Friday, March 28, 2008

from The Art of Travel

from one of my sketchbooks, drawn at the Ridges, Door Co., Wisconsin

I was going over some of my sketchbooks this morning, and I found a few notes from a book entitled The Art of Travel, by Alain De Botton. The volume belonged to an instructor at a workshop, so I read it very fast and copied out some ideas that struck me. The book doesn't give instructions about how to travel, but rather discusses the effects of travel on people in general, and some writers and visual artists in particular. The gist is that people seek beauty, "the sublime" in places like the Lake District, or Provence. It struck me that I'd like to find The Art of Travel, and reread it.

p. 183 And perhaps the most effective means of enriching our sense of what to look for in a scene is by studying visual art. We could conceive of many works of art as being immensely subtle instruments for telling us what Look at the sky of Provence, redraw your notion of wheat, do justice to olive trees.

p.188 Every realistic picture represents a choice as to which features of reality should be given prominence; no painting ever captures the whole, as Nietzsche mockingly pointed The Realistic Painter: Completely true to nature, what a lie. How could nature ever be constrained into a picture? The smallest bit of nature is infinite. And so he paints what he likes about it. And what does he like? He likes what he can paint!

p.205 It struck me as awkwardly true that I had not much admired Provence before I began to study its depiction in Van Gogh's work. But in its desire to mock art lovers, Pascal's maxim (How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals) was in danger of skirting two important points. Admiring a painting that depicts a place we know but do not like seems absurd and pretentious if we imagine that painters do nothing but reproduce exactly what lies before them...But as Nietzsche knew, painters do not merely reproduce, they select and highlight, and they are accorded genuine admiration insofar asa their version of reality seems to brings out valuable features of it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Art and Poetry

3x3" acrylic on foamcore, gold leaf

3x3" acrylic on foamcore

Cleaning Cupboards on a Gray Day
~Susan Godwin, from Wisconsin Poet's Calendar 2008
I'm glad she saved everything.
Orange and red Fiesta ware
blossoms in a riot of colors.
A cobalt bowl held paperwhites.
A rainbow of sauce dishes,
pink, yellow, green,
sparkle like suncatchers.
I wonder why they call it
Depression glass.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Part of me is not very happy about our spring snowfall, and part of me is grateful that I have a good excuse to stay inside and work on my painting. I have to say that my biggest worry with regard to my artwork is that I don't see any one personal artistic style emerging. I am just as happy to design a playing card featuring Stephen King's face for the EDM group as I am experimenting with abstract paintings. In either case the payoff for me is a sense of discovery and surprise.

This little design was the result of a challenge for the Everyday Matters group. "Draw a pack of cards, or design a new face card." I don't play cards, but I like looking at their designs, so that was the approach I took. I don't draw a lot of faces, and have never tried caricature, so I searched around the internet for tips on getting started. That led to my looking at my old high school yearbook, and attempting to draw familiar faces, then moving on to the master of horror fiction. After a couple false starts I managed to come up with a design that reminded me of King. What I have learned from making myself do even the challenges that don't speak to me right away is that they don't have to be automatically appealing. Pretty often the unappealing ones are the ones that end up having an interesting and surprising result.

I think many people who draw and paint are frustrated by their inability to loosen up and be experimental. I certainly have been unhappy by many of my tight, literal paintings. In an attempt to portray real beauty in the world I often can't see the big picture because of my concern with detail. Personal emotional response, even composition, takes the back seat to picky-picky detail. With that in mind, I decided to try different materials (illustration board, gesso, acrylics) and a different approach. I'm happy with the process, which seems less like work and more like exploration, and the results. But here's the thing - the response I get at home and online where I post on Flickr, is lukewarm at best. It's not the responses I get, which are supportive, but the lack of response, as gauged by the number of times the photo is viewed or marked as a "favorite." What comes to mind is Mom's warning, If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. My assumption is that people are mostly keeping their mouths shut. I never know if lack of response because viewers don't like a loose style, or because I'm just not doing a very good job. Maybe it's some of both of those factors. Or maybe I need to include the abstract work in a different group.

