Change of Rhythm

We’re back to the time of year when the sun rises when we do!

July and August are always busy months for us at the Maison Conti, but this year they were particularly intense. Of course everyone wanted to get out of town and most of them were headed straight to the beach. Our house is conveniently just about halfway along most of our clients’ trajectories. We generally work seven days a week from morning to night trying to keep up with the comings and goings of our guests. The work is quite physical. Of course each year I get a little older and this year I really noticed the physicality of muscling large quilts around and carrying huge stacks of laundry and dishes. In fact I pulled something in my right shoulder one day while stripping the bed linens and I am still in pain.

September, however, brings with it a real sigh of relief. For one thing the weather cools way down, and for another the clients arrive in smaller numbers and less often. It gives me some time to focus on other things and to spend more hours in the atelier.

I hadn’t done any of my usual cyanotype projects or eco-dyeing this summer. During this last week I rectified that.

My favorite material to work on, for any of these mark-making activities is silk. It takes the colors so beautifully. I happened to have a few little pieces left over from my wall hanging project completed last spring, and I painted one of them with the photosensitive concoction used to make a cyanotype exposure. The chemicals, when painted on paper or fabric, must be left to dry in the dark before the support can be used.

When the silk had dried over night, I arranged some flowers on it, clamped it into a glass frame and brought it outside to be exposed in direct sunlight.

It takes about 10 minutes for the exposure to be complete. I then developed the image in running water for another 10 minutes. I love the way the flowers turned out looking almost like x-rays. The parts exposed to the sun turn blue.

My next activity was to do a little rust dyeing. I have lots of rusty objects which make interesting red patterns on fabric or paper if left in contact for a few days. I used a piece of cotton, a piece of netting and one of silk. I wrapped them in different ways. I spray the rusted object and the fabric with a mixture of 1/2 vinegar, 1/2 water, put them in tight contact with a rusty object, cover them in plastic, so they don’t dry out too quickly, which I hold down with river stones, and simply wait 2 or 3 days for the rust to do its magic.

I have a beautiful decorative object I got at a local antique store which I have tried using for mark making before, with limited success. but this time, when I took the plastic off, my piece of silk, which I had laid over it, was very richly rusted. Again, I think the silk itself is the special ingredient, since the cotton fabric I used on another rusty object, wasn’t nearly so affected.

The front of the silk, on the left, almost looks photographic. The back, on the right, is even darker. I found that curious.

Next up was to do a little eco-dyeing, using flowers from the terrace. I had intended to use the rust dyed fabric as the base for the eco-dyes, but since the silk was so deeply rusted, I couldn’t and didn’t want to use that piece. The net fabric failed, as the rust washed out completely when I rinsed it, but the cotton was rusted only around the edges, so it was perfect for my experiment.

I liked the result very much. The rust adds a color you don’t usually get from a plant and the purple petunias, which make a fairly strong purple impression once dyed into the fabric, look good with it.

Another piece of cotton, not rusted, was eco-dyed using Virginia Creeper and some little bright pink flowers we have in our planter this year. I don’t know what they are. They almost look like little begonias or perhaps malvia. They turned out to release a blue color.

Ah! The mysteries of plant dyes. The results are always a surprise. I haven’t found too many species of plants that I can rely on for the results I want. I prefer plants that leave a strong impression of their shape.

The one thing my experiments convinced me of is that working with silk is my preference. Why screw around? I sent off for a nice piece of my favorite satin silk, from my favorite online vendor, Ma Petite Mercerie. A package arrived yesterday presented, as always, so beautifully and, as always, included a piece of Carambar which Rick does appreciate.

Speaking of wonderful things arriving in the mail, this week I got a letter from my son who lives in California. He sent it on March 17th. It only took 5 months and a week to get to me! Inside were some spring flowers and they were in amazingly good condition, dried and pressed to perfection. I really enjoy looking at them.

The last thing I have to share for the week is a gift given to us by our dear friend Nelly the last time we saw her a few weeks ago. She is the master of old papers and old paper markets. I have been the grateful recipient of many of her historic documents. On one of her recent expeditions she found a very old map of our departement, la Sarthe, and she bought it for us.

This is a marvelous object, obviously handcrafted, dated 1836. The cover is made of some kind of thick paper that feels lusciously soft, almost felt-like. The map inside has been cut into nine sections and carefully mounted so that the user could fold up the map and take it with them. It is a road map in origin, but for roads with horses, carts and carriages, not cars. Someone has gone to the trouble of adding their own elaborate cover, presumably to preserve it for strenuous use. The label on the outside is lettered in that beautiful old fashioned script and then cut by hand, obviously, as the shape is not symmetrical, and pasted onto the cover. And why label the map “Sarthe” at all? Unless this was not the owner’s local area? There was meticulous effort extended to make the map durable/portable, suggesting to me that the map users were on a pursuit, not just a one-time journey. And what were they after? It is a mystery. There are little handwritten notes sketched on the top right, bottom left and middle right. They are mostly faded, or erased and difficult to decipher. At least some of them are directions. Some red route lines have also been added by hand to the map, to show that the users were going somewhere special, doing something important. A few red “x”s are also scattered here and there, some in the middle of nowhere, looking, for all the world to my imaginative mind, like spots to hunt for buried treasure. “X” marks the spot. Montmirail was not one of the places they seemed to be interested in, but I do want them, whoever they were and wherever they’ve gone, to know that we value their map very much, and are thinking and wondering about them!

