Smile Anyway

the Fine Art Series


When my world ended

If you don’t know the whole story yet,

you can find it here.

Trying to stay sane as the world crumbles around me

I admit that there are times when I am deeply depressed. I do not sleep well and cannot eat much. I have lost weight, lost hair and, good heavens, I have even lost teeth! The chronic grief spins in my brain (occasionally wandering to my stomach and other body parts to wreak havoc) and the threat of homelessness looms over me like an executioner’s axe. 

With nothing left to do against the unending torrent, I have reacted in the way that an artist reacts — I created something. Then I created something else — and on it went.

I started simply; making line drawings, mandalas and patterns on my iPad. It was meditative and calming; creating moments of silence within the turbulence of terror and grief.

When the pandemic hit and more people began wearing masks, I noticed that it took away the primary qualities of one of Russi’s lessons: we no longer had smiles to elevate, reassure and welcome each other. That is how I began painting smiles. I wanted to have them printed on masks so that people could smile again. My first smiles were rather basic — as I learned the details and facial balance needed. (While I am an illustrator, I was never very good at drawing faces, not needing to do so and not having put much practice in.)

Through the time, the images began echoing the emotional rollercoaster I was on — the wretchedness, the weak attempts at being positive or forward looking and an itinerary of the things lost or pending loss.

The “Smile Anyway” fine art series is the collection of my most recent paintings which relate to the events of the past year and ongoing. They have helped me to regain some sanity.

Maybe the smiles can help you, too.

To know that you are not alone in your loss, grief, fear or pain.


Like others, I have lost many people in my life —  but when a cascade of loss and looming loss spills over you like a dam failed, there is part of you that wishes you could surrender and allow the deluge to carry you off.

There are pangs that urge you to stop fighting, stop keeping up a good front, stop pretending it will get better, let go and give up forever. 

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I understand the veil now; I understand the black. Unending grief makes you want to hide — as a kindness to others.

You can cry behind the veil and not have to recall the traumas just to answer questions.

When I am under tremendous stress, I tend to go silent; cut myself off from the world so I do not poison others with my emotions.

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Russi was like a mother to me. I depended on her wisdom and lessons, her calming words when I was in distress and her constant encouragement. I attribute most of the good that I have accomplished in my life to my time spent with her and the lessons she taught me through her examples and wisdom.

Now, there are no new lessons, no new growth. Only the changing colors of the memories.

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All my life I have had the need to create. Russi constantly encouraged me in this. She told me once, “Robin, you should make a business card that says, ‘I make things beautiful, where do you want it?’”-- she was my biggest fan and I hers. Having seen the tile work I had done in my other homes with broken bits of ceramic plates and vintage pieces, she asked me to move into her house and “work my magic”on it.

I have done quite a bit of tile work at my home. It is some of my art. I will have to leave this — something that still gives me joy every day — leave this all behind.

”Broken” is a painting that replicates some of my tile work in my home. Every piece of “tile” is painted individually and to resemble the broken pieces I used, for example, in my bathroom — some of Russi’s old pink and dark red original tiles and some others in my favorite colors. The patterns on each tile are the different patterns that I have been drawing since her death. My heart breaks to know I will never see the original again.

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I have also worked in wood.

There are many beautiful, rich wood pieces that were built to fit in the spaces in my home.

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Wood (Burned)

Without knowing where I will end up, or my space limitations, I will have to leave all of this behind as well — treasures I thought I would have for the rest of my life.

With the pandemic distancing measures being what they are, and my immunosuppressed vulnerability, selling them isn’t even an option, so I face losing it all.

I feel burned by the universe, by uncaring people.

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I have also created many stained glass works in my home. This, too, I will have to leave behind. If you are an artist, you understand — sometimes your work is like your children — now your children have been callously mandated they be given up forever. ”Cut” is a painting based on my years working with stained glass. Every element is painted to replicate the broken glass in my mind.

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rgw - stained glass

rgw Stained Glass gallery _ drsassi

I love it when art inspires more art. This piece, of the “stained glass” Cut painting inserted in the wall of a massive gallery, with a statue of a woman broken on the floor, fully echoes my sentiments in the light of all my loss.

Created for me by the

brilliant and amazing Dr. Sassi.


