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Neal Burlington

Silencing the Critic

Sheree BurlingtonComment

In the last two weeks I've created several dozen monoprints. I amazed at how easy it is to create colorful background textures with my actual hands. While they're each unique and share a beauty common to the process, none are worthy to stand alone as a piece of art. I sift through them daily, sorting them into piles and wondering how they can be used to create something meaningful.

While I'm no longer in a dark place, I continue to find myself in a restless, thoughtful state of mind. My decision to walk the Camino de Santiago next spring feels less heavy, though I am still reduced to tears when trying to explain it to others. Neal will be gone 3 years on August 20th, long enough so that stepping into the space he's left behind doesn't suck the breath out of me. My relationship is like an old chair - a comfortable place occasionally in need of a good cleaning.

Museware functions well without me, giving me the freedom to pursue other creative interests. And I have pursued. In the last 6 months, I've run happily from one creative thing to another - loving the discovery - until another shiny thing catches my attention. There's a subtle desperation to my lack of creative direction, an urgent whisper that I'm not and won't ever be enough. I'd like to bitch-slap that voice. When it persists, the only way to silence it is to go inside. Meditate. Walk. Design.

Monoprint | Digital Collage by Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

When I started this collage, I still had my hand over the mouth of my anti-muse. Like the biblical antichrist, my anti is a "single figure of concentrated evil." It is her job, her sole purpose, to undermine my creative process. She is a miserable companion that is only silenced by the act of creating. 

This collage combines two recent monoprints, a modified selfie (image > adjustments > posterize > threshold) some hand sketched elements and my most-loved Neal angel. It was created using my new favorite Photoshop setting - multiply. Multiply makes a solid image transparent, without the dimming effect of the transparency setting. I discovered it only this week and honestly don't know how I designed without it. It combines and adds a depth to colors in the most remarkable way. Like most things about Photoshop, it is magic. 

Digital collage by Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

I am so pleased with this digital collage. It is full of the kind of symbolism that makes my work meaningful and rich with the kind of color and texture that inspires me to create more. As a composition, it is more than the sum of its parts - each element is enhanced by the presence of the other. It is a reminder that quiet and contemplation can heal, that our dead are always with us and that like rivers, all roads lead to home. 

“hark, now hear the sailors cry, 
smell the sea, and feel the sky 
let your soul & spirit fly, into the mystic...” 
― Van Morrison

Monoprinting With Stencils

Sheree BurlingtonComment

I've felt the absence of my son Neal this past week more than usual. In the last days, I've spent a lot of time staring at old pictures of him - sweaty after riding dirt bikes in Maine, covered in first birthday chocolate cake, his long arm draped around my shoulder at Christmas. My favorite, and one that I incorporate into much of my design work, was taken in June 2012, just after his high school graduation. There are many others pictures of that day - him laughing, talking, hugging, reveling in this right of passage - the one that moves them closer to the door. But this one, his razor nicked faced stilled by a moment of contemplation, this is the one I turn to for comfort.

Neal Burlington | Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

I love the way the sun casts shadows across his eyes, the light on his brows, the curve of his lips - the single curl peeking out from his cap. It's a face I've kissed and wiped clean and held in my hands countless times and is deeply familiar. I've known it all of my lives. 

Neal Burlington | Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

So on Friday, after a long week of frustrating, unfulfilling days, I turned to this face again. After watching several videos on creating multi-layer stencils, I found one that made enough sense to follow. The basic steps are creating 3 copies of the image and simplifying each layer using image > adjustments > threshold. Threshold reduces an image to simple black and white. Dragging the slider left/right controls the amount of black/white. 

Neal Burlington stencil by Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

Each layer was printed on separate sheets then laminated for durability. The printed areas were then cut out with an exacto knife. On another take, I'll try a manilla folder and no lamination. I think it will allow me to cut in more detail and built up paint layers on the stencil will accomplish the same result as lamination. 

