Monday, December 30, 2013

Tea Things

After cleaning up the kitchen tonight I was rummaging around in the tea drawer trying to make a space for two new boxes of tea, and I came across a collection of beautiful tea accoutrements.  Some of these things are so elegantly designed that I needed to draw them.  I decided to use plain black contour lines, no values, no color, a bit of surface texturing, but done only with lines.

At the left, the incomparable Tazo tea box with its strainer/lid/little dish on top.  It's a tea ceremony of its own, just the assembling and using of all those clever parts.  I can never throw away these boxes, nor think of anything else to do with them other than fill them with dried herbs from the garden or bulk tea from the grocery.  In the middle are two differently-woven strainers;  and at the top right are two scoops.  The ornate one is made of metal, not sure what kind, but we bought it in an antique shop in Milford-on Sea in the south of England many years ago.  The other one is of satiny wood, shaped perfectly, given to us by Mike and Andi one year along with several bags of good tea.

On this page are the humble aluminum tea ball minus its chain, and below it,  one of those snap-spoon-like scoops that I always overfill, and it ends up chomping tea leaves all around its rim.  On the right is a white cotton reusable tea bag.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Gift of Adventures Without Checking Baggage

Our son Erik and his family sent us a gift that promises to lighten our luggage, something P and I value very much.  We never check baggage after too many lost luggage events, so we're always seeking ways to need fewer things when we travel.  The gift that arrived yesterday will help us do just that!  It's a strange rubbery bag called a scrubba that has a clear plastic window running the length of it and a flexible washboard inside attached to the bottom of the bag (the bottom when it's laid on one of its fat sides).  There's an air valve and a stiff piece across the opening with a clasp attached to the two ends of it.  The instructions read:  6 easy steps to clean laundry:  1. fill (and there are two lines marked on the outside of the bag near the window, one for a tee shirt, a pair of underwear, and a pair of socks;  and one for two tee shirts, two pairs of underwear, and two pairs of socks.)  2.  roll and clip (the top down to enclose water, detergent, and clothing in the bag)  3. deflate (open the valve and let out any extra air that's trapped in the bag)  4.  rub (for 30 seconds for a quick wash and for 3 minutes for a "automatic washer equivalent wash")  5.  rinse (open the bag, drain out the water, refill with more water, about a gallon, and swoosh the clothes around in there)  6.  dry  (to help with that there's a travel towel made of some magical micro-fiber wicking stuff that sucks the water out of the clothes and gets it ready to hang up;  and there's also a clothesline made of twined elastic that works without any clothespins and has suction cups as well as clips for hanging it up)
I had to try it out this morning, so I took all the clothes I wore yesterday and washed them for three minutes with just a tiny amount of detergent (the manufacturer suggests shampoo, body wash, liquid soap, detergent, whatever you have on hand).  The water was dirty and the clothes were clean!  The wicking towel worked better than a spin dryer and was certainly easier on the clothes AND weighs only about 1 ounce.  The suction cups wouldn't stick to my bathroom wall, so I looped the ends of the line around towel racks and used the clips.  The twisted line works perfectly without clothespins.  The whole thing folds down into a carrying backpack, and backpack and all weigh 6 ounces!  You could also use the carry pack for dirty clothes.

Erik knows that I love this kind of thing and will happily bring it to Spain with me in April to use in the apartment we have rented there.  One of my forever favorite books is Francis Galton's 1872 book The Art of Travel: Or, Shifts and Contrivances in Wild Countries. I've learned much from Galton's book-- how to build a coracle, how to cook Tough Meat in the bush, how to write in the dark without wasting candles, how to make a donkey stop braying.  Here's Galton on how to do laundry: Washing Clothes-- Substitute for Soap.-- The lye of ashes and the gall of animals are the readiest substitutes for soap. . . . When preparing for a regular day's washing, it is a good plan to boil an abundance of ashes in water, strain off the lye, adding the gall of any animal you may have killed, and let the clothes soak in it.  Next morning, take them to the water-side, and wash and beat them with a flat piece of wood, or lay them on a broad stone and knead and wring them with the hands."  Galton would have definitely approved of the Scrubba.  Thanks Erik, Kerstin, Nate, and Abby!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Warmth When We Need It

A warm cup of tea on a cold morning has taken a quantum leap forward since the arrival of these four perfectly-proportioned ceramic mugs/glasses/cups.  Our son David and his family brought them to us for Xmas, and I've been loving the experience of holding them with two hands, feeling the silky surface texture, looking down into the rusty reddish interior, and enjoying the fact that my tea stays warmer for way longer when served in one of these.  So thanks David, Hillary, Jacob, Maya, Lindsay, and Sam!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Colors Just When We Need Them!

These lovelies tumbled out of their Fed Ex box yesterday-- double-ply colored jute garden twine!  What could be better?  Already I am planning on stringing them like lute strings from the porch roof to the garden edge where it meets the front porch and training snow peas on them.  And when the snow peas are done, some other tendrilly thing-- scarlet runners or moon flower vines.  I once saw a pea trellis made out of colored twine and it was amazing. 

