will not! You want me and my unique take on the possibilities of your project, that comes with me and my unique take on how to travel through life. Deal with it or hire someone mediocre.

Well, that makes keeping clients a challenge sometimes. But, as I said, if I wanted to be a banker I would have been a banker. I’m not worried about winning any popularity contests (which is good… ’cause I ne’er e’er won one in my life), I’m interested in making work that engages me, and often what engages me frightens committees. Well, sod the committee. And what has all this rant brought us to? It has brought us to the brass tacks statement I made during the very first meeting with the Matheson crew. I said very directly, “Nothing kills creativity like a committee. I want creative control. Give me creative control and you will get my best work.” As soon as a committee starts to micromanage or get too involved, I lose interest and hack through the project to cash the check and pay my rent, but if a client has come to me and hired me to be a creative professional, and is willing to trust their own judgment, then the work I do will not disappoint them. And that’s just it, my ONE message to anyone hiring an artist, and it goes simply like this, if you do not trust the artist you chose to do creative work with the creative work, what that reveals is that you do not trust your own judgment. I can’t stand working with micromanagers, for I can see that they simply do not trust their own judgment.

Well, I am pleased to say that the folks at the Matheson Museum (Peggy MacDonald in particular) have had the courage to trust their judgment. They have given me creative control, and they have gotten me at my very best… and you will see all that very soon.

Next time, at long last, I’m going to get down to really talking about the new project, “What The Lion’s Saw,” and give you all a nice behind the scenes look into the process. Stay tuned… same batshit time, same batshit channel…

NEXT: FIVE, in walk the lions! Behind the scenes preproduction art!

Three: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Justine Lands In Gainesville)

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THREE: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw”: Justine lands in Gainesville
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/
Part TWO: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/two-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-part-2-of-2/

Mike Lenz, a Blues musician and formidable guitarist from Akron dumped some truth on a mother who wanted advice for her son. She asked him, “What advice do you have for a young guitar player and musician?” Mike said, “Work hard, learn all he can, sacrifice, and spend all your time playing and practicing… and if he does all this and he’s good, really good… there’s hundreds of dollars to be made every year… hundreds!”

Yep, that’s about the size of it, whether you are a guitar player or an artist. You know what my gross income was last year? Less than $7,000, and you know what’s of no help at all?

Words.

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: WOTC Illustration Pirate Woman

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: WOTC Illustration Pirate Woman

I don’t know how many times I’ve stood and listened to people tell me how amazing my art is, how good I am, how stunned they are by my art… but they can’t even afford to spend $2 on a crummy postcard at my table! They have no idea I’m starving. I even had a woman say to me “Well, artists are supposed to starve.” To say the least, I was furious, I mean that’s the very rubbish that keeps us down. Worse by far than that, once I even had a woman come to my booth and take a photo of the image she liked when she could have bought a big postcard print of it for $3! She snapped the photo, shot me a shit-eating grin and scurried off quite proud of herself. I chased her down! Yeah, damn straight, that’s pure Justine, chased her down, and right in front of her friends I said, “Do you know what you just did? You just took food out of my mouth. Instead of paying $3 for the postcard, you took a photo and ran off feeling all proud of yourself… and now I don’t get to eat lunch today!” and I walked away.

She came back a few minutes later in tears, apologizing.

And you know what… she still wasn’t willing to cough up three lousy bucks for the postcard! I mean, thanks for crying and apologizing and all, but tears don’t pay the rent, not unless your landlord’s a sucker.

Yeah, all that, all the years of rejection slips, of cheap words, of shallow praise, all of that played out in my mind as I showed Tom Hart my portfolio, my creative life and life of dreams was flashing before my eyes. I needed work, I needed a job, hell, what I needed was salvation! As he poured over my portfolio I could feel my guts clench as I waited on the inevitable cheap words, the enthusiastic praise and the pat on the back as he politely, but determinedly, guided me out the door. I knew all the steps to that dance. I was halfway out the door in my mind before I’d even walked all the way in through the door.

But that didn’t happen. Tom is a different sorta person, and thank God for it, too. He listened to my story about how before leaving Ohio I had sold off guitars, art, whatever I could, then laid out twelve envelopes and placed what I figured was a week’s worth of money in each envelope so that once I got to Florida I would have three months of survival money before I was in trouble. You see, I had no safety net, no home in Akron to return to, no one in Florida to catch me if I fell, and now, here I was in Gainesville, down to my last 4 envelopes, and that was it! What then. What if all I got was more lousy praise? Like I said, Tom isn’t like that. He saw in my portfolio that I was not only good, but real good, that I was obviously self-disciplined, that I knew how to work for things that were out of reach of most people, and though I had no way of knowing this, Tom Hart knew what it was like to be a starving artist, having just fled New York City for that very reason himself. I was on tenterhooks as I waited for him to finish looking at my work.

Inside… I was crying.

