(This article was written while Annie Blake was in hospice. On Dec. 16 her husband announced on Instagram that she had passed.)
“How could it be possible to take in all the sad stories and become big enough to hold them all? Or to compress them into something that shines with any sense at all …”
Every year since 2013, Annie Blake sets herself a daunting task — to paint 30 paintings in 30 days. For the first two years, she painted mountains; then it was houses, followed by horizon lines and then pie charts. In 2017, she threw in an extra challenge, a spring version of the 30 x 30 to celebrate Mother’s Day. For 2018, she went 3-D and painted on spheres — the compositions, she says, almost broke her brain. Usually she creates one painting a day. In 2016, a nasty cold got in the way, and she skipped a few days, but she made up for lost time to finish out the 30 paintings before December 1. She posts her progress on Instagram, where she has a considerable following of friends and fans. This year, however, her followers learned there would be no November challenge. On September 12, Blake posted a message to Instagram: “Yesterday I found out I probably won’t be growing old …” the post began in a typically wry manner. “I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in the wee hours of the morning, alone in the emergency room,” she continued. “I don’t have a lot of information yet, but this community has always been so important to me, and I wanted to let you know what’s going on.” There was only one hashtag: #fuckcancer
Instagram has become an important tool for artists of Blake’s generation (she’s 36). Gallery representation has never been a viable option for the majority of artists: too many of the latter, too few of the former. At the start of this century, the internet promised new possibilities of access for artists, but this was never fully realized until image-dominant Instagram saturated our lives: Fans would no longer have wait two years to see a solo show at some gallery far from their homes; they could follow along, see inside the studio, be exposed to the process, watch live as a new body of work came to fruition. Savvy artists have learned to harness social media, build an audience, create a following. Blake began her art career shortly after joining Instagram, and through the social media platform we can watch her career unfold, from a spare-time side project to something more serious: “I used to think about art sales in terms of how many restaurant meals they would buy me,” she writes in 2015. “(I looove eating out. More than almost anything.) Art income equaled EXTRA. And that was fun. Until I got laid off from my day job this summer and things got really serious really fast.” That unemployment-driven nudge was only an apprenticeship for the real seriousness, which came in 2018, when her husband quit the job that was making him miserable and went back to school, and, for a year, Blake became the sole breadwinner. If nothing else, something like the November challenge is a good way to keep one serious, to keep producing, and to keep an audience engaged.
A staple of the Instagram account is the pithy bio, consisting of a line or two, frequently simple one-word modifiers. She has her own, of course, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with one for her by reading through her thread: Annie K. Blake. Artist. Daughter. Wife. Mother. Feminist. Has a thing for Mt. Timpanogos.
One of Blake’s earliest Instagram posts, in 2012, shows the small green house in Provo her parents lived in when she was born. Annie Kershisnik grew up in an LDS household, a family of six that moved frequently and chose some questionable wardrobes for family pictures (see Oct. 24, 2012). After her parents finished up teaching and MBA degrees at BYU, they moved the family to Minnesota. When she was three, they moved south to Wichita, KS (where her father’s marketing job with Pizza Hut gave the world the “lovers” trio of pizzas — meat, veggie and pepperoni); next Virginia, then back west to Kansas City before going overseas, first to London then Rio de Janiero. For Blake’s last years of high school, the family returned to Kansas City, where Blake drove around the suburbs in a ‘91 Volvo, went to concerts, played board games, ate at TGI Fridays, met her first boyfriend, and selected her jewelry from hardware stores (see August 13, 2019).
Blake left Kansas for Utah to attend Brigham Young University, where she met Simon Blake. He was a finance major on a lackluster date with someone else, she was an English major with mononucleosis. It was love at first sight. When they married in 2006, she joined a family of quilters and bow tie wearers. The couple were told they would have difficulty conceiving, but a daughter arrived in 2009, followed by a brother two years later. They went through the standard newlywed cycle of various rental accommodations and levels of employment. She was trained as an editor, and expressed herself early as a blogger (beginning in 2007, under the handle annilygreen); she was also drawn to crafting and explored the online makers market with handmade dolls, pillows, typographic art prints, clutches and more. On Etsy, the first thing she sold was a handmade book (she had taken a bookmaking class in college). For three years, she homeschooled her children, during which time, after a disappointing experience with her 3-year-old daughter at an art class for preschoolers, she started her own classes (called Bear Cave Studios).
