mixed media (acrylics, watercolor)

“Passage”

Just a few days ago I brought several of my big pieces of artwork down to be exhibited in a new restaurant that opened a few months ago on West Main Street in Charlottesville—Threepenny Café.

Threepenny’s location, originally built as a gas station in 1940, has a spacious setting with sparkling touches of glass and metallic. Large bay doors that once upon a time accommodated vehicles now are opened to simply let the airy outside in, creating a breezy, relaxing atmosphere. It makes for great dining and a wonderful open space to hang and view artwork.

Besides having shamelessly incredible food (“eclectic global cuisine”), the thing that attracts me to Threepenny is their garden courtyard. In a relatively small area, they show, again, that gardens can be grown anywhere: with a water fountain as a centerpiece, beds line the rim of the dining area, filled with strawberry plants, basil, spearmint; a huge fig tree thrives in one corner; lime, lemon, orange trees grow in planters; and bright flowers are scattered about. Added to all this, is their support of locally grown produce, with their menus incorporating seasonal produce from local farms.

My artwork will be shown for the month of July. Visit Threepenny’s website for more information: www.threepennycafe

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Bits and Pieces

DSCN0938Over the past ten years or so I have kept daily journals, and, in the course of those ten years, I have been on a quest to find the perfect pen. Part of my enjoyment of writing by hand is to feel the scratch of the pen over the tooth and texture of paper. Some pens scratch better, and some papers have better tooth. I have purchased a good deal of pens—gel, ballpoint, Sharpies, thick, thin, medium, heavy, light, round barreled.

I recently bought yet another set of pens in my never-ending search and discovered, as I sat down to see how well the scratching would go, that the ink was blue, not black. I sat back and studied the blue-inked pen and it occurred to me that I’d been using black-inked pens for, well, I’m not even sure for how long, but I think it’s been a very, very long time. As I twirled the blue-inked pen around in front of me, I had a distant memory of my sister-in-law dismissing blue-inked pens as unprofessional; only black ink makes an impression. She’s very sophisticated, with lovely clothes and custom-made make-up, all of which I am not and do not have, but her pronouncement must have made a subliminal impression on me because, until my present lapse, I have always made sure my pens are black inked and felt—subconsciously, at least—that blue ink was faintly inferior.

However, I compounded my error in buying a pack of pens, so sure was I of its perfection, and now I have ten blue-ink pens to work my way through—I’d better learn to like blue.

So I started scratching away with the pen and liked how it felt; I liked the weight in my hand, and how it adhered to the paper’s texture. Overall, it was scoring a seven or eight on a scale of one to ten—except for that substandard blue ink. Well, I had ten pens to go, so I would just have to get over it. But as I scratched away, watching the ink form my blue words across the page, it seemed to me that blue ink looked a bit old fashioned, perhaps not really unsophisticated, maybe just not . . . modern. Studying the page, I realized that I was always coming across bits and scraps and shards of paper, all with spidery blue script drifting across them—the faint dust of someone’s thoughts.

Whenever I go into a thrift store or an antiques store, I am summoned to the book section, like a moth to the flame. If I vanish from my husband’s sight for any length of time, he knows to head to the books, and I can be found sitting on the floor between the shelves with a small pile next to me and another in my lap. As I flip through these books there are usually little bits of paper slipped here and there into them; I am sometimes more interested in finding and reading the bits than I am of the actual books.

Tucked into random pages are scraps, the remnants of a to-do list, a note, or a shopping list. Most of the paper is gone, torn away with age or mishandling, leaving only a few bits with some faded blue ink on them. How those small shreds of someone’s life have not become lost when the vast majority of its former self has disappeared in time is truly beyond me. Ever so gently I pull them out, study them, tuck them back into their secret spot, and set the book aside to buy. I have a wonderfully old math book that is almost prickly with notes in the scattered scrawl of someone diligently studying and alternately making notes to themselves about which pages to go over again and what might be on upcoming tests. It’s one of my best finds.

