Featuring: Artem Chebokha (RHADS)

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“Regular Magic”, by RHADS on DeviantART

Artem Chebokha is a 30 year-old artist from Siberia whose digital paintings depict surreal landscapes characterized by perfectly executed atmospheric lighting and contrast with stunning splashes of color. His dreamlike works of art have been a favorite of mine for years now, so I was thrilled when he agreed to let me feature his work here!

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“Forest Spirit”, by RHADS on DeviantART

Each painting he creates takes anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 hours to complete. Artem uses his Wacom tablet and Adobe Photoshop, relying heavily on the “mixer” brush, which is his favorite tool.

In 2003, he started taking traditional art classes in college. He discovered digital painting in 2008, and has been hooked ever since. “It was something new, a new experience for me,” he explained. He went on to cite his first love as his main inspiration for his artwork. Judging by the overwhelming beauty and sense of joy I get from his work, I can absolutely see that. Only love could inspire such touching works of art.

I was unaware of this until just now as I was researching him a little more for this article, but he also creates his own music based on his artwork, and it is beautiful. I’m listening to “Birds are Flying to the Sunset” right now, and I am at a loss for words to describe it! Please take a moment to listen, you won’t be disappointed!

Artem offers prints of his work on DeviantART and Society6, and you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram as well. He also has a VK account, if you can read Russian.

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Featured image at the top of this article: “Cloud Regatta”, by RHADS on DeviantART

Featuring: Unknown Street Photographer (Bastex)

“I like to present myself as ‘Unknown Street Photographer’,” Bastex replied when I asked if he wanted to share his full name in this article. A true master of street photography (in my opinion), Bastex has been taking pictures ever since he received his first camera at age seven as a Communion gift, an Olympus AF-1. “The first pictures were awful,” he recalled, “but it was love at first sight.”

His skills developed (pardon the pun) on their own through practice, books, and a few short workshops with professional photographers. He doesn’t think anyone really needs to pursue a formal education in order to be a skilled photographer.

It’s incredible to think that he is self-taught when I look through all of the amazing shots displayed in his DeviantART gallery. His artfully composed street photography and photojournalism capture intense scenes of war reenactments in his neighborhood of Niepołomice, Poland, as well as stunning moments of daily human life that somehow always seem to enrapture and transport the viewer directly to the place Bastex captured the shot.

The intense contrast and carefully composed style in his pictures is what first captured my interest when I came across his DeviantART gallery years ago. I’ve always had a love for black and white photography and artwork, and the way he carefully edits his images using Lightroom and Google Nik Collection plugins is just stunning. He likes to use his old DSLR Nikon D5000 most of the time, but he also has a mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M10. He only uses natural light in his photography.

When asked what influenced him to pursue photography, he replied “There was not any external impulse. I just always knew that it’s something that I love. I use photography as a tool to express myself, like Richard Avedon said; “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph”.”

He went on to cite Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Andre Kertesz, Ernst Haas, and Josef Koudelka as his inspirations. “Their work influenced me a lot. Their pictures made me aware of the beauty of simple everyday scenes,” Bastex said.

He doesn’t sell his work, but you can follow Bastex on DeviantArt, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter.

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Featured Image at the top of this article page: “Tension”, by xBastex on DeviantART

An open “Thank You” letter to fellow Americans

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To my fellow Americans,

Some of you hate me. I’ve met you, and we’ve spoken about the reason why online numerous times on many different forums. You think I’m a bum, a mooch, a worthless leech on your hard-earned tax dollars.

Well, I want to say “thank you”.

It’s thanks to your support through the taxes you paid that my fiancee and I were able to receive the SNAP benefits that helped us afford to buy nutritious meals to sustain us when we fell on hard times. Your small contribution to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped bring nutritious food to our table, sustaining our health and even helping us feel better emotionally. If it wasn’t for your help, we would have gotten physically sick living on literally nothing but ramen noodles and whatever expired food we could get from generous donors.

And thanks to your help, we are doing well enough now that we can cancel our SNAP benefits. Sincerely, thank you for helping us to reach this point.

