Cumulous Peonies

I made this little collage yesterday from a handful of stories and songs and words and images that have been chasing each other in circles in my brain. Sometimes the best way to stop the chase is to just make something, I think.

It all started when I watched a documentary about gardens of the world hosted by the enchanting Audrey Hepburn. Reading about her afterward, I found out that when it was clear that her cancer was inoperable, because she was unable to fly on a commercial aircraft, Hubert de Givenchy sent a private jet filled with flowers to take Hepburn and her family from LA to their home in Geneva where they could spend their last christmas together before she died.

In the garden documentary, Hepburn quoted Anne Frank:""The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."

In come the lines of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Aeroplane Over the Sea" about Frank:

What a beautiful face I have found in this place That is circling all round' the sun And when we meet on a cloud I'll be laughing out loud I'll be laughing with everyone I see Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all

And of course, for good measure, I simply must add a Mary Oliver Poem I first read on a lovely friend's blog (as I also remember her own poignant definition of grace):


This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open-- pools of lace, white and pink-- and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away

to their dark, underground cities-- and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again-- beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?

That's the big question...

I've been working on this poster in fits and starts for a while. Like so much of what Mary Oliver shares, I thought it to be a good thing to slow down with these words. Here's an extended passage from Long Life, the beautiful build up to the world's big question:

Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. "Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?"

Mary Oliver from Long Life

What a lovely invitation, don't you think? And one that only you can answer...and me...and everyone else...but only we can take our lives, our perspective, our utterly unique self and craft some kind of creative contribution, some kind of responce... be it poetry or painting or motherhood or engineering or gardening or whatever.

I have a couple more lines of Ms. Oliver's I'd like to interpret, at which time I'll print some posters and make a little package for her. In the mean time, we're facebook friends via her agent. Do you think she's the type to google herself and scour through all the webpages about her until she finds my blog? I think probably not. I'm pretty confident the surprise is safe.


Have you seen Carl Sagan's classic series Cosmos? A couple months ago Sam camped out for a weekend or so and pretty much watched the whole thing. I also enjoyed several episodes, but since I felt like I could chew on the content of each episode for months, I couldn't quite watch them back to back like Sam could. A nice perk to having spent so much time with Sagan was that Sam developed a pretty great impression of his distinct, awkward but endearing speaking should ask him to do his best Sagan if you get a chance.

And speaking of fantastic Carl Sagan impressions, Jen Uman made these paintings; aren't they great? The rest of her work has a similar wit and confident humility about it...a celebrated imperfection that helps me feel at home and relax enough to laugh at myself and ask questions.

I've been chatting with a lot of scientists this week, since I'm with my scientist husband in Palm Springs CA as he presents at a conference on issues in his field of environmental engineering. It turns out that my favorite scientists are really just like my favorite artists: brazenly humble, incessantly inquisitive, and full of wonder.

On that note, I leave you with Carl Sagan's incredibly beautiful reflection on this photo of our home:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds...

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

-- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

love, rejection, art, and taxes

Crush (cut and shredded love letters)

Rejection Letters

Undergrowth (cut and shredded portfolio of drawings)

1997 Tax File

I first saw this last image of Nava Lubelski's intricate paper sculpture of her 1997 tax documents over at Dude craft about this time last year, and recently revisited her site to see several sculptures in the series.

In her artist statement Lubelshi talks about the reminiscence of tree like cross sections in these works, where the concentric circles reveal the age of the tree and the climate changes through years of it's life. The act of sculpting these pieces becomes, in part, a desperate response to overwhelming waste, an attempt to "repair" the original tree.

I'm drawn to these pieces on so many levels, but I think one of the most exciting aspects about them to me is the way they make tangible a kind of spiritual digestion....the practice of patiently sitting with life, processing it/piecing it apart, and then letting the outcome of that time become the building blocks for new energy, new forms of creativity, the conscientious use of all of life's resources, making something good from what might have begun as "waste."

the really big post card in our dining room

Sam and I recently had a post card from the 30's with a painting I've long admired by J.R. Willis printed on fabric via Spoonflower. (I actually found the email address of his grandson on a forum about the painter, wrote him and received the kindest response, sharing a family story and giving us permission to make a copy of the postcard  for our home. I love the internet and nice people!) We're enjoying the results; The painted desert certainly is a good coping mechanism for a native Texan and Floridian to get through the winter! The moire pattern and creases from the card amplified so many times appears like some sort of weave from a distance. And we're liking it with the drawing Sam and I made almost a year ago, when we had more walls than stuff to hang. We thought we would eventually fill in our paint-by-number version of Palo Duro Canyon (one of our first dates), and then had the idea of letting dinner guests paint a section with each turns out I'm too much of a control freak for that and we ended up liking the abstraction of the lines, so we left it alone. Now Willis's painted desert feels like it completes the space.

