Work of heart.

Brewed in the Heart of Memphis

Brewed in the Heart of Memphis, Jennifer Balink 2016

So, a photograph is a picture made with light, a sliver of an instant, frozen in time. Nothing more; nothing less. It’s a split-second reaction between particles of light and some surface that catches them – film, coated paper, a digital board.

Sometimes, the lucky times, the picture made with light captures something beyond a literal image. You might hear, from time to time, someone resist having a picture taken, might hear someone say that a picture takes a piece of the subject’s soul. It’s actually the opposite; in the end, a photograph is a piece of the picture-maker.

When I was a sophomore in college I learned to make pictures with light from Emmet Gowin, a Virginia native who, as it happened, was in the same class at Rhode Island School of Design as Murray Riss, who was (is) a well-known photographer living in Memphis and who was also teaching students to make pictures with light at the Art Academy (now Memohis College of Art), in the photography department which he started in 1968. Remember this part of the story.

At the time I met him, in the mid 1980s, Emmet was best known for being the only photographer allowed inside the Mt. St. Helens no-fly zone. His aerial photographs of that geography were – are – stunningly beautiful, and they were a departure from the work that had earned him earlier fame (and representation by Pace-McGill Gallery), portraits of his wife Edith and their extended family, all of which were reminiscent of Harry Callahan, Emmet’s teacher at RISD, only darker and distinctly Southern in a way only a Southerner could understand.

Emmet was chair of the photography department at Princeton, which was housed in a small suite of rooms in the basement of 185 Nassau Street, home to many of the university’s creative departments – painting, printmaking, ceramics, sculpture, creative writing, dance, filmmaking and, as I mentioned, photography. In my graduating class of 1200 or so students, I think there were six of us with Visual Arts Program concentrations, a special designation for students in the Art & Archeology department.

The entire enterprise, which we all called simply “185,” was a tiny secret located off the main campus, next to the ice cream store and not too far from the bar. Visiting artists and writers and dancers, mostly from New York, taught semester classes and came to lecture to the hundred or so undergraduates, walking the halls and smoking Camels and having coffee with faculty like Emmet and John McPhee and visiting artists and writers like Elizabeth Murray and Toni Morrison.

I stumbled into 185 as a painter, in the spring of my freshman year, and emerged, three and a half years later, as a photographer of sorts, having learned to make pictures with light from an art photographer, not a photojournalist, in a very small, very concentrated art program that hid in the shadows of the more widely recognized E-Quad and Woodrow Wilson School. And then, for a brief time, I taught photography. And then I did a few other, different things, not having much heart for the business of art. It is one thing to create the work. It is entirely different, both for the art and for the artist, to exhibit, market, sell, and promote promote promote.

But I have never not been an artist, never not loved art, never not continued to work on my work, whether that work has been seen or unseen (that, mostly) by anyone other than me. I have stacks and folders and boxes of sketches, prints, watercolors, photographs and miscellany from the decades in between when art was my work-work and now.


The artist in me has needed some careful coaxing and nudging and encouraging in the years after leaving the safe haven of college to navigate the big, bad world. It is one thing to learn how to create art, but another thing to learn how to share it. This is where Murray comes in.

In 1993 the Midtown Mental Health Initiative (I think that was its name) hosted a February fundraiser called Works of Heart. Local Memphis artists, about 50 of them, were given a wooden heart, roughly 12×12, and asked to produce a work of art for a silent auction, held at the WMC-TV5 studio, to benefit MMHI. Two of the creators of the event were Karen, a therapist, and her husband, photographer Murray Riss, who was, to me, an intimidating mix of intrigue and mystery and magic. He still is those things, though no longer intimidating, as he is now both a friend and a neighbor.

The event was a great party and a great success for the non-profit agency that hosted it, so the next year it was even bigger. Thanks to an artist friend who had been among the initial participants, I was invited to join the  artists – a larger group, including both top who’s-who and newcomer-unknowns (like me) – for the second annual event, in 1994, at the Oak Court Mall, where I met Murray, local legend, in real life for the very first time. The next year Murray and the committee invited me back, and the next, and the next, and so on.

I don’t know a single other person quite like Murray Riss. He is warm and funny and serious and prophetic and talented and grateful and abundant and kind. He is accepting of faults and shortcomings, but not too much so. He’s the sort of teacher no student wants to disappoint, not fearing wrath or retribution but because Murray invests his own heart into what he expects from others, and no decent human being wants to break another person’s heart, not even a tiny bit. Especially not Murray’s.