Along with the colored twine came the same colors in inch- and- a- half-wide jute ribbons, perfect for  tying up bunches of herbs to hang in the kitchen, perfect for reining in the tomato bushes when they're flopping over with fruit and runaway branches.  My son Mike went crazy buying us colors for Xmas from his family, and we are so glad he did!  Thanks, Mike and Andi, Tallis, Luca, and Barnaby!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Little Lesson on Ice Needles

If you live where the winter is cold enough for the ground to freeze, have you ever wondered about those cool little ice things that look like stalagmites and actually lift small things from the ground, like leaves and sticks and crumbs of soil?  Today while walking on the mountain I saw them everywhere, and they were so tall and some were even curving, and some were stuck together in comb-like arrangements, that I had to bring a few home to study more closely.  I called my son Mike who lives in the truly frozen north and told him I thought these might be frost heaves, and had he ever seen them, and weren't they interesting.  He had seen lots of them, only he was more familiar with the big brother version, the actual frost heave, which, he told me, was capable of lifting a car and certainly ruined many roads every winter, and no, he wasn't a fan.

So I squatted down on the deck of my studio in my crusty boots and drew my baby frost heaves with frozen fingers and chatted with M about these things.  Then I went on line and discovered that what I had seen and carefully carried home balanced on the tips of my mittens were actually called ice needles or needle ice (as well as several other different names, see above).  They form by the same principle as frost heaves, but are the mini-version.  You can read my writing around the drawings to learn more about this fascinating subject. 

Tomorrow:  some great color!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Rest of the Manger People, Arranged by Jesse

Here are the rest of the manger scene people, including the pretty little wooden donkey plus rider that was a gift to us from our Jordanian exchange student in the late 80s.  There are also three carved wooden camels, and we immediately added them to our manger scene.  I always think of Amr when we put up the manger scene, hope he's having a wonderful life wherever he is.

Jesse arranged the scene today.  Merry Holidays, everybody!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas as Prelude to Mardi Gras

One of the best things about growing up in New Orleans was that holidays were more or less continuous.  Christmas is a good example.  After a few weeks of pre-Christmas season, which was a time of religiously-sanctioned amping up of excitement (called Advent in the Catholic church that set the Medieval tones for  year-long festivity), Christmas day itself arrived with a bang and then quickly seque-ed into Mardi Gras, which went on for a good long time of parties and parades and good things to eat.  

Today Jesse was playing around with our little wooden manger scene, which I made out of an old broomstick and some rags when we were living in New Orleans the year my second baby was born and I had a whole year off of work to spend with my three year old and my newborn.  I was making a wooden farm set for M, who was the big boy, and I made little cows and pigs and horses and sheep out of lengths of the broomstick, which I painted with acrylic paints.  I had some leftover broomstick, so I decided to make a manger scene for under our Christmas tree, which was what you did in New Orleans. 

A manger scene had to have a Mary, a Joseph, a Babyjesus, a few shepherds, maybe an angel, and the three kings.  The kings were very important, because they were the ones that provided the story element that became Mardi Gras.  We would set up our manger scenes with the three kings some distance from the main action, and every day we would advance the kings an inch or so.  They needed to arrive at the manger on January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings, the day we ate our first King Cake. 

King Cake was not only delicious but each one contained a Babyjesus, sometimes made of china, sometimes made of rubbery plastic, and whoever got the baby in his or her piece of cake became the king or queen.  The king or queen then selected a queen or king to partner up with in throwing the next week's king cake party.  King Cake parties went on for weeks, usually around 6, until the final day, Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras involved a double school holiday,  It was always on the Tuesday that was 40 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  Monday was a holiday so everyone could get ready for Mardi Gras.

So even though we can find the occasional king cake here in Asheville, it's NOT from McKenzie's  bakery in NO, and even though there's usually a little parade on Mardi Gras eve or evening, it's nothing at all like real Mardi Gras, which in New Orleans is actually a season, closely tied to Christmas and closely related to Lent and then Easter.  A nice rhythm of feast and fast, feast and fast, linked to the moon and the seasons.

Well Jesse likes to bat the manger people around, so I painted him in walnut ink while he rested up from defending us from Ghengis and the evil shepherds.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What's Jesse Up to Lately?

On this page are a few black contour drawings of the way things look outside today in the relentless rain and gloom.  There's one green pipsissewa plant popping up from under the damp dead leaves.  I wasn't really in the mood to draw at all today, and then Jesse came and sat by me and stood still, so I decided to do some quick brush drawings of him.

Jesse has been preoccupied with protecting our house from the ravages of Ghengis, an ancient cat that lives a few houses down the block from us.  Ghengis is an old cat who generally stays at his end of the block, but one day a couple of weeks ago he sauntered down to our house and walked through Jesse's territory, even got within ten feet of the Sacred Compost Heap.  A few nights later Jesse came home with a torn ear, and we assumed he had gotten into it with Ghengis, there being no other cats around.