Lucasfilm art by Justine

Lucasfilm art by Justine

Tom listened to my story, looked up from my portfolio and said, “We need to get some more money in your envelopes.” Wait… what? It was like in a cartoon when the character’s head starts rotating side to side, tongue out, that “ie e-ee ie e-ee ie e-ee” noise coming out. He didn’t show me to the door with a golden shower of cheap words? Almost immediately we got down to throwing together an evening class for me to teach. Tom knew I could draw, but that was about it. Lots of people can draw, lots of people can teach, but few can do both. Tom Hart became my personal savior! He attended my first class, wondering if I could teach, but what he had no way of knowing was just how much teaching I had done. As I was still commuting from Ocala to Gainesville when I taught that class for Tom, by the time I got home there was a lengthy email from him. I doubt he remembers it this way, but I have the email to prove it. In the email he effused over how good a class I ran, how good my teaching was, and he literally said, “I am begging you, begging you, to become my year-long drawing teacher.”

Wow! What I hadn’t known was that Tom needed me, too. It was no less a miracle to him that his drawing teacher had simply walked in off the streets unannounced than it was for me to have walked in off the streets into the warm arms of Tom, SAW and Gainesville. Through Tom I was able to find an affordable apartment as Joe Courter, who was a neighbor to SAW, needed a housemate, and whether he knows it or not, Joe Courter is a major patron of the Arts. Without him and this absurdly cheap rent in this spectacular house on this stunning piece of property, I don’t know where I’d be now. More than friends, Tom and Joe were instrumental in helping me make my life work, and I was teetering on the edge of a major disaster. I’ve been at SAW and in the Lakehouse with Joe ever since July 4th five years ago, and I’m family in both places. I even take care of Tom and Leela’s magical daughter Molly Rose. I think I was the first person Tom gave a key to his school to, and the first person to babysit his daughter. Yeah, sometimes there are people out there who will give an artist more than a pat on the back, they’ll give us work, trust, and something far more important… a sense of family.

Tom’s my brother.

Most people don’t trust artists at all, primarily because they don’t understand them. I used to joke that I’d go into a meeting with a potential client with a portfolio full of drawings of pumpkins, squash and eggplants, and the client would smile, then shake their heads as they slid my portfolio to me, saying, “You draw pumpkins, squash and eggplant really well… but we need someone who draws watermelons.” Then I met an agent who I told this joke to, he shook his head and said, “That’s not really funny. I represented this artist who had a lot of drawings of horses in his portfolio, I showed it to a client who refused to work with him because they needed an artist who drew cats.”

You know what being an artist really teaches you? It teaches you that people really are that stupid.

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: WOTC illustration

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: WOTC illustration

I wasn’t fully prepared for where the SAW journey was going to take me. Soon after Tom took me under his wing I began working for DARPA on a comics project meant to help veterans with their PTSD, and soon job after job came through SAW, mostly jobs local to Gainesville, the very jobs that paved the way for me getting the job of illustrating “What The Lions Saw” for the Matheson. And, man, I’ve done it all, from designing murals to animation for UF, from comics and T-shirt designs to set design for the ballet! Soon I am going to share some of the images I’ve done since I’ve lived in Gainesville, and what I am sharing is by no means complete. I still don’t make enough money to live, not by most people’s standards, but I’ve done a ton of work here.

I’m gonna share some of that work with you next time, and then we’re gonna dig in and see how the process of making this new book for the Matheson is like.

NEXT: What I just said above…

For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com

TWO: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction Part 2 of 2)

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TWO: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 2 of 2)
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/)

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: Star Wars illustration

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: Star Wars illustration


Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues,
And I explained that I had overpaid them,
So overdued I went to the company store,
and the clerk there said that they had just been invaded,
So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill.

Cause the smell of her perfume echoes in my head still,
Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun,
In weekends of whiskey sours,
Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?

Sixto “Sugarman” Rodriguez

I shoved more books into a box, books in print, with my name and art in them, closed the box and ripped another strip of flesh and spirit off the roll to seal up another cardboard coffin. Yep, I had really made it, internationally published, but by the time I was packing up, that was long over, even the crying was long over. I had worked on Green Lantern for DC Comics, and had inked most of the famous characters, including the Flash, Superman, Swamp Thing, and others. I had managed to work for WOTC on core Dungeons and Dragons product, and had even been “Lucasfilm approved,” which means I was one of the artists approved to work on Star Wars projects! I hadn’t seen that coming, hadn’t even dared to dream I’d be hired by Lucasfilm to draw creatures from Star Wars, and I had never dared dream I would one day be as good as I got, and that ain’t ego, I paid my dues. But that seemed like a lifetime ago, and at that moment, that life was packed away in boxes that would soon be shoved into the dark of someone’s closet in Akron.

Boxes of dreams dry with dust in the dark of an Akron closet.