Anyway, I feel the need to try new things, even if they aren't enthusiastically received. At some point I need to just usher my inner critic to the back row, and try to ignore her. I can only hope that way I can continue to grow, and in the end develop a recognizable personal style.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter Fashions, Then and Now

The robins may be wishing they had delayed coming home to Wisconsin, because as forecast, it's snowing. We drank our morning coffee by the fireside in a scene that looked more like Christmas than Easter. I took the picture here through the window, with the silk forsythia blooms in the foreground, because the only flowers are artificial around here. The yellow crocus is buried.

A couple days ago I did my bit to boost the economy by heading to the local mall to buy a buttery yellow purse and a yellow shirt that cried out "spring" to me. The purse is, no doubt, impractical since it will show every coffee spill and bit of dirt, but it looked cheerful to me. When we kids were young, Mom and Grandma made sure we had new good outfits twice a year, Christmas and Easter. Easter outfits always included lightweight coats in candy colors, powder blue, cotton candy pink, and even a red trapeze one in the 1960's. We wore hats, and (I had forgotten) gloves.

It seems to me that all this stopped sometime in the 1970's. In our family casual attire became the rule all the time, only Grandma holding out and dressing up in her best for family dinners. This year for Easter we're staying home, and my yellow purse and top will be the only nod to the season.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Day of Spring, Random Thoughts

The first day of spring, and Easter is this Sunday. The only real way I can tell that spring will chase winter down the street is that the sun seems to get up earlier and go to bed later, and all the rotting snow banks have melted on our side of the street. The other side still has piles of snow, which makes me glad to live on the sunny side. Quite a few houses and businesses still have Christmas wreaths up, which strikes me as bizarre, though perhaps no stranger than Easter door decorations and snow banks together. Our neighbors still have gold tinsel garlands on the bushes in front of their house, and I'm tempted to sneak over their at night and make them disappear.

When I was little we always had new pastel lightweight Easter outfits, dresses, coats, hats and gloves. Easter is rarely warm enough for cloth coats, especially when it falls as early as it does this year. We used to just freeze on our way to church or to dinner. My grandmother worked at the Rexall drugstore, so we usually were treated to fancy Easter cards and sometimes those sugar panorama eggs with little scenes inside - lots of bunnies and flowers. It always seemed strange to me, since where I live there is nothing blooming. Nada. Not even forsythia or redbud. Where did people have flowers in early spring? I went searching around the south side of our house yesterday to see if my crocus and snow drops were up, and I found one of each (see photos). Not really a grand display, but some hope.

These days my reaction to spring is tinged with sad associations. Dad died on the first day of spring in 1983, and Mom died the last day of March four years ago, right before Easter. I wonder about that juxtaposition of loss, and spring renewal. What made them hold on until spring, then leave just as the possibility of a new green season was becoming real? Part of me wants to be philosophical about the death and rebirth of the seasons and our own hopes of resurrection, but it's hard.

Snow is forecast for tonight, but the daffodils have poked up though last years leaves about half an inch. I'm just going to need to think about them. Maybe I'll go get some Jelly Bellies, too.

Late addition: On my drive to my art class today I saw my first robins of the season, three of them.  I assume that the two flying madly at one another were males trying to out-macho one another for the benefit of the female who was sitting to one side watching.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Barn Came First

I was startled the other day, after I showed some friends photos of our family barn burning to the ground, when my husband reminded me we hadn't lived there for years, and didn't own it any more. The implication was that I had no business being upset by the loss of the old building. Logically, that's right, and in fact I am a little surprised that the fire was so traumatic. After all, I remember clearly an incident from junior high. I was asleep in my flannel night gown, prickly brush curlers in my hair, when Dad woke the whole family to pull on boots and get the heifers out of the young corn field. After chasing around the field for about an hour in the dark I announced aloud that I would never marry a farmer. I didn't, either. But that doesn't mean I don't miss the farm.

My college roommate, Cathy, was more sensitive. She's originally from Boscobel, a small Wisconsin town out in the western part of the state, where valleys are called coulees, apple orchards dot the landscape and where it is possible to buy artisan cheese direct from small factories. Her suggestion was to read a little book called
The Barn Came First, by Pearl Swiggum. Bookworld couldn't find it, and it isn't carried by Amazon, but our library had two copies, both signed by the author. Yeah for the library!

From the inside cover: Pearl Swiggum's first book was
Stump Ridge Farm, published in 1990.