We had caught Jesse coming out of Ghengis's driveway, so we concluded that Jesse maybe tried to get into Ghengis's house through the cat door, and Ghengis objected.  Lots of animals frequent that cat door-- raccoons, opossums, other cats; and Jesse roams the neighborhood, so he has probably discovered it, too.  He's looking a bit battle-worn these days and a little sheepish.  He spends a lot of time sitting on the picnic table on our back porch like he's guarding our house from Ghengis.  P, who adores Jesse, has been slipping him many treats.  We think his ear, which is healing nicely, is probably itchy these days and maybe contributes to his apparent uneasiness.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I'm a fan of the winter solstice for one big reason:  finally the days are going to get longer again!  I love the dark tunneling of the days leading up to the big dark when everything seems to stand still and impossibly brief and dark.  That's the day we usually put up our tree, and so tonight's drawings are of the two oldest ornaments that we own.  These are little wooden things that were on my mother's mother's tree, and I was told that they were old when I first saw them there.  They're made of wooden beads strung on elastic, and their arms and legs can be positioned different ways.  They're fairly indestructible, and so they were always placed low on the tree on hefty branches, down where the little kids could play with them.  On the left is Humpty Dumpty and on the right is The French Policeman.

Winter solstice demands some outdoor time, preferably at sunset, and most preferably a mountain hike with Jacob.  Last year it was extremely cold and extremely windy but the sun shone brightly and we lingered on the overlook until the sun dropped below distant mountains on the horizon.  This year it rained all day, and by 4:15 when we set out it was almost dark.  We went to a different trail than last year, gave ourselves 15 minutes to walk up, at which point we would have to turn around in order to get back in time for Jacob to get home by 5:30.  It was warm enough to be comfortable even though rain dropped on us the whole time.  We fairly galloped up the trail and actually reached the Mountains to the Sea Trail with time to amble down it a short distance.  J. said it was a creepy little trail, and in that almost-dark, foggy, drizzly twilight it was.  Coming down was easy and fast, but wet leaves made it a little tricky.  The drawings here are from memory and are simply impressions.  The one on the right is of the sky at 3:30 PM when the clouds broke for a few minutes and the actual sun blinked through before the clouds covered it again and for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Friday, December 20, 2013

At Fed Ex

I had an early-ish morning critique group that was so interesting I could hardly draw.  I did manage to draw Heather's lovely little boat-shaped fine mesh pen bag with its ink-stained zipper, and then below that, Laurie's sweet little reclaimed swimming pool toy book that has all the warnings that are printed on inner tubes and floaties and such bound together with grommets.  It's finished out with rubber stamp prints of swimmers, and the cover sports a thing that you blow up the toy with.  Very plasticky and summery and pool-ish and fun, and full of those dire warnings that pepper our lives.

And then I left BookWorks and dove into the line of traffic that seemed to lead to Fed Ex.  Eventually I arrived there and transferred myself and my packages to the inside line.  Once I got to the counter I was able to hand over my packages but had to wait while the clerk wrapped and packaged.  This was a great opportunity to draw!  I was especially interested in the device that hung over the little work table that reminded me in a way of one of those old flour dumpers in  Hoosier kitchen hutches.  This one gathered brown paper from a metal roll and funneled it into a tube-like device that gathered the paper into a crumpled tube.  The clerk would pull it down and rip it off and stuff it into the crevices of the box -- all in one swift motion.  I also liked the roll of giant bubble wrap that was under the table.  The clerk was knee deep in boxes, and wads of paper were all around on the floor.  She was really good with the impossible tape dispenser.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dentist Office Befores and Afters

I can't believe six months have passed since I made that creepy drawing of the shrouded tools in my dentist's office.  But they have flown by, and today I found myself sitting in the same dentist's waiting room, only the plants had been moved out to some other place to make room for a small xmas tree.  The before and after posters were still in place, however;  so I'm giving you today a report on how dentistry can make your teeth look way better.  At the top on the left are two smiles of the same woman.  In the before she's wearing a pinkish lipstick that makes her teeth look dingy.  One front tooth is chipped and the one next to it looks like it might have been part of the same mishap.  In the after the woman has improved her lipstick choice so that the deep red -orange brings out the almost blueish whiteness of her teeth, and there is not a trace of a lipstick mark on any of the teeth.  The chipped teeth have been capped or turned into crowns, and they look like piano keys!

In the middle row are aerial views of filled back teeth.  On the left the teeth are filled with tarnished amalgam plugs,  but on the right a tooth-colored plastic filling has replaced the old one.  Or maybe it's a crown.  Whatever it is, the teeth look like brand new perfect unfilled teeth.

At the bottom are aerial views of two sets of bottom teeth.  I have to confess that my teeth at one time could have been the model for the before set, and now, after gazillion dollars worth of crowns, my teeth look like models for the after set!  Whatever my dentist in the 60s and 70s mixed up in his little mortar and pestle was silvery for a few years and then turned black and tarnished. The new stuff wears well and looks like polished marble.

