Everyday Adventures

The Role that Travel Plays in a Creative Life

creative lifeI was bitten by the travel bug at a young age. My mom has told me numerous times about how strange it felt to put her 5-year old daughter on a bus to go to a weekend Brownie Camp. I was small and shy but there was no way I wasn't going on that trip. Since then I've spent summers living in Quebec, New York, and Edinburgh, driven from one end of the United States to the other and back again, and spent 10 months backpacking and learning to weave in Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia. These trips and others have provided more creative fuel than probably anything else I've done. I got the idea for my Edmonton postcards at breakfast place in New Orleans and I was inspired to start making paper mache organs after visiting a medical museum in Philadelphia. I started thinking about weaving at an art museum in Edinburgh, then went to South America with 'learn to weave' as my primary purpose and came home with the added benefit of understanding just how important creativity and making things was to me.

Why does travelling have such an impact on my creativity? In some ways it's the local culture that feeds me. Artists and artisans are influenced by and interested in different things in different parts of the world and seeing what else is out there has exposed me to new techniques, styles and subject matter. But even more important I think is the openness with which I visit these places. When I step into a gallery at home, it's usually in the context of my everyday life - it's a quick diversion from to-do lists and appointments and worries. I tend not to see things as clearly or be struck as deeply by what I do see. While travelling, though I often have a new set of worries on my mind, I tend to be more relaxed, and more engaged with my environment. Everything is new so everything demands my attention and there is a lot less everyday clutter to compete with for that attention.

Another reason that I'm more affected by what I see while travelling is that I am often alone. While I do love sharing my experiences with loved ones, there is a special sense of involvement that I get when I go alone. I am truly open to anything. In Edinburgh I visited their museum of history every few days and spent hours on each floor. There was no one to rush me, no one to influence my opinions. In South America I was free to follow any information or suggestion I received and wander without a plan. As a result, I just soaked it right up.

I'm not the only one who feels the special creative energy that comes from leaving home far behind. Many famous artists and writers (Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway are two often stated examples) added to their creative output while abroad. Several studies have explored the effects of "distance", whether psychological or geographical, on creativity. In one, the researchers gave participants a task - see how many methods of transportation they could come up with - and divided them into two groups. The first group was told that the task was created by local students and the second was told that it was created by students studying abroad in Greece. The group that thought the task came from Greece came up with many more methods than the local group. This kind of blew my mind a bit, and the way I interpret this study (in my very unscientific way) is to realize that you don't even have to go anywhere to gain the cognitive benefits of travel. Just thinking about another place seems to do the trick.

This is great news for those of us who aren't able to travel whenever we want. It's been well over two years since coming home from my last trip and I'm itching to get out and explore again, though I'm much more restricted financially than I have been in a long time. While I have my fingers crossed that I'll be able to go on a trip in the spring, I need to find ways to fill my creative tank now. If you're longing for a creative jolt but can't manage a big trip right now, here are some ideas to get you in a travelling frame of mind:

- Read novels or memoirs that take place in far away places. I just finished The Ghost Bride which is set in Malaysia, and while much of the book takes place in the afterlife, it filled me with plenty of intriguing images and ideas.

- Go on weekend trips. We live three hours from the Rocky Mountains and we try to get out there as often as possible to go back country camping. While I don't feel the buzz of stimulation that I do in a foreign city, being out in the wilderness calms my mind and body like nothing else and gives me space to think through problems.

- Explore your own city. Try new restaurants (especially ethnic ones), go to new neighbourhoods shop in stores you've never visited. I find that used bookstores, coffee shops, and small galleries tend to give me the biggest hit of creative energy.

- Look through photo albums and journals from past trips. While most of my trip photos are stored on my laptop, I did manage to make a beautiful album about Edinburgh, with photos, sketches, and postcards from museums. Flipping through this book brings me back to the feeling of wide open inspiration that I felt there.

These are just some of the ways that travel and travel substitutes impact my creative life. How does travel impact your creativity? What do you do when you can't get away?


How to Shop Like an Artist - Thrift Shopping Tips

thrift shopping  

I seriously love thrift shopping. My parents used to take me as a kid because we didn't have a lot of money but I had no idea that was the reason - I thought they were taking me on a fun adventure. I always had the weirdest clothes at school - but I also got the most compliments on how I dressed. I still buy 80% of my clothes second-hand. Partly because I work part-time and am trying to start my own business (read: I'm broke), but mostly because it still feels like an adventure.