My excuse for the thrift store searches is to find suitable books to use in my collages—but really if you look at my studio’s shelves, I’m not fooling anyone; most of them are quite intact. When I hunt around on these shelves for a book to recycle, to use either with a collage or as a collage base, I revisit my favorites—the math book, a 100-year-old cookbook laden with notes on stain removal, a lovely old engineering book with recipe ingredients—and carefully look at all those tiny bits of paper. I never cease to wonder at how they didn’t completely vanish. I leave all the bits where they originally were put. I suppose I like to acknowledge their tenacity.

DSCN0937My favorite, however, of all my favorite old books with bits and pieces is my grandfather’s cookbook. An unassuming and, to be honest, kind of boring looking book, it is a 1951 edition of The New Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. It has been left just exactly as it was when he last used it, probably sometime in 1982, a year before he died. It is bristly with scraps sticking out, odd pieces with notes, faded scratchings on old envelopes listing ingredients or recipe page numbers on them, and an assortment of recipes torn from magazines. The cookbook is well annotated with amount adjustments or temperatures he found preferable.

I rarely use this book as a cookbook—my grandfather was a chef and I am not, but it holds a prominent spot in my kitchen. Its drab green cover is frayed and the binding is going to give out soon. I open it as I would a book printed in 1751, and I treasure it fiercely. All those bits and scraps tell the back story of my family’s Christmas dinners, experimental Easter lunches, and some colossal Thanksgiving dinners. Sauces and soufflés, bisques, baked Alaska, goose, trifle. Sadly wishing for a pedestrian hot dog or a simple hamburger, I was shamelessly unimpressed by the artistic culinary feats he was busy tossing off in my parent’s kitchen. I remember being a more than a little unnerved by tongue, and the goose was alarmingly almost the same size as me.

And, yes, some of his notes to himself are written in blue pen—but most are in pencil, a decidedly more humble medium than blue ink.

I keep his cookbook, and the math book, and the engineering book just as their owners have left them, their accompanying scraps giving life once again to the authors who wielded those blue pens. I will make sure they are turned over to someone who loves bits and pieces as much as I do. I wonder if someday my journals will go the way of them, probably no longer intact, torn and frayed. Someone may come across them and carefully turn the yellow and cracked pages, all covered with my scratchings in black ink and blue ink—by then both will more than likely be thought of as old fashioned.

First Things First

On September 8, I’ll be showing at the 2012 Ride to Thrive Polo Classic held in The Plains, Virginia, to benefit the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. This will be my first outdoor art show in several years, as well as my very first experience seeing a polo game, and I’m very much looking forward to both.

A few years ago I started learning to ride. My first lesson ever was on Belle, a sweet pony/Clydesdale mix. Her DNA was alarmingly dominated by the Clydesdale half, and, while she was only 13.2h, she clearly had a larger vision of herself which defined her only goal in life: Eating. Being regularly dragged away from her dinner to suffer the pains of a beginner rider was thwarting the attainment of that goal.

When I sat in the saddle for the first time, having been given the basics in tacking Belle up and wrestling with a girth that nearly resisted going around her shapely barrel, I was told that riding is a potentially serious disease for which there is no known cure, no antidote, nothing to even soothe the symptoms. Apparently the illness results in a state of horse delirium with no possibility of recovery, no matter the amount of scrapes, stomps, bites, or falls.

Having been forewarned, Belle and I left the barn and I had my very first riding lesson, which consisted of a good deal of walking, a few bouncy trots, a generous sprinkling of head tossing on Belle’s part to convey her impatience with the whole process, and my own personal discovery that my feet had heels and that they could be made to go “down.” We walked back to the barn, and I was asked: “So, how do you feel?” I responded, as I slid down the side of Belle, “Ecstatically terminal.” I’m glad there’s no cure.

Since then, I’ve progressed slowly: posting is smoother, which the horses appreciate; heels generally respond more often (along with wrists, hands, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, head); cantering is a blast. Since Belle, I can now add to my “pony” list Chip, Cash, Passion, and Chubbs. Two of whom were rescued from slaughter and rehabilitated; all have a happy and healthy home and are very patiently helping me learn how to be a better rider.

