All posts by Stefani Austin

Tough Broads – Joan Trumpauer Mullholland

At 19, Joan Trumpauer Mullholland found herself incarcerated on death row in a prison notorious for its ill treatment of inmates and the occasional “disappearance.” She had been disowned by her family, shunned by her community, and had undergone psychiatric evaluations .


Her crime? She was a young, educated, white, southern woman who fought doggedly for civil rights.


She had participated in a dozen sit ins, had ridden with the Freedom Riders, had been dragged from a protest at the Jackson Woolworth counter by her hair, and had left Duke University to enroll in the all black college, Tougaloo. Despite spending two months in prison, receiving innumerable hateful letters from strangers, and even being hunted by the KKK, Joan refused to give in. 


She had made a promise to herself at only 10, when she began recognizing that the morality she had been taught in church was in direct opposition with the way society treated black people, and when, on a dare, she had walked into the African American side of town and seen the fear and the economic disparity there. She vowed then to do what she could to help change things. Joan has spent her life doing just that.


At 72, she continues to speak and to fight for equality. A foundation in her name works to educate youth about the civil rights movement and to train them to be agents for positive social change in their own communities.


Let nothing stop you.

Tough Broads – Emma Gatewood

In effort to practice my portrait skills, I have been working lately on a series of inspiring women and sharing them on Instagram.  Along the way though, the project has become about so much more to me than I ever imagined.

Learning these women’s stories, joys and struggles, defeats and triumphs… Paying close attention to the lines on their faces, and knowing both the smiles and the tears that traced them… They really move me. They are all just so damn beautiful. So strong. So absolutely themselves, whatever may come.

Wether or not I ever get any better at doing their beauty some justice, wether or not my drawings ever mean a single thing to a single soul, it is enough, more than enough, that each day I find new evidence that human beings can be such luminous things. Even when it seems that the darkness is overtaking us, there are glowing, immutable, incandescent souls inside all those fragile bones and scarred skins that you pass by each day, each of them fighting their battles and carrying on. Notice. Be kind. Take heart. There is light all around us.

I’ve decided to take photos as I draw, so that if you would like to follow along, you can see the drawings take shape as the stories unfold. I hope you enjoy them!


Emma Gatewood left her family’s farm at 19 to marry. For the next 30 years she endured life with a hard man who frequently beat her, until the night that he finally brought her near death with cracked ribs and broken teeth.


When the police were called it was she who was arrested. The mayor, however, stepped in to release her and she was given a, then rare, divorce. After raising the three of her eleven children who remained at home, she embarked on an adventure, as she said “because I could.”


With only a knapsack, ordinary sneakers, a blanket, plastic shower curtain, a few tins of Vienna sausages and boxes of raisins, she set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. With no compass, no map, and no hiking experience, she became, in 1955, the first woman to ever hike those 2,050 miles of terrain all alone. She was 67.


Two years later, she became the first person, male or female, to hike that trail twice.


Let nothing stop you!

Keeping a Sketchbook

I love sketchbooks. I have them all over the house – in the kitchen, by my bed, in the car, in my purse. There’s no rhyme or reason or system. They’re messy, disorganized, and a rather apt expression of their owner.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 7.03.18 AM

I will admit though, it took me some time to understand the purpose of and grow to love my sketchbooks. For a long time I felt like drawing in a sketchbook was, well, meant to be a slow compilation of artwork, amassing a portfolio little by little. I pictured all those lovely images that I’ve seen from the pages of famous artists’ sketchbooks.  From Marc Simont to Leonardo Da Vinci, sketchbooks seemed like hidden treasure troves full of the best kind of art – spontaneous, from the heart, personal. Sketchbooks are something to  be unearthed long after you are gone and those never-before-seen masterpieces will inspire and delight and affirm that by gosh yes, she was the real thing. Right? Well, not exactly…

Sketchbook River

I’ve come to see that sketchbooks are sort of like blogs. What gets shared is the best part of a person’s experience. What you see is real and true and sincere, but it is not the whole story. All those imaginings that I had of “THE ARTIST” sitting at a cafe whipping out perfectly enthralling little sketches of passersby in her sketchbook? Well, maybe, but there are likely several pages of that book that just aren’t that great too. There are experiments that didn’t work. There might be a shopping list or two. There are pages in there that make the artist laugh or even cringe a little.

Here’s the thing: no artist loves everything she draws. No artist creates something wonderful every time she puts pencil to paper. That’s why God made erasers.

And sketchbooks.

You know what? Those mistakes are fine. In fact, they’re maybe even good for you. It is the heartbreaking loss that spurs an athlete on to improve her game. It is the failed trial that moves an inventor toward his crowning achievement. For an artist, it is the too far apart eyes, the colors that didn’t quite gel together, those darn hands that never look real that urge her to draw and draw and try and try again.

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Sure, the thrill of victory is sweet, but failure has its merit too. That is the bitter taste that leaves you hungry for another go at the game.