For 24 years now Murray has invested his heart into encouraging fellow artists – many different kinds of artists of varying levels of experience, recognition and acclaim – to pour bits of themselves into work that will turn into money that will turn into programs and services to benefit people whose hearts are in fragile, healing states. Many of the artists are local, high-profile superstars; others, like me, are mostly off the radar. Every year, after the auction, Murray writes a personal note to each and every artist commenting on the work he or she contributed. Each and every one of us, superstar or not.

As things change over time, so has Works of Heart. In a story I’ll abbreviate greatly, both the event and the stellar executive director of the agency that founded the event moved to the Memphis Child Advocacy Center about 15 years ago. The auction is now held at the Memphis College of Art, and it’s a real art show, not a temporary showcase on tables draped in black polyester and sprinkled around a makeshift setting. There are more than 100 artists each year, though the line-up changes a bit from one to the next. Last year, to my delight, Bernard (who has for years helped me assemble and frame my pieces) let his inner artist come out to play, and he joined the slate.

There are a few constants: Murray. Karen. The 12 x 12 wooden hearts. Our friend Garland. Local artists. February.

But mostly Murray.

Thirty years ago, my friend Emmet taught me to make pictures with light. Over the past 23 years, my friend Murray has taught me how to keep making them, how to share a piece of my heart. Because, really, what’s the point otherwise.

Bernard Balink Change of Heart 2016

Change of Heart, by Bernard Balink 2016

Works of Heart is tonight, February 6, 2016 at 7 p.m., Memphis College of Art. Tickets are available at the door. If you’re in Memphis and don’t have other plans, come join us.

Also, happy birthday to you, Murray; and thank you.

Food | Week of February 8, 2016

Swiss chard 2014

Thanks to everyone who sent enthusiastic messages about the return of the weekly dinner menu; they made me happy. And returning to a dinner plan is making both my family and me happier than you know; so there’s that.

The report from last week’s line-up gave thumbs-up to the Farmers Market Quinoa Salad (which I’m making tonight for an early supper). If you didn’t make it, there’s still time (always).

This week I’ll have some help from the fine folks at Plated and The Fresh Market, because life is complicated enough.

From Plated (which unfortunately does not allow linking other than to the main site):

From The Fresh Market:

From Jennifer’s Cookbook Collection: ode to David Tanis (this week, from One Good Dish, 2013)

If I can cook dinner, so can you.

planning desk 1.12.13

The cold truth is that there simply is not enough time to do it all. For this very reason, as you may remember, once upon a time, I used to make a weekly dinner plan. Which is what I’d really like to talk about, just for a bit, not too long. Also, buried at the end of this rambling post is a weekly dinner plan that is not unlike the old ones.

As a refresher,

Many years ago I made a weekly plan for my family, and I printed the plan, and we all worked from the plan, and the plan was good. Boring, but good. The plan covered breakfast, lunch and dinner. The plan included lots of chicken, pasta, grilled cheese and Taco Tuesdays because even though I love to cook-cook dinner at our house included (still includes) finicky kids. And it got us out of the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru line (mostly) and back to the dinner table, even on days when I worked later than I meant to and kids had sports practice and the dogs needed to be walked and so on.



I started including weekly dinner plans at the end of weekly posts – just five things each week, with links to the recipes I was going to use, recipes that were mostly tried-and-true (think Ina Garten) though sometimes a tiny bit adventuresome (think Saveur), often tied to whatever was fresh at our neighborhood farmers market.



Feeling super-energetic and ready for something new and exciting (bored with baked chicken), I decided to start a second, DAILY, dinner-focused blog and also to create a dinner planning book and related tools. And I explored dinner subscription services like Blue Apron and Plated and Home Chef and Hello Fresh. And I did a tiny bit of market research and had a few ideas about how it all might come together. And I thought to myself: dinner, you are my life’s work. 


I went on a diet, the book project died, the second blog overwhelmed me, I turned 50, my favorite dog died, my work-work got complicated, I hit a melancholy spell, and I mostly gave up cooking dinner. At least for a while.

I thought I was the only one who cared, in any event, about the whole dinner thing. My children would be happy as pigs in mud to live on frozen chicken patties, fresh fruit, Caesar salad, string cheese, Goldfish and Cheerios. Occasionally they would like pancakes and scrambled eggs.


My daughter started asking why I didn’t really cook dinner much anymore, like with magazines and cookbooks as guides, and why we were always having the same things, and what ever happened to the weekly dinner plan. And when I said that I didn’t think anyone liked what I was cooking, she said: well I liked some of it. And then my son said the same thing. And so did Bernard.


I decided it was time for a comeback, and for the past month we’ve been back to A SEMBLANCE OF our old dinner routine. With some help from my old friend, Plated, which was the clear winner in my box service investigation. The recipes are good and interesting, but not weird. The produce and other ingredients are good. The quantities are right. Et cetera.

