June 28, 2013

A New Painting: "Blue on Yellow"

Blue on Yellow, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 8 in.

Only once before––in the painting Candy Stripes, which you can see here––have I used flat shapes on a surface as a compositional element. I wasn't sure that this would work here, but it turns out that I like the two flat blue shapes angled against the black void (not totally void, since there's a form emerging at its lower end), behind an angled plane, the only hint of three dimensionality in the painting.

Blue on Yellow, detail

Although the paint is always restrained in my work, it does have a presence, which an online photo can only suggest...which of course is true for all physical artwork, or for the world: a photograph is a limited view, but it can be a concentrated one. I love photography, and I love the internet, and how they allow us to share our work and our experiences from a world away. 

June 26, 2013

Deliciousness: Seared Tofu with Vegetables

The New York Times can be a wonderful resource for recipes; every once in a while I find one that is so very good, and so simple, that I use it often. My recipe book is stuffed with NY Times clippings, but not many become regulars. This one will. Called Hot and Sour Seared Tofu with Sugar Snap Peas, it is a perfect meal for using some fresh garden produce.  The author, Melissa Clark, points out that the first key to searing the tofu is to use extra firm or firm tofu and drain it very well; the second is not to fuss with the cooking of it. The sauce for this dish is full of garlic and ginger, so very flavorful. It is a rather thick sauce, so no thickener is needed. I will use it on all kinds of stir fries in the future, it's that good. Clark uses snap peas for this recipe, but since mine aren't ready yet, but I have lots of asparagus, that's what I used. I bet this would be delicious with broccoli or bok choi or green beans.

2 or 3 servings (just two for me!)

1 14-ounce package extra firm tofu
4 large garlic cloves, grated
2 small jalapeno chiles, seeds and veins removed if desired, thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbs soy sauce
1 1/2 teas grated ginger root
1 1/2 Tbs fresh lime juice, more to taste (I didn't have a lime the first time I made this, so used lemon juice, which was just fine)
1 1/2 teas toasted (Asian) sesame oil (I used some hot oil along with the regular, which made the dish extra spicy) You can use more to drizzle on the finished dish.
1 1/2 teas Asian fish sauce (another variation of mine: no fish sauce in the house, so I used Hoisin sauce, which worked very well)
1 teas honey (of course I used Vermont maple syrup)
2 Tbs peanut oil, more if needed
6 ounces sugar snap peas, trimmed and sliced thinly (I had 1 pound of trimmed asparagus, which seems like a lot, but I love vegetables)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
sesame seeds, for serving
cooked rice, for serving
chopped cilantro or basil, for serving

  1. Drain tofu, slice into six 3/4 inch slices. Arrange side by side, wrapped in a clean dish towel; place between two flat trays, with the top one weighted, for 10 to 20 minutes.
  2. Make the sauce: combine garlic, chiles, soy sauce, ginger, lime juice, sesame oil, fish sauce, and honey.
  3. Unwrap tofu and pat dry.
  4. Heat a large skillet (I used a 12 inch cast iron pan) over high heat until very hot, about 5 minutes. Add the peanut oil and let it heat for 30 seconds, then add the tofu. Don't touch for 2 or 3 minutes, then turn and sear the other side. Move tofu to the side of the pan, stacking it so there's room for the vegetables. Add the vegetable and scallions, with more oil if needed. Stir fry until they begin to soften, a minute or two. Add sauce and stir well, cooking vegetables till done crisp-tender. Put sauce over tofu. 
  5. Serve tofu and vegetables over rice, sprinkled with sesame seeds and basil or cilantro.
  6. Enjoy!

June 24, 2013

New Prints: A New Cardboard Series, Plus a Few Potato Prints

Squared: High Oval, ink on Sekishu natural paper; image size 8 x 8, paper size 18 x 18 in.; ed. 4

Squared: Sunken Circle, ink on Sekishu natural paper; image size 8 x 8, paper size 18 x 18 in.; ed. 5

 During my most last printing session, I worked on two small cardboard prints, part of what I see as an ongoing series that I've decided to title Squared: one shape within an 8 x 8 inch square. I like the simplicity of the idea, and the containment of a shape within the square bounds; the shapes of my most recent prints have all escaped the rectangle.

Squared studies

Here are a few studies that I did when first thinking about this series; I have more in pencil sketches. Sometimes my different mediums influence each other, as these did a recent textile work, which you can see here

Untitled 27, ink on Nishinouchi paper, 14 x 11 in.

