Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Meet the artist - Joanne McCabe

Name: Joanne McCabe

9965 208th St. W.,

Lakeville, MN 55044-8815

United States

49 years old. Married to husband, Jim, over 20 years. Have 2 daughters, 5.2 grandchildren, 2 cats.


 [Dingis, our Siamese mix]

Education: BA in English from Brigham Young University (UT). M.Ed. in mathematics education from University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Interests: Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic, Cooking, Walking. Regularly attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).



[My art room. I would tell how I took it over from “guest/junk room,” but you would swear that I had just copied Karen’s account. See her MMSA profile.]

In retrospect, I wish that my middle school did not track students into band, or choir, or art so that I could have studied more than one. I think that art would have been more useful to my adult life, mostly because I often need to create something visual, but no one ever asks me to solo on my trombone.

[Me at some point during about six years of organ lessons.]

I attribute my interest in writing and art to my grandmother’s influence:

[My paternal grandmother, Wilma Alice Dell Pepper]

I was five or six when she died, so have almost no memory of her, but we did have some of her writings around the house. She was what might today be called a Head Start or special ed teacher, and started her own artistic journey when she was teaching the letter “U.” She wanted a simple poem about an umbrella, but had to write one of her own because she couldn’t find one. She had done drawing and printmaking before, and she eventually published her children’s poems in an illustrated book called Read With Me.


My grandmother would also send some original drawings to family members for their birthdays. She’d take colored pencils and a piece of typing paper, and fill it with captions and simple drawings of the birthday person was doing typical activities (if it was my birthday, it was me playing with my doll or picking dandelions; on my mother’s, it was her canning fruit or hanging laundry on the line; on my father’s, it was him raking the leaves, etc). That was her birthday present: a page of her drawings in the mail. Although the originals are largely gone, her style was a cartoony, line-drawing style similar to those she used in Read With Me.

[A page from Read With Me.]

My grandmother’s mother, Emma Begole Dell, however, was the more accomplished artist:

[My g-grandmother Emma]

I never knew my great-grandmother, but several of her pen-and-ink drawings have been passed down. A self-taught, natural artist, she drew local, en plein air landscapes, or, in the case of the drawing of the horse that follows, she memorialized her brother-in-law’s favorite farm horse, John.


[John, the favorite farm horse of Emma’s brother-in-law, William Dell.]

I likely started with pen-and-ink because I knew of her work, and this autumn still life prefigures my mail art days because I drew it on a large, white mailing envelope:

[My still life with pumpkins and gourds, 2011]

Similar to what Karen said in her profile, my mother did “every craft known to man,” although I did interest her in bread making and quilting, and she tried, with lesser success, to introduce me to china painting. What resulted, though, was largely a butting of wills and artistic styles. She was a dedicated copyist, painting traditional flowers from colored studies, whereas I thought we should take paper outside and paint some Queen Anne’s lace or dandelions nodding in the wind.

[My mother]

[One of my mother’s many painted dishes.]

Although I painted a few dishes to completion, I found the process long and fussy, what with all the paint mixing, and the daubing, and the turpentine, and the waiting, and the firing. Unless I was painting Dresden style, which is just the colored flowers on white porcelain, my mother always disagreed with the background colors I wanted to use. My mother and I were chronically, benignly at odds, even more so at the sewing machine, where I was studiously puzzling out the pattern directions (“First do step 1, followed by step 2, etc.”), when she’d invariably lean over my shoulder with “Oh, no, you don’t have to do Step 1 at all, and Step 2 . . . that’s completely wrong. In fact, start here with step 7, then go to step 9, and then back to step 3 . . . .” -- thus all this bouncing around, with no explanation as to why. It’s no surprise that I soon gave sewing up, too.

