June 30, 2010

Daylilies and Honeysuckle

My housefront is at its floral best when the mass of old fashioned daylilies come into bloom in early July. A few of these stalwart flowers were planted on one side of the front door by the previous owners, which I spread on both sides and allowed to widen towards the lawn; there is now a 5 foot wide border which I keep somewhat in bounds with the lawn mower. I love these easy-going flowers which make no demands. Alongside the door is a vigorous honeysuckle vine, with a red rose climbing within it; it's not quite a rose covered cottage, but it does make a charming picture.

This is the view towards my vegetable garden, over the shining daylilies, from the front door. The white you see in the garden are floating row covers; on the left they are protecting brassicas, which this year have been ravaged by insects; to the right, peppers and eggplants are growing under hoops in the extra warmth created by the covers.

I have a special place in my heart for honeysuckles: when I was a child spending summers along the Jersey Shore, my father showed us how to suck the nectar from the creamy flowers growing like weeds in many back yards. It was like a little bit of magic to see the clear drop of sweet liquid emerging from the flower. Unfortunately, that variety doesn't grow in this cold climate, and the one that I have, Dropmore Scarlet, doesn't have nectar. But it does have lovely flowers, a crimson orange on the outside and yellow orange within, showy blooms that are very attractive to hummingbirds; I can sit at my dining table and watch the birds buzz into flower after flower. It also has a wonderful growth habit, with stems rising from the center of large round leaves, as though each leaf is a beginning and the flowers its celebration of the world.

June 29, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: Mushroom Update

Three weeks ago I found some gorgeous varnished mushrooms growing on tree stumps in the woods, which I wrote about here. I thought some of you might be interested, as I am, to see how they've grown since then. The funny bulbous forms above...

have grown into wavy, fan-shaped mushrooms (except for one, which remains a club shape so far) whose deep golden red varnish warms and lightens to a golden ochre. At the edge is a warm white which makes me think of vanilla ice cream emerging through the caramel sauce of an ice cream sundae.

These mushrooms squeezing out from the bark of a stump have also filled out:

and are now the characteristic broad shape. The convoluted, puckery surface of the top mushroom seems to tell a story of pushing and pulling to get to where it is; this is a mushroom of great character.

June 28, 2010

Hoses: Two New Paintings

Red and Black Hose, egg tempera on vellum, 5 x 5 inches

I thought I'd show these two new paintings together since they share a theme of the cylindrical volume of hoses. In the case of Red and Black Hose, the length is broken up by black curves that circle the form like tight belts holding in the bulges of red. The long black forms alongside the deep black of the lozenge are sleek and shiny, slithery fish on a shelf. In both paintings I enjoy the way the rounded volumes push against, or in front of, flat forms, trying to make a real place for themselves in a fictional world.

Lozenge and Hose, egg tempera on vellum, 3 x 6 inches

June 27, 2010

Flowers in the Vegetable Garden

Peas, Early Frosty

We are all so excited by the spring flowers in the border that the small workhorses of our food supply are overlooked. Flowers didn't come about for our aesthetic delight, but to make seed for the next generation. In the vegetable garden, much of what we call vegetables are actually fruits, "a structure of a plant that contains its seeds", according to Wikipedia. The pea pod above has emerged from the flower and is beginning to form tiny peas. If you click on the image to enlarge, you'll be able to see a new pod curled up inside the flower.

Tomato, Roma

Eggplant, Diamond

Potato, Carola

The three plants above are members of the nightshade family; it wasn't till I took photographs of their flowers that I saw the strong family resemblance. They all have yellow male stamens that stand up inside the petals like fluted columns. The flowers don't need bees for pollination, just some movement, like the gardener walking by, or the wind. Of course potatoes are different from tomatoes and eggplant in that the vegetable grows underground, propagated by pieces of potato and not by the seeds that sometimes develop from the flowers, stored in little green balls.

Melon, Arava Cantaloupe

Winter Squash, Sunshine

The squashes do need pollinating insects to carry pollen from the male flowers, such as the glorious one above, to the female flowers. Some squashes have very showy flowers and they're often used in cooking. Melons have more discreet blooms; the one above is a female flower, which has a tiny fruit attached. If the flower is pollinated, the fruit will develop, if not, it will wither away. I've tried to pollinate the early fruit by hand with a soft brush, but I don't seem to have the knack, so now I just leave it to the bees and other insects. Happily, there are many more bees about the garden now than there were a few years ago when disease was a problem. So much inter-connection: we provide the pollen via our plantings and the bees thank us by pollinating our fruits and vegetables.

