So You Want to YOLO Board, SUP with that?

Mimi and Marci Key West YOLO SUP_2SUP? YOLO?

SUP and YOLO are not texting slang – they stand for trendy ways to scoot across the water on a surf-style board while burning maximum calories.

SUP simply stands for Stand-Up Paddleboard and YOLO for You Only Live Once, which confuses people so even YOLO Board founder Tom Losee calls the sport SUP.

For as many years as stand-up paddle boarder enthusiasts scooped their way across dark-water dune lakes near Grayton Beach in Northwest Florida, I have yearned to YOLO board. On many trips to the area, I’d cycle the path next to the main beach road, 30-A. Bike flying like a kid, I’d cruise past Western Lake on the edge of Watercolor, east of Grayton Beach, my favorite hangout. Looking out toward the Gulf of Mexico, high dunes tufted with sea oats and vines separate the lake from the Gulf. A thin line of pines with blossomed tops and skinny dark trunks embroiders shadows on the skyline and promises the smell of sunscreen, saltwater and sweat.

The sight of the spindly trunks silhouetted black against the sky signals a slower pace, a time to reflect. Shoulders un-crunch. Cells phones magically find the off button. Senses re-engage with the mystery of the freshwater/saltwater estuaries formed by the merging of dune lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. A beach anywhere can relax, but the dune lakes make this area unique both for recreation and biodiversity.

Western Lake tucks inland, flows under the two-lane road deep into Watercolor subdivision, where the houses start at well above $500,000.

One night a few months into our temporary relocation to the area, I discovered an open-sidewalk fund-raiser featuring a silent auction. A YOLO board lesson for two remained unbid upon, which I instantly changed. My phone rang the next morning and a deep-voiced woman on the other end explained where I could bring my cash or check. I’d won two YOLO board rentals, which I mistakenly thought came with lessons.

Lessons turned out to be more like 5 minutes of instruction, a wave of the hand and a call of “good luck” from good-looking young Brodie at the dock in the Watercolor ‘subdivision,’ where water lilies smother the edges of the blue-black lake like Monet paintings gone wild.

Before we left our place to head over to the Boathouse at Watercolor, I debated removing my make-up – especially the non-waterproof black mascara I’d applied that morning before work – before embarking on this adventure. I left it on. After all, if make-up and fire-breathing costumes were good enough for the lead actress in The Hunger Games, then make-up would work for me too. (Maybe I wouldn’t fall in; maybe I was tempting fate.) Besides, the end of April after a run of spring breaks end remains one of those times when locals reclaim the roads and beaches. In Northwest Florida the tourist season barely fills four full months, now and then dipping into May and October, trendily called the “shoulder seasons.” We might not encounter any high-strung competitive social-climbing fashionista tourists on the lake. The tennis court, maybe, but not the lakes. On the way to work that morning, I’d noticed that Highway 30-A which runs parallel to the beach for 17 miles, remained the provenance of local license plates. No traffic jams. I felt relatively safe venturing out in my shorts, baring pale-skinned cubicle-trapped legs, and a red and black Speedo one-piece circa 8 years ago.

I am not athletically gifted. My husband, Chris, was as curious as me to try out the gentle paddle sport and I was confident he wouldn’t fall off his but I felt no such confidence in my skills. I love to snow ski, which is where Chris and I met. In fact, we bonded after a wicked flip and fall on my part and an emergency trip to the medics. Hence, my track record with gravity-defying stability exercise: Gravity 5, Me: zed.

Then too, 19 months of studying, writing, sitting in class hardly served as preparation for the ‘core workout’ and stability-challenging stories I’d read about YOLO boarding. Still, I wanted to try before we moved away. My brain seized with a case of FOMO or ‘Fear of Missing Out.’ (I’ve suffered from this malady all my life, since middle school and felt instant relief once the disease was gifted with both a name and an acronym. I feel so chic now that I suffer from a disease common to millions of digital natives, snapping selfies and roaming from event to event.)

We arrive. Three vehicles grace the parking lot, a delivery truck awash in retro-styled YOLO boarder images, a mini-Cooper with a Walton County, Florida, license plate and another non-descript get-to-work car. Perfect.

