Have you ever looked back on your life’s collection of experiences and opportunities and wondered how things would be different if they hadn’t occurred? Most often, almost always, I have the ‘if one door closes, another opens’ mentality. That is, we can learn life’s lessons and insights about ourselves via multiple paths.

There are a few times in my life though, where I know without a shadow of a doubt that it was a one-time offering. A ‘take it or leave it’ proposition. Ilene is one of those times. I knew it the first time I went to art class in 1994. I can’t recall why I ventured there. Was someone else going that encouraged me or had I just heard about it long enough from others and decided to act? I can’t put my finger on it. I do know though, that after those first few classes I felt expanded. My world of resources, explorations, and teachers had broadened.

I don’t recall how long I went to her class that first go-round. A few years maybe. I do remember the pieces I created. A girl leaping off the ground in pastels, a bright purple and green lily with a woman coming up out of the center, a mountain scene with a hummingbird hovering in front, each piece a little larger than the last. Years later all three of those creations were brought to a second-hand store when I was cleaning out a closet and moving on with other endeavors. I wish I had them now. Wonder who does. I’m certain I didn’t even sign them, not quite ready to stake claim to what I had created, what was within me.

I recall once describing to Ilene the feeling of heaviness I would experience in my arms when it came time to create, like energy was flowing down from my heart and neck into them to the point that they felt like clubs throbbing with pulses of intensity. And I recall her response. She said that there was so much energy in and around me that she wasn’t sure why I didn’t simply explode right there on the spot. Indeed! I needed to let the intensity flow out onto canvas to keep from internal combustion!

After the birth of my youngest child, I tried to come to art class with him in tow – fine when he was a tiny thing, but a little more distracting and difficult as he grew. So after futilely trying to come without him and work it into our crazy home routine, I just stopped attending for awhile, several years actually. During that time I was so occupied with life and mothering and working and I convinced myself that I WAS being creative. That expressing myself in my career and my mothering style and even in cooking was enough. And it was. For awhile.

After quitting my job in 2003 and padding around the house for a few months trying to heal and regain myself, I felt the tug to return to art class. Even in my hollow state I knew that I needed to feel that pulsing, creative energy again. I longed for it. And thankfully the class was still going strong with Ilene at the helm. I walked back in, welcomed and hugged as though no time had passed, realizing that she had been patiently waiting for me to return. I continue to be grateful for that patience. And I’m grateful for my own courage to return, knowing on some level that my going would shift me dramatically, at my core, and not being afraid of that.

I’ve been thinking about Ilene a lot these days. My Decade of Reweaving art show reflects her essence. Her July birthday still pops up on my calendar. And I just completed Athena Emerging, a burst of action energy that has been building since that 2003 re-entry. I decided to look closely at her influence, putting words and explanation to it. Tough for an elusive, soul-based connection, but worthy of the effort.

She taught me what a true mentor is. I often call Ilene my art mentor. She was patient, unconditionally accepting, and brutally honest. Genuinely interested in me, she invested herself fully in my creative life. To be seen so clearly before I could see myself was her mentor gift, pulling me along to the next and the next and the next challenge and opening.

There is no competition in a mentor relationship. In the movie, Hook, Peter has fallen away from his boy self and has returned to Neverland to save his children. He has to learn how to fly again and the lost boys are trying to teach him. He finally gets it and is starting to take off from the ground and one of the boys looks at him in awe and says, “You’re doing it, Peter, you’re doing it.” And in response to that awe, Peter flies higher and more consistently. I love that scene. Ilene was awed every time I succeeded. She shared my excitement, my happiness, and she honored it. She knew that by me getting it, she was stronger and we both flew higher.

A commission enhances creativity. Art is a personal expression of self. Creating it for someone else can potentially feel like the creative process is stifled or contrived due to the requests of the buyer. Ilene shifted that perception promoting the idea that art done for someone else can be real and true when approached as a co-mission – the joining of creative processes, a joint expression of selves.

You must love what you create. This doesn’t only mean the finished product. Rather the process of bringing an image to life – sometimes a struggle, sometimes with ease – is an act of love. It’s like motherhood. You give and caress and bring your children to adulthood, loving them at each stage. Can you shape your art creations in much the same way, loving them at each stage of the process? You cannot be a professional artist if you don’t love your work. If we want others to feel the love in our work, we must pour our love into it and love it ourselves.

You must develop a creative core. A core that is the impetus, the inspiration for your creativity. For me that translates to anything and anyone that moves and opens me. Artists like Frida, Meinrad Craighead, Gustav Klimt, Frank Gehry, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Poets Maya Angelou and Rumi. Goddess stories and Biblical metaphors. My younger selves and my elder women friends. My own works of art and writing. And more gets added all the time as I open and learn. It is much easier to love what I create when it springs from this core of inspiration.