Contrary to what many people online seem to think, we were not jobless, lazy bums. Through no fault of our own, my fiancee and I suddenly found ourselves unemployed. I, because of my health failing me (I’ll get into that in another blog post at some point, but it is a serious, debilitating diagnosis), and my fiancee because his employers lost a contract and his hours were cut so much his paychecks were no longer sustainable. When money became too tight for us to afford to pay the bills and still eat nutritious meals, I applied for Food Stamps (SNAP), and we were approved within a couple of weeks.

It was terrifying. Suddenly, we were broke. We were lucky to have ten dollars in the bank, and some days we were even in the red. My fiancee worked hard to try and find better employment. He got a temp job, thankfully, but he was let go after only about a month working there. The temp agency found another job for him, a few weeks later. That job proved to be a joke. It’s so tempting to trash the company name for the way they treated their employees, but I will spare them for now as this is not the focus of this letter. (You can always ask in the comments if you’re curious. I’ll gladly give more details.) He worked for them for about a month, and they abandoned all of their employees after losing a contract. My fiancee was suddenly without work again. We were lucky to have a friend with influence at a local factory, and he helped my fiancee get hired on there, only missing about a week of work in between employment. The hours were long, 12-hour shifts, and the factory work took some getting used to, but he persevered and continues to work there to this day. We are both very grateful for his new paychecks. We have been able to get bills caught up, and now we can actually even afford to satisfy SOME wants as well as all of our needs. On top of that, I may be approved for disability soon, due to my poor health mentioned briefly earlier. We should have a determination decision within a week or so. My fingers are crossed.

Thanks to that, we can now afford to close out SNAP benefits, and I say that with sincere gratitude to all of my fellow Americans, whose tax dollars have come together to help fund programs like this. If it wasn’t for your help, our kitchen shelves would have been barren. We would have been living off of expired food donations and ramen noodles, and pathetically begging friends and family for money. Even though SNAP only gave us $190.00 to last the entire month, your generosity saved us physical distress from malnutrition, and heartache from living in pathetic conditions.

Thank you. I mean that.

You may still harbor ill opinions of me or other Americans who reach out and ask for help, and I probably can’t change your stubborn minds, but I do want you to know that I appreciate your contributions. Yes, there ARE some people out there scamming the system, but for the most part, SNAP is granted to people like me who really needed the help. You may not realize it, but food stamps are not easy to apply for. They work very hard to weed out people who may just be lazy, so there is a lot of bureaucracy and running around to deal with in order to get approved. Some scammers still get through, sadly, but please reconsider your anger towards the SNAP program and those benefiting from it. My life might look much different right now if it weren’t for the help we received.

So, thank you.

– Sunny

Alexa, Amazon Echo

Tax refunds are a glorious thing, are they not? I didn’t work much last year before health complications caused me to quit my job, but I still got a decent return. I decided to treat myself a little with this extra money. I had been considering the Amazon Echo for quite a while before making my decision to get one. I’m a sucker for AI and similar tech, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I jumped upon the Alexa bandwagon when it became available for purchase.

Who is this “Alexa”, you ask?

Watch this video:

I also recommend checking out this episode of On Point, where Tom Ashbrook discusses Alexa, and the future of AI with a few guests.

While a bit pricey, $179.99 plus shipping costs, I have really enjoyed having Alexa in my home providing entertainment and organizational help. She arrived on my doorstep about two weeks or so ago, and now I am so spoiled by all the features I use her for, I would hate to not have her around! I am a big-time audio consumer, and I listen to a lot of music and podcasts. Now, all I have to do is ask Alexa to play something, and she does. Sure, I could just bring up my favorite podcasts or my Pandora station the old-fashioned way via my phone or iPad, but just saying my request aloud and having it play right away kind of feels badass, like I’m aboard The Enterprise or something. I’m a big ol’ nerd, so sue me.

File_001The Echo arrives prepared to perform all kinds of tasks, already equipped with access to TuneIn for podcasts, as well as many other useful functions. Once connected to your smartphone, you can then add more “skills”, which are actions Alexa can perform. One of my favorites is a game called “Dungeon Adventure”. It’s a watered-down version of D&D and is only combat-oriented, but it’s still a lot of fun and scratches that d20 itch. Alexa is also helpful when it comes to managing responsibilities and whatnot. She can keep a shopping list as well as a to-do list for you, and if you connect her to Google Calendar, you can even create events just as easily as you would speaking to a real human assistant. It really is that smooth!