Though images of her children are a staple in the early days of her Instagram account, as the account becomes a platform for her art career, they appear less frequently. They continue to be a referential presence in her posts, however. “If this were a video, you would hear my kids in the background whining about how hungry they are,” she writes in one post. “Then you’d hear me say, ‘Hold on! I’m just making a 1 inch tall volcano out of a paint peeling!’ You’d be able to see the ‘mom, you’re crazy’ written all over their faces. Sometimes my mom job and my art job compete just a little bit.” The children help create the clutter that appears in a living room shot where a nest has been built for reading books. They become part of art projects, whether as participants or critics. After Blake finishes a blind contour drawing of her firstborn, her model daughter comments, “”Well, you got the chin right.”
During the homeschooling years, Blake brings her daughter to a STEM camp only to discover there are just 3 female participants. “It makes me so mad that this is already happening so young because you know it’s not the girls choosing not to go.This is parents planning the summer and people with boys thinking science camp is a good fit while people with daughters pass it by.” After attending a women’s business summit she writes, “Sometimes you just have to stand up, lift your arms, and take up the space you deserve to occupy.” When the pink hats march in 2017, she joins them:
“I marched for the man on the train to Salt Lake who came and sat by us because his previous seat mate had just heil-Hiltered him. I marched for the black man who smirked at all the white ladies with signs getting on the train because we have to repent for not noticing the house was on fire, and all we can do is work harder moving forward. I marched to tell our legislature that I want a society that is flying with both wings — that our state’s abysmally low rankings in many measures of happiness and success and safety of women and LGBTQ+ folks are unacceptable. I marched to honor the humanity of everyone, and there is nothing like physically putting your body next to 6,000 other smiling, hopeful, determined bodies to remind you that humanity is the best team to be on.”
The Mt. Timpanogos reference? That’s a social media bio trope, the nod to some aspect of your life that shows your unique/quirky/spontaneous side. Scroll through Blake’s account and Mt. Timpanogos makes regular cameo appearances, in all types of weather and all kinds of light, viewed first from their homes in Provo, and later from the house they bought in Orem, partly for the view of the iconic peak. Snowflakes make frequent appearances in posts as well, as do lilac blossoms.Subtract the quirky bio trope from Blake’s bio and you could easily substitute “Environmentalist.” Icebergs are a recurring motif in her paintings, and for a caption of one of her posts featuring an iceberg painting, she writes: “Including this piece in the show was maybe a stretch but really ice holds so much of our history. And these paintings make me think about how the earth holds us up and how we let Her down.” The caption for a 2016 drawing, which depicts a rocketship poised for take-off with the top half broken off and falling to the ground, reads, “Maybe the solutions are on the Earth.” She’s serious about those solutions, like when using less disposable plastic means taking your own cups and silverware to restaurants. “My kids get very embarrassed,” she writes. “To be honest, I do too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m doing it anyway.”
As you gather social media followers (Blake has exceeded 6k), it’s wise to occasionally (re)introduce yourself to your audience. “Hi, my name is Annie, and I’m obsessed with tiny art,” she posts in October 2016. And she’s right: she’ll make a mountain out of a small paint chip scraped from her palette — literally cut it into the shape of a mountain and put it on a background. She packs a lot into a little package, like the bang before it became big.
Her fist works we see on her Instagram account — in late 2012, early 2013 — are found and repurposed, thrift-store paintings, with portions of the paintings and frames whited out. The Cropped series were exhibited in Provo in June of 2013. She follows that up with a show at Provo’s Coleman studios in the fall. She also begins experimenting with a series of wallpaper patterns that will anticipate the repetition of motifs in later works.
In December, 2015, she writes, “The first painting I ever did was of a comma. The art of an editor, I guess.” That series gains steam in the spring of 2013, images of commas placed on textured and colored backgrounds.
Here works are about noticing. About exploring scale and repetition, playing off the small differences in a series of like-minded works.Even when the motif changes, the approach remains consistent. She takes an idea, an abstract idea she can think through, and works through its possibilities via variation.
Houses are a recurring motif, a symbol, reduced to the simple form of a triangle-topped square. She creates them brimming with texture and color, frequently arranging them in “neighborhoods.” They are bright and joyful. She revisits the motif in more somber pieces, when they appear as tombstones in works about World War II and September 11.
