June 27, 2012

From My Mother's Kitchen: Al Mazieh, Rose Water-Scented Pudding

I am lucky to have grown up in a Syrian Jewish household, with a mother who is a brilliant cook. The traditional foods she serves are truly delicious: all kinds of stuffed vegetables, various kibbehs in sauces with vegetables, and other good things. A recipe for stuffed onion rolls is here; for bazargan, which is an appetizer made with bulgar and tamarind paste here;  for zucchini, cheese and egg pie here; rice and lentils with caramelized onions, mujedrah, here. Sweets are one of the glories of the Middle Eastern kitchen; there are various elegant pastries, among which is baklava. But one of my favorite desserts since childhood is the unusual pudding called Al Mazieh, simply made with cornstarch, sugar, and water, and flavored with rose water and added nuts. It is a translucent jelly which tastes as though you are eating a floral perfume.

I served this to friends last week, who loved it, so felt encouraged to share the recipe for the adventurous. It's very easy to make.

1 cup cornstarch
2 scant cups sugar
9 cups water
2 Tbs rose water
1/2 cup blanched and peeled almonds
1/2 cup blanched and peeled pistachios (note: my cousin Poopa Dweck, in her beautiful cookbook The Aromas of Aleppo, uses 1 cup each of almonds and pistachios. That's too many nuts for my taste, but you can certainly use that many, or amounts in between.)

  1. In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan mix together the cornstarch, sugar, and water, stirring until the cornstarch and sugar are completely dissolved.
  2. Cook over medium high heat, stirring often, until the mixture comes to a slow boil. 
  3. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon, about 1 hour.
  4. Add the rose water and the nuts and stir well.
  5. Pour into a 2 quart non-stick mold, or into a glass bowl. The jelly is so pretty that you don't want to hide it in a ceramic bowl. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours until it is firm. 
  6. To unmold, loosen the sides of the jelly from the mold, put a platter on top and turn over (hoping for the best; mine came out quite well, with only a couple of imperfections). 

**Speaking of family, I'll be away visiting my family for a few days, so I'll see you next week. 

June 25, 2012

The Art Gallery of the Saint Johnsbury Athenaeum: Stepping Into the 19th Century

Saint Johnsbury, a beautiful town tucked away in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is home to two surprising cultural resources, gems of the 19th century: one is the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, which I wrote about here; the other is the Athenaeum, a library and small art gallery, still maintained in its 19th century style. It is marvelous to walk into the skylit space and see gilt frames glistening against dark walls, with a huge dramatic canvas by Albert Bierstadt, The Domes of the Yosemite, dominating the room.

Saint Johnsbury was a lively town in the late 19th century, thanks in great part to Fairbanks Scales, inventors of the platform scale. This grand Victorian structure was built in 1871, and was a gift, like the Fairbanks Museum, of the Fairbanks family.

The art gallery was added to the library two years after it opened and included the collection of Governor Horace Fairbanks and other family members. One thing I love about this gallery is getting a real sense of late 19th century taste, which included American landscape paintings we still hold in high regard, along with copies of old masters and sentimental images of animals and children, all on view together, with no hierarchy.

Worthington Whittredge, On The Plains, Colorado, 1872; oil on canvas, 30 x 50 in.

Whittredge is one of the American masters included in this collection, along with Sanford Gifford, below,  and Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, and Asher B. Durand. This painting of a quiet riverside scene has the soft light and clear layers of space of a Luminist painting.

On the Plains, detail

The touch is restrained, yet lively and descriptive. The artist was attentive to details of life and landscape.

Sanford Gifford, View from South Mountain, in the Catskills, 1873; oil on canvas, 21 x 40 in.

A golden light suffuses an autumn scene in the mountains, with two tiny climbers to give us a sense of the vast scale of the scene. Foreground, middle ground, distance: each exist in their separate planes, becoming less distinct and cooler. These two landscapes could hang happily in the new American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Emilie Preyer, Fruit and Wine, n.d.; oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. 

There are also some lovely still life paintings in the St. Johnsbury collection. This painting is the only one known to be by a woman artist in the collection. I like its simple clarity, its appreciation of different surfaces, its composition topped by the graceful lines of a wineglass.

William Mason Brown, Raspberries, 1873; oil on canvas, 10 x 12 in.

A spill of raspberries on the ground, their red repeated by dropping leaves at top, hold a brilliant light in their compound surfaces. It seems that the artist was attempting to achieve the translucence of the berries and in this he succeeded; they look as though they're bright Christmas lights dropped and scattered.  

Adolphe William Bouguereau, Going to the Bath, n.d. ; oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 18 in.

The Atheneum even has a Bougeureau, one of the grand French academic painters, albeit a small and modest one. I'm not a fan of his work, but he is certainly emblematic of a sentimental strain of 19th century painting. 

This grouping of paintings shows more of that overly sweet mood. 