Pearl was born in 1914 in the village of Towerville, Wis. Her parents, Sigurd and Goldie Stevenson, had a large family and ran a general store there. She married Tillman "Punk" Swiggum in 1934 and they had three children. In 1958 she began writing a column for the local newspaper, chronicling her experiences growing up and running a dairy farm for many years. This book is a compilation of many of those columns.

I knew Swiggum from her columns that ran in the
Wisconsin State Journal for many years, until she at last retired. I see that she will be 94 on March 24, and I intend to send her a card congratulating her on longevity and thanking her for all her insight and humor. The following brief selections are from the book.

I have a most delightful dictionary. None of the last dozen words I have looked up are in it but I never close it dissatisfied. To give you a for instance, "nostalgia" was not in it but near where it should have been was "note" as in music. And in the text was an illustration. There was a note with four little squiggles hanging from it like flags in a slight breeze and it was called a hemidemisemiquaver. I defy you to call that dictionary search wasted. Now I know waht fat opera singers were doing when we kids thought someone was behind them patting them on the backside to make their voices quiver as they sang mightily. Hemidemisemiquavering is what they were doing.

Words have different meanings to different people. To a farmer the word "danger" means walking behind a coughing cow.

As spring weather goes March is a breach of promise, April a tentative proposal, May a vow kept, at least as well as most.

Time, my dears, will erase painful memories of that mistake you just made. So will the next m

"Fixed Focus"
Getting used to bifocals
Is hard as the devil.
The world has become
Like the fashion in houses

I heard a man talking about his wife's ambitious nature. He said, "She goes at cleaning house like she's killing snakes."

The most important things that old people should do - stay as well as we can and have as much fun as we can.

Funny how...
greeting cards say exactly what you want to and sometimes better,
frogs and caterpillars are never satisfied with where they live and must cross the road - right to left or left to right,
how much longer it takes flower seeds to push through the ground and get down to the growing business than weeds and even vegetable seeds,
how the last sigh of my coffee percolator sounds like a young mother who has finally gotten her boisterous babies to sleep.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Irish Pipeline Soup

A few years ago when Dick and I took a trip to Ireland we were struck by the fact that almost every restaurant served some version of potato soup. In fact, there we didn't know that potatoes could be offered so many ways. At one little place we ordered fish, and it came with potato soup, mashed potatoes and chips (french fries). Anyway, he started calling the soup "pipeline" soup, because it almost seemed as if each and every restaurant had a pipeline to the potato soup factory. Here's my husband's recipe for pipeline soup. We had it last night with Reuben sandwiches.

Dick's Pipeline Soup

1 carrot, peeled and chopped
3 turnips, peeled and chopped
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 onion, diced
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup Half and Half
salt and pepper to taste
chopped scallions for garnish

Add the vegetables to the chicken stock, and cook over low heat for an hour. Puree the cooked veggies in a blender in small batches. Season to taste, then add the Half and Half. Heat through, garnish with chopped scallions. If you like your soup a little thicker, you can saute the onions in butter first, then add a little flour.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My Irish Connection

Sarah "Sadie" Kingston 1858-1906

Nora Belle Donaldson, Sarah Kingston Donaldson, Cornelius Donaldson, Hawley K. Donaldson

For years I knew I had ancestors from Norway, Germany, and England, but I only found my Irish connection in the last ten years or so. I get to wear green on Saint Patrick's day, not just the green and gold of the Green Bay Packers or John Deere.

My paternal great grandmother, Sarah Kingston, was pure Irish. In the photos she looks serious, not to be trifled with. Here's what I know.

She was from Muskego, the daughter of William Kingston (1813-1902) and Barbara Clark (1825-1888). Barbara grew up in Dunmanway, Ireland, and had a sister, Eliza. According to a pamphlet my mother passed on to me, Barbara and Eliza, described as "charming", married the Kingston brothers. Barbara married William in 1844, and Eliza married Thomas the same day. They farmed near Bantry, County Cork. In 1848 William and Barbara left Ireland and sailed from Queenstown to Quebec on a three-masted schooner,
The Crimea. No doubt the young couples were hurt by the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845. From Quebec they went south and settled for a time in Rochester, New York. William spent a year working digging the Genesee Valley Canal, and later worked on building railroads. Then they traveled west, relocating in North Greenfield, near Milwaukee. William worked on constructing eighteen miles of track from Milwaukee to the Fox River, and later worked on a line that was headed toward Whitewater and Jefferson. These ventures failed and were financially disastrous for Kingston, who then turned to farming in the town of Muskego. He did well farming, and was described as being civic minded and honest. He also fathered thirteen children, one of whom was Sarah, my great grandmother.