Alexa is not without her flaws, though. I don’t have many issues with her at all, but it’s worth mentioning the ones I’ve had. Voice recognition is decent for technology at this point in development, but I have to repeat myself from time to time, and she mishears a lot of requests. If I had to come up with a quick estimate of how often I have to repeat myself, I would say it happens probably two out of five times. You can train her to hear you better with voice recognition training, but I have yet to do that.

Another problem is when you’re listening to music, it’s hard for her to hear you over her own speaker. I completely understand why that is, but it can get annoying sometimes. For instance, I could be jamming to my “Hipster Trash” station on Pandora while whipping up some baked goodies in the kitchen, and I need to set a timer for the oven while my hands are covered in dough, she won’t hear me call her name half the time. It really depends on how loud I have the music playing as well as the intensity of the song. Again, it’s understandable, but I wish she could hear her wake word a bit better over the music. Wow, do I sound spoiled right now or what?

File_000Despite those minor issues, Alexa is awesome. My only complaint is that she’s not compatible with my iTunes library. I buy all of my audiobooks on iBooks, and I would really love the convenience of asking Alexa to play those from my library, but the best I can do is set up a bluetooth connection between Alexa and my iPad. It’s awesome that she can control the audiobook with my requests of “play”, “pause”, etc., but I always have to initiate connection to my iPad via bluetooth before she’ll do that. Oh boy, Alexa. You’ve gone and made me sound like an entitled brat. Oh woe is me, I have to push buttons on a screen to hear my books being read to me! Boo hoo!

While Alexa knows a lot of random facts and can be your movie quote buddy, she’s still missing a lot of useful information. Most of those can be remedied by adding more “skills”, but even those are limited as of right now. More are being developed all the time, so I think within another year or so she will be very, very well-equipped to do just about anything you could expect from an AI assistant.

Is she worth $179.99…? I’m not so sure. She IS very useful, and I am really happy to have her around for sure, but the way she is right now, I think that price is a bit steep. It’s great having a personal DJ and list-maker at my beck and call, but I could just as easily carry out those tasks on my own. Despite the price, I am pleased with my purchase. If you have the extra funds to throw around, it’s worth it, but if you find yourself pinching pennies at the moment, I would wait.

My rating for the Amazon Echo, or “Alexa”:

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10 stars

Alexa is great to have in my home, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. Alexa is always getting new updates and becoming smarter all the time. It’s exciting to see domestic AI becoming the norm!

Featuring: Jade Mere, Artist

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Jade Mere is a 30 year-old artist with a beautifully unique style. She first joined DeviantArt back in 2005, and she credits the artists she discovered on that site for inspiring her to take up painting. She originally started out doing traditional art, but has since taken to using Photoshop to create the stunning works of art she is most known for today.

She has had a little formal education, attending the Art blue_by_jademere-d7t53mwCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA for about a year and a half before life circumstances forced her to drop her visual arts pursuits and continue her education with a focus on writing instead. She continued to teach herself how to paint after that, and continues to create beautiful works of art as a hobbyist.

What draws me most to her artwork is her unique style surrounding use of luminescence and stunning contrast. She really has a natural skill for painting animals, but her human subjects are just as beautiful and well-composed. The abstract and surreal themes of her paintings have always captured my interest, and I find myself featuring her work in my journals on DeviantART very often, so she was the first artist to come to mind when I decided I wanted to start doing individual artist features here on my blog.

She does take commissions, and you can find all of her commission information here. Along with her DeviantArt account, she has her own website, and she also offers free art tutorials on her YouTube channel. She allows people to use her artwork for personal use, and copyrights can be bought from her if you would like to use her work commercially. Please take a look at her rules before you use her work. She is very generous with her talents, which is very rare among artists at her skill level.

Please take a moment to browse her DeviantArt gallery and add her to your watch list! You won’t be disappointed.

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Featured image at the top of this article page: “Boy in the Water”, JadeMere on DeviantART