My donation to NVTRP’s silent auction is a limited edition giclée print of a watercolor I painted in August 2005, titled “Barnstorm.” That summer, on my way home from work storm clouds that had spent the late afternoon gathering were now churning ominously; the sky to the north had turned a lovely deep indigo, reflecting the sun, which was still steadily shining in the south. I’d driven by this particular barn weekly for nearly a year, but on this particular evening the stormy light inspired me to paint it. I stopped my car in a weedy ditch and quickly took a few pictures. It was the first barn I’d ever painted, and it has always been my favorite.

I don’t know if horses were kept in there, but the barn’s interior was inviting, a cool shelter from the storm that was about to break over my head; reluctantly, I went back to my car. The cheery red barn seemed a soothing place to be if you were a horse—and even if you weren’t.

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For more information on The Ride to Thrive Polo Classic, please visit the links below:

http://www.nvtrp.org/polo.php

www.facebook.com/NVTRP

www.nvtrp.org

Wordless Journies

A few summers ago, I discovered Lynd Ward and became interested in his work, in particular his wordless novels. I bought a boxed set from The Library of America, and, with their orange-hot covers, two volumes arrived, color specific, in mid-July. They are lovely volumes, beautifully produced, and composed of woodblock prints in black and white or a light sepia. Some pieces are quite spare and lovely, some stark and harsh; all reflective of the era Ward was living and creating in.

As I turned the pages of each story, I had the distracting desire to find words to tell me the story, and I fought mightily the urge to cheat and read the editor’s interpretive essays.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then why do a couple hundred pictures seem to necessitate a printed word, at least sporadically? Perhaps a single image offers a false feeling of boundary, yet several images, all sequentially offering only their own fragment of the whole, has a sense of uncomfortable limitless. It took me a more than a little while to decipher the stories.

Sometimes, I’d carefully study each piece, as though it were a damp pile of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, waiting for it to reveal itself to me. When I finally did read the editor’s essays, there was, first, the relief of having words to work with, and then, second, the surprise that I was often way off base on the storyline. I’d go back “reread” it, seeing it in a different way.

Meanwhile, I decided I would like to make a wordless novel myself. Last summer I came across a discarded children’s book, its pages wide and accommodating when laid flat, that I thought would make a nice vehicle. I spent a good bit of time prepping it, creating backgrounds, painting, and I ended up with more pages than expected; as a result, my story has had a few more “chapters” added to it.

I needed a plot and a hero to fill the pages with. I have long been fascinated by beetles; they are the unsung heroes of many jobs out there in the world, from unglamorous debris cleanup and removal to heavy-weight pollinators in North America (despite what many think, honey bees are not the largest group of pollinators, nor are they native to this continent). So I decided that the hero of my wordless novel would be a beetle, a member of the rhinoceros beetle family, to be specific. I liked the contrasting idea that, while my beetle is silent in his story world, these particular beetles do actually “speak,” having a series of acoustical sounds with different meanings.

It is the story of his journey in the world. When I’m out in the field, weeding or picking or tying up plants, I’m almost always distracted by shiny little ground beetles (or, really, anything else scuttling down there amongst the weed and plant stems and my boots). I have to wonder: Where are they going? What are their plans? Do they have plans? Where would a beetle go when if he decided to go on a journey (if they do indeed decide these things)? I don’t know exactly because the story isn’t finished; I only know where my beetle starts—perhaps by summer’s end I will find out. Oh, and my beetle is red, scarlet lake red. Of course.

I suppose I have a mild obsession with time; I pretend not to but I’m beginning to think I really do. My first remembered attempts at drawing were of a clock; I have always loved time-travel stories; I like knowing where in the day I am. Over time, I’ve accumulated a healthy picture file of clock faces, and they found their way into my collage pieces almost immediately. After a fashion, I began adding faces to the clocks, following some subconscious tradition of humanizing time and the tracking of it: faces keeping an eye on us, hands guiding us through our days. We have granted Time the ability to either fly along and outpace us or to bring us to what can feel like a grinding standstill.