There isn't much information in my file about this woman. She went to school in Crestline, Ohio, and taught school for two years. I don't know how Sarah met her future husband, Cornelius Donaldson, but I have a photocopy of their marriage certificate saying they were married in Milwaukee February 23, 1886. I know they lived on the farm at the end of Marsh Road (later Pierce Road) in Sugar Creek Township in Walworth County. She went from being a farmer's daughter to being a farmer's wife. Sarah and Cornelius "Con" had two children, my grandmother Nora, and her brother, my Uncle Hawley. The only other thing I know is that she is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, not far from the farm where I grew up. I have walked the pretty cemetery more than once searching for their headstones, but have not been successful in finding them.

I wish I knew more about this woman, born only one generation away from Ireland. I can only imagine a life that must have been difficult, and was short. Certainly she must have had friends, things she enjoyed. Did she like music? Was she a reader? Of what illness did she finally die? I don't know the answers from the two photos, autograph book with a few entries, and obituary, which follows.

Mrs. Sarah Kingston Donaldson, daughter of William and Barbara Kingston, was born in Greenfield, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, September 13, 1858. Later she moved with her parents to Muskego, Waukesha County, where she grew to young womanhood. She attended school two years at Crestline, Ohio, and taught school several years.

On February 23, 1886, she was united in marriage to C.K. Donaldson, and soon after came to Millard, to the farm which has since been her home.

Mrs. Donaldson was a woman who endeared herself to all who met her. A woman with a keen sense of what was right, yet ever ready to overlook with a forgiving spirit the shortcomings of her fellow men, a kind neighbor, ever willing to assist those who might be in need, a true friend and a loving wife and mother. Her illness was borne with Christian fortitude and courage, and on April 17th she entered into eternal rest with faith and trust in her Savior, aged 47 years, five months and four days.

The funeral was held at the Baptist church, of which she was a member, Friday, April 20th, and was largely attended, befitting the memory of an earnest Christian woman. Rev. Hobbs, of Delavan, conducted the services, and a quartet composed of Mrs. Henry Brandt, Mrs. George Weaver, Edward Thomas and Emon Weeks sang appropriate selections.

The remains, amid a profusion of beautiful flowers, were interred in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Tibbetts, there to await Resurrection Day. She leaves to mourn her death a husband, a son Hawley, a daughter, Nora, besides a host of friends. Of her it may well be said "Her children will rise up and call her blessed."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sticking My Neck Out

fluid acrylic and transfer on Crescent board

watercolor on gessoed Crescent board

This past week I received Celebrate Your Creative Self: More than 25 Exercises to Unleash the Artist Within, by Mary Todd Beam, through interlibrary loan. I've had an urge to try some paintings that are experimental and outside my comfort zone. What surprises lay in store if I use new materials, try new approaches? This North Light book appealed to me because it uses a series of exercises that build upon each other. The first few deal with saving white areas in paintings, the next on creating interesting surfaces, the next on personal color choices, then design elements, and so on. I'm never going to get through this book before it's due back at the library, so I'll probably have to take some good notes.

This week I just am working in the first chapter. Beam uses illustration board, and lots of fluid acrylics, neither of which I use very often. All the exercises suggest a limited palette of either watercolors or acrylics, basically yellow ochre, pthalo blue, alizarin crimson and burnt sienna. I don't use those colors frequently, but since all the lessons use the same colors, it isn't too expensive. I also invested in some gel medium, foam brushes, and an adhesive spreader. It's playtime! One frustrating thing I noticed about her exercises is that although she does a clear job of listing materials and explaining the point of each demonstration, the photo of her completed painting does not match the steps she describes. Her finished painting uses techniques not described in the demonstration, leaving me wanting to know, "How'd she do that?" Guess I'll have to figure it out for myself.

The two paintings on this page are my initial attempts. The first is an acrylic created by laying white Con-tact shelf paper on the illustration board and making abstract overlapping shapes, including a circle, a square, and a triangle. I used an craft blade to cut away the background, and a broad brush to add color. I peeled away the adhesive paper and decided what to do with the light shapes reserved. After that I just experimented, finally layering enough color to be happy. I decided at the end to make a transfer of a crow from my sketchbook, added him to the bottom, because the colors and shapes reminded me of a folktale about a raven that brings sunlight to mankind.

