In and Out

I am enjoying winter this year. The polar vortex we had in Europe last year has chosen another continent this time. Days speed past and frankly, when it’s sunny and warm, it almost seems as if spring is just around the corner. I do spend most of my time working on projects in the atelier. It’s the only time of year that I can count on days at a time with no interruptions or demands.

We did take a couple of days in Paris to celebrate the grandchildren’s birthdays which are just over a week apart. Emily took us to lunch on the canal which is a short walk from their house. The view from our table was onto this colorful wall.

Back at home I began a new wall hanging/quilt made with strips of gorgeous silk crepe. I had eco-dyed quite a few pieces this fall with willow, maple, berries and several other plants I gathered on a walk around our local lake.

I’ve gotten as far as sewing the pieces together. I ordered some batting and silk sashiko thread, so I have weeks of work still left to do before it will be complete.

When the sun shines, I try to have some paper ready to make cyanotypes. Despite a few snowy days last week, we still have a Christmas Rose blooming on the terrace, and snowdrops have arrived in the upper garden.

I left this image to develop in the sun for three times longer than I do in the summer. It gave me the typical bright blue cyanotype background.

Another project that has been sitting in my drawer since last fall, is a group of signatures for a book with eco-dyed boiled pages. These were all made in September. I had intended them to be completed during the time my friend Gail Rieke was giving her workshop here. Somehow that did not occur. I don’t exactly know why, but I feel somewhat intimidated by book binding and I always put off a project like this for a long while. I knew that I wanted to make a coptic stitch binding, which doesn’t require a spine. The pages are simply sewn together. I’ve never done this type of binding before, but this week I pulled all the pages out and decided the time had come.

It’s really not so hard. You simply need to make a cover, put in holes for the stitching and put holes into all the pages. I made a template to be sure that the holes were in the same location on every page and used an awl to punch them in. Rick got involved, as he is very good with projects like this. He is much more precise in his measurements and I am happy to have his help and patience.

Through a YouTube video, I learned how to make the coptic stitch that holds the book together. Rick took over and finished the binding for me. I was pleased with the results. I have a few other pages waiting for the same treatment.

The other escape from the atelier during the week was into La Ferté-Bernard. I captured a sunny image of the most popular restaurant in town, the Marais, which is open every day of the year. La Ferté is our local “big town” where we do our weekly grocery shopping. It features prominently in Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Scapegoat. If you’re not familiar with her, I recommend her to you. She is the author of Rebecca, and The Birds, both made into movies by Alfred Hitchcock. She was British but had a family connection to this part of France. She wrote another interesting book called The Glass Blowers which is set during the French Revolution and features our own little village of Montmirail.

Keeping busy

I spent another week in the atelier experimenting and playing, while outside the snow was falling. I tried some slightly larger bird collages, the crow being my favorite result. We have many crows in our village throughout the year, and I must say I am very fond of them. They are extremely intelligent creatures.

I made some dyes using avocado pits and onion skins. I have been collecting both in a little cloth sack I leave hanging in the kitchen. I had several months worth of both. It’s quite easy to mix up a dye. You simply put a couple of cups of either onion skins or avocado pits into a big pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow the dye to develop overnight. In the morning bring it to a boil once again, turn off the heat and it is ready to use once it has cooled down. Yellow onion skins make a very nice bright yellow dye. Avocado pits make a soft pink.

I prepared some random papers and a few bits of cotton scraps, by soaking them in a mixture of two cups water and two teaspoons soy milk, as a mordant. Once dry I dipped them into the cooled plant dyes. It was a quick experiment to see how the paper would take the dye. I have it in mind to use the resulting scraps in some eco-dyeing projects in the spring. Meanwhile, the onion and avocado dyes lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, and I will certainly use them again. I have a few people I communicate with through the post, so I intend to dye some envelopes and paper for my correspondence.

Another technique I experimented with this week was some monoprinting. There are many ways to create a monoprint, but one way many people like is to roll ink, usually black, onto a plate and then remove everything you wish to be white or gray. It’s a good exercise since it is backwards to how one usually creates an image, so it strains your brain a little. Once the image is created, you run it through the press onto a damp piece of printing paper. The untouched black areas print very richly with this approach.