Everything has its own flow. Visual art, written art, various mediums and genres – they all have their own flow of creative energy that is ours to use as we create our own works. Once in art class, Ilene pulled out an empty coat rack on wheels. She stepped over the bottom bar into the rack and said, “See, now I’m in the deep flow.” Then she stepped back out of the the rack and said, “Now, I’m out of the deep flow.” She did this over and over again, in and out, demonstrating how close and available the creative energy is. I loved this idea of the creative energy so available to me and so I began to step inside the proverbial coat rack every time I entered my studio. And then every time I did a weaving or papercutting or when I was deciding what and when to weave and cut. And then expanding further, I embraced the idea that the next reality is a breath away, the neighboring universe tangible, and so I stepped into the coat rack as I walked through daily life, opening to the flow of other people, nature, even the next layer of unseen forces. It has made my walk through this world, in my studio and out of it, gentler and more present.

Dreams are powerful tools for inner exploration. She was a master at analyzing dreams and actually subbed a few art classes for dreamwork classes. The idea being that our subconscious is wise, offering insights in the way of symbols and images that have meaning to us in awakened life. I pay attention to my dreams now and no longer dismiss them as trivial.

The answers are always already within us. We can read self-help books and seek the guidance of counselors for a good assist in uncovering issues and patterns, but we must recognize that these tools are only portals to self. Trust our own intuition. Always. We don’t need to journey to a home in which we already live.

Speaking of portals…Ilene talked about portals a lot. That sacred statues and objects from various cultures and religious traditions were openings to the unseen worlds they represented. The images that are part of my creative core are openings to the flow of energy from which they were created, the love expressed by the artist. Early on when I’d be painting in my studio, I’d effortlessly envision the art room – Ilene in her teacher’s chair, dangly earrings, fire-red hair, leggings and bare feet, telling us stories and laughing her raucous laugh. And I’d see the other artists there, sharing and creating as a group. All of this imagery alone in my studio, yet I was instantly transferred to that space, the image a portal.

After her death, the idea of portals became ever more clear. She was an avid collector of art and jewelry, both for its beauty as well as to support artists everywhere she went. As I went through each piece and touched it, I was instantly opened to her, to its creator, to what she saw in it and in them. Portals every one. And now I have only to think of her and the light that is her, and my heart opens. I want to delve into that portal to the unseen world of which she is now a part to see where it leads me, what it calls me to create. Portals to creativity and love and the unseen world are everywhere.

The Sacred Feminine is alive and well. My exploration of the feminine was well underway by the time I met Ilene, but she added gasoline to the fire. I exploded with the task of understanding and embodying it and I began to create artwork that helped me on this path. Along the way she introduced me to sacred feminine images and artists that were portals to the concept, anchoring them within me. This is so much a part of my being now that I no longer even call it the feminine or her partner, the sacred masculine. They are embedded as indistinguishable forces that ebb and flow in unison as I move through my days.

The importance of collective. I was introduced to a group of artists thanks to Ilene that I consider my dearest friends. For many years, I never knew their last names or what they did for a living or any of those other details that are typically part of friendly introductions. But I did know of their inner lives – their dreams, their creative cores, their vulnerabilities. It was a group whose primary purpose was to open and grow. It was amazing. We sit in a collective circle far less than we used to, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Just the mention of their names or one hug or an impromptu gathering and that mutual soul love is present. I am so grateful.

The glorious creative life I live now is because of Ilene’s nurturing, her mentoring and love, her willingness to share her inner world with me so I could uncover my own.

Ilene cropped


7 Comments on “Ilene

  1. I miss our lovely Ilene so much. I think of her often and feel her presence around me. We were all so very fortunate to have her touch our lives. I too have those visions of her “teaching” our art class. Her words were profound to me and I would leave there each week so uplifted. Her insight into the feminine, the goddesses, the power of art have marked me. I have never been the same…..I never will. I love you Ilene.


    • Thanks for reading Susan. I, too, think of her regularly and will never been the same. xo


  2. Wonderful touch stones Ellen. Living and growing out of the spark our mentor and friend Ilene always
    held for herself and us. Thank you for the pearls.


  3. Oh Ellen, Thank you so much for sharing your Ilene Story. So magnificently put. She had a way about her…yes she did. Changed many lives, mine included, in every conceivable way.

    Liked by 1 person

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Regina Leffers McCaleb, Ph.D.

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