March 31, 2012

Two New Hooked Wool Drawings

 2012 #6, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 1/2 x 15 in.

These two pieces are the last in a group of six that came from a doodling session during a meeting, which you can see here. I had originally thought I'd use a deep kelly green for #6, but after I had painted the blue, I thought this lighter lime green was more lively. I like the way my eye bounces from the points where the triangles meet out to the larger shape.

2012 #7, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 1/2 x 12 in.

I love playing around with difficult colors, and pink can be one of them. I'm trying to contrast its frothiness with a darker red, with shapes curving as though inscribed in circles.

 2012 #6, detail

2012 #7, detail

These two details give you a better idea of what the paint looks like on the surface of the linen, and what the linen looks like which is hidden under the fully hooked pieces. I usually hook the loops through every other or every third hole. I'd also like to point out that although the linen seems to be a different color from one photo to the next, it's actually all the same. When I attempt to adjust the color of paint and wool correctly the background often shifts. This is one of the small annoyances of sharing work online, but the benefits far outweigh them. 

March 29, 2012

The Wisdom of Emerson

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Hitch your wagon to a star.
All mankind loves a lover.
If you write a better book, or preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to your door.
These concise sentences are embedded in our culture; they seem to be old proverbs, yet they came from the pen of one man, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson (1803 - 1882) was an essayist, lecturer, and poet, a Transcendentalist who can be thought of as one of the founding fathers of American letters. Emerson's essays are a tough slog, the prose dense and difficult, some of the ideas hard to fathom. But there are gems within them, as I wrote in the blog post "Build therefore your own world". In the essay "Nature" is this:
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. 
Robert D. Richardson points out in his richly rewarding small book, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process that for Emerson "the the main formal and structural unit".  I first read this book a couple of years ago and decided to reread it to bring back to my mind Emerson's insights on reading and writing, many of which have been helpful to me, such as:
The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.
All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.
All that can be thought can be written. 
In his first chapter, "Reading", Richardson points out how reading was a foundational creative act for Emerson. He read very widely, but what is most interesting to me is that he grazed; he looked for understanding that echoed his own thoughts:
What can we see, read, acquire but what we are?
The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.
This seems so true to me as I dip into books that become festooned with little colored stickers as they send arrows straight to my heart. I find that I am losing patience with reading books that don't in some way deepen my understanding of the world, or provide aesthetic pleasure. Yes, sometimes I read just to be entertained (I love a good mystery), but I have little patience for bad prose. Richardson guides us through the thickets of Emerson's prose and gathers its nuts and berries and flowers. He finds the practical advice and descriptions of writing in Emerson that are helpful, encouraging, and inspiring.
 Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.
It is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it.
Art lies not in making your object prominent, but in choosing objects that are prominent.
Literature is a heap of nouns and verbs enclosing an intuition or two.
The poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.
The last quote above shows Emerson to have, as Richardson put it, an "anti-elitist view of the artist". For him, nature was the great teacher and the origin of language, not learned men. And though he thought about his audience, he was aware of the single reader. He offers this very valuable advice for all artists:
Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale––who writes always to the unknown friend

March 27, 2012

Working in Series

 Empty Center

I've just realized that much of my recent textile work has been fitting into expanding groups, variations on several themes. It's not something I set out to do, but I've become interested in the challenge of coming up with fresh solutions within specific parameters. And it's fun and engaging. When I began this textile work a few years ago, I did not work in series, except for doing a large group of 12 x 10 inch works;  I also made some multi-part pieces.


Each series brings forth quite different kinds of images.


This recent group of volumes has been a pleasure as I play with illusionism, very different from most of my other textile work and closer to my painting.


The blue and yellow piece was the first in the pattern series and was inspired by a photograph of medieval church tiles. I like the idea of paying homage to the world of design in this series, even to a play on textile design. 


The technique of rug hooking lends itself to making shapes different from the standard rectangle. 


Here's a notebook page with sketches that are a first step in thinking of a new series. I envisage them quite small, maybe 8 x 10, with backgrounds randomly hooked and dark colors for the lines. It's interesting that I can do such different kinds of compositions and yet the work holds together as that of a single artist; I think it's because the medium of hooked wool and the way I use it ties these disparate images together. 

 Hooked Wool Drawings

I've included a wall of drawings even though I don't think of these as a series, but rather as a body of work. Here we get into a problem of semantics and shadings of meaning. 

12 inch square paintings on panel, 2007-08

I've never worked in series with my paintings. They have progressed slowly along a path, moving from landscape to a sort of still life, from a more complex and realistic space to one that's more abstract. The closest I've come to a series was when I did a large group of 12 inch square paintings during 2006-08. What do you think of the use of series? For me it helps to come up with new and interesting variations on a theme. And for you?

