Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Confessions of a Journal Junkie

I have to confess, I can't resist beautiful journals! Every time I go into a book store, stationers or art supply store I find myself irresistibly drawn to those lovely little books, hard or soft covered, spiral or perfect bound, blank or lined pages or, as they make here in France, pages with a little grid (the French are so much neater about their handwriting). I have so many notebooks, journals and sketch books that one could imagine I do nothing but draw and write. Of course it isn't true. Often these beautiful little books languish for years on my shelves, and still, I continue looking at and buying more. Finding the perfect journal becomes an obsession. Realistically, the notebooks I use the most faithfully are ones you can purchase at the grocery store. Just soft little books with lines. These are great for collecting restaurant cards, and wine labels to remind myself of a really good bottle (restaurants are very kind about giving these to you if you ask). I also cut restaurant reviews out of magazines and paste them into little notebooks. I have my own personal guide to Paris, for instance. I always have a notebook in my purse. When I'm out I use it as a place to write down reflections that come to me, or some anecdote that I want to remember. I love people-watching and I can make a quick sketch or write a few words to help myself remember something that seems charming or strange. When I reread these entries months later I sometimes lose the whole point of what I was wanting to remind myself! When out at a nice restaurant I often make a tiny schematic of the plate that is served to me, if it's paricularly attractive. I love to write down interesting food combinations to reuse myself at our Bed & Breakfast. I adore those beautiful notebooks which are made with soft Japanese paper. I have at least four of them and not one of them has anything written or drawn in it. I just don't dare! Another category of journal I can't resist, are those with pretty covers. They are available everywhere. They're put out on counters for people like me who somehow believe that just one more beautiful notebook will turn me into a genius-writer and inspire words and images of profound meaning. When I lived in California I bought a very nice notebook which I was going to dedicate to our garden, at that time under construction and quite large. I began with a plan drawing of the space. I never got any further! Now the notebook sits on my shelf in the French countryside, with labels from Californian plants we bought and which I stuck into the back blank pages. Here is my current "everything" notebook, which sits on my desk. I write down things we need, to-do lists, phone numbers, reflections, ideas, quotes, complaints, questions. Of course, as you can see I really tend to do all that on random scraps of paper that come to hand at the moment and if and when they actually get transfered into the real book remains a mystery. I have made several journals myself. The little one was a design from Gail Rieke. It works very well in your purse, for example. You can bind in little folded strips of paper with an elastic or rubber band, take notes and then remove them and add more paper as you like. It's like a little portfolio. The bigger journal is made with gorgeous handmade paper and one of my favorite fabric designs. The pages can not be removed, and that's what intimidates me about it. I began it as a journal of my life in the woods when I first came to France. I made my title page and begun my writing, but it is a big book and I never got too far. Now we've moved, so the book will have to find another use. This little beauty is a really great journal which is friendly enough to allow you to go ahead and use it, but sexy enough that you are inspired to put something worthwhile in it. It's available from Lee Valley Tools,46113 I used mine for a travel journal. I even pasted copies of my photos into it. It is a nice record of several of our summer European trips. My Italian journal is perfect bound with book fabric and covered in exquisite handmade paper. The flowers are dotted with gold ink. It's one of my most scrumptious books, but I've already made drawings and written entries in it which don't seem worthy of it. What to do? I really enjoyed following through with "The Artist's Way", by Julia Cameron. A lot of free-association writing. Anything to make myself sit down and draw and write. I don't tend to take my sketchbook out, as I know I should, and just draw en plein aire everyday. Oh to have a sketchbook like Delacroix! But I don't seem to have the knack for making my pages look so randomly but beautifully arranged. I tend to develop my drawings on tissue paper, transfer them onto my etching plates and then throw away the drawings. Sketch books are an end in themselves. I admire people who seem to fit all that into life. My current kit includes my fully-lined fabric pencil pouch which I bought at Kazana in Paris for about 4€. I keep jelly pens in several colors along with my black drawing pens. I also have a white out pen (which I use to draw highlights) and a gold and silver pen for the fun of it. My daughter Emily gave me the most remarkable little notebook with colored pages. You wet them with a tiny drop of water on the included brush, and you have instant water colors. So neat and tidy and no need for a palette of any kind. And since they aren't too wet, the color goes on, but doesn't wrinkle the paper. The moleskine journals, very popular in France, come in every size, shape and design. The paper is just gorgeous and takes ink without bleeding through to the other side. They work well for both writing and drawing and the handy little elastic strap keeps them closed in your purse.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