It was thoughtful work and I was happy to have a subject for the unpredictable monoprinting process. These ghostly images are the result. The image on the left is a print on deli paper. The one on the right, one of the two stencils. However obscure, I still see him - as familiar as a son and as distant as we've convinced ourselves our dead to be. 

Monoprint of Neal Burlington by Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

On a less serious subject, the print below was pulled using a piece of greenery found on the path near my house.  I picked it last week while walking as preparation for my trip to the Camino de Santiago. You know, before I scared the shit out of myself to the point where I barely wanted to get out of bed. Huh. I think I'm starting to figure things out. This art therapy stuff really does work. 

Gelatin print by Sheree Burlington | Wing + Tree blog

Naming a Business: Tell Your Story

Sheree BurlingtonComment

I am a story teller. I find comfort in the steady cadence of a story well told, the way life and love and loss are woven out of shapes and sounds. My life is full of stories. Yours is too.

Your business name has a story behind it, even if it's named after you. Who you are, who you love, what makes you laugh, why you chose self employment over punching a time clock - yours is a story that your customers want to hear. Give them a reason to choose you over anyone else - show them your heart, your hands at work, your process and mistakes. Tell them your story.

Naming a Business: Tell Your Story - Wing+Tree Creative Business Blog

Here is mine: This is my baby brother Russell. He was five years old in the fall of 1961 when we moved to our new house. As he and our 26 year old mom stood in the back yard exchanging I love yous, Rusty reached for the biggest, tallest love he could see, lifted his hands to the sky and cried "Oh mummy - I love you as much as the trees!" In the 50+ years that have passed since that autumn day, the word Trees as an expression of love has made its way into every card & letter, every moment of tenderness, every goodbye. This tree story has been told and retold so many times that it is an integral part of our family history.

                                                                                   In  2011, I bought 9 metal channel letters at a local consignment store. Four consonants. C-C-R-T. Five vowels. E-E-E-E-I. They didn't seem to have much to say and spent the first year scattered around our studio. When my new desk was installed, I dusted them off and arranged them randomly across the top of the wall cabinets.

Months later, I looked at that odd assemblage and broke into a wide smile. Hidden among the gibberish was the name my little niece Taylor called me - REE. And so REE it was, until the day the letter T finally caught my attention. I laughed out loud, called it serendipity and added another chapter to my story.

This is my baby boy, Neal. He was five years old in the summer of 1998 when we moved to our new house. Surrounded by tall trees that waved and danced in the wind, our woods were alive with wild life and bird song. My favorite was the Chickadee. This little black and white bird has been a part of my memories since I was a tiny girl.

Each time we heard its song my mother would feign surprise, look around and whisper "Listen! That's your bird! Do you hear it?" She'd mimic its three note call - one high note followed by two repeating lower notes - "Where's Sheree? Where's Sheree?" She'd hold me in her arms as I looked around in awe, never seeing that bird but knowing that its call was only for me. It was my bird.

When Neal was born, that little bird sang a new song. Like my mother, I held him in my arms, looked up at the trees and exclaimed "Listen! Do you hear that? That's your bird!" And I'd repeat his name in that same three note call - "Neal Michael, Neal Michael." It was his bird.

At 18, Neal was a 6'-4", 230 pound man. I remember the day he poked his head in the kitchen door and yelled "Mom, Listen! That's my bird!" Outside the window, our bird sang our songs. I stood next to my giant boy/man, each of us smiling, warmed by our childhood memories. And I saw it so clearly - Neal singing that three note song as he passed on his bird.

Neal died in a  motorcycle street racing accident on August 20th, 2012. He was 19. That winter, after our first real snow, I went to check on his grave. The roads leading to his place beneath the pines went from plowed to tire tracks to virgin snow. There was no place or way to turn around so I continued on. An hour later, as I stood beside my hopelessly stuck car, I heard the sweet, familiar song of Neal's bird. His body may be gone, but his spirit is always with me. He is my angel and it soothes me to imagine him tearing up the skies on strong, wide wings. 

