“To be inspired is great; to inspire is incredible.” —Unknown

Like almost all artists, I’m inspired by almost everything I see, hear, feel, taste and experience.

This shot of me with my camera was taken by my son when he was about two.

As a photographer, details and textures and patterns in ordinary things spark my creativity. When something catches my eye, I try to get it on film (or on one of those expensive little magic rectangle thingamajigs). I’ve been known to step backwards off of curbs, walk into walls (or people), and trip over things while attempting to get a shot of something at the angle I see in my mind—not because I have a camera in front of my face, but because I’m trying to get to the right spot. I’ve also found myself trashing entire photo shoots because I didn’t get “the one” I saw in my head. I’m not much of a photochopper— if I didn’t see it through the lens, you won’t see it either. I learned on film and in the darkroom from a handful of brilliant artists who taught me the art of the decisive moment and how great it feels to grab a hunk of lightningIMG_9561


Just as I don’t (overly) alter my images, I don’t fictionalize my writing. Even though the writer and storyteller in me draws inspiration from other sources, my written work remains as close to the truth as possible. The stories I craft and post on my blog are all, to the best of my knowledge, historically accurate and faithfully verified. Before I publish a story, I spend hours meticulously vetting every detail. If I can’t find a fairly reliable source, it doesn’t make the final cut, no matter how juicy or exciting the factoid may be.

Sadly, this means that I’ve had to leave some really great stuff on the cutting room floor. (Not really, it’s all in a folder or a spiral notebook or on a piece of paper in one of the 47 piles in my office just in case I stumble upon verification someday!)


So this brings me back to inspiration. Even though I craft my images and stories from reality, it doesn’t mean that I don’t wander into the desert once in awhile and find myself thirsting for ideas with no oasis in sight. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fall into a pit of depression where absolutely nothing at all is interesting to me, no matter what amazing detail or idea or catalyst is sitting right in front of me, staring me square in the eye.

Temperance_AppleTreeFor nearly twenty years— about half my life— I wanted to write about my family history. From an early age, I knew that the men and women who came before me were interesting, but I never found that spark that lit the fire. In college, I took a biographical writing course and learned how to search census records and locate land grants and access all sorts of information, but until the Internet came along, it was (insert whiney voice) really, really hard. Once records holders started digitizing documents and making them searchable and accessible online, frustrating days of sitting in front of a microfilm machine in a library basement were over. Everyone started working together to share history in an exciting and positive community, and suddenly, not only did you not have to sit in front of the microfilm machine anymore, but you didn’t even have to put on pants to search the databases.

But, even with that behemoth of information at my fingertips, inspiration isn’t always forthcoming.

In January of 2015, I had a stack of spiral notebooks filled with research. I had a cupboard filled with boxes of archival photographs and other original documents. I had just renewed my ancestrydotcom world traveler membership for the third year in a row, so I had scores of names and dates. But what I didn’t have was inspiration—or an outlet. I’m also a “go big or go home” kinda girl, so I didn’t really want to half-ass my effort. Since I didn’t have a book contract with a fancy publisher or a movie deal with a major studio, I did what, in my mind, was the only rational alternative: nothing. I kept researching. I kept writing. I kept filling spiral notebooks.

“I dive into someone’s life, however briefly, for the thrill of the unexpected. To glimpse a world I might not otherwise see.” —this fancy meme I saw on the internet

Genealogical researchers have different motivators and varying inspirational sources. Some do it to find connections with specific events or people, and others seek to grow their trees as large as they can possibly extend. Personally, I’m not interested in the size of the canopy or celebrity of the leaves on my tree’s branches. What I am most interested in, what inspires and motivates me the most is the stories–the personalities and the experiences and the adventures.

And then I heard a song.

Well, more accurately, I’d heard this song again while I was thinking about what I should do with all of my research. I’d first heard the song about a month earlier, but I couldn’t get it out of my head (not in an ear-wormy, head-explody kind of way, but in a “I can’t stop listening to this fantastic song” kind of way).

life-unexpected-posterOccasionally, I have crazy bouts of insomnia. Late one night, I was browsing through Netflix’s myriad of binge-worthy (and unworthy) shows, when the CW’s Life Interrupted caught my attention. Never heard of it? Here’s the gist: Life Interrupted is about Luxe, a girl who grew up in foster care. Now a teenager, she applies for emancipation so she can stop being shuttled from home to home. But first, the judge wants her to get permission from her biological parents. Luxe tracks down bio-mom Kate and bio-dad Nate, thinking that getting their signatures will be a piece of cake. Kate is crushed to find the baby she thought was adopted at birth had been hospitalized until age three (rendering her unadoptable), and Nate is stunned that the drunken one nighter had left Kate pregnant (d’oh!). Rather than granting Luxe emancipation, he pulls a 180 and gives custody of the emotionally damaged teen to the arguably more emotionally damaged bio-parents (who haven’t even spoken since their drunken teenage tryst). The hour long drama ran for two seasons in 2010-2011 before it was cancelled.


Anyhow, the show itself has absolutely nothing to do with my creative process or inspiration… EXCEPT for the theme song. Written by award winning songwriter Rain Perry from her 2008 album Cinderblock Bookshelves and released on her own label, Precipitous Records, the song Beautiful Tree became my driving inspiration. Rain wrote the album as a memoir of her childhood, and as a tribute to her own imperfect, yet beautiful family.

After listening to Beautiful Tree about eleventy billion times, I decided to start blogging and sharing all the cool stories and pictures. I decided to put it all out there and see what would come of it. To my surprise, throughout the last year, It’s a Beautiful Tree’s readership has flourished, and I’ve been privileged to meet (electronically) many distant relatives— some of whom have become more than names on a chart and more than distant blood relations— they’ve become friends. And I feel a debt of gratitude to Rain Perry for sharing her gift of music and lyric with me.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 3.12.25 PMIronically, Rain’s own beautiful tree began outside of California, but later, took root there. The show, Life Unexpected was set in Portland, and Rain’s last three albums were produced in Austin. If you follow “It’s a Beautiful Tree,” you see all the connections.

Music and lyrics © Rain Perry. To download Beautiful Tree, visit Cinderblock Bookshelves by Rain Perry.

(I am having a VERY hard time with my captions right now…. grrrrr….. every time I try to add a caption, everything disappears. I am NOT a technologically savvy person, and I just got a new computer, so this is so frustrating! Photo credits are as follows: Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson images are from their respective wikipedia pages. The Life Unexpected promotional poster is from the CW. The beautiful portrait of Rain Perry is from health monitor.com. The bookshelf and the crate of spiral notebooks are both photos I took in my office, and the tree is a little something I whipped up on photoshop.)

© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, and Storyteller. © Copyright 2015. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask.