Creative Depression And How I Got Rid of It

When I die one day, my biggest creative regret will likely be all the artwork I didn't have a chance to finish. Headlines marketed at artists and illustrators like "How to Increase Your Creativity" and "Get Your Creative Juices Flowing" never make sense to me.

Ideas aren't the problem. Time to execute them to my satisfaction is. 

Not every idea makes it past the sketch phase. 

So it may seem strange when I say that looking back, I was in a creative depression for much of last year. I was almost locked-up, I could barely act. Everything seemed too difficult: opening the research files, choosing digital or paper sketching, creating process templates, setting up the easel, dealing with my dismantled studio - it was all too much.

I think I know why, now.

I quit my full-time, 10-year, well-paying job managing an art store the day after I found out my wife was pregnant back in 2010. One friend put it, that he, "nods approvingly at the madness of it".  The final few months of my wife's pregnancy had me working from home, getting a steady stream of small revenue but exciting science-art projects. When Calvin was born, it was great, all three of us together. 

I completed this commission, Tylosaurus Reef around the time of my son being born. 

It was the best time of my life (being a dad, being freelance, blogging for freakin' Scientific American is a dream come true) but barely being able to keep up financially was hurting us. Michelle and I have weathered tough times before - we've been married for 9 years - but it was just us. The weight of responsibility for my son to have what he needs was all-encompassing. The cafe job felt professionally like dues I've already paid as a younger man, but ya do what ya gotta do. 

When Michelle went back to teaching, this was the state of things. I worked those 4 part-time jobs while being a full-time stay-at-home dad. Being a freelancing dad was a process I never finished learning how to do.

I painted this small oil on my first day of full-time freelancing. "Freelance Leap". I never did figure out how to fly all the way to those freelancing fairgrounds in the distance. 

The depression really set in for me last fall after my son started daycare. It was the right time for him to go: he loved it almost immediately, running around, learning like an exuberant, friendly and hyper little sponge. 

The new expense of daycare and the empty house/studio brought it all home for me: 

  • With the publishing market being where it is, 
  • With scientific funding being so small, 
  • With science-art as a field barely crawling on the periphery of cultural awareness, 
  • With my history growing up with one parent struggling to keep my sisters and I going,
  • With my experience going from job-to-job in a steady stream since I was 14 years old, 
  • With my amazing wife and amazing son being here in my life, 

I realized something.

I am not cut out for full-time freelancing.

I sent out resumes to a very small number of studios around Toronto that do work I respect and might be good for my 
fine art/science/social media/management background, and you know what? One of 'em hired me, and it's fantastic. 

My energy is back, I'm excited to go to work (the team there is brilliant, welcoming and fun), and I'm excited to get up at 5 a.m. to blog or sketch again. And we have groceries. 

The fallout is, there are a few people who have commissioned me I owe apologies to for being later than I ever expected. Three of those projects are still in the works and I hope I make them kick-ass and worth the patience that's been given to me.

I lifted the creative depression by starting to become part of a team doing work I believe in, and by bringing my share into the household. Never underestimate the impact that 

  • supportive people
  • new influences and 
  • livable income 

can have on your creativity. 

Okay, so it's not all perfect. For example: my face. 

Art is no longer a grind, and in 2013, I think it will be an adventure again. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Find me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!

My professional portfolio on deviantART - stay or go?

The last few years if you've looked at , it's whisked you away to the URL otherwise known as - I have been using the popular art site deviantART for my professional art portfolio hosting. I'm considering a change and would love some opinions. Below I have my pros and cons.

Before I say much more (an oh, I'm gonna), there is a big difference between a standard dA account page and their portfolio service. I'm not planning to leave dA entirely, just considering whether or not to stop paying for Premium and using their professional portfolios.

Here's the visuals:

Standard dA bio page

Portfolio bio page.

Standard dA gallery page.

Portfolio gallery page.

I pay about $30 a year for the Premium service (last year with some very welcome donations from fans for this new dad). The Premium Portfolio means:

  • I can customize the URL, hence the very original
  • No ads from deviantART appear on my page.
  • I can make new portfolios, add specific page URLS through my domain host (like
  • There's lots of image storage. 

Those are all decent features in the plus column.

Here's a couple of other things I like:

  • Layout forces me to stay clean and simple for potential clients. 
  • It really easy for me to change and add or drop artwork. 
  • Limits on how much art per gallery forces me to keep it fresh for return clients.
  • I occasionally add my entire resume to it as a pdf download - not there at the moment, but that's neat-o. 
  • I love how it looks. 

But here are the features in the minus column that have me wondering if my $30/year would be better served somewhere else. 