Choosing a name for your business is a process. You'll turn away hundreds of possibilities before the right one presents itself. When it does, you'll know. Saying no leads you closer to yes - to the right meaning, the right sound, shape, story. For me, yes began with a reminder from the universe. My new business name and tag line speaks to house and home - perfect for my new line of home decor and art prints. It's easy to pronounce and remember, looks good in print and has a meaningful story behind it. It makes me happy.  

On Age & Beauty

Sheree J. Burlington3 Comments

I turned 60 on April 10th. Becoming 60 and being 60 are two different things. The first is somewhat entertaining. The latter is something of a surprise. First, and I know it sounds cliche - it sneaks up on you. I've stared at a motionless clock. Endured an endless week. Wondered how much more winter or summer or rain or waiting I could take. But the years - they slid by like a deep, silent river.

My 19 year old son, Neal, used to tell me I had no idea what it was like to be a teenager. To him, the decades that separated us were lifetimes. In some ways they were. One gathers a lot of wisdom between 19 and 57. But the heart, the fundamental part of our being, the part of us that always was and always will be - that part doesn't change. I may not be the wing nut I was at 19, but my core self remains unchanged by the passage of time. Nineteen may seem a lifetime ago, but to me, it was yesterday.

It was yesterday when I stood in a featureless brick building, raised my hand and took an oath to serve in the US Navy. I was 19. Yesterday when I carried a sleeping newborn into a tiny, empty apartment and began my life as his mom. I was 38. Yesterday when I watched them lower him into a grassy lawn, surrounded by our family and friends. I was 57.

When I started this post, I was laughing - at the passage of time, the saggy boobs, the chicken neck, the absurdity of how little time we have. Right now, I'm crying - a little over the loss, but more over the sheer beauty of life. Of his smooth, handsome face, smiling at me from the lock screen of my phone. Of the fact that he picked me - imperfect, wonderful me - to be his mom. I'm crying over the overwhelming love I feel when I think about him, and how he continues to return it, showering me with feelings so intense, crying is the only way to bear it.

While searching Facebook for a picture of Neal to add to this post, I came across a note I'd placed on his page:

I wish you could just come home. I wish your leaving was a bad dream. You can't. It wasn't. Here are my wishes for you:  I wish you by my side every day, guiding my hand. I wish to always hear memories of your laugh and the way you called my name (mom mom mummy mumma ma mom mom.) I wish to find the wisdom of your new life in the choices I make for mine. I wish for your happiness, your fast and free flight, your knowing. I wish to spend the rest of my life honoring you - my only son and my absolute best teacher. I love you, Neal.

I turned 60 on April 10th. I've lived more years than I have ahead. And as the days unfold, I'll use the wisdom I've gained from the long road, the forgiveness I've received from my mistakes, the softness I've learned from the loving. I'll use the wishes I had for my son and the hopes I had for his life to guide me. And I earnestly, sincerely share those wishes with you, whoever you are.  To quote Abraham - there is great love for you here.

Two Years Gone

Sheree Burlington6 Comments

August 20th was the second anniversary of my son Neal's death. Seeing those words on my screen still perplexes me. Neal's death. One day he's in his room crazy laughing at some video and the next - he's gone. Through that summer and into early winter, I visited his grave daily. The house was so quiet and I didn't know what to do with myself - so I stayed near him.

I was drawn to the cemetery because that's where I left him. I knelt on the ground and lowered a small mahogany box into a new concrete container. On top of it, I placed a set of car keys - owned by his step sister & now junked - a car he talked about incessantly. When I stood, a man place a concrete cover over the container and it was done.

His grave site is really pretty. We chose it because it's quiet and there are not a lot of new neighbors. It's on a dead-end lane, backed by a long, single row of pine trees. His grave is directly in front of the tallest tree in that stand. Neal was big - six five, 200 lbs, which is lovely symbolism. If you're ever in Pine Grove Cemetery in Manchester, NH, head for the far back right corner of the cemetery and find the tallest pine. That's where you'll find my son.

