The Big Reveal

There’s plenty more I’d like to share , but between the sun and intense conversations, rest comes first! But for now, I’d at least like to let everyone know where I’ve spent the last few days. Here’s the big reveal of the Big Adventure:


Big Adventure Reveal

Welcome to Bimini, an island in the Bahamas about a 20-minute plane ride from Florida. We’re on the north island, which is that long skinny piece of land you see up above. Why are we here? To swim with wild dolphins and heal. More soon.

Work it: How to find coworkers you love

Even small victories deserve celebrations.

In that spirit my coworker-for-the-day, Jenna Freimuth, hit the play button and the sweet sounds of Harry Belafonte rolled out of the Bluetooth speaker on the shelf. Within seconds we were doing our own version of “shake, shake, shake senora” as his lyrics serenaded our celebration.

It took an hour of work (and one YouTube tutorial), but we finally figured out how to master a serious design challenge that plagued me for months. Up until that point I’d either been too lazy, too busy or unable to access the right tools to get the job done. At the beginning of our workday, I had spouted off about how worried I was about an upcoming illustration project. I didn’t know how to move forward with this issue looming in my path. But like every other day I ignored the problem and moved onto something I thought felt more manageable. I would have gone on ignoring my problem, too, until Jenna whipped around in her rolling chair and demanded to see my laptop. Turns out she spent the last 20 minutes researching a solution to my problem and stumbled upon a breakthrough.

I’m not used to the luxury of coworkers any more. I left my 9-to-5 job this past summer in lieu of a freelance career. The projects I work on range from writing and illustration, to events planning and art making. Sometimes I work from my studio or coffee shops, but oftentimes I find myself holed up in the front set of my car chipping away at a deadline. I love the flexibility of my lifestyle — even my movable, gas-guzzling office — but I miss swiveling around in my chair and sharing the daily moments with someone else.

But today I got to pick my very own coworker-for-a-day. Hello, Jenna Freimuth — freelance illustrator and coffee drinking extraordinaire. We first met through that former 9-to-5 job when I commissioned her to draw a map of Minneapolis. We reconnected nearly two years later as I set off on my new career path, and that brought us to where we are today, shaking away to in her cozy at-home office to Harry Belafonte.

Two Brains Design JPEG Websize

We kicked off our first day co-working together at 9 a.m. In the corner of her office Jenna set up an adorable cardboard desk. Within the first five minutes we were testing out my new markers and trying to figure out the best drawing tool to layer white pattern over another color.

Sometimes you just need another person in the room with you. When it comes to getting a job done, two brains can be better than one. Every morning when I start working, I write out a list of goals I want to accomplish. Jenna and I both have work to get done. We’ve got clients waiting. But today offered me the opportunity for a bigger accomplishment outside of crossing off items from my to-do list. Today I had the chance to learn and grow from someone else’s presence and experience. There are two new illustration books sitting next to me for reference, Jenna showed me dozens of new Photoshop tutorials on Skillshare that will help me edit my illustrations better, and we geeked out over new supplies while sharing current work struggles. At the end of the day, this growth can be equally as important as the work you’re getting paid for.

As a freelancer who works in creative spheres, I’ve learned that the personal work you make and share can often help you land paid clients down the line. It can feel selfish or financially unwise to make time for this work, but it’s actually an investment in yourself that can pay off. Spending the day working alongside a friend could sound like an excuse to take it easy for day. But the context you create your work in matters, and part of those physical surroundings include the people you put in it.

A writer’s guide to life

I’m a writer. Not in the romantic notion where people talk about a child so gifted that words flowed magically out of her and onto the page, but in the hard-earned way where I spent evenings in high school embroiled in class paper critiques with my mom, or hours on the couch in college rubbing my face and grasping at words to form a conclusion. Through those hours I honed my craft. But that hard work didn’t just teach me how to be a better writer. Turns out all that time battling through stories also gave me a new perspective on living.

Don’t make assumptions

The more time you spend learning about the different facets that make up your story — the people, places, history and context — the better you write. The challenge comes when you need to boil those hours of research and interviews down to a story, and a short one at that. You need to always be conscious of two brains, the one in your head and the one in your reader’s head. As the writer, you’re working from a wealth of extra knowledge. Most of that the reader isn’t privy to when they read the final version of your story. When you write, you have to consider that second brain and make sure you’re not only writing a story that makes sense to you, but to your reader who doesn’t know the same background information.

The same goes in life and relationships. It’s easy to make two assumptions: that others can guess what we’re thinking, and that we know what’s in someone else’s head. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt unsure about what someone thought, assumed the worst and then lashed out at them in response to a hypothetical situation I built up in my head that turned out to be untrue. But we’re not mind readers. Assumptions cause confusion. The only way around that is to ask for honesty, and to offer honesty in return.

