May 26, 2015

Tulip Festival

Each fall I plant a row of tulips in my vegetable garden, where they will be protected from admiring deer who think they are delicious. Each spring I have vases and pitchers of tulips gracing the house, where I can admire their form and watch them change over time until they drop their petals. And each spring since 2010 I have photographed the tulips and shared them in a blog post: here are links to the posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The unnamed tulip above (I often get incorrectly labeled bulbs) has a classic tulip shape, with rounded petals forming a perfect cup.

The tulip is such an elegant flower that it brings order to my messy desk.

I was drawn to photograph single flowers this year, so as to highlight their color and shape. This tulip, which came in the same bag as the first one, is clearly not the same variety. It has the same perfect shape, but its petals are lightly flecked with pale yellow, and its base is white, not green.

This dark red tulip has dramatic darker purplish flames rising up on its slightly fringed petals.

Lily-flowered tulips are among my favorites. Their narrow pointed petals are beautiful in different stages: when they are closed, looking like pursed lips; as here in a slightly opened form....

....and when fully expanded, and looking like their namesake lilies. This variety is named Purple Dream.

The varied colors and irregular form of the spectacular parrot tulips––this one is Rococo––remind me of the story of Tulip mania that took hold in the Netherlands in the 17th century, when a single bulb may have fetched an enormously high price. The Wikipedia article at the link explains that this may have been something of a myth. Nonetheless, tulips had recently been introduced to Europe from Turkey, and their value as beautiful flowers was clearly understood.

Even as it moves toward the end of its life, the Rococo tulip has a dramatic presence.

This is a truly gorgeous tulip that I haven't grown before, the viridiflora tulip Esperanto. Viridiflora is from the Latin viridis, "fresh green", as the center of the petals have a green flame. In this tulip the green is bordered by white and pinks, and it's such a pleasure to see the variations in color and the changes in shape as the pointed, wavy petals open.

As I was photographing Esperanto, Poppy got into a picture; she was interested in the insects mating on the windowpane outside.

Lastly, a yellow tulip, blooming outdoors in the peony border. Many years ago I planted several Emperor tulips there, and from time to time one or two will bloom. After all the red tulips––for some reason I didn't realize all the tulips I had ordered were in the red family––it is a treat to see a yellow one; it can fit into the red theme because of the very thin red border along its petals. The photographs keep the tulips present; in the garden they have given way to lilacs, which in turn will give way to other flowers during this grand season of spring.

May 21, 2015

At the Met: Feasting and Fighting in Persian Art

"Timur before Battle", folio from a dispersed copy of the Zafarnama of Sharaf al-din Yazdi; Iran, 1436; ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper; 11 1/2 x 8 in. 

I love manuscript painting––whether Indian, or Persian, or Islamic, or Medieval European––for its intimate size, its clarity of form and attention to detail, its beautifully wrought storytelling. So I was happy to see the small exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bazm and Razm: Feast and Fight in Persian Art. These two activities were important to kingship; how surprising to learn that the ruler was valued for his ability to engage in battle and to hunt, but also to enjoy the bounties of the table, of wine and of music. It is hard to imagine our contemporary leaders being expected to excel at feasting. From the wall label at the show I learned:
In the bazm mode, the king's ability to savor worldly pleasures such as food, wine, poetry, and music was praised.  The opulence and ceremony at court, with lavish displays of dress, jewels, luxury objects, and textiles, as well as the maintenance of an extensive entourage and harem, wer all measures of the shah's distinction. In the razm mode, a ruler's success was marked by his ferocity, courage, tenacity in battle, and ability to defeat the most brutal enemies as well as his prowess in riding, hunting, weaponry, and strategic games. 
The commemoration of these events has brought us many beautiful paintings. In "Timur Before Battle", the artist repeats curves, behind which are soldiers, the king, and a golden sky. The diagonals of banner staff and umbrella emphasize those curves. Within this simple structure are fine details of armor; all is joyously colored.

Prince in a Garden Courtyard, Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper; 
8 9/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

The elements of feasting are shown in this painting: food, wine, and music in a lovely setting. Persian painting is almost miraculous in its depiction of precise, complex details. The attention paid to every aspect of the scene is intense, and close to magical in the painting's small size.

"Preparation for a Feast", folio from a Divan of Jami; Iran, late 15th century; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; painting 6 15/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

Getting ready for a large feast could take days; this tiny painting shows many parts of the meal being prepared, from slaughtering of animals, to making bread, to various cauldrons on the boil.

"Preparation for a Feast" detail

On the lower right, food is being ladled into bowls. The composition of the painting, structured only by the sky at top bisected by a tree, and a small stream towards the bottom, emphasizes the hectic activity.

