- Associated Press - Monday, February 19, 2018

NEWPORT, Minn. (AP) - Ara Elizabeth was out of town on a business trip when she found herself in the presence of something unexpected: free time.

At first, the mother of three decided to do something most parents of young children would understand.

“I was going to take a nap,” said the 37-year-old writer and artist from Newport.

To help herself fall asleep, she chose a grown-up kind of lullaby: “I was scrolling through my phone, of course,” she told the Pioneer Press .

This was in November 2016 - not a restful time on social media.

“It was right after the election,” she said. “My news feed was so devastating. Everything was so polarizing, harsh, angry and sad.”

She said being on social media made her feel horrible.

“The internet is an amazing place, but it can also feed our souls in a really dark way,” she said. “We’re all exposed to everything in the world all the time.”

As she turned off her phone, she felt both awake and tired.

“I needed a nap,” she said, “but I felt an overwhelming urge to write.”

Thinking of her children and what she wanted them to know, she released the words on the page.

“I probably wrote it in 15 minutes,” she said.

She sums up the poetry-like prose this way: “It’s about being your best self in the world - regardless of how dark and scary or even great the world is; to always put our best selves forward and to guide our children to do the same.”

To rise; to shine.

The setting might have helped the artist release her creativity: She was in a guest house in the desert of Arizona, the vacation home of an author she had collaborated with on an art book they were promoting. “

It was a beautiful space,” she said of the property, “and there was all this silence and all this sun.”

Back home in the happy chaos of family life, the artist returned to social media.

“Well, this feels a bit vulnerable for me,” she wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 23, 2016. “I share my art+life frequently, not my writing. But here I go. I wrote this for myself and my kiddos, and now, I give it to you and yours.”

The 206 words started with these: Here, little one. Will you carry this light? Will you bring forth your goodness? Will your heart shine so bright?

Along with the words, she shared a golden-hued illustration that she had created of two children frolicking with foxes, butterflies and stars.

Her friends and followers approved. Some of the comments said it was “just what the world needs!” and would make the “perfect children’s book.”

Aa Elizabeth considered this feedback.

“At the time,” she said, “I was working on another book. But what I posted online seemed really timely, like people were craving positive words. I decided that I needed to put my focus on that.”

She put the other book on the back burner and focused on the children’s book.

“(I) went to Wise Ink (a book publishing service) and said, ‘I just wrote this, and at this time in our current events and world, it’s really resonating with people and I need to bring it forward.’ I started illustrating it the next week, and worked all year on illustrations for it,” she said.

Although the self-taught artist describes her style as “playful and vibrant,” writing and illustrating a children’s book isn’t always fun.

“It was the only thing I worked on for a year - I had no other income, I was just making the book - and there were times I felt burned out and tired, when I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” she said. “But my kids said, ‘You can’t quit . Mom, you have to keep going, you have to make this book.’”

Her children, who are 5, 7 and 9, also served as her creative consultants.

“They had a lot of input and insight on the illustrations: If you notice, one page has a child with no hair,” she said. “They went to school with a child going through chemo - so they told me, ‘You have to make sure they’re represented, too.’ They were part of the process.”

This artist’s creative process has been a journey: Elizabeth is from Inver Grove Heights, and although she has lived in both St. Paul and Minneapolis over the years, she and her husband, Mike, recently moved their family to acreage in Newport. The couple used to run a nature-based child care program, but as their family grew, their path changed: Mike now works at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Center for Neurobehavioral Development, while Elizabeth is focusing on her art and writing.

Her experience with early childhood education was helpful when it came to this particular art project.

“I’ve been a preschool teacher a lot of my life,” she said. “For the illustrations in the book, I thought of my own kids, but also of all the other kids I’ve cared for through the years: How I wanted to represent all of them and how impossible that is. But, by making the skin match the background, and leaving the facial expressions blank except for the eyes, I think a child can imagine themselves in the art versus if it was a very defined child.”

Her use of mixed media dates back to her own childhood.

“I remember my mom helping us do these Halloween pictures,” she said. “We colored with crayons and painted over them with black watercolor paint.”

The result was an image that she remembers shining and glowing.

“It felt super magical to me and I still do a lot of work like that, with beeswax crayons as a base with ink or watercolor over it,” she said.

Elizabeth used acrylics, inks, watercolors and beeswax to create the 25 paintings that became this book - scenes of children in hijabs and ponytails; sailing ships through starry nights; growing gardens and feeding animals; holding up lanterns of light to the darkness.

By September 2017, nearly a year after the election, Elizabeth’s book project was nearing completion - but it was still in need of funding.

“I put together a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of printing and publishing the book,” she said.

The campaign included a video and a description of the book: “Rise and Shine is a book calling to our children, and to all of us, to rise up and shine on. To know that we are here to create change, illuminate goodness, and that even the simplest acts can be catalysts.”

The campaign went well - really well.

“My goal was $15,000,” Elizabeth said. “In three weeks, I raised over $20,000. It was really incredible.”

She was able to print 2,500 books. In December, she mailed about 500 copies of the book to her backers - in total, 367 people contributed $22,767 to the project.

“I spent two weeks straight packing and shipping the books,” she said. “There were so many people I didn’t know, more than I did know. That’s been fascinating to me. I don’t know how people came to it - I shipped to California, a couple dozen to Australia, one went to Hong Kong . what? Hong Kong? How does that happen?”

The book is also sold locally, including at Mischief Toy Store in St. Paul, which called the book “a beautiful and poetic call to action for all ages.”

The artist describes it as a reminder.

“It’s a reminder of the most essential things that are a part of being human: kindness, compassion and respect for each other,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not a new message, it’s just that we always need that reminder.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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