After my trials and anguish at the dentist (scraping and brushing and the terror that a tooth was going to break off with all that scraping and I would be facing a $1500 crown job) I rewarded myself by dropping in to lovely Greenlife grocery and buying fun things for a no-cook dinner:  tiny in-store-made chicken pies, tandoori chicken, beet and kale and apple salad, wild rice salad,  black corn chips in a great bag that has a Mayan calendar on it and that I will use to make my next sketchbook.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Little Color in the Dark

Searching for the last bits of color in the woods as the darkest, shortest days draw closer, I saw a lone bright squaw root leaf shining like an ornament among all the brown and drab dark green leaves left on its vine.  Nearby was a pretty little string of Carolina horse nettles, looking like a line of music, but very poisonous to humans.  They're in the solanaceae (nightshade) family, and they grow prolifically around here with their spiny, tough stems that are all but impossible to uproot in a garden.  The fruits are not poisonous to some birds, and each fruit has many, many tomato-like seeds that the birds spread.

On the right are some dark bluish-black plum-shaped privet berries, and going vertically down the page is a small section of a bittersweet vine.  The spiny twig with the pretty red berries is unknown to me, although I see it lots of places.  I don't think it's edible.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Self-Serv Farm Fresh Eggs!

My friend Maria took Fran and me for a long walk down her road this afternoon.  The weather was perfect, balmy, clear with blocky little clouds floating here and there.  The road goes through farmland, old houses, woods, horse fields, cow pastures, goat yards, sheep.  And a stream runs along the entire way.  Most wonderful was the farm that we went to where in a tiny farm office there was a wooden box for dollar bills and a sign telling you that you could put $4 in the box and take a dozen eggs out of the little refrigerator next to the table.  There were three dozen eggs in there, and F. and I pooled our change and bought a dozen to split, some pale blue, some yellowy green, some deep ochre.  I had to paint them tonight, so here they are.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Journal Group Meeting

This page, scanned before I numbered it (the numbers are 1150-1155) I drew at my journal group meeting tonight.  I drew some good ideas that other people had, such as adding tabs to help locate things in a journal, and writing the dates on the edge of the book and a very interesting process-- trace monotypes.

To do a trace monotype, Laurie took the pages out of the book (they were stapled in) and lay a blank page over a plate inked with rubber -based printing ink.  Then she drew on the page (I think she had a piece of scrap paper on top of the paper and drew on that.) and the back side picked up ink from the plate where her line was.  It also picked up nice little smudges and other marks, giving the drawing a mechanic-shop feeling that formed a great contrast with the precise drawings of tools and other things in her friend's garage.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Curious Relationship of Numbers and Plants

Walking this afternoon in the snow-spitting chilly weather in the brown and black woods, I thought about two things:  What would I eat if I were lost in these woods?  and I wonder if Robert Lawlor's information about the correspondence between certain numbers and certain kinds of plants holds true in these woods?

Robert Lawlor wrote a book published by Thames & Hudson in London back in the early 90s called Sacred Geometry.  He uses the word sacred to mean "underlying" or "unchanging, fixed".  One of his chapters tells about the correspondence of the numbers 5, 6, and 7 to plants that have been traditionally  food, medicine, or (sometimes) poison for humans.  Since the number 5 is an underlying organizing principle  of humans (a human standing with arms and legs held out and trunk straight forms the five rays of a pentagon, as in Leonardo Da Vinci's man squaring a circle), most plants that are organized around the number 5 have traditionally been known to be good as food and sometimes medicine for humans.  Sure enough, throughout the plant kingdom are food plants with five petals, five sepals, five seeds, multiples of five, pentagonal structures, and other manifestations of five as an underlying organizing principle.

Walking in the woods I wondered if the fives would be evident even in darkest winter when there are no petals and only scattered seeds, fractured pods, and dried remnants of plants.  Soon I came to the old apple orchard, where a few shriveled apples were still clinging to some branches.  I collected one to check out at home.  A few steps further I came to a dried cane from wild raspberries, and it had an intact ring of sepals from which the berry had long dropped.  I added it to the collection.  I scooped up a few rose hips and a stem of crispy yarrow flowers along with a brown maple leaf.

Then I saw some dried stems of heal-all, an herb that grows all along parts of the path and that I know to be good medicine.  When I got home I dissected the dried specimens and carefully counted the numbers of seeds, sepals, divisions of the leaf, dried petals.  Lawlor says that the organizing number 6 designates plants that are often poisonous, but that are sometimes useful as medicine for humans only.  The number 7 is always poisonous for animals, and usually for humans.

