Friday, June 25, 2021

Youth, Age and Rejuvenation


I make almost daily walks to the Henry Clay estate. It is only about a mile from my home and it is filled with enough trees that it has officially become an arboretum. I can do my forest bathing and tree-hugging close to home! The estate also features an historic house (though it was built after Henry Clay's time) and an English style enclosed garden. Two sides of the garden are bounded by a brick wall and the other two by a fifty-year old Yew hedge. Recently, the interior side of the hedge has been cut back to the trunks. A sign announcing the project states that this is being done so that the yew hedge might thrive for another 50 years. We are invited to be patient during this aesthetically awkward time. 

As I approached the garden this day, I could see the sculpture of the young child and birds through the newly sheared hedge. The branches were framing the sculpture in an interesting way. When I entered the garden and looked at the sculpture from that vantage point it appeared to be an intriguing juxtaposition of youth and age, and what is necessary for rejuvenation to keep something aging successfully (and that is a juxtaposition in itself!) To me, this idea was encapsulated in this photograph. The sculpture of the child is particularly lovely because, through age it has developed the lovely verdigris patina (except on the left foot which has been polished by many hands over the years.) The child appears to be looking over at the scarred hedge with a bit of concern--"What has happened to my hedge's verdant growth?" --eyeing particularly the round copper wounds where branches used to be attached. The hedge has re-entered a stage of awkward adolescence, though it is fortunate to have a green side and the basic structure to grow into. The asymmetry of mature boxwoods along the border has been exposed with the removal of half of the hedge, so the awkwardness reverberates along the two sides. 

All this made me think about graceful aging and how sometimes we are required to cut something out in a major way. This is difficult because the change in ourselves also reverberates out in waves into our lives. Sometimes the change is harder on the 'boxwoods' in our lives than us. And the change can be necessary even if you have been careful and tuned into healthy practices. The Yew Project sign noted that they have been carefully pruning back the hedge all along. There are also times when we are forced to change, forced to say goodbye to an important part of our life--no planning was involved. But, perhaps that encourages a kind of new growth, too, even though not desired. I guess what struck me while in the garden, was the strong link between youth and age, old and new and the intriguing idea of cutting away so that something could become even older.  My wish is that we may have the fortitude to carry on for a bit longer and develop a beautiful patina of our own. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

My Mother and the Garden

 I've walked to the ebullient peony garden at Ashland Estate to get photos and inhale the peony air on the day before Mothers Day. The forecast for Mothers Day is grim--a gully washer. So here I am on a beautiful Saturday. My image here is bereft of people, but on this Saturday, there are harmonious 'crowds'. People speaking different languages and also the language of family. It strikes me right at the heart. A jet goes overhead and I think of the Kew Gardens where a 747 seemed to pass overhead every minute. Okay, this is a scaled down version of a garden, but it is within walking distance and it is something I can claim.

    I have this realization as I'm looking at the peonies and listening to the intimate conversations--my mother was never really a fan of gardens, at least in her Earthly life. Gardens for her meant weeding in the hot sun. She was a person of ideas and making things. Perhaps in projects where you were simply the co-pilot of God, well... Anyway, she was not a fan. Somehow, this strikes me as more pertinent as I'm looking at the fuchsia petals. MA didn't really care for gardening, yet, now she meets me in the garden. In fact, the garden at Ashland Estate. Very curious.

     My favorite story to read is The Secret Garden. I first read it as a child, reading the very book my mother read as a child. Funny that the book we shared from childhood would be about a garden. But, funny things have happened since my mother departed. She made it clear to me that she would be 'in the garden' just like Lilias clarioned to Archie. 

     So, when I am walking to Ashland Estate I love to go by the walled garden and I envision my mother's presence. Is she there? Can I be certain? No, but there is this amazing group of volunteer gardeners who tend the peony patch and the walled garden, so MA would be off the hook work-wise.

     Families and mothers are unique. We believe that we don't really have choices in the matter of where we land. Yet, here we are, looking out at all the things growing and giving thanks.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Lovely, Lowly, Clover

When I first read the description of the new Ballad harp from Musicmakers, I was a little dismayed. It featured a lighter tension and closer spacing of the strings. I thought, 'How irritating.'  Also, I had already made two harps and what did I need with another?  That was in the spring.

    Over the summer, I joined the Bright Knowledge Harp Circle and began the wonderful adventure of a deeper dive into playing the harp. I realized there were all kinds of possibilities for improving my playing and clarifying my expression. Also, I had experienced several more months of living with a raging pandemic and, well, rage in general. It occurred to me that having a lighter, more sensitive touch might be good in today's world--we could use a little more yin to balance the yang being thrown about. So, when there was a deal I couldn't refuse, I ordered the DIY Ballad Kit from Musicmakers. It arrived a couple of days later.