The bottom painting is watercolor on gessoed Crescent board. It was not gessoed to start with, but my first try ended up muddled and dark, and I wanted to use the board I had already cut. I took a photo from my botanical garden field trip, transformed it to black and white, then outlined the main shapes with a Sharpie. That gave me a point of departure for general shapes. Then I just painted in the watercolors thickly, encouraging some drips and splatters. The end result doesn't look much like the original photo, but it does suggest the shapes of leaves, and it does have some of the colors that made an impression on me from my visit to the Bolz Conservatory. I tried to add some extra interest by taking advantage of the way I could lift paint from the gessoed surface. It looks nothing like anything I have painted in the past couple years, but that is the point.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Desperately Seeking Spring

I am taking an art class 40 miles from my home each Thursday for eight weeks. It is called "Cultivating Creativity" and really, it's independent study. I'm not sure I want any new techniques right now, since I am seriously attention deficit already with regard to my art. I'm drawing, painting in several media, collaging, and assembling. I take the class to enable myself to devote a day to improving my work or just to hang out with other emerging artists.  It a weekly treat for me.

Yesterday though, I wanted more than anything to soak up some warmth and see some blooming plants. The class was all individually immersed in projects, and I had already completed a couple of my own at home. I don't enjoy packing up and hauling all my watercolor paraphernalia, but I will take along my sketchbooks and drawing kit. So I cut out of class.

I went down the road to Madison's Olbrich Botanical Garden, specifically their tropical conservatory. The glass enclosed building is filled with tropical plants, free flying birds, insects, even little geckos. There is a waterfall and koi pond, and their
amorpophallus konjac, Voodoo Lily or Devil's Tongue, was blooming. This last is an Asian plant grown from a bulb, nearly as tall as I am, and smelling for all the world like ripe roadkill. I had always wanted to see one, and perhaps once was enough since an hour later in the car I could still catch a sickly whiff of corruption on my clothing.

I decided to settle on a bench far away from the stinky plant, and soak up the warmth and humidity of the giant terrarium. I had along my tin of pencils and my Moleskine, so I put aside concern about people who wandered past, and sketched some giant mutant houseplants. I'm not excited enough about the results to share them here, but the chance to sit, watch, listen and see sunlight filtering through tropical foliage was good for me, at least as good for my creativity as sitting in a cement block classroom on a not-quite-spring day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wash

Graphite and watercolor pencil, in my Moleskine journal
From a photo taken at my sister-in-law's home in Door County, WI

The Everyday Matters sketching group has a different idea each week, and I submitted the idea "something that smells wonderful." Certainly there are lots of smells, scents, aromas: fresh morning coffee, baking bread, citrus, a freshly bathed baby, Chanel no.5, back yard lilacs and lily of the valley, freshly mown grass.

One wonderful scent that is mostly only a memory is the scent of sheets and towels dried outside in the sunshine. Mom did laundry the hard way for years. She had a Maytag wringer washer in the basement, and she stood down there with laundry baskets and a wooden pole. The pole was to pick up the heavy wet clothes out of the hot water and start them through the wringer. This was done twice, first for the wash cycle, then for the rinse. We didn't have an electric dryer until I was maybe in junior high. Before that, all the wet laundry was either dried outside on the clothesline or down in the basement.

We kids loved playing under the sheets hung outside to air dry. We'd let the fabric blow over our faces, or we'd make tents of the sheets on the line. Sometimes we'd play too hard, bringing the freshly laundered sheets down into the grass, earning a tongue lashing from my tired mother. Clean sheets were in danger also from whatever soil might be blowing in the wind, or from the fallout of birds who liked to perch on the ropes strung between wooden poles out our kitchen door.

Once the sheets were dry, bleached and deodorized by wind and sun, we'd help her fold them into a basket. It's hard to believe now, but she would iron the sheets. Around 1960 we inherited our grandparents' big laundry mangle, a huge machine that squatted for several years in our dining room. We learned to feed the machine the sheets, and then we'd have hot, perfectly flat bedding. What luxury! Eventually the mangle died, permanent press was introduced, and line dried, ironed sheets were history.

