#MakersMonday: Reta Evens Simons

Today’s maker has been a storied presence in my life since before my memory began. She entered the world as a wheat-farmer’s daughter on the Canadian prairie, and she came south to Pennsylvania on the smallest of chances – her father said she could go to school in America if it rained at harvest time. Many years later, she wrote the story of her life, naming it for that rain.

My grandmother’s expressive face on the cover of her memoir.

After the rain, after a long journey by train and years of schooling and servanthood in America, she married my grandfather Keneth. My father was their first child.

I remember a photo of Reta on my grandfather’s desk. It was probably taken in her 40s or 50s, on a visit to her brothers who were still on the farm in Alberta. In the photo, she’s standing near the grain elevator, wearing a cotton blouse and skirt. Perhaps she held a hat, or a purse, but what I remember about the photo is her hands. They looked just like my father’s hands, larger than I expected, veined, strong and capable. Reta could do almost anything with those hands.

She taught herself patternless dressmaking. My parents have a beautiful photograph of her wearing a blue evening gown, exquisitely tailored, with a blue satin train, that she designed and sewed. Dad told us stories of a dress she dyed, carefully shading the color from a deep violet at the hem that faded by degrees until it was so pale it was almost white at the top. Imagine that shading process – what a good eye she had, and a steady hand.

Reta taught herself to paint, too. Everyone in the family has at least one of her oil paintings, or a water color. Here is mine.

We also have things Reta embroidered. I have two cushions with birds embroidered on them – currently packed away because the corgi does not share my respect for heirloom embroidery. Another piece she embroidered hung on the wall in my parents’ house. The quote, as it turns out, is originally attributed to a Quaker missionary. I saw it on our wall, in her graceful stitching, every day of my life. That made it hers.

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Etienne de Grellet, QUAKER MISSIONARY

Farm girl that she was, Reta also had a way with little animals, and she raised more than one abandoned baby squirrel. Just this year, an aunt sent me an old home-movie clip, with no sound, of my grandmother playing with one of these babies. It struck me, watching it, that it’s the only time I’ve seen her alive, in motion, more like the person Dad remembered with such affection. Reta died of cancer just a few months after I was born.

But of all the things she made, my father was the best. Reta raised a good man, brilliant, kind, appreciative. Like her, he strove to do all the good he could. He never forgot he could live each day only once.

At Reta’s graveside, the presiding minister read the parable of the talents, ending with “Well done, good and faithful servant.” God bless her, entering into the joy of her Lord.

#MakersMonday: An interview with Kristina Tartara

I’m more than usually excited about this #MondayMakers interview because Kristina Tartara is the illustrator for St Ia Rides a Leaf, the board book we just contracted with St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press! Kristina and I met at a conference, bonded over our shared love of guinea pigs (because all right-thinking people love these little creatures), and we are truly enjoying our first professional collaboration. Kristina works hard. She’s always learning, always polishing her work, always growing in her art. I respect that. As always on #MakersMonday, I’m asking 5 questions. Here’s Kristina, with her answers!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I am a children’s book author, illustrator, and graphic designer. In the Orthodox world, I authored two board books (What Do You See at Liturgy & What Can I Do at Divine Liturgy) as well as a matching game (My Orthodox Matching Game). The illustrations were photographs because I wanted children to see other kids participating in the Divine Liturgy. If children are able to practice how to do things at home, then they will be better able to participate at church. The books also show things that they would see around the church to help them learn church vocabulary and spark interest in the world around them. In the near future, I’m hoping to create other Orthodox things to sell on my Etsy shop, such as gifts and greeting cards with my illustrations. I have a blog where I post activities for young children that have an Orthodox lesson. 

In the secular world, I’ve illustrated four books that were authored by someone else. These will be published in the late spring/early summer. I’m also scheduled to illustrate 2 Orthodox books this year, so keep an eye out for those.

How did you learn to do this kind of work?

Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve wanted to write and illustrate children’s books! When I went to college, I ended up studying early childhood education, even though I always wanted to write and illustrate. That might seem backwards to some people, but having training in education helps me understand how to support readers through the illustrations and text. I’m so glad I did it. 

In the past, I would research publishing, and I thought I would never be able to do it. Everything seemed too difficult and too competitive. Then life took a turn I didn’t expect. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that left me struggling to use my hands, and my brain was a mess. As part of my recovery, I read that it helps to learn something new to retrain the brain. I took a colored pencil class at a local art studio, and I haven’t stopped creating since then. Getting sick was the most difficult thing I’ve been through, but it motivated me to do what makes me feel fulfilled – draw. Be grateful for the struggles you are faced with and find ways to use them to glorify God. We only live once, so go for it. Do what you always wanted to do even if you might fail or it seems difficult. 

