November 30, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: Old Walls and Foundations

The woods around me were once the cleared fields and pastures of small homesteads, the evidence of their presence remaining amid the trees. It's almost heartbreaking to think of all the work those early farmers did to clear the land, now grown over, using only their own strength and that of animals. I come across several cellar holes on my walks, with foundations built of stones fit together, similar to the one in my house which was built in 1821.

These remnants of structures are hidden among trees that have grown up around and in them, but they remain, in some cases still straight and true. I try to imagine the houses rising above the foundations, but it is difficult as they are so small. A couple of them show a clear shape of one rectangle moving into another on a 90 degree different axis. If anyone knows how this translated into a building, please let us know.

This foundation wall has much larger stones, and they've begun to collapse. It is the closest homestead to my house, a mere 1/2 mile or so; they had been neighbors to my house's residents. As in the first image, a later owner built on the land, but higher up, so as to have a better view, while the original dwellers wanted to be close to the road.

And the old road still exists as a snowmobile trail, lined with a wall built of stones likely dug while clearing the fields. I love the way the huge piece of granite is piled with smaller rocks, which are topped with green moss; there's something very portrait-like about the arrangement, as though the rocks were living beings.

Other old walls wend their way among trees throughout the woods, with no remnant of road or building. They are the traces of the edges of fields, and where they are, we know that there was once a farm. In this part of Vermont, hilly, bony (meaning lots of rocks), and with thin soil, farming turned out not to be a very easy pursuit. So now others––artists and teachers and computer programmers––live on these hills, and are reminded of those who came before by the stones in the woods.

November 29, 2010

A New Painting: "Crossed Green"

Crossed Green, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 4 3/4 x 6 1/2 inches.

This was a difficult painting to balance; too much detail and the painting looks fussy and the form flattens, not enough and it becomes unconvincing; as with the previous painting, Composition in Red and Yellow I had to figure out the right level of precision. It took a long time to get the curves and twists so that they looked easy and didn't call attention to themselves. I'm fairly happy with the result (though I now see, through this photo, some fixes I need to make to the flow of top and bottom lines on the left): a strong cross of green shapes, flat and round, over the curved black of twisted cable.

November 27, 2010

Traceries of Ice and Snow

Winter has made a definitive appearance, with a dusting of snow and a layer of ice coating branches, sparking in the thin sun that appeared briefly this morning. The honeysuckle by the front door is dripping with icicles, and branches are held in jeweled cases.

Somehow, a few flowers have held on through the bitter frosts of recent days and are now glittering; the warmth of the south facing wall must have kept them alive.

Glistening on the nannyberry shrub, icy caps on seeds (?) looking like bird heads, ready to take flight.

The snow also makes patterns on grasses, a welter of expressive marks, here backed by the upright reds of red osier dogwood alongside the pond.

The soft texture of the snow on the frozen pond is a background for the lines of dried cattail stems and leaves, the upright, and the curve resting on the surface.

And lastly, a view of the kale plants after the deer have been in the garden to feast. On Wednesday I dug up the remaining brussels sprouts, picked a huge bunch of kale, and took down the electric fence. It took the deer until Thursday night to realize that they were invited in to finish off the crops, but then they had a nice Thanksgiving dinner.

November 26, 2010

Four New Hooked Rug Sketches

2010 #5, Hover; hand-dyed wool on linen, with duct tape binding; 13 x 11 inches.

I've completed another batch of hooked "sketches" (to see the first four, go to this post). I find that it's perfect to work on these in between the larger hooked rug projects, while I'm getting the new dyed wool ready. With these, after getting a critique on my masking tape binding method from a friend, I tried putting wide duct tape on the back of the work, then cutting through it; this left a tight clean edge, which I like a lot better. It's still irregular, but that's the nature of the material.

2010 #6, Seesaw; hand-dyed wool on linen with duct tape binding; 13 1/4 x 11 1/4 inches.

The first two pieces I did worked with the same idea of using lines of hooked wool to make the composition. In Hover, a thin half moon shape is caught in an open rectangle; Seesaw has two squares pushing up and down along a line.

2010 #7, The Snails (Thinking of Matisse); egg tempera and hand-dyed wool on linen with duct tape binding; 14 1/2 x 10 inches.