     I knew what I would name my new harp long before she arrived unassembled: Clover. That is not a surprise to those of you who know me. I love clover and learned from Carly-the-Dog to spot 4-leafs. My dream lakeside studio was called Clover Slope. But, clover, the plant, does not need my endorsement. This humble little plant is a wonder! Of course it is charming above ground, with a sweet scent when abundantly in bloom and the leaves, whether in 3s, 4s or more are so pleasing in their simple way. Below ground, clover is quite industrious, fixing nitrogen in the soil so that it is accessible to vegetation. And, generally, clover comes to us as a grace. I included two four leafs on the soundboard to proclaim Clover's identity. 

       Working on Clover, I remembered the challenges and delights of building an instrument. I highly recommend Musicmakers kits. I built my first harp with no previous woodworking experience. Clover is my fifth instrument and so I knew more, but I forget things in between and always learn something new with each project. This time, I learned about orbital sanders--they save a lot of time! Still, building a harp is quite a yang exercise. There is a lot of brute force and endurance involved. I was looking forward to practicing some yin-action!

      After all the glueing, drilling and sanding (lots of sanding!) it was time to address my favorite part of the project: Clover's coat of color. I decided on a clover pink and since I couldn't find what I was looking for and I didn't want anything too heavy that would affect the sound, I created my own custom color with acrylic paints I already have on hand. I diluted the paint, so that it was a stain and I brushed it on and rubbed off the extra. It turned out to be even more beautiful than I expected as the wood shown through as gold. The effect was kind of a rose-gold.

     After the stain and multiple topcoat applications, it was time to install all the hardware (a very yang activity) and finally, the strings were attached (lots of strings attached in this world). It took me almost 4 weeks to build. I wanted to take my time because, surely this will be my last harp project (family members hope). 

     After all the strings were attached, and as I began the process of tuning, I created a song in praise of clover to be the first thing I would play on Clover.  Here is a snippet of that tune...

I played my clover creation on Clover for a couple of Zoom groups and everyone had clover stories: you can suck the nectar out of blooms on the large purple clover, horses get clover-slobber when they've been in a patch. Clover truly strikes a chord when we consider how the simpler things in life can nourish us so well (hopefully without clover-slobber...)



Saturday, July 11, 2020

Going to Seed

My last blog was about this 'pregnant time' and now I'm going to seed! For my backyard botanical sketch this week, I spent some time studying the bronze fennel which seems to be pretty happy in our back yard. I like its color in all its phases and I also like that it attracts swallowtail caterpillars to its branches. It is fun to watch the caterpillars grow considerably each day. Still waiting for them to appear this year...

I was working on rendering the flower heads and the sun went behind a cloud. The effect was kind of like seeing images in the dark when lightening strikes or an x-ray vision. The seeds of autumn were apparent, just below the flowery tops, in the lower light. In bright sunlight, light streams through the flowers and illuminates the whole. In clouded light, shadows darken the seeds in formation. It was quite a dramatic transformation and was happening in quick intervals allowing me to marvel at this effect. 

And just as I was reminded of a time of life in my last blog, once again, I related this vision to my life--actually, this time of my life. The pandemic has given me permission to go a little wild. I've not had a haircut for almost 6 months and I quit blowdrying my hair. I was just curious about what was really essential right now. Maybe not too much... But, I've been pondering a haircut and also wondering what I'm really looking like these days. I can't see what I look like without my glasses without my glasses. So, I decided to take a selfie without my glasses and slip my glasses on to see what I looked like. 

Well, it turns out that the bloom is off the rose. Nothing horrendous, just that I won't be attracting pollinators anytime soon. I must have been reflecting on this while rendering the flower/seed heads and realized that actually, my 'fertility' at this time is more like that of the seed head. Rather than trying to cling to wilted floral glory (which no self-respecting bee is going to buy), my energy is channeled into seed sowing activities that (I hope) bring beauty and new life into my world. 

I appreciate the beauty of the bronzy seed heads of the fennel. Their texture is alluring and they appear ready to generously spread their little bursts of energy. In fact, it is hard for me to resist assisting them in this. Considering where they appear, I think nature is most effective in the re-seeding. But, how lovely to think of the swallowtails that will be appearing...