March 26, 2012

Curried Parsnip Soup

The first vegetable of the garden season is one that was planted last May; parsnips stay in the ground all winter, sweetening up, and I dig them as soon as the ground thaws, which this year was on March 18th. I love the candied flavor of parsnips when they are simply roasted with some olive oil, but I also love them in this curried soup where their sweet flavor is a nice counterpoint to the Indian spices. The recipe comes from the marvelous Deborah Madison, in her Greens cookbook. When the weather cooled off after the week of unseasonable warmth, I made a big pot of this soup and have been enjoying it for lunch. It's made with a simple stock, a step I often forgo, but in this case I love the flavor of fresh ginger, so I make it with whatever I have on hand; this is usually just carrots and onions.

The Stock
The parings and fibrous inner cores of parsnips
1 1/2 cups leek greens, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks with some leaves, diced
5 whole branches cilantro
1 oz ginger root, peeled and sliced (Madison says this is optional, but for me it's essential)
1/2 teas salt
7 cups cold water

Put everything together in a pot and slowly bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Strain immediately. There should be 5 to 6 cups.

The Soup
3 to 4 parsnips, about 7 inches long (my only quarrel with Madison's cookbooks is that she rarely mentions amounts by weight. I like a thicker soup so I used 5 roots, 2 thick ones and 3 thinner. Then I forgot to weigh them...sorry)
4 Tbs clarified butter (I didn't have this so used 2 Tbs butter with 2 Tbs vegetable oil)
1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/2 inch squares
1 Tbs curry powder
4 Tbs cilantro leaves, chopped
2 to 3 leeks, white parts only (8 oz) chopped. (I use an onion)
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced (I never have celery and don't miss it much)
1 teas salt
5 to 6 cups stock
1 cup light cream

  1. Scrub the parsnips, trim tops and quarter lengthwise. Cut out most of the fibrous core. Use parings and core for the stock. Chop the parsnips roughly into pieces.
  2. Heat the clarified butter in a soup pot and add onion. Cook over medium heat until a rich golden brown.
  3. Stir in the curry powder and half the chopped cilantro and cook for 1 minute.
  4. Add parsnips, leek, carrots, celery, salt, and stock. Bring to a boil and cook until vegetables are soft.
  5. Cool soup briefly, then pass through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor, leaving a little texture with bits of color. 
  6. Return soup to the pot, add the cream, and taste for salt.
  7. Serve soup garnished with remaining chopped cilantro and a few whole leaves. 

I've only eaten this soup hot, but the recipe can also be used for a cold soup. It makes 4 to 6 servings.

March 25, 2012

The Distilled Art of Vilhelm Hammershøi

 A Baker's Shop, 1888; oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 35 1/2 in. 

A woman, dressed in black, the ample shape of her back turned toward us with only a glimpse of graceful neck; three rows of shelves on a white tiled wall; the only color a subdued warm ocher of counter tops. The close harmony of grays and blacks, the stillness, the soft light, the simple compositions lend to Hammershøi's paintings a sense that we are seeing what is essential in his world and thus in ours. I was introduced to the work of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) on a trip to Scandinavia thirty years ago. I fell in love with the paintings then, along with those of the Danish Golden Age painters (I wrote a blog post on the figurative work here, and the landscapes here.) I photographed the images for this post from a 1981 catalog of a retrospective held that year in Copenhagen. During his lifetime Hammershøi's work was admired in Europe, but often ignored in his native Denmark. In recent years there has been revived interest in Danish painting, even here in the US.

 Portrait of a Young Woman, the artist's sister, Anna, 1885; oil on canvas, 44 1/4 x 36 in. 

In this early painting of his sister, Hammershøi had already found his form and his content. The simple mass of black with the surrounding muted colors of wall and door allow us to focus on the quietly introspective face and gently placed hands. There is a feeling of expectation in her slight lean forward, but it is a self-contained energy.

 Young Woman Sewing, 1887; oil on canvas, 14 1/2 x 13 3/4 in. 

A second portrait of Anna is even more stripped down. I love the way the triangular white shape of the cloth repeats the larger shape of the figure. There is a poetic grace in the gesture of the figure, the downward looking head, the raised arms, set in front of a gray wall.

 Portrait of Ida Ilsted, later the artist's wife, 1890; oil on canvas, 42 x 34 in.

Many of his portraits have a feeling of deep melancholy, even this of his bride to be in her dark clothing, with curled fingers on her lap. Her gaze is direct, but also wistful.