Then I did something new: after getting suggestions to try coloring the linen backing from a couple of readers, I did just that, painted a shape using my usual egg tempera and then hooked the wool on top of it. I like the interplay between paint and wool, and the flexibility in composing that using the paint adds to the process. It's got me jumping a bit up and down with fun in doodling ideas for this format. I also like the quickness of it. And its funkiness; the offhandedness makes my not-very-formal hooked rugs look very formal. I've been photographing these with a side raking light, lighting up the wool, but also the imperfections, which adds to their casual appearance.

2010 #8, Primary Color Composition; egg tempera and hand-dyed wool on linen with duct tape binding; 14 x 12 1/4 inches.

I hung the four new sketches in the studio among some paintings. I think the two different mediums have an interesting relationship; it's not far-fetched that the same artist made both, is it?

November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! with a Recipe for Winter Squash-Potato Soup

This is the time of year to think about making dishes using the great variety of winter squashes, now harvested, cured and delicious, the northern answer to sweet potatoes and yams. Here is a recipe for a lovely creamy soup, whose sweetness is contrasted with the spice of basil pesto swirled through it. Since I always have some pesto in the freezer, made from the summer's basil crop, the soup is perfect for this time of year. The recipe comes from Potatoes: A Country Garden Cookbook by Maggie Waldron.

1 pound potatoes (the recipe calls for russets, but since I don't grow them, I use what I have and they work fine), peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 pound winter squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 cup thinly sliced onion
2 3/4 cup chicken stock (I use water)
1 cup lowfat milk
1 1/2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 teas salt, or to taste
1/4 teas hot pepper sauce, or to taste
Pesto (if you need a simple recipe, you can find it here)

  1. Combine potatoes, squash, onions and stock or water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
  2. Transfer to blender or food processor and process until smooth.
  3. Return to saucepan, add milk, lemon juice, salt and pepper sauce. Bring gently to a boil, adding more milk or water if the soup is too thick.
  4. To serve, ladle the soup into a bowl, add a teaspoon of pesto and swirl with the point of a knife.
makes about 4 servings. I usually increase the amounts so as to have at least 6 servings.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

November 23, 2010

Stubble Fields

As I'm driving out in the landscape at this time of year, one of my favorite sights is of fields of golden corn stalks, remnants left in the ground to prevent winter erosion. From one point of view there is no order to the planting; the truncated stalks stick up all higgledy piggledy, giving an illusion of an all-over texture on top of the land.

But shift the viewpoint and the regulated lines of stalks appears, here curving around the corner

and here moving back in clear perspectival rows. As you go by these rows, they move and shift, showing different patterns, creating a changing design as one vanishing point gives way to another, a farm field as a magical flow of space.

November 22, 2010

A New Painting: "Composition in Red and Yellow".

Composition in Red and Yellow, egg tempera on calfskin parchment,
5 x 5 inches.

The title of this work is a nod toward abstract painting, and Mondrian in particular, who used the phrase "composition in..." as titles for many of his works. I based this painting on a photo that became the jumping off point for a post I wrote on American Modernism, which you can see here. This is one of the few cases where I think I like the photograph more than the painting (as they look online), though I like the painting too. I simplified the forms in the painting, eliminating a lot of texture and some small details; for instance, there were more than the four holes in the surface of the yellow circle, but I felt that having just the one curved line of circles was more effective. I also played down the color and value contrasts in order to make the whole more harmonious. I try, while I'm working, to pay more attention to the internal life of the painting than to its original out in the real world, a balancing act: how much realism? how much abstraction? in balance, the work is convincing and feels true.

November 21, 2010

My Old House: The Mudroom

A friend and reader has requested that I do a series on the rooms of my house; she felt teased by the tiny glimpses seen in previous photos. I hope other readers will enjoy this walk through my 1821 farmhouse. The house, with a 26 x 32 foot footprint, is of plank construction, meaning the walls are built up of thick horizontal wooden planks, one above the other. The mudroom and shed––the "ell" (not "L" shaped but an extension)––are post and beam, as is my barn.

A mudroom, common in the Northeast, is a room between inside and out, a place to remove outerwear and dirty boots so as not to track mud in the house; it's the entry room, as coming in through the front door is rare. In my house it's also a laundry room, a storage area, a place to keep the freezer, to bring in wood for the day (you can see the woodbox in this post). I imagine that farmhouses across the United States have similar rooms. When I moved here, the mudroom was unfinished and bitterly cold in winter; a couple of years ago I had it insulated and finished.