"Entertainment in a Garden", folio from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, Matla' al-Anvar, detail; Iran, second half 16th century; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; painting 12 5/8 x 7 1/8 in.
See the entire painting on the Met's website

At the bottom of this busy scene of a feast are musicians and guests. The painting is surrounded by a geometric and floral pattern, made more precious with gold.

Tile, Iran, second half 17th century; stonepaste, polychrome glaze within wax resist outlines; 8 x 8 in.

Included in the exhibition are objects related to the twin themes; here, a tile showing a shallow wine cup and a bowl of fruit.

Kamanche and Dayere, Iran, 19th century

The kamanche, a bowed instrument, and the drum, the dayere, can be seen in the painting above, "Entertainment in a Garden". They are beautiful objects in themselves, and though of a later date, are traditional in form and use.

"Bahram Gur Shows His Skill Hunting while Fitna Watches", folio from a Haft Paykar of Nizami; Iran, mid 16th century; opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 13 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. 

Even in a scene of death, the artist presents the action within the vitality of flowering plants.

Hunting Scene, detail; Iran, mid 16th century; ink, transparent watercolor, and gold on paper; 7 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. 
See the entire painting at the Met's website.

There is also a great sensitivity in the depiction of animals and of plants.

Artist 'Abd al-Vahhab, "Zal Slays Khazarvan" from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp; Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; painting 11 1/16 x 7 3/16 in. 

The symmetry of the grouped armies and the two leaders locked in battle enhances the drama of the event.

"Zal Slays Khazarvan" detail

Even in paintings of mortal combat, Persian artists revel in the decorative: the violet hillside, the pool surrounded by flowers and roiling rocks. This attention to the loveliness found everywhere makes these paintings a pleasure to look at, to wander through, no matter the subject.

Mace, Persian, 19th century; steel, gold; 32 1/2 in. 

Here is a later example of the ox-head mace with which Zal slayed Khazarvan. It is a lovely thing, and the wall label tells me that it: mentioned in Iranian myths and epics as a symbol of the victory of good over evil and order over chaos. 

Helmet, Persian, 18th-19th century; steel, gold; height with mail 28 in., without mail 6 7/8 x 8 in diameter. 

It is so interesting to see objects that are the models for those in paintings of an earlier time. There is as much beauty in these things of war as in those of music, and as much grace as in the paintings.

May 18, 2015

Four New Drawings

#49, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

For the past two or three weeks I've had a very hard time staying indoors and working. The weather has been beautiful after the endless winter, so all I want to do is work in the garden, enjoying the sweet air and light. Sometimes art takes a back seat to the rest of life, just for a while. There are occasional days of bad weather, though, days to stay indoors. Last week I was able to do a new group of drawings, to flex my art muscles. The drawing above, #49, has paper toned a silvery gray; I used a pigment called Slate Gray, with added white, and a little bit of ultramarine blue. I wanted it to be slightly bluish because I knew I'd be painting a couple of the shapes in a blue hue.

#50, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

There is a mix of earth colors as a base for this drawing. I might have also put a very thin, transparent layer of a cadmium orange, but I don't remember. When I tone paper or paint I don't keep a record of my color mixing. I add this or that, layer again or not, depending on how the piece is looking at the time. 

#50 detail

The blue semi-circles are fairly opaque, with yellow layered on top of the blue, creating a color shift where they overlap.

#51, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

I thought that the composition study for this drawing was a little silly (though I like it), so I thought that putting it on a dark color might tamp down the hilarity. Or maybe you don't think it's silly....

#52, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, 15 x 15 in.

This last drawing has two simple, but somewhat offbeat, shapes. I decided to keep the color fairly translucent, because the shapes give me a feeling of floating, or of flight.

I have to admit that while I was working on these drawings (and a group of small drawings) I was wondering if I wanted to continue with them; did I have enough interest in the project? Then I printed out a bunch of new blank templates and began figuring out new designs, just jumping in with pencil and gouache. I pretty easily came up with 8 new ideas: the 6 at the left, and the two top left drawings on the right panel. This fascinating pattern called again for my attention, a pattern from sacred design, of six circles around one.

May 14, 2015

"Other Nations"

Four days ago, while waiting for the American Toads to begin their loud trilling so that I could record it, I had a kind of revelation: it was a recognition of the lives around me, lives large and small, longer and shorter, that went on mostly without my notice. When I walked down to the pond, my movement silenced the toads, so I sat by the edge of the pond for over 1/2 hour, waiting for them to sing. I rarely just sit and pay attention to what is in front of me, something I should do more often. What caught my eye at first was what was brightest and most obvious: the marsh marigolds growing along the water's edge. Insects ran around and across them.

My pond is human dug, and I added koi to it, but the fish live independent lives, since I never feed them. It was a warm day, and as I watched, I saw a fish leap in the air to catch one of the insects hovering above the water.