June 26, 2010

Garlic Scape Pesto

The allium family has very decorative habits; like Egyptian onions, stiff necked garlic has scapes with flowers at their ends, but instead of standing tall, they curl and cavort in beautiful arabesques. The garlic bulb will grow larger if these scapes are removed, so the question becomes what to do with this crop of crisp, mildly garlic flavored stems. Last year I looked around on the internet and found a recipe for garlic scape pesto, and it is delicious. The scapes, chopped finely in a food processor, have a nice crunch as a main feature. Because the texture is lost, it doesn't do well coming from the freezer; in this it is different from basil pesto. It's a wonderful meal for this time of year, and becomes extra special because of its limited season.

Garlic Scape Pesto
10 garlic scapes, chopped
1/3 - 1/2 cup Parmesan Reggiano, grated
1/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
  1. Put the garlic scapes, 1/3 cup cheese, all the almonds, and 1/4 cup olive oil in the food processor and blend until the scapes are chopped fine.
  2. Add remaining oil and more cheese if desired. Add salt to taste.
Makes enough for 1 pound of pasta.

June 24, 2010

Why Make Art?

Fra Angelico, Saint Nicholas Calms a Tempest at Sea and The Miracle of the Grain, ca. 1437, tempera on panel, 14 x 24 inches

A few days ago, I read a post on Sophie Munns's blog which included a short piece from Sue Hubbard called "Blue Sky Thinking". In it she argued that art was not simply expressing your creativity, but about mourning and loss, "transformed into art through the arduous creative process". I had an almost visceral reaction to this, feeling it to be too negative a view of artistic motivation. But perhaps what she was trying to say was something like this, from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark:
what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, ––life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?
If I look at the work of Fra Angelico, a fifteenth century artist who was also a Dominican friar, I feel moved by the beautifully depicted narratives in his predella panels. My feeling is mainly aesthetic, but far removed from our modern sensibilities, Fra Angelico was using his talent in the service of God, his altarpieces being objects of reverence and contemplation.

India, Provincial Mughal, Sohni Swims to Meet her Lover Mahinwal, ca. 1775-80, opaque watercolor on paper, 9 11/16 x 13 7/8 inches

The traditions of manuscript painting in Europe and India and Persia are varied, with both religious and secular imagery. This stunning example of Mughal painting is like the Fra Angelico in its storytelling. Visual art becomes a physical embodiment of the word, written or verbal, as in this Punjabi folk tale.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, 9 feet 4 3/4 inches x 9 feet 5 inches

What the artists, often anonymous, felt about the making of their work is unknown to me. In the 20th century we have more words from artists. A wonderful statement from Matisse, about his first experience with painting when 20 years old and recuperating from acute appendicitis:
When I started to paint, I felt transported into a kind of paradise...In everyday life, I was usually bored and vexed by the things that people were always telling me I must do. Starting to paint, I felt gloriously free, quiet and alone.
This comes to the essence of the question for me: how it feels to be making art. No matter what first draws us into art making––a favorite teacher; being a social outsider; feeling unhappy; a beloved book, painting, film––there is something in it that keeps us going. Matisse embarked on an entirely new way of working at the end of his long life, producing radiantly alive cut paper works.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956, oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 96 x 74 inches

With de Kooning's work, as with that of Matisse, I feel in the presence of an intensely physical engagement with paint; I believe that this sensuality must be part of their attachment to the making of art, as the actual process of mixing and applying color is an activity difficult to give up. de Kooning kept working through illness at the end of his life.

So now to my motivation, and yours if you'd like to comment on this: the word describing the feeling that I've had foremost in my mind this week is pleasure, a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in the process of making, even in the sometime struggle to get a work right. I love the silky surface of the vellum and the feel of paint sliding across it. I love the rich translucent color of the egg tempera paint, its ease of handling, its crisp rendering of detail. The intense focus on a small work brings me into another world, a place of color and form and light. I love seeing this new thing I've made; if I judge it a success, it feels weighty and real and beautiful. I hope that others will like the work, but I realize now that this is not a paramount consideration. For the past year, after being represented by a commercial gallery in New York City for over 30 years, I've been without a gallery; there is no certainty that I will exhibit the work I am doing. I now know that this doesn't matter; it is the process of working that is essential, that takes me both inside myself and out into an intense engagement with the visual world.

June 23, 2010

The Exuberance of Egyptian Onions

There is a carnival atmosphere in the Egyptian Onion bed right now: bulblets, garbed in white and purple, sport jaunty thin arms waving above their heads, topped with tiny flowers. They are funny hats, grand chandeliers, amusing creatures dancing about. These onions, which I showed in their early spring stage here, have hollow 2 1/2 foot tall stalks topped with mini onions, which will root as new plants when the stalk flops over, hence another name for them: Walking Onions.

