a journal of...

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Gifts of the Season

These days pass by so quickly, bearing gifts we might barely notice to appreciate.

I don't mean the shiny ribboned gifts from family and friends, with Happy Holidays! and Love from us all! which make us smile as they accumulate, nudging us further into an already over-bright season, but the intangibles...like today, a suddenly warm, breezy day, cloud-covered and promising rain, good for holing up inside after a busy holiday; or the quiet of the streets on a morning walk, everyone else still asleep or still away.  Leaves rattle across my path, uncovering richly ored stones among the gray driveway gravel right beneath my feet. The holiday crush passed, I look forward to spending a whole afternoon absorbing a good book sent by a friend, just the right one.

books for a quiet day
There are affectionate notes in the mailbox, reminding us how close even far-flung friendships seem; a telephone call which begins, even as you start to say the same words yourself, "I've been thinking of you and wanting to call..."  Another ends with a gentle urgency, "Let's keep in touch..."  My sister rings early one morning.  "I woke up and just wanted to say hello." My children call from their northern holiday with in-laws and pass the phone around the room to pull me into their chatter. This year, my aunt, 97 and challenged by dimming sight, says she's happier making phone calls than sending cards anyway because "people seem to appreciate a conversation more."  I know what she means...I'm still making a few cards to send and though they are each a personal vision, the words inside don't quite convey what I'd like to confide, and certainly they can't record what that one fondly-thought-of recipient responds.

wishes from friends
I  have always loved the tradition of sending holiday cards, the formality of wishes written between pages of images we hope will convey the hopeful affection we feel.  But it isn't so much the cards themselves as the message they signify: that along the way we have enfolded into our lives people with whom we share part of our souls and are grateful no matter how long it has been since we've shared a life.  Good friends, it seems, brook no distance in time or space.  Once, after 40 years, a college housemate called me out of the blue and talked as if she'd just gone off for the weekend and come back again. Because of her, there are nine of us in that recovered loop.  It's 50 years now since we graduated, and notes and e-letters come more often, but our past is still part of the present. What were we doing all that time apart?  Living our lives, so different and differently, in such different worlds. Yet it hardly took a weekend to catch up.

The same is true of friends from places I'd once lived within their reach.  When we talk or write, we trade information about daily life, children, books we've read (or written), travels, market trips, old times, new times, struggles and triumphs as if they still lived next door.  As if it hadn't been a year since the last time we heard from one another. When such connections break, they leave an absence felt as strongly as the continued presence.

Still, friends appear in the guise of strangers.  On my trip to visit my aunts and uncle last week, I'd been sitting a few minutes in front of the hearth at the lodge where we were staying, when the woman across the side table and I began a chat--the sort that strangers do all the time:  "Isn't this a wonderful fire; nice to have a few minutes of quiet; what brings you here; where are you from..."  In no time, though, I seemed to know a lot about her; she seemed in fact, a younger version of (this sounds bordering on the solipsistic, I'm afraid, but forgive me) myself.  I remembered life at that age, the worries and gleanings and pride that it brings. We had, it turned out, a lot in common in that generation-shifting way.  We left each having learned something only our chance meeting would have allowed.  "Oh, can we stay in touch?" she asked, as I wrote down the link to this blog.

Nearby, at home, abiding friendship lies at the door.  Coming back from my long, tiring trip, I find a text from a neighbor.  "We see you're back! Come for dinner."  Chanukah begins the very next day, but I know just who to call to help celebrate, and there they are bearing candles, salads and wine.

Another neighbor sends me home with a basket of treats, intuiting, I'm sure, that I haven't had time to make my own (indeed, the ones I made in haste weren't, I'm afraid, worth a holiday).  An email reaches me:  "I know it's last minute, but we would love for you to come out to the farm for Christmas brunch if you can." In the kitchen, our own or others', we assemble the secrets of holidays past and present, and at tables rich with food, conversation, and sentiment we too often take for granted, such gifts ripen and smooth as we imbibe.

pairs of pears
Can we say, on ordinary days in March or August, how much they mean to us?  Of course we can. And sometimes (maybe not as often as we think of it) do.  But there is something about the season, perhaps winter coming on, perhaps the year ending and curling toward a new one, that brings us up short, and reminds us to gather our friendships close and hold on.  This year, given the dysfunctional world, they seem more important than ever.

