Tuesday, July 31, 2012


old snapshot, found in a file drawer at a consignment shop today

Green Canoe, by Jeffrey Harrison

I don't often get the chance any longer
to go out alone in the green canoe
and, lying in the bottom of the boat,
just drift where the breeze takes me,
down to the other end of the lake
or into some cove without my knowing
because I can't see anything over
the gunwales but sky as I lie there,
feeling the ribs of the boat as my own,
this floating pod with a body inside it...

also a mind, that drifts among clouds
and the sounds that carry over water—
a flutter of birdsong, a screen door
slamming shut-as well as the usual stuff
that clutters it, but slowed down, opened up,
like the fluff of milkweed tugged
from its husk and floating over the lake,
to be mistaken for mayflies at dusk
by feeding trout, or be carried away
to a place where the seeds might sprout.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Paintings

5x7 oil on canvas board

Last week I joined a group of painters for three days at the Senior Center in Fitchburg.  Most were people I have known for several years, mostly folks who work exclusively in watercolors.  I wanted to paint there to see them, get some feedback on my work, and to have a cool place to work. I emailed ahead to see if I could use my water mixable oils, since the cleanup only requires soap and water, no stinky solvents.  I got the OK, so I packed up my kit and headed out for three days.

This little painting of my brother-in-law is based on a snapshot I took of him about ten years ago.  He loves his tractors, and it showed in the picture.  I did a monotype of this image, even framed it, but over time I've come to like that version less and less, and wanted something I liked better to replace the monotype.  This is what I have so far.  I think the face needs to be darker, hidden under the hat as it is, so I think I'll need to go back in later, though I mostly don't like to keep fiddling with oils.  I do like the simple shapes and colors in this.

5x7 inches, oil on canvas board

This is another interpretation of an old snapshot of my mother seated at the picnic table by the farmhouse where we lived when I was growing up.  I think what attracted me was her voluminous skirt, tailored blouse, and heels.  She must have been headed out somewhere, maybe to meet up with one of her high school girlfriends who lived in Elkhorn.  This had to be in the 1950s, since by the 1960s she mostly wore slacks and tops, and wore her hair shorter.

I approached both of these little paintings the same way, drawing out the figures first in pencil, then painting the image in gray scale in acrylic, to work out the values and make adjustments.  Then I went in with oils and added the color.  The lightest lights and darkest darks were already worked out, so that made the oil painting straightforward and fun.

I like painting this way, working from photos of people I know, making adjustments in composition, painting out thinks that are distractions, like the lawn chairs that cluttered up the original photo of Mother.  It pleases me to look at these photos carefully, and put them in paintings that are a bit nostalgic for other people as well as myself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stealing Like an Artist

Little Sister, 8x8, acrylic and colored pencil, gold leaf

I've actually been painting the past couple weeks, even though my upstairs studio is often sauna-like and stuffy.  With no attic overhead to insulate the room, and a tiny vent for the AC, temps sometimes climb into the mid 80s there, and I find myself dressing very minimally and drinking lots of ice water.  That, and I signed up for a painting studio session out of town in a pleasantly air conditioned room in a senior center.  Thinking back, it might have been more cost effective to just crank up the AC here at home, what with the fees for the sessions and the gasoline to get there, but if I had stayed home would have missed seeing other painters I know and like, and I may well have gotten sidetracked playing Bejeweled Blitz on the computer downstairs.  I'll post the two small oils I finished there later on.

Earlier in the month when we were playing tour guide for a visiting out-of-town niece, I bought a little art book at Arcadia Bookstore in Spring Green.  We stopped in to cool off and get some coffee, and I found Steal Like an Artist.

I sometimes think that reading about art is just a way of procrastinating and not getting going making art, but this slim volume appealed to me very much. He is simple, direct, decidedly un-fussy, and sometimes quite funny.  Like local artist Lynda Barry, he is an advocate of just getting going, and using your hands (As opposed to an electronic device).  His general idea is that of course artists are influenced by other artists, but that your job is to keep track of the people who are your models/influences, learn from them, then add something of yourself, combine ideas, transform them to make them your own.  Kleon has a blog I like too, and you might find it worthwhile to check it out.  I also am enjoying his suggested reading list, which is mercifully short.

Which brings me to my most recent painting, an 8x8 inch picture of my husband's youngest sister, adapted from a 1950s black and white snapshot.  I glued a piece of embossed wallpaper on a canvas board, gessoed over it, draw the girl and rabbits, then started painting.  It was a challenge, since the photo was small and indistinct, and the girl was surrounded by a wire mesh fence that obscured lots of detail.  So, I invented.  When I had the image pretty much done, I added gold leaf around the entire background, a step that terrified me at first, but which later pleased me.  I know there are other painters who use vintage photographs, and who use gold leaf, but I've never seen one who works as small as I typically do, or who primarily uses personal photos.  So, maybe I am stealing like an artist.  I hope so.

Stay cool, folks.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's Fun to Cook, Circa 1959

 A couple years ago I posted a picture of me at a 4-H summer cooking class my neighbor held.  This was our Favorite Foods project guide, produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service in Madison.  I don't know what happened to my old copy.  I probably left it with my mother who probably eventually got sick of the food stained yellow booklet and threw it away.  But it's summer, and I got to remembering those cooking classes with my friends, and longed to find a copy.  I scored this one from an online auction site, and then the woman who was the Home Economics agent in Walworth County sent me a photocopy of hers, and so now I have two.

It's ironic that I was so nostalgic for this little booklet, since for the past twenty years or so I have turned over the kitchen to my husband.  He likes preparing food, hunting for recipes, and even shopping, all of which I find to be tremendous drains on time I would rather spend other ways.  I do like to bake occasionally, always have liked baking.  But in summer I get the evil eye from him when I fire up the oven and heat up the house, and neither one of us needs bakery laying around the house.