I remember when I first saw Sam the morning we ventured out to the canyon, he smiled sweetly at my camel brown shirt and his kelly green shirt and said, "Look! We match..." (he's color blind) I'm continually intrigued at the way he sees the world, in so many ways, but color seems to be a good symbol for us of the mystery and wonder of the other's perspective and the beauty of combining our lives in such a way that embraces both ways of seeing, physically and metaphorically. At the end of the date we drove past Ant Farm's Cadillac ranch, but since it was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere Texas (no offense, if anyone is from Amarillo...I think nowhere can be a good thing!), we felt our way through the field until we arrived, and then saw the art via touch (and a cell phone light). I've still not seen it apart from photos. The image here is by Wyatt Mcspadden. (Incidentally, I got that post card at Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, which happen to be having an Ant Farm show the summer Sam and I dated long distance and "saw" their work.

The rest of the images are other things in our dining room: left over venus de milo candles we made for our wedding guests, our birds' cage, which might be modeled after the Taj Mahal, but it's an iglesia for our purposes where our adopted spice finches, Jesus and Buddy Holly live, and of course, a cactus.

the faces of the accused

The last several days for me have been rich with marveling at the work of unknown (at least in their day) photographers. First, the post on Poppytalk about Vivian Maier, the career nanny and secret photographer of breath-taking (often undeveloped in her lifetime) images. An now, the anonymous photographer(s) of the police department in New South Wales, Australia. These were the mugshots of the accused in the 1920s.

The french blog La boite verte shows an amazing collection of these images, taken from Peter Doyle's books Crooks Like Us and City of Shadows. What a difference these photos communicate compared to the common understanding of a mugshot. The photographer's sensitive eye seems to respect the complexity of the person and the poignancy of the moment when their lives will most certainly irrevocably change, either after committing a crime or being falsely accused.

Luc Sante offers his thoughtful perspective on A Very Short List, where I first read about the photos.


Tel Aviv

Berlin and New York

Lausanne and London

I'm late on the scene with this one, but want to share anyway, because Jan Vormann's Dispatchwork is fantastic. What began as patching World War II bomb and shrapnel wounded buildings around Europe with legos bricks, has crossed continents, enlisting volunteers around the world to fill the vacancies of  neglect or trauma in their own towns. I adore the idea of filling reminders of struggle, violence, or simply apathy in our surroundings with this rainbow of creativity, play, and childhood (in essence, the material of hope). You can see images from all the towns in which Vormann has practiced his dispatchwork along with images from volunteers world wide on his site devoted to the project.

via createyu and pinterest

A nice person making cool things

I was recently over at Will Bryant's website and blog after Poppytalk spotlighted his amazing interactive magazine cover. On his blog, I noticed a post about a rip off of his "Nice People.." design a friend saw while at home in India. This was his response:

Typically when your work gets ripped, you’re upset by it. My immediate reaction to seeing this was, “whoaaa rad!,” which shortly turned into “whoaaa, wait a minute.”  This bootleg version of “Nice People” is extremely well done. In fact, so well done that I’m kinda jealous I didn’t overlay a pattern and print the type in in majik foil ink!

So what’s next? Well, Deepak was swift enough to get her email address and I’ve contacted the wearer of the shirt to inquire more about it’s origin. I think I might request to have 100 shirts to sell of my own, haha.

I thought his response was really beautiful and in light of the message of the design, quite fitting. Of course we should all strive to respect the creative work of others by not copying and of course there are measures to take when your work is in fact ripped off, but it's fantastic to see someone so utterly in love with making things himself and the creativity of others that his ego becomes secondary. I'd like to live with that kind of passion more. To see the bootleg version of his design, check out his blog, or for loads of other inspiring work, his website. (which, btw, leads with his mission statement of sorts: "I make stuff because I get sad if I don't")

The Layers of a Place

I first became acquainted with the work of Seth Clark when Julia Rothman wrote about his brilliant house flip book on her blog Book by it's Cover. When I clicked over to see the paintings/collages on his site, I was even more impressed. He's explored the idea of the ways buildings, particularly homes, age from several angles, many times maximal with layers upon layers of collaged elements, but sometimes quite minimal and restrained, like his flip book; but he always manages to say something new about the spaces in transition.

I think especially after being a part of two renovation projects his work speaks to me. The connection between space and inhabitants seems more real than it ever has before. As we've renovated our current home, we've collected the stories our neighbors have shared who've been here decades (even generations).