I really enjoy getting a sense of how work was collected at that time; that copies of masters such as Raphael were highly valued and exhibited alongside original works. While at the gallery, I thought of a book by Edith Wharton I'd read some years ago: Old New York. In one of its stories, a young man was sent to Europe in the early 19th century to buy paintings for his father. Instead of the expected late Italian Renaissance and copies of Old Masters, he comes home with paintings of the early Renaissance, which were not yet appreciated. His father disowned him. The Athenaeum's collection is more sophisticated than that, and has some genuine treasures, but it is also a product of its time, which makes it so rare and wonderful. No works are in storage, none are hidden away; the collection is as it was, and as it will be.

Finally, here are two views of the gorgeous interior of the library, which was lovingly restored recently. The experience of being in these spaces, and seeing this art, in a library in a small town is a wonder, and a gift.

June 22, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: Surprise Encounters

The visual treats I find in the woods are generally in the vegetable kingdom––trees and mosses, lichens and mushrooms––meetings with animals are more rare. I have seen a moose lying in the path, a bear ahead of me, lots of grouse flying up and away, but I rarely have an extended look since these creatures run at the sight or smell of me. At the beginning of June, as I walked along the path, I was amazed to see a lovely little fawn stretched out on the ground close by. It didn't try to rise or run, so I was worried that it was injured or ill, but when I went by the next day it was gone (and there was no blood), so I'm hoping it was fine. It was such a pretty creature with the patterns of white spots on red fur.

I was startled by the sound of a large bird flying up in front of me as I walked along in the woods a few days ago. At first I thought it must be a grouse since many of them populate this area. The bird flew up and perched itself on a high branch, close enough for me to realize that it was an owl. We stood and regarded each other for quite some time, enough for me to take several zoom shots with my camera. He seemed so solemn sitting there, as though he knew something about me and could look into my heart. The deep, quiet stare of this large bird makes him seem very wise indeed.

In early spring I had a different kind of meeting with a small songbird, a hermit thrush, which I've learned is the state bird of Vermont. I was walking along and saw a rustling in the underbrush, catching sight of a bird hopping around in there. I stood very quietly, taking out my camera to try to capture the bird without startling it. I feel very lucky to have gotten this shot since I've learned that hermit thrushes are very shy. Maybe you can't see it? click on the image to enlarge it and look for the well camouflaged small bird sitting on a horizontal branch just to the left of center. I enjoy the birds I see around my house, even the ones that wake me at 4:30 AM (I'm thinking of you, Ms. Catbird), but these special encounters add a thrill to my life.

June 21, 2012

Three Prints

Blue Arches, ed. 4; 16 1/4 x 17, image size 8 1/4 x 9 in. 

I finally got myself organized––chose paper, figured out the sizes I'd need, tore it down, set up my printing area so as to have a decent shot at printing squarely on the paper––and printed small editions of the three cardboard plates I've cut thus far. (To see the plates, go to this post.) The first print I worked on was Blue Arches, which I printed on different papers before ordering them. I guess I'd call it a variable edition, because of the papers and because each print is a little different from the others: the ink coverage changes, some have white specks where others have blue blotches. I see this as part of the essential informal character of what I hope will be a new body of work. 

Corner Triangles, ed. 4; 14 1/4 x 22 3/4, image size 6 1/4 x 14 3/4.

Of course I'm very uncertain as to whether these are any good, or just amateurish meanderings. But really, that doesn't matter because I'm enjoying doing them. They seem to me to fit in to a category of abstract art that I call "funky minimalism" for its relaxed, free approach to reductive painting, which would include artists such as Richard Tuttle and Mary Heilmann. So, I'm giving myself a pass on my slap-dash approach.

Four Green Squares, ed 4; 18 3/4 x 18 3/4, image size 8 3/4 x 8 3/4 in. Variable edition with squares placed in random order. 

Four Green Squares, image turned from image above

I decided on four to five inch borders around the images, to give them plenty of breathing room. I made the borders equal on all four sides so the work can be displayed in any direction. In this piece I moved each of the four pieces around so no one print is the same as any other. I like the idea of freedom from the one right way to display a piece of art, which my other work adheres to. 

Hanging in the studio, the prints enter into a lively relationship with my textile work (as always, you can click image to enlarge). I'm glad of the opportunity to expand on my approaches to abstraction. 

June 19, 2012

Peonies: The Grandes Dames of the Garden

According to Wikipedia, the definition of a grande dame, which in French means "great lady" is a
slightly flamboyant woman, prone to extravagant and eccentric fashion, such as feather boas, large hats, and excessive costume jewelry. 
What a perfect metaphor for the luscious shapes, colors, and scents of peonies. They are my favorite flower of all.

In thinking about how to organize my photos for this post, I decided to arrange them in the loose order in which the flowers opened. But before they open, there are those ants crawling across the flower buds. What are they doing? They are attracted to a nectar secreted by the buds; some speculate that they help the flower unfurl, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

I have one tree peony that produces the most lovely yellow flower, a color which doesn't exist in herbaceous peonies.

