March 31, 2010

Blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

There are places in Brooklyn that are very close to my heart because they are an integral part of my growing up. One of these is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where I spent many happy hours with my parents and later, by myself or with friends; I still feel that I know the grounds well and that there are pleasant remembrances in so many spots: the Japanese Garden, the Shakespeare Garden, Daffodil Hill, the cherry trees and rose garden.

I got into Brooklyn early enough on Sunday to have a quick stroll through the Garden before the rain began, rain which continued for the next two and a half days, with a blustery rawness in the air that belied the idea of spring. But there were blooms, bright spots of color nestled in greens of grass and leaf and gray of sky, such as the pretty candy striped tulips.

The BBG has a magnificent grouping of magnolia trees, and most were in full bloom, with flowers in whites and pinks emerging from fuzzy pods. While I was wandering through the magnolia plaza, I heard a docent explain that this species is very ancient, many millions of years old; it predated bees, so beetles pollinated the flowers.

Hellebore, another early spring flower, showed its lovely variegated petals. Alongside this variety of pink and green was another with lime green flowers.

There were quite of few of these greenish yellow flowering shrubs scattered about, with flowers that from a distance looked a lot like forsythia, with a similar cheer and brightness. But walking up to the shrub, I saw that the growth habit of the flowers, in long pendulous sprays, was very different from that of the official flower of Brooklyn. They are called Spike Winterhazel.

The greenhouses were a welcome respite from the cold wind outdoors; I walked into the tropical section and took out my camera to photograph some of the large, beautiful ferns, but my camera fogged up from the moist heat. I was able to photograph the Bird of Paradise, which is in a more temperate zone; its horizontal bird-like beak with a crown of spreading orange creates a graphic drama against the simple shapes of dark green leaves.

I also visited one of my favorite rooms, the one containing the Bonsai collection, which years ago inspired me to learn the art of Bonsai. I was very taken with the desert pavilion, and I'll be doing a post on desert plants next. It's wonderful to be able to wander through different climates and see plants from all over the world in a short span of time, a welcome enlargement of my world of nature.

March 27, 2010

Swelling Buds

After a mild month, March has turned quite chilly, slowing the rapid turn toward spring. The robins didn't seem to mind the temperatures in the 20s yesterday; a large flock arrived and happily hopped and pecked around the lawn and gardens. The buds of the early flowering tiny shrub, Daphne, are enlarging in pinkish purple dabs of color. The flowers have a remarkably sweet penetrating scent, the first intense beautiful perfume of spring.

This afternoon I'm heading down to an opening at the Brattleboro Museum; I have a few works in an exhibit "Contemporary Masters of Egg Tempera". Then I'll be driving to NYC to spend Passover with my family. I'm looking forward to going south where spring is several weeks ahead; daffodils will be brightening the small gardens of Brooklyn.

March 26, 2010

A Miniature: Green Dots

Green Dots, tempera on vellum, 3 1/4 x 4 inch, image size, on a 5 x 7 inch panel

Now that I've finished Green Dots, my first painting made on vellum stretched over plywood, I can report that the stretching, which I wrote about in this post, was a great success. The vellum remained taut while I worked on it, with no wrinkling or movement at all. The image, of a line of raised green disks bordered by horizontal and vertical blacks, is floating on a ground of ivory-colored parchment. I painted a transparent narrow border of red with a thin glaze of gold, which creates an illusion of solid form raised above the ground.

I wanted to talk a bit about deciding on a composition to move forward with; as I've mentioned before, I have gone through my file photos looking for interesting images. In this case, I had three variations that included the row of "dots". The first photo (I would have made the greens parallel to the edges) had just the green with black tubes to the left.

The second photo had some red under the green, making a green red black image.

The third photo had an additional line of black with the tilted bolts in a jaunty chorus line at the top. I decided to go with this composition because I liked the framing of black around two sides of the green, also the way the geometric edges of bolts played with the tubular hoses; it was also more simple than adding a third color. You'll notice that I chose to paint the green a warmer color than the very blue-green of the photo.