Keep it simple

A sentence laced with an inordinate amount commas, em dashes and semicolons means you’re trying to cram too much information before a single period. Simplicity reigns supreme when you’re trying to communicate information to an audience.


There’s a secret life behind every published story, one readers rarely get to see. The first draft. The back and forth with the editor. The slew of red marks denoting changes to make. Tough editors make good stories great, but that behind-the-scenes work isn’t apparent when you’re reading an article published in a magazine.

Our society consumes an incredible amount of content every day, from national news outlets to social media. All of these narratives are edited in some way or another. When we look at our own lives we see the unedited version, yet somehow we still think the two should be compared evenly. Editing is a beautiful thing. It creates a perfectly packaged story from beginning to end. But there’s more to each story than its edited version, and that’s a beautiful thing, too.

Take (the right) critique gracefully

My freshman year in college I reviewed three local bakeries for my first college newspaper story. I felt confident in the draft I turned in to my editors. So confident that I wasn’t prepared when I read the heavily edited final draft printed in the paper. I barely recognized my own writing. Instead of taking that experience and growing from it, I lost confidence in my writing and stopped for a year. I let that critique kill my spirit. A couple of years later I took an internship at a newspaper. It was there I learned the true value of a good editor. I got over my fear of failure and learned to editing it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. That year I became a better writer, and it was because I had someone in my corner who wanted to see me succeed.

That being said, it’s important to assess the value of each critique you receive. There are some individuals in life who nitpick and critique others just because they can. Don’t listen to those whose only goal is to bring you down. A good editor lifts you up and will always help you move toward the best version of yourself.

The people matter

The root of every good story? A strong character. As humans, we like to connect with others. But like any good story, life off the page is more fulfilling with others around us, too. Share your journey.

Part One: The Truth Behind Harlow

It’s 6 a.m. and the licking won’t stop.

With the buzz of my alarm, Harlow is on me. My dog, who laid in wait beside my side all night, springs into action at the sound without a moment to waste. It’s a get-up-or-be-licked-into-submission morning, every morning at my house.

Coming up on four years old, Harlow is still every bit as energetic (and often naughty) as an eight-month-old puppy. Her body is completed spotted from nose to tail. Short, white fur covers up most of them, except on her ears where the spots poked through at an early age.

Those ears sealed our fate together.

The spring before my final year in college, I decided to adopt a dog. I drove 30 minutes to visit Harlow after seeing her picture online. A couple in Minneapolis fostered her through the Twin Cities rescue group, Secondhand Hounds. What I found when I arrived was a four-month-old puppy that wouldn’t stop biting my hands or shoes. And a head framed by two spotted ears that were too cute to pass up. She came home with me two weeks later.

Harlow is a rescue dog.

Her story started along a highway in Missouri. Harlow and her seven brothers and sisters were found at a week old alongside the road. Their mom was with them, but dead. Someone brought the litter to a shelter where volunteers found a surrogate mother to raise them. But with no adopters in sight, the shelter set a date to euthanize the group.

With crowded space, the kill rate for dogs in shelters tends to be high in Missouri. Especially for dogs like Harlow. Why?

Harlow is a pit bull.

I knew when I started looking for a dog that I wanted two things: to adopt a dog from a local rescue group, and to adopt a pit bull. Luckily a couple days before the Missouri shelter euthanized Harlow’s litter, Secondhand Hounds sent volunteers down to Missouri to pull dogs from the packed shelters and transport them back to Minnesota with the hopes of finding adopters.

That’s how Harlow and I found each other.

I didn’t know much about pit bulls before college. I studied journalism and took a class where I needed a story idea for a photo slideshow project. After connecting with a local rescue group, I decided to write my piece on a Minneapolis woman who fostered dogs for the organization, Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue.

Dogs were a big part of my life growing up: from our family dog, a sheltie named Katie; to the nine service dogs my family raised. Being at college without a furry companion was tough, and I picked my story topic mostly as an excuse to hang out with a couple dogs for the evening.

At the time of the story, the women I profiled had two foster dogs at her house, a gorgeous older pit bull, and a little rambunctious pittie puppy named Zeus. My plan was to spend an evening interview the foster mom and taking photos of the group. I remember how nervous my mom felt about me working on this story. Didn’t I know the kind of dogs pit bulls were made out to be?

But I’ve always loved an underdog.

That night I fell in love with the breed. Their energetic spirit. Soulful eyes. Big blocky heads. I couldn’t believe these two dogs in front of me — that sat so patiently for photos and were so full of affection — were the dogs that elicited a nervous warning from my mom. During the interview I talked with the foster mom about the misconceptions she faced everyday raising two pit bulls. Other dog owners crossing the street when she was out walking her dogs. The speed with which people would point the finger at her dogs, assuming they were aggressive or unsafe. They citywide bans on pit bulls. The high insurance rates. The struggles to find apartments that allow pit bulls. The hurtful things others said to fuel the general fear toward the breed. Ridiculous doesn’t begin to describe how it all sounded to me. I was shocked — especially as a journalist who likes to double check facts — to learn how often people fell into believing false stereotypes and untrue facts about the breed.