An Etching Class

Last week we had an etching course at Maison Conti. The participants were Barbara from Seattle, Judith and Jan from Sheffield, England and Maggie from Colorado. All four are excellent artists and very experienced printmakers, although etching is not their usual form for creating their prints. They were a delightful group of people to spend a week with and they worked very well together. Each has a very different approach to their image creation, but all very competent and independent. Four printmakers in the studio is a very nice number. We were able to work around one another without getting in the way of one another. It's very pleasant to do art work in a small group. We learn so much from one another and take inspiration from the different points of view each individual brings to their art. Each artist brought their sketch books and photos to work from. There was generally a focus on making images, rather than printing them, as all four women have access to a printing press on a weekly basis. Barbara focuses her work on birds, Judith does very delicate images inspired by her beautiful garden. Maggie is trying to work more abstractly, although she also made a wonderful image of a couple of dogs. Jan had several images of places and things which when viewed in close-up become quite abstract. We focused mainly on hard-ground and aquatint techniques with a little bit of soft-ground and sugar-lift. All these techniques create very different kinds of marks. In hard-ground one can make very precise lines, like an ink drawing. Aquatint creates a range of even tones, more like ink washes. Sugar-lift allows the artist to effect very fluid lines while soft -round has an almost charcoal-like line quality. Soft-ground also allows one to create an impression from natural objects, such as leaves, feathers or pieces of lace. Another tool a printmaker has to greatly expand the possibilities for the final image, is the way she inks and prints her plates. This group was very interested in adding color to the work. Etching is naturally suited to monochrome, but color can be quite effective as well. We tried various color-adding techniques such as à la poupée, adding several colors to one plate, in one press pass; multiple plates, each plate with one color and passing each colored plate separately though the press and registering them to create a final image of several colors; and chine collé, which is the addition of transparent colored tissue paper adhered to a printed image with glue. The etching course is three days in the studio and four nights at Maison Conti. We provide three meals as well. We ate together in the dining room. Lunch is my favorite meal of the day and so the one I enjoy most making. After the first day of studio work, we had a meza plate with tabouli, hummous, feta, black olives, garden salad (from our own garden of course). We had mint lemonade and Rick made a beautiful apple crumble. All the artists created a nice little oeuvre. They got a lot done. It was, in fact, hard to pull them away from the studio once they got going. Jan was usually already working by the time I came down to get breakfast on the table, it was hard to detach them when it was time for lunch, and they tended to work right up until dinner time. This always seems to be how it goes since there is something so beguiling about the process.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tea at Marie-Claire's

