December 30, 2011

Happy New Year! in Masereel's "The City"

When I walked into the studio to find inspiration in my art books for a New Year's post, I noticed my copy of Frans Masereel's The City, a dramatic wordless novel in 100 woodcut images, published in 1925. What a glorious image of fireworks to start the new year!

Masereel's portrait of the city is one we would recognize today, with the intense bustle of rush hour...

to the long lines of workers laboring at their desks...

the hard physical labor to build the city's structures...

and the manual labor to make its factory goods.

The city that Masereel so vividly depicted was one of work and play, drudgery and debauchery, love and violence. And, like today, the rich strongly contrasted with the poor.

There was intimacy; there were large crowds celebrating or protesting; there was lonely despair.

I wish all of you a year full of peace and prosperity and the beauty of the world around us, from the grandeur of starry skies to the tiny things that touch us. And I also hope, as Masereel did, that the world becomes a better place.

December 29, 2011

A New Painting: "White Behind Red"

White Behind Red, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches.

I had a terrible time with this painting. It looks calm and rational, but its lower third fought me tooth and nail, forcing me to wipe off a full day's work twice. The upper part of the painting went fine, with me trying to work slowly and attentively, as I described with my last painting, Gray Cross. I mainly used a very small brush, a #2 round, and built the subtle variations in the surface color bit by bit. The wonderful thing about egg tempera is that because it's translucent, I can make color changes very easily, by lightly glazing or scumbling one color on top of another. I shifted the shadow blues many times until I was satisfied with their hue and value.

It was the red rectangle at the bottom of the painting that gave me all the trouble; it wasn't because of color, but because of lowly dust: for some reason the paint attracted every stray bit of dust, every tiny hair floating about. I began working on this section of the painting as I did on the upper part: after laying down a couple of layers of paint with a larger brush, as you see in the photo above, I worked carefully and slowly with a small brush to build a wall of color. My aim was for it to have weight and presence, with a slightly varied color surface. I don't know if it's because these earth colors are fairly transparent, but I needed many layers of paint to get the effect and color that I wanted. I would work for a while, then go downstairs and do something else for a few minutes in order to see what I'd done with a fresh eye. Over and over again it looked off; over and over again I picked out pieces of dust with a sewing needle I keep on hand for this purpose. Finally, after 5 hours, I looked at the painting and said "ah good, it looks velvety". But but, there was the dust, which mucked up the surface and lifted the paint when I tried to brush it off. So...trying to maintain my sense of calm, I wiped all the red off, down to the parchment, and began again the next day.

White Behind Red, detail

The second day of working on the red went much the same as the first: many layers, finally being happy with what I'd done, realizing it was too dusty and wiping it all off. (I wish I'd taken a photo of the dusty surface to show you, but documenting it wasn't on my mind at the time.) By the third day I felt I had to try a different approach; it was almost as though the painting was insisting I try a different approach. Instead of the small brush, I used a larger one, and went back to a tried and true technique of building a solid surface: cross hatching, layers and layers of it. When the shape looked opaque, I then went in and worked some varied color on the surface, with a larger, #5, brush and a light touch. And that, finally, worked. The lesson in this for me is that I must not have a fixed idea as to how to proceed, but adjust my technique as needed, and as the painting seems to ask.

December 28, 2011

It's Time for the Seed Order

This morning I put my seed order in the mail. It might seem a little early since winter is only just getting going, but I've made it a ritual to fill out the order during the week between Christmas and New Years. Being an early bird has its benefits: I get my onion and leek seeds in time to start them indoors by early February, and I'm less likely to lose out on fast selling varieties. I try to be very organized about the whole thing, keeping a list of the seeds I need in a notebook as I see myself running low during the gardening season. Then I go through the catalog, circling each seed packet that I want with a red pen, double checking it on my list. I absolutely hate when I forget something, because so many of my most loved vegetable varieties aren't available at the local garden store.

My very favorite seed catalog, from which I do most of my ordering, is a co-op based in Waterville, Maine, Fedco Seeds. In a world of glossy, full color catalogs, this one stands out for being on newsprint. It is full of the most delightful illustrations; how can you resist buying corn seeds seeing the images of little critters eating their fill, or melons and cucumbers on this two page spread? The illustrations are both contemporary and vintage, and are as much fun to look at as the vegetable descriptions are to read (take a look at that guy sprinting with a cuke under his arm). I know I can rely on the very complete and honest appraisals, and on Fedco's support of varieties for northern growing and for organic agriculture.

I store my plastic box full of seed packets in the freezer, which helps keep the seed viable longer. I'm organized here too: everything in alphabetical order. The seeds are now tucked away in their cold storage, biding their time, waiting for spring.