The iceberg is another recurring motif.The part above the surface is usually mundane, while the submerged portion erupts in a riot of color or glimmers with goldleaf. Icebergs can be treacherous, but in Blake’s hands they are usually an optimistic motif, celebrating the beauty and marvel of what is unseen.
Her pie chart motif really began in poetry. In September of 2016, she posted the drawing of a pie chart with a legend that read “Climbing | Worry | Waiting | Food.” She wrote, “One voice in my head is screaming, ‘A list of words is not a poem! The legend to a pie chart is not a poem! It doesn’t follow any of the rules for poems!’ But then the voice of @dallasclayton pipes up from when I heard him speak a few years ago, ‘There are no rules.’ So. A poem.” A dozen more followed, as did a series of paintings, though square in format, exploring the intersection of lines from the pie charts.
Her small work is ideal for something like the Tiny Art Show, where she was given a solo show. But she works larger as well. Her biggest work was a mural for Provo’s Neighborhood Art Center, and as she has focused on her career more since 2018, the size of her work has increased as well. “I’m sort of obsessed with things that mess with scale,” she writes in June 2017. “Tiny versions of things, giant versions of things — I love it all.”
Social media has been an important avenue to get her work to the public, but by no means the only one. She maintains an online shop on her website, where she sells the work. And she has put in the hard, hitting-the-pavement work IRL. Sometimes that includes leaving works on the actual pavement, in Manhattan, or the red desert sand near St. George — an offering for whomever might find it and take it home. She began exhibiting in Utah County, with shows in studio spaces (Michael Coleman) and artists homes (J. Kirk Richards and Brian Kershisnik, her uncle). Follow her list of exhibitions and you’ll become familiar with the variety of maker showcases in Utah: Craft Lake City, Sugharhouse Garden Center, Art & Soup, etc. She’s had success with large juried shows, like the Springville Salons and Spritual & Religious Art shows; and at smaller group shows at places like Evergreen Gallery and Art Access Gallery. She has been invited twice for curated shows at the Bountiful Davis Art Center, in 2018 by Nancy Andruk Olson for Effets de Niege, and this past year by Brooke Smart for Rogue: Utah Women’s Voices.
Despite (maybe because of) these successes, she has remained true to the social media community she developed on Instagram — not simply a group of potential clients, but friends and peers. She repeats her affection and commitment for the community even when she questions the platform they are using. For her 35th birthday, she writes, “I keep thinking about this platform for sharing and how much I love this little community and all the support I feel here. But sometimes I think we all follow tons of people who work hard to produce totally free content for us to enjoy and the people who are making money off of it are the owners of Instagram, and I get a little sad.” So she decides to spend time Venmo-ing a few dollars to the people whose posts inspire her.
As much as it has been a platform for Blake’s visual art, Instagram has been equally important a platform for her ideas. It has provided a healthy marriage of image and word. “I am a person who likes to craft words around abstraction so we can pin it down a little…” she writes. Her initial posts were images with very short captions, but as her art develops on the platform so does her writing; and eventually she is choosing images to illustrate her thoughts as much as the reverse. These writings are insightful, passionate and revealing.
Her posts are full of wit and a joy for life. She writes about one of her grandmothers, a downwinder who taught school in Beaver, Utah after college. She was diagnosed with breast cancer twice, had a mastectomy on one side and wore a prosthetic. “One day her very serious brother-in-law (World War II pilot … super straight-laced) was cautiously asking her questions about it. She said, ‘You can touch it. It feels really real! Do you want to feel it?’ He said no way. She said, ‘Go ahead…feel it! It’s very realistic.’ He finally agreed and gave it a squeeze. Then she smirked and said, ‘Now do you want to feel the fake one?’”
Struggles and tragedy seem to make regular appearances in her posts, though they are always met with courage and hope. She mentions a nephew born with half a heart, a friend suffering through cancer, another with a son with Leukemia. Does tragedy stalk some individuals or families, or is it just that reading a social media platform condenses all the tragedies any of us might go through? At the beginning of what has become a difficult time for all of us collectively, she writes about her family on Mar. 26, 2020:
“We went from homeschooling to public school, we left our religion, we quit a stable job, we switched roles—we have just generally turned our lives upside down a lot. And every time we were shocked by the discomfort. We’d berate ourselves for for having big feelings, for being disrupted by disruption. Then my husband would say, ‘We are doing that thing again where we change everything then think it should be easy,” and we would sigh and try to be more gentle with ourselves as we settled into new normals over and over.’”
