Prayer wheels artwork by Nagel-Gogolak.
I am a writer. My friend Nicole is an artist. She claims that she can’t write. I claim that I lack artistic ability. Although our creative mediums are different, we have a lot in common when it comes to pursuing our passions. Both Nicole’s art and my writing are shaped by our personal experiences, our self-identities, and the lenses through which we see the world. Like books, art tells stories. And these stories bring a piece of art to life.
The cover of my novel, Lost and Found in Aspen, is an image of Nicole’s sought-after art, which she aptly named “Prayer Wheels,” made from slices of wood and painted with hot wax. Although the photograph of her wheels is pretty––it doesn’t do them justice. When you admire them hanging on a wall in person, you can feel their energy and the intuitive message each one conveys. Learning about the origin and inspiration behind Nicole’s work enables the viewer to have a better appreciation of the depth and power of her art.
This is Nicole’s story, in her words:
In 2011, I went on a soul-searching trek to the Himalayas where I became entranced by the meditative power of the art in Buddhist temples. The fusion of sacred meaning into visual imagery resonated deeply with me. I was particularly moved by the crowds of Tibetans in Kora, circumambulating the city and spinning prayer wheels while chanting the prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Walking in unison with them, I felt the transformative power of this beautiful pilgrimage. The prayer wheels worn down from the touch of so many intentioned hands, the clicking sound they made as each passerby gently spun them to continue their unending spiral path, the smell of yak butter candles, and the beautiful rustling of colorful indigenous garments shuffling in pace, step after step––awoke my senses.
When I returned to the mountains of Colorado, I started making my “Prayer Wheels” series. I knew I wanted to find a way to capture this spiritual and synesthetic experience through a combination of sight, sound, touch, and smell into a visual image that also incorporated the natural beauty that I have always found so moving and inspirational. The circular wood grain of the log slices and finely etched lines fused with colored wax was the perfect representation of what I had felt on my travels through Nepal and Tibet. And the grain in the wood slice symbolized time, growth, and even struggle––which is pure and authentic.
Several years prior to this trip, a life-altering tragedy had shattered my heart and sent me on a frantic search for connection and deeper meaning in a world that felt empty and broken. Through my art, I began to heal and become whole again. Each wheel I created held a prayer, intention of hope, or a new beginning. It was a journey of putting my heart back together piece by piece. As I added color and ink to create the sublime surfaces, I was reminded of the present and divine moments in life. Just like the pilgrimage in Tibet, every prayer wheel I make holds its own unique intention: wish, prayer, or blessing to be bestowed upon by the viewer, and many pieces come together to form a whole. My work is satisfying and powerful because it merges my love of the outdoors by unifying an intricate collaboration between the artist and nature. When I am arranging all the individual slices across a wall, they become something much larger and lovelier than I had intended. That is where the visual magic happens, similar to a breathtaking moment one feels as they look up at the sun dancing through the leaves of the trees or the dazzling light skipping across a lake as the sun sets on the horizon in a warm summer glow. There is visual poetry that happens in these moments. It is this type of expression that I strive to recreate as I assemble numerous pieces of my work in various sizes across a wall.
For more information about Nicole and her artwork, check out her website: nicolenagelgogolak.com.
“Follow the Money,” a poem by Lori Gurtman.
Follow The Money
Nonviolent offenders fill our prisons
Monsanto grows food with GMO poison
People are dying of opioid addiction
Big banks get away with corruption
Mass shootings are on the rise
Congress puts gun control laws aside
Big Oil batters the Earth with its drills
Global warming threatens, destroys, kills
The FDA approves drugs with dangerous side effects
The DEA ignores marijuana’s medicinal benefits
Affluent schools get supplies galore
Cronyism fuels a divisive class war
Follow the money
The beautiful mountains of Aspen, Colorado.
A few years ago, when my friend Nicole and I came up with the storyline for Lost and Found in Aspen, we felt that our beautiful mountain town needed to be the setting, and it would play an important role in the story. Having both grown up in small suburbs, thousands of miles away from Colorado, we landed in Aspen much later in life, proud to call it our home.
My husband and I decided to move to Aspen on a whim. Life was treating us well. We had two small kids, lived in a suburb of northern New Jersey, about thirty miles from New York City, and we had a wonderful group of friends. But we were bored. We wanted to try something new, give ourselves an adventure of sorts, a different experience. Many years ago, after vacationing in Aspen, we planted a seed in our vision for the future: we would move there one day. The seed lay dormant for a long time, until the opportunity presented itself nearly a decade later. And that was it. We put our house on the market and took off in a U-Haul, like pioneers migrating to the west in search of a better life. Once we settled in our new land, we never looked back.