What do you find satisfying about being a “maker”?

In every job I’ve had, all I could think about was creating. I love being able to say – I have to work which means I’m drawing all day. I want to create things that have a positive message and help kids learn about the world around them. 

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

My favorite memory is probably with my grandma. She’d buy crafts and have them waiting for me when I visited. She also had a bunch of DIY craft magazines from the 50s that showed how to upcycle used items into something else. I loved looking at them and trying to make things out of nothing. She knew I loved crafts and always encouraged me to be creative. 

Share a photo of a favorite piece, and tell us the story that goes with it.

[Melinda’s note: Kristina gave me several pieces to choose from, and I did – I chose all of them!]

Here is some art from my colored pencil class. This one is actually graphite. It is of my Papou. My grandparents suffered a lot during WWII in Greece, yet they never stopped praying and believing in God. Their example is what carried me through my illness. 


And here is one of St. Basil’s in Russia. It is such a beautiful church and maybe one day I will get to see it in person. 🙂 

The jaguar is looking to the future with hope in his eyes. There’s always hope even when you think you’re lost. 

Thank you, Kristina!

You can see more of Kristina’s art, including her adorable illustrations for children, by viewing her portfolio HERE.

I’ll be sharing Kristina’s work as the illustrations for St. Ia Rides a Leaf develop. She’s crafting the storyboard this week, and I can’t wait to see it!

#MakersMonday: An Interview with Pelikan Icons

My #MakersMonday guest today is an iconographer! Elina of Pelikan Icons and I have met in real life at conferences, and we’ve known each other online for years now. I’ve seen her dancing and art-journaling and book reviewing, but the craft she’s sharing today might be the crown jewel of her skills. As always, I’m asking 5 questions, and Elina is answering, with words and pictures!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I am an Orthodox artist, and my most important work is as a byzantine iconographer, which is what I’m mainly talking about today.  Along with digital art and various forms of art, I produce icons of all sizes in various mediums for homes and churches. Iconography is unlike any artform I have ever worked with, as it is more than just the paint and board or canvas that I am working with; it truly becomes a window to something deeper and greater, a cooperation with God and His saints.  In visual art I used to feel most fulfilled when sculpting – I love working in 3 dimensions, but in iconography the third dimension is the very real and present spiritual dimension. 

How did you learn to do this kind of work?

Ideally iconography would be learned by spending years as an apprentice to a master iconographer, but in North Carolina, that’s simply not available.

I began learning about the process of creating icons before I converted to Orthodoxy, learning from others intrigued by this ancient artform, and eventually flying to Greece to learn from a master for a few weeks while my first child was 8 months old.  I took her with me and my amazing mother in law came and spent time with her while I worked. It was an incredible trip. After converting, amid having 3 more kids to add to my 2, I was blessed with several opportunities to learn from other masters, including my most influential teacher and favorite living iconographer – Daniel Neculae.  Traditional byzantine icons are made with egg tempera on laboriously prepared icon boards, so the process is very specific and rather difficult, but intensely satisfying.

What do you find satisfying about being a maker?

Creation!!  Iconography is interesting because it is not creative in the same way as the other artforms that I do.  I’m not trying to innovate, to make something uniquely mine – quite the opposite. My goal is to take what has been handed down and reproduce it, but the process is nothing short of life-changing.  

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

I think my favorite memories are from the courses, where I’m spending 8+ hours working on the craft under the direction of a true master.  My first course with Daniel was strikingly different from other classes where they spent a lot of time talking – we spent more time doing. The thing that struck me was that at the end of the course, the internal change I felt was even deeper, as if the lines themselves of these holy faces were writing their way into my very person.

Share a photo of a favorite piece, and tell us the story that goes with it.

This is a difficult one, because my first impulse is to choose the icon from my first course with Daniel – of my patron saint, Archangel Gabriel – because the course was so moving, but I think I’m going to have to choose my largest work – the icon of the Theotokos hanging behind our

altar at St Raphael Orthodox Church in Fuquay Varina – my home parish.  Being asked to do the icons for my parish was a great honor, and also something very intimidating.  These are icons that I see multiple times a week, and they are the faces that surround me as I enter into worship.  This particular icon was not only my largest work, but several other firsts. It was my first time practicing marouflage, which is the technique of affixing paintings on canvas to the wall with paste.  The icon is 11 feet tall, and was primarily painted in my living room which is only 8 feet tall, so naturally it was quite a challenge. To add to that, I am not normally allowed behind the altar, so to spend the time back there when I was installing it, to be high on a ladder (I don’t love heights, tall as I may be) was memorable to say the least.  It was also my first time applying gold leaf to canvas, and to do so vertically, on a ladder, behind the altar made it even more exciting. I felt very solidly God’s help and the help of the saints (as I was constantly asking their help) as well as the prayers of my church family, and it was clearly something bigger than just me and my art, and that is really I think what makes iconography my favorite artform – the participation in the divine.  This is present every time I create, but uniquely here in the sacred work of iconography.