A sketchbook is a safe place to try, and perhaps to fail, to discover what you love, to find your voice.  My sketchbook doesn’t have to be good, or proof that I have any skill  at all.  It doesn’t have to be some kind of evidence of my “realness” as an artist. It’s just a place to play, experiment, wrestle with ideas. It’s not a record of my best work, a portfolio, it’s a record of my journey.

Sketchbooks Raindrops Sticks and Stones

So, if you think that you maybe sort of remember a time when you loved to draw, but you’ve grown up and gotten yourself responsibilities, and perhaps a smidge of self doubt along the way, I encourage you to get a sketchbook. Draw what you see. Write down lines of poetry or quotes from a movie or book and then doodle around them. Sketch your supper, or your son’s baseball game, or your dog, or your half dead house plant. Just try. Everyday. I promise that you’ll be glad you did. You’ll look back when those pages are full and remember good times. You’ll be proud of the skills that you’ve gained along the way. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be yours.

Sketchbook Bottles


Becoming an Artist – Part 1

Watercolors, Circles and Coffee


I’ve always wanted to claim that title for myself. To be self-taught has seemed to me to carry a sort of special authenticity. Being self-taught means that you are deeply curious, that you pursue the things that you love. You are a passionate observer. You ask and ask and ask, try and try and try. I’ve imagined an autodidact to be the sort of woman who slinks about in flowing skirts amid leather-bound tomes, brow furrowed, seeking, always seeking. She’s the sort of girl who knows the names of the flora and fauna that share her habitat. She knows where to find the green thing that will cure what ails you. She knows the secret ways of wild things. She’s well traveled and has a mind full of memorized poetry and mysterious music. She wakes with the sun and eats exotic fruit for breakfast whilst scribbling notes in her journal – her dreams, equations, latin phrases, diagrams and maps. She is a learner and a knower and a doer. You can see it in her eyes – the deep blue underwater caves of thought that lie inside her soul.

En Plein Air

I love her.

I love that maybe, sometimes, I resemble her just a little bit.

Somewhere along the way though, I think that I might possibly have  held her back – hemmed her in. I told her that in order to be really truly “self” taught, she had to rely on her own devices, books maybe, but other people? No. Definitely not. To learn from someone other than her own self would cloud her vision, quiet her voice, inhibit her style, limit her creativity. She would be diminished somehow, less  herself, tainted. And she would most certainly not be an autodidact.

Somehow, I developed this sort of mistrust of … not teachers, I love teachers… but the systems and structures and bureaucracies of institutionalized instruction. Without realizing it exactly, or putting it into so many words, I came to the conclusion that formal instruction was just about boiling what was once truth down to a nearly unrecognizable set of bullet points, stripped of all their beauty and wonder, and held up for memorization and regurgitation. Nine generations of Texan blood coursing through my veins railed against the idea. I will learn what I want, when I want, how I want. This is my journey to take. Don’t tell me what to know. Don’t tell me how to know it. I will figure it out myself, thank you very much.

My thoughts have been tempered greatly over the last several years though. I’ve come to know, first hand, that while seeking after knowledge one’s self, driving your own desire to know, is incredibly important, learning from a mentor, sitting at the feet of a master, can also save you a heap of meandering about in the dark.

With regard to art though, I think I held firm to my unspoken, and perhaps even unacknowledged, conviction that formal instruction was an impediment to authentic learning.  A true artist, I believed, created from scratch, without a teacher, a syllabus, or a preconceived set of parameters. A true artist arrived at both her skills and her body of work through trial and error, persistent effort, late nights, a heaping helping of luck and years of scratching away at her dreams, bit by bit.

I was wrong… or rather, I was not entirely correct.

And I’ll wager that I’m not the only one.

On the whole, I think most people are mistrustful, or at least ambivalent, about art instruction. Art classes are for elementary school students, possibly broody teenagers who don’t want to play sports or be in the band, retirees who want to learn to paint the sunsets  from their Florida condo balconies, and maybe, just maybe, a select few young 20 somethings who have already proven themselves extraordinarily gifted and therefore deserving of an elite design school education and a place in the art world.

For the most part, I think people have decided that artistic skill is something that you’re born with, not something that can be taught or learned.

watercolor blending techniques


The desire to create is a seed inside all of us. Every. Single. One.

All of us loved to paint, color, draw, build, cut and paste as children.

And then we didn’t.

What happened?

Perhaps it’s just that we didn’t learn how to do what our hearts and minds and souls wanted to do, so it ceased to be fun. It was too hard.  And so? We put art away with the rest of the accoutrements of childhood. We left it behind with our dolls and matchbox cars and story books.

What if all we needed though was a little bit of nurturing? What if all along what was lacking was not inherent talent, but just someone to show us how?

And so here I am, in my flowing skirt, with a head full of poetry,   and flamenco pouring from Pandora. Here I am, 40 years old, with reams of drawing paper, great gobs of paint and innumerable pencils and sketchbooks in my wake, finally enrolling in my very first art class because I have meandered long enough to arrive at a truth  – That being a “self-taught” artist, a creator who passionately seeks to know what she doesn’t and make what she can,  might include finding an artist who is a bit further down the path, and following after her footsteps for a time.