DC Comics, Justice League, Pencils: unknown - Inks: Justine Mara Andersen

DC Comics, Justice League, Pencils: unknown – Inks: Justine Mara Andersen

Nothing lasts, not even fully fulfilled dreams, not even identity. First the economy, then one thing after another, and slowly I watched precious water drip away as all my clients evaporated. The springs of my dreams having run dry, I found myself back at the bottom of the food chain in the world of comics, gaming illustration and art. Within a few years I went from turning clients down because I could not complete all the work coming in, to sitting around in my studio broke, exhausted and bitter. I mean, I didn’t have any idea what to do or where to turn from that bottom… what does a person do who defined themselves by their dream… what do they do once the dream collapses? Who are they?

What are they?

All I knew was I didn’t have any desire to work my way back up from the bottom again. Once around that bush was enough. A lot happened in the years after my dream ran dry, a whole lot, 2 years in Korea dealing with cancer, time in Chile working as an illegal immigrant, performances for Buddhist monks in the mountains of Korea, a near fatal SCUBA diving incident in Thailand, performing for prostitutes and Johns in the Philippines, scrubbing toilets in an Akron grocery store, even performing in nightclubs in Seoul South Korea drenched in the numbness of 7 shots of whiskey, bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce.

Let the good times roll!

What does one do indeed? Me, initially, as you can see, I did everything, but ultimately what one does is pack up and move on.

I got into the car with the two Akron Ogres, a portfolio full of blessed art, and a sacred statue of Ganesh, and headed off, southbound from Meat City to Slowcala with no plan, no job, no shoes, no friends, and only enough money to survive for 3 months before I was, well, to put it bluntly… screwed, but I was screwed no matter what I did. The groovy part of being that totally screwed is… it’s a total liberation! But you have to let go and surrender to the free fall.

But in order to surrender to the fall, you first have to find the courage to jump!

Barefoot Justine WOTC Illustration/Lucasfilm

Barefoot Justine WOTC Illustration/Lucasfilm

Yeah, well, things weren’t much better in Ocala. I was still screwed, but at least I was warm and screwed. I had fled a foreclosing house in the ghettos of Akron to find myself in a barren room in Ocala, sleeping on a lumpy half-deflated rubber bed under the lordship that pair of Ogres. So without rooting through the dirty laundry of my Ogres with too much zest, let’s just tell one story. The She-Ogre had cooked dinner and asked me to join them. The next day around the pool she asked me when I was going to pay for the portion of food she had served. Family-friendly blog entry or not… I don’t think anyone could blame me for inserting a quick “what the fuck?” here. Besides all that, I was running out of the 3 months worth of basic survival money I had brought. I got down to about four weeks worth of money, had no job, and soon nowhere to live, and worse, no home to return to in Akron, not even with family. I still had Ganesh… but my faith was being tested.

In continued desperation, fleeing Ocala on a daytrip, in search of more liberal pastures and possibilities, I wound up visiting Gainesville Florida, just to see if perhaps Gainesville might be a better fit for me than Akron or Ocala. I distinctly remember the first time I set foot in Gainesville, walking barefoot down Main Street, then on past Bo Diddley Plaza where I wandered around the Sun Center and Hippodrome. I sat in Mochi eating yogurt (a place I was later kicked out of as an employee erroneously believed my being barefoot was a health code violation… it’s not, look it up), and it was there where I nodded to myself and thought, “I could live here.”

But how?

I had looked up every arts oriented place in Gainesville before driving in from Ocala, stunned to find that there was a comics school in Gainesville! SAW, The Sequential Artists Workshop, founded by Tom Hart and Leela Corman, who knew? I mean, really… how many towns have comics art schools? I’ll tell ya’ how many, there are three freestanding comics art schools in the country, Gainesville’s got one of ’em! SAW’s a big deal for Gainesville, a hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-its-teeth big deal, but a big deal. Quite unannounced, I walked off the streets into what we now call “Old SAW” which shared a building with the CMC and what was then the Co-op. Oh God, I knew the stink of desperation was seeping from my every pore, but sticky-thick with it or not, I had to keep keep trying and hoping lest I ended up homeless.

And there, sitting at drawing tables right up against the wall were Tom and Leela. The school had barely even opened, hadn’t even had a year of students yet, I mean, talk about getting in on the ground floor. I announced my arrival, and told Tom Hart the (looking back on it) rather pathetic story of how I ended up there, and as I told him I needed work, I plopped my portfolio on the table, full of the art that had been blessed by Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. Tom stood up, approached me cautiously, thinking (as he tells it), “This crazy barefoot woman walks into my school and starts asking for a job, and immediately I want to tell her that we’re just a small school, we don’t need anybody…”

But then he saw my portfolio…

Mara Medievalist (by Justine)

Mara Medievalist (by Justine)

NEXT: July 4th, Independence Day… and I begin crafting a life for myself in Gainesville Florida as a teacher and artist, and all while the Lions slumbered in the dark.