You can see by the drawings that the apple, raspberry, maple, yarrow, and rose hip are all organized around the number 5:  good food plants for humans.  The heal-all had  rings of six petals all along the flower stems-- 6, the number of medicines for humans.  I am interested to learn that apples, which do have some medicinal properties according to Culpepper, but are mainly used as food today; and yarrow, which is strong medicine and not commonly used as food today are both fives; whereas heal-all, which is strong medicine and not ever used as food is organized around 6.  Maybe heal -all is poisonous to animals.  I have often wondered how people and animals knew what they could eat and what would make them sick.  Trial and error doesn't seem like an efficient way for Nature to operate.  I suspect that earlier people, more sensitive to their own bodies than we are, could sense a resonance based on that shared organizing number. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013


We spent this cold rainy afternoon with our friends making lebkuchen and decorating them with seeds, nuts, and dried fruit.  These are big, strong, and filling cookies, made with whole wheat pastry flour, honey and molasses and lots of spices.  The recipe is on the right side of the page.  Keep them in a tin with a tight cover, and they just get even better over time. If you like them sweeter, decorate them with frosting and sprinkles; but for a real old-country taste, we like seeds and nuts and dried fruit.  Each one is like a meal, especially if you nibble it slowly in front of a fire!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Speed Drawing: Mexican Restaurant People

These are speedy drawings done while we were waiting for the check at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant.  The whole top row and the middle of the bottom row are restaurant patrons.  The bottom left is a guy who brings the chips and salsa and also clears tables;  the bottom right is the serene and unflappable waitress with her beautiful profile.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Drawing in the Band Concert

P and I are long-time veterans of high school band concerts.  All three of our sons played brass-- two played trombone and one played trumpet and French horn-- beginning in around 7th grade;  and we began to go to band concerts several times a year for an uninterrupted 15 year stretch.  We noticed a soothing regularity to the programs with few differences in the bands in Indiana and those in Asheville.  In Indiana the band played The Battle Hymn of the Republic, while in Asheville the bands  played When the Saints Go Marching In.  But all Holiday concerts have included some variety of Jingle Bell Cha-Cha-Cha and at least one medley involving bells and snowflakes, and a change into a costume for the director at one point in the evening.

Tonight we had the fun of going to our grandson Jacob's high school band holiday concert.  After three years of playing trombone (like his Dad) in middle school bands, Jacob is now playing in the big league of high school bands.  The band at his high school (his Dad's high school, too) has always been excellent, and it has been fine to watch him develop as a musician in this powerhouse of a band.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Really Bad Car Drawings Plus a Helpful Cat

Sitting in a long line of mostly-not-moving cars today waiting to pick up Maya from school to come spend the night,  I decided to draw what I am least interested in drawing in all the world: cars.  I don't see cars very well.  To me they really all look alike, either gray, black, or silvery wedges or van-like things, with the exception of VWs, Minis, and Smarts, which are usually in good colors and have distinctive shapes.  But here was a perfect opportunity to really study the details of different boring  cars, and so I have tried.  My lines look tentative and beginnery.  It was interesting to watch myself feel unable to draw and to make the same kinds of scratchy lines that many fifth graders make when drawing trees for the first time.

One of Maya's teachers has taught the class how to make cardboard looms this week, and so we made a loom that is long enough for her to weave a scarf.  Maya warped the loom and then began weaving different colored ribbons and odds and ends of glittery cord that we found in my studio as well as some tomato red yarn.  Jesse joined us and had a fine time helping.

Here's a bonus-  a photograph of Maya weaving Jesse into her scarf.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Paints from Local Clay Pigments

These drawings are of little clay pigment pots that I made to keep watercolors that I've made from local clay pigments in.  They're small, around an inch in diameter, bisque fired, unglazed.  I put a paint swatch near each pot.  These are just a few of the many, many paints I've made.  At the top left is a dark purplish brown, a caput mortuum, that my friend Sandy and I gathered from the banks of a lake near a dam near her house.  Below the caput is a bright orange from the same location.  As is often the case, stripes of different colors lie adjacent to each other in the exposed bank of the lake when the water level is down.  We needed teaspoons to gather the clay in order to keep the colors pure.

At the top middle is a color that my grandson Jacob and I gathered and processed several years ago.  Some friends (F & J) were building a house, and we found four distinct colors on their lot while they were digging the foundation.  The brown orange and the beautiful light egg yellow at the bottom left were two of the colors.

At the top right is a clear yellow that Sandy and I found in the middle of a switchback on her road early one morning.  We named it Switchback Morning Sun in honor of the sunny morning when we found it.  The bright red-orange on the right, under Morning Sun, is one Jacob and I found in a building site along one of the main streets in Asheville.  It has remained one of our favorite colors, and we can't get any more because a bank now sits over the site where we found it.  We named it Merrimon Avenue Tomato Ochre.

On the bottom row, to the right of egg yellow, is a pinky mauve that my granddaughter Maya and I found up on Jones Mountain at sunset one day.  We named it Jones Mountain Sunset Mauve.  It has a nice pearlescence, thanks to the mica that abounds in that area.  And to the right of Sunset Mauve is a rare green from some olivine rock that Jacob and I found on the campus of UNC Asheville near the botanical gardens.  We had to break up the soft rocks with a hammer before grinding it in a mortar and pestle.

A great source for information about every aspect of clay paints is Sandy Webster's book Earthen Pigments (Schiffer Books, 2012).

