Happy Winter Solstice! I have a special treat today in celebration. Recently, I pestered my pal, Anne Butera of My Giant Strawberry, to allow me to interview her for this space and she kindly agreed. If you’re not already familiar with Anne, she is a kind, genuine, talented artist and gardener and I am honored that she was willing to share her story. Let’s get started!
Hi Anne! Thank you so much for being here today. Let’s start with a little bit of background for those who aren’t familiar yet with your work and your blog.
Thanks, Laurie, for inviting me. I’m glad to be here! I am an artist, writer, and crafter, oh, and of course, gardener. Over the years I’ve come to realize that life is beautiful and that every aspect of life carries the potential for creativity. Beauty, joy, creativity… all are integral to who I am as an artist and as a person. I began my creative journey sometime around 2009. I was feeling, more and more, that my focus was skewed and that there was something missing from my life. Art was that something. My blog, My Giant Strawberry, started out as the center of my creative journey before I even knew where I wanted that journey to take me. You might wonder about the name. It goes back to my childhood. In kindergarten I got in trouble for telling tall tales, one of which was about the giant strawberry (as big as the garage) I had in my backyard. As I embarked on my creative journey, I realized that I needed to bring that imaginative, creative, joyful child with me on my adventure. Naming my endeavor after her tall tales was my way of doing that.
You and your husband recently made a big change in your lives: a move, both literally and figuratively, into a simpler and more meaningful way of living. I find that so inspiring! Do you mind sharing more about this?
This change has been a long time coming and it’s been done in fits and starts, with plenty of failures and setbacks along the way. The change isn’t complete yet — eventually we want to find our own piece of land, grow a lot more of our food, keep our own chickens and have a few goats and maybe bees — but we’re working on it. When I was a child growing up in suburban Chicago I dreamed of living in the country. As an adult I dreamed a similar dream with my husband. We both wanted to live in a place of natural beauty and to be more connected with our food production, the earth and life itself. That’s another thing that was wrong about my life back when I embarked on my creative journey. Bit by bit I realized that I needed to make some dramatic changes. About a year ago we made our most recent change and moved from the Cleveland area to a small town in rural, southwestern Wisconsin. We had both come to realize how much living in the city was negatively affecting how we felt day-to-day. The lack of care so evident in things like litter and vandalism were wearing on us. Noise pollution, traffic, child neglect (something I saw day after day in my old job), crime… despite the little oasis that we’d created with our house and garden and despite frequent drives out of the city to go hike in the woods, we couldn’t totally escape these things. Neither of us liked how living in the city made us feel, how it made us think and how we tended to act in that environment. I was critical and distrustful of other people. I was constantly rushing and felt as if everything was a competition. Traffic was a good example of this; I wasn’t a nice person driving in Cleveland traffic. Where we live now life goes at a much slower pace. People are more friendly and really seem to care about themselves, each other and the community. For now we live in town and it’s wonderful to be able to walk everywhere, while just a couple blocks away there are cornfields and every day horse-drawn wagons and buggies go past our house. My parents live about 6 miles away on a piece of land outside of town. It’s still a novelty to live so close to family. This area of Wisconsin is stunningly beautiful. It’s very hilly with dramatic cliffs and valleys. And there’s so much wildlife; even in town I regularly see bald eagles soaring overhead. In stark contrast to my old life, now, whenever I drive anywhere, my spirit is lifted by the beauty of nature and surrounding farmland. Things are sometimes challenging, but for us the benefits outweigh the difficulties.
Your blog and Instagram posts always lift me up, as I know they do others. You speak a lot about finding joy in day-to-day life. What began this journey for you? What are you finding joy in today?