My 6-foot-3-inch-tall half-marathon running husband bounds out of the car, down the sidewalk and disappears.  Into the fake rustic boathouse, elegantly appointed with a boudoir chaise swing hanging from the ceiling, the last thing one might expect in a place dubbed a ‘Boathouse.’  No night-crawler smell, no captive-cricket chirping, no tobacco-stained floors marred the aura of this interior. Decorators had trod the faux-weathered floorboards.

Inside the high-ceilinged REI-styled boathouse, Losee gave us choices. I might want to try the YOLO Yak, he suggested, a wider-bodied, heavier board that tended to tip less. Decisions. Decisions. The Yak would move slower across the choppy waves than the regular YOLO board Mr. Atlas selected. Mr. Atlas would slide and sail and I’d be stuck digging in trying to move a barge-like board. I wavered between FOMO and FOFOMA (fear of falling on my @$$).

FOFOMA won. We meandered down to the dock, shedding car keys, clothes and flip-flops.

My wide-bodied YAK glowed neon green, a bit scuffed. Brodie showed me how to position myself in a seated position on the dock, feet on the board, then turn into the board, plopping the weight of my upper torso onto my knees in the middle of the board, balanced.

Success! Now for the scooping oar, which he handed me and pushed me off the dock. Sweetie had already scooped his way toward the bridge, off his knees quickly. He strode the waters, scooping left, scooping right, gliding along. Kind of like a Hawaii islander, bronzed, athletic and fearless. I scooped left and right on my knees until I reached the arched pedestrian and bicycle bridge about 200 yards from the disembarkment dock, pale, out-of-shape and nervous.

The sun shone still, but we knew storms headed our way had spawned tornadoes that had killed nearly 20 people in states west of us, including Alabama and Mississippi.

Water chipped and chopped under the bluster of a firm headwind. Brodie and Tom warned us to start with the wind in our faces to determine our strength and ability to steer. That way, when we returned to the dock, the wind would use our backs like sails. Sage advice, but really I wanted to scoop toward the Western Lake skyline of pines – in the opposite direction to see that iconic view from the water.

The key to remaining balanced includes a slight bend of the knees and not leaning into the oar while stroking. When in doubt, drop to the knees with the oar balanced over the center of the board. After about 45 minutes I worked up my nerve to switch to the lighter board, which felt like going from shorter skis to longer skis – the board felt more responsive under my toes and skimmed the water faster.

Chris commented on how much of a lower leg workout he felt, something he hadn’t expected and two days later I wasn’t as sore as I expected to be. Mascara intact, I declare the adventure a success. I would definitely SUP or YOLO board again but it won’t be here, it’ll be further south.

The day after our SUP boarding experience, three days of non-stop rain and gusting high winds struck. Hundreds of homes flooded, roads closed and businesses shuttered. The state-of-emergency weather brought with it as well news of the demise of a real-estate deal that would have put us in a small one-bedroom condo a block off the beach. The sellers refused to make an HOA-required repair, which meant we could not close, although we had waited patiently for nearly 60 days. Our deal sank and with it our dreams of staying.

I’ve always loved this area, but there’s a dark undertow no talks about – a polarized economy with haves and have-nots and nothing in the middle. While hard-core locals intrinsically understand this and accept it, it took us several months to admit defeat.

Chris and I had secured what locals call “our service jobs,” one seasonal that didn’t pay much, the other part-time with healthcare benefits, a job that would have given me time to write. On the Florida panhandle, choices come down to skimming along on a sleek YOLO board of business ownership or fighting the waves on a YAK-sized job that pays $10 to $12 an hour. It’s impossible to make a new start here without a trust fund or the means to buy a business – and my loving parents sacrificed much for me and my brother, but a trust fund was never part of the deal.

They YOLO board in Key West, and that’s where you’ll find us. Except on Sundays.

On Sundays, you’ll find us skimming across the surface of Caribbean colored-waters even in December. Because the weather’s warm enough and we might as well SUP it up while we can.


©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014-2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of  material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.







Jesmyn Ward: Men We Reaped


Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Please enjoy the PASTE magazine review.