I gravitated toward mail art a couple of years ago, largely because it combined writing and art, putting them in the context of sharing what I love about my real life with real people. I love the idea of sending neat things to people’s mailboxes, nonpixelated things that they can hold and caress and keep and reread in the future. This is especially true nowadays, when even an unembellished letter feels archaic. Sending something newsy and unique and colorful and artsy (such as what I call my pink postcardelope, below) definitely gets people’s attention.



 [Both sides of one of my mail art pieces. Some of my mail art goes to ordinary people that I know, such as this one that was inspired by the pink postcard swap. It has aspects of both a postcard (writing affixed to both exterior sides) and an envelope (further information inside that is only revealed by “cutting” open the container). Use of acetate windows adds a peek-a-boo, teaser effect. Inside are six trading cards that I also decorated front and back, featuring historical information on six female physicists.]


As I said in the introductory material, my interests are reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, cooking and walking. I’ll briefly share something I’ve learned from each as it pertains to doing art.


Very likely I started reading in utero and never stopped. In any event, there are a great many childhood pictures of me with a book in my hand:

[Me in second grade, engrossed in something akin to War and Peace. I was obviously dressed for Brownies, and I suspect that my mother was begging for my cooperation so that she could record my new, clean cast for posterity. I don’t remember for sure, but knowing how lost I could become in a book, I suspect that waving my arm aloft was the extent of such cooperation. For the purpose of this profile, I cropped some off of the bottom, so as to spare you the tunnel view straight up to my underwear, and I actually do still have the rocking chair that I’m pictured in. (I am not the only girl to have difficulties being lady-like in dresses. Referencing Corinne’s MMSA profile here.)]

It was easy, then, to major in English in college. I did think about math or engineering, but I was also a single mom at the time, and thick novels were more portable and family friendly than interminable lab sessions with inclined planes, photo gates, beakers, and Bunsen burners.

I still love reading, and I have discovered that I can learn anything, as long as I have access to a book, You Tube, or the freedom to follow sewing pattern instructions without befoggling maternal override. (I also like to invent new words). Most often, though, I will pick up either The Book of Mormon or The Bible. I find the people AND the stories memorable, and I just love the majesty of the “thee, thou” writing style. This is especially true for the Old Testament (King James Version), which I find very poetic and suggestive, even if I don’t always understand what everything means. My all-time favorite verse is Hosea 10:12.

[Our Latter-day Saint chapel, where I attend every week.]


I’m not sure when I started writing, but for sure by elementary school. I’ve been writing for so long now (at least 30 years), that I can dispense words as easy as a faucet dispenses water. Not always good writing, but it comes out nonetheless. At Brigham Young University, I took just about every writing class that was offered, and since then, I’ve written professionally for the education market.

Although I’ve dabbled in just about every genre, I prefer to write that which I most like most to read: children’s literature, poetry, and creative nonfiction (especially that with a spiritual or autobiographical bent, such as journals or letters).

From writing, I have learned that it takes time and practice to learn complicated things. After all, it’s easy for a novice to think that it’s no big deal to paint a realistic likeness of a person, or to write a novel, but when you sit down to do it, you suddenly discover how many skills you don’t have. But you slog ahead anyway, and the first attempt is generally middling, but you learn, so the next one is better.

I have completed about eight children’s novels, all still in manuscript form, and it wasn’t until about the fifth one, that I had enough confidence in my abilities, as well as control of characterization, setting and plot, that I was able to concentrate on the story as opposed to the mechanics. At one point, I even started to have a really good time. My favorite story was a historical one set on Isle Royale in the 1920s. I loved doing the historical research.

I am finding the same experience with art. It’s easy to think that it’s no big deal to, say, paint an acrylic ATC, but then you realize that you need to know about color mixing, and blending, and which paper will do what, and how to hold the brush, and about various media, and drying times, etc. But learning complicated things takes time, and if you give yourself permission to be as awful as you need to be at the get-go, there’s no place to go but up.

In time, I hope to develop my art skills to the point, where I can draw or paint something that exists in my mind, instead of having to laboriously copy everything. To do that, however, will take several years of concerted effort.