Almost everyone I’ve met in Aspen has a story to tell about how they ended up in our small mountain town. Some people thought they would come for a little while after college, some stopped in on the way to somewhere else. Ski bums came to ski, and some people were looking to escape the rat race. Regardless of what drove each of them to Aspen, there was something that kept everyone planted in the soil for good, along with a willingness to accept the sacrifices that one must make to reside full-time in an expensive vacation destination. With exorbitant real estate prices, proprietors who are dependent on the influx of seasonal tourists face a greater financial burden. In addition, other than the service industry, there are fewer business opportunities compared to major metropolitan areas, unless you can work from home, you’re willing to travel, or you have a large trust fund. Living in Aspen is a tradeoff: residents have given up conveniences at a cost––for a community that values the outdoor lifestyle, embraces nature’s gifts, and appreciates fresh mountain air.
For those of us who have made Aspen our home, we share a little secret. We innately understand that life is more about collecting experiences rather than a race to acquire material possessions. We are aligned with the ebb and flow of the universe. The tourists swell the town, then they go home. Dancing at the sight of the first snowfall in autumn, we look forward to another ski season. And just when we think we won’t have enough snow, it comes. We race for the slopes on a powder day, giggling down runs filled with cloud-like layers.
Winter is long, but then it melts and the flowers bloom. We hike to the top of the peak and relish in the magnificent views. We bike with the breeze blowing through our hair. We welcome and listen to renowned speakers, scholars, authors, politicians, and live concerts. On a sunny day, we sit outside at a restaurant, sipping drinks and watching a colorful array of tourists walk past. In that moment, we’re happy to be alive, elated to be exactly where we’re supposed to be––appreciative and grateful for the blessed wonders that grace and enrich our souls.
Aspen has given me an abundance of gifts, and this was why I wanted it to play a starring role in my debut novel, Lost and Found in Aspen. I wanted to shine a light—for those who’ve never been and for those who have—and celebrate the small town that gives me so much sunshine.
A trip through 80s nostalgia.
I recently came across an old letter I had written to my children a few years ago after a night out at Belly Up to see the Spazmatics. Here it is:
In the next few years you will begin to experience all kinds of exciting firsts: first kiss, first crush, maybe even first love. While you navigate through life, you will try to understand human nature, your peers, and relationships. The memories you make throughout your childhood will be etched in your mind, helping to shape the adults you will one day become.
I was once like you: innocent, curious, and living in the present. As an adult, I sometimes forget how it felt to be young.
A few nights ago, I went to Belly Up to see the Spazmatics, an 80s cover band. The music and energy brought out feelings that have been bottled up since my teen years. I danced to my favorite 80s tunes. A decade of the most popular song lyrics came out of my mouth, loud and out of tune. Yet I didn’t care. I had the time of my life.
When the band launched into “Come on Eileen” I was no longer a forty-one-year-old mother and wife. I was ten, twelve, fifteen, growing up in Sudbury, Massachusetts. I was lying on the pink carpet in my bedroom surrounded by loud, flowered wallpaper, listening to my favorite cassette tapes, daydreaming. I called my friends on my yellow-corded, touch-tone phone and asked them if my latest crush liked me. I danced to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in front of my wicker mirror, waiting to be called downstairs for dinner. As soon as I finished eating and cleared the table, I ran back to my room and turned up the volume on “Eye of the Tiger” on my Sony boom box.
Hearing other memorable tunes, such as “867-5309/Jenny” and “Summer of ‘69” brought me back to my years at Camp Naticook, secretly praying that a boy would ask me to dance at a social. My heart fluttered when he walked by. I experienced my first kiss at the flagpole and then raced back to my bunk to tell my girlfriends about it.
On Sundays in my childhood home, I listened to Casey Kasem rattle off the hottest songs on American Top 40. Immersed in the music, I sat in the kitchen at our white Formica table eating Doritos and Oreo cookies and squirting globs of Cheese Wiz in my mouth, and then washing it all down with a can of Coke. Vegetables, weight gain, processed food, and sugar content meant nothing to me.
By 11:30 p.m. the four Spazmatic band members, dressed up like 80s nerds, ended the show with “1999.” Still feeling euphoric, I grabbed your dad’s hand and sauntered out of the Belly Up. All that dancing made us hungry. We grabbed a slice from NY Pizza, and then I was back in my college days, munching late-night with the man I would one day marry.
When I got home that night, it was once again 2014. I felt different. Reminiscing made me feel alive and youthful.
The music you listen to during your formative years will be embedded in your hearts, and one day, twenty-five years from now, you will hear those same tunes and be brought back to the age of innocence. Remember––life is a highway––enjoy every moment.
A Strand of Gray Hair
It arrived out of nowhere
One strand of gray hair
Resembling a lone aspen tree
Lost in a forest of evergreens
I will never know
How much time I have left
Aging occurs without consent
I pluck it off my head
Where newborn peach fuzz once grew
And the golden strands of my youth
Now my caramel locks are highlighted
I examine the plucked hair
Nickel-colored, coarse and strong
It reflects light
A sign from the afterlife
The soul remains the same
While I physically transform
This is the first
But it won’t be the last
There’s nothing I can do
To prevent these gray hairs from springing
Instead of lamenting my age
I relish my wisdom