NEXT: FOUR: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw.”
For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com

ONE: The Art Of “What the Lions Saw” (Introduction 1 of 2)

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ONE: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 1 of 2)

Barefoot Justine in her studio at SAW

Barefoot Justine in her studio at SAW

When I moved to Gainesville July 4th five years ago, I was very desperately seeking independence.

But Gainesville hadn’t been in my plans… plans… what plans? I had moved down from Ohio to Ocala Florida on a mad impulse and had found myself in a shockingly Cinderella-like situation that was worse than the situation I had fled in Ohio. I mean, I literally ended up living in an unfurnished room in Ocala (no comment on having done time in Ocala), sleeping for months on an ever-deflating inflatable mattress, and serving a pair of Ogres… though when I had met them they seemed to be a fairy godmother and godfather… but, we all know how fairy tales turn out. Spoiler alert… this tale, at least, ended in me escaping the home of the Ogres to an ideal job as an artist and teacher at SAW (sequentialartistsworkshop.org), and a pastoral life in Gainesville on a lakefront property with a serene view of the forest. I went, it seems, from Cinderella’s misery in Ocala to the bliss of Briar Rose’s idyllic cottage life in Gainesville, but instead of living with the three good fairies I am now living with Grizzly Adams (my dear friend Joe Courter).

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

Goethe

For all the idyllic qualities of my life as it is today, it could have turned out far differently, for, as I’d said, not a bit of it was planned, or even the least bit thought through, neither from Akron nor Ocala. Oh, but wouldn’t you know it, there was a long journey through the dark forest before I got anywhere near SAW or the Lakehouse in Gainesville, let alone to the Matheson where I would start work illustrating “What The Lions Saw.” And, so far as I’m concerned, that journey is all part of this story, I mean, how can an artist separate her life from her art?

There wasn’t exactly a beginning to the story, other than that it started in the same place as a lot of stories… desperation, if desperation be called a place. I was desperately seeking an escape from the tyranny of life in the ghetto of “The Rubber City,” Akron Ohio. So let’s just put Akron and life therein into perspective. I had hit bottom, I won’t go into details, but trust me, it was the bottom, as in hospitalized. I had to wait overnight to see a psychologist, but come morning, once the psychologist listened to my story, she told me there was nothing wrong with me, I was fine, just different, and if I got out of Akron I’d be fine. Hand to Vishnu, that was what she said. It wasn’t what I had expected to hear, but that was her verdict on my mental health… it’s not you, it’s this lousy city, get the hell out of Akron Ohio. To make matters worse, I was not only in Akron, but right smack dab in the middle of a divorce, a bankruptcy and a foreclosure… oh, and I was still recovering from cancer and the trauma of escaping South America as an illegal immigrant… but those are other stories. So as you can imagine, those last days in Akron were pretty grim, and from the steel grey skies and rusty air of depression that is the spirit of Akron, my future wasn’t looking much better.

By the time I was packing to escape from Akron Ohio, I was wondering how my life had become so grim, how was it I had fallen from such a height? I mean, I knew I was a talented and accomplished illustrators… why was I scrubbing toilets at a local grocery store by day and downing doubles of Black Velvet by night?

Such desperate questions lead to desperate actions, but in those last days of suffering in Akron before my blind faith trip to Florida I had just become a “practicing Hindu,” and so I was beginning to learn to reframe my point of view… in other words, what was called for wasn’t a “desperate action,” but a leap of faith. On my last visit to the Shiva Vishnu Temple before leaving Akron (God… how I hate even typing in that word, “Akron”) I had my artwork blessed by Ganesh via the Temple Priest. As I was about to go home and shove more stuff in hastily labeled boxes, I spoke to one of the most dedicated Devotees about my situation, a lovely Indian woman, and she said, “So long as you have your faith, you’ll be alright.” So, there wasn’t much left to do but take that leap of faith. I was in the hands of Ganesh now.

I’ve never been in better hands.

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen - unfinished, Hinduism comic

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen – unfinished, Hinduism comic

There’s nothing like ripping packing tape off the roll to skin the soul raw. With each cranky rip and tear I reflected on how I had gotten myself into this mess. There’s a lot of time to reflect when you’re boxing up your memories and deciding which ones will be hidden in a dark closet somewhere, and which precious few will make the cut for the move. Nothing in my life to that point had worked out as I had envisioned it, and each box full of dusty books drove the point home. At one time I had been a motivated dreamer, then an ascending doer. I had not only scaled many heights, but had surpassed my every expectation for myself, at least in regards to my life dream, well apart from the part of that dream where I earned a pile of dough. Not a sausage! Man I was broke, and I had worked long and hard for that bit o’nothing. I had announced early as 4th grade “I’m going to grow up to become a dolphin trainer or a comic book artist.” Well, once my mother pointed out that dolphin trainers had to learn science, which meant being good at math (“math,” a word that fills me the same dreary chill as “Akron”). Needless to say, I thought, “To heck with math, comic book artist it is.” I mean, hell, when you’re a comic book artists you don’t even have to grapple with simple addition, as there’s hardly a dollar to count.

