“I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”

—Jean-Michel Basquiat

For the past couple months, I’ve had the pleasure of working in one of the best studios I’ve ever had: spacious, light-filled, plenty of walls. Formerly a two-car garage, it’s now where I make my art.

When painting, I always listen to music, flipping between Spotify and my vinyl records from college. Anything from Mozart to the Clash—whatever suits my mood. I play loud, for there’s nobody around to be disturbed—I live surrounded by woods.

The music clears my head from thinking too much about making art.

French painter Georges Braque once said, “It is the act of painting, not the finished painting” that matters. Jean-Michel Basquiat, quoted above, had the same approach, and it’s mine as well: I go to my studio more to breathe and be than produce.

I get to breathe every day.

How lucky I am.

Tuesday was Election Day. I drove to my town’s polling station, cast my vote, and at the exit passed a gauntlet of folks seeking signatures in support of various causes. I spoke with each, signing their petitions. One person was collecting signatures to gather a show of support from residents ahead of her organization (Healthy Kids) going before town officials to seek a supplemental grant. With a mission “to encourage, support and promote healthy families” and “to prevent child abuse and neglect,” Healthy Kids needed a relatively small amount to build better online resources to serve local families (Covid continues to present challenges).

Having once run a non-profit myself, I felt a flare of empathetic frustration, thinking of these hardworking folks trying to do right by young people in my new hometown ensnared by local government bureaucracy. Because at that moment I knew I could help, I decided I would. I made what was for me a large financial contribution as soon as I got home.

I felt like a citizen.

Holding and releasing. Living inward and looking outward. Taking care of myself and tending to others—these are poles I navigate.

There is so much hardship. So much for us to carry—to rise from—to do for ourselves as well as for others. I oscillate (side to side, up and down) across that sweet spot of repose between self and community. Balance seems a chimera; arrival fleeting.

In trying to figure out the harmony of it all, I know I am not alone.

In a few days, I will be part of a program presented by Reimagine called Phoenix Rising: Models of Grief, Growth, and Action. My friends Ashley Minner (who I write about below) and Kondwani Fidel will join me online, and we’ll talk with our audience too about their own lives and situations. One of the things I hope to share during the event is all I get from being in the studio. How out of that process I somehow find healing, land on gratitude, shape my intentions for how to be in this world—and how actions follow.

To share how in all my studio’s imperfect vibration—in my music and thought—I am forever learning the art of living.

Of being and giving.


Ashley Minner

“Always made with love, my art seeks to be a vehicle and catalyst for healing, reconciliation, and hope.”

—Ashley Minner

Made with tender care, the book is bound with even-handed stitching, its warm-white cover bare but for the careful cursive words occupying the lower right hand corner, spelling out the work’s title:

11 years,
135 months,
and 4,102 days

“I was in an artist book class in 2005. That’s when I made it,” she recalls. “I was thinking about my uncle Jim.”

Jim had died before Ashley came into the world (the title refers to the time between the two events). Though Ashley never knew her uncle, she grieved him nonetheless.

“I had grown up hearing stories about him,” she says. “It hadn’t occurred to me to ask where he was until I was in middle school. I was told he had died long before I was born, and I was devastated—I cried all day.” Suddenly, there was a chasm there.

It’s a chasm her work names—and overcomes.

The book’s interior includes her uncle’s Merchant Marine card affixed to one page, a photo of Ashley superimposed over half of Jim’s headshot image. The two become one person: connected.

“It was like our faces matched.”

With this art—in this gesture—Ashley offers an alternative to the reality of physical separation.

“I may have never known my uncle,” says Ashley, “but I feel he is very much with me all the time anyway.”

An enrolled member in the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Ashley grew up in a household steeped in a legacy of reminiscence. A large contingent of Lumbees moved to East Baltimore following World War II, including Ashley’s maternal grandfather. Additionally, the rest of Ashley’s non-Native-American family left behind lives and pasts when they too came to Baltimore from the South two generations ago.

“I can’t imagine being so deeply rooted in a place—all the people and things you know—and then having to make the decision to go so far away to live. I grew up with my family always talking about where our people are buried, what they used to do, the funny stories, the sad ones, how people died.”

Remembering, honoring, celebrating—these are ways to challenge the seeming evanescence of our connection to our ancestors and lost loved ones.

And so is making art, as Ashley discovered in college.

“Everything I made was the same theme. We’d be given a prompt in class, and always the idea of paying tribute seemed so important—marking the fact that loved ones are with us even if they’re not physically present; giving a shape to the absence.”

Ashley’s website is replete with projects extending upon what she first began doing years ago as a shy young art student: Trace: The Presence of Absence, an undertaking “to honor the continuous presence of loved ones in the things and spaces that remain”; Lumbee Oral Histories, an ongoing initiative “to record oral histories of Lumbee elders”; Exquisite Lumbees, a portrait project in which Ashley and others give “viewers a glimpse into our hopes for one other and depths of ourselves.”

To be sure people are seen and connected, and do not disappear—that is Ashley’s purpose as an artist.

“I’m interested in making obvious both our humanity and our divinity, as well as the fact we are all related.”

Her heritage of nostalgia has made Ashley who she is—it is the wellspring of her identity as an artist, and of the work she does beyond her studio, such as writing about community cohesion, and restoring memory and preserving history in her leadership role in her tribe. In all of it, there is resistance to time’s scattering effect. In reaching and binding across time, she bridges gaps and illuminates our abiding bonds.

For her the stakes are high, the work as sacred as laying flowers at a grave: it must be done with tender care and loving respect.

Ashley takes on the weightiness of death and departure, and through her art offers the lift of hope—not only for her, but for us as well, for we each inhabit a world rife with apartness and pain. For me, the redeeming promise of 11 years, 135 months, and 4,102 days is that, no matter how wide the chasm of time, my future grandchildren will know and love their aunt, my dear Elisif.

And that is balm to my grieving heart.

Dr. Ashley Minner is a community-based artist and folklorist in Baltimore currently working as Assistant Curator for History and Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. On Monday, November 15, 8:00 P.M., Ashley joins Peter in the online event Phoenix Rising: Reimagine Grief, Growth and Action, and on Monday, November 22, 6:00 P.M., she participates in the virtual launch of the Guide to Indigenous Baltimore, an app that is the culmination of a mapping project Ashley began working on in 2016—you can contact Ashley to learn more and for details on how to register.


One of multiple drawings from a series I’ve worked on the past several years, “Hello” is about the moment when everything changed for me—and the first in a sequence of drawings I think of as memoir works.

My writing and images. My experiences and recollections.

To make this art has been cathartic for me—healing. From it, I have grown.

This drawing (“Hello”) is one of the simpler ones from the group: no writing beyond the first line of that impossible phone call. The image too is straightforward; blue and tumbling, topsy-turvy—the sensation of free-fall after such a call.

I’d like to exhibit the series together some time, though presently I know neither how nor when. I believe others can gain something from seeing it: a recognition, a being seen. Shared (and therefore diminished) pain. A moment of serenity.

Greater acceptance of what is—a prelude to healing.


November 2021

Phoenix Rising: Reimagine Grief, Growth and Action

On Monday, November 15, 8:00-9:30 p.m. EST, Peter is joined by Kondwani Fidel and Ashley Minner for Phoenix Rising: Reimagine Grief, Growth and Action, an event presented by Reimagine as part of its fall Reimagine: Grief, Growth and Action series. Free and open to all, you can register for the event here.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we are now offering a work of art by Peter. This drawing pre-dates Beyond Beautiful: 1,000 Love Letters, but with it and other related 2016 works Peter first began integrating writing with abstract imagery. It can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.