The Wash
by Sarah Getty

A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed "Diogenes,
Diogenes," while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother. My job was stirring
the rinse. The troll hummed. Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue--

socks, aprons, Daddy's shirts, my brother's
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer

at the lake. Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around. The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag. It grabbed Mother
once--rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new. This was a story
from Before. Still, I seemed to see it--
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,

like Popeye's. I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one. Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets. Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
"This way out!" There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up. Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who's that trit-

trotting...) and watch. Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams. Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row. Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek. Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging

line up high, to catch the wind. We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque. Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white. Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd. For a week

now, each day, we'd put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness. At night, best of all,
I'd see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Spring Fashion Show

My guilty secret is out. I have extensive collection of vintage Barbie dolls. Admitting this has earned me dubious looks and derisive comments from my some of my friends. What is a fifty-something woman doing with a shelf-load of eleven and a half inch vinyl goddesses? Isn't that childish? Don't I realize how damaging Barbie's incredible plastic physique has been to the self-image of generations of real girls? Shouldn't I be doing something more socially responsible with my time?

Forty-nine years year ago, I was an eight-year-old whose mother and grandmother never had enough dolls as children. Their idea of a perfect birthday or Christmas present was a pretty doll. I had baby dolls, a Madame Alexander ballerina, a 17" Shirley Temple, a Little Miss Revlon. We weren't well-to-do, but buying these toys made them very happy. I liked dolls well enough, though I preferred my bicycle, pets and books. I mostly displayed the dolls on a shelf in bedroom that my younger sister and I shared, which accounts for how well preserved they are today.

In 1959 the newest toy being advertised was Barbie, the teenage fashion model. Mom and Grandma took the train to Milwaukee, went to Gimbels, stood in line and bought me a blond ponytail Barbie ($3.00), complete with gold hoop earrings, a black and white swimsuit, sunglasses, black open-toed heels and Attitude. Grandpa disapproved; he could see that times were changing when little girls put aside their baby dolls for a model that needed a clothing allowance. I got a couple store-bought outfits that Christmas, though over the years as my sister and I grew our Barbie collection to include Midge, Ken and Allen, Mother usually made clothes to outfit them. She sewed wee shirtwaist dresses trimmed in rickrack, knitted wee sweaters and hats, even tailored little bitty suits for the male dolls. Sometimes we got the more expensive couture clothing Mattel marketed, but usually our dolls wore home sewn, like we did.

Flash forward to 2000. My youngest sister has died, unexpectedly, just after her 40th birthday. Grandma is the nursing home, and Mother isn't very well herself. It's Mothers Day, and my other sister and I turn the conversation at the table away from sad topics and ask if Mom still had our Barbies? Didn't she use to have our Barbies saved in the cedar chest? It was magic. The dishes were cleared and we were sent downstairs, where we found two old vinyl Ponytail cases, two bubblecut Barbies, two frumpy Midges and two fuzzy-headed Kens. We spent the afternoon looking at treasure, dividing it into two piles, squinting at the tiny dresses with designer labels, wee shoes, hats, and accessories.

I began researching the dolls, and realized that I could have the little outfits I coveted from the old Mattel catalogs. Thanks to eBay, I began collecting vintage Barbies and their marvelous outfits. I started driving to doll shows. I joined a local doll club, went to a couple national conventions. I had some damaged dolls repaired, repainted, even rerooted. But most of all, when I acquired a new Barbie or outfit, I took it to Mom. It was something we both enjoyed, something cheerful, something far removed from aging, illness and death.

That's how I started collecting Barbie. Since Mom's death four years ago, I have mostly gone from acquisition mode to slowly thinning my stash. I've sold the newer Barbies; the Skippers, and the Francies are next. The collection takes too much room, and it doesn't serve the same purpose any more. I'm keeping the the Barbies (1959-1965) and their original outfits for a while. Collecting them has happy associations for me, and it represents an investment of time, cash and emotion. I'm showing the collection to my doll club on Tuesday, then most of them will go back into storage.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sam, and Other Animals

Ralph and Sherry Pierce, about 1952

I am forever grateful I was raised by parents who loved, or in my mother's case tolerated, all sorts of birds and animals. This photo from about 1952 is of my father and me and one of his pet crows. He occasionally rescued young birds who fell from their nests, but I think he sometimes kidnapped them. To his credit he never caged the raucous critters. He simply convinced them he was their best meal ticket and was rewarded with a summer of amusement before biology called them away to start their own families in the autumn.