It seems that it is around Midsummer that the telling of time becomes a bit more preoccupying. This year, June 20 will be the single day of the year where daylight hours will fully stretch out in either direction, albeit on borrowed time, and for the next six months, those hours will be returned minute by minute.

But high in the sky, with seemingly no intention of going anywhere anytime soon, the sun can give the sense there’s all the time in the world for getting any job done. When evening technically does come, we are more than ready to hit the sack, although the sun is still enthusiastically cheerful. The chickens, however, are slaves to the sun and will wait until the last snip is gone from sight before heading into their coop. We close their door with a “Good night” and a yawn.

Long ago, the responsibility of keeping track of time fell on the shoulders of monasteries scattered across the country sides of Europe. By their chimes, rung seven times, everyone within hearing distance would know the time of day. When I was growing up, my town had a “four o’clock whistle” at the train station. Every kid within hearing distance knew they had one more hour of playtime before heading home. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been anywhere near that hometown whistle, and, yet, with a frequency that’s enough to make note of, I will find myself half listening for it and then realize it is 4 pm.

As towns and villages began to grow and spread away from the monasteries, the crowning achievement of each one was to have its own clock tower, thereby giving both prestige to the town and order to the day. But if you were a farmer living beyond the chiming of bells, you need only make note of the length of shadows or the sun’s position in the sky to know almost exactly what time it was.

Every now and then I’ll make an attempt at telling time from shadows and sky, but the truth of it is I won’t trust myself. I have the ability to dig my phone out of a pocket and double check my readings. Funny enough though, I’m usually pretty close to my estimate. But I think about those farmers in their fields, harvesting, minding livestock, haying. Without the back up of a handy phone, they trusted their instincts and their own internal clocks, reading the sky and the shadows and knowing perfectly well where in the day they were.

Mary, Mary,
Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells,
And woolly weeds in every row.

On the farm, tucked away from all the “populated” areas and nestled against the old farmhouse is a little garden that I call the Secret Garden. You’re already in it before you can see it. It’s a wild jumble of plants, flowers, herbs; the fingerprint of past owners and renters is embedded willy nilly in this garden. But mostly what it has is weeds, lots of them.

A true gardener (or farmer) would take one look at this and suggest that all the plants be removed and the rest be mowed and the ground be tilled. Basically create a new slate for the plants, which would then be relocated into a better position within the Secret Garden. All of that strikes me as too similar to a demolition crew. Plants being pulled up at their roots, relocated to an unfamiliar area, big noisy tiller, sputtering away—all those poor worms running for their lives! Then, once the smoke has cleared, the plants being reordered and reorganized would somehow not make it much of a secret garden anymore.

So my husband, who is a true farmer, and I, have discussed the Secret Garden as though it were a wayward child that could use a few dozen timeouts. I indulge and he disciplines. But I discovered the garden first so I’m fiercely protective of it, which means no relocation, no tilling, and lots of weedy disorder. Which also means I’m probably not a very true farmer.

The Secret Garden is the antithesis to the rest of the farm—I should probably just call it the Contrary Garden. The rest of the farm is orderly, neat, tidy, rows straight (most of the time), drip lines pulled tight and crisp. And then you come around the row of boxwoods and are met with a riotous jumble that has a thorough disregard for orderliness. It really is my favorite place to be.

If you sit on the stone bench, which I do lot, all sorts of things scramble around in the undergrowth of succulent weeds and random plants. They could be mice, they could be moles. I think it’s still too early yet for skinks. Mockingbirds have set up camp in the dead tree, which still looks quite alive in its cloak of twenty-year-old ivy; the mocking birds don’t particularly approve of my presence but they put up with me. Dozens of little birds nest in the boxwoods that hide the garden, as well in the mailbox that boxwoods engulfed a decade or so ago. Poke weeds and peonies co-mingle. Nigelia wants to be everyone’s friend, sprouting in any old spot, next to any old plant. A half-hidden dog rose cuddles up to a lilac. Lilies sprout within the rosemary and lavender. Irises send green spears up in a tangle of roses, and dandelions don’t much care where they happen to live. The little soapstone path into the garden is forever in danger of being engulfed by violets, mallow, or scrabbly weeds.