Working with a new medium brings big questions of technique and presentation. A great problem has been solved by stretching the vellum. Below, you see a photo of the panel Green Dots in front of one of the 6 x 6 inch panels of Yellow Whorls; the image is surrounded by the blank warm vellum. What I've been wondering is how the painting would look if it went to the edge of the panel, as with my paintings on gessoed panels, so I've stretched a little panel which will be the exact size of the image and another which will have a 1 1/2 inch border around the image. When these paintings are complete, I'll have a better idea of which approach will work best.

March 24, 2010

A New Rug Hooking Project: Scarlet Vessel

This thumbnail sketch has been hanging on my wall for a while; I've decided to use it for my next hooking project, going back to a rectangular composition and intense color. The design has both pottery and Ellsworth Kelly as inspiration.

As I started to work on the full sized drawing, above, I ruled out a 10 by 9 inch rectangle because the thumbnail has a near-square rectangular look to it. But when I drew the shape, it looked cramped in that format, so I widened it into a square. What you see is a 10 inch square, but it still looks to me like a rectangle. I drew and redrew the curved lines, trying to get a balanced feel from an off-balanced shape, which I hope will give the work some movement and energy.

The intense colors are a scarlet red and cool yellow with some green added to make it close to chartreuse. I wanted a cool, rather than warm, yellow so that it would contrast more with the red.

And here is the beginning of the work on the linen backing. I left some of the ends of the wool strips uncut, so that you could see how they look during the process of hooking. I plan to hook the yellow background in a random pattern and the red shape in parallel lines, which I think will emphasize the thing-ness of the "vessel", floating on its ground.


This morning, when I looked out the window, an "oh, no" sinking feeling: the ground was covered with a light dusting of snow and the rain of yesterday (very welcome, by the way) had turned to snow flurries. I could hear the wind roaring and saw the trees and shrubs whipped around by its force. The greens, as the daylilies above, are surrounded and dusted by granules of white; the irises seem to shiver under the light blanket. Such is spring in Vermont.

March 23, 2010

Stuffed Peppers

At the end of the gardening season, if I've had a good crop of peppers, I freeze a few whole along with the sliced peppers. Peppers are unusual in that they don't have to be parboiled before freezing, which makes stuffing a frozen pepper quite simple. I love having the peppers to use in a delicious recipe from Claudia Roden's out of print cookbook, Mediterranean Cookery. She says that the stuffed peppers are eaten cold as an appetizer, but I like them warm, as my main course.

One of the ingredients, a necessary one often used in middle eastern cooking is a sour syrup, either tamarind paste or pomegranate syrup, which are available in specialty food stores and often in health food stores. Don't use sweet pomegranate juice as this will not have the sour flavor important in the recipe.

4 large or 6 medium peppers
1 1/2 cups short grain rice (I use Arborio)
1 large onion, chopped fine
4 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs pine nuts
2 Tbs currants
salt and pepper
2 Tbs tamarind paste or pomegranate syrup
2 teas sugar
large bunch of mixed parsley, mint and dill, finely chopped (I didn't have any fresh herbs when making this last night, so just used some dried mint from my garden.)
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped (I used 3 canned tomatoes)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Cut a small slice off the stem end of each pepper and reserve. Remove the cores and seeds.
  3. Fry the onions till golden in large saucepan; add pine nuts and when they begin to color, add the rice and stir well. Add the currants, salt and pepper.
  4. Dissolve the tamarind in 2 cups boiling water, stir in the sugar and pour over rice mixture. Add herbs and tomatoes, stir well, and cook, covered for 10 minutes. (If you use brown rice, add 3 cups water and cook for 30 minutes) The rice will be slightly hard and underdone and also very moist.
  5. Pack the filling loosely in the peppers and cover with reserved tops. Place upright in ovenproof dish. Pour 5 ounces of water around the peppers. Cover with lid or foil and bake for 1 hour. Uncover and bake for 45-60 minutes more or until peppers are very soft.

March 21, 2010

Yellow Whorls

Yellow Whorls, egg tempera on panel, 6 x 6 inches each

I truly enjoyed working on this small diptych (or these two paintings?), the small size requiring a different level of attention and a different way of using the brush from larger works. I actually had to work more slowly because the forms require greater precision. I found that in order to get each shape to work, I had to paint many many layers of color, warm to cool/light to dark, and back again. This lead to a subtly variegated surface that you may be able to get a sense of by clicking the detail below, which of course is much enlarged from the original painting. One area is different from the way I painted it originally: the shadowed area on the lower part of the right panel. It had been a bluish color, based on the fact that it was a metallic part worn of its paint. I could not get that color to work alongside the strong yellows, so changed it (many times, I must admit) into yellows more consonant with the rest of the painting.