I oriented myself by first drawing an outline into the ink and then wiping away the black I wanted removed with small rags, q-tips and dry stiff brushes. I wiped softly to make a gray and more vigorously to make the whiter areas.

It’s not easy to “see” in negative and the results are quite bold and imprecise. You really can’t add any black ink back, so you basically have one shot. It is definitely not my usual thing, but I enjoyed it and hopefully will give it another go.

Another monotype technique, which does not require a press, is to ink up a plate with black and then lay your dry paper on top of the ink, you then lay a piece of tracing paper over that and make your drawing. The pressure transfers black lines onto your paper. You get nice bold black lines on your paper using this approach. Once the ink has dried, the image can be colored in with pastel or pencils or paint. The reason to make an image in this backwards way, rather than just drawing directly in the first place, is that the quality of the line that is achieved is not possible in a direct drawing. This style is much more within my comfort zone. I like the vibrancy of the pastel color.

I also try to keep up with my sketchbook/journal. I began a new one this week that has a different purpose than my daily report, which I have been faithful with for several years. The new one is a bit more quirky and much less regular. I intend it to be a place to visualize some thoughts and ideas that I have trouble expressing in words.

Shadows and Reflections

Fog • rain • snow • sun…we experienced them all this week. The saying around these parts is “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” It’s true that weather plays a big part in our lives here, whereas in California it was rarely a topic of conversation at all.

This time of year I really notice the changing light. The situation of our house, the decorative grills on the windows, the many mirrored surfaces and the low sun throughout the day, create interesting visual moments.

I notice the reflections and shadows as I move through our rooms. I find them very pleasing and, being a visual person, little pleasant visions are like candy to me. It makes for sweet days.

Reflecting in a more metaphorical sense is also a favored pastime at this time of year. Looking back, looking forward, taking stock, making resolutions, trying new things, planning adventures.

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind. – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The rhythm of our year at Maison Conti follows seasonal cycles, which has allowed me to be more aware of the passage of time and of the cadence of life. Certainly most of us long to feel a part of the natural world, but with the constant noise, the electronic devices, the demands and deadlines, it is difficult to find time, and time is so rarely dedicated to actual quiet and contemplation.

Time is what we want most, but…what we use worst.  –William Penn

At this moment in our year, we are more or less forced, or at least invited, to spend quite a lot of time in quiet and contemplation. Speaking only for myself, I can say I feel tremendously grateful for that.

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend. – Theophrastus

Staying Home

The past week dished up rain, fog, and blue skies with temperatures ranging from cool to frozen. I spent the entire time at home, only venturing out as far as the post office down the street. We had no visitors, no clients, no interruptions. I suppose for some people that might sound a rather depressing description of a week of one’s life, but for me it was just the right thing and an unusual treat. I spent almost every waking moment in my atelier, which has been reorganized for the winter. I managed to accomplish quite a few projects.

Early in the month I had organized all my beautiful papers. Before then I simply put everything into a big stack and whenever I wanted something, I had to paw through a huge basket. Now I have decorative papers in one basket, maps in another, old documents in a third. It makes it so much easier to see what I have to work with. I have been wanting to do some more little collages. Last year I developed a technique which pleased me. I start by cutting pieces of paper into a design, in this case a series of birds.

I glue them down with PVC glue, paint the backs with glue as well and allow them to dry. Then I run them through the press on top of etching plates, using a damp piece of paper which enlivens the glue and adheres to the paper. The etching plates make a nice emboss around the images.

I made two of these composite bird images. The glue is archival quality so once they come together, they remain fast.

I was also able to finish a tapestry I have been working on, made from some of my eco-prints. I sew the scraps together by hand, and then add a classic sashiko pattern on top with special sashiko thread, a little finer and tighter than embroidery thread. The pattern I used is made with rows of offset circles which create a four petal flower design. I recently discovered a very cool turquoise specialty pen which is used to draw a pattern right on top of the fabric. When finished you simply spray the pen lines with water and they magically disappear without causing drips or stains of any kind.