My mail art goal is to develop enough traditional skills so I can choose among photography, writing and art to have the most flexibility in communicating whatever I want to say. My writing is more finely honed that my drawing, so I fear a lot of smudged, clashing, misshapen attempts lie ahead. But I’m willing to start and to keep going, and I love both the small scale of mail art, as well as the fact that you are communicating with real people. Plus, I enjoy seeing the variety of things people do for the different swaps.


I always thought that someone couldn’t be good in both math and English, but I learned others’ expectations can often limit us unnecessarily. In other words, your ability in any new field may be higher than you think. However, developing any skill involves time and work.

In high school, I was terrified at taking calculus, largely because no one in my immediate family had ever taken it, and other students moaned about how difficult it was. Thus it wasn’t until college, when, having done well at the entire precalculus sequence, I decided (on a lark) a week before the semester started, to face my fear and enroll. So I went to the local registration office, filled out the request form for Calculus One, and in what had to have been a fit of chutzpah, decided (why not?) to add University Physics, too.

Bear in mind that I had no previous exposure to either of these subjects, but I even if I was not at least passably intelligent, I was terrified enough to know that maintaining a death grip on my textbooks would be my salvation. Thus, I studied. And studied. And studied. And, studied. To my great surprise, I not only passed both courses, but did well enough to continue on for the next semester. Then I kept going until I had taken all the math classes for a full math major and earned a graduate degree in secondary math education.

My favorite subjects are (ironically) calculus, and a subject called abstract algebra, which studies the theoretical underpinnings of algebra and numbers. For example, the multiplication adage of “a negative times a negative equals a positive” is not just some random rule, but instead is a logical conclusion from the premises of abstract algebra.

In my advanced math classes, I’d often need to write a proof of some conjecture, and the argument would almost never come to me instantly. Most often, I’d have to begin more simply and play around a bit with the constituent ideas. My most successful approach was what I called “Just say something.” For example, I might not see immediately how some conjecture was true for every natural number, but I could work it out and see what it was true for the number 2, for example, or convince myself that it would NOT work for the fraction 1/2, or any other fraction, for that matter. And my being willing to “just say something” -- anything -- and play around with the situation helped illuminate the general argument.

From this I have learned to “just draw something” or “just collage something,” or “just twirl a paint-filled brush around on the paper.” And it’s often in the step-by-step doing that I begin to see the way, that I begin to learn how to do this ephemeral thing called “doing art.”


Cooking and baking, to me, are like edible art. While art is visual, and sometimes tactile, cooking is also aromatic and tasty (and sometimes background-noisy to boot). Lately, I’ve been learning to cook closer to the healthier (meaning, vegetarian) end of the scale (so, lots of farmers’ market produce, heirloom beans, and vegetable soups), in part because it’s a cheaper and happier way to eat, which means more money left over for art supplies.

I discovered, however, in moving away from meat and processed foods, that I had to relearn to cook. Succulents like onions and garlic became my friends, as did herbs, and I had to become much more generous in my use of them than ever before. In addition, I learned the value of time when you’re cooking from scratch.

This translates to the following adage that is handy in art: “Accord every ‘failure’ a 24-hour stay of execution.” Many things that at first appeared hopeless are, with a fresh perspective, not nearly as bad as I initially thought. Often the only thing a “bland” soup needed was overnight in the fridge for the flavors to blend, and I apply this to my art as well. Dissatisfaction with something is often just a signal that my subconscious needs time to moodle up a new take on it.

[A batch of my hot cross buns. The candied citrus pieces were made from scratch, repurposing orange and grapefruit rinds that would have been tossed out anyway.]


During warm weather, I love neighborhood walks. This combines exercise and thinking time, with a chance to observe nature as it changes day-by-day. Often I hear some snippet of conversation that starts a poem, or I come home with something to draw or paint:

[I’m not sure what this native bush is, but the leaves form a saucer for the berries, which grew in a bunch, as it were, right in the middle of the leafy cup.]