  • Not enough links. The text on the bio page is insanely limited and includes the HTML - so when something helpful to my business like say, Google+ crops up, I have to delete another important - actually important, not just for fun - link from the link list. They limit the text so that the whole portfolio has no scrolling. Yeah cool. But to link to my Scientific American gig and increasing Media list, I had to drop links to two other blogs I have contributed to. 
  • I pay for no ads, but I get pranks. This past April Fools' Day, deviantART thought it would be funny to pretend they were taken over by cats and there was a pop-up that if you wanted, would lead you further into the joke. Or you could disable it. Each time you went on dA on April 1st, it would pop back up. Kind of funny stuff, but I pay for no dA ads, and here's a silly joke I had no part in designing that any potential client was going to get stuck figuring out for a whole day. Pissed me right off. 
  • No links in art descriptions. Click on the little letter "i" under the art, get some neat info about the image. But no links to further information, and it's reduced to about two short sentences. I do science-based art. It sometimes needs a bit more explanation about the client, project, subject and materials. You know. The professional details. 
  • No statistics. This is the worst. The HTML I am allowed to use is on the bio page only, and is very very basic. No third party html widgets or gadgets to track stats using SiteMeter or Statcounter or even Google Analytics. When the portfolio service first launched I assumed this was coming at some point (dA offers crazy amounts of stats for their basic accounts). That was 2.5 years ago. Last year, when Annalee Newitz of the popular geek site featured Trilobite Boy and some of art in a fun article, they appropriately linked back to . And though I can see on the io9 article that it had over 14000 views (most just in those first few days) I have absolutely no idea how many went through to my own portfolio.

So. Do I stay or go?  If I go, does anyone have any good suggestions?  

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Find me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!

Copyright Comfort Zone (repost)

(While thinking a lot about copyright over on Symbiartic, I thought I'd repost this piece from a couple of years ago.  Originally appeared May 2010 both here on The Flying Trilobite and at ART Evolved.) 
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In the past few posts of Going Pro, we've looked a lot at copyright. Again, a lot of people have opinions, but it's important to see what the legal definitions -and what steps you can take to protect your creations- really entail.

Today though, I want to propose a question.

Suppose you post a nifty image of a prehistoric critter online. It's awesome, you're proud, people give you kudos. You put it under a Creative Commons Licence, the most restrictive one that says your image a) must be attributed to you, b) cannot be altered, c) others cannot profit from it, and otherwise, it's okay to post and share.

1. Then someone copies it. Another blogger. Does their own riff. Are you okay with that?

2. What if they're more famous than you, getting lots of illustration gigs, but they notice it, do their own version, and give you a nod for your cool idea. Still excited, feeling the attention?

3. What if your painting happens to hit the zeitgeist and goes all viral all over the interwebs. Everyone is sharing it. There's a day on Facebook where all the users switch to you image. But you haven't made a dime.  What do you do?

We're in interesting territory. Personally, I don't believe overly restricting images (insanely huge watermarks, disabling right-clicking) are helpful to make a successful career anymore. But neither is completely open sharing.

Consider this:
[h/t Boing Boing]
It makes a strong case about question number 3, doesn't it? But how do you capitalize on that image going viral? How does it put food on the table?

I suggest it's how you parlay that viral dinosaur image into getting new contracts.

As for questions number 1 and 2, consider the post-modern, remixed, mash-up, variant-cover culture we live in. Think an Indiana Jones video game is fun? What about Indiana Jones Lego! Like Batman? Sharks? Lightsabers? Ta-da! (artist here) Authoring mash-ups and riffing on others' work is an integral part of pop culture.

Painting gets started at about the 4 minute mark in the video above.
[h/t to Boing Boing, again]

In the past, I've sometimes been the dissenting voice here at Art Evolved about all those posts showing past-art about upcoming themed galleries. I dislike them because sometimes attribution to the artwork cannot be easily found - though yes, as Peter and Craig have pointed out to me, sometimes we attribute an "orphan image" after the post goes up when a reader identifies it.

I'm uncomfortable with those posts because in a world of remixes and fun Photoshopped images, attribution and authorship can sometimes be your only coins to bank on. Literally.

Everyone has different comfort zones. Where do you feel comfortable with your images on questions 1-3 above?

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 Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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--> Find me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the new Scientific American Blog Network!

Going Pro: free dinosaur art?

The ART Evolved blog I loosely administrate for (the heavy work being done by Craig Dylke, Peter Bond and Mo Hassan) has been doing extremely well the past year, with more and more talented people contributing not just to the themed galleries, but also to some fascinating posts.