I am going to get a haircut and I'm putting some thought into how to be an attractive seed-sower. At my birthday, I gave myself permission to be a flower fairy. Maybe I should have made that a seed fairy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Pregnant Time

A Pregnant Time, Kathy Rees Johnson, opaque watercolor and collage on paper. 

It has been more than 31 years since I've been pregnant, but I recognize the time we are in right now, and it is a pregnant time.

It started to feel this way early in our quarantine living.  Unless we were called upon as essential workers, we abruptly withdrew from the world to our homes. Early in my first pregnancy, things were a bit tenuous and I had to quit my normal running around (literally) and keep relatively calm and still for a while. Fortunately, I had final exam studying to keep me sedately occupied. A similar demand was issued from COVID-19. Cancellations appeared left and right, and our time of confinement began.

Pregnancy is a time of going inside oneself. The body undergoes changes which are obvious to detect by the impregnated person and those receive a lot of attention, but not more attention than the not so obvious changes around the new being growing within. I feel the same way now. I've had to adjust to obvious changes such as wearing a mask during the limited times I head out to the grocery store or making sure that I keep six feet between myself and anyone not in my tiny sphere. At the same time, there is a whole lot of worrying and wondering what this new life is going to be post-COVID.

There are plenty of books about 'what to expect when you are expecting', but most parents know that the only reliable expectation is that there is going to be CHANGE. I am certain that is true of our COVID pregnancy as well. Already in our delicate condition we are worrying and wondering about how the economy is going to work so that a person does not have to become destitute after missing a single paycheck or how to educate young people when it is not possible to be physically close. COVID has exposed weaknesses. We can also see how 'clean living' is clearing the air and water. Is it possible to continue our relatively clean living?

It is impossible not to try to imagine what life will be like postpartum. What we envision is usually a variation on what we have lived before. We learn about the limits of our imagination when the child arrives and insists on being their own person! The same will be true for our post-COVID world. This has been convincingly brought to us by the death of George Floyd. My idea of a wonderful world was shamefully small, not taking into consideration the systemic miscarriage of justice in our country.

During the pregnancy, the body prepares to support and nourish the life about to be launched. I can see this happening, particularly in the work of young people, leading the way in pointing out our degenerative systems. They are heading into a world brought low with a pandemic and a crashing economy. From what I see, young people are seizing this opportunity to creatively rebuild the world in a more just way.

So, I say thank God for new life and new generations who can further our understanding of what is good. I feel it happening. It won't be easy and there will be serious labor involved. But, CHANGE is coming.

Notes on the art used in the collage:
Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-thePulpit No. 3, 1930; and Red Flower, 1919
O'Keefe's imagery is notably fecund. Apparently, she had wanted a child, but Whatshisname resisted, though he had a child with Whatshername.

Vincent van Gogh, Orchard in Blossom, 1889.
Though van Gogh was not appreciated in his lifetime, his work is food for our souls now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Making Do Dinner Strata

These days, a major goal is limiting the number of times we venture out to the grocery store, so I like making up meals with food on hand. Fortunately, I had all the ingredients to make up a substantial dinner strata. In fact, knowing that we would be picking up an order of fantastic bread from Singe at the Chevy Chase Farmers Market in the morning, I wanted to use up some (13 day!) old bread. More on that later, but first, as requested:

The Recipe, Skeleton Version

4+ cups of old bread, cubed *
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/3 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup country ham, finely chopped **
1 cup + grated cheese ***
1 cup + roughly chopped (or snipped) spinach
butter for preparing the casserole and for sautéing the onions/ham
salt and pepper
seasoning (I used some Trader Joe's Everyday Seasoning)

     Whisk the eggs and milk together and let sit while you prepare the other ingredients. Saute the chopped onion in some butter and olive oil for about 5 minutes, just until softened and add in the ham just to meld the flavors. You can add the seasoning you want to use to this mixture, along with some pepper. Add a modest amount of salt to the egg mixture (country ham and cheese provide a lot of saltiness).
     Place half of the bread cubes in the bottom of a buttered casserole. Cover that with half of the spinach, the seasoned onion/ham mixture and then not quite half of the cheese. Repeat with a second layer. Pour the egg mixture over and put a little extra grated cheese on top, if you wish. I used a smallish, but deep casserole.
     Most recipes call for refrigerating the strata for 8 hours or overnight. The strata is removed half an hour before cooking. Bake at 350 degrees, covered, for 35 minutes. Remove foil, or top and cook another 20 minutes or until golden. Let rest for 10 minutes. That is the guidance I got from recipes--Here is what I did because I had not planned ahead:   Place in fridge for 1 hour. Remove to warm to room temperature for 30 minutes. Place in oven, covered and set to 300 degrees to slowly begin warming. Leave for 30 minutes and turn up to 325 and bake 20 minutes. Remove covering and turn heat up to 375 for 20 minutes or until golden. Let rest briefly before digging in.