December 27, 2011

At the Met: The Wondrous Color of Indian Painting

Sahibdin, Malavini Ragini: folio from a Ragamala series; Udaipur, Mewar, Rajasthan, 1628; opaque watercolor and ink on paper, 9 13/16 x 7 inches.

I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The permanent collections are a marvel, which I never tire of exploring; there is always something new to discover. They also mount remarkable temporary exhibitions, that take me to new worlds, or expand and deepen my understanding of old ones. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900" is one of these enlightening and thrilling shows; on view until January 8th, I hope all of you who are able get to see it. The title of the show comes from its curatorial premise, that many of the works we had assumed were painted by anonymous artists were in fact by well known masters, who were "wonders of the age". This is a very large show, some 220 paintings, and there is so much to think about – narrative strategies, compositional and spacial structures, revelatory details, refined form, sheer beauty – that I decided to focus on color for this post. The museum website has some images online, but it is so limited that I decided to buy the catalog for the exhibition, and I photographed these paintings from it. The color is twice removed from the actual paintings, but I hope you can get some idea of it.

I look at the early 17th century painting by Sahibdin and feel elated, buoyed by the vibrant colors and mellifluous shapes. Even white takes on a sparkle and presence and weight. Each color stands on its own, unmodulated, rich and sensuous.

detail, Malavi Ragini

These two pots are wonderfully alive, bright white forms against the vivid red, as though symbolizing the passion of the two lovers above. I had always loved the more detailed work of Mughal-style painting, but after seeing this show, the energy of bright flat colors totally engaged me.

Farrukh Beg, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II riding his prized elephant, Atash Khan; Bijapur, Deccan, ca. 1600; opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 5 5/8 x 4 1/16 inches.

There are different styles in Indian painting, and this portrait is more refined and delicate than the Rajasthani painting above. The accumulation of detail is delightful, within a gold and green landscape. The sprays of pink flowers and the orange elephant's trunk are surprising jewel-like elements.

Payag, Shah Jahan riding a stallion; Mughal court at Agra, ca. 1628; opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 11 1/8 x 8 3/16 inches.

A black and white horse dramatically prances in a field of green. This beautiful cool green appears often in Indian painting. At the end of the exhibition there's a case with various pigments and tools used to make these paintings. I wish I'd taken notes, but I remember that a green pigment used was copper carbonate, also known as verdigris. If you're interested in learning more about ancient pigments, the book Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting by Daniel V. Thompson, is a good guide.

Early Master at the Court of Mandi, The gopis pleading with Krishna to return their clothes; Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1635-50; opaque watercolor on paper; 11 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches.

The same beautiful green appears here, in hills undulating upwards and backed by a distant gray-green, balanced by the gray of water in the foreground. The delicately warm colors of women's flesh and of cattle engage my eye and remind me of the story.

Devidasa, Shiva and Parvati playing chaupar; Basohli, Jammu, 1694-95; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, gold on paper; 6 1/2 x 10 7/8 inches.

In this painting, color seems so much a part of the narrative: the golden orange overlapped by nodding green trees glows, as in a heavenly place. The warm browny-red of the border accentuates the scene. What colors! orange-yellow, warm and cooler dark greens, the yellow of tiger skin, the red of game board and clothing and the dark red surround. Delicious.

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

This is my favorite painting in the show, which I saw twice. The colors seem perfectly balanced and each is so beautifully rich. The division into lit interior and mysterious dark heightens the feeling of each space.

detail, The lover prepares to depart.

This detail makes me swoon: the deep purply brown with the very simple overlays of golden oval trees, held up by arcs of green; the band of greenish blue, marked by small details; the gorgeous deep red. And all painted with precision of a fresh and open sort. Oh my.

Manaku, South wind cools in the Himalayas; Guler, Himalchal Pradesh, 1730; opaque watercolor on paper; 8 3/8 x 12 1/16 inches.

There were several paintings in the show of extravagantly colored mountains, the artists not being content with the grays and browns of rocky reaches.

Bagta, Kunvar Anop Singh hawking; Devgarh, Mewar, Rajasthan, ca. 1777; opaque watercolor on paper; 14 3/16 x 10 7/16 inches.

Both man and beast are gorgeously arrayed in this fairly large portrait. There are sumptuous details of jewels and patterned cloth, but they are subordinate to the overall color design of blue, orange-brown, and green, with red as punctuation. And of course the swelling form of prince and horse are elegantly and simply drawn; it is interesting to compare this painting to the ones above, of princes on horseback and on an elephant.

