Sunday, July 21, 2013

Photo Play, Home Made Jam and Quinn the Clown

 Once or twice a year I treat myself to a month of training on I can always find lots of courses which inspire, inform and delight. Photoshop, of course has almost endless creative potential. When I use it, which is virtually daily, I feel as if I've just begun to scratch the surface of its capabilities, even though I've been a user for about twenty-five years!

One course I took last week, called Dreamscapes, was offered by Bert Monroy, a pioneer in the digital arts, and the author of the very first (and many subsequent) Photoshop How-To manuals. He takes you step by step in the creation of digital paintings and fantastical landscapes using old photographs.

The Paris street above was originally a daytime image with random cars and people in it that I totally removed. It was turned into night and a moon and cloudy sky were added.

I seemed to be most attracted to the projects which featured nighttime scenes. This street in Ghent turned into a dark and stormy night. I particularly like the glowing windows.

This courtyard in the brilliant sunlight of Seville has become a romantic nighttime villa with a tiny apparition.

I combined several photos in this image of the Montmirail countryside and Zinnie to create my own project using some of the techniques I learned from Bert. I highly recommend the course if you have interest in becoming a digital painter. You can, of course find lots of free Photoshop tutorials on YouTube. That's where I learned how to make the rainbow.


It's jam-making time again. I like to make enough to last for a year of breakfasts, but that's a lot as it turns out. Our garden did produce a good quantity of cherries and strawberries this year but not yet enough to make jars of jam, so it's down to what's available at the market.

Although I've posted this recipe before, I'll repeat myself here, since the process is so simple and the results extremely gratifying.

You measure out your fruit and layer it in a glass or ceramic bowl, by weight using 60% fruit slices to 40% sugar. It's an enormous amount of sugar, but most jam recipes call for 50/50 and 60/40 is significantly tastier and more fruity.

Cover with plastic and leave it overnight in the refrigerator. The sugar and fruit act together to create a sugary syrup.

To cook, separate the fruit from the liquid and heat that up first until it reaches 230ºF on a medium flame, skimming off the impurities as they rise to the surface. Add the fruit and again heat up to 230º F, skimming off the scum. This whole process can take an hour or so.

Ladle the warm jam into sterilized jars, right up to the tippy top.

Invert jars and allow to cool. They will be sealed and ready to store. I have received lots of compliments on my jam concoctions. Store-bought just can't compare. I like mixing up all kinds of fruit together. It doesn't matter at all what you choose. My favorite so far is nectarine, peach mixed with a few raspberries and garden cherries. The flavor is divine.


Quinn's first summer activity was to take a clowning class from Pépito, a Spanish clown at a circus school not far from his house in Paris. I think he makes a very attractive one!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Friends and Relations and Weekend Vacations

This summer is full of exciting activities for us, beginning on the first of July with back-to-back visits from loved ones. Our first couple were an old friend and her daughter. Susan and I hadn't seen each other for forty years. We more or less grew up together, living in the same community, going to the same church, and our parents were friends. We were always close but somehow lost touch, as our lives diverged and we moved away from our hometown, Palo Alto, California. I was aware that Susan is a children's book author and poet. She also, as it turns out, wrote for Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. She is quite a talented lady. We began a correspondence a year or so ago and, happily enough, life swept her through Paris, presenting a perfect opportunity to reconnect in person.

Susan's daughter Rudy is an incredible young woman. She's ten years younger than Emily, just finished with her first year of graduate school at the New School in NYC. She is in Europe this summer to attend two seminars, one in Switzerland, at U.N. headquarters and the other in Poland. She is interested in refugee issues. She is also a talented artist and blogger.

Even though they were scheduled to come stay at the Maison Conti for several days, I went into Paris early to join them there, mainly because I wanted them to meet Emily and her kids as well, and Emily wasn't free to come out here during Susan and Rudy's visit. We made a date to find one another at the sailboat pond in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Our rendezvous was wonderful, emotional and delightful in every way. We had the bonus of a ready-made activity for Quinn. He'd never sailed a boat in the pond.