#MakersMonday: Interview with The Cross Stitcher

When I was in second grade, I was given a cross-stitch project as a birthday present. It was a little prayer with Noah’s-Ark-themed ornamentation around the edges like a frame. I still have it. It’s still not finished. It is therefore with great respect and delight that I introduce you to Natalie at The Cross Stitcher, who not only begins to embroider, but finishes!

Tell us about your work. What do you create?

I’m a fiber artist! I create faith-inspired, contemporary embroidery art and weavings for the home. That’s a fancy way of saying, I stitch and weave crosses, which is exactly how the name, The Cross Stitcher, came to be. However, now everyone thinks I cross-stitch instead of embroider, (*face palm*). That’s what I get for trying to be punny! I also create Pascha basket covers, enamel pins, stickers and offer DIY step-by-step embroidery kits in my shop so that YOU can learn the beautiful art of embroidery as well!

HOw did you learn to do this kind of work?

Art has always been a very important part of my life. In my free time in college, you could often find me drawing or painting. There was a class in high school called “textile arts”. The name alone just sounded so intriguing. The class was full, and I wasn’t able to get in. Since then, I’d always wanted to try my hand at something with fibers. They just seemed so fun! I was drawn to the idea that you could actually touch your medium and constantly work with it in your hands. After a quick trip to Michael’s to buy some supplies, I started searching for videos of how to embroider. Everything I learned about embroidery and weaving, I learned from the internet! It didn’t take long for me to realize, “wait a minute…this is JUST like drawing or painting!” There’s still the basic concept of blending colors and filling in lines. Once I made that connection, I was off to the races.

Weaving came a little bit later. I had received a lap loom for Christmas 2016. However, I wanted to focus primarily on embroidery and starting my shop. When I get into something, I get INTO IT, so I actually asked my parents to keep it at their home until I was ready to use it, because I knew it would be too big of a temptation at my own place! Two years, 1 cat, 1 marriage, and a move to another state later, the loom made the long-awaited journey from Tennessee to Pennsylvania. I’ve been weaving for a little over a year now!

What do you find satisfying about being a “maker”?

Oh man, EVERYTHING. One of the reasons I started this business was because I couldn’t stop making things. Which is cool, until you have 40+ pieces of your own work in your small apartment…then it’s creepy. But, I just have this innate desire to create. It’s how I express my thoughts and emotions and relate to the environment around me. One day, I realized how truly thankful I am for this drive and ability to create. That’s when the idea of The Cross Stitcher, came to me. I wanted to do something that was an offering back to God, of the talents He’s given me, and to do so in a way that is glorifying to Him. That’s why almost every piece depicts the cross and why I designed the business to also function as a ministry, with 10% of all profits going directly to the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).

I incorporate so much color and boldness into every design, because I want to create pieces that resonate with both Christians and non-Christians alike. We are designed to appreciate beauty, and for some, I feel like this is a good common-ground starting place for understanding our faith.    

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

I love knowing who these pieces are going to. A woman recently commissioned an embroidery for her mother and she told me that when she opened it, she cried. It’s moments like that, that I can’t really fathom. It was a Latin cross with butterflies around it, and it touched her in a uniquely special way. Or when a Matushka with small children says that she’s been saving to purchase a piece for herself. It’s hard to wrap my head around someone wanting to do that with my work. Or to give it as a Christmas present. It’s moments like that, that are extremely humbling and help me to remember that my hands are merely the vessel, the means to do the work, all the beauty and inspiration behind the piece comes from God.

SHARE A PHOTO OF A FAVORITE PIECE, AND TELL US THE STORY THAT GOES WITH IT.

This was a piece I made during the Christmas break of 2017. I didn’t have much time to stitch the previous semester due to a heavy course load, and I was so excited to finally create again. These are the times when I feel like I am most creative. I started with my familiar outline of the Byzantine cross, but instead of stitching flowers on the outside like I normally do, I broke out the watercolors. There was no plan of what flowers to put where, or how the cross itself should look. I just started creating. This type of process is what gives me life as a creator and keeps me constantly excited about my work, Glory to God!