Having done this for a couple decades now, I've learned a thing or to about how to do it well. By which I mean, how to choose the right things and not end up with a pile of crap that I'll never wear. I save money and dress just as well as people who buy all their clothes new. One of my greatest fashion achievements was when I was working in an office where everyone tried to look their best. Part of my job description involved being "put together from head to toe." One of the youngest, hippest staff members told me one day that I always dress really well. I told him that I buy most of my clothes secondhand and his draw dropped. That's right, just because you wear used clothing doesn't mean you have to look secondhand.

In fact, I've found that secondhand clothes often hold up better than new clothes. I bought a blouse at Anthropologie (a rare occurrence for me, and yes it was from the clearance rack) and after one wash it didn't sit right. Usually the clothes I bring home from Goodwill will last for years because they've already proven the the test of time - they held together long enough to be worn and given away.

If you want to give thrift shopping a try and aren't sure where to start, here are some of my fool-proof tips for getting the most out of a secondhand shopping spree:

1. Sneak up on the store. I find that the more I plan a trip in advance, the less likely I am to find something. It's like they see me coming. Those days when I quickly drop in between errands are when I find some of my best pieces. Try not to get too attached to the outcome. Sometimes you find amazing things, sometimes you don't - that's what makes it an adventure.

2. Choose the right store. Some secondhand stores are getting more and more expensive. If the quality of the clothes was improving that wouldn't be a big deal. But I often find a better selection at some of the cheaper stores and I would rather spend $6 than $15 on a secondhand skirt. It might take some exploring to figure out which stores consistently have a good selection. Here in Edmonton I've found the south side Goodwill rarely lets me down.

3. Don't get discouraged. Creativity thrives with constraints (don't believe me? check out this Ted Talk) and when shopping through other people's rejects, you're nothing if not constrained. I can't go into a Goodwill and come out with the latest trend by the latest designer. Instead, I might go with a colour palette in mind (jewel tones, or earthy colours, or vibrant spring colours), or a feeling (sentimental, edgy, delicate) and grab anything that catches my eye. Sometimes I look through fashion magazines or blogs to get ideas before I go, and sometimes I just think about what my closet is missing. Then I put myself at the mercy of the fashion gods and hope for the best.

4. Go with a purpose. Giant stores can be overwhelming, so if I don't have a lot of time I will limit myself to certain sections. If I need a blouse for work, or a cardigan, I will stick to those sections and leave the rest. It helps me focus when flipping through racks and racks of random items. I also try to set a budget to make sure I only buy what I really love.

5. Don't buy something unless it's in perfect condition. Watch for armpit or food stains, rips and tears (these can be sneaky and hard to spot), missing buttons, pilling, etc. Just because it's cheap doesn't mean it should be poor quality.

6. Don't buy anything that doesn't fit. Perfectly. Always try everything on and put back anything that doesn't look amazing. If you're like me, you won't alter it, it will just sit crumpled in a heap until you throw it out. Something that costs $6 is often not worth the effort of fixing.

7. Play the 'will I wear this?' game and be real with yourself. That's not to say you have to put back every amazing find that you have no immediate use for. I recently bought a purple corset-style top that I know I'll wear someday. Past finds include a 50's style dress that was my go-to costume for years, and a tweed cloak that turned into a fantastic Sherlock Holmes costume. But let these be the exceptions rather than the rule. Even $5 indulgences start to add up so be a little ruthless with yourself. On my last trip I let go of a beautiful skirt that fit me perfectly because I knew I would have a hard time figuring out what to pair it with and it would hang in my closet making sad eyes at me for years.

8. Wash everything before you wear it. This probably goes without saying, but you don't know where the clothes have been before you bought them and they usually have that musty thrift store smell that really won't add anything to your outfit.

Most importantly, have fun! Enjoy the thrill of the hunt - and the savings! Do you have any tried-and-true thrift shopping secrets? Leave a comment below!




Learning DSLR Photography: Chocolate

I'm stepping out of my comfort zone again to show you another experiment with DSLR photography. I interviewed a local chocolatier (the blog post will be published here soon) and she gave me a box of chocolates to try. More beautiful than most, these chocolates lend themselves to photography thanks to their vibrant colours and unique shapes and textures. They taste pretty good too! Here's the story of a beautiful box of chocolates told in pictures.