Marie-Claire is the mother of our neighbor Anne. She has a maison secondaire (a country house) not too far away from us. She invited us for tea last week and we had a splendid afternoon in her beautiful garden. Many Parisians own a country house. The French have a great love of the countryside and even if they enjoy the city, they feel the need to spend part of their time breathing the fresh air in les provinces (the provinces). Maire-Claires county house is quite exquisite! The garden has a small river running through it and, as is usually inevitable, there is a beautiful poplar grove planted next to it. Poplars are trees which drink a lot of water with their shallow roots, and the French plant them in neat rows next to streams and rivers. Anne is a script writer for television. She collaborated on the writing of a recent TV series on French television called Venus et Apollon (Venus and Appollo). It's very clever, dramatic and exciting. Anne really enjoys U.S. TV series and knows a lot more about them than we do. She often lends us DVDs of series we've never watched as she has a very comprehensive library. Tea at Marie-Claires went from 5 o'clock until almost 9! This is typical French hospitality! Marie-Claire makes the best tarte I have ever tasted anywhere. If I'm able to aquire the recipe, I'll post it here. We also had macarons, my favorite French cookie! We passed a completely relaxing afternoon. No need to hurry. We find the French really know how to enjoy the company of others over a beautiful meal. It's that joie de vivre they're so rightly famous for. I think in France stress is simply known as bad manners. Our own garden bounty was our offering to Marie-Claire:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. ~Raymond Inmon Every time I take a walk in the forest of Montmirail, I get inspired. For as many times as I’ve followed the familiar path, under the same trees, I have always had a fresh experience. This time when I returned from my amble, I tried to express the magic of this simple activity with an etching.* I wanted to capture the filtered light and the sound of the breeze as it quietly whispers in the treetops. In the underbrush one hears the incessant singing of the cicadas, a sound that evokes a sense of timeless, ancient well being. The smells change with the seasons. On a warm summer’s day, still cool beneath the canape, the odors are rich and earthy, leaves touched by the sun. How many colors of green can I count? I lose track. Morgan, who is 14 this summer, spends most of his days asleep on the cool floor of our house, but when I get out the leash, he jumps up in anticipation. Once at the trail head, we let him off leash, and like a puppy, he scampers ahead of us, wagging the stump of his tail just like a puppy again. My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing. ~Aldous Huxley The average person takes 8000-10,000 steps a day and in a lifetime walks 115,000 miles, the equivalent of at least 4 times around the entire earth.** France has a wealth of hiking trails and a culture of walking. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. ~John Muir After returning home, I looked out the window of our third story apartment and noticed a neighborhood cat taking her own walk. I called out to her and she stopped and stared at me long enough for me to snap her photo before she descended the other side of the roof. I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. ~G.M. Trevelyan _______________________________________________________ * The first printing I made of A Walk in the Woods was monochrome, as usual: The colored one above was my first attempt at inking à la Poupée as explained wonderfully well by my new etching friend Mariann Johansen Ellis. I highly recommend her blog, where you can find links to her very helpful instructional printmaking videos. Thank you Mariann! ** These figures are quoted from Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio show on Walking.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Recipes from Maison Conti

Carrot Soup One of our favorite ways to start a meal at Maison Conti is with warm carrot soup. I learned this recipe years ago from my friend Gillian. I've adapted it to my style of cooking and committed it to memory. It has become a classic Maison Conti offering throughout the year. 2 T butter 1 onion cut into small pieces Saute the onion in butter until the pieces are transparent but not browned. Add: 9 carrots cut in small chunks 6 cups chicken broth 1 t ground coriander Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until the carrot morsels are tender. (About 30 minutes.) Allow the soup to cool. Blend the soup until there are no chunks left. A submersion blender is the best tool for this. Grate fresh ginger to taste (this can be anywhere between 1-3 T) and stir into the soup. Serve with a dallop of plain yogurt, sour cream or creme fraîche in the middle of the bowl and garnish with fresh ground pepper and fresh cut chives. Blueberry Pie One of the simpliest desserts we offer is an attractive variation on blueberry pie. In France we have excellent prepared pie crust dough, made with pure butter and available fresh in the dairy aisle. You can make your own, of course. Place crust in pie pan and add a few air hole in the bottom with a fork. Allow excess crust to drape over the sides while you prepare the berries. Put 3-6 cups blueberries in a bowl. Fresh are best, but frozen ones, allowed to thaw first, also work well. Add a cup of sugar and 1t nutmeg. Place berries on the raw crust and fold the excess crust over the berries. Place in a oven which has been preheated to 350º and cook until golden brown (about 40 minutes). Other types of berries can work, although they are usually more juicy so the tarte is not as firm and compact on the plate. Garnish with a dallop of ice cream or whipped cream.