In Focus

Lake Superior is his muse.

It’s the world’s largest fresh water lake by surface area at 31,700 square miles. For photographer Christian Dalbec, the lake lavishes inspiration in its ever-changing face and mood. He wakes up before dawn to take pictures and he stays up late to perfect them.

Based in Two Harbors, Minnesota, on Lake Superior’s north shore, Christian makes his photographs with a Nikon camera and insatiable curiosity. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80 degrees or -30 degrees below zero, he’s outside in the elements, in or near the water, capturing nature’s beauty. But more than that, he captures the essence of the North Shore.

You see that in the vibrant red sunsets reflecting off the water’s surface near giant ore docks. You see it in the white cliffs that have been smashed by ten-foot waves and transformed into fantastic rocky ice sculptures. You see it in the low angles of sea smoke rising off choppy waters.  And on a quiet day, serene beneath the glassy clear water, you see it in the polished agates that create the lake’s rock bottom.

But Christian hit his own rock bottom to get here.

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“I probably hit rock bottom all kinds of times. It was all about alcohol. All I wanted to do was drink, all the time.

“I got four DUIs in my life. 1986. 1992. 1998. 2011.”

That time period spans 25 years.

“I was never aware of what was going on in the world. Like the eagles going by and the owl in the tree. I just was never aware of any of that before.”

There is reverence in his voice, and regret.

Christian started taking photographs in earnest in about 2011 and bought his first DSLR camera about a year before that last DUI.  But there was a flash of interest in the craft early in his life.

“I always saw things. I even remember, long before the drinking, as a kid, going out in the yard with an Instamatic and taking pictures of my sister’s kittens. I thought, ‘I’m going to be a photographer.’

“That lasted about a day.  I didn’t like the pictures, so I just gave it up right away.”

The drinking started in high school. “We used to go get booze and then go drive. That was the plan. Tell people that now…”

Christian cringes too.

After high school, he continued drinking and despite working various jobs and playing in a band, there was a constant desire for alcohol.

“All I could think about was getting to the bar. It was just solid.”

Whether he was self-medicating deeper pain, he says he’s not sure. But he admits it’s possible.

“In high school, I didn’t have any self-confidence. I never really did, growing up. I remember being picked on a lot. I didn’t even want to live half the time back then. I didn’t sit there and plan suicide, but it’s like, ‘This is horrible.’” Even though school life was hard, he says his home life was good.

From high school in the 1980’s until 2011, there was a vague desire to stop drinking, but not really.

“There was trouble around every corner,” he remembers.

“I wasn’t myself. There were a lot of car accidents that I crawled out of. I don’t even know why I lived through some of them. It seems like there’s a purpose that I did.”

A Purpose

He tried treatment many times. He spent a weekend in jail. He went to AA meetings. He couldn’t drive. He had a month when he was required to wear a bracelet which limited his movement from home to treatment and two walks with his dog each day.

So he would walk to the water.

“I’d go out and walk around the point and make my way back twice a day, in the morning and then in the evening. It’s not that big of an area, but I found something different every day. I made that an objective to keep going to the same area to find different views.”

Christian went to treatment again, and this time he started viewing that differently too.

“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Just like they say. It got to the end there, and figuring if you live 80 or 100 years,  I said to myself: ‘I need to see what the other half of my life could be like. Without being tied down to all this trouble.’

“This time, when I got to treatment, I thought, ‘Something’s got to change. So I’m going to listen and do whatever I can to get out of the rut that I’m in.’

“It all just started making more sense.”

Christian says he doesn’t have a day that marks his sobriety. But sometime after that last DUI, a line was drawn in the sand: on one side was the bar and drinking and old ways. On the other side was the camera and nature and a fresh start. After 25 years of trying, he made a change.

Sometimes it takes the smallest glimmer of hope to try again. To fall seven times and rise eight, as the saying goes. Even after years of trying unsuccessfully, you try once more, and that is when you succeed. Like the lotus rising up through mud, it’s the never giving up that produces the flower.

Christian took photography classes and started asking more questions of photographers he knew. He had an eye for good photo composition, but he needed to learn how to manipulate the camera to create his desired effect.  While on a field assignment one day, he remembers saying to photographer John Gregor of Coldsnap Photography: “Hey, I want to know how to put the camera on M and for the water to blur.”