Yeah, by the time I was living in a ghetto house in Akron, by the time I was embroiled in bankruptcy foreclosure and divorce, by the time I was packing to make a hasty, some might have said, foolhardy, retreat, by the time I had a closet full of “fallen soldiers” (emptied whiskey bottles) I had really fallen. It seemed like I had fallen hard and fast. But before all that I had succeeded in a big way. I had clawed my way into the major leagues. It had taken years of groundwork and heartache, but I was not only one of the few people from my school to have actually grown up to do what she had dreamed of doing, I was one of the few artists who dream of making it into the big leagues to have actually done it. Most quit when the going gets tough. But that dream was all I had back then, it was the only thing I knew about myself to be true.

I know a lot more about myself now, and what I know is I am more than any dream.

NEXT: Introduction part 2, Justine Lands in Gainesville…

For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com

Psychedelics, Rebirth, Love & the Destructive Art Of Teaching

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Barefoot Justine with Shiva

Barefoot Justine with Shiva


“Look to this day,
for it is life, the very breath of life.
In its brief course lie
all the realities of your existence;
the bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is only a dream,
and tomorrow is but a vision.
But today, well lived,
makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow
a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.”
(Ancient Sanskrit)

I went to Bolen’s Bluff park today. I haven’t been out in nature much lately. For the last month I’ve had an excuse… I had an animation job that I was passionate about and had an impossible deadline… but what’s been my excuse for the past couple of years?

I guess I keep forgettin’ stuff, and I don’t mean stuff like, “I can’t find my keys,” no, I mean stuff like, “Oh, that’s right, being outside helps me maintain my center.” I mean stuff like that, BIG stuff. But there’s more to this than all that, it’s not just about forgettin’ stuff, it’s more about known’ stuff as words that make sense to you as opposed to knowin’ stuff through personal experience. For example, one of my favorite stories George Harrison tells of becoming a devotee of Hinduism was how he’d always understood, as an Irish Catholic, that he just had to have faith in God, as God isn’t going to reveal himself to you, nor is he going to perform any miracles these days. When he told the Indians this, they bobbled their heads and said, “No, you must have direct experience of God,” as, obviously, how can you truly know something until you have had direct experience of it? In other words, when it comes to God, if you haven’t sought to see God, God hasn’t revealed himself to you. Well, as of late, I’ve been having far more direct experience with mystical truth than ever before. So, here’s the silly part, nothing I say here is going to sound like a revelation to anyone, it has all, most certainly, been said before and better, the revelation is not in the words, it is in the experience. Revelations are not in the eye of the beholder, rather they are in the heart of an experience. Revelations do not come in words, knowledge comes in words, all words do with revelations is make it possible to dimly explain the surface of our deepest experiences… our revelations; or as commonly is the case, words give us the chance to announce just how grandly we have misunderstood our revelations.

Last night, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” I enjoyed a Shamanic experience. To tell the truth, it was a bit stop-n-go, not so brilliant or immersive as my other experiences, but it taught me a lot. I went to bed feeling amazing, as my friends and I had just had a spectacular night (so far as I’m concerned) of visions, music, and chocolate mint hookah shisha, but when I woke this morning, I felt anxious and depressed. Anxiety and depression are familiar states to me, like Rakshasa demons they have possessed me, clawed so deep into me that for most of my adult life I never experienced any real joy. No matter how lovely a time I should have been having, no matter how splendid the occasion, I was stuck in the belly of the whale, battling Rakshasa Demons somewhere deep in the top of my chattering tyrannical skull. These recent plant-based Shamanic experiences have not defeated my demons, oh no, that’s my work to do (“Fight the battle Arjuna”), but they have revealed to me the many weaknesses of my deomons. Yes, Krishna, I am fighting the battles, but now I have weapons, courage, knowledge and faith enough to put up a fair fight.

“Every morning
I get up
Look out the window
I get up
See the sunshine
Beating down
Every morning comes around”
(Sun Is Shining, Paul McCartney)

So what does one do when one wakes up anxious, depressed, and deeply let down? There are two paths, one is to stay in bed and nurse that bastard demon to your breast with protective dedication, or one can fight the battle. The McCartney lyrics above are a literal reality in my little cottage room in the forest. Every morning I look out over my altars into the forest and drink up the sunlight as it lights up swatches of the lush green swampy forest. In getting up, I chose to fight the battle. On this particularly rotten morning I turned my clock around so that time no longer existed, I decided to opt out of studying Hindi this morning to instead play some meditation music and pay frequent visits to my altars. Then it dawned on me what I was to do, spend the day turned on, tuned in and dropped out. No email (sure I’m doing this blog, but I don’t wanna forget all the stuff I learned today), no stressing over regrets, conflicts, or unresolved issues, and no answering potentially unpleasant phone calls. I had decided that instead of giving in to anxiety and depression, I was going to spend the day meditating towards my center rather than spending the day spinning further from it, further into the abyss. The abyss of my inner life is rather like the tarpits into which all of my most sacred knowledge has often sunk, left suffocated and unexperienced.