It's what we wanted for the site: artists and researchers and dino fans enjoying the art and thoughts about creating it.  Spin off blog posts (like this one) are becoming more common as people choose long-form comments on their own site about happenings at the ART Evolved hub.

Recently, a student researcher approached ART Evolved with ideas for a contest for artwork through the site's loose network of members and contributors, the prize being that the unpaid work would appear in a presentation in front of some paleontology luminaries. Already our decision to post something about the contest for contributors has met some justified criticism.

I commented the following on ART Evolved, but thought I would post it again here for my slightly different readership.

All excellent comments Jack, and with the AE admin crew, we discussed these very issues before we decided to go ahead and publish the contest information anyways. 
There can some times be benefits to working for free for artists starting out. There I said it. I don't like it but its true. My first professional gig for an online client was high-profile and a poor student and I did the work for free and it led to more work. I still don't make enough to pay all my bills though even though I now generally charge Guild prices. That's reality: scientists do not usually have a lot of funds, and even funds earmarked for promotion of the research seldom go into artwork - something I hope high-profile sites like Art Evolved and Symbiartic will help.
Muddy Colors has excellent comments on this here and here. You may also wish to consult the Should I Work For Free infographic. No I'm not kidding, it's smarter than its sarcasm looks. 
This is not to say that it is right to do free work in this instance for Mr. Persons. And here is where I should emphasize that though I'm on the ART Evolved admin team, these are my own opinions and I likely don't speak for everyone. 
I don't want to lose people in research like Scott Persons as an ally. Science-artists of all kinds -scientific illustrators, animators, fine artists, cartoonists, graphic designers, infographic artists, amateurs- need scientists to be engaged with our work. We also have a duty to educate people who may hire us on best practices. Often when approached by a client, I give them a full break-down of my process, and typical fees and whether I am deviating up or down from anything typical. I keep them in the loop throughout the process with sketches and so on. 
When Craig first let the other admins (Peter, Mo and myself) know about Scott's request, I was bluntly, unhappy with it. The last thing in the world I want ART Evolved to become is a clearinghouse for free art for the science community. I want our talented members to get paid. 
But I didn't want to alienate a request like Scott's, though it was naive (understandably so if he has not worked with illustrators before - this is not a slight against Scott). 
Ultimately, each artist affiliated with or who reads this site can make up their own mind on whether they should do this type of work for free. I hope each of them thinks it through, and decides whether its right for them.And I hope through comments like yours Jack, Scott and other researchers learn useful information for future projects.
What do artists think? What do researchers using art think?

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Cory Doctorow's Internet Problem - some questions

Cory Doctorow has an excellent new column today at the Guardian, The Internet Problem: when an abundance of choice becomes a problem.  

I've been a fan of Cory Doctorow's writing for a few years, (love the occasional Toronto settings!) and most people have at least skimmed his writing on Boing Boing. He's a creative writer who has a passion for copyright reform (short version: open access is the future).  As an artist-illustrator passionate about communicating my own sometimes surreal riffs on science, I avidly read and ponder what Cory (may I call him Cory?) has to say about copyright law, and how it relates to business.  

I agree with much of his model.  The past few (almost 4!) years of art blogging, I essentially give away my artwork for free under Creative Commons (some restrictions) while I promote, share, and have a good time with others who have similar interests. I do it partly in the hopes of others looking at my artwork and saying "That's good.  I want that for me."  And that happens on occasion (here and here). 

I have some questions about today's column. In it, Cory writes, 

"I decided that I'd give the ebooks away (as I've done with my other books); sell a variety of paperbacks with different covers (the net made it easy to tap artist friends for cover designs and work with them over long distances); and do 250 super-limited, hand-sewn hardcovers with all sorts of premium stuff – an SD card set into the cover with the audiobook and full text and unique endpapers made of original sentimental paper ephemera donated by dozens of writer friends from all over the world. The audiobook was read by voice-actor pals in three countries...", 

Do those artist-friends and voice-actor pals get renumeration for their work?  Or is "pals" a euphemism for people who will give Cory work for free? Other than being friends and wanting to help Cory's work (which is so brilliant and current, I love it)  is there a measurable monetary gain for them?  For example, would one of the artists who provided a special cover for the print version actually gain enough notoriety they would make money elsewhere - prints, new contracts etc. -for realz?

I've been freelancing the last few months, and right now I have no shortage of opportunities and venues to make art - Cory is right.  There is an abundance of choice.  I'm grateful my artwork has resonance with such a variety of brilliant dynamic people, people I would never reach without the internet.  Most of these venues are unlikely to help me pay my rent however. I really want to do some of them -for fun, for establishing the contacts, for friends, for my portfolio- but I'm still limited by choosing ones with a potential to make money or lead to an art-print where mmmaaaaybe I'll make a bit of money. 

