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.

Some Vagaries OF Eco-Dyeing

Eco-printing is a recent development in natural dyeing. As far as I’ve been able to discover, it was originally developed by an Australian textile artist and stylist named India Flint. On her website she takes credit for inventing the technique, but being a generous person, she has also shared her process widely, and there are now many practitioners, including myself. Basically the process involves taking leaves, flowers and other plant parts, rolling them up in fabric or paper and then steaming or boiling the bundle to extract a print.

One of the pleasures and goals of these prints is to bring out the beautiful natural colors of different leaf varieties, (which may have limited relationship to the actual color the leaf appears to be in nature). Many leaves print brown, so getting more unusual shades is a constant motivation for continued exploration.  I can never look at a leaf in the same way I used to do. I’m always wondering what new color result I will get if I put it into a pot. No new leaf is safe from my pruning shears!

If you search for images of eco-prints, you will see many examples of ones made from eucalyptus leaves which give a bright red color. For an eco-dyer, this is the top of the mountain. The results are just spectacular. But every single one of the bright red eucalyptus leaf prints seem to be from an Australian artist. I can not duplicate that color with either Californian or French eucalyptus leaves. And if you know anything about the history of the eucalyptus tree in California, which was imported in the late 19th century from Australia (where it is was known as the gum tree), you will be aware that it is one of those hopeful but naive experiments that turned into an environmental catastrophe. So it is no wonder that California leaves do not preform the same as native Australian ones. The trees themselves, a source of excellent hardwood in Australia, adapted in a totally different way to their California habitat. My friend Jen, from England, has told me the same is true for her experiments with English eucalyptus leaves. That red color eludes us. Above, you see my best results for French eucalyptus leaves, a nice yellow, but far from the extravagant color India Flint and her fellow countrywomen can achieve.

Still, the beauty of eco-prints is that they describe a place, and each place is different. It is for the artist to discover the treasures of her own location. So I hunt for leaves close to home and find my own interesting colors.

My garden is full of columbine, an old fashioned flowering plant I’ve been partial to for years, so it was natural to try steaming some of those leaves. In fall 2017 the color came out a lovely orange. This spring I was anxious to have the same result so when the plants began to emerge I put them in the pot again. But they did not yield the pretty orange,  not in the spring, not in the summer and not even in the fall of this year. Jen told me that word is  there was much less tannin in plants this year. Ah the mysteries of nature!

So to get my bright color fix, I turned my attention towards berries.

Virginia creeper berries were the source of many richly colored eco-prints I made in late September, as the berries were first beginning to appear. I loved the way that the blue color swam all over the page creating a large block of blue.

I tried some black berries I found in our local forest as well. I liked the results very much.

In November when I spent some time in Paris, I found another source for the Virginia Creeper berries. I brought them home expecting to get much the same results as I had in September. But that was not the case. No matter how many little bundles of berries I put onto my paper, they printed as individual points of color and never turned into large blocks as they had in September.

My latest experiment came last week when I discovered that the honeysuckle plants on the fence outside our house had grown berries. What color would they produce?

As it turned out, honeysuckle berries are not very generous in releasing color, but the leaves are a different story. The big surprise for me was that when I boiled a couple of pieces of paper, each with the branches in the same batch, for the same amount of time, clamped between the same boards, in the same steam bath, they came out completely different from one another.

The only difference between the two was the kind of paper I used. On the left is a print made on a piece of bristol, on the right, watercolor paper. The leaf color is certainly absorbed much better into the watercolor paper, but the colors of leaves and berries is rather more subtle and interesting on the bristol.

Eco-printing is curious and unpredictable. Because one can never really count on a particular outcome it remains for me a source of endless fascination.

Artist as traveler

In early October we had a workshop with the inimitable Gail Rieke. She is a collage and assemblage artist who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her Suitcase Wall is so famous that once while she was visiting us a few years ago, and we went together to a shop not far away, the shop owner recognized it from the photo on the business card she gave him. Her home/studio is her biggest installation.