DSLR photography - chocolate

Even the box is beautiful. It's inviting me in...

DSLR photography - chocolate

This is the magical view you get when you open the box.

DSLR photography - chocolate

Contemplating the chocolates...

DSLR photography - chocolateDSLR photography - chocolate

I love reading the descriptions. They really make the flavours come alive.

DSLR photography - chocolateDSLR photography - chocolateDSLR photography - chocolateDSLR photography - chocolate

Time to try the first one!

DSLR photography - chocolate

That's cassis coulis (like blackcurrant jam) and white ganache (chocolate mixed with cream). Yum!

DSLR photography - chocolate

And this one is pistachio!

DSLR photography - chocolate

Just one left! Yes I ate them all in one sitting.

DSLR photography - chocolate

All gone! Feeling a little sick...

What did I learn?

  • That I need more lighting than I think I do. Even with big windows I realized I could have used a lamp or two since most of these turned out too dark and I had to use editing software to brighten them up.
  • Take more pictures! Try more things! I wish I had turned the box around to get it from the other side, that I had taken the chocolates out of the cups, and that I had captured more of the insides of the chocolates. I could have photographed my messy fingers too!
  • Can I turn the camera more? Almost all the pictures are the same direction. They work, but it would have been good to try the other way too.
  • Need to be more careful about focus - I use automatic focus and sometimes I don't love where it chooses to focus. I need to pay more attention to that.

Have an idea about how I could have made these pictures better? Leave a comment! Let me know what you've learned about digital photography.


Learning DSLR Photography: The Orchid Show

Orchid 8I bought by first DSLR camera in January and I'm slowly learning how to use it. I'd like to do a regular series where I talk about what I'm learning and share some of my photos. If there are any seasoned photographers out there it would be great to know what you think!

The Orchid Show

An annual event put on by a group of orchid enthusiasts, this year the show was held in a beautiful greenhouse outside the city - a big improvement from last year's school gymnasium. Since this was my second time attending I had an idea of what to expect, but was still blown away by the incredible variety of colours and shapes that these plants manage to create. There's so much to look at it can be overwhelming, and hard to decide what to take pictures of. I decided to jump right in, shooting anything that caught my eye - and there was a lot! It took some patience since the place was pretty crowded and everyone had a camera of some kind (most people were using their phones). I gave myself permission to take my time, fiddling with settings and trying different angles, often taking a dozen shots of the same flower. My patience paid off - I was really happy with how a lot of the shots turned out. I've shared some of my favourites, as well as some tips that I learned along the way.

Orchid 2

Playing with Depth of Field

Back in University I took a photography class and, though we used film cameras (I'm not that old, we were already well into the digital age, but the instructors thought we would get a better grasp of the medium if we used film and developed it ourselves), the basic concepts are still the same. Working with a shallow depth of field was always my favourite thing to do. This is when the subject of the photo is sharply in focus and the rest of the picture is blurred away. It's fun to play around with isolating a very specific part of the image, especially when working with something as intricate as an orchid. It really makes them pop out of the busy background of flowers and people. For most of these I used the Aperture Priority setting on my camera, which lets me choose the f-stop and depth of field, while the camera chooses all the other settings. I used the biggest aperture that I could to really zoom in on the delicate details.

Orchid 3

What Deleting Taught Me

While shooting the pictures was a great experience, I definitely learned more when I loaded them up on my computer and went through them all, deleting the ones I didn't like. It was really interesting to see which ones grabbed my attention and which fell flat. Here are a few of the things I noticed:

1) Though I won't pretend that I did it on purpose, I love how some of the flowers are crisply in focus, while others gradually fade away, like the one above. This is something I would like to play with more intentionally.

Orchid 4

2) I definitely could have played more with angles. On the few that I did have multiple angles, it was easier to choose a great picture. Next time I'll try to remember to get below the subject, above it, and look at it from all sides. The best part of digital is that I can take as many pictures as my memory card can hold and I intend to take advantage of that.