I haven't found the right formula for me yet. 

"There's so much that you can do to elaborate on a project of this nature: limited edition covers, pricing experimentation, novel forms of audio distribution … While this sort of thing was once constrained by the inherent capital costs of trying them, no such costs obtain today: all of these things can be done for "free", costing only the time spent in trying them out."

My second set of questions:  where are these opportunities?  Are there really places that allow you to assemble hand-sewn bindings on books for free?  SD cards inlaid in the cover?  I realize I'm small-time: it's understandable why Little Brother, a book about teenaged programmers fighting the government (flash mobs!) has more of an audience than some anatomically-incorrect trilobites.  Cory Doctorow naturally has more connections to these cool-tools online.

In the New Year, I plan to start publishing my Trilobite Boy story online, and would love to make a print version available.  I know this is a successful model for many comic artists, and it's become a real passion for me as the Trilobite Boy story coalesces in my brain and on the page.

I'd also love to have that collaborative book I've mentioned -consisting of my already-done paintings with 1 page short stories written by a variety of writers with little oversight from me- published, or at least shopped around. In the end, I want the writers to receive compensation as well as myself. Is there a way to do that fairly?

Cory Doctorow's column is terrific - as usual, I find his writing about the internet + copyright + creativity provide a signpost in the path to the future.  This time though, I feel like he's pointed to an abundant rainforest but I don't know where to look for fruit. Or should it be tubers? 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Report card on freelancing

Okay, so at the beginning of October, I left my job of 10 years to give freelance illustration and fine art a try. The Strong and Free(lance) series is my attempt to document what I can for myself and others wanting to do the same.

Here's a report card.

I have been painting and sketching a lot, and still have a healthy list of self-driven projects to work on.  No boredom in the creative arena. Many days, I start painting, either with oils or ArtRage, lose track of time and forget to eat lunch. I tried setting a timer on my iPod, but I just turn it off and think "20 minutes more" and lose the afternoon.

 A number of people have asked about a Trilobite Boy comic or graphic novel. 
Anyone else want to see that? If there's interest in a story, it could be worth a try. 

Months back, I raised the idea of a book of my art with one-page or short science fiction stories by various writers. A couple of readers and peeps expressed interest in writing for it.  I'm not sure how to get it off the ground: pay two of you to write stories I can shop around? 
B+  Good ideas and quality. Needs to work on routine and output speed.
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New business cards.  New calendar for sale, as well as lots of new prints. New baby onesie.  I'm grateful for each one of these items sold, but I don't make a lot of money off of each print.  I keep it going because I really love when someone has my art on their wall.

Launched a couple of items on Etsy. I'll add more and announce.

Freelancing is a slow process.  I'm still sending out portfolios, and I've had a few nibbles, but nothing is past the contract stage.

Some of the artwork I created the last several weeks has generated more interest than many of my pieces have in the past, so that's really heartening.  I think if I was attempting to try freelance without the benefit of feedback on my blog and satellite social media, I would have folded up into a ball and given up by now.

So the biz side: I'm broke, but it's going as well as I should expect, I guess - there's not a lot of money in the science community or in publishing for new artists.  So I won't be able to afford to do this full-time.
Grade: D  Running and running to stay in place.  Is science-art marketable at a living wage?

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It's been a big year of changes. My wife, a school teacher, switched schools. I earned my B.F.A.  We moved into a new apartment. I left my job.  We're expecting a healthy baby next month (who looks like Jack Skellington in the latest ultrasound photo).  Our nephew continues his awesomeness.
Grade: B  Needs to financially support family to get top marks.

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Optimistic and excited by upcoming ideas, both in art and blog.
Financially, sometimes I wonder if I'd be better off painting half-naked amazon women.  Holding trilobites. 

I have plenty of moments of self-doubt and cursing myself for stupidity. A huge portion of the public has no idea what a trilobite is. Things have changed enough that most people expect to see cool images for free, all day long. The business model I have been hoping to see develop, is to put enough quality work on this blog, aimed at a scientifically literate audience, and maybe an institution or publisher will start to pay for new images.  It hasn't happened so far, which gets me down...