My One and Only Night with the Leonard Boys (contact author for this post)

My One and Only Night with the Leonard Boys

Peter,  Sybil, Elmore 


Author’s note: The Leonards spoke as part of the Ivy Hall Writers series in Atlanta in January 2013. Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87 in August 2013.   

Sea Glass Serene

Sea Glass Serene

Meditation. Creation. Appreciation.

Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair, Notes on Grad School Life

Here’s a book you want to buy now:  Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair.

Pickett's Charge

Buy now

McNair reads on Thursday, Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. at Howlin’ Books, 1702 8th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203; and on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 2 p.m., Barnes &  Noble, Hamilton Place Mall, Chattanooga, TN

Pickett’s Charge tells a Southern tall tale intertwined with a lyric poem, a creative twist that fascinates. I heard Charles read at the Ivy Hall Writers Series in Atlanta and again at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta. I highly recommend catching him at one of his upcoming appearances in Nashville and Chattanooga as he nears the end of his book tour. If you can’t hear him read, do yourself a favor and  buy Pickett’s Charge.

This Pulitzer-Prize nominated author will entertain you and make you think.

Grad School Life Notes

The first draft of my thesis awaits revision and formatting today. I will meet the deadline to defend on March 7. This work of 80 plus pages lands in the genre called creative non-fiction and focuses on Army brat times between 1968 and 1972, when our family was stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., and my Dad served in Vietnam.

Thesis Pieces

Thesis Pieces

My online class found Gandhi reincarnated and nominated her head of our four-person marketing team. Her sage peacemaking saves my sanity every week as we have one member who fits the stereotype of a difficult person. I count down the weeks. After this week, seven more. After this quarter, two more classes to graduation, May 30, 2014.

Alys Beach

Venue View, 30A Songwriters Festival 2014

The third class this quarter focuses on essays about place, travel writing at the literary level. Ensconced in our quiet getaway, I have been able to write and focus without too many distractions, although this weekend’s 30A Songwriters Festival provided a welcome diversion and some incredible music.

I’ll close with a photo that C. Louis Topel snapped before a storm.

Stormy Weather, Seagrove Beach, Florida

What do you see? Please comment.

Best Hikes in Georgia: Top 5 with Waterfalls

Waterfall at Cloudland Canyon State Park Georgia

Cloudland Canyon, Rising Fawn, Georgia
Water veil with stone cold face

When not writing, I prefer hiking. Our buddies Annie and Louie discovered these hikes and asked us to share them with you. They are all in Georgia within driving distance of Atlanta for a day trip.

In order of beauty:

1. Cloudland Canyon State Park

There are hikes here for everyone, with views accessible to all hiking and ability levels. Strenuous trails get you to Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls. The day we were there, icicles sparkled on rocks and a sheen of ice cloaked stones under waterfalls. 600 steps down to the falls. Worth it.

2. Tallulah Gorge and Tallulah Falls

Lots of water. Lots of hikes for all levels. We tackled this one on a sunny September day in 2012. Spectacular red leaves.

3. Taccoa Falls

One you won’t find on the Georgia State Park website. It’s situated behind Taccoa Falls College. Moderate difficulty and a short trail up a slight incline to reach the bottom of the falls. I discovered my favorite wilderness warning on one of those “duh” signs.

Beware of Snakes

Sign could apply in other places besides hiking trails . . .

4. Panther Creek State Park

We hiked 7 miles. Lots of rocks, better to hike in boots, would not advise sneakers, ankles need support.

5. Sweetwater Creek

Yes, it’s more than a beer. This area offers history lessons, lots of water shoals and a variety of hikes for nearly all levels. It’s easy to get to from downtown Atlanta and makes the perfect outdoor destination on a day when there’s only time for a short drive.

If you really don’t have time to get out of town, try the Belt Line and/or the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The real experts are Helen and Ren Davis, authors of many walking guidebooks, several specific to Atlanta urban walks.