Monday, December 9, 2013

Outrageous Trees and Vines, and a Recipe

There's a trail on the mountain that I rarely go on in summer because it's so full of poison ivy.  So today I saw it for the first time in a while, and most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, exposing vines and lianas that looked like they belonged in a rain forest.  They also looked more like ceremonial objects than things growing in the woods.  At top left is the ruin of an old chimney that sits near the beginning of the trail.  I had decided to draw ruins today, but soon after the chimney, the astonishing trees with their braids of vines took precedence.  The three on this page are trees with their vine wraps.  On the first of the three, vines had choked the tree so that it grew with little dents where the vine was.

The drawing to the left is of a straight pine tree from which hung a braided series of medium-thick vines, possibly bittersweet or honeysuckle.  The one to the right of it had some lapped vines and then a strange drape of thin vines.  The straight young tree (1100) looked like it was in conversation with the vine that twined up its trunk and the grape vine that hung down from its top branches.  On the far right a small vine was curling around a heavy grapevine.

Back at the house, Jesse was sleeping while entwined with the fringe on his favorite livingroom sofa throw.

The color on the tree and vine drawings is from watercolor that I made out of clay collected around here.  If you have any orange or reddish brown soil, you have iron oxide in your soil, and you can make very nice paint from it.  Here's how I made the brown.  I collected about three cups of clay from a cut away place along a trail.  You can tell clay-ey soil from more humusy soil by how well it holds together.  The tiny, flat particles of clay slip and slide over one another and lend a plasticity to clay that is absent from the more crumbly humus. 

Okay, so I took the bag of clay home and filled a spaghetti sauce jar about 1/4 full of clay and filled it up to the top, almost, with water.  I stirred the mixture thoroughly.  Then I watched the swirling particles of sand swirl and settle on the bottom of the jar-- about 30 seconds.  As soon as the swirling had stopped, I carefully poured just the colored water through a strainer into a second spaghetti jar.  I threw out the rocks and sand that were left on the bottom of the first jar and let the second jar settle.  (When I strained the colored water, I removed floating debris, sticks, leaves, etc.)  This process of separation by weight instead of particle size will leave you with only the smallest particles, the pigment, and a small amount of clay.

After anywhere from 15 minutes to maybe overnight, the water on top of the settling jar should be clear or almost clear.  You then carefully pour that out (not down the sink) into the ground.  The pigment is the residue left in the jar that has settled out of the colored water.  Pour the wet pigment out onto a few sheets of newspaper and let it dry somewhat.  As it dries it will curl up and you can easily peel it from the paper.

Take the dry or damp pigment from the newspaper and place it on a sheet of glass.  Use a spice muller or a spatula or a paint muller if you get serious about this) to grind the pigment with a little water (some people prefer distilled water) and about 1/4 its volume of gum Arabic solution.  (You can also use a mortar and pestle for this grinding.)  When everything is smoothly ground, add about 1/4 teaspoon of honey to draw moisture from the air and keep your paint easy to re-wet.  The gum Arabic does just what it does in ink-- it glues the pigment to the paper.  Test your paint with a watercolor brush on white paper.  If it looks streaky or has big particles in it, try levigating it (the first step that you did above) again or grinding it some more.  Store the paint in those seven-day plastic pill containers, but let them dry out before closing the tops to avoid mold.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Trees in the Near Dark, Plus a Recipe for Ink

Yesterday after being gone from home all day, I made it to the woods just as it was turning from late afternoon to very early dark.  Something about the light was very kind to the rhododendron trees in the slick that I skirt on the trail up to the top.  The trunks were like figures of animals, humans, who-knows-what.  I ignored the leaves and concentrated on very quick drawings of the trunks and some of the branches. 

I've never been someone who easily finds faces in trees, but drawing these trees was like being in a figure drawing class,  Some of them looked like couples.  Some looked like dancers.  When I got home I filled in the drawings with walnut ink.  If you want some walnut ink of your own, this is all you need to do:

Collect those annoying green walnut hulls that turn black as they sit under a walnut tree and that turn your hands black when you try to collect them.  Use rubber gloves to keep your hands from getting full of the tannin (which is what you want to make the ink).  When you have about half a bucket full, dump the whole mess into an enameled spaghetti pot or saucepan, depending on how many hulls you have.  Fill the pat with water to cover the hulls, and simmer them for a while.  The water will get darker the longer you simmer.  If you want really dark ink, reduce the water by simmering (uncovered) until the amount of water is only a couple of inches and it has gotten kind of syrupy.  Turn off the heat and let the filthy brew cool down a bit.  Then strain the contents of the pot through either a very fine strainer or several layers of cheese cloth, or, my favorite, one of those plastic and fine mesh coffee filters that you can buy in the grocery store for using as a permanent filter in a coffee maker.  Dump the hulls into a compost heap or somewhere else outside.  (One time I forgot to check on the simmering walnut hulls until all the water had boiled away and ominous smoke was rising from the pot.  I quickly turned off the heat, put more water in the pot, and started simmering again, this time using a timer.  The ink was especially luscious and black, but I wouldn't advise you  do it this way-)