In some cases, the "arms" wrap fondly around the bulblets, making a different rhythmic line, with curves and puffs of flower. And below, the most extravagant gesture of all: yet another stalk rising above bulblets and topped with a cluster of flowers, like a festive streamer flowing in a spring breeze.

June 22, 2010

"Up Down" in Progress

I've been chugging right along with this project––straight line hooking is faster than curved––and have completed 2 of the 4 panels, the right and left with a center one still to come, along with a small square. (To see the sketch, and the dyed wool, go to this post.) After dyeing the wool in a large pan by dropping color on it, I was curious as to how it would look when hooked. The answer for me is that is has something of an appearance of tesserae, the small tiles used to make mosaics. Usually when I use spot-dye wool, I hook it randomly, making large color patterns (for instance, see the upper part of this ruglet Tiles); this time, hooking in regular horizontal lines has emphasized the color shifts with occasional dark accents, which makes each loop read as an individual element within a whole.

June 21, 2010

Flowering Grasses

The vivid greens of June are now tempered by the tawny flowering heads of the many grasses in the fields and woods. This mass of 6 foot tall grass is vigorously growing near the pond in the moist soil fed by springs.

These finely draped flower heads catch the light, reminding me of a bounty of grain. So much of our food comes from grasses: wheat, rye, barley, rice; even corn, thought of as a vegetable, is a grass. Years ago I read a book on the origins of agriculture and was surprised to see the tiny size of the head of wild corn. It took generations of choosing plants with large grain size to get to the early corns grown in the New World.

The color of this grass flower, like several around this area, is a beautiful burgundy. It has dangling anthers that look like fluttery trinkets, adding to a decorative effect.

The form of this flower is classical in its simplicity. This is likely an early stage of growth, so I will have to observe how it changes as the flower matures. Because for most of us our relationship to grasses are through our cropped lawns, except for the decorative grasses in flower borders we don't often see their flowers. It's good to remember that grasses cover large parts of the earth, including the areas of human origins, and that they have fed us for thousands of years.

June 20, 2010

Asparagus with Poached Egg

If you've followed the recipes I post on this blog, you'll know that I like simply prepared foods; a many-paged recipe with complex preparation is not for me. I don't remember where I first heard about this combination of asparagus and poached egg, but last spring when I tried it, it became a favorite lunch or light supper meal. The asparagus spears, lightly dressed with good olive oil, are perfect for swirling in the egg yolk; some shaved parmesan and chopped parsley add flavor. And I always have some good bread to mop the juices: slices of my homemade sourdough miche which I wrote about here.

For one serving:
1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed
extra virgin olive oil
1 egg
chopped parsley
shaved parmesan reggiano
salt and pepper

Steam the asparagus till tender. Place on a plate and drizzle with olive oil. Meanwhile, poach an egg and place it on top of the asparagus. Garnish with chopped parsley and shaved parmesan (I use a potato peeler to shave the cheese). Season with salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy a spring treat.

June 19, 2010


Peonies are a celebration, an excess of petals, fragrance, form. They are grande dames and coquettes, as beautiful in the garden as in a vase. I have long called them my favorite flower, but since I've become more intimate, through my camera, with all the flowers of garden, field and forest, I'm less inclined to prioritize; I'll just say that I adore them.

June 17, 2010

A New Rug Hooking Project: Up Down, with Inspiration

Richard Tuttle, 60th Line Piece, 1990. 9 x 6 x 5/8 inch

Blinky Palermo, Blue Disk and Stick, 1968, 99 x 4 x 3 inches

Dan Flavin, Alternate Diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Don Judd), 12 feet long on the diagonal

Here are works by three artists that I admire greatly which use the gravity of the floor as an essential structural element. Richard Tuttle, who has inspired another work of mine, which I wrote about here, is playfully resting tiny works on the floor which "hang" from a thin line penciled on the wall. Blinky Palermo, with a sly minimalist sensibility, rests two colored tape wrapped pieces of wood against the wall, confounding categories of painting and sculpture. And Dan Flavin worked with light itself, arranging fluorescent bulbs in geometric configurations that transform a space.

So why not use the floor for a hooked rug, but not lying on it as a carpet, which would be too traditional for me. I pulled out some sketches that used the floor or the edge of a wall or door as a balance point. Some of these thumbnails were done at Dia:Beacon, where a collection of Flavin's work gave me some compositional ideas. I played around for a while and came up with bars of equal width (they will be 4 inches wide) and different heights resting on and rising from the floor; the two outer bars will have their bottom edges touching the floor. Because I didn't want the work to be severely geometric, I softened the form by using a fluid range of colors for the study.