He learned fast, and now shoots everything on M (manual).  His technical knowledge of his camera’s capabilities has become automatic.

He can lose himself in the creative process now that his technical skills are second nature.

When asked to describe the feeling photography gives him, Christian’s eyes light up.

“I just really love it. I don’t have time for drinking or the bar or TV so much either. Something really good happens. An eagle. The right wave. I didn’t grow up super religious, but I still believe in God. Now it’s just like, ‘Thank you, God.’ It feels like a blessing. It seems like God’s shown me things of why I’m here now.”

Now, rather than trouble around every corner, Christian says he finds inspiration there.  His outlook has changed and along with it so has his relationship with the world.

“It’s a 180. I mean, I’m still me. I’ve probably still got bad traits. But all in all, I’m a way better person. And I see more in other people. I just appreciate life more than I ever did. I’m seeing the world. The world right here, right outside. I’m awake. It seems like I was in a coma all those years.”

He owns and operates Christian Dalbec Photography. He makes his living shooting photographs of nature that awe his ever-growing legion of fans. He shares his work online through his website by the same name and his accounts on Facebook and Instagram.  He’s still trying to get used to the attention his photography brings and the second chance it has given him.

“I don’t set a clock. I get up early, around 4am or 5am. It seems like I’m not getting up early enough. I used to want to sleep until noon. But, man, I was wasting life away.”

Looking around the room at walls filled with enlarged images of his photography, he says, “I really regret all the years I could have been doing something like this…

“But you can’t change it.”

Now, there is self-acceptance in his voice. And peace.

“I feel like I’m free.”

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Design Your Life

“I’m an entrepreneur. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. It’s a certain kind of creativity and determination and just a not-giving-up. It’s creating something out of nothing.”

Edit Keshishyan is 38 years old, and she moved to the US from Armenia when she was just ten. She is passionate about her work and life and has let her passion and intuition guide her every step. As a child, she watched her parents closely — they were models of the self-made, the creative.

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“When I was little in Armenia, my mom was a dress maker and my dad was a cobbler, a shoe maker.  I would help him in his little workroom. Cut leather. The smell of leather is very sentimental for me now,” she says, remembering her late father. “My mom…I would watch her make dresses, and I kind of tried to make little dresses for my dolls.”

Like many childhood recollections, those early memories made an impact on young Edit and would become ingrained in her character. Design and fashion would be Edit’s calling, and hard work, self-reliance and optimism would be her method.

As a college student in southern California, Edit was studying sciences with a dream of becoming a pediatrician. Despite her commitment, other dreams were visiting Edit at night. They not only woke her from her sleep, they were also a wakeup call.

When I was in college studying biology, I would have these very vivid colorful dreams. I would wake up in the middle of the night and sketch it really fast and then go back to sleep.” She was sketching her dreams of dress designs and fashion.

Edit paid attention to the messages of her subconscious and a new life path opened like a runway. Fashion was her new Medicine.

“Right when I changed my major, there was no question. That’s what I wanted to do! I immersed myself completely.  I looked at all the magazines, read a lot of books, I tried to become just as good as I could become at making patterns, making dresses, draping. I would sew until midnight. I loved it.

Edit’s tireless commitment to learning and growing took her from the place of imagination to manufacturing warehouses in downtown Los Angeles to high end boutiques in LA, New York and Paris and finally to fashion’s esteemed runway shows. She was in it. She was doing it.

“Overall, it was very fun. It was very fast paced. I’d be up at 5:30am, then 100%, until I’d go to bed.”

In the Details

During that time, Edit met the man who would become her husband, Alberto. He lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had been heavily influenced by time he spent living in Brazil. When he came back to the US, his love for the martial art Brazilian jiujitsu became a way of life and he opened jiujitsu gyms. One feature of many jiujitsu tournaments, Edit told me, was a Brazilian “superfood” called acai.

At that time, Edit was an avid student of health, reading about superfoods before most of us had heard the term.  And sometimes it’s the most curious of life details and circumstances that influence our life’s path. Love leads to connections that lead to new life directions.

Edit and Alberto married and started a family in southern California.