One can rent sailboats right there. They come with a stick for launching. Quinn picked out the pirate boat with the skull and crossbones and black sail.

We were all somewhat amazed how the little boats would sail out into the middle of the pond, but always return to the sides where it was easy to snag them and bring them back to shore. None ever seemed to become marooned in the middle. Zinnie was just as interested as Quinn.


Susan and Rudy spent four days with us, and we could have spent all of our time around the kitchen table just talking and catching up, but we did plan a few other activities as well... not that the conversations ever stopped for the briefest moment! We couldn't have grown tired of visiting after four weeks, let alone four days, but it's always nice to get out and about nonetheless.

We took a day trip to the Loire Valley, stopping by Amboise for lunch and afterwards the Château of Chaumont-sur-Loire where every year they hold a garden festival. We had not yet visited this season. The theme this year is "Gardens of Sensations." About 35 gardeners from around the world have planted and decorated plots to respond to the theme.

Chaumont also gives commissions for artists to create permanent or semi-permanent installations in the large park grounds. This year Patrick Dougherty has created this intriguing woven sculpture. It is a marvel. 

Wandering through the grounds of the château and through the garden exhibition is inspirational for sure.

The gardens, of course grow and develop over the months. The exhibition opens in April and lasts through October.

The variety and whimsey of the installations is impressive. I particularly liked this white garden and the water garden complete with tortoise.

Chaumont is a real center for gardening innovation. My favorite part, in fact, is the employees' test garden where all sorts of novel ways of growing vegetables and creating garden structures are tried out and tested. The vertical garden was developed here, where a variety of plants are grown on the face of buildings, creating fantastically beautiful living facades.

We also spent a day in the studio making prints which was lots of fun for all.

These ladies are creative to the core. In fact Susan writes poems on demand for her editor before breakfast. Give her a topic, say "the scientific method" and she'll come up with something brilliant before coffee. This is a real example. Etching is a piece of cake for someone like that!

Susan made a cat image, Rudy an ocean view and I made a river-scape.

I read this morning in the paper that spending time remembering the past is not a sign of depression, as was once believed. Nostalgia has been shown to have clear health benefits. Susan brought me this photo of myself from lo those many years ago. I didn't recognize me. I definitely have no memory of the hat and disturbingly, hardly even of the dog, but our visit, full of happy memories definitely did me a world of good! And besides, we made a few more.


Almost as soon as Rudy and Susan left, my brother Gary arrived with his wife Marilyn. This is their third visit to France since we moved here and I'm always so happy when they come.

They were on their way back home after a short trip to Ireland and they stayed only a couple of nights, but we did manage to have an adventure with them as well. We started by going to Montrichard for a pleasant lunch on the banks of the river Cher. The day was very warm, which I did not complain about, although I did feel a touch of sunstroke.

The main feature of the town is the Donjon which was built in 1010 by Foulques Netra, known as the Black Falcon. He was an ancestor of Richard the Lion-Hearted, who in his day reclaimed this city after it had been lost to a competing duke. The Black Falcon allegedly bit off a morsel of the true cross while on a crusade to the Holy Lands, and brought it back to the church here as a scared relic, making the church of Saint-Croix one of the important pilgrimage sites on the route to Compostelle in the middle ages.

We sat on the banks of the river after lunch gazing over to the town and ancient bridge. Gary had a little nap on the grass. It was peaceful and pleasant.

Then we were off to the charming Château of Cheverny. The claim to fame of this castle is that it was the inspiration for Marlinspike Hall, the home of Captain Haddock in the Tin Tin books by Hergé. It has been in the same family for six centuries.

It is fantastically decorated with lots of painted paneling

and ornate ceilings.

It is still a private residence, so unlike many of the castles in the Loire, the furnishings are resplendent.

The back garden is beautifully planted and maintained.

But our favorite feature has always been the kennels with many good old hound dogs. They are hunters. After our first visit I made an etching of the animals sleeping on top of one another.

Now we're alone again, albeit with clients in the house but no long dinner conversations or excuses for trips to the Loire Valley, at least for a few more weeks. It has been such a pleasant way to begin this summer season.