Because I worked on two editions of cardboard prints, I didn't have a huge amount of energy for potato prints, but I did 4 that I pretty much like. In 27, I stamped the green shapes then stood looking at them for quite a while, finally deciding that the print needed something else. So I cut a small square and added the 4 square square to the upper right; I think that the balance is pretty good with it.

Untitled 28, ink on Twinrocker paper, 3 x 15 1/4 in.

I had a long narrow strip of paper among my pile of potato print papers; sometimes I'm loathe to throw something seemingly useless away. I don't know... maybe this is just useful as a bookmark for a very large book.

Untitled 29, ink on Twinrocker paper, 11 x 13 in.

I dipped the flattened doughnut shape into green and blue ink to get the variation of color; I also dipped the ends of the fluttery long rectangles into green.

Untitled 30, ink on Twinrocker paper; 2 panels, each 6 1/2 x 15 in. 

Using the same shape as 27 above, I stamped the shape and its ghost, the shape upended and its ghost, making a very bare print. In the diptych format, I believe that the tension and energy from leaping the space between the panels adds a lot to the image; it'd be interesting to experiment with more panels....next time. 

June 23, 2013

At the Museum of Everyday Life: The Story of the Pencil

Alongside a winding road in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom is a small barn with great character housing a marvel of a museum, whose sign tells you that it is "embarking on a mission of glorious obscurity". This is the Museum of Everyday Life, whose website and physical presence are both worth a visit. In the museum's online Philosophy Department are in depth articles on encyclopedias and on the practice of sung paintings: Cantastoria, an "ancient performance form of picture-story recitation". There is a Performance Department, consisting of parades, toy theater, and cantastoria. It is all full of exuberant life and some subversive fun. A few items in the museum's First Manifesto:
Down with the fetishistic worship of "authentic" works by the Famous!
Down with sanctification of the "Original"!
Down with all things valuable and antique!
Up with a new kind of museum, living and breathing and as common as dirt!

When I heard about their new exhibition, "Draw the Line and Make Your Point: The Pencil and the 21st Century", I knew I wanted to make a visit; when I next headed north to do some photographing for my paintings, I made my way there. Not only the entrance announces this as a unique place: it is a self-service museum, where you turn lights on and off yourself.

The grand entrance to the show is an elaborate archway made up of pencils of all colors and sizes.

They point the way to the vivid variety of pencils.

There are many fascinating and informative wall labels in the show, written, of course, in pencil. Now this is really interesting:
The word pencil comes from the Latin penicillum, the name for a small, fine tipped brush used for writing, which is in turn a diminutive form of the Latin word for brush, peniculus, which in turn is a diminutive form of the latin word penis, which means "tail". 

Early styluses during the Middle Ages were mixes of different metals, and finally lead alloys were used.
They weren't ideal though, because they were dirty and needed a good deal of pressure to make a mark.  A chance discovery around 1560, of a black substance clinging to the roots of an upturned oak tree in England, lead to the use of graphite, a form of carbon; it was much superior to lead in its "line-making qualities, erasability, and the ability to redraw on top of it with ink...". Graphite was called black lead or plumbago, hence the calling of graphite pencils "lead pencils".

I did not know that Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, was intimately involved with pencils. He worked in his father's pencil factory, and refined and improved the graphite and wood casings of the Thoreau pencils.

Many different kinds of pencils are on display, shown in inventive ways, such as these flat carpenter's pencils. The wall label points out that their shape is to prevent them from rolling off work tables; they are still widely used today in "all the building trades".

There were examples of destination pencils, such as this for "The Friendly Farm". I learned that these were left at gas stations and country stores to entice people to visit.

Then there are the vast array of advertising pencils, marked with company names. These, from the museum's permanent collection, are all from the 1950s. Some of the texts: Vote "Yes"; The Farmer's National Bank; American Television Electronic School; Gracie's Little Store; Pioneer Corn Company; Big Bread Eaters Eat Taystee Bread.

I found this display quite touching: that someone, in this case Gregory Henderson, would save 15 years of pencil stubs from his job as an art packer and installer in NYC. It's quite an array, and some are used down to the very metal. There were also displays of pencil sharpeners, and boxes, and bullet pencils, and double sided pencils. There were two photographs of work by Dalton M. Ghetti, who "sharpens" miniature sculpture from the lead of ordinary pencils. It is an altogether illuminating show about an ordinary thing we normally don't think twice about.

There is more on display than pencils. A previous exhibition at the museum was "'Healing Engine of Emergency': The Incredible Story of the Safety Pin". Marvelously woven into the web of the Fibularum spider, hanging from the rafters of the museum, are small golden safety pins. As a label explains, the spiders were brought from North Carolina and placed on the windowsill with a box of opened safety pins, and this glittering web has resulted.

