Where Artists Get Inspiration: The Spark for The Purses Project

In my very first blog post I wrote about my wonderful grandmother and her untimely death to cancer as the inspiration for The Purses Project. Artists are inspired by so many things from the things we see to the experiences we go through or the injustice we notice. I’ve compared “inspiration” for artwork coming as a spark and (for me at least) it’s like a movie about painting starts playing in my head but with no sound only colors, forms, lines, etc. Ultimately, most artists are using color, line and form to SAY something of importance about the world they live in. Even if it’s just a quiet reminder to “notice”.

The Prince of Flowers ,Painting by Jamie Howell

The Prince of Flowers, Painting by Jamie Howell

I notice lots of things, especially the little unimportant things. I love to notice things in nature like dandelions or the metallic shell of a June bug. Not from a distance mind you, but very close up. I have always loved being in nature since my childhood in Tennessee.
detail of painting by Jamie Howell

detail of painting by Jamie Howell

A reminder to look up and “notice” people began with my graduate thesis and a field trip.
As part of our Art & Community class, our professor proposed a field trip to The Names Project in Atlanta. The Names Project is also commonly known as the Aids Memorial Quilt. I was not excited about trekking through downtown Atlanta traffic, but this field trip impacted me and was a creative spark for The Purses Project. The quilt is a monumental artwork that honors the significance of each person’s life lost to AIDS and the beautifully creative ways people heal from loss and grief. At the end of our tour, regardless of our different views or backgrounds, my classmates and I left saddened, reflective and deeply moved by this exhibit.
a quilt panel of the Aids Memorial Quilt

a quilt panel of the Aids Memorial Quilt

As we moved to the back where the squares are stored and sewn, a reverent silence fell among the staggering view of shelves. The warehouse room was lined with shelf after shelf of quilt squares and deep storage containers-everywhere. Every open space of the tall shelves held hand-crafted quilt squares tightly stacked together and quietly waiting. Each quilt square waiting for a volunteer seamstress to sew various squares together into a 3×6 ft. quilt panel–and more squares will arrive almost daily to be added to these.
the aids quilt for notice blog post
aids quilt containers for notice blog post
As I stopped in front of a shelf, I realized each brightly colored fabric represented a life, not a statistic. As a mother, I knew that each square represented a child that a mother once held in her arms or someone’s grandchild or brother and so on. Each square is as uniquely different as the life is represents and sewn by family members or loved ones in a creative outpouring of love and grief. According to the http://www.aidsquilt.org, the colorful tapestry of 48,000 quilt panels serves as “a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease”.
Shelf of quilt squares

Shelf of quilt squares

As I drove home, I reflected on the Aids Quilt and the loss represented. For some reason, the loss of my grandmother to cancer nearly 20 years earlier began to resurface. I re-felt that pain in ways I had forgotten and ways I hadn’t given myself previous permission or time to feel. I realized that each panel maker of the AIDS Quilt had used art-making as a way to tell the story of their loved one and the devastation of AIDS but also as a courageous act to heal from their own grief. Over the next few weeks, through many other conversations, events and research that would make this a more lengthy post; the Purses Project was born.
This quilt maker creatively used the actual clothing and hospital bracelet belonging to their loved one lost to AIDS

This quilt maker creatively used the actual clothing and hospital bracelet belonging to their loved one lost to AIDS

The focus of the project is the cancer epidemic among women. The feminine tool, the purse, is transformed into memorial art to honor individual women lost to cancer. The surface of a purse is “altered” with mixed media techniques to tell each woman’s unique story. Like the AIDS Quilt, this project is only possible through community involvement; individuals choosing to make an altered purse for their own female family member or loved one lost to cancer. As community members create purses in honor of their significant woman lost to cancer they will find empowerment and healing for their own grief. The ultimate goal for the project is a gallery exhibit of altered purses which lifts women out of the anonymity of statistics and signifies the ripple effect of each female life. Like the Aids Quilt, the true impact of cancer will be seen with the visual representation of many purses shown in mass number.

This was my most lengthy post to date and I appreciate your wading through the words and listening to my heart. If you have a lost a significant female in your life to cancer, please consider joining The Purses Project by making a purse.