After the ink has cooled down a bit, test it for darkness.  If it needs to be darker, put it back in the pot and simmer it some more to further reduce the water.  If the color looks good to you, add a little gum Arabic solution (which you can buy where watercolors are sold, and it may be called Watercolor Solution, but it's just gum Arabic and water plus a little phenol or other antibiotic to keep mold down) to help the tannin particles adhere to the paper.  Also add a little vinegar to keep mold down.  (But if mold does grow after a couple of weeks, just skim it off the top and dump in some more vinegar.)  This is a most gorgeous ink.  You can also make it using oak galls, but walnuts are usually easier to find than oak galls unless you live in the south of France or Italy.  The secret ingredient is the tannin in the walnut hulls and galls.

Today's drawings are all inside drawings thanks to the relentless icy drizzle outside.  At the top is a cute sock monkey jack-in-the-box that I got for Abby, our nine-month-old granddaughter.  To me sock monkeys are inherently funny, and this one has the added bonus of jumping up when you turn the crank that plays a weird little minor key tune.  Over on the right is another gift for Anny, this one a snuggly cloth doll that reminds me of her brother's favorite creature, Mr. Quacks, because of the triangular cloth body with little cloth knots for chewing on.  Actually Nate has about a dozen Quacks but only one, the mysteriously-named Ham-Ham, possesses the subtle combination of features that only Nate can detect and that he requires. 

Beneath the sock monkey lies Jesse, resting up from a rough night that resulted in a slightly torn ear for him.  We think he's been visiting a cat down the block, another male, and has not made friends.

Three more moving Jesse sketches, post-nap, pre-our-dinner.  On the right he plots a spring into the beef and broccoli stir-fry.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Shiny Things for Crows

Since crows are attracted to shiny things, yesterday's crows would enjoy these bits of old jewelry on the page opposite them.  At top left is what's left of my dad's mother's engagement ring.  It's missing its central diamond, but the four petal-shapes surrounding the empty setting are encrusted with tiny diamond chips.   After my grandmother died, the diamond went to one of my brothers to use in an engagement ring for his wife.  To the right of the engagement ring is my grandfather's watch fob.  It has beautiful swirly letters engraved on the front surface with his initials, CFG .  The back of the watch fob is below and to the right.  There is a small diamond surrounded by star-like carvings. 

On the extreme right of the top row is a humble Cub Scout bobcat pin.  This belonged to one of my sons, either Erik or Michael, but I'm not sure who.  In the middle row is a wonderful little pinkie ring that my mother called a dinner ring.  It belonged to the same grandmother whose engagement ring is in the top row.  In the center of it is a large pearl, and surrounding the pearl are four turquoises, and surrounding them are five pale purple amethysts.  The ring part is wrapped in a wonderful little golden snake.  My grandmother gave me this ring when I was in high school, but my hands grew to be a lot larger than hers, and I never could fit it on my finger.  It's broken now, as you can see in the next drawing, which is of the back of the ring.

The bow-shaped pin was my other grandmother's wedding gift from my grandfather, and it's engraved on the inside with their wedding date, October 3, 1912.  The pin has 13 small pearls in graduated sizes and 10 diamonds, all relatively small and delicate. 

The most interesting piece of jewelry here, to me, is the bracelet at the bottom.  It was a favor from a Mardi Gras ball from the Krewe of Rex in 1924.  It's very beautiful, made of panels inlaid with mother of pearl, each a tiny landscape on a dark background.  In gold on one of the panels are the letters R24, which stand for Rex 1924.  It must have been my mother's mother's bracelet, because she would have been in her 40s in 1924 and of prime ball-going age, and my grandfather was a member of the Krewe of Rex. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Easily Overlooked

I heard a story today about a man who took his young child to the Grand Canyon.  He was excitedly telling the child to look at the enormous vista, the wonderful sunset;  but the child was much more interested in a small rock that he had found at his feet.   The story made me think of an afternoon that I spent with my then-youngest grandson Barnaby, who was around 3 years old at the time, at his brother's soccer game.  Barno had no interest in watching the game of course, so I walked around the park with him and got down on his level many, many times.  One of the best things we found to watch was an ant hole out of which rather large ants were crawling, carrying big grains of sand, pushing the grains up and over the lip of the hole, and then shoving them into the rim that was forming around the opening.  We never got tired of watching and talking about the ants and their grains.  We watched until it got dark and the game ended and we had to go home.

Today's drawings are of those kinds of tiny, seemingly insignificant, but really mysterious and wonderful objects.  On the right side of the page, at the top left, is a strange painted rock that my oldest grandson, Jacob, and I got from an Art-o-mat machine (a refitted cigarette machine) at a grocery store when he was around 6 or 7.  It was part of one of a dozen or so cigarette-pack-sized art pieces that you could buy for $5 from the machine.  I never got what Jacob saw in this particular art piece (which consisted of the rock, some shredded paper, and a couple of other little parts), but he liked it very much.  Somehow it has ended up in a bowl of other odds and ends on a dresser in the bedroom at my house.