On sunny days I made various cyanotype products. Since the sun is at a low angle this time of year I had to triple my exposure times.

Another revelation this week occurred when Rick tried to sharpen my prismacolor pencils. I have a large collection and I really enjoy using them, but I can never keep them sharp. They wear down instantly and when trying to make them sharp again, the very soft lead breaks more often than not. We’ve tried hand sharpeners which are laborious and usually minimally successful as well as xacto knives, which work only marginally better. Rick found a new electric pencil sharpener this week, called an Office Pro and something about it makes the task fast and effective. I have never had my caddies of pencils filled with such sharp ones.

I took advantage of them in my daily journal. I have been wanting to develop my watercolor/prismacolor drawing skills this year, it’s one of my resolutions. It just got a whole lot easier!

Another resolution for the year is to add more variety to our meal planning. I found a few recipes this week that allowed us to add some new tastes to our repertoire. I am not an enthusiastic vegetable consumer, but if I could have them prepared as wonderfully as this dish, called Sesame-Soy Cabbage Stir-Fry, I would eat a lot more of them! It involves several quick steps. First you fry up the spices; ginger, garlic and red pepper flakes, removing them from the heat after infusing the oil and putting them aside (so they are not over cooked). Then you fry up the harder vegetables; the carrot, pepper and onions, giving them a few minutes head start before adding bok choy, green onions, snow peas and cabbage, one vegetable at a time, cooking for a minute or two before adding the next. At the end you add back the aromatics, some strong chicken or vegetable stock and a bit of soy sauce and finally some corn starch. Voila! A fabulous tasting mélange. It was even delicious the next day cold for lunch.

One morning I woke up to a blazing sunrise which was beautifully reflected in the windows of the castle behind our house. All in all, it was a very gratifying week!

Winter Sun

While a sunny summer day is nothing to scorn, and sun on a spring or fall day is sweet, a sunny winter day offers something even more special than in any other season. Perhaps it is the clarity of the light, the crisp long shadows or simply the relief after a week of overcast skies to see the crystal blue above us again. This week we have had several sunlit days. My heart has been positively singing, which I attribute to the cloudless skies, although I’m sure my ginseng morning energy boost drink probably helps a lot too.

We took some nice walks into the woods, through allées I have never actually been down before (probably because we had to trespass) and saw some pretty ruins.

As usual I collected some leaves along the way. I really can no longer go past a plant without having a good look. I still don’t know all the names of my local vegetation, but because of my new interest in eco-dyeing, I am learning. Anything that opens my eyes wider to the world around me is okay by me. I notice myself noticing and I like that.

There are various “recipes” for making eco-prints from plants. On YouTube you can find many ways to go about it. I experimented with a lot of them until I found the technique that worked best for me. Basically it involves scouring my fabric first and then dipping it into a mordant of alum and washing soda mixed with water for a few minutes. I put my plants into a bath of vinegar and water and afterwards into a bit of iron water. I wrap the plants in the fabric then steam it for an hour.

I did get a lot of bleeding when I followed this procedure last fall, so when I read something entirely new that suggested that soaking leaves in water for several weeks might solve this issue, it got my attention. Since my terrace was full of fallen leaves, I gathered them together at the end of December and put them in a big pot of water to soak.

During this week I tested out the new technique. My rose branches, for instance, were none the worse for wear after their extended soak. The theory is that the breaking down of the cell walls allows the color from the plant to release more easily and thus create more of a leaf outline rather than a pool of color. I arranged roses, berries and a few wisteria leaves onto a piece of cotton which had been dipped in iron water and allowed to “cure” for a couple of days.

This procedure involved boiling the bundles in plain water for 45 minutes.

After less than an hour, I lifted the steaming bundles from the pot and allowed them to cool. Then I unwrapped them.

The roses made a nice print, it’s true, although I don’t think the results were extraordinarily different than my usual technique. The berries printed as usual and the wisteria hardly printed at all.