There is much more to say, and I will soon, but in the meantime, if you think that you might like to resurrect that part of you that once enjoyed drawing and painting, perhaps you could start with the courses over at Creative Bug.

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All the little photos in this post are my own attempts with their Beginning Watercolor course. I also greatly enjoyed Lisa Congdon’s line drawing and sketchbook courses there. Although I am not strictly a beginner with either drawing or painting, I found them full of fresh inspiration and gentle encouragement.  Try it. Don’t let anyone, even yourself, tell you that you can’t paint or draw. You can. You are an artist.

You are.






The Traveling Homebody

SwedenIs there such a thing as a homebody who loves to travel?

I like to be home. I’m content here in my world. My things, my people, my rules. I smile when I want, talk when I want, say what I want, wear what I want. I am me, fully, and completely, and without any veneer of polite civility when I am home.

I like it that way.

Oh sure, I enjoy myself when we go out for dinner, or attend our regular weekly classes. I’m sincerely happy to run into old friends at church. I like to say hello to Ray, and Floramene, my favorite checkers at the grocery. All in all though, I’d rather be home.

Unless, that is, you’re talking about going farther than the 10 mile radius that makes up my usual public domain.

If it involves a long highway, or better yet taxing down a runway…

If it means a complete change of scenery and perhaps even language, then I am in. Fully in.

San Antonio? Yes, but let’s go further…


San Antonio

Hawaii? Oh much beloved, pink palace, yes. Or… further…


Royal Hawaiian

London? With your old architecture and double decker buses and history and tea and “mind the gap” bellowing from the underground PA system. Yes! Now we’re talking. Or perhaps… further still…




Sweden. Oh Stockholm with all of the above plus a whole different language, water at the end of every street, the scent of waffles in the air and oh, just every little thing the same, but different.

StockhholmStockholm 2


Or maybe Tokyo. Or Kyoto. I could get lost there and be so happy.

KyotoEach of these places I have known and loved. In each one, I felt most assuredly at home in a way that I do not only 5 miles down the road. What is that? What is it, that makes this hermit’s heart fill with wanderlust? I don’t know.

I suppose it has something to do with being a woman who was once a little girl  who preferred  her room to just about anywhere else. She only wanted to sit on her bed for hours and hours – home, yes, but far away in the pages of a book.

There is a kind of adventuresome aloneness  in being far away.

Something to think about.

While I’m thinking, and until I manage to put another stamp in my passport, I will be home as much as possible, but also imagining new worlds with pen and ink.


Tiny Green HouseFlower Shop Close upEm's City(this little work in progress is a drawing is for my best friend, Emily. She has a new office in which she diligently works each day at paying the people who build buildings. I thought she needed some pretty ones to look at when her eyes get tired of numbers)


Birds and Winter Weeds

Bird and Winter Weed Doodles


Doodling birds and winter weeds today because those are the prettiest things around right about now. They’re both so full of anticipation for spring, don’t you think? All those little seedy things just waiting for growing, waiting to turn from gnarled brown bits to vibrant green and blossoms? All those little birds fattening up and beginning to think about love and nesting and such. We’re on the brink.

Winter Weeds  Winter Seed Pods House Finches  Birds on a Wire colorful birds copy

(*these little birds are available as a print in my shop, here)


I’ve always had a thing for containers.

Flowers in Bottles McCoy

Jars. Pots. Vases. Bowls.

As a little girl my great grandmother, my Momo, used to send me to the tub with empty butter containers, spice jars, cups and spoons, and I’d happily sit, filling, swirling, stirring, pouring until I was well and truly pruned and the water was frigid.

I don’t know what it is about putting stuff in containers, but I haven’t grown out of it, and I don’t intend to.

McCoy Red McCoy Blue McCoy Yellow McCoy Green

(*these collections of containers are available in my shop as prints individually here: turquoise, jade, poppy, and sunflower, or as a set of four, here. )

Winged Things

When my boys were small, we had kind of a thing for butterflies and moths.

We planted plants with the specific intention that they be eaten by bugs. We learned Latin names. We  foraged old fished tanks from Goodwill to serve as nurseries for caterpillars. We even joined a butterfly and moth society comprised almost entirely of retired men and… us.

Butterfly Jar Monarch Chrysalis

We set up tents in the backyard and in them  held experiments to find out which color flower our newly hatched butterflies preferred. We looked at wings under microscopes. We learned to stretch and preserve specimens.

Luna Collected

My boys are bigger now. They’ve got friends, and sports and reading lists and papers to write. Places to go. People to see. We don’t have the time to chase winged things that we once had.

But we remember. We remember watching new wet wings dry. We remember the awe, and it lives in us still. Maybe one day, one day soon, we’ll dust off those nets again and run through fields.

Until then, we’ll dream, and draw and paint and carve winged things. Yes.

Carving Wings Painting Butterflies Block printing wings Geometric Butterflies

(These geometric butterflies are available as a print in my Etsy shop, here)