Waterfall at Cloudland Canyon State ParkImage

Waterfall at Cloudland Canyon State Park

Give a Child a Book Adventure: Top Children’s Books by Author Hally Joseph

     Today I welcome my first guest blogger, Hally Joseph, one of my favorite writing colleagues. I invite you to read more of her work and follow her excellent blog on books:
     For the next four months, my blog is open to guest bloggers by invitation. Please contact me if this piques your curiosity. 
     Take it away Hally:
A few years ago my mom and I were browsing through a bookstore in Asheville, NC and the angry face of a baby llama glared at us from the shelves. We laughed looking through Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama children’s series with titles such as Llama Llama Red Pajama, Llama Llama Mad at Mama and for Christmas that year I even surprised my own mama llama with Llama Llama Holiday Drama. In my mid-twenties, I am hardly my mother’s “baby” and I am years away from having any babies of my own — this would seem a children’s book-less era of life. But something about these sweet and funny rhymes strike the same chord they did when I was a child. All I need to do is pick one up to remember.

Besides the Llama Llama books, I haven’t much kept up with any children’s books lately. My favorites will always be the ones of my own youth: the ones with dog-eared pages and fond memories of my grandmother reading to my cousins and me before we fell sleep. My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher and it always felt like she had access to books I never knew of, and in these books I had access to worlds I could only dream of.

Photo from HMH Books for Young ReadersPhoto from HMH Books for Young Readers

One such book is If Anything Ever Goes Wrong at the Zoo by Mary Jean Hendrick. Children’s series often focus on animals, and this one combined them all: a precocious little girl goes around the zoo one day, letting each department know that “if anything ever goes wrong at the zoo…” the monkeys, alligators, zebras, ostriches, etc. are completely welcome at her house. In true children’s book fashion, this actually happens when a huge storm floods the flat-grounded zoo and the little girl’s hilltop house becomes home for all the animals as the zookeepers take her up on her generous offer. Hello, adult nightmare and kid best case scenario.

Photo from School Zone Pub CoPhoto from School Zone Pub Co

Another keeper in my grandmother’s reading room was is (these books are still there and I still sometimes read them when visiting) James Hoffman’s The Christmas Wreath. Light on writing and heavy on beautiful illustration, this wintertime story follows a polar bear who rubs his back on a door in a snowy town and gets a plain Christmas wreath stuck around his neck like a collar. As he runs through the woods and swims in the ocean, it gets tangled with leaves, berries, silver fish and then iced over into a beautiful wintry necklace. Desperate to rid himself of the heavy collar, he eventually returns to the door and it catches on the hook as he rubs his back. In the old wreath’s place is now the world’s most beautiful wreath, and this “collection” of imagery fascinated me as a child.

Photo from HarperCollinsPhoto from HarperCollins

On my own bookshelf at home is a classic that needs no introduction, but here is one anyways: Shel Silverstein’s timeless The Giving Tree is one of the most heartbreaking (and honest) portrayals of love ever written for children or adults alike. A boy grows up with a tree and it gives and gives and gives to make him happy until the end of his days. As an adult, this one resonates more deeply with me than as a child. As a child, I probably wanted a tree that would be so nice to me. As an adult, I want to smack the boy. Ah, love!

Photo from AladdinPhoto from Aladdin

I saved perhaps my favorite for last, the “indie cult hit” of nerdy horse-loving girls everywhere. Paul Goble’s Caldecott Award-winning The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses is so beautifully illustrated that if I could pop through the panels like Mary Poppins jumping into a sidewalk chalk drawing, I would. I probably spent half of my childhood trying to magic my way into those pages. During a thunderstorm, a young Native American girl is swept up in a stampede of wild horses that she eventually comes to consider something quite like family. Goble’s illustrations are otherworldly, and it’s amazing that a British illustrator with a penchant for Native American culture hit such a truly bold, American look. Not just the horses are beautiful: small animals hide in the brush and birds hyphenate storm clouds and a blood-red moon. Everywhere you look, there is something more to see.