I did think this little leaf and its branch printed very much more richly than usual. Of course it all goes to show, as I have already discovered, that each leaf variety responds differently, and the time of year can profoundly influence results. The nice thing about eco-dyeing is how much more there always is to discover about it.

Wintery Visits

Today I received a gardening catalogue in the mail with a message written across the front page in big red letters: “Préparez le printemps dès aujourd’hui.” Get ready for spring time today. Wait a minute! It’s been winter for only a few days! Let’s take it one season at a time…I intend to enjoy myself this winter, savor the calm, warm myself by the fire, and forget all about gardening.

One of the pleasures of this time of year is visits with family. Rick’s youngest son Darwin and his wife Alex came from San Francisco to stay with us for a week in the countryside of northern France. It was their first time at the maison. We took a drive down to the Loire Valley to show them some sites.

Lavardin is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages (most beautiful French villages) of which there are 156 throughout the country, chosen and named by a private organization. This was our first stop, only about a 35 minute drive from home. There is a ruined 11th century castle on the hill overlooking the town which is extremely picturesque, but my favorite site, of which I never tire, is the church with it’s 12th century frescoes which were uncovered during restoration some time ago underneath a layer of whitewash which had been there since the 17th century when the naive art of the Middle Ages fell out of fashion. Luckily it’s back in now.

On our walk to the chapel, Darwin discovered a Chinese Lantern flower in its winter incarnation. I grow them in our garden, but I always pick them and dry them in the autumn rather than leaving them to transform themselves. I never understood why they are often called Love in a Cage, but now it’s obvious.

Amboise is the city where Leonardo da Vinci died. His patron, François I, king of France from 1515-1547, lived in the beautiful Château of Amboise, which rises like a wedding cake on the banks of the Loire river. We passed through here on our way to Chenonceau, our favorite Loire Valley Château.

I wanted Darwin to see Chenonceau because of its extravagant floral arrangements. He owns an upscale flower shop in Walnut Creek and is a master floral designer. Unfortunately all the arrangements were Christmas decorations, rather than the typical displays. They seemed a bit tacky to me. I had imagined that there would be far fewer people there on a winter day, but I was completely wrong about that too. It was more jammed than at any time we’d been there.

Despite all that I enjoyed the details, like the disintegrating tile floors in the foyer, and the beautiful leaded glass windows.

In one of the upstairs rooms, which is painted all black, Darwin took a gorgeous photo of Alex which he made into a very nice photo etching the next day.

photo by Darwin Harrison

We are wishing all our friends and family a very happy new year.

Cyanotype

I started making cyanotypes about five years ago. It is an antique photographic technique that creates blue prints. It’s a very easy process that involves mixing a couple of chemicals together and painting paper or fabric with the photo sensitive concoction. Once dry you can either make an arrangement of objects, like plants or feathers or use a digital negative to place in contact with the photo sensitive material, press in a glass frame, leave out in the sun for a few minutes and then develop with water.

For the first few years I worked only on paper but last year I began to make cyanotype images on fabric which I use in my eco-dyed tapestries.

Last month Daniel sent me an article about a exhibition at the main branch of the New York Public Library entitled She Needed No Camera to Make the First Book of Photographs about the British botanist, Anna Atkins who used cyanotypes 175 years ago to catalogue seaweed and algae off the coast where she lived. I loved the idea of using cyanotype as a kind of natural history record of local plant life. I decided that I would make a few cyanotype images each month for a year and chronicle the plants that live in our garden. Here’s what I have so far:

I began in November with a few prints of late fall flowers from our terrace garden. The faithful cool weather pansy is a local favorite throughout the winter.

The Campanula were still alive as we had not yet had our first frost.

I like the cyclamen as they have semi-transparent white petals which produce a kind of x-ray effect.

December images were a bit more of a challenge since we didn’t have a sunny day until mid-month, and even then the sun is very low in the sky and not strong enough to create the deep blue color you get at sunnier times of the year.

We do still have daisies in bloom.

I was surprised to find a sweet pea branch still alive. It’s not typically what one would expect in December, but there it was, with all it’s attractive curly-qs.