So, important as this platform has been to her life and career, it made sense, in its way, to announce her cancer diagnosis on Instagram. Who would have foreseen, in those early days of experimenting with filters and looking for small, intimate shots of wonder, that we would be making announcements like this on the platform. Weddings, pregnancies, exciting vacations, a new product line … these are the things social media are prepared for. But tragedy? Can the platform contain it? What does it mean when you “like” a post announcing someone’s likely demise. What emoji do you use?
Blake faces her own announcement with courage and warmth and a healthy appreciation for irony. She laughs, and cries, she writes, at what she wrote in the post previous to her cancer announcement. It was her birthday.
A friend of mine once said about me, ‘Annie is so good at dying.’ It was such a strange sentence, but I don’t think I’ve ever received such a good compliment. I always want to be good at letting go of things that aren’t true anymore. Today I am 36 years old, and there isn’t a single time in my life I’d go back to. All of those Annies have died and been composted into today … I guess what I am thinking about today is how hard it is to be a person whose job it is to feel and reflect and make art out of this mess, but I’m grateful for all of you who are here helping me along, witnessing. I made it another year.
Days later comes the realization she might not make it another year. All these life lessons, these words of wisdom, are squeezed from the pressure of life. And death. In a here-today-gone-tomorrow, instantaneous, constant barrage of social media, captioned truths can easily become trite. It’s sometimes too easy to bear witness to the tragedy and then beauty of life when the storm has passed. Like here, from Oct. 2015 …
Something Unexpected. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these messy, confusing, beautiful, new things that we face. Eventually they all get smoothed out into another layer of who we are. And we can stand a little taller because of it. Also, “we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we have to go through it.”
… but when the something unexpected is terminal? When going through it does not mean coming out on the other side?
Since announcing her diagnosis, Blake has posted a couple of times a month. In September there was news of the biopsy, the five needles of tissues in a jar, that she says “looked like saffron;” followed by the diagnosis: aggressive pancreatic cancer. “I have to live each day believing that I can beat this,” she responds to the news. “There is no way to have half-way hope.” On September 29, she thanks the artist friends, some of whom she has never met, who are auctioning off works to raise money for her family. On November 11, when she should have been in the middle of her annual challenge, she writes, “I’ve spent the day planning a headstone I hope I don’t have to use for a long time.” On December 11, she announces she is going on hospice care, accompanied by an image that invites you to look closely: “Can you spot the painting?” she asks of an image of a rug that blends into a painting. “It’s the first in what was supposed to be a series called Under Foot.”
Spend some time reading Annie Blake’s words and examining her art and you could hazard a guess that few people have been better prepared, spiritually, for what she is going through. Which should, somehow, make it easier to accept. It doesn’t. What we find on a social media platform is not the whole individual, it is only part of the main. A social media platform is a tool: if it can be a place for saccharine illusions or narcissistic boastings, in the hands of an artist it can also compress life into something that shines with wisdom and honesty. You might never have met Annie Blake, but spend a few hours on her account and you may begin to think that maybe you have … that you carry around with you, like the engrained companionship of a dear friend, her wit, her warmth, her introspection, her charm … that, even though you’ve never met her, never actually spoken with her, you’ll miss her when she’s gone.
June 28, 2020
In the last 24 hours, a friend rushed to the hospital to say goodbye to her tiny son. He was beating Leukemia, but pneumonia was too much. It’s all too much.
My state with very lax firework laws watched people break all the rules and light a mountain on fire for fun. People have been evacuated from their homes as the blustery winds spread the fire. Where do you evacuate to during a pandemic?
I saw a dirty diaper tumbling along amongst the cars on the freeway. Who did the owner think would pick that up?
Scientists and nurses and doctors and prayers devoted all their energy to save that little boy and to protect his family’s hearts from breaking. They are working hard to protect all of us right now. Humans care so little and so much for each other.
We can strike a match and fill a whole valley with choking smoke. We can scream and cry and fight and legislate and educate and still children get murdered by police as they sleep or play and sick kids slip away from their weeping mothers. We are powerful and powerless at the same time. Infinite yet dying every second.
There is nothing to be done and so much we can do. Wear a mask, vote, stand up for each other, put your hand on your chest and feel your breath and heartbeat. Cry. Feel it all without looking away. Get ready for the next 24 hours.
I hug my own son close to me, but he pulls away quickly, moving on. We lose everyone, everything. But first, we love them.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.