The other day I dropped in on my niece and her family, bringing a package for their family celebration. Two of my favorite gifts awaited me there, though I didn't know it yet.  One child, while I was busy talking, ran up to his room and wrapped a small present for me...a wrist band he'd gotten from a run at school...and presented it to me with a huge smile.  His older sister came along just after:  "This is my present," she said, and hugged me tightly.  I am glad that they, too, young as they are, know how to hold on.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Closures and Openings

Good morning...is it?  The wet, chilly day has its own pleasantries.  There are so many things to do inside, especially with the holiday season upon us.  But today I'm doing art, first and foremost finishing that linen-to-leather book I began last week in Kathy Steinsberger's studio.

If you were one of those who advised me on closures, thank you!  I might have to return to that photo disclaimer to explain that two of you chose #1 (the egret front and back), as did another of you, my sister-in-law Susan, who, however, was lucky enough to see the book itself and changed her mind. She explained that in the photo, the egret and the button look the best, but in person, the copper closure seemed to fit the cover perfectly; it was a matter of color not quite translated by the photograph.  Sorry about that.

never-ending story
I'd already decided on the copper myself, though I was leaning toward the green button pair as well, which suited it but seemed...well, too safe.  And so this morning, I found just the right ribbon.

The closure fell into place in another way, too.  Instead of the sketchbook I envisioned for myself, I saw its potential as a gift to go along with a box of children's books I'm sending for the holidays.  (Shhh...don't tell!)  This book, with all those empty pages, will be a place for the recipients to write their own stories, each signature opening to its own imaginative possibilities.  I'm really pleased about it, and hope it encourages storytelling as a gift to be continued lifelong.


Speaking of openings,this morning's mail notified me that two of my art pieces have been juried in to the Carrboro Arts Center's Annual Community Art Exhibit.  You've seen them before in this blog:

elements of the earth
side curl

The reception will be Friday evening, during Carrboro Art Walk.  Hope you all can come!

And hope you find something to close and open (in a good way) today.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Making Books II among Other Stories

At Blam! where Kathy Steinsberger's studio shares a light-filled old building with three other artists, we've had two productive days working on book- and signature covers to make an art journal. Mine isn't finished yet...I still have to add embellishments (pocket slips, page markers, illustrations) to the pages, but you can see how far we've come from these pictures of our process.

Kathy Steinsberger teaching at Blam!
First, you need a good teacher in a great space with endless possibilities...

the stuff of dreams
For the cover, I used a piece of old linen table runner cut, folded and sewn at the edges.   I'm afraid I don't have a photo of the cut linen piece, evidence of why I am not a photographer:  I'm so into the action, I never remember to stop and record what I'm doing.  So here is this photo, taken while I was working the runner last summer.  That, fortunately, has its own story, worth an aside:

my handwork, cut off for this project
and back in the possibilities drawer
I had found the unfinished linen in my mother's blanket chest, folded away in this bathing suit box from the 'fifties, it looks like from the tinted illustration.

bathing suit box
Remember when bathing suits came in boxes behind the counter at the department store, and, like hosiery, you chose a model and color and asked for your size from the attentive saleslady? The linen had been stored in this box with embroidery threads, now-rusted needle and oval hoop, awaiting execution. Who knows how long.  So, though I hadn't done any needlework since someone must have handed me a piece to work on somewhere in my childhood, I picked it up, thinking to finish what was someone's clear intention.  It was fun.  But somehow it never fit onto my own furniture, and my sister gently demurred when I asked her if she wanted it.  Into the drawer of possibilities it went.

And out it came for this project.  Painted with thick coats of acrylic and heavy gel medium, this is what my inside cover looked like as it was drying. (You'll see the outside cover below, in the almost finished form, because...see photo disclaimer above.)

my inside cover

Kathy's stamped cover, in progress

The signatures we folded and sewed into the cover were also fun to do and to arrange.  (Like the Barnes collection, you'll have to guess at the idea behind the arrangement.)  Signatures are the sections of papers - 6 or 8 usually - bound together with thread.  Though most books are pasted page-to-binding now, and so come apart more easily, you can see sewn signatures in older and in custom books by looking down at the top of the book for the folded sections sewn inside the spine, one signature after another.  When you put signatures together in an art book, the sheets of white or printed paper you see in a regular text book can become anything you want.  They don't even have to be white, or the same kind of paper.  One of Kathy's samples was built from odd papers she collected in France...menus, tickets, maps, bread wrappers, etc.