 Resting, 1905; oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 18 1/4 in.

I have thought of Hammershøi as a "poet of the back" for his many paintings of figures turned away from the viewer. It is surprising how eloquent a woman's back can be, as in the baker's shop painting above, and here in Resting. The slope of the woman's shoulders adds a flow of energy, and the soft back and arm pressed against the rigid geometry of the chair speak of vulnerability. But there is also the feeling that a person turned away is denying us their attention and presence, and that they are maintaining their core of mystery.

 Interior with a woman seated on a white chair, 1900; oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 19 in. 

Here we look through the geometry of interior spaces, very much like those of Dutch 17th century painters, but the figure animating the space is again keeping her distance.

 Interior with a Punch Bowl, 1907; oil on canvas, 25 x 23 in.

Hammershøi painted many interiors, mainly of his own house. To the clear geometry he adds interesting kinds of balance, as here with a large empty wall anchored by a table with a bowl on it; the blue of the bowl converses with the desaturated blue of the wall in the distant room. The light is a soft northern light, gently illuminating the interior.

 Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900; oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 23 1/4 in. 

Very few of Hammershøi's paintings have direct sunlight, so this painting of dust motes pleases me very much; what a delightful idea. But even in the light the room is empty and quiet and solemn.

A Farm, Refsnæs, 1900; oil on canvas, 21 x 24 1/4 in.

I am most interested in Hammershøi's figures and interiors, and have concentrated on those, but he also painted landscape and architecture, so I end with this painting of farm buildings, starkly outlined against a sunlight that is leached of color, and pressed by the weight of the sky. It is interesting to think of him working at the same time as the impressionists and post-impressionists with their vivid light and color. He is a far-northern painter, with a northerner's sensibility, a subtle poet of minimal light and of quiet.

March 23, 2012

A New Painting: One Two Three

 One Two Three, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 x 9 in. 

I like stretching my boundaries, trying something a little different, but with that comes the usual uncertainty: is this any good or a big mistake? I titled this painting One Two Three because I wanted to emphasize the simplicity of its elements: three shapes, two flat and one curved; earth colors; no sunlight or cast shadows.

One Two Three, detail

One Two Three, detail

Surface texture brings whatever complexity the image has. It was a pleasure to paint this, building variations of color and value with fluid and quick brushstrokes, sometimes scrubbing, layering lighter or darker colors. The balance of the shapes is very satisfying to me, but is it too stark or empty?

When I look at this painting in the midst of other recent work it seems to fit in. This is a work I'm going to have to live with for a while before I can judge its quality.

March 22, 2012

Hugo: The Soul of Machines and the Magic of the Movies

Each of us brings a unique perspective to the world around us and to art and popular culture; our responses come from our loves, prejudices, varied understandings. For me, watching Hugo on my small television was a total delight; I saw it as an ode to the beauty of machines and the marvels of early cinema. My compelling interest in machinery as a painter made me alert to the visual grandeur of scenes inside the workings of giant clocks. They were mysterious and gorgeous and complex. Romance resides within the clockwork as it connects us to the human world of love, of business, of everyday life.

There is also the grand metaphor, God as a watchmaker, as from rom richly imagined hidden workings the scene sweeps to the world outside. But clocks, as all machines, have their negative impacts: they remind us of the crush of time in busy modern life. The machines I paint––which I find beautiful––make modern farming possible, but I am also aware of their dark side: the pollution of air, soil and water, and the damage to health.

We've had a long relationship with machines, from the beginnings of the industrial revolution to contemporary computing, yet I was awed by the automaton in this film. Its enigmatic face, reflective and calm, seems to hold deep secrets, with its touching human form adding a layer of nostalgia to its presence. I wonder if I would feel a similar longing when seeing a contemporary robot years hence; I doubt it. And then to see it work! It turns out that the complexity of the drawing it produced was not a complete fabrication of the filmmakers; I did some research and found this site from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia with photos and videos of an automaton by the Swiss 18th century mechanician Henri Maillardet, including images of the three poems and 4 drawings it could produce. This machine was the inspiration for the automaton in Brian Selznik's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that in turn inspired Scorsese's film. I have to take my hat off to the filmmakers for their decision to make the head of the automaton metallic like a machine and less like the traditional doll; this oddly enough made the automaton seem very alive in the flickering light.

Light and movement and fanciful imagination were at the heart of another great theme of Hugo, the very early films of the French master Georges Mèliés. He had been a magician, and he brought that sensibility to his films, which were full of strange happenings; imagination and wonder were on full display, as in the above The Merry Frolics of Satan from 1906. The films were laboriously hand tinted to gorgeous effect and were technically inventive in other ways.