Another previous show was "Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match", and what could be more remarkable than a violin made out of matches! This instrument was made by Dale Brown while in prison: the only material available was matchsticks, so he glued them together, stained with coffee, so he could play bluegrass music. Visiting this museum has made me think more of the ordinary things around me, that I use every day with little attention. They all have a story, probably more complex and interesting than we could ever have imagined.

June 20, 2013

Four New Hooked Wool Drawings

2013 #10, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

I enjoy working on these hooked wool drawings as a kind of palate cleanser after doing a couple of textile projects. They tend to be lighter in mood, and are faster to complete. (Though everything is slower these days with the demands of the garden taking up much of my time.) This first piece, #10, is a play with geometry, as the long rectangles, one empty and one full, take bites out of the larger rectangles that they sit in.

2013 #11, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 16 1/2 x 14 in.

Here I was attempting some confusing illusion: the orange band curves outward toward the viewer, but which way does the green band go?

2013 #12, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

For me, #12 is like a cartoon, with humorous curves and silly color.

2013 #13, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 16 1/4 x 14 1/2 in. 

Like #10, #13 is also geometry, but of circle upon circle: paint, line, solid, empty. Each time I work on a set of new drawings, I attempt to have each quite different from the others; it's a challenge that continues to engage my interest.

June 18, 2013

Form and Spirit

Fra Angelico, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 12 3/8 x 10 in.

When we are standing in front of a painting we see shape, line, color with its hues and values, but what do we feel? How much of that feeling, so much of which is inexpressible, comes from the formal qualities of the work? How much is pure mystery? With a painter such as Fra Angelico who was a Dominican friar, we expect a Christian spirituality to infuse his work.

Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, ca. 1475; oil on wood, 10 3/8 x 7 5/8 in.
See a high resolution image of this painting at the Met's website.

But what of a secular portrait of an unnamed old man? I know that when I am looking at this small painting at the Met, I feel pierced by sadness, compassion, love. But how does one speak of the ineffable?

Tawaraya Sotatsu, Waterbird in Flight, 1630s; hanging scroll, ink on paper.

The human form does not have to be part of the image for me to feel deeply about a painting. Here, the fluid lines of calligraphy, the empty space, the duck lifting into that space, the sensitive attentiveness to each element gives rise to a boundless feeling in my chest. I don't think it possible to experience these beyond-the-formal emotions while looking at a reproduction. The actual physical presence of the object is essential.

Golu, The lover prepares to depart; Nurpur, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1710-20; opaque watercolor on paper; 6 7/8 x 10 5/8 in.

So much of the pleasure I get from this painting is in its color and the perfect balance of color-shapes. But again, it is looking at this actual work (it was in an exhibition at the Met, "Wonder of the Age", which I wrote about here), seeing it intimately––each touch of the brush, each perfect detail––that leads to an experience of joy.

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache, 
11 x 8 1/2 in.

Landscape can also provide a connection with the visual world leading to a sense of the spiritual. The early paintings of Samuel Palmer, an associate of William Blake, have a quality of beauty that is more than itself; his way of seeing and simplifying the land around him is at times heart rending. 

Carl Dahl, View of Larsen Square, near Copenhagen Harbor, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 
21 5/8 x 27 3/4 in.

Even a straightforward landscape, precise and clear, can evoke deep feelings. I love the Danish 19th century "Golden Age" painters. The quality of limpid light illuminating forms which recede rationally into space reminds me of when I painted in the landscape: I had a sense of openness coming from the chest, the heart, and flowing outwards.

John Peto, Help Yourself, 1881, 8 x 10 in.

What is it about a small still life painting of a common bag of peppermints that can elicit such poignancy? Is it the composition, the color, the forms emerging from darkness, the modest touch of the artist, the fact of the ordinariness of the subject?

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, 1915, oil on canvas, 
22 1/2 x 26 1/8 in.

Some of the new non-objective painting at the beginning of the 20th century had as its aim an expression of universal and essential truths. Malevich wrote of his Suprematist works:
Let us proceed out of the labyrinth of the earth into boundless space with numbers and color and let us husk the grain of consciousness.
In reproduction, Malevich's work looks cool and rational, but in actuality they are dense and passionate paintings.

Anonymous, Untitled, 1997, Jaipur, India; gouache, watercolor, tempera on paper, 13 x 10 in.

It is interesting to think of the Malevich work in relation to this Tantric painting, a devotional image made by an anonymous artist based on a centuries old design; it is meant as an aid to meditation. So much abstract painting carries strong emotional resonance for me, moving beyond its formal elements.

