a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Elements of the Earth

October 18, 2016

Rust and burn...the way the earth consumes its essential elements and then renews itself, slowly, eon by eon, while we hardly notice.

In Asheville this weekend, under Holly Fouts' exuberant tutelage, ten of us made rust and burn work for us on papers of all sorts, leading us into visions we hadn't yet imagined.

Holly Fouts, books and papers
The workshop, called Elements of the Earth at the industrious BookWorks, which one enters significantly from the side of an old brick building in an alley off a quirky neighborhood off Haywood, was the den of a lot of creative printing techniques and even more inspiration.  It was a beautiful two days, the sun helping our clothes-pinned masterpieces develop into colors one sees mostly in its more spectacular settings over oceans and deserts.

desert or ocean

caves at guadirikiri

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Basically, in those two full, energetic days, we learned how to make rust, print rust, rust rustable metal, char, burn, singe, and crater, with a bit of dye, natural and unnatural, on the side.  We turned blank pages into resplendent papers that became a book, or paintings to be framed, or, particularly in my case, caches of papers to be used as cards or weavings or hangings or whatever shaped its destiny on any day.  We learned chemistry and sorcery, we argued over techniques and tricks, we shared materials and skills, damp rags and caustic trays. We dipped, dyed, folded, crumpled, smoothed, hung, rusted, rehung, burned and shaped our enthusiasms, and now, having been turned blissfully toward new light, we have come away with a fall of leaves that will become and become and become.

It couldn't have come at a better time for me, caught up in the web of family needs and desires, and house projects, and also a bit panicked at the calendar ahead of which lies our Holiday with Friends show in November. Working hard and well-focused at Elements of the Earth opened for me a huge well in which I could dip greedily.  Especially one which uses, as I do, so many small, forgotten, decomposing but renewable fragments of natural life on this planet.

Workshops that really work depend so much on who teaches them.  I remember a calligraphy workshop a few years ago that  I'd been looking forward to for weeks, whose instructor, though a regional prizewinner, brought with her such a wealth of material (dazzling, really) but a dearth of teaching skill.  So, one taught oneself, stimulated by the colors and textures of the piles of paper, tissue, ribbon, paint, ephemera around us.  Meanwhile our leader dashed from person to person, trying to take our brushes in her own hand to reform our pieces to look more like hers.  (We quickly learned defensive moves.)  But those materials...I remember them still with fondness.  One of my favorite pieces, Abiquiu, issued forth from them.
Abiquiu, 2009
As I was packing the "bring" list for the Asheville workshop, I came across a stash of old travel notebooks and sketch pads.  There were one or two drawings I did for the boys' birthdays, some raw paints the boys and I did at Margaret Reasor's on the Gulf Coast or at school.  A whole notebook--two, in fact--from Jean Rosow's sessions in the Botanical Gardens, the one that started me off with art.  Another, drawings in graphite pencil--amazingly good for such an imperfect drawer as I am--from Jane Filer's classes at the Carrboro Arts Center.  Strangely, there were none from Betty Bell's painting group (I think I framed most of those), but it made me remember what a good teacher she was; another wanderer and chatterer, she never interfered, but could lay out just what we needed and remark on just what would make an image better.

drawing, 1994
Good teachers pull work out of each student, even at the beginning when you don't know you have any in you.  Focus, necessary distraction, a good pen, a helpful gesture, another angle, or "here's an idea":  a good teacher knows her stuff but more important than sharing that information, she or he shares the keys to unlocking it in ourselves.  "Here's how to do it," they show us patiently and carefully, "Now, have at it!  have fun!"  And we set to working harder than ever.

Holly Fouts not only shared those keys with us (both virtual and nice, rusted, real ones that made great impressions) but also encouraged the same sharing among us, all of whom were already artists skilled in other areas, in a panoply of media with experience in lots more than just one form.  Each of us had signed on to this weekend to bring a new perspective to what we were about. So there was more than one deep well, in fact, to draw from.

Learning like that is fun, but it's work, all right.  The brain reeling, the feet trucking miles back and forth among stations on the studio floor, the shoulders bumping into others as we, tunnel-visioned, meld what we know, what we learn, what we believe we can do with this new medium.  And, then, just outside the tunnel, we are struck with what that new medium can give to the others we practice. The expansiveness this newness affords.

rust book, cover

rust book, flyleaf and first page
Any art is like that, of course;  it's never only the one you're there to study, but a thousand openings in the field, as Duncan put it poetically, crossing media, crossing genres, crossing planets. Life lessons, too.  Coming home with the bounty, we are so enlivened, thanks to the gift of people who teach well.