My wonderful contractor, Ed Shields, built a shelf for me to hold some of my collection of containers.

This simple old cupboard was in the mudroom originally. Ed rehung it and now it's my tool cabinet. I put an old rugbeater on the wall alongside the cupboard; I like its refined lines alongside the rough-hewn wood.

Ed built in a corner cupboard so that now I could hide away my cleaning tools. The door is one of several old doors that were stacked in my barn; it adds character and beauty alongside the newer elements.

When I began rug hooking, my idea was to make rugs for the house, not to make art. This rug of teapots with a decorative border was the only representational rug I made. After doing it, I realized that I was not at all interested in making images in this medium; I would keep that for painting. The rug now resides along the mudroom bench, a place for putting on outdoor shoes, and for tossing hats and gloves. The hat you see is my hunter's orange cap for walking in the woods during hunting season. The two old metal baskets came with the house.

And to end, a still life on top of the dryer: dried marjoram in an antique tin, clothespins in an old bucket, and a coffeepot-shaped painted wood container, which I was told was originally for storing powdered detergent. It's a very jaunty addition to this mainly utilitarian room.

November 19, 2010

A New Hooked Rug: "Resting"

Resting, hand-dyed wool on linen, 10 x 15 inches.

A variegated green field hovers above a pink form; I see the form as resting on the bottom edge, but I also can imagine it rising, pushing against the vertical lines of green. I wrote about my thoughts and process on beginning this piece here.

I enjoy seeing the color variation in the green, from a lighter warmer green against the pink to a cooler darker hue. The funny thing is that I used only one batch of dye, and the hue changed from warm to cool as I added more dye. I like the syncopated rhythm of the value change, and don't mind that the transitions aren't very smooth; I think they add some life to the serried ranks.

November 17, 2010

"Into Great Silence", and living "...with nature in the present..."

On the darkened screen is a scant indication of a man praying; the forms barely emerge from the quiet dark. Beautifully composed, the image remains on screen for what seems like minutes

and then the camera moves back to reveal more of the monk, and then back again to show the austerity of his cell. Slow, quiet, barely illuminated.

In 2002 the German filmmaker Philip Groning received permission to film at the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in the French Alps; he spent six months there, without a crew, using only natural light. He begins the film in winter, goes through the seasons until winter returns, giving us a sense of the flow of the monks' lives through time.

The camera follows the monks in their daily round, in their cells, as they live in silence, except for times of prayer and one delightful day in the week when they walk out into the landscape.

It is a landscape of grandeur and awe. Groning's eye captures remarkable beauty. Every shot of this glacially slow, very long film, is well considered. I enjoyed going back through the movie and looking at many of the frames as stills.

Interspersed throughout the movie are several portraits of monks; in their quiet gaze into the camera, each lasting a long time, we seem to get a sense of each character.

Some of my favorite moments of the film were those focusing closely on small objects: a font, some fruit, a few leaves, water dripping; light streams, illuminates, has an active presence in the landscape and interior spaces. We are asked to look closely, to pay attention, to see the world as full of aesthetic pleasures.

But what interested me most intellectually about Into Great Silence was sparked by the sole interview of the film, shown near its end, with an old blind monk. It made me aware of the similarity of different faiths, different approaches to spirituality. I find it impossible to believe, as the monk does, that everything that happens is for the good of one's soul, which Voltaire satirized in Candide, as "the best of all possible worlds". But other words of this old monk were very evocative. He spoke of the idea of the present: "The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past, solely the present prevails". I have been doing some yoga and meditation (using this dvd) to calm my sometimes annoyingly anxious mind, and being in the present moment is essential.

Also from the monk: "The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is". I had not expected to hear about happiness from a hermit monk. This too tied into a Buddhist prayer:
May all beings find love and peace within themselves.
May all beings find peace with each other.
May all beings be happy.
And from a third faith tradition, the nonconformist 19th century minister and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay "Self Reliance"
These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. ....But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

November 16, 2010

Catching Light

Today, sandwiched between periods of cloudiness, the sun emerged from high clouds for a brief spell. I took my camera with me on my midday walk and what caught my eye was the sparkling light on fluffy seeds and delicate dried grasses, so embedded in the textures as to seem to be emanating from them. Whether on goldenrod,

or milkweed,

or the stems and leaves of tall grass, the light was a marvel, adding life to what seems to be a dessicated landscape.