I went for Thai food, fish curry, prepared specially for me by the owner’s wife, and then on to Bolen’s Bluff park. I was struck within minutes by the sign at the edge of the path: “This area off limits.” Wow… I mean, talk about living in a tree museum. “WARNING!!! Do not interact with the natural world. Stay on the path. This park brought to you by Starbucks.” Hell… I had to pay to get in! I know all the pragmatic logic behind that sign, and I know why it’s there, but none of that makes it any less perverse. To think we’ve created a world where we separate ourselves from nature by never straying from the path, only going to specially designated prisons we build to house our unruly forests. Yes, mankind, we have arrived! We have finally evolved into our utopia… just don’t step on the grass… and, for that matter, don’t smoke any, either. That notion of separation, that “Stay on the path” bit is the problem, the path is the perversion, it is not the limit of our experience with nature, at least, it shouldn’t be. This realization did not make me angry, it just amused and befuddled me to wonder how we could have allowed ourselves to become so damn perverse. I mean, exactly when did man choose to plummet so headlong into such a fall from grace?

But that didn’t last for long. No sign, or power, in the ‘verse can stop me!

I wasn’t but ten minutes into the walk when I felt seven-dozen black bats leap from my chest and skull, and one by one I watched them turn to vapor as the dappled rays of sunlight hit them. And with that… I was open. All of a sudden a lot of the stuff I had forgotten was revealed to me in surround-sound and full color. I know, I know, a lot of people like to grumble about how awful Florida is, how they can’t wait to get out of here, how shitty little Gainesville is, but to hell with them. My ambition was to move to Florida! One of my life dreams was to live where there were palm trees (I have a pair of them right out my window!) and as for me, I love Gainesville, it’s the second town I chose as the place I could spend the rest of my life, and the first town that welcomed me. But what brought me to Florida was the weather, the heat (don’t give me any of that “don’t you just love this weather!” crap when it’s cold and wet… ’cause, no, sister, I definitely do not like cold and wet, I do not like cold and wet in a car I do not like cold and wet in a bar, I do not like cold and wet Sam I Am!), but mostly it was the flora and fauna. I LOVE the Spanish moss, the cypress trees, the swamps, the alligators, the armadillos… I love all of it! Then why the hell haven’t I been taking hikes in the plentiful parks? I guess I forgot.

At some point on the walk I realized this day, this grand letting go, was one more rebirth. I don’t have them all that often, it’s not like I have some sort of new-agey daily gratitude and rebirthing fetish, no, when I have a rebirth, it means something is solidly going to change. Rebirth should be a seismic shift in perception and then in approach and practice. It often means I have to work to maintain that change, it often means I backslide, but that don’t ever mean I’ve lost. I have been heavily rebirthing for about 10 years now, just one change, revelation, devastation, lesson and grand experience after another. After cancer my body was reborn, I was reborn when I was divorced, even reborn in the hell of my foreclosure. But each devastation was a birth, a rebirth. Each tragedy or shock led to another birth. I became a Hindu, I moved to Florida without any plan, landed at SAW (which brought about my rebirth as a working artist), took up residence in the Lakehouse, and the liberation of all liberations, the one that has released me from the need to keep nursing my demon’s to my breast… wait for it… these latest, grand, herbal Shamanic experiences. They have pitched me so far out of the world of ordinary experience and reality that I have had no choice but to question not only reality and my place in it, but I am rethinking how to be if not who to become. All my demons have been derailed, the slobbering pissy mass of them has begun to retreat.

Out in the woods today as I faced the sun, arms stretched out, bare feet sunk into the lovely warm sand, I realized what birth was.

If you accept the reality of this world as illusion, and manifestations of the soul through reincarnation as the reality, then our literal maternal birth is nothing more than a metaphor. I mean, how can a birth into an illusion be anything but a metaphor? We must be reborn throughout the entirety our lives. I mean, if we are lucky, we go along happily enough, until the world and our own ways and karma weigh us down, then Shiva leaps in to destroy us. He dances us into the ground, and then it is up to us whether or not we get up or stay down. It’s Shiva’s job to destroy us, it’s our job to get back up and be reborn… but he will help you if you choose to get back up… but you have to get back up. In my life Shiva has danced me to destruction and helped reestablish me in this illusion time and again, and each time, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, I have risen stronger than before. Finally, with the latest destructions I am slowly learning exactly what it means to see this “reality” as an illusion, and my attachment to it as a source of pain. I think I might just be beginning to become aware of the ultimate truth of “self.”