Nainsukh, Portable Vishnu shrine; Guler, Himachal Pradesh, 1763; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 5 29/32 x 7 1/2 inches.

To end, I am showing a painting in which color is quiet, minimal, subtle. White is the mourning color in India, and scholars think that under the cloth at center are the ashes of Nainsukh's patron, Balwant Singh. The white, the gray, the green, the small stretch of blue at the top, with other small bits of color, make of a solemn moment a harmonious one; a painting perfect in its expression. I feel that I have a great deal to learn from these master painters of India.

December 26, 2011

From the Root Cellar

Yesterday, at Christmas dinner, a friend told me about a small but wonderful vegetable store in White River Junction, which has low prices and a surprising variety of produce. "But", I said, "I don't buy vegetables". Aside from buying some onions and potatoes in spring, I eat only what I grow, from the garden during the season, and from storage during the cold months. I freeze and can and store in the root cellar, a walled-off portion of my cellar, stone walled and dirt floored. To see more photos of it, go to this post from last year. The vegetables in my diet are restricted to what I have, but I never feel that I'm missing anything. On the contrary, I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction in feeding myself. The photo above shows my cabbage crop, wrapped in brown paper to keep it moist. The storage-variety cabbages usually keep until May.

After yesterday's big meal, I thought I'd like to have a simple vegetarian dinner tonight: sweet and sour red cabbage with boiled potatoes. When I unwrapped the cabbage, I could see that the first wrappings of leaves were spoiled, but under them was a bright, fresh vegetable. The potatoes are a variety that is my favorite for boiling, with a smooth, creamy texture and superb flavor: French Fingerling. My cabbage recipe comes from Deborah Madison, is very simple and delicious, and you can see it on this blog post. It's a perfect meal for a winter evening, cooked on the roaring woodstove, comforting and warming.

December 23, 2011

Snow, Winter Mosses, and Merry Christmas

The ground has been bare and the temperatures quite mild for the past couple of weeks, so I was very happy to wake to snow this morning. Winter seems very bleak without the brightening effect of snow on the ground, even if only two or three inches, like today. Now it looks like Christmas day will be white.

But yesterday the ground was bare, and as I walked through the woods and saw the brilliantly green mosses, shining with fresh emerald color, I thought of the saying that snow was the "poor man's fertilizer". Although that usually refers to spring snows, I don't see why it wouldn't work in the fall, when the ground is still soft. The mosses seemed to have soaked up the moisture and nutrients of early winter snows, and were glowing with health. They will be covered with a soft blanket today, biding their time until they emerge again. Along with the white of Christmas snow, I wish you joy, and peace, and love.

December 22, 2011

A New Textile: "Chevrons"

Chevrons, hand dyed wool on linen, 11 x 10 inches.

With this piece I've gone back to playing with pattern, as I've done with two previous textiles, which you can see here and here. For years my primary inspiration for my hooked wool work has been minimalist abstraction, but now I am drawn to other kinds of visual expression. With pattern I am going back to the decorative arts, back to the design of everyday things. There is a beauty and energy in repetition that is very engaging. Thirty or so years ago there was a loose group of painters in a "Pattern and Decoration" movement, which also looked beyond the history of painting for ideas.

When I was thinking about the color I'd use for the angled bands of color, I went to this photo of a shelf mushroom that I took during the fall. I love its deep purples, along with the oranges and greens melting together into a purply brown. I did not even try to get close to those colors, instead using them as a jumping off point, keeping my colors dark and fairly close in value. As you can see in the detail below, the purple is of a reddish hue, so I think it holds its own alongside the warm earthy red; the green is more vibrant than the other colors so its movement across the surface is noted, shining dimly amid the deep hues of autumn.

December 21, 2011

A Family Hanukah Meal, and a Potato Latkes Recipe

Sambousak, a cheese filled pastry

My family got together a few days before Hanukah to celebrate. Aside from the pleasure of seeing my family – brothers and sisters and parents, nephews and niece, and the growing number of little ones – is the delicious food spread out on the table by my sister-in-law. My mother taught us well and I can say we are all good cooks, but the great treat for me is the Syrian Jewish food that I grew up with and rarely prepare for myself. The beautiful sesame-dotted pastries filled with a cheese and egg mixture are one of my favorites. I have yet to attempt these in my own kitchen, although I've made a variation using filo dough, which is quite simple to prepare.

Ka'ak, savory biscuits

I think of these crisp, flavorful rings as a signature food of my family and culture; they are eaten with afternoon coffee, at a maza, as part of a laden table. It's not easy to get the correct balance of dry crispness that is also light; I know because I've tried. They are flavored with anise seed, coriander, and nigella, a unique and enticing flavor.