Orchid 5

3) I need to pay more attention to overall composition, and especially what's in the background. This kind of thing is really easy for me to see after I've taken the shot, but I don't see as clearly when I'm actually composing it. The only thing I was really thinking about was using the rule of thirds (imagining lines breaking the canvas into thirds horizontally and vertically and lining the subject up with those imaginary lines). This definitely helped, but there was more to consider. Like whether a piece of the flower was cut off, whether there were people in the background or more flowers (even when they're supper blurry, flowers look better than people in the case, and both look better than black display fabric). In the future I would also like to play more with lines, using stems and leaves to guide the eye through the picture.

Orchid 6

4) While I definitely got some shots with good contrasting colours, this will be fun to play with some more. Again this comes down to more carefully composing the shot, and training my eye to see things in the real world that would stand out in a photo.

Orchid 7

A lot of the photos looked overexposed on the screen so I was breaking out the manual mode to try and correct that. Turns out they were just fine and my adjustments meant some of them ended up being too dark. Oh well! Overall I had a really great time and am surprised at how well some of these turned out. I was able to edit some of the ones that didn't turn out so well - but I'll save that for another post about editing once I've had more practice. I can't wait for my next photo shoot!

Orchid 1

I'd love to hear about your experiences with DSLR photography. What are some of your favourite subjects to shoot? What are some common challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Why Winter is One of my Favourite Seasons

Up here at latitude 53 winters are cold and dark. Some might say brutal. I say beautiful.

snow sculpture

I'm not afraid to say it. I love winter. I can't get enough of the smooth white piles, the empty white fields, the crisp blue skies, and soft pink sunrises. I find that every winter I find more and more ways to get outside and enjoy it. Here are a few things that made me love this winter in particular:


Earlier this month, Matt and I were sure to check out a festival we loved last year: The Flying Canoe adventure. Can't get much more Canadian than this. The festival is based on Metis and Aboriginal legends and takes place in and around a ravine after dark. The steep, icey paths are lit by intricately carved lanterns, and you're likely to run into some lost voyageurs paddling their canoes, or a pack of wolves. With storytelling, fires to warm by, bannock to cook, musical performances, dancing, and awe-inspiring lighting installations, it's really not surprising that the festival draws such a large crowd, even in the depth of a -25 (C) February night. The sense of magic in the air was palpable as we crossed the frozen creek towards a giant teepee, lit up against the city skyline, or followed a trail through the woods to look at a series of art installations: from a collection of glowing, hanging ice balls to twisting woven wire that evoked the northern lights.

flying canoe


More recently I tried winter camping for the first time: something I honestly thought I would never do. I loved clearing a space in the waist deep snow for our fire - it felt like being back in elementary school and building snow forts, only this was real life and what we were building would keep us warm and happy. The quiet in the woods at this time of year is unreal. Even compared to summer camping when there are usually birds, water running, wind in the leaves. Here there was nothing. We built a lean-to, gathered spruce bows to sleep on, gazed up at the full moon, and sang around the fire after the sun went down. While I won't pretend that I was completely comfortable the whole time, I did feel strong and capable, and had a lot of fun, and I loved every minute of our walk back to the truck, with sunlight gleaming off the snowy trees.

Trapper's tent


I managed to get out snowboarding twice this year, which is a big accomplishment for me. The first time we went to a local hill where the flat prairie drops down as it approaches the river. Every time we rode the chairlift I soaked in the sun warming my face and lighting up the never-ending fields around us. The second time we bused out to the Rockies for a day at Lake Louise. We got a few brief glimpses of the mountains before the snow started to fall and completely obscured any view. While visibility was not so great, the fresh snow felt amazing under my new snowboard. Even falling was more fun as the soft powder just went flying on impact.

I also tried cross-country skiing for the first time. I took a lesson with my family and we really felt like troopers since it was -35! Once I got moving I barely felt the cold. It was just me and snow and the strange swoosh sound the skis make. I loved it.

This winter I learned that the weather doesn't have to impact what activities I do or don't do. If it's 20 below I just put on warmer socks and more layers. If it's windy I make sure my face is covered. Sitting at home feeling sad about the weather does not make for a fun time. Instead I focused on the beauty to be seen, the new skills to be learned, and the adventures to be had. And the rewards? Satisfaction, inspiration, joy, exercise, greater confidence, and so so so much fun.

If you live in a northern latitude what do you do to make the most of the winter months? Leave a comment below.

White beard