Philip Guston, Light Bulb, oil on panel, 12 x 14 in. From a series of small paintings made from

Of course, having a spirit that is more than the accumulation of its formal parts––color, shape, paint––is what makes a good painting; it's basic, isn't it? And it's essentially mysterious as to how it occurs, and why we can disagree so much about our most loved works. The earlier abstract paintings of Philip Guston fit within a spiritual context with their dense accumulations of paint floating in "boundless space". But for me even his modest small representational paintings, here a single round light bulb, touch me deeply. Where does my sense of longing come from, or of vulnerability, of loss, when I look at this painting? I think of my own work, the various media I work in, and wonder if any carry within them a feeling beyond their formal parts; I hope they do, realizing that some may do so more than others. I also realize that infusing a work with spirit, with feeling, is not something I––or, I think, anyone––can do intentionally; it's something we long for, but it comes, mysteriously, through the working process.

June 16, 2013

Making Bread: A Sourdough Pain de Campagne

I love bread; baking it has been an important part of my life for many years. I started out with simple yeast recipes, then moved to using a poolish, a mixture of yeast, flour, and water fermented overnight. I always thought that using a sourdough starter was too difficult and much too much trouble. Besides, I could buy an excellent sourdough pain de campagne at our local co-op. But then the bakers, my friends Helen and Jules Rabin of Upland Bakers, decided to retire 10 years ago; I felt bereft with the loss of that delicious bread. At around the same time I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of the Bakery and School at King Arthur Flour, at a party at the Rabins. When I expressed my doubts about keeping a sourdough starter going, how much work it'd be, he simply asked me "do you have any pets? do you feed them every day?". So I decided to take a class on sourdough bread baking at King Arthur flour, which was very helpful, especially in learning how to handle the very wet dough. I've been making my own sourdough bread ever since, about once a week or so.

People have asked me over the past couple of years for a recipe for my bread; I never wanted to post one because it's very long and complicated. But I just decided, why not? So here is a narrative format recipe, with lots of process photos, which is why they are posted smaller than usual. You can still click them to enlarge to see more detail. I am starting here with the sourdough starter, sometimes called a culture, which I just mixed. I got my original starter from King Arthur Flour; you can order some by mail here. It is just flour and water, with wild yeast from the air around you, which is why after some time, your starter would taste different than mine: different location, different yeasts.

So, here's what I do: each morning I refresh the culture. I use a small quart sized pottery bowl, which I cover with a plate. An essential tool in the kitchen is a scale because everything in this recipe is by weight, not volume. I measured the empty bowl, even writing its weight on a piece of tape on the outside in case I forgot. I place the full bowl on the scale, then remove enough culture to leave two ounces. To that I add 1.7 ounces of white all purpose flour (King Arthur of course), and 1 ounce of water. I mix that with a wooden spoon till combined. This is a stiff mixture of sourdough starter, which works best for the bread.

Here's what the starter looks like after it's risen for a day.

When I plan to make bread the next day, I start a levain build the night before. This should rise for 12 hours before the final mixing of the dough, so I usually start it around 8 PM so it'll be ready at 8 AM the following morning. To make this I mix 3.2 ounces of white flour, 1.6 ounces of whole wheat flour, and 1.6 ounces of rye flour. To that I add 1.3 ounces of the sourdough starter and 4.5 ounces of water. I use the tare function on the kitchen scale for these measurements. I mix it all together, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a spot that's around 70º. Don't worry too much about temperature yet; you can worry about that when mixing the final dough.

The next morning, one hour before the levain will be ready, I start mixing the dough. In his book, Bread, from which I adapted this recipe, Hamelman recommends mixing the flour and water and letting it sit for 20 to 60 minutes, which he calls an "autolyse" phase. My amounts of flour are: 15 ounces of white flour, 9.4 ounces of whole wheat, and 3.2 ounces of rye. I very much like the flavor that the rye flour gives to the bread. If you're interested, that comes to 54% white, 34% whole wheat, and 12% rye, so the whole grains are almost half the flour. You can adjust this up or down, depending on preference. After mixing the flours together, I take their temperature. I want the final dough to be about 76º; the only variable I can control is the temperature of the water, but there are four variables: the flour, the levain, the place where the dough will rise, and the water. So 76 x 4 = 304. I put 304 in the calculator, subtract the temperature of the flour, the temperature of the levain (I keep a room thermometer next to it to see, but I also guess a bit), the temperature of the room, and finally subtract 15 for the heat that will be generated by the mixing of the dough; then I get the temperature the water should be. Generally in winter it has to be warmer, in summer colder.