Projects from the Garden

When spring arrives, trees leaf out, flowers come into bloom and more possibilities present themselves for work in the atelier. I am happy that nature, the garden and the studio are intertwined. I appreciate the seasonality of my projects. This week I finished sewing together squares of leaf prints, cyanotypes on cotton. They were created in April, mostly from our little Japanese maple tree. I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the results, but it shows me a path that can easily lead to other more successful creations.

It’s the time of year when our peony gives us a profusion of huge red flowers. We had several large bouquets around the house last week. Once the blossoms began dropping their petals, I eco-dyed one of them onto paper and got a very lovely print.

Town and Country

We got out of the house during the last week and had a little adventure, starting in Paris. We have had a few weeks of sunny warm days, which makes me feel like I’m in Portugal or California, rather than winter in gray Paris. We noticed, in fact, that the temperature here was warmer than in the Bay Area. While we were in town, we took an afternoon to head to one of our favorite movie theaters on the canal, The Quai de Seine to see Vice. They have a nice restaurant where we ate before the show. Even on a Thursday the place was crowded with people competing for a place in the sun.

We took a pleasant walk along the banks of the canal and up and over a bridge where we got a panoramic view of the canal.

On Friday we drove to the Loire Valley to see our friend Nelly who has a house in Beaugency, an attractive village right on the banks of the river.

The Loire is the longest river in France. Of course, some of the best wine in the world is grown in this valley. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the kings of France relocated from Paris to the Loire Valley and many towns, like Beaugency, grew up to accommodate the French court. There are hundreds of castles dotted along the banks of the river and the little towns are elegant and grand.

Nelly took us to an annual book sale in a neighboring town on Saturday morning. She’s been telling me about it for several years, so I was very happy to go. We both found some nice old books for a few pennies which I put to immediate use in a new bird collage.

I also tried an experimental cyanotype technique which involves introducing water onto the negative and over-developing the image.

Design Challenge

This week was my daughter Emily’s birthday. The last time we saw her she mentioned that she would like to have some kind of art work for the wall above her bed. To surprise her, I got to work on something to fill the bill. I decided to make a wall hanging from linen with cyanotyped birds. The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of weeks that conditions were excellent to create lots of blue birds. I could print all morning long for days at a time without a cloud passing by to obscure the sun processing.

I printed out various sizes and varieties of birds onto transparency to use as my negatives. I also made positive versions as well, so that I could make white birds on a dark ground and dark birds on a white ground. I discovered quickly that photographic images of birds were not as pleasing as simple abstract bird shapes, so I colored in all the bird details with a sharpie.

I also tried tea dying some of the cyanotyped images, which I never really attempted before. It involves mordanting the cyanotype in sodium bicarbonate and then soaking the cloth in a strong tea bath. It worked very well.

But I decided I wanted the finished piece to be monochrome. I made lots of various images and then tried to piece them together in a pleasing way. I didn’t have an ultimate plan. It was a process of moving things around until the individual images came together in some kind of cohesive or logical whole. At last I came up with a design that seemed to work for me, although it’s really hard to look at something on a table which is ultimately destined to be on a wall. I never feel fully confident with my choices.

I arranged the cyanotyped bird images on top of some hand dyed blue cotton fabric which I sewed together on the machine. It was much easier to look at the collage on a blue background than on the white paper template I had begun with. I decided to sew the birds to the blue cotton, allowing the background to show through in spots. I pinned it all down and sewed the birds by hand.

Once it was all together I began to think about doing some sashiko stitching on top to dress it up, but ultimately decided it would detract rather than add to the total. I also tried placing a few spots of color here and there, but determined that the blue was better on its own. So even if I was still a little uncertain, we made stretcher bars and stapled the finished piece on to them. The wall hanging is about 5′ X 1.5′. Once it was all completed, I felt disappointed. Something about it just bothered my eye.

I decided that it had something to do with the placement of the large while rectangles. I tried adding a few scraps and very soon found a simple solution that seemed much more pleasing to my eye. By adding just two small blue pieces, the design suddenly seemed much better to me.

Of course stitching those two pieces on was quite difficult since it was already stretched onto the wooden frame. Rick and I had to stand one on each side and pass the needle through one stitch at a time.

There must be a design principle here, but I couldn’t articulate it.

In other news, we have begun doing our spring cleaning… spring really does seem to have arrived here. These days it’s like being in Portugal or California in mid-February, completely unusual for our part of France. Rick helped me hang my basket collection from the downstairs kitchen ceiling, something I have wanted to do since 1983 when I saw a photograph of Martha Stewart’s restored Connecticut Farmhouse kitchen in Entertaining.

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.

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!


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.