Obviously an honorable mention goes to David Pelham’s Sam’s Sandwich, the gross-out pop-out book to end all gross-out pop-out books. What were your favorite books as a child? You can read more of my (more grown-up) book reviews at

Tectonic Cream Cheese Cracks atop Orange Jello, a Thanksgiving Tale

A holiday memory

A holiday memory

I come from a long line of great cooks. I count executive chefs among first cousins on my Mother’s side and creative cooks who never saw a recipe that couldn’t be improved by improvisation on my Father’s side.  Which is why it surprised us all when Mother veered off the recipe one Thanksgiving. She’s a rule-follower extraordinaire, an accounting supervisor, someone you can trust with the church treasury. This was erratic behavior and completely out of character. 

We were gathered at my aunt’s house, the mother of the first-cousin executive chef. My Mother and one of my first cousins by marriage were tasked with a favorite Jell-O recipe, the one with nuts and pineapple and cream cheese topping. You know the one, I’m sure. I was given an innocuous task, something simple that couldn’t be messed up. I peeled potatoes alongside my favorite uncle. Evidently this had something to do with peelers not having sharp edges like knives. I don’t know why they didn’t trust me in the kitchen with knives, but that’s a different story.

Men-folk cousins took turns basting the turkey outside somewhere. It’s possible it was being smoked that year. Or, it could have been inside the kitchen in the oven. At any rate, they took turns going outside, cups in hand.

My aunt had an extensive collection of that Lenox china, you know the holiday one with gold rim edges, ivy and holly berries. That one. She believed in white tablecloths, real china, candles, a centerpiece and a family table where all were welcome. I believe too. I believe in this more than I believe in Santa Claus and I believe we are not to talk about S.C. until after Thanksgiving.

My aunt had the complete “in” on desserts. She taught high school, not just any classes, mind you. She taught the kids who would go on to become chefs, run restaurants and determine dining menus in Zagat-rated venues. Her students prepared a sugar-coma-inducing array of sweets, each following a recipe she had selected for precision and sure results. She purchased our favorites. There were pies – pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie. There was a ginger-bread pudding/bundt cake covered with hard lemon sauce that I can still taste. There was a pumpkin roll stuffed with cream cheese filling and topped with nuts. Some years there were jam cakes covered in caramel icing. The dessert table stretched yard after yard, all the way out to the porch deck.

We arranged ourselves before the banquet table next to the kitchen in the ‘side parlor’ that served as a dining room. We prayed as a family. Candles flickered, faces flushed from kitchen warmth and the cups the cousins consumed. Holiday cheer and genuine thanksgiving abounded in our hearts.

My mother and the cousin-in-law excused themselves to the kitchen and brought out one more dish. The Jell-O dish whose name I’m sure another cousin will call me and remind me of as soon as this blog is posted. I’ll add it in the comments, I promise. Maybe even the recipe, if you ask nicely.

The apologies began. The topping looked awful, like someone had taken the cream cheese, hardened it into mud-cakes from Army boots and thrown it atop the jello. A disaster. (In all fairness – it still tasted terrific.) Cousin-in-law looked like she was biting her tongue. Mother explained weakly that the recipe called for this and that process, but she and Cindy (oops) had speeded it up and and thrust the topping into the freezer on waxed paper with a sneaky plan to then unroll the wax paper atop the Jell-O foundation. Mother muttered some more, mortified, tried to pass the dressing and change the subject.

Someone – pretty sure it was cousin Kenny – picked up the rectangular glass dish and shook it. No jiggle. Top layer too taut. Laughter spouted out lips and nostrils. Kids giggled. We took turns trying to make it shake like Jell-O should. Tears streamed down cheeks in the hot steamy warmth of a Thanksgiving that all of us will always remember.

Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make the best memories.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Top Reasons to Study Abroad – White Paper

White Paper_Top Reasons to Study Abroad Cover

White Paper_Top Reasons to Study Abroad_McLain-Topel

All About the Light: Adventures in Glass and Architecture



“Color is all. When color is right, form is right. Color is everything, color is vibration like music; everything is vibration.”

             – Marc Chagall



by Sybil McLain-Topel

            Light jumps in and out of the ripples of the pool. The diver ascends the platform steps, prepares for the precise plunge. Over and over, practice every day, twice a day, until muscle memory takes over and the Olympic trials he dreams about feel as real as the gritty concrete edge of the pool.