I began to focus on joy during the bleakest time in my life. It was after I had failed miserably at my first attempt at moving to the country and changing my life. I had been living with my mom to help her get established on their farm. My dad was still living in suburban Chicago, unable to leave his jobs there. My husband was still working in Cleveland. It had been a stepping-stone situation to get us all closer to our dreams, but it wasn’t working. It had been nearly a year and it didn’t look like we’d be able to fully make our move anytime soon. On top of that, my husband and I had had to put one of our cats to sleep because of health problems and then we’d had to do the same with our elderly dog. We were heartbroken and living apart was taking its toll. I moved back to Cleveland to salvage my marriage and was feeling very lost. My relationships with my parents were strained. My relationship with my husband was in tatters. My body and spirit were in shock after the change from country to city living. I had no idea where I was headed and no solid footing. I don’t think I handled any of the challenges very well, but that situation led to some very important realizations. I knew that I did not want to be miserable and I saw that there was beauty in each and every day. I came to understand that I am directly responsible for my own joy. In an effort to free myself from the darkness, I began to focus on beauty and joy. It’s so fundamental. Do you see beauty or do you see ugliness? Do see joy or misery? Life is beautiful. Life is full of joy. Yes there’s darkness, but there’s always light. If we miss out on the light it’s our own fault. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it definitely is not. I have to work on it every day. Lately the weather has been getting to me; It’s been so dark and dreary and I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun. But that’s only part of the picture. There’s beauty and joy, too. My mug of tea beside me as I type this. My kitty snoring on my lap. A fragrant cluster of flowers that just opened on my hoya plant. The raspberry pink, thrift shop sweater I put on this morning. Buds on my jasmine plant. The tapping of a woodpecker on the tree outside my window. Geranium flowers. It’s all about focus.
Let’s talk about your artwork! Your watercolor renditions of the flowers from your garden and home are superb. Are you self-taught? What drew (no pun intended) you into this medium and what are your goals as you continue your study?
First, let me thank you for what you say about my art. Watercolor has become such a passion for me. Everything about it brings me joy. Choosing and setting up my subject, mixing colors, making initial sketches and then, of course, the painting. The process is almost mediative. I am self-taught and the fact that I can paint is still sometimes a bit of a surprise to me. When I began my creative journey I had no clear idea of just what kind of art I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be an artist. I’ve always been creative but I never really considered myself to be an artist. I began experimenting with watercolors in part because the medium was attractive to me. Flowers, plants, gardens and nature are my passion and watercolor seems to go so well with all of those things and makes for a good way to connect with them. I grew up paging through my mom’s copy of Sara Midda’s In and Out of the Garden and it lodged in my mind as an unconscious influence. But also, watercolors were convenient (I had supplies stolen from my husband’s art school days), they didn’t require much room and didn’t make much of a mess. My first paintings were terrible. I began to experiment with other media as well, but I kept coming back to watercolor. I had a vision of what I wanted my paintings to look like and although they kept falling short of that vision I couldn’t give up. So I kept painting. And painting. And painting. One thing that kept me from getting discouraged in the beginning was participating in various online challenges. Art Every Day Month. Paint Party Friday. The people I was connecting with were all so encouraging and even though I knew that some of what they were saying in their comments was just to be nice, that supportive community helped build my confidence. Our creative spirits are so easily crushed. It often happens in school. The people who have an innate ability or who have had previous experience with art (and therefore more skill) are the ones who are praised. They are the artists. The others of us, who perhaps just need some polishing, are left thinking that we’re not artists. It’s so frustrating to me when I hear people say that they can’t draw or they can’t paint. I know that those ideas were put in their heads by other people. I believe that if someone wants to do something badly enough and works hard enough at it, they can do it. The challenge, other than the work itself, is making it through the awkward, ugly parts. Even now I have paintings that don’t work out. They key, though, is to keep going. There is so much to be learned from mistakes and failures.
I still have so much to learn! I want to keep painting and keep getting better. And I’d really like to increase the audience of my art, sharing my joy with others. Something that I hadn’t even thought about when I began to work toward becoming an artist was the business side of things. It’s not a romantic part of the dream of being an artist, but it is crucial. I have no business background and so understanding and practicing things like marketing and sales is difficult for me, but it’s something I’m working on. As for art techniques and practices, I’d like to work more on hand lettering, both with a brush and with a pen. It’s not something that I’m very good at (yet), but I’d like to be able to incorporate text with some of my art. I’d also like to work more regularly in my sketchbook. I’ve long wanted to keep a sketchbook journal, but sticking with any sort of sketchbooking practice is hard for me.