"Charlie's White", a tall vigorous plant, is the first herbaceous peony to bloom in my border, and only one of two plants whose names I remember. It's wide open outer petals enclose a mass of finely cut petals, tinged with a bit of yellow.

This deep pink flower has a similar form to Charlie's. These blooms seem excessive, a frothy confection, but there's also something about them that does not allow ridicule. They are also stately.

I love this flower, even though it's not scented. The simple row of outer petals open to show a mass of yellow tongued petals (?) I assume that they are a kind of petal, though their form is so unusual.

My other red peony is a carmine double, visited by a bee and a spider while I was photographing it (click to enlarge to see them).

One of the great all time favorite peonies is "Festiva Maxima", which is understandable considering its huge blooms tipped with crimson, and its deep rich scent.

Pale pink and pure white: each of these flowers have masses of irregular soft petals that invite my nose to bury itself in them. It's the sheer abandon of peonies, their lushness, that I adore. They demand admiration and I am happy to give it.

June 18, 2012

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2012 #12, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 x 12 in.

These two new drawings use the surface very differently from the ones that have come before.  I have done a few which utilize the entire surface, two of which you can see here,

2012 #13, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 x 12 in. 

but in these new pieces the shapes and lines are pushing out, spreading across the picture plane, leaving less "background", flopping off the edges. They are making more noise. 

gouache studies for cardboard prints, ca. 8 x 9 in.

When I tried to figure out where the idea for these images came from (I'm often randomly doodling thumbnails as ideas for future textile work), I realized that I must have been influenced by the drawings I'd been doing as studies for cardboard prints. I love the way the different mediums I'm using are cross fertilizing each other. 

2012 #12, detail

2012 #13, detail

These two details enable you to see the paint on the linen surface and how it relates to the hooking. I don't try to make the paint opaque, but allow some of the linen to show through it, which I think works for the informal nature of these pieces. Now I have to start doodling with this compositional idea, because I like it.

June 17, 2012

The Sculpture of Hope Cemetery

Hope Cemetery, established in 1895, is not an ordinary place of burial: located in the small city of Barre, Vermont, the "Granite Center of the World",  it's a sculpture garden with some unique and personal works. In the late 19th century Barre attracted many Italian and other European stone workers to mine and sculpt the grey granite that lay in vast deposits in the town.  (I wrote a post on one of the disused granite quarries which you can read here.) These men took, and still take, great pride in their work, some even carving their own memorials. There are many standard images here, but there are also surprisingly unusual ones: who could imagine coming across a copy in granite of Michelangelo's Pieta?

There are many angels, but this one especially touched me with its simplicity of form, enclosed in a circle.

Hope is most famous for its quirky personal monuments, tributes to the deceased's special interests, such as a soccer ball...

or a stock car, complete with the driver's number...

or a biplane...

or a cello. I find the personal tributes so affecting, with touches of whimsy.

There were some vivid relief carvings of landscapes with figures, such as this one with a motorcyclist alongside his house.

The symbolism and beauty of flowers makes them a perfect addition to a funerary monument, and here, hand carved calla lilies express sympathy for the death of a child. 

This sculpture, of hands holding a dramatic bouquet, is a stunningly inventive and powerful piece of work. I wish that I knew more about the sculptors, whose work is usually anonymous.

That is not the case with this beautiful portrait. In her brief history of Hope and another Barre cemetery, Elmwood, Sally Cary explains that this memorial was carved by the deceased, Elia Corti's, brother and brother in law. The story of his death at 34 in 1903 is a fascinating one: he was shot at a meeting at the Socialist building in town. It "was the outcome of a general discussion between the socialists and anarchists present." Imagine such passions of these political groups, all but extinct now in the US. The Socialist Labor Party Hall, built by the Italian community, still exists in Barre, but is no longer a meeting place for union members and laborers. Many granite workers also died young of work related diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis.

Lastly, a more contemporary figure study: a man and his wife gently embrace, their ordinary coats ward off stormy weather. It is such a simple gesture of love, the everyday kind, and a modest yet lasting tribute to their affection. 

June 14, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: Lush Life

This winter was very dry, almost devoid of snow cover, and the lack of precipitation continued into early spring. The woods looked parched; the usual vernal pools were dry, mosses were a parched and brittle gray-green. But in May the rains came and life in the woods has revived. Feathery ferns are an ocean of bright green.

Mosses are plumply brilliant again, and this hairy coat covering an exposed tree root shines above the duff of the woodland floor.

Tree stumps again have their fuzzy green meadows climbing the decaying wood.

The lichens are sending up their spore bearing fruiting bodies, looking like a miniature crowd of nodding figures.

The mushrooms too are beginning to get into the act. These teeny tiny globes of chocolate and salmon have a strange presence amid the green.

And water! vernal pools have returned, at least for a short while, and the plants are reveling in the moisture.

Seeing a pool of sun dappled water confuses reality, space and time. The light moves, changes, becomes more present than earth or water or leaf as it penetrates surfaces. I stand transfixed by the richness of layered color and the shifting patches of sun, and by the surface and depth of water; I am lost in a luxuriant place.