In 1960 our local newspaper, The Elkhorn Independent, sent Wally Schultz to the farm to do a story about our animals. This is my younger sister Pat with "Sam" on her arm, me watching on. The picture isn't especially good, but the text of the old article, saved in a scrapbook, bolstered my memory of a summer straight out of Sterling North's novel, Rascal. The text of the clipping follows.

I was so caught up in the memory I decided to try a drawing of a crow, using an internet reference photo. I started with a graphite value drawing, then deepened the darkest values with black acrylic ink. I followed with a wash of indigo watercolor, not too dark, saving the highlights, and finished up with indigo and black colored pencil. It seems right to me, though no drawing or photo can capture the intelligence and energy of these relatives of ravens, jays, and magpies.

Pet Managerie Developed for Ralph Pierce Children
Wally Schultz, Elkhorn Independent, 1960

A menagerie of some proportions has been assembled for the enjoyment of the children, and the grownups, on the Ralph Pierce farm in Sugar Creek.

The collection includes three rabbits, a parakeet, a raccoon, a black crow, a fox, a turtle, and two dogs. In contrast to ordinary menageries, however, the animals and birds are pets, and with a couple of exceptions, have their freedom.

Sherry, 9, and Patricia, 6, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, handle them with tender care, and Mary, 16 months, would like to if she could get her hands on them. Dean, six weeks old, simply isn't interested.

Mr. Pierce said he always made pets of birds and animals when he was a kid on the farm. His first crow followed him to school and was waiting for him when he came out after the sessions. He has trained four. The present crow, Sam, has been with the family about six weeks. He was taken from the nest and responded to feeding by being friendly right from the start. He rides on the shoulders of all members of the family, and even parked on your correspondent's shoulder while he was taking notes. "Sam" has his freedom and has been flying only about three weeks, but has stayed around the place.

Perhaps the secret of Pierce's success with the animals is the fact that he handles them as little as possible, never frightens them and lets them have their own way most of the time. The girls, and Mrs. Pierce, the former Carol Tess, who was a classmate of her husband in the 1948 Elkhorn High School graduating class, follows his program of training and they all share in the fun.

"Ringo" the raccoon, came to the farm about three weeks ago. Mrs. Harry Weaver, Rte. 2, heard a strange noise in her chimney and noticed the flue stop plate was pushed out in the kitchen on two successive mornings. Her son-in-law, Oral Ward, of Janesville, investigated and found baby raccoons. They were turned over to Pierce, who in turn gave one to Don Vincent. After a short period "Ringo" climbs up and sits on a shoulder, and gets along with the rabbits when placed in a pen with them. He prefers his freedom however, but stays close to home. He sleeps under the porch.

"Vixen" the fox was trapped by Pierce but she is confined near the barn. One dash for freedom lasted only a few minutes after Pierce coaxed her back with a weiner. She likes pigeons, which Pierce shoots from the barn roof, and all sorts of table scraps. Her odor prevents closer association with the family, and accounts for her banishment to the pen behind the barn.

Two black rabbits named "Smokey" and "Midnight" and a white who hasn't been named, are completely tame. The turtle, named "Myrtle the Turtle" lives happily in the stock tank, and "Pete" the parakeet, the noisiest of the lot, is the only one who enjoys the comfort of home.

Practically ignored by the Independent reporter were "Shep" and "Pluto" the shepherd dogs who modestly stayed in the background, probably reconciled to the fact that they are not as glamorous and newsworthy as "Sam" and "Ringo" and "Vixen," but they played an important role in protecting the rest of the pets from nocturnal marauders.

Schultz's story said nothing about the clutter of barn cats that our family kept, partially because Dad loved them, and partially because cats were necessary to keep rats from infesting the barns, sheds and corn cribs. The article was written too soon for the writer to hear about the thieving antics of the crow and raccoon, who often charged into the open kitchen door, hoping for handouts. I remember clearly tossing Fig Newtons out the screen door to persuade the animals to leave, then slamming and latching it to keep them outside where they belonged. The raccoon was fun that summer. He played in our inflatable kiddie pool, and would happily sit in the water with a Slo-Poke sucker clutched in his little black hands, washing it into a state of goo, then chewing the candy to bits. Even when his jaws were glued together with caramel he chirred happily.  I loved it.