The Daphne is already budded up. It is the first plant of the year to bloom in February. It is interesting to observe how soon it starts to prepare for that.

Have a very pleasant holiday season. I will resume the blog in the new year.

Practical Boro and Sashiko

When I made this self-portrait in 2008, the robe I am wearing in the etching was already ten years old. I bought it at Nordstrom and it was the best robe I had ever owned. It is blue plush cotton velour, warm, soft and comfortable. But even the best clothing begins to fall apart after a certain moment. By the time of this image, the robe had a big hole in one of the pockets and one at the hem line.

For Christmas I was given a new robe. I tried to be grateful, but the truth was, it just wasn’t nearly as nice as the one I already had. It was then that I embraced Boro, although it would be years later that I first heard this term. I decided, as I returned the nice new robe to the store where it was purchased, that I would never ever buy a new robe, because there never ever could be one that compared to the one I have. I bought some felt in a similar blue color and patched the two large holes.

Since then I learned that the Japanese call their patchwork Boro. Originally a garment that begins to tatter and fray was patched for the simple reason that the family could not afford to purchase a new one. But, as with many things, the Japanese turned this ordinary activity into a high art.

This beautiful jacket is over 100 years old. I was given permission to publish it by a company in Japan that will sell it to you. Ironically, this fisherman’s tattered and torn coat is now worth well over $1000.

I have recently had a few more holes to patch on my own robe. Perhaps someday it will turn into a object of folk art, but for now it’s just my practical way to keep my garment alive and functioning.

This time when I mended the worn out parts I didn’t try to hide them. I like using felt as the patch, as it is very strong and does not unravel at the edges. They aren’t as decorative as the fisherman’s coat, but they serve their practical purpose.

During the last year I have made a certain number of wall hangings created from pieces of my eco-dyed fabric. Once they are sewn together, which is all done by hand, I add some decorative stitches.


My daughter, Emily, introduced me to another Japanese textile art form called Sashiko. It too was begun as a kind of practical mending stitch, but has developed into decorative and very formalized patterns used to embellish. I found an on-line class at Creativebug.com which taught me the basics.

Traditionally sashiko is done with white thread on blue fabric. It is very beautiful. More recently it has been adapted to more  eclectic western tastes.

Collections

One of the projects I began in October when my friend Gail Rieke gave a workshop here was a little collage piece made by pasting bits of marbleized paper on a black background. When we have workshops everyone brings something to share, and there were many scraps of these bright papers to choose from. I find them so attractive.

At another workshop some years ago, I brought a stack of pastel portraits to play with. I explained to Gail that there were parts of each that I liked but that in general not many of the faces satisfied me completely. She suggested that I cut them up and work only with the parts that pleased me, so I created a little book.

Once I had sliced up all the portraits I had lots of little abstract blocks left on the cutting room floor. I began to play with those and came up with a grid that I liked a lot. I pasted them onto the black paper and framed it. It still hangs in our house and I still enjoy looking at it

Since then I have enjoyed the idea of making collage pieces in a grid pattern. Something about the geometric layout made with brightly colored forms and abstract imagery appeals to me. Working with black paper has its challenges. Although I do like the way it makes colors pop, it’s not a very friendly surface. It’s difficult to draw on to make a framework to follow for pasting, and any extra glue is very visible. My grids therefore are a little wonky, but that doesn’t bother me. I accept the handmade quality.

I have a big cupboard with several baskets of collage materials all nicely organized and ready to be used. Old papers and stamps are readily available at vide greniers (garage sales) or brocantes (junk shops). I have a large collection, so I like to find ways to incorporate them into projects. After a couple of tries I was able to get the marbleized paper glued down neatly enough, so I decided to make a little book of similar bits, paste them down in little grids and call the book Collections.

Quite an array of random faces in various colors from several countries, from the past and near present. The famous and infamous included.

I completed eight pages with various arrangements of stamps and papers and then put them into my drawer. I have a big stack of pages from several projects which are waiting to be put together into little books.

Perhaps in the dead of winter I will find the time and space to finish them.