When I wrote the post on beginning this work, a reader, Julie Siegel, thought that the panels worked better as stand alone paintings, not part of a diptych. I go back and forth on this; feel free to chime in with your opinions. I've posted the paintings separately below.

March 20, 2010

Two Flowers to Celebrate Spring

A wonderful surprise for the first day of spring: the small Iris Reticulata have begun to bloom; just two flowers so far, but such a royal reminder that the season is advancing. The plants are only 5 or 6 inches high, graceful miniatures, of an intense reddish purple color, the first strong hue in a dun colored landscape.

March 19, 2010

The First Flowers

In time for tomorrow's Vernal Equinox, March 20th at 1:32 PM, the snowdrops in my garden have begun to bloom, a tiny bright herald of spring.

Soft Cushions of Moss

Yesterday, when I was out in the "back 40" (my nickname for a small swath of land to the west of my house, which I mow only once a year) pruning the apple tree there, I happened to notice intensely green cushions of moss growing on an outcrop of rock. Most of the rock around here is granite, but this rock is worn is such a way as to make me think it might be a different type; it also has quartzite showing in it here and there. The color is a deep rich black; I don't know if this is caused by minerals in the rock, or tiny lichens. The dark color makes a strong contrasting background for the soft bright rounds of moss, looking like small pillows, inviting a gentle stroking touch.

March 18, 2010

Blue Sweep

Here is Blue Sweep, finished. A couple of readers commented that this piece is different from other ruglets I've done; I think it's only partly because it is an odd shaped diptych––I've done other multi-part shaped works before––but it is one of the rare times I've attempted to use a change in color and value to give an illusion of three dimensional form. I like the result, so will certainly give illusionism another try in the future.

I hung Blue Sweep on a small triangular wall above the door into my bedroom:

March 16, 2010

Chores for an Early Spring Day

Yesterday was such a beautiful day, that even though I'd planned to work in the studio in the afternoon, I couldn't stand the thought of being indoors at all, so spent time doing lots of garden chores. In the morning, after doing some apple tree pruning, I dug parsnips. Parsnips need a long growth season––they are planted in mid May––and have their best flavor if left in the ground over the winter, to be dug when the ground thaws in spring. They don't look pretty, but sure taste good; I love them simply cut up, tossed with some olive oil, and roasted until slightly browned. It's like eating spring candy.

This is the very vigorous honeysuckle vine next to the front door. A few years ago, the plant began to look sickly, with poorly formed leaves and damaged flowers, so I cut some of it back. Surprising to me, the haircut seemed to revive growth. So now, each year in early spring I cut the vine back hard, which encourages strong new growth. You can also see a climbing rose alongside the honeysuckle.

I like to leave the flower heads of Annabelle hydrangea for a decorative note during winter, cutting the canes back to the ground in spring. Some people don't cut this plant back, but then the flower heads are smaller. By doing this small job now, I ensure enormous flower heads in summer.

It's been so dry in late winter and early spring, that the vegetable garden is quite dry. There are some years when I have to wait until mid April for the wet earth to dry enough to work in the garden, but not this year. So I decided to get out the wheel hoe and make a pass across the entire garden in order to disturb the weeds that are already happily growing. I love seeing the expanse of soil at this time of year, with only some cutting tulips beginning to emerge, and a row of hay covered garlic.

I mid afternoon, I moved the porch rockers from their winter home indoors to the little porch, where I sat basking in the full sun, rocking and reading. A perfect day.