Syrian string cheese, with nigella seeds

This cheese, which comes in a tightly braided package, was a staple of my childhood. It is mild, and delicious when melted in a pita bread sandwich. It is generally served with the strands of cheese pulled apart into thinner threads. Recipes for the three foods above can be found in my cousin Poopa Dweck's cookbook Aromas of Aleppo.

Potato latkes, or pancakes

The most traditional of Jewish dishes for Hanukah, in both Ashkenaz and Sephardic homes are potato latkes. The fact that they are fried in oil commemorates the miracle in the Temple. I treat myself to these several times during winter, topping them with my homemade applesauce. I use the recipe from The Art of Jewish Cooking, by Jennie Grossinger. These are a lovely meal to celebrate Hanukah or the Winter Solstice. Happy Holidays to you all!!

2 eggs
3 cups grated, drained potatoes (I like the crisper quality that comes from grating in a food processor rather than by hand)
4 Tbs grated onion
1 teas salt
1/4 teas pepper
2 Tbs flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying

  1. Beat eggs and add potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, and flour.
  2. Heat oil on a medium flame and drop the potato mixture by spoonsful (whatever size you prefer) into the oil. Fry until brown and then turn and brown the other side. Add more oil if needed.
  3. Let drain on paper towels.
  4. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.

December 20, 2011

At the Met: Ancient Chinese Jades

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, late 3rd - 2nd millenium B.C.; jade (nephrite)

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, ca. 3200 - 2000 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

There is a small case just at the entrance to the Chinese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I always stop and visit when I am in that part of the museum. It contains a group of ancient objects that are simple and perfect in form, so invite contemplative looking. Theirs is a pure beauty.

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, late 3rd - 2nd millenium B.C.; jade (nephrite)

From the wall label I learned that jade was in use as early as the 5th millenium B.C. These small pieces (the works above are around 5 or 6 inches across) were, of course, objects for those high in social status, and used as ornaments, or for ritual purposes: offerings, gifts, tomb objects for the afterlife. Jade was more than a lovely stone, it had a cultural meaning. Confucius wrote:
The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice...Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth.

Perforated Ax; Neolithic period, 3200 - 2000 B.C.; stone.

Although this piece is not of jade, it has the same sense of a form slowly developed until it is perfect; each line, straight or curved, is balanced and sure.

Ceremonial Blade; Neolithic period, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite).
Ceremonial Dagger-Ax (Ge); Shang dynasty, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

Ceremonial Blade; Neolithic period, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite).

Ceremonial Dagger-Ax; Shang Dynasty, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

The shape of each of these blades is so refined and beautiful. According to the museum's wall label, Chinese jades were made of nephrite, a mineral composed of oxides of calcium, magnesium, and silicon. This mineral was extremely hard and could only be shaped by grinding with abrasives such as quartz sand. Because of this, making a jade object was a very laborious and time consuming practice. I like to think of the ancient makers working with slow and close attention to every aspect of surface and form.

Ornament with Mask; Neolithic period, 3200 - 2000 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

This small, three inch, jade is the only one with an image, a low relief of a charmingly stylized face; two upward tilting eyes are connected by a bridge of nose, keeping them anchored to each other, and a small, slightly smiling mouth is an elongated oval below. All is contained within an elegant curved dome. Each of these ancient works speaks quietly, serenely, of time and patience and grace.

December 19, 2011

Splendor from the Sea

The small wonders of the natural world with which I'm familiar here in northern Vermont are mosses and lichen and fungi, with an occasional charming little snail. The shells of land snails are very plain and workaday, though, compared with their mollusc cousins from the sea.

This vivid collection of seashells looked like a treasure chest that had been emptied on a Brooklyn dining room table. My sister and her husband had been to Sanibel Island, famous for the mounds of shells found on its beaches, shells of all different types, colors and shapes.

I love seeing the geometry of the spiral forms of what I believe are whelk shells. Bands of color flow down and across the shells, according to the mathematical Fibonacci Spiral.

Conch shells also display the spiral construction. It's a marvelous mystery to me that nature has an underlying rational order.

Cockle shells come in a beautiful array of colors, with patterns that look as though they were carefully painted in order to heighten the effect of the crisp corrugation.

I never knew that seashells came in plaid. What a delight these coquinas shells are!

Finally, some very delicate shells, irregular in form, glistening like mother of pearl, with pools of yellow or pink. Looking at all these shells, noticing each variation in color and shape, was like going on a surprising trip to a new and unknown world, full of delight.