Gail Rieke’s studio as featured on this month’s front and back covers of Where Women Create magazine

I first met Gail almost twenty years ago in San Francisco when I took one of her classes at the San Francisco Center for the book. Later, when we moved to France, I invited her to give a workshop in our atelier. Since then she has come five times. It is always such a pleasure for me to welcome Gail and with her the very interesting students she attracts.

Having a house full of talented and creative people is a wonderful inspiration to me for months afterwards. I am still feeling the after-glow. In the mornings Gail gave us instructions and projects that generally were designed to make us see things from a fresh perspective, and in the afternoons we worked on our individual creations which Gail supported and encouraged but did not dictate. It is always difficult to describe exactly what a course with Gail is like, because she never has a prefigured product that we are all meant to imitate. She wants instead for us each to find our own way as she has always done. I used the adjective inimitable to describe Gail very deliberately. Although I think there are some who might try to imitate her work, I don’t think it is quite possible. She is a true original.

The other women who came, two from England, two from the U.S. and one from France, were also very talented and accomplished artists from various disciplines. Ann, from eastern England, had some ideas that really tickled my fancy. She likes to write secret and revealing stories on bits of paper which she then distresses to the point where even though expressed, the sentiments are not revealed. She also inspired me with stories of her travel journal pages, which she purposefully stains with food, drink, soil and even rain from the places she visits to literally capture the place.

My good friend Nelly is a teacher and graphic artist of some renown in France. She has published several children’s books. She is also a collector and very generous sharer of old papers, documents, maps and other treasures which she puts to good effect in her collage work. She brought many pages to share from early last century when official papers were hand written.

I was very delighted to meet Jen, Ann’s English travel companion. She does eco-dyeing, and, being an accomplished gardener, was able to give me lots of advice about plant varieties and best practices when it comes to extracting color from leaves. I have done a lot of reading on this subject, since discovering it last year, but Jen was the first actual human I’d ever met with some experience in this process that I currently find so intriguing.

We all shared ideas and techniques, Many of us enjoyed making a book form that does not require any sewing or gluing.

For this particular workshop we added an extra day to allow us to have a field trip. Luckily the weather was beautiful all week. We did walk through the village and adjacent forest collecting various natural materials all week long, but on the last day, we piled into cars and went a bit further afield, into the Parc Naturel du Perche. We lunched at an extremely kitsch restaurant in the charming village of La Perrière.

We stopped at Le Manior du Lormarin, a beautiful old property with a lovely brocante (antique store) attached. Almost everyone found something to take home.

It was a fitting ending to a week of creative discovery and fun.

The LAST DAYS of fall

fall,autumn,stone bridge,french countryside

Many months have passed since my last blog post. Our season at the Maison Conti was very busy and kept me distracted from life outside the village, but our rhythm has finally slowed down. As the last colorful leaves fall from the trees, I am thinking of friends, family and like-minded fellow travelers.

This week the sky was crystal blue and the sun still warm. We decided to walk around our local lake and enjoy what surely must be the final days of autumn.

We lived for several years near our “big” town of La Ferté-Bernard before discovering a wonderful resource just on the outskirts, a man-made lake. It provides swimming, boating and lovely walking paths. I have many photos of our grandchildren building sand castles and waterways on the shore over the last last five years. It is a favorite destination when the family visits us.

There is a path that traces the entire circumference–over bridges, past the beach, through the trees and beside the rapidly flowing river that feeds the lake. This time of year it is particularly beautiful, and also much less busy.

Besides enjoying  a perfect day, I collected some willow and maple leaves to use in my newest passion, eco-dyeing. These and others that I found have made some very fine impressions.

We think of our friends and family suffering through smokey days in California and post these photos in hopes of offering at least some visual relief.

I am working on a new website, which includes this blog. I intend to post some personal stories, some artistic experiments and lots of photos of our life here in rural France. I hope you will consider subscribing. It’s our way of keeping in touch with you, who we miss so much.