It’s the early 1970s – the Vietnam War invades every young man’s American dream and influences lifelong decisions early. For Kenn von Roenn, the ambitious Florida State University diver on the platform, an injury and a coincidence conspire to take him from the diving pool to a very different place – a stained glass studio where he works to pay surgery bills from the injury. “All this hit when I was 21 years old and everything came into focus and all the pieces fit together for the first part of my life at the beginning of my career,” Kenn says. Instead of a back-up plan to attend law school, he created a new career – fusing glass art with architecture.

“I built 44 years on that very simple foundation.”

Appointed as executive director for FSU’s Master Crafts Studio (MCS) earlier this year, Kenn von Roenn has embarked on a terrific opportunity.  Leaving his studio in Louisville, Ky., is bittersweet, but his life and business partner, Ursula Vourvoulis, encouraged him.

I like the fact that he brings his family into the conversation early. Like Kenn, I’ve been fortunate to have family support and encouragement with my decision to pursue a Creative Writing graduate degree. Like Kenn, it’s important to me that my family supports this change.

Kenn’s overarching artistic philosophy was formed during an era of political protest, a time when many people questioned the status quo, including those who felt excluded from the insider world of fine art. During the Vietnam anti-war protests, the idea surfaced that art could not be ‘owned,’ could not be ‘resold,’ and should not be a collectible commodity.

The time was right to reframe the artistic experience in terms of the individual viewer. Over the years, Kenn has made a profound commitment to increasing art in public spaces, not tucking installations away in sterile museums and private collections. Working with FSU students is a natural extension of this philosophy.

                “The most fundamental aspect of what I do is really based on the philosophy of art in built spaces, in community spaces,” Kenn says. “As artists, we do things that go far beyond our lives and touch lives for many years to come.”

 “In the art world of the 70s, art became more about the less than 5,000 people in the world who controlled the value of art. Public art is so completely different from that. Its value is determined by what it means to people and how it makes that environment more pleasant and meaningful.” 

Art has played a stronger role in my life than I realized – in just the terms Kenn describes. My father dabbled in oils and acrylics, once laboriously copying a Kandinsky he saw in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. I inherited the painting and searched for several years for its origin, finally uncovering that “Stability” resides in a private collection in Germany. And here’s the most interesting fact that links this to Kenn’s studio – the original is painted on glass. Naturally, I wish I could see it, but it’s tucked away in someone’s home. I zealously agree with Kenn’s aspirations for more public art installations.

In fact, without realizing it, I often walked right past one of his sculptures. As I pored over his website looking at hundreds of photographs, I was surprised to find there’s one in Nashville, Tenn., in front of the Davidson County Court House. This is a place I’ve been frequently – not for traffic tickets – for business development visits and downtown music festivals on the plaza.

At any rate, I vaguely remember the work called “The Citizen” created controversy because it was “modern.” I read the description and realize for the first time the translucent pointing man can be lit up at night by passersby if they follow instructions at the sculpture’s base. A crank turn causes LED lights inside the torso to burn bright blue, like electric veins. A nod to Alan Jackson’s neon lights on Broadway a few blocks over, maybe? That’s pretty cool.

But wait – I lived in Nashville for more than 20 years and I just now find out about this? And how? By moving to Atlanta, Ga., traveling to Thomasville, Ga., then to Tallahassee, Fla., and talking to a man who lives in Louisville, Ky.

Now that I understand how to turn on those lights, trust me, next time I’m in Music City I’m planning to crank it up. The lights on the statue of course. This is exactly the type of interaction with art that’s Kenn’s goal.

“The value of public art is determined by what it means to people and how people relate to it. You should not have to wait for some authority to tell you it’s a great work of art,” he says.

In addition to joining the studio team at a nascent time, as they make plans to build a new space that will be six times larger than their current space, Kenn also directs FSU’s new public architectural art program. Both programs aim to broaden public understanding of art that works in tandem with architecture. Now that I’ve gotten a feel for the fun and whimsy he can create, I’d like to see more.

“Glass is the most phenomenal material on the face of the earth. It’s made from the most common material on earth, sand, through a very simple process of heat. By combining two or three other materials, this new material is created. It’s almost like alchemy. It’s majestic,” he says.