Heading toward my house and barn, I looked over the brilliant burst seedpods of milkweed and felt grateful for the moments of grace amid the gray.

November 15, 2010

A New Painting: "Orange Figures"

Orange Figures, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 8 inches.

This is one of my stranger works, isn't it? I see the two orange forms as characters on a stage, nodding, conversing, perhaps swaying back and forth, looking quite comic. Then there's the little face of the bolt down below. The blue sky might be too realistic a backdrop, but considering how odd the orange forms are, it might just make the image more surreal.

I'm showing a detail, which might give you a sense of the surface of the painting, especially if you click to enlarge. Using these colors, I had a clear example of the variation in opacity of different pigments. Cobalt and cerulean blues are fairly transparent, so it's difficult to paint a very even tone with them. I had to paint many layers in order to get the blue smooth yet lively, while painting the green area was a snap: the pigment is more opaque.

I had expected to finish this painting on Friday, but had an absolutely horrible painting day, one of those when I think I've forgotten how to do it. For some reason, from time to time dust will get embedded in the paint, to such an extent that the paint lifts when I try to clean it off. You can see below what this looks like. So, I tried to clean and repair, over and over again, but couldn't get rid of the problem. After a few hours of wrestling with it, at the end of the afternoon I took a damp paper towel and wiped off the top part of the painting, sky and orange forms. What a relief! When I went back to the painting on Saturday, I worked more slowly and deliberately, completing the painting yesterday, with little dust in sight.

November 14, 2010

Built: A Covered Bridge in Bath, New Hampshire

We've had some beautiful weather the past few days, so on Thursday I took a short drive to a lovely village in New Hampshire to photograph some houses and this remarkable bridge. As you can see by the sign, it was built in 1832, making it one of the oldest in the United States; it is the longest covered bridge in New Hampshire. But the statistics don't convey the wonder and romance of an old wooden covered bridge, a reminder of times long past. It is startling to see a car approaching down this long span; a horse drawn carriage seems more appropriate.

The great beauty of this bridge is in the enormous arches that support the structure, known as a Burr Arch. I love looking at the complex weave of wood on walls and above my head, marveling that it has lasted so long. I had always thought that bridges were covered to keep out the weather, which is true, but I thought it was for the convenience of travelers in inclement weather. It turns out that covering the wood structure preserved it from rapid decay. And the Bath covered bridge, along with others around the country remain to point to our sturdy heritage.

November 13, 2010

Something New: Hooked Rug "Sketches"

2010 #1; hand dyed wool on linen, bounded by masking tape; 12 x 9 1/2 inches.

I begin a new hooked rug by outlining the forms to be filled in by the mass of looped wool strips. A couple of times friends have told me that they like the work as it's just begun, with a line of color moving across the warm linen surface; so, one day I picked up a small piece of linen, rummaged through my piles of thumbnail sketches, my mounds of scraps of dyed wool, and made the "sketch" you see above: quick, simple, and fun, lines of colored wool "drawn" on the neutral ground. This could be a way to explore lots of ideas quickly, especially those that might not work as completed pieces. I then finished the edges with masking tape, which I'm sure is not at all conservatorially correct; but I like the provisional character of the tape, which seems to suit the offhand quality of the sketch, and the color is perfect with the linen.

2010 #2; hand dyed wool on linen, bounded by masking tape; 9 1/2 x 14 inches.

The image of #2 is based on a rectangular design, with elements fitting within it. After doing this one, and another which I considered a failure, I feel that this format is better suited to shapes not bounded by a four sided figure, but floating free within the irregular rectangle of the linen.

2010 #3; hand dyed wool on linen, bounded by masking tape; 13 x 9 1/2 inches.

So here, where the original thumbnail pencil sketch had the two elements––small square and off kilter rectangle––enclosed within a rectangle, I instead left one line of it to create tension and removed the other three.

2010 #4, hand dyed wool on linen, bounded by masking tape, 9 3/4 x 8 inches.

The shape of this piece is based on a Richard Tuttle sculpture; I can't help but think 'cradle'. When I first completed it, there was more space around the shape, but I thought it needed to be hemmed in, squeezed a bit, so made the background smaller.

Below are the four pieces taped to the wall and door. They look better on a dark ground, don't they? Although I've put them up with tape, they can be hung with tiny brads in their corners.

So, what do you think? silly? meh? or worth pursuing? (I enjoy these so will likely continue, but I'd love some feedback.)