There is an undeniable charm to its rumpled and unruly state.

As much as I do not care for weeds, especially when they are choking out a row of newly sprouted carrots or slender onion transplants, for some reason they seem to belong here in the Secret Garden. My husband sighs when he walks past the garden; I can hear him mentally starting up the tiller. But he has his fields of orderliness and I have my mildy uncontrollable garden. I’ll slow pick weeds by hand during the season, when I have extra time; but I admit, I’ll pick a few weeds, and then I’d much prefer to just sit and enjoy the contrary chaos.

Buried Treasure

A week or so ago, we spent the afternoon cutting potatoes for seed, and in between daydreaming about roasted potatoes and onions with red peppers and garlic, I mused about their history. I had been revisiting (’tis the season) Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, for the hundredth time (it has become fairly dog-eared and care worn). Potatoes are the last chapter in the book, but worth the wait (if you love potatoes, which I do). And as it is St. Patrick’s Day, it seemed appropriate to post with a potato.

After the potatoes have been cut and have sturdy eyes, we carefully put them into buckets and drop the seed in prepared rows.

It’s an up and down career that potatoes have had over the past century and a half that they have been around. Starting in South America, with far more varieties than we now how, they were worshipped and revered. Once they made their way back to Europe via Spanish conquistadors and early British settlers, potatoes suddenly became suspicious—for precisely the reason that came from the America’s and therefore couldn’t really be worth much. Then they slipped a bit more and became evil and poisonous because they grew underground and one couldn’t be too sure of what exactly was going on down there in the dark.  Then, to compound its reputation, it sent an entire nation into a catastrophic nightmare.

In the mid-eighteenth century, potatoes became a thriving crop in Ireland, taking a hold and giving farmers and shareholders a crop that was relatively easy to grow, produced better yields than most crops, and had good returns—one potato providing several seed. Heated debates took place over the potato: on the one hand it  provided a reliable crop for the poor of England when bread prices rose, yet it was seen as keeping the Irish in servitude. Radical thoughts were such that the high-yielding potato would feed larger families, which would cause a population boom: more people meant a larger labor pool and therefore less wages. Economists of the time felt that the potato “removed the economic constraints that ordinarily kept the population in check.” (Botany, p. 204) It occurred to me that food–something as dusty and benign as a potato–been a political tool for a very long time.

But what started out as a blessing suddenly, in a few short years, became a curse. In the mid-1840s successive crop failures sent Ireland and much of its population spiraling into chaos. The sad reality was that the very ships the Irish crowded onto in order to escape were possibly some of the same that brought the destructive fungus Phytophthora infestans to Ireland–from America.

Just this past Monday, we dropped the seed potatoes on the ground and then, with the tractor, disked and buried them. Some were shoveled over and need to be pushed back into the hill, but for the most part it was a painless process—went much faster this year than it has in years past. Now we wait for some gentle rains to help get them started. In another month we’ll lay drip on them and begin irrigating them on a regular basis until they flower.

We try to drop the seed about a foot and a half apart in order to give them room, but toward the ends of the rows the spacing gets a little tighter–mostly from distraction.

A field of potatoes is a lovely sight, with its deep green foliage, ruffled and textured, tiny star-like flowers with yellow dotted centered. The hills rising after each hilling, the prospect of cool crisp spuds cradled below. This year when I walk through the rows, the starry flowers waving about, I will be a bit more attentive to the contrast of the serenity of our potato hills and the choppy history of the treasure buried below those hills.

A little food for thought: we have ordered our seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine for nearly fifteen years, and plan to continue to do so; they are a wonderful farm and company. Wood Prairie Farm owner Jim Gerristen has been involved in representing the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association as its president and lead plaintiff in the suit filed against Monsanto, which seeks to give farmers the right to legal protection to protect their seed crops against gmo bullying and allegations of patent infringement. The case was held in NYC, and was, alarmingly, overturned. Fortunately, the plaintiffs have the right to appeal the case in the Court of Appeals without any deference to the judge’s findings. More can be found at http://www.woodprairiefarm.com.

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