The first year is the toughest. It's the first ... everything. The empty chair that we decided to include at Thanksgiving dinner? Totally not necessary. We didn't need an empty chair to remind us of him. He was so big and so noisy - the relative quiet was deafening. Christmas came and went - our dwindling family (dad left 6 years ago) subdued and thoughtful. Of the difficult days, and there were many, the hardest was his 21st birthday. Like other parents who've lost a child, I also lost his milestones, the steps and missteps he took toward manhood. It sounds cliche, but I'll never see him marry or marvel at the birth of his first child. That is so incredibly sad that I'm crying as I type the words.

For 19 years, I've been Neal's mom. I've been a lot of other things too, but before everything else, I was a mom. My life, plans and dreams all included my blue eyed boy. He loved me the way little boys love and resented me with the firm resolve of a teen who knows everything. And nothing. Without a Neal to make me crazy, make me proud, give my days meaning, I found myself in the middle of an intense identity crisis. Who am I? What do I care about? What kind of life do I want to create? I'll spend the rest of my days - however many I've left, finding the answers.

So the days go by, the emptiness filled in by the steady cadence of routine. Most days, I'm OK. Some days, I'm answering a knock at the door all over again. Even now, as I write this post and look at his graduation picture on my screen, I feel a sense of unreality. Gone. Gone where? He died. He died? According to, to die  is to "cease to live; undergo the complete and permanent cessation of all vital functions; become dead." According to this definition, Neal is dead. I've looked everywhere and cannot find his tall, goofy frame. He's not in his room yelling on his Xbox, not hanging out in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot with his noisy friends, not driving around Manchester in his noisy Chevy S10. No matter where I look, I can't find him anywhere. It is so fucking weird.

In a quest to understand where my only child has gone, I've become a seeker. I've consulted mediums, learned to meditate, joined the nearby Spiritualist Church and take their mediumship development classes. I've learned that beneath the noise of the physical world, quiet voices speak to us. That the son I thought I'd lost has just stepped out of the room. That if I'm really quiet and listen with intent, I can hear him. He whispers in my inner ear, fills my heart with his, walks with me. Loves me. Waits for me. I know this as well as I know anything and am comforted by it. I love you, too, Neal. I'll see you when I come home.

Rest Easy, My Son

Sheree Burlington5 Comments

On 8/20/12, one month ago today, I lost my 19 year old son, Neal, to a motorcycle street racing accident. My life will never be the same. I could say all kinds of things here about how parents should never have to bury their kids. How this is the worst possible thing to happen - all of it's true. After a month of having heard & said it all, I'm left with the emptiness of knowing he's never coming home. Ever.

Losing my only child has changed me. A self-described cynic, I have spent the last years shaking my head at people, amazed at the idiots we are. These days, the John Watson quote better speaks my heart: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." 

I went to the grocery store the day after Neal died. I was surrounded by people shopping and standing in line, knowing that not one of them had any idea of my pain. Which meant that I had no idea of theirs. Something like unconditional love for humanity, for our flawed and fragile selves, overcame me. In that moment, I knew that if even one person in that store was feeling even a fraction of the pain I was feeling, I'd better be gentle.  I forgave us, me - so caught up in daily life that it takes a slap by the hand of God to get our attention.

I sleep in his room. In his bed. I no longer wake only to remember that he is gone. I know it the moment I open my eyes. Some days, it fills me with such grief that I'm crying before I turn off the alarm. Other days, I say hello to his room, his big-ass TV, his clean shirts hanging in the closet, his painfully empty shoes. Then I start another long day.

My days are filled with questions. Where are you? Are you safe? At peace? Are you near me? Can you hear me when I talk to you? When I grieve out loud at your graveside? Will I ever see you again? A quiet inside voice tells me that he's safe. At peace. With me. With us.

I face a life that is suddenly very different. For nearly 20 years, I have poured myself into raising this child. Most of the time it was just the two of us. His toothless, dimpled smile made me forgive all men and I was healed by his presence. His birth changed my life. His death changed it again.