“I really wanted to focus on the family and not be on this stressful planet of the fashion world. I decided to give fashion a break.”

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Superfoods and Emotional Intelligence

“For the past 10 years I’ve been helping Alberto with the gym. It’s been our project aside from having three kids.

“We both really love acai. And I’ve been making acai bowls even since Santa Fe. We decided to have acai at the gym as a little fruit cart.  I put bamboo around it and had a freezer with acai in it. I had it running like a little business of its own, and I took it very seriously.”

They rolled the cart into the street and people would drive 30 minutes just for a cup of acai. When the space next door to the jiujitsu gym opened, it was originally going to be a gym expansion. Instead it turned into the ACAI JUNGLE CAFE in Burbank, CA. And Edit has been running this health food spot that plays world music and serves up well-being ever since.

“I was very nervous about opening the cafe. Honestly even today a year later, every person that comes… I am genuinely happy to see them. I don’t ever want to take it for granted.

“What I learned from fashion and from jiujitsu, having a gym, is to never sacrifice quality. So same thing with the menu here. Make three perfect sandwiches. Make three perfect salads. Make three perfect smoothies. Every single item on the menu is so well thought out that you don’t really want another variation of it. And that’s why we have such a high percentage of returning customers.  It’s just really important that everyone leaves here happy.

“If I’m not going to eat it, I’m not going to have it here.  I try to keep a really healthy, clean diet. But it has to be delicious.

“I came across an article about emotional intelligence recently. It talked about all the different ways you self-talk and what you want to feel like every day, how to handle stressful situations, how to stay calm. And I thought I really have to bring this to the meeting we are going to have with the cafe group.

“When I was little, my mom always used to say that people like to be around happy people. I think I’m a happy person overall. Unless something really happens that’s bad, nothing kind of throws me off.

“I think my energy affects everyone else that works here. And their energy affects every single person that comes in here. And I want everybody that works here to be really happy.  Like, ‘we’re gonna have an amazing day. Let’s do good things’ and you always feel good.

“I try to inspire them to constantly push their own limits. It might build some confidence. I want them, if they do leave here, to say ‘I got something from that.’

“I think another fulfilling part about having this business is the way it affects my kids, my daughters especially.  They don’t see anything holding me back. They don’t see me saying, ‘Oh, I can’t.’

“I don’t ever want them to feel held back because they’re women, that they can’t do something because they’re women. It’s always been a very important thing for me.

“They see that even as a female, as a woman, they can do whatever they want to do. They can be whatever they want to be.”

Know the Why

Melony Matthews.

Her name conjures up the word m-e-l-o-d-y. There is music in it. Maybe it’s the spelling. Or maybe it’s because I first heard Melony. Then I saw her.

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Long dress swaying as she stood alone on the paved street, her arms were outstretched, hair in a tight bun, chin up. Her operatic soprano voice was rising gently into the early morning air of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and the expression on her face was angelic.

Today, this is her stage. And her home away from home. Where new doors may open.

The road she took to get here is a winding one. An artistic, creative, bold, beautiful one.

When she is performing, her name is spelled Meloni Mathius. “I changed the spelling, but not the sound. I wanted it to have a pretty look when people write it down,” she smiles.

There are many instruments of music in Melony… musical instruments, vocal instruments, physical instruments…she plays, she sings, she dances, she acts, she writes, she makes short films. She performs.

“My first exposure to music was my babysitter, Vivian.” Melony’s eyes light up as she tells me she and her little brother loved Vivian. “She had a piano and she would never let us touch it. At the time, pianos were a status symbol. You were cultured if you had a piano in the living room. Vivian played it, but we couldn’t touch it.

“We lived in the projects in Anderson, South Carolina. At the time, that was the only place that you could move if you were from out of town. Both my parents were from out of town. They got jobs in Anderson at the school district, and so they went there and the only place to stay was the projects. So, you had a plethora of people living there — doctors, lawyers who just moved there, teachers, all kinds of families.

“When I was 6, 7, 8 something like that, my mom said, ‘I can get you one birthday present. And it can be a big present. And it can be the present for the rest of your life. And I will never get you another birthday present. Or, I can give you lots of little presents throughout your birthdays.’

She made this offer to me and my brother.

