My 2020 Thought Influencers

2020 was a turning point for me. Between being newly retired and the pandemic lockdown, I had time to read, listen, study, and create. I abandoned myself to exploring new ideas and new ways of thinking.  

Here are seven people I encountered in 2020 whose work changed the way I think about things:  

Shirley Bland: artist, writer, teacher

The Teacher, Mixed Media Collage by Shirley Bland

Shirley and I worked together at Rice University. I was a new mom and Shirley was nearing retirement.  She had recently taken up painting and was starting to exhibit and win awards.  Eventually, Shirley quit her day job, moved to the Texas Hill Country, and became an artist.   

Fast forward nearly twenty years, my sister is paying a winter visit from Iowa, and she wants to see San Antonio. We arrange to see Shirley while we are in the area. She greeted us like dear old friends, offering coffee and cake, and showing us her home with beautiful views of the canyon and birds in the treetops. 

Then she brought us to her studio/classroom, seated us at a worktable,  put a brush in our hands, and said “Let’s paint!” 

The premise was an introduction to gauche paints; it turned out to be a masterclass in how to be an artist. Through her stories, her art, and her instruction, I started to get a glimpse of how I, too, could live like an artist. It set the tone for my creative life in 2020, including this blog. 

This has been a hard year for Shirley. Still, she keeps showing up to paint, write, create, inspire, laugh, and praise life and all its colors and creatures.  You can see Shirley’s work on her website, and blog, and check out her FaceBook to see her latest project, making journals.

Austin Kleon: a writer who draws

If Shirley Bland was the person who suggested I try out for the team, Austin Kleon was the coach who kicked me into action. I found it impossible to stay on the sidelines after finding Austin Kleon.  

Here are three surprising things I now believe because of Austin Kleon:

  • Copying other writers is a way to find my own voice.
  • Posting imperfect writing is called practicing. Don’t skip practice.
  • Making bad art is a worthwhile endeavor.

I have read Austin’s books and given them as gifts. I also subscribe to his newsletter, which I await with game-day anticipation every week.

Jim Blackburn and Isabelle Chapman: creators of the Virus Vigil

Wilson’s Warbler, by Isabelle Chapman, Day 234 of the Virus Vigil

Virus Vigil is a daily email with messages, art, and poems about birds and nature. From their work, I am learning what it looks like to consistently prioritize your art, day in, day out, through very distracting times.  I see how the muse works through artistic collaboration and friendship. And I am learning about the environment of my adopted home state–its wonders, challenges, and promises.

Trung T. Phan: business writer

Trung Phan, The

Trung T. Phan describes himself as someone who “writes jokes disguised as business analysis.” He tells stories of creative people and their processes in brilliantly written Twitter threads. Trung’s subjects are geniuses and overnight successes. His talent is in unpacking the glitzy stories into the most basic building blocks of any creative work: show up; do the work; show up again.

Nikole Hannah-Jones: investigative journalist, creator of the 1619 Project  

1619 Album Art, New York Times

The 1619 Podcast came out in August 2019. I avoided listening to it because Its premise seemed too edgy for me. Then in March, as the country was shutting down, I decided to give it a try. I binged-listened to the series. Twice. Some episodes I listened to three or four times.  

It is a hard message to hear: that the American story is shaped by slavery and racism. It pokes holes in what I thought was a solid narrative–my narrative–about God, Capitalism, and self-made men. It’s neither a pleasant nor particularly actionable revelation, but I can’t un-see it. The premise of 1619 informs everything I read and how I experience the great social reckoning of 2020.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, scientist, professor, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is the most luscious, tender, surprising, and eloquent treatise on nature I’ve ever read. Because of Braiding Sweetgrass, I am now giving serious consideration to such ideas as a grammar of animacy, a gift economy, and the language of trees.   I picked her book up in a purposeful effort to broaden my reading of books by black, indigenous, and people of color. I shudder to think of what a shallow life I would have lived never having seen a glimpse of Kimmerer’s world view. 


  1. Jenny, I love your Influencers. While I know of most of them there were surprises. So glad I got to see the results of this journey. It really was a year.

    Liked by 2 people

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