In order to get a watercolor effect with the wool, I placed it scrunched up in a wide pan and dropped the dye colors on it by large spoonsful. I used a couple of different yellows, a blue, a green. Below you see a photo of the wool as it looks dried. I love the effect of the color splashes, which will be subdued somewhat when hooked. I plan to do horizontal hooking to contrast with the vertical forms. As much as I may try to exercise control, the result will be a surprise, which is an aspect of rug hooking that I love.

June 16, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: Circular Gestures

Today was another of those cool, gray days which we've seen so many of in June. I felt myself sinking into a gloom like the dim light of the day. To cheer myself, before the rain arrived I took a walk with my camera on my alternate woods path, an infrequently wandered one because it's a logging road, so less intimate than my usual walk. Because it isn't familiar to me so far this season, there are many new treasures to find. Looking closely around me, at the ground, through the underbrush, and focusing my camera on ordinary marvels takes me out of myself and elevates my spirits.

The most wonderful thing I saw was this huge mushroom, at least a foot across, a polypore growing on an elegantly curled tree stump. Both looked as though carefully sculpted to express the rhythms of curving forms, with the textures used to play one element off against the other. The mushroom flows gently into the wood, with both having dark centers that draw our eye deep.

Here is the underside, showing large yellow pores, plus a couple of smaller mushrooms growing. When close to it, I noticed a pleasant scent, not mushroomy at all, light and slightly sweet. I always try to find mushroom identities in my guide at home, but am rarely successful. This time I may have found it: polyporus squamosus or Dryad's Saddle, also known as Pheasant's Back Polypore. The book lists it as edible, and that the "tender edges of the caps can be pickled, sauteed, or fried". But since I'm not sure, I will just admire; also, mushrooms not listed as "choice" edibles are often not worth picking.

I am charmed by this toadstool; seeing it, the childlike name for mushroom took over my thoughts. A three inch umbrella with crimped dangling skirt and radiating lines on its cap, it seems ready to pick up and take a walk while sheltering a small creature beneath.

I found this jelly-like cup shaped mushroom growing alongside a tiny stalked one, both on a downed tree covered with a pale yellow mat of lichen slime mold. A comfortable seat with shade for a miniature potentate of the woods, perhaps?

To end this post, some green: a fern growing in a clear form, stems radiating perfectly from a center, creating an arching circular vase structured by textured fronds. A circle, even in its imperfect incarnations in nature, is deeply satisfying and beautiful to see.

June 15, 2010

Red Swoop

Red Swoop, egg tempera on vellum, 6 5/8 x 5 inches

This painting was a struggle to get right; I had to paint many layers of color, going from lighter to darker and back again, making the hues of shadow and light warmer and cooler, brush stroke upon brush stroke, until the color and value became convincing as light on a surface. Part of the difficulty is with the color red; because it is a dark color, as opposed to yellow for instance, it's a balancing act to have it look sunlit while still being clearly red, or in this case, red-orange. If I add too much white to the color, it would become pink. An important key is the color and value of the shadow; if not dark enough, there wouldn't be enough contrast to make an illusion of light. I went through many stages of shadow being too light, too dark, too warm, too opaque. But finally, it worked. I decided to paint the green grass as a subtle texture, toning down the dramatic large blades of grass in the photo, so that the red shapes wouldn't be upstaged. For me, Red Swoop has an amusing personality, laugh lines in space.

This is my worktable, which should give you a sense of scale. I find reading glasses essential for clear viewing of the work in progress. The needle stuck into an eraser is a tool I use for picking out hairs and bits of dust from the painting while I'm working on it.

I thought I'd take a photo of the painting at an angle to the light so that you could get some idea of the surface of the painted vellum. There is a sheen to the paint, and the brushstrokes are more visible. So often a photo flattens a work that, though precise, has a subtle sense of touch, and the presence of the artist's hand.

June 14, 2010

I Should Mow the Lawn, but...

how can I lop off the wildflowers/weeds sprinkled brightly through the grass, adding little bursts of color to the background of green, creating a wildflower meadow out of a more mundane backyard?

The red-orange Indian paintbrush (what it's called around here, though nothing like the Western flower of that name), yellow buttercups, yellow something else that looks similar to dandelion, red clover, daisies, vetch, and even some wild columbine, are so intensely cheerful in their nonchalant lounging about. The colors and textures seem woven like a complex tapestry, where to remove a thread will unravel the entire picture. But, I must mow my disheveled lawn: maybe tomorrow, definitely by the weekend....