Still, reading over the booklet, I have the urge to make one of the recipes a week, including the cheese casserole recipe that our 4-H leader despised and skipped over every year. 

An anonymous reader of this blog asked for the muffin recipe, and now I have it.  The recipe looks quite plain, but I bet the muffins are good right out of the oven with a little jam. I remember having an awful time learning to mix them just enough, not too much.  My first ones were dense, heavy, and full of the dreaded tunnels. Eventually I learned to use a lighter touch.

Yummy Muffins

2 cups sifted flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 cup milk
1/4 cup soft or melted fat

1.  Heat the oven.  Set the control for 400 degrees F.
2.  Grease muffin cups using a piece of waxed paper
3.  Sift together the measured flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center.

4.  In a small mixing bowl beat the egg until it's foamy.  Add the milk and melted fat.
5.  Add the milk mixture all at once to the dry ingredients.
6.  Stir until the dry ingredients are moist but the mixture is still slightly lumpy.  It takes about 17 to 25 strokes.  Over-mixing will cause tunnels in the muffins and they will be heavy and tough.
7.  Fill the greased muffin cups 1/2 to 2/3 full.
8.  Put in preheated oven. Bake 15-20 minutes.

Variation: You may vary the muffins by adding one of these:
1. 1/2 cup chopped nuts
2.  3/4 cup fresh blueberries
3.  1/2 cup chopped cranberries
4.  3/4 cup cut-up dates

Good muffins are:

Light for their size
Golden brown
Slightly rounded on top - without knobs or peaks
Even in texture - without tunnels running from the botton crust to the top
Pleasing in flavor

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dear Photograph

Our summer heatwave has come and gone, leaving us all a little limp and the grass brown and crunchy under foot.  Yesterday I got a call from a retired teacher friend who runs a construction business, saying he and the crew would be over to work on our deck.  This photo is is me holding a picture I took in 1991 when the crew added the deck to the back of our house.

Now twenty-one years have passed, and the guys are back out there working, except that our friend Jim, shown here minus his shirt, as passed away.  Gone for several years from a heart attack.  We needed them back because they originally built the deck around the silver maple tree, and even though we all thought they left a big enough hole to allow the tree to live and grow, over time its trunk filled the space and its roots began to heave up the deck boards.  So yesterday the crew removed the circular seat built around the trunk, and are rebuilding the section damaged over time by the aging tree.   I can hear them planning, sawing and running the power screwdrivers as I type, and imagine them as I remember them when they first planned our shady summer retreat.

It's funny how nostalgic I feel having them back, and I can imagine Jim, perhaps just stepped away for a minute.  Time passes, things and people age and change, and for me photos make that gradual change more tangible.

Which brings me to a website I discovered recently that gave me the idea to take the picture of a picture.  It's called Dear Photograph, and it is a brainchild of a young man who had the idea to take pictures of the past in the present, then write about the changes that have taken place over time. He started a blog and invited other people to do the same thing, with touching results. It's worth a look.

Dear Photograph,

A house becomes a home when you live in it for years, and when you change it to make it your own. We bought this house on a shady street in an old neighborhood in 1990, and loved the place's nooks and corners, its cove ceilings and wood trim.  We didn't love he back yard so much, especially since we like eating outside in nice weather.  So in 1991 we invited Russ and his crew to build us a deck.  We couldn't stand the idea of cutting down the maple that shaded the back porch, so we had them build the deck around the tree.  Jim designed a wooden seat encircling the trunk, and a railing to keep us from falling off the edge. Two decades have passed, and the tree has gotten wider, too broad for its space, so it's time for a little updating and maintenance.  We all are a little older (and maybe wider too), but we're all still hanging in there, and hoping for many more summers.

Monday, July 2, 2012


It's really really hot this week in southern Wisconsin.  Today it hit 100 degrees in Janesville, and it was not dry heat.  There's a burning ban in effect in most of the state, and lots of Independence Day fireworks displays have been delayed or canceled.  Not here though - I guess shooting pyrotechnics out over the Rock River is safe enough.

I'm not sure if the ban extends to outdoor grilling; I don't think folks would stand for that.  The heat got me thinking about this 1956 snapshot of Grandpa Tess, dressed up in his Fathers Day apron and cap, cooking burgers on a very low-tech grill. Genius at Work is what the get-up says.  I remember that they set up picnic tables in the garage, and we all settled in for burgers, chips, potato salad, and Cokes.

In the background our old green car is there, heating up in the sun. Nobody had air conditioning, and cars certainly did not have any way to cool down except by rolling down all the windows - by hand.  It made for some steamy vacations.

Immigrant Picnic
By Gregory Djanikian

It's the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,
I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I've got a hat shaped  
like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what's his pleasure
and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"
and then, "Hamburger, sure,  
what's the big difference,"  
as if he's really asking.

I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,  
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins  
are fluttering away like lost messages.

"You're running around," my mother says,  
"like a chicken with its head loose."

"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,
loose and cut off   being as far apart  
as, say, son and daughter."

She gives me a quizzical look as though  
I've been caught in some impropriety.
"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,
"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,
"you're both our children, so why worry?"

That's not the point I begin telling them,
and I'm comparing words to fish now,  
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,  
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.  

"Sonia," my father says to my mother,
"what the hell is he talking about?"
"He's on a ball," my mother says.
"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,
"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll...."

"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,
"let's have some fun," and launches  
into a polka, twirling my mother  
around and around like the happiest top,  

and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
"You could grow nuts listening to us,"  

and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,  
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
wordless, confusing,
crowding out everything else.