You and I “met” because of our equal love for roses. Do you mind sharing your favorite varieties? What other types of plants are a must-have for your garden?
Ooh, yes. I love talking about roses, especially at this time of year when there aren’t any roses around. Like many people I love the David Austin roses. They are romantically beautiful, but more than that I think it’s because they were some of the first roses I encountered, other than the rugosas, that had much fragrance. Even as a child that’s what I most loved about roses. My parents took my brother me to many public gardens when we were children and whenever there was a rose garden I’d flit from rose to rose like a bee, sticking my nose into each flower searching for fragrance. Most of the time I didn’t find any. Many years later when I started gardening and looking around for roses to plant, fragrance was a main criteria in my choice. Sharifa Asma is probably my favorite. It’s a glowing pink and smells delicious. Brother Cadfael, A Shropshire Lad, William Shakespeare 2000, The Mayflower and Golden Celebration are some of my other favorites. I never use any chemicals in my gardens and I did have to deal with a bit of blackspot on all but The Mayflower, but these varieties grew for many years in my Cleveland garden and always provided me with armloads of flowers, sometimes as late in the season as December. That’s one of the difficult things about my move. I went from my zone 6a garden in Cleveland to zone 4b here in Wisconsin. Not all of what I could grow in Cleveland will survive here. One such rose is Souvenir de la Malmaison. I fell head over heels in love with it near the end of my time in Cleveland. Even though my plant was very small, it gave me many flowers and it didn’t seem to be bothered by any diseases. I could probably try growing it here with extra winter protection. Maybe once we move to our own land I’ll give it a try. A few other favorite rose varieties are Therese Bugnet, New Dawn and The Fairy. Neither New Dawn nor The Fairy seem to have any scent, but they both performed so well for me with so little attention that I count them as some of my favorites even so. I’m looking forward to developing new favorites as I build my new garden.
As for other plants, my garden would never be complete without tomatoes, basil and nasturtiums. I love the French potager style of garden where vegetables and herbs are grown with ornamental perennials in a somewhat formal, geometric pattern. I also love English cottage style gardens where all sorts of both edible and ornamental plants are packed densely and informally. My gardens are always a mix of formal and informal and edible and ornamental. Sunflowers, cosmos, echinacea (my husband’s favorite flowers), zinnias, catmint, salvias, snap dragons, sweet peas, scented geraniums, rosemary, thyme, lavender, peppers, cilantro, cucumbers, snap peas, spinach, lettuce, arugula… the list could go on and on.
I know with your recent move you are starting all over with a new garden. What plans are you making for spring?
I guess you could sum it all up by saying we want to dig up more of the grass and replace it with gardens. We plan on adding more raised beds to the backyard garden and enlarging the patio back there. We worked a lot on the sunnier side of the yard this past summer, but the other half didn’t get as much attention. We have two large trees, a maple and a birch, so a lot of the yard is shaded and the roots make for difficult planting, but I’m up for the challenge. There really wasn’t anything in the backyard when we moved in and increasing the plants and flowers has not only made it prettier, it’s also helped to provide habitat and food for the wildlife. My garden would never be complete without birds and butterflies and bees. I was thrilled to find toads in the garden this summer, too. My husband wants to enlarge the bed on the side of the house where we planted our tomatoes last year so we have more room for sun loving edibles. Although I preserved a lot of tomatoes this summer, my supply is already dwindling. I’ve also already used up all my frozen basil. I’ll need to plant more of both next year. Another garden project that I’m really looking forward to is working with my new roses. Last spring I bought some rose bands (thanks in part to all the good advice you gave me!). The baby plants didn’t do much this past summer, although I did get a couple flowers, including a taste of the lovely Portland or Damask Perpetual rose, Indigo. This year I will be planting all of them in larger containers and using them as design elements in the sunniest part of the backyard garden. I really miss my roses from my old garden and hope to be able to enjoy more flowers from my new plants this coming year.
Anne, Thank you so much for being here. You are an inspiration! ♡
To see more of Anne’s work, please visit her SHOP
She can also be found on INSTAGRAM