There are the glory day stories; in our case, when the house belonged to a couple named Bud and Ellie who lived here into their nineties after Ellie had been born in the home around 1880. Everyone likes to talk about how meticulous a house keeper Ellie was, sweeping the front porch almost daily at 90 years old (I've got no excuses!), their fancy victorian furniture, and their grape trellised path to the garden. After they died, the house was rented for decades and severely declined. So of course, there are the stories of brokenness, not only shared by neighbors, but clearly evident on every wall of the space itself when we first purchased our home from fanny mae back in 2008. As we proceeded with the renovation, mixed with our hope for our home's renewal, there was also sadness for the adversity the previous inhabitants had obviously felt, and though we never knew them, a hope for healing in those lives too.

Art as play

I love this video from Rex Ray that the extraordinary Pip over at Meet Me at Mikes shared a while back. It seems that for any truly creative work to happen, in any discipline, there's got to be a period of turning off the critique. Certainly there is a time and place for evaluation and that's a crucial step as well, but before that phase, there needs to be a phase of freedom, play, unconditional idea love, if you will.

One way that I'm practicing stepping into this uncritical space is a regiment of creative exploration without a strict agenda, at least once a week. Last week was the first one and it was FANTASTIC. I have to admit though, the decision to take a full day on unbridled creative exploration was a bit scary, but it helps to know that some big names who's bottom lines are just fine do the same kind of thing. Google, for example, pays their employees to pursue their own curiosity 20% of their working day a week.  That's pretty phenomenal. Stefan Sagmeister chooses to take a year every seven to recharge creatively and therefore professionally. His completely inspiring TED talk shares his rationale and the outcome of his sabbaticals.

Is there a way that you make space for uninhibited creative exploration? I'd love to know.

Happy New Year!

It's Happening Now

Just This Once

Time got away from me before the holidays, and I became a very quiet blogger (I'm working on a New Year's Resolution for that right now!). So if you are back here, reading this, you are so very kind to stick with me! I'm sitting here with Sam, opting for a quiet New Years. Both of us are here on the couch with lap tops in hand, working on our resolutions. I know, that sounds consummately reclusive, but it feels SO GOOD for two introverts after a busier/travel laden/gregarious Christmas. I will share what I come up with later, but I wanted to just take a little break to share these images by Alexis Mackenzie that I saw on her studio visit over at  Fecal Face several months ago. She describes her work on the Beholder (where you can buy originals and prints) like this:

My general intent, throughout all my work, is to portray the world as a flawed thing of beauty - a place that shines brightly, but has a dark side to match.

As I was thinking about how life has been going of late, and how I'd like it to go next year, I thought of these compelling images for their present oriented messages, combined with their frail but beautiful collisions of nature. And now, after reading her intent, it feels even more fitting to ring in the new year with Mackenzie's creations in mind, crafting my resolutions and all the while knowing full well that I walk into 2011 both beautiful and flawed in a world that is the same. May we all revel in the beauty and tread gracefully through the flaws. Happy 2011!

Partners in life and art

Whenever Sam and I go to Ashville, NC, where my grandparents live, we like to spend a day downtown popping in and out of galleries and shops. A couple years ago we discovered the work of  Signe & Genna Grushovenko at 16 Patton, a husband/wife team who makes these amazing paintings together.

He creates the rich, washy underpaintings,  sometimes plaid-like, giving an impression of some kind of new family tartan. And she, with decisive and confident strokes, interprets moments frozen on paper from their collected and found photos, letting windows of her mate's unbridled abstractions shine through. I adore how their styles blend,  relating their rich layered paintings to our layers upon layers of memory. And I appreciate how their work is open enough for many to see their own family, their own past, in them.

Signe keeps a blog that charts their progress and the artists are offering deep discounts on their already reasonably priced work until February 28, when they move to a new state.

Public Domain Red Velvet Cake

I adore red velvet cake. It's certainly in my top 5 desserts, maybe #1. We made a couple batches of cupcakes last weekend to share from the recipe my mom always uses and added some aqua candy crystals through a snowflake stencil for the tops.  About 10 years ago my dad took the time to scan every old favorite recipe in my mom's accordion file and organized them in a book for my sisters and myself. Pretty thoughtful, huh? Now I can compare my food color stains with my mom's! (I must get my sentimentality from my dad)

After sharing our adventures in cupcakery with my dad on the phone, he told me that mom got her recipe from a friend back in the 60s, who received the cherished instructions in the mail from a fancy restaurant after requesting it...along with a bill for $100. yikes.

The whole story got me thinking about copyright law and wondering particularly if a recipe could be copyright protected. Turns out, according to this article in the Washington Post, it can't*, because instead of an invention, cooking is seen as an evolution. Interesting distinction, huh? I would argue that inventions themselves and any work of art are part of an evolution also. Nobody makes anything, discovers anything, in a vacuum. We're all on the shoulders of giants, right?  Such an interesting topic. (Did you know that fashion also cannot be copyright protected? Johanna Blakley gives a pretty fascinating TED talk on how other industries can benefit both in innovation and sales from fashion's free culture.)