“Now I was smart. I said, ‘that presents-throughout-the-years is going to fizzle out. So I better take my chances and get one big present this time. My brother was younger than me so, of course, he chose lots of little presents.

I said, ‘I want one big present’.

She said, ‘What do you want?’

I said, ‘I want a piano.’

“And she got me the piano. And I was on that piano. I would practice until my fingers were raw. She gave me lessons. I would practice so much that I would fall asleep on the piano.”

Melony’s father, now 80 years old, was a band teacher in South Carolina for 35 years and also played saxophone in the National Guard Army band. He started Melony on the flute as early as she can remember. Melony’s mother’s musical gift was singing.

“My family would sing all the time. We would be in the living room harmonizing. My mom or my aunt would always designate what we would sing, what pitch. She’d say, Melony, you do high harmony. That was my designation.

I’m not the singer in the family. I can’t hoot and holler. I’ve got that soft voice.

“When I was growing up, at church, when they needed quiet meditation time, they would ask me to sing. And I would sing. My song was….”

For the next 22 seconds, Melony sang the song Sweet Hour of Prayer, lending the coffee shop where we met to do this interview an ethereal soundtrack. Just as she finished, a man appeared right next to our table looking in awe at Melony. Eyes wide, he said, “I had to tell you, you have a lovely singing voice.”

“Oh! Thank you!” Melony beamed.

When he left she turned back to me, “So, that was my song. When they wanted quiet meditation at church, they’d say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Matthews, get Melony to sing that quiet song, and that was the only time I was requested.” She breaks into laughter.

Piano. Flute. Singing. Ballet lessons at the local recreation center in Anderson, SC,  too. Eventually, Melony graduated high school, then earned a degree in Drama from Spelman  College in Atlanta, Georgia. There, a teacher observed Melony’s dance talents and encouraged her to audition for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Melony took her first airplane ride, heading for the big apple.

“When I got there, there were so many people who were at such professional levels. There were splits all kinds of ways, and I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t have this kind of training.  I’m just a little country girl from South Carolina.’ I spent junior high school years with Miss Brenda at Anderson Recreation Center in a little ballet school at the rec. That was it.

“Let me tell you what I did. I said, ‘Melony, you can’t compete with these people. They’re all bony skinny and you’re country thick. What do you have to offer?’

“I told myself, I don’t care what you’re doing, you’re going to keep your smile on like it’s painted on there. Glue it there! And when my time came up my strategy was just keep smiling — and that’s what I did!”

Her dance skills and her spirit were enough to earn her a certificate from Alvin Ailey.

“I was in the New York area for about 10 years.”  Melony was with a dance company and she also sang in a choir. One day, the Dance Theatre of Harlem had an open house.

“I went to the open house, and I sang. That was my first performance as an opera singer. It was probably horrible, but I hit that high note and they were applauding and they stood up ‘diva! diva!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing. I like this.’

“That’s when I decided to continue to be a professional opera singer. My life has been miserable ever since!” she laughs.

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“Just because you decide to do something that you’re supposed to do doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier to do it.  Just because it’s something that you’re purposed to do, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to do.

“You still have to face a challenge. So you might as well do what you like, because it’s going to be a challenge anyway.

“Have you ever crossed a creek? How do you cross a creek? You look for the stones. You look for the stone that you can step on that will support you. And you hop on that stone. Everything is hopping on a stone to get across the river to the other side. I celebrate each stone. Each stone motivates me.

“Each stone you step on is an accomplishment and you have to take it.

“You will get across the river if you remember what you’re doing it for. You’ve gotta really love it. You’ve gotta know the why.  The why has to be: you love it!

“Opera is not a solo act. You’re combining the words, the feelings, the technique, the sound, the emotions, working with the music. And trying to find a sense of accomplishment in small increments. Each song I sing now is trying to accomplish that. Sometimes I don’t. We are human.

“But when you hit it, it’s so fulfilling. It’s life fulfilling. And that’s why people are in the arts. Because it is life fulfilling.”

The Record Parlour

“We buy stuff off the street. Used records. That’s where all these things come from. You get a bunch of people. And sometimes it’s a great interaction, and sometimes it’s not, you know?”