#MakersMonday: An Interview with Daniel

Today’s guest on #MakersMonday practices the fascinating and ancient art of wood carving. Daniel designs and creates in his shop, Candelar, in the north of England, and we connected during an artisan’s event sponsored by the Ancient Faith Store. As always, I’m asking 5 questions. Here’s how Daniel responded.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK.WHAT DO YOU CREATE?

I am Daniel Mihailescu, an Orthodox Romanian artisan living in the UK, where, by God’s mercy and providence, I own a small workshop specialised in the design and manufacture of liturgical objects.

HOW DID YOU LEARN TO DO THIS KIND OF WORK?

By trade I am a naval design engineer, and so I was blessed to have the design skills needed for the production of crosses, icons, vigil lamps, and other such wood-carved products.

WHAT DO YOU FIND SATISFYING ABOUT BEING A “MAKER”?

Having the freedom to work from home or in my workshop, in my own time, surrounded by beautiful people, all artisans in wood carving, pottery, music or painting, makes me happy, peaceful, and I love being a ‘maker’.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY ASSOCIATED WITH PRACTICING YOUR CRAFT?

My favourite memory is about Father Paul from Australia. On many occasions we add a thank-you item in the order shipment, and I remember thinking that Father Paul would definitely like one of our blessing crosses. As it happened, a few days after shipping the parcel to Australia, Father Paul emailed us saying that he would like to order a blessing cross!

SHARE A PHOTO OF A FAVORITE PIECE, AND TELL US THE STORY THAT GOES WITH IT.

“Have faith and wholeheartedly trust God Who will never abandon those who Love Him”—these words belong to Saint Cuthbert, “the wonderworker of the English land”, who was born in Northumbria around 634.

Saint Cuthbert possessed a rare spirit of endless love of God, of people and of every single creature of God. He had kindness, great compassion and zeal in preaching the Gospel; for his humility and loving heart, the Lord bestowed on Cuthbert the gifts of prayer, miracles, prophecy, and clairvoyance.

Father Justin from the “Orthodox Church of Saint Cuthbert and Saint Bede” in Durham suggested a beautiful oak blessing cross to honour Saint Cuthbert and we are grateful to God for the result.

Thank you, Daniel!

You can connect with Daniel and see his beautiful work at Candelar.co.uk.

#MakersMonday: An Interview with Amber

My spirit animal is something that flies around the forest, telling all the other animals good news. It’s one of my favorite things in life – having good news and the opportunity to share it. The #BlogtownTuesday mini-interviews I’m sharing introduce people I connect with in my social blogging experiment. Today, I’m starting a second series, #MakersMonday, introducing creative people making lovely and interesting things. My first guest is Amber, at Streams in the South. I’ll ask my #MakersMonday guests 5 questions. Here’s how Amber responded.

Tell us about your work.What do you create?

I can make all sorts of things, but I have chosen to focus on machine embroidery for Streams in the South. Machine embroidery is a quick way to customize an existing object or make a new one. It enables me to support both Orthodox embroidery designers and folks who sew, which helps the creative community.

How did you learn to do this kind of work?

In 2012 I created a blog called 50 First Crafts. I started the year with woodworking and tried so many different craft techniques. I met local makers and tried things I had never even heard of before. I loved it. I took a class on machine embroidery that year at a local maker space, then a friend gifted me her unused embroidery machine and the rest is history.

What do you find satisfying about being a “maker”?

I love making things. If I could I would make everything that I use on a daily basis. The most satisfying thing about being a maker is knowing that my items are of use to people. I still use some of the things I made for the blog, and I hope they last long into the future.

What’s your favorite memory associated with practicing your craft?

My favorite memory of crafting in general is when I was a child my mom would sit in our big rocking chair and crochet blankets while I learned alongside her. With the embroidery machine it is the time that I brought it to our parish craft fair and let the children choose what designs and colors to embroider on the items I was making for sale. I hope it inspired them to try making some of the things they use in their own homes.

Share a photo of a favorite piece, and tell us the story that goes with it.

My photo (below) is the back of a Pascha basket cover that I made last year. The linen is from a set of vintage napkins that I found at a thrift store. They are gorgeous and soft. The design is by a Russian woman who has the most beautiful and elegant historical reproduction embroidery designs for sale. I wish I could make everything she releases! The photo shows the back because I was in awe of the detail she put into her design. The back is possibly more beautiful than the front. The whole piece ends up looking and feeling like an heirloom even as I am working on it. I like to imagine it being handed down from a grandmother to her grandchildren and all of the Pascha memories it may one day hold.