Listen, group, getting knocked down is easy, it’s getting back up, it’s birth and rebirth that is the ordeal. Birth is a trial, we come out all gooey, screaming, cold and naked with some weird thing hanging off our bellies… then all hell breaks loose and we have to figure our way through the maze of this grand illusion for eighty some-odd years. Yeah, birth is just that, a metaphor, not the grand arriving. Physical birth is what gives us the chance to continue our rebirths until we figure it all out and don’t have to be physically born again. So, why are we born? As a metaphor. We are born into this illusion as a metaphorical lesson. If you can survive that transition, you can survive any destruction and any rebirth.

“BILL MOYERS: What’s my ego?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: What I want, what I believe, what I can do, what I think I love, and all that. What I regard as the aim of my life and so forth. It might be too small. It might be that which pins you down. And if it’s simply that of doing what the environment tells you to do, it certainly is pinning you down. And so the environment is your dragon, as it reflects within yourself.”

Birth is an ordeal. Rebirth is no less an ordeal. At times at SAW, over the years, I have had students who said their SAW experience was life changing. Other students never fully engage in the full potential of the experience, others outright resist and refuse what the SAW experience can be at its best. It’s silly to set about “changing lives” as a mission, but when year after year students tell us how their year with us has changed their lives, it’s hard to not at the very least be aware of the potential responsibility. I tend to assume that people need to be reborn time and again, and that part of my job as a teacher is to dance them into oblivion once in a while, then extend my hand to see who wants to get up. In the getting up, one becomes bigger. It’s up to each person how they want to react to being danced upon. It’s not my karmic cross to bear to worry about how they will choose to respond, it’s both my job and karmic duty to dance. It’s not even my job to consider whether or not a student wants their life changed (sometimes, as Campbell said, what they want is not big enough), nor is it mine to consider whether or not they trust me enough to allow me to dance upon them, then help them up. It is my job to care, but it’s not my job to get them up, only to help them if they want reborn. One must, sometimes, be destroyed by their teachers if they are to be reborn, at least metaphorically.

I have been dancing, but I am growing tired.

Let’s take the dancing metaphor and tone it down a notch… every single year I have students who are not willing to empty their cups… so sometimes, I have to spill it for them. Year after year, a student or two might get really pissy when they get wet, but every year at the beginning of the year, I warn them that the students in the first few rows will get wet.

Getting back to having personal experience of a thing rather than taking anything on faith, well, that’s crucial to a student. Year after year I ask myself… do some of them actually believe I love bitching them out, or think that I love being frustrated, or that I’m so emotionally unhinged that I just can’t help myself? No, the point I make in class is… I can show you something, tell you something, but unless you go home and do it and do it and do it, you will have no personal experience of the thing. If you are not invested enough to dig in and do the thing in all earnestness, we are all wasting our time. Each year I have to push some of them to fulfill their end of this deal, it’s not fun, it’s painful, and it’s so damn messy! I make mistakes, some can’t take it, some rise to it, some are thankful, some wake up to it later… but boy, what a trial by fire as it’s all happening. How exhausting is all that? Though the question is rhetorical, I’ll answer it for my slower readers… It’s damn freaking exhausting… that’s how exhausting that is!

I’ve now sat out on my patio in my green lawn chairs, and am overlooking the lake, and feeling very one with it all. This ego babbling into the computer is, at least for now, only doing this, and doing so without distraction. I’ve already written my way through “Rubber Soul,” and am now working my way through “Venus and Mars,” and the birds are singing along in perfect harmony, and the eagles above the buzzing bumblebees are punctuating the rhythms like a 1976 horn section.

I haven’t really been noticing my tinnitus lately, nor barely noticing my floaters, nor my rattling inner dialog, which usually runs like a badly leaking fountain. I’m just here, like all the other eagles and birds, and the quieter the better, thank you very much.

And now I can see that the sun is getting lower, the air cooler, and I really want to get back out and think about nothing again. My center, it’s nowhere near this damn machine, is it?

“Beautiful!” Observed Molly Rose…

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Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine

Some of you may know, my best friend is 2 years and 6 months old. I just left her room, as tonight I got to put her to bed, as mommy and daddy are (still) out with their friends. As happened last time I put Molly Rose to bed, I laid down under a blanket beside her crib, her in her crib, the two of us side by side, talking, and she fell asleep holding my hand.

This is a friendship I could never have seen coming, but it may well be the deepest friendship I’ve ever had, if nothing else, it is certainly the most joyous and loving. A month or so ago I turned her on to the classic Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons, childhood favorites of mine. We sat together on the couch, her nestling in close against me, cuddly, and saying, “We’re friends!” Of course we are, my dear, the best of friends. She’s not always cuddly, she is, after all, a toddler, and is at times fiercely independent… which I encourage. Of course, I love it when she’s cuddly, but I love her no less when she isn’t. I let her lead. Tonight, she was unusually relaxed, cuddly, and easy to entertain.