* We had about a third of a loaf of Pain au levain and a bit of some Vollkornbrot (German, for whole grain bread, I believe) from Bluegrass Baking Company. The bread had been stored in paper bags, so it was hard as a rock, but still quite tasty. I had to hose the bread down a couple of times, wrap loosely in foil and warm to soften it up for cutting. When you store bread in plastic bags, it stays softer, but can mold quite quickly. Both of these breads were sourdough breads which give an amazing tang to the strata and blends so well with the ham and cheese. Singe breads (what we picked up today) are made of freshly milled whole grain flours. While we don't live by bread alone, a good bread sure brings a lot of sweetness (and tang) to life!

** David had the idea to get a petite country ham for Easter. It was a great idea because a small ham (about 2 lbs) will last us at least a month. Ham can be used in the traditional way, as a type of seasoning. The saltiness and intense flavor go a long way!

*** I used a mixture of smoked Gouda, parmesan and a bit of cheddar. The smoked Gouda is the product of Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese, from Austin, Kentucky. The flavor is perfect with the tangy sourdough and the salty ham.

     We were delighted with our little meal, which we served with a simple salad. We have enough for another meal. Naturally, this can be adjusted to suit your pantry and your tastes. You might also want to increase the ratio of the egg mixture to the bread. I see that I am presenting this similarly to how I instruct art; I encourage experimentation!

     Stay safe and sated!
Our haul from Singe today: Ancient grain crackers, Double Fermented Pumpernickel with Blue emmer sprouts, Buckwheat Walnut crackers, Traditional Country Sourdough baguette. The pumpernickel will be placed in a paper bag--future meals await--perhaps a strata with sauerkraut? 

Monday, April 6, 2020

Eternal Ephemeral

Eternal Ephemeral, watercolor/pastel on Arches cold press watercolor paper mounted on board,
 24 x 12"
Practically everyday, I make my way to Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. It is a place of beauty in all seasons, but especially so in the fleeting season of Spring. The Spring Beauties give a pristine covering to the grounds and above ground, everything seems to be popping out at once. The Dogwoods are just behind the Redbuds. Even the late-to-leaf Ash trees are popping out. On a recent day, the loveliness was almost too much to bear. I was reminded of years when my mentor in the art of pastel, Fay Moore, would have workshops around the time of the Derby. The timing was so appropriate as Fay would welcome us into expressing our own beautiful (or quirky, or sporty) worlds. Under her guidance, I was able to create and dwell in the ephemeral Spring for an extended season. So, when I saw the ancient Ash leafing out so freshly, I thought of Fay Moore and I knew I wanted to recreate this scene with watercolor and pastel. Also, since I am already washing my hands many times a day, what would be a few many more???

Starting with a watercolor underpainting
For some reason, I was inspired to make my sketch using hard pastel--perhaps not the best choice, but  interesting to try. Experimenting is always useful. My watercolors here can be found on leftover palettes (yogurt lids) from workshops. I like the premixed, murky colors.  In general, I like to underpaint the sky area with a pink/red/orange color. It makes a more convincing sky, in my opinion. 

Laying down values
Normally, I would also underpaint the grassy areas with a red, too. But, in this scene, the Spring Beauties are more prominent than the grass, so I'm keeping this area properly light. In fact, my main goal with the watercolor is to establish values. This will make the rest of the painting a lot simpler. Everything runs into everything else and layers of paint washes and splashes give a rich base for the pastel. I double check the basic composition when the paint is dry (I've been painting on a horizontal surface) and correct any obvious aberrations.

Starting to lay in the pastel

   I like to start with the sky, or the upper, left hand corner. I'm defining the 'negative space' and also background. Generally, you can layer on the pastel as the subject matter is layered in life. I work quickly and freely, knowing that I can always correct with some watercolor or even just water to bring back the 'tooth' in the paper. After I added some of the spring leaf color, I became unhappy with the color of the sky, so I went back and made the sky more of a Robin's egg blue color. Sitting with the painting for a day and looking at it from different perspectives is useful. 

My completed painting celebrates both the ephemeral nature of Spring, but also things that last, like this Blue Ash tree planted by Henry Clay perhaps? Fay Moore is no longer with us, but for me, her inspiration and enthusiasm lives on with each new Spring. At a time when human life seems so fragile, it is healing for me to remember that I get to be a part of this beautiful world.