One of his best known works is A Trip to the Moon of 1909. The colored version, thought lost, was found in 1993. (Thanks so much to Youtube for having several of these films online; you can see them at the links.) I chose this scene from A Trip to the Moon because it seems to be a precursor to the contemporary Avatar, whose planet also had giant fungi. A mushroom lover myself, I'd enjoy being lost in a forest of enormous mushrooms, lichens, and mosses.

Another fantastical, but turning to horror, film is Le Papillon Fantastique (1909), as a butterfly becomes a rapacious spider. I think about how early this small films are and how clever the special effects considering what was available at the time. Scorsese, in Hugo, helps us understand how stunned people were by early cinema: watching a film of a train coming towards us we feel as the early viewers did, that it will horrifyingly emerge from the screen. It was all so marvelous and new. Is the use of 3-D an attempt to bring back some of that early magic? I have to admit that I haven't seen any contemporary 3-D film in a theater; all I have is a memory of sitting in a movie theater when I was a child wearing those red and green glasses. It was magical then, but it seems to be just another big special effect now. But in this enchanting movie I felt I was being escorted back to a time of awed innocence.  

March 20, 2012

On the Vernal Equinox, Spring Bursts Forth

Spring has not been shy this year; it's pushed late winter aside and settled in for a week of May in March. This morning, the Iris reticulata announced the first day of spring by opening its first bloom, shining royally purple alongside a granite foundation.

The snowdrops have been blooming for a few days, swaying their bowed heads in the moving air.

Other plants are emerging, showing the hopeful color green: daffodils,

and the red tinged young leaves of sorrel.

The scarlet knobs of rhubarb heatedly announce their presence.

Parsnips, sweetening in the ground over the winter, are the first harvest of the new year. 

 A sound of spring.

Birds are singing, and water is burbling in tiny early season rivulets. All of this is exhilarating, and I find it hard to stay indoors (except for keeping up with my blog, dear readers); my work tables are abandoned this week while I prune apple trees, cut back plants, clean up borders, prepare the vegetable garden for planting, and just sit in the sun. The coming of spring is always sweet, even this year with its short and mild winter. The renewal of spring is ripe with poetry and metaphor, a return to light and growth.

March 19, 2012

A New Textile: Four Cylinders

 Four Cylinders, hand dyed wool on linen, 9 x 13 in.

With this work I've gone back to making illusionistic volumes, very simplified to be sure, but a gesture toward the three dimensional. The last piece I did with this with this idea was Wave, which I showed here. Since I compose most of my textiles with flat shapes, it's fun to occasionally play with illusion.

The dyeing process for making the value shifts across the volumes is a little complicated. I use a dip-dyeing method, dropping the fabric bit by bit into the dye so that one end stays light and the other is darker, with transitions in between. As you can see from the finished piece, the transitions are not perfectly smooth, but I don't mind the jumpy color.  I did have to go back and dye a little bit of darker yellow and salmon pink for the final two rows; the darks that I had were not dark enough. I also had to warm the lighter green, which was too cool, by re-dyeing it with a little yellow.

You can see the color variations in these details. I had envisaged the background, which I hooked in an overall pattern, as a gray color, settling back from the brighter volumes. The gray ended up with a lot of color in it––soft reddish and greenish––because rather than using a gray dye, I mixed a chromatic gray. Although it's a livelier color than I'd planned, I think it balances the three other color ranges pretty well. I'm happy with this piece, a jolly little four cylinder engine. 

March 16, 2012

My Old Apple Trees

"...there are some [trees] one would like to press to one's bosom with tenderness and pity...." José Saramago in The Stone Raft.

I've been in the orchard this week, pruning my antique apple trees during the spell of unseasonably warm weather. As I worked, I was more aware than usual of mortality hovering around these old trees; when I read Saramago's phrase this morning, it went right to my heart. He expressed, with the genius of a great writer, exactly how I felt.

The branches against the sky look like so many gnarled fingers, aged and worn.

Many of the trunks have empty centers, as though their innards had been stripped...

yet the trees live and produce; despite age and weakness, they continue.

The worn scaly bark is like the skin of my hands, loose and wrinkled.

Sadly, over the years I've lost several of these antique trees, including this one that continues to stand though it will never leaf again. The life span of apple trees is the longest of fruit trees, but still not very long, perhaps 50 years, or as long as 80. I believe that mine must be older than 50 so I have to accustom myself to the idea that they will continue to die off before I do. Each one has a distinct presence in the landscape and would be sorely missed.

And yet, new branches arise and thicken, their bark smooth like youthful skin...

while life that arises on the elderly bark can be bright and full of promise.