...and then I have a coffee, and remember that I can't understate how grateful I am for my fans and supporters. And I feel optimistic again.
Grade: C
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Needs to work on
-Finding a new job.
-Decide whether I keep going as I am right now, doing a bit of everything to cast a wide net in the job market (scientific illustration, comic-style stuff, more concept art, fine art) or settle into just one field which could reap greater commercial rewards. Lately, I've been thinking the latter.  I can't do it all: there's literally not enough hours in the day. I'm leaning toward book illustration and maybe a Trilobite Boy story of some kind.
Final Grade: C+

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.


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Copyright links

Since taking my artwork online over 3 years ago, I've been learning and thinking a lot about copyright.

Our group, S
outhern Ontario Nature & Science Illustrators (sonsi) had an event on the weekend with a question and answer session with lawyer Paul Sanderson, discussing copyright.

Here's a few links of the type of stuff on my mind.  Yeah, I know some of them are written by me.

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Original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
Creative Commons Licence.

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Strong & Free(lance): Updates and...Ads?

I've been talking about going full-time or part-time freelance in the Strong & Free(lance) series.  Here's a few tidbits and updates on where things are headed right now. 

(I think Strong and Free(lance) needs its own header.  Hmm.)

I realized some readers abroad may not get the "Strong & Free(lance)" title. I'm Canadian  and a line in our national anthem, O Canada, is "the True North strong and free".  That's the reason for the "lance" in freelance being marked off by brackets.  Sometimes I think I'm clever.

-Boy, do I know how to pick my timing!  Michelle was switching schools.  We're moving on August 1st to a much nicer apartment. And I have resigned my job and there's a big question mark on the future income.  It's daunting. Doubts creep in. I have never done freelance illustration and fine art full-time, and I'm not sure of the market.

-I'm going to try and keep posting art in progress throughout the move to our new place.  Lots of packing to do, so there may be more in-process stuff than finished pieces.

-That said, Michelle has been really encouraging that it will work out.  If not, as another wise artist said to me, I can always try to get another job in retail management. I may go for something at least part-time to have something steady.

-I am currently still at my full-time job.  The company has been great to me over the years, so I wanted to be flexible with my ending date.  Currently, we're looking at me leaving sometime between August 1st and September 30th.  This has lead to a number of "what year?" jokes at work.

-There's been some hopeful signs lately that there is a market for what I may offer.  I have seen a marked increase in requests for original oil paintings since The Last Refuge was completed.

-My Facebook fans have doubled recently -I'm not sure why, but it's welcome- leading to more interaction with interesting people.

-I'm currently ranking in the teens in the Life Science category of ScienceBlips. Make sure to click it in the sidebar on the right, and use the AddThis sharing widget I've added at the bottom of each blog entry to post on Facebook, Twitter and more. I'm #18 in Life Science and the time of typing this, which is pretty good I think when you consider I'm an artist messing with prehistoric fauna.

-I'm making plans for the freelance era of Flying Trilobite.  How does an art book sound?  I think that's a major project I'd like to undertake.  I wonder if anyone would be interested in writing short one-page SF stories riffing on some of my paintings?

-Finally, I also wanted to ask for opinions on adding Google Adsense to this blog.  What's your opinion?  Would it turn you off from reading here?

-I find myself wondering if I should be looking into art grants for the fine artsy stuff, or incorporating my brand for the illustrative stuff.  I'm thinking a lot about concrete definitions.  Is that silly?  Do I need to focus, or throw it all out there and see what happens?

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Original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
Creative Commons Licence.

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Strong and Free(lance): Hit Me. *Isaidhitme!*

For this second venture into my Strong and Free(lance) series I want you to hit me.

Thinking about the introspection and reality check Stephanie Zvan recently
asked for, I'd like to request my readers to engage in some constructive criticism if you're game.

Specifically, which painting, drawing or image have I made that you don't like?
Which do you despise?
Is there something I did once I should be doing more often?
Is it a small flaw that mars your enjoyment of a certain piece?
Was it the meaning and intention behind one that fails?

Places you can look:
Professional portfolio - supposed to be the best of the best.
DeviantArt portfolio - more comprehensive, I even throw sketches in there.

Print Shop - art I think others may enjoy purchasing.
Calendars - I've had two, so they're a good spot to get a short overview of my artwork.

I allow anonymous and pseudonymous comments, and I'm also hoping my regular commenters will feel comfortable enough not to use 'em. Those are comfortable doing so, maybe you could also add to your comment your background, for the benefit of other readers?  "I'm Susan, a science blogger at ________ and I was disappointed when you painted X: the anatomy looks sloppy to me"-kind of thing.

Since I started blogging my artwork over 3 years ago, the scientific, atheist, artsy and random commenters who visit have been very supportive, and thanks to everyone.  This is asking for a different kind of support.

Hit me!

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
Creative Commons Licence.

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