After adding 22.1 ounces of water to the flour, this is the wet mass that results. I cover this with plastic wrap and let it sit in an warm place, around 80º is my preference. I'm lucky to have an old oven that still has a pilot light, which is very useful for rising dough in a cool room.  I also measure out .5 ounces of salt, to be added with the final mixing.

Here's the first mix of the dough in the bowl of my heavy duty electric mixer, a very useful appliance for mixing this very wet dough. It takes a lot of skill to handle the dough; I got completely stuck in it when I took the bread making class. The wet dough creates the delicious moist and chewy texture of the bread, with all the open holes. The curved bowl scraper is an invaluable item for getting the dough out of the bowl, and the blade is useful too.

Here's the levain build, when it's ready to be mixed with the flour. You can see the air holes and how much it's enlarged from 12 hours before. I add it to the bowl with the flours, along with the salt.

I mix on low speed for 30 seconds (another necessary item is a timer), then on the second speed for 3 minutes, never faster than that. At this point the dough will be very wet and not yet springy; as Hamelman puts it "the gluten network should be only moderately developed". If dough is stuck up the side of the bowl, I scrape it down. I measure its temperature: if cooler than 78, I put it in a warmer place, if warmer, it can stay for a while in a cooler spot. I can regulate temperature of my oven by leaving the door more or less open. Hamelman recommends the temperature for rising to be 76º, but I prefer close to 80º. The dough rises in this bowl for about 2 1/2 hours total.

In order to "maximize dough strength", I fold the dough 3 times at 40 minute intervals. Folding is very simple: remove the dough from the bowl with the scraper and put on a well floured surface; hands are well floured too. Press it down pretty flat, pressing out any air bubbles (there will be more with each folding); draw the back end toward you, then each side toward the middle, then the front over the top, pressing down. Dust off excess flour. Put back in the bowl and do it again in 40 minutes, and then again in another 40 minutes. After the fourth 40 minutes I'm ready to shape the dough.

At this point the dough is noticeably stronger. To form a round load, I first press down in a circle, pounding out the air bubbles with the heel of my hand. Then I draw pieces of the dough inwards, overlapping over and over, till it feel tight.

Then I turn it over and with my hands on opposite sides, turn and pull the dough toward me in order to get a tight ball. Then there's another wait, of 6 or 7 minutes, with dough covered with plastic wrap. This gives it time to rest so I can make an even tighter loaf. Then the whole process of flattening and rounding is gone through again. You can see little air bubbles in the dough, which I would press out.

While I'm waiting that 6 or 7 minutes for the dough to rest, I prepare the bowl for proofing the loaf. I use a large, 6 quart, mixing bowl, which I line with a well-floured linen towel. It has to be well floured or the dough will stick to it. I've used this towel for years, so it's seasoned and the dough never sticks.

I plunk the dough smooth side down into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Then I let it rise in an 80º spot for 2 hours. About 40 minutes before I will be ready to bake, I place a 15 inch round pizza stone in the middle of the oven and turn it on to 500º. The stone will then be very hot when I'm ready to bake the bread on it. So when I place the dough in the bowl, I set my timer for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The heating of the oven takes another 40 minutes, which adds up to 2 hours. Sometimes if it's cool, I might rise the loaf for another 10-15 minutes.

Here's what the dough looks like when it's ready to go in the oven. You can see how much it has enlarged.

I flip it onto a well floured peel; now the good side is up. It spreads quite a bit once out of the bowl, and when put in the oven; the profile of the finished loaf is low, not highly rounded. I score the loaf using a single edged razor blade. This helps the bread break in a pattern as it expands in the oven. Then I slide it onto the hot stone. I steam the oven, which helps in making a nice crust: I keep a cast iron frying pan on the lower shelf, so it's been in there getting hot. After putting the dough in the oven I put one cup of boiling water in the cast iron pan, which makes a lot of steam. I bake the bread for 10 minutes at 500º, then lower the temperature to 425º and bake for an additional 45 minutes. I turn the loaf a couple of times because my oven doesn't bake evenly.

When the loaf is done it will be a deep rich brown and the bottom will sound hollow when tapped. I let the bread cool on a wire cake rack then cut it in half. A half of this 3 1/2 pound loaf will last me for about 4 days; because the crumb is so chewy and moist it doesn't dry out quickly like yeast breads. I freeze each half in a plastic bag, finding that defrosted, reheated bread has a thicker crisper crust than bread fresh out of the oven. Each morning I have two slices of bread for breakfast, one with Gjetost, a Norwegian goat cheese, and one with homemade jam and butter. It is an excellent start to the day.