As here, each signature can even have its own cover, dividing the whole into parts that can be used for different things. The book I was making gave me an idea for its use as a future sketchbook.

seven signatures

cross hatch
Sewing these to the soft binding was a challenge, not, as Kathy rightly warned us, an intellectual one but a manipulative one...two large cross-hatches attached all seven signatures to the cover, using two needles at once.  I had to pull out a few stitches to redo (it was the end of the day, after all), but I liked the effect, both inside and out.
sewn signatures

inside front cover with pocket
We were working against time, so I didn't go home with the book in its ultimate form.  I wanted time to think about a closure, not finding quite the right materials at hand, and knowing I needed head space to envision this book's final touch.  I also needed time to do the interior embellishments I'd planned with some buttons from my grandmother's collection, a resource I use not only for re-dressing shirts and sweaters, but in lots of my art, so I'd brought the box to the class.

grandmother's buttons
For the inside signature covers, I chose these buttons:

Below are the three closures I came up with for the cover.  Why don't you choose the one you think I should use?  I'd love to hear your choices before I work on it today.

possibility #1
possibility #2
possibility #3

Speaking of buttons and closures (and while you're deciding on my book closure), one other unfinished project I'd found in that same blanket chest, at the very bottom of it, was a pieced crazy-quilt top my mother had bought from a woman at a farm stand near their home in New Hampshire.  She'd meant to have it quilted, but never got around to it, and there it lay for thirty years or more.  My mother was still alive then, so I asked if I could have the top to finish.  She looked at me askance.  I knew that look.  You're not going to try it yourself, are you?  (You can see how well respected my needlework is...possibly with reason.)

But I was going to try.  For advice, I called Susan Bradley in Texas, whose art quilts hang in my house beautifully and proudly, and who pretty much reflected my mother's sentiments.  Now, Rachel...  Still undeterred, I came up with the idea that I certainly was competent enough to batt and back it, and then it occurred to me that I could use buttons sewn on in strategic points to knot it instead of stitching it. (That idea coming from a famous line in an old short story, "Was she going to knot it or quilt it?"  "Knot it..."  Those of you who recognize the story, raise your hands.)

Susan, rescue in her voice, nicely offered to have the layers put together before I buttoned it.  I worked on it for quite a while, exhausting my button store, and called for familiar reinforcements.  When she heard about the project, my aunt responded generously, and her daughter sent along my grandmother's collection you see above (clearly my aunt, an excellent needleworker herself, had added to it in her time, and I keep adding to it in mine, though now and then it gets raided by others, too, most recently by my niece, who needed buttons for her cute knitted ornaments).  The once forgotten top was turning out to be a neat family affair.

What we had finished was a colorful, playful piece.  In one of those coincidences I wrote about last time, the universe stepping in to hand us a prize as if all along we surely deserved it, a lifelong friend of one of my sons announced that he and his wife were expecting their first child, a boy who became my boy's namesake.  My mother was happy, as was I; it seemed the perfect home for our treasure.   A year or so ago, after their second child, his wife wrote me to say the quilt was still fascinating little ones, on the floor for play, warm while cuddling on the sofa, or taken along in the car for a trip.  My mother would have been even more thrilled to know it's still loved and useful.

No, I don't have a picture of it.  Once again, see declaimer above.

later the same day:
Oh, yes, I do!  There in an old file from another life, I found tonight:
quilt for Jay's baby

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Making Books

I've just finished, for the third or fourth time since it came out, Jill McCorkle's Life after Life.  From the first, her novel set in a retirement home in a small town hooked me practically in a stranglehold--not surprising, considering the events of this year with elderly family, whose genes and other durabilities are likely to push my generation, as well, far into the nineties.  Our family history of longevity is heartening in some ways, and scary in others, as indeed Jill's story is.  Who knows where our futures lie?  We try to predict, plan for (or fall into), and succeed in a life for as long as we can, thinking we know who we are, but then Fate or the accidents we call Fate throw some mountain in our way and we bumble off trying to make sense of the new compass point we have to navigate by.  It takes some courage, and some humility, too, to go along inventing a path on a new map, but it's the way of survival and, more than that, a way of living well as best as circumstances allow.