I need a new purpose, a new direction for my love and energy. A Neal Burlington Race Fund speaks to me.  My mission is not to get kids off of their bikes. That's never going to happen. Racers gonna race. I want to launch an effort to get street racers off of the streets and onto the track. Track racing takes place in a controlled environment. There are no oncoming cars and no telephone poles. One killed my son. The other seriously injured his friend, Justin.

In 1989, after a premonition of his own death, my brother Russell, an avid street racer, left the streets and signed up for the Penguin Racing School, held monthly at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH. For the next 5 years, the entire Burlington family was involved in Russell's racing. I worked the motorcycle safety crew as a corner worker. Mom manned the stop watch. Dad the grill. Rain or shine, our family & friends camped, cooked, laughed, made fun of each other and watched Russell & his crazy friends zoom around that track. Our family relationships thrived. We developed life long friendships with other racers & their families. Our loyal participation kept Russell safe.

Stay tuned for the next leg of my journey as I face life without my only child, Neal Michael Burlington. He was born on May 4, 1993 to a single mom, searching for meaning. He died on August 20, 2012, leaving behind a single mom searching for new meaning. Rest easy, my sweet boy. I love you.

The Magic of Magic.

Sheree Burlington4 Comments

Neal was seven when everything changed. We were sitting in the kitchen when he and his step brother AJ came in, their faces flush with cold. "Mom?" he tugged on my sleeve and looked up at me. "Timothy says the tooth fairy is his mom." I raised my eyebrows. Stole a glance at my husband. His face was blank. "He says she waits until he's asleep, takes his tooth & puts money under his pillow."

"He does, does he?" I stalled. "I wonder what makes him think that?" I was working on poker face, but from the look on his, saw I was unsuccessful. He and his brother exchanged looks. "Is it true? Is his Mom the tooth fairy?" Again, I looked at my husband. He stared out of the window. Coward.

I weighed the situation. Balanced their ages against the myth. Gave in. Yes, I admitted, Timothy was right. His mom, me, we are the Tooth Fairy. He crossed his arms in front of him. Took a step back. Narrowed his round blue eyes. "What...what about the Easter Bunny?" I shot a look at my husband that said you'd better get your ass into this conversation or you are so shut off. He shrugged and looked helpless. Perfect. He had I Am The Easter Bunny written all over his face.

Within seconds, it was all over. "SANTA Claus?" He spat out the name, his chin thrust forward, daring me to deny what he had just come to know. They stared at the two of us, sitting there with our mouths opening and closing. The two people in the world they trusted. "YOU LIED!" Neal dissolved into tears, his face contorted and red. I was

falling over myself trying to bring back the fantasy, saying things I can no longer remember - things about magic and tradition and about how much fun it is to watch their wonder & excitement. Telling him how our parents and their parents...He was having none of it. "YOU LIED! "

AJ watched all of this with skepticism. Waaait a minute. What about the grass in the kitchen last Easter!? The chewed carrot? The muddy bunny footprints on the counter tops? I SAW them! Neal saw them too! Their eyes widened at the memory, still vivid after months. They stared hopefully at us. Maybe, just maybe, this new truth was just another LIE.

Finally, The Easter Bunny chimed in. That was me, he said, apologetically. He told them the whole story - the two of us sneaking around a darkened house, giggling like kids as he plucked brown grass from the front lawn and scattered it throughout the kitchen. How we laughed and whispered as he rubbed his thumb in the mud to create foot prints. Our complete joy when we heard their early morning discovery and AJ's exclamation "He's real! He's REAL!"

Our faces lit up as we told them story after story of how we created their magical childhood memories. Soon, they were smiling with us, asking questions, getting used to this new understanding. In one short moment, our little boys crossed a threshold. They stepped out of the world of fantasy and into the real world. It's a rite of passage we all experience. One day, they will hand the same gift to their own children. Because when magic created with love it is real.