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I had brought along McCartney’s splendid animated version of the great children’s book, “Tuesday,” promising her a cartoon with flying frogs in it. McCartney has done, I believe, 4 cartoons with this particular animation company, and “Tuesday” is by far the best, especially towards the end when he and Dustin Hoffman are doing the voices together. “Tuesday” is not only majestically and beautifully scored by McCartney, but it is one of his masterpieces as a producer of animation (the other being the far darker and far more experimental “Daumier’s Law”). Well, I’ve watched a lot of cartoons with Molly Rose, and I’ve known her since she was a baby, but this night she took me wholly by surprise. Firstly, she was positively enchanted by this charming cartoon, but she made an aesthetic observation that took my breath away. About mid-way through the cartoon, a lovely shot of a small town at sunset spread it’s sky blue-pink glory across the screen, and Molly simply said, “Beautiful!”

It was beautiful, but even more beautiful was not only hearing her say that, but realizing just how far she has come. It seems like just yesterday I felt so helpless, never knowing what she really wanted or needed as a helpless infant, and now here she was knowing that something, a work of art, was beautiful, and saying as much. This, to me, was the most magical moment I have observed in her development, other than the sarcastic and knowing smile she shot me last week.

Ah, last week, I had come over and she just wasn’t interested, had been sucked into a loop of YouTube videos that teach color and such. She was barely looking at me! Finally I announced to her dad, “Well, I guess if Molly Rose is going to watch “A C la” (that’s Molly Rose for watching YouTube), I’m going home.” I got up kissed her head, then sat down with her dad (Tom), and talked about how I was going to go now. Molly looked up from the computer, turned her head slowly towards me, and looked at me with the most sarcastic and knowing smile, then turned back to A C la. I said to Tom, “Did a toddler just call my bluff?”

Later that night, we could not get her to bed. The powers of Mom, Dad, and Justine combined could not get her to go to bed. Lately she has been sleeping with a golden murti of Ganesh in her crib, at least when I’m around, and she stares at Lord Ganesh and says, “I have Ganesh.” When I’m around, she’ll usually have a pair of my wrist bangles in her crib with her. That night I heard the rattle of them hitting the floor, as she often tosses things out, When I was called back in to try and get her to sleep, I figured I’d get my bangles up off the floor, but could only find one of them. I asked, “Where’d the other one go?” not at all thinking she knew, but she stood up in her crib and looked around, asking, “Where other go?” Neither of us could find it, I eventually decided this might be keeping her wound up, so I said, “It’s not important,” and went to her side, then I looked down at her wrist, she looked down at her wrist… there it was… my huge purple bangle on her wrist. At the same time we both looked up, our eyes connected, and we laughed together. For me, it has been beautiful to watch her develop so much that she is making aesthetic observations, giving me knowingly sarcastic looks, and getting jokes and funny situations.

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine 2

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine 2

And so it went tonight, I knew she just wasn’t going to be able to go to bed knowing her best friend was in the other room, so I set up my sleepover bedding beside her crib, settled in, and worked the electronic toy from her hand by giving her her Ganesh and telling her the story of how Ganesh banished the moon from the sky after the moon laughed at him for having eaten so much laddoo. I was surprised how engaged she was in a story that had no picture book to go with it, but I knew Molly loved the moon and Ganesh, and often asks “Where the moon go?” And that, of course, is part of the story of Ganesh and the moon… where’d the moon go, indeed!

She wound down after that, laid down close to the edge of her crib, I worked my hand into her crib, she took hold of my finger, her tiny fingers wrapped around my finger, and we talked, like any girls at a sleepover. She asked where daddy and mommy were, I told her they always come back. She said, “I always come back,” I told her yes, she does, she goes to daycare and comes back with mommy and daddy, she corrected me, saying, “daddy,” who usually is the one to bring her back. I told her I always come back and that everyone always comes back because they love her. I’ve been teaching her late sixties slang, so I said, “groovy,” to which she replied, “Groovy… right ON!” Then she reminded me we were best friends as I sang the same song my grandfather used to sing to my mother, “You are my sunshine.” Slowly, after a little more chat about Ganesh, best friends, and mommy and daddy, she changed position, took hold of my thumb, and drifted off to sleep. I looked in through the crib at her beautiful little face, and realized that I’ve rarely ever felt as good as I did in that moment.

It’s impossible to relate just how magical this friendship is. It’s impossible to express my joy at being loved and loving someone else with such purity of heart. And it’s far more impossible to describe the peace and contentment… and yet more impossible to express to anyone just how dear and beautiful she is to me.

And that, my friends, is what it’s like to have a best friend who is 2 years and 6 months old. Splendid… huh?

Ganesh, please take care of and bless my saawariya, my sone yaar… our Molly Rose.