Writing that story not only solidified my resolve to only adopt dogs from shelters or rescue groups, but it also marked the beginning of a journey to dig beneath the labels society puts on pit bulls to discover the truth behind their story.

The Art of Sharing

Writing Challenge Day 9 Entanglement Photo

I stared at the brushstrokes. Rich hues of brick red, burnt umber and muddy orange flowed next to each other on the canvas. I took a step back from the painting to take it all in at once. Something I created. Hours spent breathing in toxic fumes of oil paint supplies — odorless mineral spirits, linseed oil, Liquin. Days spent battling the painting, propped on an easel in front of me. I would look at it. Assess it. Ask it what it needed; what was missing.

For nearly three years “Entanglement” traveled with me wherever I went. From the college studio where I finished painting it in 2012, to my childhood home when I ran out of money for an apartment in the city, and then back to Minneapolis when I finally committed to renting an artist’s studio.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood in front of this painting just to stare. I love the colors — the ugly orange-greens and muddy tans that help the brighter colors in the piece pop. The play between thick swatches of color and skinny lines that snake throughout.

Mercer, Sparks in the Soil 72dpiExactly a year ago I sold a different painting — “Sparks in the Soil” — my favorite. A huge vertical number that stood nearly six feet tall with varying shades of phthalo, mint and grass green. It was the painting I referred to when I felt lost, or when I needed to figure out the next steps to take on the works I currently had in progress. After I sold that piece, “Entanglement” took its place. It served as a point of reference when I felt lost, sparked new ideas for color palettes and brushstrokes, and helped me find context around my work — and myself.

But yesterday I got the call. “Entanglement” found a new home. Immediate elation and disbelief washed over me. The couple that decided to purchase the piece came to visit me at the studio twice. I knew that meant they were invested in the work. But after we settled on a price and I hung up the phone, my initial joy was gently clouded by the bittersweet thought that I won’t get to stand in front of “Entanglement” anymore, looking at how the colors bleed and weave together. Not to mention the worry that maybe, just maybe they won’t take good care of the painting I’ve protected and loved for so long.

Even as a kid, sharing wasn’t my strong suit. Call me particular. Particular and picky. Especially when it came to how people used or treated my stuff — toys, games, books, clothes. I always wanted things to be a certain way. I meticulously rounded up every piece of my board games or pet shop play sets after getting them out. I never doggy-eared corners or ripped pages in my books. Even though I’m older (and slightly better at sharing now), I still treat my paintings like the precious sky fairy dancers toys or beloved books of my childhood. Holding close. Feeling protective. Slow to share.

After “the call” I sat on my futon in the studio, emotions swirling, still trying to process what happened. Minutes earlier I had excitedly ran across the hallway to tell my painter friends the good news. A few thousand dollar sale is always something to celebrate, especially when you’re short on cash. But luckily as new feelings of worry began to bubble up, another artist friend walked into the studio. I shared my good news, but also my sadness at losing a painting that guided me for the last year.

He told me that as artists, we have to learn a tough skill — to let go and say goodbye. I turned up my nose at the thought. That sounded overly negative and sad, neither of which I was in the mood for at the moment. But he clarified. Don’t think about the sale of a painting as a personal loss, but a chance to share your passion with others. To share an object you love with someone else. I’ve always thought one of the greatest honors is when someone decides they want to live with a piece of your work — of yourself — in their home; that they want to look at your painting each day as they go about their lives. As I get ready to pack up “Entanglement” and drive it to its new home, I’ll keep that thought close. And try to be better at sharing.

It’s A Musky Thing

We are imposters gliding over water. Sporting polarized sunglasses and rods that extend our reach beyond normal confines. The boat speeds toward a single destination marked by a dot on the map.

As we race along, the lake spread in front of us doesn’t look real anymore. Too smooth. Too flat. Like a stylized rendition you’d expect to see in a video game. Wind whips loose any strands of hair not secured under the safety of my hat. We hit 45 mph and my breaths become gasps. I attempt to suck in short gulps of air until I remember to pull up the fabric wrapped around my neck to cover my mouth. I hunker down as the brutal wind seems to blow through every layer of clothing I piled on — two long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, leggings and sweatpants.

We arrive at the spot. A dip in the outer edge of the lake’s perimeter where musky have been known to swim. The sun, which cracked over the horizon a mere 20 minutes before we pushed off the dock, now casts golden hues over anything that catches its light. We pull out two boxes covered in camouflage fabric. Inside, the last pieces of our elaborate ruse wait for us to hook them onto the line at the end of our rods.