My niece, Jessica, at dinner the other night, was rhapsodizing about her four children's teachers this year:  "We're so lucky!  They're all wonderful!"  Inventive, kind, perceptive, understanding, knowing, enthusiastic, she meant (and said so).  We are all so grateful when we find them--or they find us--along the way.

Talk about essential elements of the earth.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


October 1, 2016

My grandson Alexander, three and a half, and I like to bake together.  It's something we do when one or another of his parents drop him off to play at Nana's.  The new year coming up in a few days, yesterday I pulled out ingredients for a honey cake and, though he spent a good lot of the time licking the honey off the small blue-willow saucer I give him for snacks, we managed to cut apples, measure flour and spices (and baking soda and salt, he reminds me, looking up from his dedicated concentration on the sweet stuff), whipped eggs and honey, and mixed them all up to bake.  The house, even the yard outside, grew aromatic with the first of fall's holidays.

Honey cake is one of those yearly treats I used to approach with some trepidation, since a good one is both fragrant and moist and a less good one (I'll be generous here with a few of the ones in my past repertoire) well, dry.  So much depends on the recipe, kind of flour, the proportion of honey, even the foibles of the oven itself.  But I finally got the best of it when it occurred to me that the tradition of eating apples and honey--a toast to a sweet year!--might be a clue, and I took two recipes, Teddy's Apple Cake, a fall favorite from a page out of an ancient NYT magazine that doesn't have to wait for once a year, and Heidi Wortzels's Honey Cake, from Joan Nathan's book of holiday recipes.  A bit from this one and a bit from that one, and I made my own.  All of a sudden, dry was obsolete; the spice and softness of the apples lifted the cake in both height and spirit.

Now that I've openly admitted that transgression, some traditionalist is going to frown, reach into her or his own cookbook shelf, and convince me that there was nothing wrong with great-grandmother's version.  Yes, yes, I'll say, I know your grandmother's recipe always came out as sweet and light as a childhood memory on a silver platter.  But this is our version now, and our tradition has to begin somewhere. It's like the baking we do together.  If it worked as a holiday sweet back when I re-invented it, it's working now as part of Alexander's and my time together.  Coming in the kitchen door, he'll climb up on the counter, slide into place before my mixer, and announce, "Let's make something!"  If making something means a chance to work the levers on the 35-year-old machine and lick the batter, it also means he's learning how to break eggs, measure spice, cut up apples, and most important think about ingredients as possibilities.

This summer, we made a cake entirely from Alexander's imagination.  He added to the requisite base a little bit of this and that (chocolate, avocado, carrots, zucchini, a sprinkle of juice from his tumbler, and cinnamon, of course, which, besides the chocolate, is always on Alexander's list of necessary additions)...whatever he felt like working with.  We gave pieces to the neighbors, some to my niece and her children who were visiting, and had some for a snack.  Almost everyone liked it (well, some people are just picky eaters).  The best part wasn't that, amazingly, nothing went wrong; the best part was that it was clear he'd learned what making a cake was all about and could be adventurous in embellishing the basics.  He is becoming a cook.

Alexander likes plenty of other things, too...Hallowe'en, action figures, digging in the yard,

banging rocks with various tools (he knows the precise names of all the tools in a carpenter's tool caddy, and of most of the construction vehicles on the road...the Excavator Song is a frequent request).  He likes anything to do with building up and cutting down.  Legos, Lincoln logs, wooden blocks litter the playroom floor.  He likes practicing using scissors.  He climbs rocks and jumps off flights of steps and reads funny books, especially the parts where the hero gets into trouble. He will take on the character of his heroes (both good and bad), and involve you in the action (you get to play the parts he assigns you).  "Let's do it!", he rallies us.

In even more elemental words, he's a maker.  A boy who creates.  It's the three-year-old mind at work, heads filled with sheer possibility.  That sense of unlimited potential is the sweetest thing, truly, about this life, and it's such a gift to be reminded of it.

May you all know such sweetness in the new year, whatever the recipe.


Our Honey Cake

Whip together:
1 cup oil (I use coconut oil)
1 cup honey (darker the better)
1 cup dark brown sugar

Adding one at a time, continue to whip in:
3 eggs

Sift together:
3 cups flour (I use Pamela's GF)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Add dry ingredients to egg/honey mixture and beat until smooth.  If the mixture seems too dry, I add a little orange juice. 

Peel, core and chop:
4 large apples

Fold apples into batter.  You can also add 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds, and raisins (we like raisins, which I soak in cognac or something like that first, but I forgot to put them in this time).

Pour batter into a greased Bundt or two loaf pans.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes (depending on pan, your oven, etc.).

It's best left to sit for a day before serving, if you can wait that long.