The object to the right of the art rock is a paper-thin seed pod, slightly dimpled in places, containing a dessicated seed pod.  I have no idea what kind of seed pod this is or where it came from.  Below the art rock is a chestnut or conker, favorite object of various children from time to time, fun to carry around in a pocket.  And beside the conker is an elongated acorn, equally mysterious in provenance.  On the bottom row are a cracked hazel nut and a turret shell from a beach on the east coast of England.

These last two objects are copper crows that I made as part of an art piece.  I cut them out with tin snips and bent them around metal dowels, turning them into finials on the piece.  I really love these crows and miss the two others that have fallen off the piece.  If I ever find another piece of copper gutter I'll cut out the missing crows and make the piece whole again.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Reporting on Food

I started drawing today at breakfast and quickly decided that today would be a no-thought drawing day:  I would simply draw whatever I ate all day before I ate it.  So I drew plain Fage yogurt and thawed-out frozen blueberries and raw almonds, my usual breakfast.  Then I drew lunch at my friend Linda's, where we combined the leftovers I had brought me with some stuff she had and came up with an accidentally beautiful lunch for the two of us:  very dense seedy bread from the wonderful Farm and Sparrow bakery, an apple, some local Stackhouse goat cheese, leftover stir fry of kielbasa and root vegetables including sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, leeks, and kale topped with toasted sesame seeds (gomasio).

Tonight at home it was No One's night to cook.  Instead we foraged, and this is what I came up with:  a grilled Irish cheddar with tomato slices sandwich on Whole Foods' sourdough bread topped with Patrick's dukkah from Thanksgiving and some leftover broccolini.  I had the peppermint tea with lunch.  And that's it for today.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Short Busy Day, Long Dark Night

At ceramics studio this afternoon Maya finished under-glazing her fox sculpture.  These three views show it in its unfinished state with the under-glaze on but not yet fired.  You can see the fluffy fox tail as well as the front feet.  This fox is sitting up.  Maya made it from a ball of red-brown clay.  She has a good feel for form.  She draws foxes a lot, and when she formed this piece she pulled on ideas she has about foxiness from all those drawings.  The little bag is one I made today to fill an order.  It's made out of an Urban Outfitters carrying bag and has a green horse bag lining, tres chic with its tiny white metal chain for a shoulder strap.

This last drawing for today is of an enormous oak tree that squats on the edge of one of the woods trails, drawn from a phone picture that I took one night a few weeks ago.  I for one am very happy that in another two and a half weeks the light will be waxing again.  I couldn't even get a walk in today because by the time I got home at 6:00 PM it was completely dark, and I don't have a decent flashlight, and there isn't a single street lamp on our road.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Moss Season

I don't know whether it's because nothing else is growing in the woods, or if it really is the optimum time of year for mosses, but today we saw mosses everywhere and in great variety.  If you have a moss garden or a rock garden or a moss sofa in your yard like my friend Brad has, this is the time to go out and replenish!  I brought home half a dozen different kinds of moss, and that's what today's drawings are of.  After drawing them, I plunked them down in a clay pot out in the backyard.  Tomorrow I'll choose the best ones to add to my tiny moss garden terrarium. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Today's topic is orphaned objects.  (Jesse, leftover from yesterday, was actually an orphan when he hurled himself at our bedroom window three summers ago, and so he too belongs with this group.)  On the right hand page at the top left is a pretty beveled glass mirror that had been abandoned in my grandparents' house when my family cleared out their furniture and other things before renting the house out to us while the estate was being settled.  When we left to move on three years later,  I helped myself to the mirror.  It had been hung on the bathroom wall with picture wire and a nail, probably in the early 1900s when my grandparents bought the house.  I tried to strip the paint off, thinking I would find beautiful old wood underneath;  but the frame of the mirror turned out to be made of plaster.

The three containers were all abandoned by various visiting daughters-in-law.  The two on the top are a set:  blonde hair shampoo and conditioner, which blonde Maya likes to use when she spends the night here.  The one on the  bottom is conditioner to tame frizzy hair, which none of them has.  It's almost full, so I hold onto it in the event that someday a curly-haired guest will find it.

The drawings on this page are of kitchen orphans.  On the let is my other grandmother's big enameled spoon.  It was left in her house after she died, and I was staying in her house a few months later and found the spoon in an otherwise empty cabinet.  I took it home, planning to use it.  But the throat of the spoon is bare of enamel and is rusted and weak.  So I hung it on the wall over our sink, next to the other object.  This object is a pair of ice tongs from the days when people had ice delivered to their kitchens for their ice boxes.  We found the tongs under the sink in our old house in Indiana when we were moving in.  They reminded me of the only ice box I can remember,  in my spoon grandmother's kitchen.  I remember sitting for a few minutes on the block of ice, which was covered with scratchy tan cloth, probably burlap.