The Negative Emotions

Insecurity — never knowing from one day to the next which direction to go in

Rebel — the battles that rage in me, wanting to fight the injustices

Crumble — life is shaky, askew and unrecognizable

Chaos — unrelenting shock, confusion and turmoil

Melt — future has become a muddied vision

Shattered — existence as a collection of disconnected efforts

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The Positive Emotions

Create — moments of peace inside the bubbles of creativity

Insouciant — forcing oneself to smile, be in the present and ignore hell

Remember — all-to-brief instances recalling the lucky, beautiful moments with your loved ones and in your home

Believe —  lightness, hope and “put on a happy face” to keep from caving in 

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The word “crazy” suggests many things — comical, insane, bizarre, incongruous. You think of the craziest things when you have been hit with a ton of loss. Because, more typically, it is not just one loved one you lose, but a cascade of interrelated things.

I have been going through all of the stuff that I have managed to accrue during my 25 years in my home. This has led me to the small cabinet with all of the fabric that I have collected over the years. Periodically, I would go through this assortment, pull one or a few pieces out and make something new with it. Not knowing where I might end up, or even if I will have a home, I have had to confront the things I will have to give up. The list is endless. And filled with the stupidest things.

“Crazy” is a painting designed to replicate a “crazy quilt” — a quilt often made from the leftovers of years of collected fabric — and portrays the kind of meshugas that tends to run through one’s loss-and-fear-saturated existence: “Omigosh, I have to throw away all my fabric!”  Yah, I know, thinking about something so trivial — crazy isn’t it?

Each ”fabric” piece is from the patterns that I have been drawing since Russi’s death and added to the “quilt” one at a time. 

The eclectic stitching is not typical for holding together a normal quilt, but is common in a crazy quilt. Painting each stitch has been meditative and somewhat calming.

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Another annoying, stupid loss.

I love coffee.

Strike that — I adore coffee.

However, because it tends to intensify the daily terror, I had to give it up.

“Grounded” is less about feeling connected and safe than it is about that feeling you had when your parents punished you for some malfeasance and limited your joys in life. Though, I have yet to figure out what transgressions I am being punished for.

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... and yet another loss.

I love my garden. I love to make things grow. 

Over the 25 years I have lived in my home, I have taken a chemical-sprayed, semi-barren plot and nurtured it into an eco-friendly, organic space, where I have grown myriad plants, flowers, veggies and fruits, rebuilt a pond and cultivated a space where the local critters — frogs, raccoons, squirrels, possums, butterflies — could flourish. I even had a hive of bees move in that I refused to kill, despite being stung several times.

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It takes many years to rehabilitate a plot of land. You do not poison the snails nor squash the spiders. You grow flowers to nurture specific insects and birds. You rebuild constantly.

I have planted trees that I expected to grow old with. Russi and Wayne and I buried our pets here. These are the commitments for the future that you make with each other.

What will happen to all of this that I created? Will someone else understand what went into it or how to sustain it without killing or poisoning everything? And where will I end up — will I ever have a space to create all of this again? 

The wretched losses pile up.

Entitled “Grow” because I hope that the Universe has something good yet to teach me through all of this.

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“Duality” — the last in this series — was originally born of the police brutality protests during the COVID-19 pandemic. It symbolizes that we all must become as one to overcome this societal aberration of disunion; to focus on our similarities rather than differences. I created it to show that we share each other’s losses and triumphs and one person can only truly succeed to the level that everyone succeedstogether.

Once I completed the work, I realized that it also symbolized a duality in my own life. This is the divided countenance I face every day; to fight or flee, survive or succumb. The choice still looms: to plunge forward through the desolation, bitterness, fear and misery of the present light, or surrender myself to the molten treasure of the unknowing, unseeing, unremembering dark.

The philosophy of duality dictates that there is no perception of light without dark, no perception of pleasure without pain. I have known this since long, but cannot reconcile the possibility that the past pleasures in my life — these exceptional people and my lovely home — will leave nothing in their parting wake but the balance to be requited in pain. This duality fosters an endless ambivalence, in keen awareness that every decision made could lead to a greater destiny ... or grave downfall.

Keep Creating

Much of this I dedicate to Russi; my patron, my mentor, my teacher, my best friend and probably one of the finest human beings to have graced this world.

I have lived every day in the practice of her lessons. I have lived to elevate, reassure and welcome people with a smile and to make this world a better place for others, for artists and for those who strive to brighten the lives of those around them. I have not forgotten her greatest lesson to always seek the good in the world — keep creating. When the world crumbles around you, start building — keep creating. When all is lost, find something — keep creating. In spite of all that has come to pass, I still create.

I am grateful for this space to share with you my art and my thoughts. I am grateful for SmugMug and their care and attention to the high quality of their prints. If any of these images echo your feelings, past or present, or you would like to help keep me from being homeless, consider getting a print or, if you want something smaller, get one of these smiles as a mask or any hand-painted smile mask or perhaps something to brighten your day. Thank you for reading this far. I am grateful for you.

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