Live Creatively,


Life Imprints Activity: Recalling Memories of your Significant Female

blog pic  may 16 IMG_20130427_121452
On Grief and Life Imprints
During my graduate studies for this project, I found a technique used in grief therapy called Life Imprints. Life Imprints works on the basis of recalling memories and giving honor to what we have experienced in loss and transition. Many times loss happens quickly or in a way that we are in a heightened coping state and we are not aware of how we are being affected in the moments of the process. Women especially are not given adequate time to grieve as responsibilities to family and career take importance over self-care.
Bearing witness and telling our story is powerful for both us and the significant woman we’ve lost to cancer. In this process, I wanted to tell my grandmother’s story in a way that would honor all that she was, even the parts of her I didn’t fully know. I answered the Life Imprint questions to help me retrace my memories and begin my grandmother’s purse. I “rediscovered” my grandmother and gained confidence in my legacy of womanhood. While making my grandmother’s purse, I experienced the power of art to heal in that I started remembering things about my grandmother that were lost in my memory. Suddenly, I could remember with accurate detail her facial expressions, the smell of her house, the violets she kept in the kitchen window and so many other sweet things. Those sweet memories reclaimed began to replace the memories of her last days with cancer and I began to focus on identifying her without cancer.
If you are starting a purse for the project, consider taking a few moments privately to trace the imprint of your significant female in your life by answering these Life Imprints questions in a journal or notebook:

The person whose imprint I want to trace is:
This person has had the following impact on:
My mannerisms or gestures:
My ways of speaking and communicating:
My work and pastime activities:
My feelings about myself and others:
My basic personality:
My values and beliefs:
The imprints I would most like to affirm and develop are:
The imprints I would most like to relinquish or change are:

Where do I find a purse?

A woman’s purse is a personal statement and a functional feminine tool. Since my grandmother died over 20 years ago, I did not have her purse to use for this project and I’m sure others of you are in the same situation. It may take a little searching, but it is easy to find a purse that will suit your needs for this project. Ideally, a purse that belonged to the significant female would be best but if a purse is not available, consider these options:

Goodwill purse

Goodwill purse

• Thrift stores such as Goodwill. Remember, you will be changing the surface of the purse with photos, paint, etc. so a few scratches or fade spots won’t matter once the purse is finished.
• Online sources such as EBay
• Clearance sales at stores such as Ross, Target or Marshalls.
• Michael’s Arts & Crafts had great unfinished wooden cigar boxes that I easily transformed into a purse. Check with your local cigar shop or cigar enthusiast for these boxes.
• Yard sales or raid your family/friends closets for unwanted purses
• Be creative, there are lots of internet sources for DIY purses that you can sew or make from common or recycled materials.

How do I begin a purse for the project?

The Purses Project is only in the beginning stages and needs your unique story to grow and become a powerful message concerning significant women lost to cancer and the grief we share. If it’s time to tell your story of the remarkable woman you’ve lost to cancer, here’s how you can begin.
• Gather photos, personal items, letters or mementos that belonged to or represent the significant female (photo/color copy the originals). Find a purse that belonged to your significant female or buy a purse that would match her style or taste.

• Clean the purse with alcohol and a cotton ball and then prime the purse with gesso (found at Michael’s Arts&Crafts). You can skip the priming step if you want to keep the original purse color.



• Now, let your creativity rule—Paint the background if you wish, and decoupage photos and personal items to the purse surface. Paper items can be easily attached with Mod Podge and heavier items with adhesive such as E6000 (available at Michael’s Arts & Crafts or Home Depot). The purse can be altered or embellished with paint, stamps, stencils, mixed media objects, collage, drawing, sewing and many other art tools and techniques.
blog version blog pic  may 16 IMG_20130427_121452

• Names are important in this project, so the full name of the significant female should be in a prominent position on the purse, creatively displayed and easy to read from a viewing distance. Also, the full name of the purse maker should be included on the back of the purse.
blog version completed purse
blog version of name on back
• The purse is open to personal interpretation and should be a visual celebration of the life of the significant woman. Consider not only her family roles but her significance in her culture, community and world.
• When you have finished your purse, please consider submitting the purse for future exhibit purposes or simply upload a picture to the online gallery (under construction). Our goal is to obtain 50 completed purses and seek a gallery for an exhibit.
purse complete for blog
Thank you for embarking on this journey. Please contact me if you need support, advice, tips or tricks for completing your purse.
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NEXT BLOG POST: Options for finding a purse

In a nutshell . . .

even smaller blog photo
Hello! Now that I’ve introduced the project and my inspiration, maybe I should introduce myself. My name is Jamie Howell. I am an art teacher, artist, mom, UT football fan (originally from east TN) and enthusiastic lover nature, Starbucks and this crazy thing called life. I’m certainly no one special, never considered a community leader or radical but I have an idea that could possibly be “something”, but only with your help. I’m inviting anyone who has lost a beloved woman to cancer to participate in a community arts project where participants creatively transform a purse into a memorial art form. All of our voices together can create a new conversation around the topic of cancer and bring awareness to the lasting impact of just one woman lost to cancer. We can transform the story of cancer beyond the suffering and loss and into a beautiful legacy of how women shape our families, community and world. Please be patient with me, I’m not a clever or witty blogger or a social media guru, but I do know about losing my grandmother to cancer and I have seen some healing come from art making as an art teacher and artist. This project is a platform for your story to become part of OUR story of beautiful, powerful women who were truly alive and continue to influence this world through their abiding legacy.

Next blog post:some Q&A on getting started with your purse.