It reminds me of one of my grandmother's stories, one we would ask for time and again, lingering against our bedtime, about a young woman who is captured by a witch (her crime was eating the witch's parsley on the way to school) and is saved one afternoon while the witch is away, by a prince  on horseback and three magic nuts the girl wisely grabs from the witch's tree as they ride off.  The witch on their tail, the girl throws out one nut after the other, each exploding behind them, obstructing her vengeful path:  first, a hill of slippery soap, then, after she'd clawed her way over that, a mountain of pins and needles, and finally, a small cottage by the side of the road with a deaf caretaker who cleverly sends her in the wrong direction.  The couple, escaped, go on their merry way.   I wish I'd thought to ask what happened to the witch, whose journey fell off the page after the happily ever after part, but I assume she went on to learn a lesson somehow, though what it is I can't fathom.  It may be she learned nothing except not to leave the house with all that loose magic about.

I could go on about this intersection of fate and intervention, but what lingers in my mind after this last reading of Jill's book is something the author noted in an interview published with the novel.  She says, "I find as a writer that if I can tap into what [a] person loves more than anything and what he or she fears more than anything, then I know what I need to know."

 Although Jill was talking about the way she draws characters in fiction, her words rang true about character in general, I think.  What happens to us because of those two factors that determine so much of what we are and how we live:  love and fear?  Note that neither she nor I raise those words to Romantic proportions by capitalizing them.  In most of us, they appear in their most ordinary dress, sometimes invisible catalysts for the twists and turns that weave us in and out of our years.  Do we make right or wrong moves when we deviate, voluntarily or involuntarily, from what we think are our chosen paths?  How much does magic, or the timely appearance of an unexpected intervention, have to do with our fates?  Most of us don't think of ourselves as characters in a novel, but it would be interesting to imagine the stories we live turned into fiction on a page. What plot, what scene, what crises will really illuminate our lives?

Then there is the truth we eventually come to, in fiction and reality:  what one loves the most, what one fears the most...they are, when scrutinized, closer than the opposites they seem.

I wouldn't have imagined, for instance, that at this age, I'd find myself working so ardently as a visual artist, after decades of assuming it was something I wouldn't be good at.  Decades ago, I saw myself through quite different lenses...the lens of words, of literature, of the story inherent in every life and how it might be revealed if I drew words to explain things.  I wrote out journal after journal, poem after poem, tearing at what I was, both the loves and the fears.  Somewhere along the line, when words failed, there was a rock I stumbled over, and here I am, narrating life in a new dimension.

This morning, for example, I'm setting out for Kathy Steinsberger's two-day linen-to-leather book workshop.  Not a class in how to write a romance novel, but in how to turn our art skills into a physical book. Kathy is perhaps the premier art bookmaker and patient, generous teacher of classes at Blam!, her studio space in Raleigh (she also teaches regularly at Pullen Arts, as well as at Penland--you should be able to hear me sigh when I say that name; it's working heaven for artists of all trades).

As I pluck odd materials off my shelves to bring along--linen, lace, scraps of handmade paper, pearls, copper--I'm thinking about Jill's words, and wondering what, this time, will evolve.  If love juxtaposed with fear have brought me to this point in my life, it probably underlies nearly everything I make.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I'm running toward my passions, and tripping over my failures to learn something new, to make myself more visible through the next piece.  I run my hand through boxes, jars, and drawers and think:  What do I love most?  What challenges do they present?  Maybe it isn't words that represent love and fear the most, but the small bits of collected scraps I can narrate by giving them new life.  Just like Jill, who looks for the heart of those she creates, so do I, I realize, reach through my own psyche for just such inspiration, trying to find the real life in snippets once useful in a former existence.

What will my story  be today?


It's evening now, the first day's class over, and I can tell you that if you don't believe in the synchronization of events in our lives, I offer this proof:  I'd barely gotten into the door of Blam! and laid out my tools ready to work, when blam! Kathy happened to mention what she's teaching at Penland this summer.   It's a bookmaking class called The Storyteller's Muse.  Really?  And it's co-taught by a painter who apparently wants to work with narrative in visual form.  Really?

Well, Paris in early spring will have to wait another year.  July, 2017 will find me in the Blue Ridge Mountains, busy at work discovering how to see a book of stories through both lenses, material and literary.  I can hardly wait to leap into that new dimension.

Meanwhile, we had a lovely time cutting and folding paper and fabric, painting and drying, arranging leaves into folios and folios into signatures to invent our books.  Tomorrow we finish painting and go on to binding and embellishment, some of which may be words.  What I love most about Kathy's studio is her encouragement to reap what we can and in exchange offer what we can.  It's just one more step on the way to illumination.