The installation I most want to see weighs 550,000 pounds and is part of the structure of a high rise in Charlotte, N.C., called Three Wells Fargo Center. This fascinates me because of the size and because it integrates completely with the structure.

Having worked with architects for five years, I can only imagine the meetings they had during the “design document” phase.  The emphasis on collaboration requires a leader with just the right amount of ego to guide the project forward and stay on schedule, but not the kind of “starchitect” that people in the profession complain about working with – the ones who steamroll everyone else in the room. Kenn seems to have just the right blend of confidence and leadership.

It’s easy to imagine him playing with his four grandchildren and letting them go to his studio to play.  He becomes as enthusiastic as one of them as he describes the Charlotte installation.

“It’s a glass sculpture integrated into the building. It rises 50 feet on all four sides, then drops 20 feet. The glass has a kinetic quality that changes light as the sun changes position in the sky, as the viewer moves around,” Kenn says.

“The glass sculpture is part of the fabric of the building. If you took that away, the building would be infinitely less,” he says. “It’s the world’s largest glass sculpture and it came in two months ahead of schedule and 20 percent below budget.” This is something every client wants to hear and valuable for students to learn early in their careers as artists.

The master crafts studio serves as a professional atelier where work includes sculpture, statuary, ornamental work, stained glass, cast stone, cast metals, molding processes, advanced computer technologies, and business processes.

When I first met with Sarah Coakley, the public relations director who has guided the studio for the past five years, she sported a necklace made from dark glass scallops held together with silver chains. Her mission is part business and part art and she’s just as savvy about one as she is the other. The center stone reads in bold white letters of fused glass, ‘Buy More Art.’

Sarah is self-effacing about her role in convincing Kenn to return in a leadership role to his alma mater. “We’re going to be such a presence in large-scale, local art,” she says. “Kenn is a perfect match for us.”

When Sarah leads us to FSU’s historic Dodd Hall to view modern stained glass seals honoring alumni, her enthusiasm takes over. She points to new seals recently installed in the middle of each cobalt blue stained window, explaining how they incorporate new glass art techniques.

They’re popular for commemorating special historical moments. While we’re there, she even takes a call about a future installation, which gives me a moment to ponder why cobalt blue always resonates with me. It’s the incredible Marc Chagall stained glass windows at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I’ve enjoyed on a number of trips to the city. 

Sarah and I return to her studio space.

“I took a glass workshop, three days. I could see what I was doing in painting could transfer to glass. You can use powder to paint on glass – no more leaded lines like in stained glass,” she says.

“We had an iron pour and I’m showing my friend Nancy what I’m doing in the glass workshop and she grabs my elbow, looks me in the eyes and says, ‘It’s like the mother ship has called you home at last.’” Now it’s time to put what she’s learned into action at a higher level and she’s thrilled Kenn joined the studio.

A lot has changed since Kenn von Roenn practiced dives. For one thing, the pool he remembers is gone. But he’s still dreaming big dreams. And with his track record of 44 years of completing projects across the country, it’s a safe prediction that FSU will win big in the long run.

Kenn’s been explaining his vision for the studio when I ask him to talk more about his early career. He’s just told me the diving story and there’s an instant connection for me between light reflected in the water in the pool and light shining through colored glass.

Water and glass.

“They are both transparent, but also liquid. Light passes through them and yet they also have some characteristics of being a solid,” he says. “Subconsciously maybe there was a connection. I never thought about it that way before.”

That’s the way great collaborations work. Ideas fuel one another as artists share their dreams. This time, not only will clients win, many students will get a crack at collaborating with a man who understands glass, light and how to create beautiful art that merges with architecture.

Author’s note: When I arrived to interview Sarah, I had no idea I would also interview Kenn. Having spent the last five years working with architects, the assignment pleased me. Like Kenn, I want to give back through teaching. But like Sarah, my aha moment came when someone close to me reflected back to me what I really wanted to do when I grew up. For me, that was my family – my husband, my mother and my son – they encouraged me to return to school. It’s all about the light.

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