March 15, 2010

Charles Sheeler

Sheeler, Doylestown House, The Stove, 1917, gelatin silver print, 9 1/16 x 6 7/16

Charles Sheeler is an artist whose work is very important to me: an American modernist, a "Precisionist", both a photographer and a painter who used his photographs as studies for his paintings. He photographed the interior of his early American homes, and grand industrial plants which were celebrations of the Machine Age. Even in an early work, such as the photograph of the stove, an aesthetic that emphasized clear geometries was evident. His work as a commercial photographer inspired his paintings: when he was commissioned to photograph a large steamship in 1928, he found a compelling image of a portion of the deck and used it as the basis for a painting. He said about the process:
This is what I have been getting ready for. I had come to feel that a picture could have incorporated in it the structural design implied in abstraction and be presented in a wholly realistic manner.

Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford Plant, 1927, gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 x 7 3/8

Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930, oil on canvas, 24 x 31 inches

In 1929 Sheeler got an assignment to photograph the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant near Detroit. This was a fruitful encounter, producing powerful images, some of which found their way into paint. Sheeler's view of industrialization was a positive one, as it was for most during the machine age, which seemed to promise unbounded prosperity. Sheeler wrote:
Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers––it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression.

We no longer have the innocence of this time, but now see the very negative effects on our planet by industrialization, of both factory and farm. But for Sheeler, the grand American landscape was not a pristine mountain, but a large complex factory, showing a particular austere beauty, and speaking of promise.

Sheeler, Wheels, 1939, gelatin silver print, 6 9/16 x 9 9/16 inches

Sheeler, Rolling Power, 1939, oil on canvas, 15 x 30 inches

Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to produce a series of six paintings on the subject of Power. He painted a hydroelectric plant, a steam turbine, the Hoover/Boulder Dam, but his most famous image from this series is Rolling Power, a detailed study of the wheels of a locomotive. The feeling of immense power is palpable, but at the same time the image is pristine, with none of the wear and tear of reality; it is more the ideal of a machine, its abstract elements emphasized by the horizontality of the composition. You can see that Sheeler relied heavily on the photographic source, but the painting has a character unique to its medium: it is beyond the real.

Sheeler, The Artist Looks at Nature, 1943, oil on canvas, 21 x 18 inches

I want to end with this quirky painting of Sheeler at his easel, working on a painting based on the photograph at the beginning of this post, shot many years before, of the stove at the Doylestown house. But he is perched high above a strange, almost surreal landscape of walls surrounding inaccessible spaces. I see this as Sheeler's statement that art always comes from the artist's imagination, no matter that she is looking at something outside herself; that thing is out of reach in a philosophical sense, in that we can never truly know "the thing in itself", but only its appearance. Therefore the search for abstraction, to give each thing weight beyond its surface.

March 14, 2010

"Blue Sweep" in Progress, with Witch's Window

Last night I finished hooking the two part piece Blue Sweep and tacked it up, while still on its linen backing, to take a look. I was happy to see that there actually was some some illusion in the curved forms; they do look bent toward us, don't they? fun. The next step is to sew the binding around each piece, after which I will cut them from the backing so the shapes can float free on the wall.

The scene above is on the second floor of my house, in the room that has become my winter studio. The slanted window is not uncommon in older houses in New England and is called a "Witch's Window"; I've also heard it called a widow's window. Its position allows a window to be placed above an adjoining shed, following its angle, when there isn't room for a vertical window (the lower edge of the window abuts the roof of the shed). This offbeat, off-kilter, opening adds whimsy to my everyday view.

March 12, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: "Skirts" of Mosses and Lichens

Snow, which had blanketed the feet of trees, is retreating, uncovering a decorative band of mosses and lichens kept moist all winter. A surprisingly fluffy green strikes a bright note amid the grays and browns.

On other trees, there is the deep warm green of moss alongside the cool blue-green of lichen. This lichen is quite a beautiful one, with tiny leaf forms, overlapping in wavy patterns, almost like a miniature kale; it's a tiny treasure revealed by the advance of spring.

March 11, 2010

Making a Parchment Panel

A couple of days ago I got my materials together and did a grand experiment: making a parchment covered panel. I had ordered wheat paste , an adhesive, from Talas (I bought 5 pounds, enough to last me the rest of my life), along with some acid free paper. I printed out the instructions from a very helpful blogpost on the Talas website. A local lumber yard had some small pieces of 1/2 inch birch plywood, which I cut into a 5 x 7 inch piece on my handy table saw, a machine I don't like using, approaching it with great care.

