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Tuesday, April 01st, 2014 | Author:

What do you get when a Forester and a Therapist have kids?

Apparently you get 3 artists. What?

Before she died, my sister was going to school studying math and music. To be honest, she started as a math major, because she was brilliant. Truly. And then somewhere in there, she realized what she really wanted to do was to just teach piano, which she was already doing.

She was an incredible pianist, and she’d been teaching for a few years.  She was a pretty insecure person (as many of us are) and that made her come across as harsh a lot of times.  But when she played piano, and apparently when she taught piano, she was relaxed. She was in her element.

I’ve become friends with some people who I discovered were students of hers.  It’s a fun thing to see her through their eyes — because when she was in the midst of her art form, when she was at a piano, she was still fierce, and fast, and passionate, but she was raw. She didn’t wear her emotions on her sleeves in life, but she did wear them on her fingertips at the piano.

My brother, after starting to go to school as a pre-med student, because, similar to my sister, he is brilliant, has become a professional photographer. He can and does shoot everything from weddings, portraits, high school sports games, public events, clubs and nightlife, to car accidents and wildland fires. In this day of so many iPhone photographers, not everyone makes photography a true art, but he does.

He is an expert at capturing humanity, capturing nature, encapsulating moments that beg to be remembered. And he does it really well. His chemistry and physics professors, and many of us who know him, could see him being an astrophysicist, because his mind just works like that. But he has this desire in his heart to tell stories, to make art, to be a photographer. Maybe he will be an engineer or a physicist or something very brainy someday, too. But for now, he’s discovered an artist within his heart, and he’s letting that artist explore, breathe, learn and grow.

And I have not yet found my niche. My best subject in school was always math. It came really easily to me… and I hated it. I played instruments growing up. But I just made it my thing because I wanted to be like Julie. I took a photography class my senior year of high school. That’s not my thing either.  But in my freshman year of college I took my first journalism class, and I began to think, maybe I’m a writer. As I’ve moved forward, that idea has evolved: I’m a story-teller, and to this day I’m still discovering new ways to tell the stories. I’ve started a hashtag to catalog some of my drawings/paintings etc.  It’s #artstuffbyjo . I went with the vaguest thing I could think of because like I said, I’m still learning what my “thing” might be. For now, I just know it’s “art stuff.”

My words, my charcoal, my paint,(maybe someday my acting?), these are all ways to tell the story. For Jason, he tells stories through photos. For Julie, she expressed something in music that hits the human soul in a way that words cannot. We all ended up artists. Jason is brilliant in the sciences. Julie and I both have the math brains.  And yet, our expressions, the work of our hands that holds meaning for us — those things are not numbers and chemicals and formulas. They are expressions of what it means to be human. What it means to feel.

We’ve always joked that “as a family, we’re good at lots of things, but art isn’t one of them.” We thought we’d missed that gene. We were wrong.


Why are we like this? How did this happen, coming from two artistically challenged parents? We all grew up reading whole book series out loud as a family.  Before we could speak, as young babes, we could listen. Story-telling has been a part of our lives since then.

That’s where we got our artistic and story-telling inclination. But we ended up each deciding to follow it because of this: We had two parents who both did what they loved.

My mom works in the therapy world and she comes to life by helping people get healing in the most wounded areas of their lives. My dad was a forester, and the man will get very interested in a conversation with you if you would like to know about what kind of tree that is over there.  And he can map out areas of the forest for you (literally… he does cartography).

And aside from loving what they do, they’re both really really good at what they do.  My dad has been an expert witness for the department of justice in several cases about forest fires. My mom has people who have come from literally around the world to see her as a therapist.

But you know why any of that matters? Because they told us that old adage that people scoff at: “You can be anything you want to be.” They always told us that and I think they believed it. And we believed it, because they lived it in their own lives. They both did what they loved to do.

We have plenty of our own family drama and dynamics, like any family. But one thing I have always known deep in my soul is this: My parents believe in me. And in Jason. And in Julie.

They’ve always believed in us. They’ve always been impressed with our accomplishments, and their support has encouraged us to dream big, and given us the permission to dream small. They made space for us to discover what we wanted to be.

With the knowledge that they believe in me has also come the knowledge that they will still love me even if I fail. They have accepted us as we’ve each individually turned away from the traditional path of “success” that our skill sets and the world had set out for us, and turned toward something that was riskier, yet meant more to us.

Because we believe in each other, we believe that anything could happen. And we’ll support each other no matter what happens. Somewhere along the way, our family recipe for success, “do your best,” was replaced with the riskier, more audacious, “you might as well try.” And that, perhaps, is the greatest atmosphere we could have to turn our potential energy into kinetic energy. To turn our dreams into reality.

That is how we O’Hanlon artists were born.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

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