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Standing against the exposed brick of his vinyl record store, 41-year old Chadwick Hemus knows music has always been his true north. Co-owner of The Record Parlour in Hollywood, California, Chadwick remembers how records had an immediate allure for him, and working in worlds where records spin marked an early beginning to an enduring rhythm of life.

On his hand, there is a small tattoo of a faded cat sitting on a crescent moon.

“It’s off of a Ventures record cover. I don’t know. It just struck me.”

Music is like that for him, too.

His first record was a ’70’s Mickey Mouse Club record. “With Lisa Whelchel from Facts of Life, an ensemble cast,” he smiles.

Since that first vinyl, Chadwick can talk to you about Chick Corea while flipping an Otis Redding record.  The store is self-described as ‘a mecca of pre-digital entertainment and home to over 15,000 records, rare jukeboxes, restored vintage audio gear, music memorabilia and much more.’ Chandeliers and naked light bulbs glimmer in the sepia space rich with vinyl and other nostalgic things. Chadwick and his business partner Chris Honetschlaeger have been in business here for three years now.

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“This is the first time I’ve had my own store. But that’s all I’ve ever done since high school,” says Chadwick. “That’s how I’ve made a living.

“I grew up in San Diego, and I happened to be in a neighborhood where, at the time, there were  four or five music stores of varying size. There was a Tower and Warehouse. And then some very important independent stores in the area too. One of which ended up being the first place I worked.

“I just fell into that and had a knack for … kind of the way my brain works… you know, I’m pretty good at memorizing things. It lent itself to pricing,” he says. “It wasn’t something I thought consciously, ‘oh this is something I’m going to do with myself.’ I loved records.

“In the ’90’s, there was very much a trend for this snobbishness in music stores. That’s faded quite a bit. I think that overall the sort of humbling of maybe the music industry and the fact that the money’s not like it used to be …  there’s not really a lot of room for that.”

As much as his work in the record store is a labor of love, he admits there is definitely labor involved.

“It’s a lot of hours and there’s always a lot of other things to deal with besides just the good parts,” he says. “There’s a lot of street interactions. And when you run a business like this … you have a lot of other aspects to deal with that are not always pleasant.

“Sometimes you’re just a therapist. Just a bartender type helping somebody kind of move on. Sometimes you’re dealing with somebody who is very very desperate and very upset that we’re not able to help them.

“It’s not always just the stuff off the street that can be crazy. I mean, the sourcing… the places you have to go to get stuff can be really pretty creepy.

“There’s a lot of hoarders that have a lot of records. Records kind of lend themselves to that.  And a lot of times, by the time their collections are available, the person has either passed or may be in a really bad part of their life. And you’re dealing with a lot of what comes with hoarders: the dirt and filth and bugs. So there’s a lot of that when you’re sourcing this kind of stuff.”

The Flip Side

“One of the mysteries of music… is the sort of power of it and the longevity of it.

“And one of the reasons I think we have been very successful in a short amount of time is there’s a lot of interaction with people. I want to find out what they want and what they want to be turned on to, and it really doesn’t matter if that’s what you’re into or not.  It’s more about getting someone streamlined into what they want. All of those interactions are what make a good day.

“Small businesses like this are always about relationships.  That’s why people come in. When people are selling records, especially when it’s their own records, they really want acknowledgement over them. That the stuff is good stuff. That they took care of it. Or maybe they didn’t because they loved them. But there’s definitely that exchange. It’s so often not about how much money. It’s so much about acknowledging the importance they’ve given these objects, and they really want you to give that.

“I’m sure this is part of what my over-arching dream would be for an existence. I don’t know what that is.  Right now, I’m more about survival and realigning. It’s a very strange time period. So the idea of sort of a dream or a bigger picture — ugh — it’s not where I’m at.

“My favorite mantra has always been ‘don’t look down.’

“That’s the key to hanging in there. ‘Cuz it’s pretty scary.”

Maybe music helps us look up. And make sense of things. Especially in tough times. In the moment. And well beyond. In the words of musician and artist David Byrne from his book How Music Works:

“A slew of musical associations bounce around in our heads, linking to recurring memories and feelings, which, after a while, facilitate the creation and reinforcement of specific neural pathways. These pathways help us make sense of those experiences. They make us who we are.