The first step is to line the plywood panel with a piece of acid free paper, so the parchment will not be in direct contact with the wood. I mixed up some glue and applied it thinly to the board, then lay down the paper. I was having a hard time getting the paper smooth, so took out my rolling pin, and voila, it flattened the paper beautifully.

While the paper was drying, I soaked an 8 x 10 piece of calfskin parchment that I'd ordered from Pergamena, a company located in the Hudson River Valley that produces leather and parchment. It becomes quite soft and pliant when wet. I left about 1 1/2 inches of overlap around each side of the parchment, then cut out each corner so there wouldn't be an overlap on the plywood's sides. Then I applied glue to the outer 1 inch of parchment and panel.

I pulled the parchment tightly around each side of the panel, one side at a time, then allowed it to dry.

The result is a beautifully smooth and taut finish, velvety and inviting to the touch. My only failure is that a bit of wood shows on the side corners, so I'll have to be more careful in future when cutting the parchment. I'll do my next painting on this panel and will then have a chance to see how it behaves when in contact with the water in the paint, but right now it seems to have solved my waving/curling problem. If I want the panel to project from the wall rather than lie flat against it, I can glue some small wood molding to its back. All in all, a bit of work to produce the panel, but not onerous work, and I can take pleasure in the making of it.

March 10, 2010

Thoughts on Beginning a New Painting: Yellow Whorls

This is a study, completed last summer, for a painting that was going to be 18 x 50 inches, rather large and dramatic. The panel for this work is sitting in my studio, awaiting its gesso coating. But since making the three small works on vellum––see here, here, and here–– which were fun and exciting to work on, I feel that I want to have a different physical relationship with my paintings, and a different way of composing them. Coming up with the images for the miniatures by cropping details of much larger photographs allowed me to play more with shape and design and took me farther from the source material, in a good way. It took me closer to abstraction––a long term and continuing goal––and farther from the actual object; another way to put this is that it helped me to feel more free.

My solution of the 'what to do with the big yellow study' question is a diptych, with each panel 6 inches square, the images taken from the photos I took at the time I did the study. Above is the painting in its beginning stage. It's another triangles and curves , but more mysterious, I think. I am still very much interested in refined description of form, color, and detail–– "realism"––but it is not in the service of telling a story about an object, but to provide a sense of the tangible, perhaps even moving into the uncanny. After painting the miniatures, I feel that I can come closer to this aim by working small, which seems concentrated and intensified; this is very different from the dramatic impact of a large painting. All these thoughts are quite new, and I need to complete many more works before I understand what is actually going on (see "Uncertainty") but the newness is a thrill, and makes the studio a place of adventure.

March 9, 2010

Pruning Apple Trees

We've had 4 glorious early spring days in a row, which have made me feel bouncy with excitement. I'm noticing some green showing in the brown grass and a few daffodils are emerging in spots clear of snow. Of course we can still have wintry weather, but I'm certainly enjoying this stretch of lovely weather while it lasts. This is the time of year that apple trees are pruned, before the buds begin to swell. I love getting out and doing this chore; it feels great to have a job to do outdoors, while the gardens are still under snow.

The first tree I worked on was the one above, a venerable old apple tree leaning dramatically on its post. It grows to the west of my house, outside the small orchard; it frames the landscape that I see from my picnic table in the backyard, and I'm always aware of it as I work in the garden. It stands alone, expressively, beautifully, reminding me of the history of this land and house; I love this tree, even though it doesn't produce much, a few Golden Delicious-type apples (maybe this is an ancestor of the Golden) every other year; being an antique apple tree, it doesn't flower each year. This tree feeds me with a deep aesthetic satisfaction.

My pole pruner is resting against the tree as I contemplate my work. As you can see in the first picture, the tree vigorously sends up many new branches each winter, even though it looks like it might want to retire from growing. All the new growth shoots straight up; you're supposed to encourage sideways and downward growth and remove the branches going up. But this year I've decided to leave some of the new upward growth and see what happens; I feel as though I should reward the tree by leaving it some more branches.

The images below are details of things I would have overlooked last year, before I began photographing in the woods: moss growing in a crevice of the trunk, the textures of post and bark, and lichen growing on the tree's loose bark. Beauty in the details, and in the whole.