[Watercolor of an osteospermum]

Black raspberry season is the best, and I oblige myself at every single wild black raspberry bush that I pass.          


From my walking, I have learned that beauty exists everywhere, but it’s often on a miniature scale. Minnesota wildflowers are just as beautiful as the ostentatious blooms in Hawaii, but you have to look very close to see them since they are very small.

[Blue paper was the only thing I had handy when I drew this, but the original dried flower was only about 3 mm across.]


Since MMSA is a mail art blog, I have to share one last photo. This is the “ghost” post office in Cisco, Utah (zip code 84515), a city in the arid Utah desert that is, if not currently a ghost town, only nominally above such.

[A picture of the ramshackle Cisco post office, taken in 2011. ]

My husband first took me here when we were driving to Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Cisco is right off the highway, and he had inadvertently discovered “the city” (term used very loosely here) in previous years when he took a wrong turn coming off the freeway. When he first drove through, the post office was actually open, and both it and the one small market formed the “commercial district.” Maybe there were other small businesses then, but running between the two ones he remembered was a gravel road, perhaps 150 feet long. Directly in front of the post office was a speed bump. This incongruity was what impressed my husband about Cisco, why a place like this would need a paved main drag, much less a speed bump. The city was only minimally inhabited and surrounded by nowhere. Thus, in future trips, he made it a point to visit.

The speed bump has been removed, but the abandoned post office is still standing, at least in 2011. While this may not be the world’s smallest post office, patrons could have easily extended both arms inside and touched the walls.

Here is one of my poems.  I have many more I'm willing to share.  Just send me an email request.

by Joanne McCabe
Tire swings were best when I had dresses on,
play dresses Mom made when dime store gingham
was cheap on the bolt and hours were best for sewing,
before tomatoes and making summer jams came in.
She’d spread out the McCalls’ pattern she’d bought in town
(I’d inched a bit since last year) and size up
the tissue paper markings for recycled buttons
to be fished out of the button box
and a circle skirt to billow out and fly, sheer, pastel,
like hot air balloons that would float over town each Fourth of July with regular poufs of fire and awe.

The swing, Goodyear tire from Dad’s old Ford,
with abraded treads from the road
as though emery boards had been taken to it each day of life, hushed from a rope knotted to the oak tree,
the top tied long ago with ladder’s help
while the lower balled to a fist inside the rubber ring.
Rain pooled in the bottom with a few dead moths.
Dad always meant to drill a hole to keep it dry
but never did, so I’d invert and drain the black roundness before I’d decide whether to ride top with hands
gripping the hairy rope closer to burns and blisters,
or ride bottom, my legs threaded through the hole
and clasping tire to my breast.

Either way, I’d lurch back and forth, trying to dislodge center
and into a bigger sweep than I ever was for one so young,
until someone, knowing that I yearned for blue,
pushed from deep shoulder muscles into me, lifting me to delight.


  1. Nice to read your interesting story.

    "others’ expectations can often limit us unnecessarily" Very Good Point!

    Loved the Ghost Post office. Thank you for introducing yourself.

  2. Joanne, you have such an interesting story to tell and you tell it so beautifully. It's nice to get to know you a little. More cat pictures, please!

  3. Thank you! This was great fun to read, all the way through. Pleased to meet you!

  4. Nice to meet you Joanne! I really like your goal of being able to access different avenues of communication...being rewarded with mail art in your mailbox is a plus in the process!

  5. Loved your poem, Joanne! The title is fantastic, too. Loved your personal profile, too. Thanks for sharing!

  6. It is kismet! I just received one of your lovely postcards and e-mailed you a thank you this morning only to find that you are the "artist of the week" here at MMSA!! I love the way the Universe works. You are one talented mama and I am happy to have gotten a piece of art from you in our passing on this earth! XO

  7. deLIGHTfull!! so glad to "meet" you and learn so much about your wondrous Life's story!!!