If you are thinking to yourself: that seems an awfully expensive way to eat, you are mostly correct. It is pricey, but not as pricey as eating out or as pricey as throwing away the entire weekly farmers market haul because I couldn’t get my act together to cook it. But understand that the Plated box isn’t an every week thing at our house, nor is it a dinner for four plan. We get three meals for two people about every other week, and I stretch the recipes or round them out with other things (salad, bread, roasted vegetables) so that each meal for two will actually feed four with virtually no leftovers left to develop mold in the back of my refrigerator.

And I also subscribe to Gathered Table, where the recipes are terrible but the organizational tool is a solid B; so the plan is a starting point, and then I use my own recipes.

So between those two subscription supplements, and with ongoing inspiration from Michelle and Steve at Gourmandistan, and with the huge archive of my own dinner plans and notes and posts and scribbles, and with my family’s surprise encouragement, I’m back at it, possibly on a weekly basis, though I’m reluctant to make any promises. And we’re back at the table, though not every single night. Because sometimes even I need bigotry, ignorance, a week’s worth of sodium, Jesus, and a gall bladder attack.

Food | Week of February 1, 2015

the incredible edible egg

From Plated: nothing; we’re skipping this week

Ideas from Gathered Table: black bean burritos, sheet pan salmon with Caesar salad

From Jennifer’s archive: Ina’s weeknight Bolognese, baked eggs with sourdough toast and citrus salad

Something new: Farmers market quinoa salad

Why not be you.

So, the highlight of my week was a Facebook, um, conversation with my sister. This is the same sister, my favorite sister, who for several years was on Facebook boycott but who decided, about a year ago, that she missed being connected to people she couldn’t see everyday. Meaning people who do not live in Minnesota. Meaning, among others, me.

And in case you are thinking that it is very uncharitable of me to single out a favorite sister, you need to know that she is my only sister. And even though I asked God to please bring me a kitty cat instead of a baby sister when my mother was pregnant, I’m glad God didn’t listen to that particular prayer.

Anyway, my sister, who used to teach ballet and now is an ob/gyn, posts lots of funny and interesting links and articles, most of which I enjoy, even though some I could do without, like the one about vaginal steam cleaning (her post was, in essence: DO NOT DO THIS).

One of Margaret’s favorite sources to share is The Blogess, because, well, The Blogess. I am pretty sure I introduced Margaret to Jenny Lawson’s blog after my friend Mary, who is very funny, shared what remains one of the funniest posts I have ever read ever, mostly because it describes a situation that sort of actually happened in my own household, and one that sort of actually happened in my sister’s household, because all of us – Jenny Lawson, Margaret and I (and probably Mary) – are married to men who could not accept “because I fucking feel like it” as a suitable reason for buying new bathroom towels.

Also, both Jenny Lawson and my sister routinely give me a much needed boost of courage to continue being me. And while you may be thinking that that does not seem to be a particular challenge here, I promise you that if I have learned only one thing in living this long it is that everyone, every single person, needs that same exact boost, and regularly.

So Tuesday afternoon while I was sitting in the carpool line, I was scrolling through the  Facebook feed on my phone and saw this:

Margaret Larkey Dow Oh, Jennifer Larkey Balink. That’s four. Happy. Also everyone else.

The happiest four words. The saddest four words. | The Bloggess

Victor: I read something about a contest where you have to come up with the saddest story in just four words, and I think I’ve nailed it.

 And since it was such a sweet four word story from my sister and such a funny and oddly inspiring post from that awesome Jenny Lawson, I thought it only right to add my own four-word-happy-story response back to my favorite sister, the former ballerina turned doctor.

And then, because I had a little idle time on my hands, I got a little carried away, and …. well, you’ll see:

Jennifer Larkey Balink She rocked that tutu.

Jennifer Larkey Balink The dog quit farting.
Jennifer Larkey Balink Also, that knock knock post is my favorite of all time ever. I re- read it sometimes just because. And I think of you every time.
Jennifer Larkey Balink Her laughter was magic.
Jennifer Larkey Balink Love magnified their treasure.
Margaret Larkey DowAmazement is all around.
Jennifer Larkey Balink The sisters were nuts.
Courtney Murrah Y’all are so related.
Margaret Larkey Dow luckiest little sister ever
Margaret Larkey DowOur friends are patient.

Jennifer Larkey Balink Then everyone got chocolate.

Jennifer Larkey Balink Or perhaps: Then everyone got whiskey.

Jennifer Larkey Balink But definitely not: Then everyone got frisky.

Margaret Larkey Dow Scotch. And three more.

Jennifer Larkey Balink There will be cussing.

Margaret Larkey Dowi’m biting my tongue.

Now it’s your turn.