It’s time to see if we can fool the musky.

I pull out a neon orange topwater bait that putt putt putts as it floats along the surface of the water, blades rotating round and round to mimic the sounds and movements of a baby duck. Cast and reel. Cast and reel. I stand on the deck at the front of the boat falling into a repetitive pattern. Pull the rod back, drop the lure behind my head (without hooking my partner). Then in one smooth motion I let the line sail out in front of me, popping the lock down on the line just before the lure plunges in the water and out of sight.

I don’t fish often, but I’ve logged enough hours on the lake that I can tell a good cast from a bad one just by the sound. The even whiz of the line as it flies out overhead toward its intended target. The longer the noise lasts, the better. That’s a good cast. But the sound of an even whiz interrupted by a sudden halt. That means you’ll spend the next few minutes pulling out and unraveling a knotted line.

With my polarized lenses, I scan the depths for a glint of silver or some other give away that one of the large freshwater beasts lurks below. Muskellunge. The symbol of Wisconsin. The sun moves to a new spot in the sky. I switch lures.

My new walk-the-dog style lure sports white markings and transitions from lime green to orange across the barrel of the body. As I reel it in I sporadically give the rod a quick tug down to make my fake fish roll side to side, the reflective sides glinting in the light and the glow-in-the-dark spiral tail trailing behind. I try to think like my bait fish. If it were alive and swimming, how would it dart and swim?

We are creatures out of water, but we strive to mimic what lives below.

It starts with the look of your bait. Color. Body shape. Size. Musky lures are like Pinterest craft projects. Neon colors. Tinsel. Glitter. Lace doilies templates used to spray paint metallic textures on bait. Walk into a rod and tackle store and you’re guaranteed to find a wall covered in little baggies of metal blades, feathers and other assorted lure-making materials that would look more at home in a Michael’s craft store than somewhere catering to grown male fisherman.

But this group, they are a completely different breed. Bass. Pan fish. Walleye. The musky fishers are something else. Patient. With a tenacity that keeps them pushing through nine hours of casting only to come up empty handed and still want to head out again the next day to try their luck.

It’s a sentiment I didn’t fully understand or appreciate until I set off to Wisconsin for a weekend solely reserved for casting, my partner trying to roll me out of bed at 4:30 a.m. three consecutive mornings. Me half fighting back every time he shook me awake, pulling the covers over my head. But every morning I eventually gave in and suited up with the promise I could take a nap on the boat if I got too tired.

Musky fishermen are a proud bunch. They don’t fish to eat. They don’t (usually) take trophies out of the water to mount on mantel (that’s a near blasphemous thought for the hard-core guys). They may eternally engage in a game of bait and switch, but they’re ferocious in protecting the survival of their beloved freshwater friends. They are men (and women) who fish for the chase. For the satisfaction of netting the big one, but then letting it swim free.

Furry Scenery

“Stop the car.” Putting his foot on the brake, my dad maneuvered our vehicle off the curving highway and onto the piece of pavement jutting off to the side and flanked by a wooden railing. Another scenic overlook on Needles Highway demanded my attention. I felt the need to snap a few photos to try and capture the majesty of the sudden drop and expanse of ground and trees that swept out beneath the ledge of the road.

DSC_0435 JPEGI hopped out of the car. To my right sat a long stretch of rock just taller than my waist. That’s when I noticed the plethora of tiny striped chipmunks darting over and around the boulder and group of rocks behind.

Change of plans. Quickly forgetting about the scenery, I set my camera down. A new strategy started developing in my head — to win over the chipmunks’ trust.  The goal? To see how close I could get.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been enamored with animals. We had dogs, cats, salamanders, fish, hamsters and a bird growing up. I owned an assortment of clear plastic cages I would outfit with grass, twigs and little milk caps full of water for various creatures I would capture on lazy summer days — garter snakes, painted turtles, injured monarch butterflies.  Once I event got stuck knee deep in the mud chasing after a pregnant frog on the way home from the bus stop.

Turns out 25-year-old me isn’t that much different than the curious elementary school student who roamed through the swamp pretending to be Pocahontas.

I leaned over the rock on my stomach. The chipmunks scattered into various crevices. I lay patiently, taking quiet, slow breaths to keep as still and unassuming as possible. The first brave soul ventured out with a dash, tail up. Who was this strange giant in yoga pants? Did it have food to share?

Within minutes I counted five. Twelve. Seventeen. The longer I lay, the bolder my striped friends got. Instead of zipping in circles around me, the chipmunks began to come up to my outstretched hand. Pausing. Running across my open palm.

My sister opened up her door and crept out to join me. The animal gene runs in the family. So there we sat, on a rock near the edge of South Dakota’s Needles Highway, with nearly too many chipmunk friends to count. Magic.