There were insects above the water, moving on it, and moving below it. A sense of motion was constant, but very easily missed. 


The male toads make this sound, a sound I think is beautiful, in order to attract females. Their throats expand outward and a huge noise comes out from this small animal.

Today, four days later, the toads are gone, the pond is quiet. I began to walk around looking for their eggs, but didn't see them. They weren't in the spot that is usually full of Wood Frog eggs. When I'd made nearly the entire circuit of the pond, I found them, entwined in the debris at the shallow end of the pond.

The eggs are laid in long skeins of jelly, twisting and curving in and out of last year's leaves and stems.

They are like jewels catching light. To think that those little dark dots will grow into new beings! to be sure, many will not make it, but it's a marvel nonetheless. My thoughts during these days made me appreciate much more deeply this quote from the American writer and naturalist Henry Beston:
We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. 

May 13, 2015

At the Met: When Men Were Dandies

Embroidery Sample
All images are silk and metal threads on wool or silk, French, 1785-1815.  

 During my last visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I learned that there was a date when men's fashion turned from fancy plumage to solemn attire: in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars
the formal dress that was required at French official events fell out of favor for all but the most traditional of ceremonies. At the same time, the European market for ornately embroidered fabrics diminished as men adopted versions of the sober monochrome suit that remains the standard to this day.
But before that time, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were gorgeously embroidered fabrics to be had, and French textiles were the height of the art. I often like to wander down to the small gallery attached to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center; the exhibition there, titled Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear Before 1815, is full of examples of beautifully precise imagery, magically conjured with needle and thread.

A detail from the Met's website

The artists had a sensitive eye for expressing the movement of natural forms; petals and leaves have a delicacy as in life. There is even the illusion of transparency in the petals of the peony.

The use of metal threads made some of the fabrics sumptuous. Clothing with such rich embroidery must have been for the nobility.

These less extravagant examples were still designed with elegance and grace, and with an inventive approach to natural forms. There was no information as to who did the designing of these samples, or who did the sewing of the fabrics. There was one image showing a man cutting cloth for a suit and women sitting at tables sewing. It is likely that working women wore out their eyesight making these embroideries for the rich upper classes.

This sample, of oak leaves and acorns, show that flowers were not the only imagery for fabrics.

I love the fluid curves of the above samples, based on natural forms, but interestingly abstracted.

Imagine wearing this lush garden as part of your clothing.

I am awestruck by the craft, and by the loveliness of the imagery in these textiles. I am sorry for the unsung makers of them, sorry for the inequality that brought them into being, yet I am very happy that they exist.

May 11, 2015

A New Textile: "Deep Pink Flow"

Deep Pink Flow, hand dyed wool on linen; 2 panels, each 10 x 10 in.

I did the sketch for this piece at the same time as that for Shield, which has similar curving forms. In that piece there was an illusion of two panels, while here I made two actual panels. The pink forms squiggle close to each other, but do not meet. At first I thought I'd hook the two greens horizontally, or one vertically and the other horizontally; then I had the idea to use a diagonal hooking for the lighter yellow-green, to create more energy on the surface as the diagonal lines push against the pink curve. I hope that all the elements settle into balance.

Deep Pink Flow detail

May 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Early Blooms

Spring Beauty 

The paths in the woods are strewn with delight. The earliest spring wildflowers are blooming, and though tiny––Spring Beauty flowers are only about 1/2 inch across––seeing masses of them bright above the dun ground is so cheering.


The Round-lobed Hepatica is another tiny flower that sparkles in the spring, with a lovely pale violet color, decorated by its little white globes spreading outward from its center.

Yellow Violet

A third of the very small flowers of early spring are the yellow violets, rising above shiny leaves.

Wild Ginger

Here is a flower I'd never seen before, that of wild ginger. It is a small flower, growing close to the ground, so easy to miss. I love the graceful spread of its three narrowing petals. 


Bellwort is a bit taller than the previous flowers; its flower is elegantly suspended, and so graceful in its upturned pale yellow petals.

Trout Lily

It is such a treat to come across this flower in the woods; I see many of the speckled leaves, but not many flowers. It is a small beauty, of an intense yellow. When I see flowers like this I am reminded that our cultivated garden flowers often came from smaller wildflowers.

Eastern Leatherwood

I noticed these tiny pendulous flowers on small trees (or shrubs) along my trail. Their reproductive parts dangle down festively. 

Eastern Leatherwood with insect cocoon, front and back

While photographing those flowers, I noticed this cocoon, another sort of flower.


After several warm days, the hills are showing the pale new greens of leafing trees; they also show a red haze interspersed with the greens: the red of maple flowers. Their bursting stamens are a perfect metaphor for the explosion of spring.