So, I feel a little guilty typing the recipe on my blog since, #1 I don't even know the name of the restaurant to credit them and #2 at least in the 60s, they didn't want people to disseminate their cooking secrets for free.

HOWEVER, I do not feel guilty enough to not share that you can find the same exact recipe here.

*Now the particular way a recipe is communicated can be copyright protected just like a poem, but the actual ingredient list and directions are technically free. How to credit folks and when to share is a question of etiquette.

p.s. notice the thickness of the icing....I'm a maximalist when it comes to butter cream icing

The Principles of Uncertainty

I've been gathering images from the web of Maria Kalman's paintings/illustrations for about nine months now, ever since I read about her show last march on Steven Heller's blog. When Design Sponge recently did an interview with her, I knew I needed to buy one of her books...Oh why did I wait?

I completely adore her...her paintings, her voice, her honesty and humor. She's so beautifully vulnerable and opinionated and hilarious.

So when I received The Principals of Uncertainty in the mail last week, I read it twice by myself and then when Sam got home, he kindly let me read it aloud to him, as if I was a first grade teacher and he was in my class. (This took a lot of love, because he was tired and wanted to go to bed, as it was late.) And I adored sharing it with him, just as I adore sharing it with you!

It's delightfully stream of conscious. (I smiled when I read a couple perplexed comments on her TED talk from the extreme linear thinkers in the crowd who didn't quite know how to take her) The book seems to come back to the balance of contemplating pain and loss, while embracing life and beauty, weaving the ordinary together with the extraordinary, personal and communal, tears and laughter, rabbits and fruit's fantastic. Now I need to buy all her other books.

TED prize 2011

From The Wrinkles of the City series, Shanghai, China

From the Women are Heroes series, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From the Women are Heroes series, Slum of Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

From the Women are Heroes series, Slum of Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya

From the Women are Heroes series, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From the Women are Heroes series, Favela Morro Da Providencia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

From the Women are Heroes series, Favela Morro Da Providencia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

From the Women are Heroes series, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Did you hear that 2011's TED prize recipient was chosen to be JR, the first visual artist to have won? I wonder if he's also the first TED prize whose work most always involves breaking the law? (it was funny to hear a Parisian state official interviewed saying something to the effect of, "Of course it beautiful, of course it's poignant, but he has no permit")  And I wonder how he will give his talk and make his wish as an anonymous street artist? It will be interesting to see, won't it?   What I would love to see would be the people who collaborated with him, all over the world, people who became his models and later graced the sides of 5 story buildings or became the eyes on moving trains that periodically met faces on mountaintops, get up and tell their stories and make their wishes. I think that would be the best fit for his work, where the beauty and strength comes from often ignored dignity, now visually shouted from tops of mountains and throughout town squares. Thank you, JR, for noticing such dignity and translating the heroes you met through your photographs and placement in a such a breath-taking way that the world can now also see.

For a little background on his Women are Heroes project, this video is tragic beyond words, truthfully intense and deeply beautiful....

HANGING GARDEN at Holy Cross Church

I was completely mesmerized by Shinji Turner-Yamamoto's installation at Holy Cross church this past weekend. I think it very well might have been the most captivating installation I've ever visited in person.

Cincinnati is littered with these grand, old, forlorn and gorgeously decayed "deconsecrated" spaces. It's encouraging to see new life enter one of them. I actually got to speak with the artist about his process (he was there!) and thoughts behind the work. He talked about clearing the space out (it was being used for storage). Removing the bodies of birds that had evidently flown into the space without knowing how to get out, sweeping a thick layer of dust covering every surface, while collecting the gold powder that had eroded from the walls for use in other works of art.

He described the dead tree that supported the live one as a "current." I'm not sure whether he was envisioning electricity or air or water or just the abstract concept, but Sam commented earlier that being in the space gave him a feeling of being under water, looking up at sea level where the live tree emerged. I also felt like I was subterranean.

In a video I watched before I saw the piece, the Japanese born artist talked about savoring the wabi sabi nature of the old space's decay. As much wonder the beauty of that space had to have inspired and now continues to do so, there's no denying it's impermanence, the way it currently stands. And the imperfection inherent there can also be a source of beauty, to some eyes more meaningful than the day it first opened it's door, because we can now relate to it with in our own imperfect, impermanent bodies...embrace it as a deeper truth.

I love it when art can simultaneously show me the beauty and truth in another's culture, while reminding me of the depth of my own and subsequently build a connection. This piece seemed to cross so many cultural lines: in a christian place of worship, inspired by buddhist thought, people from all stripes (and those who'd rather not associate with any stripe at all) were drawn to it's beauty in context as hallowed ground.

As I experienced this piece and thought about the appreciation of impermanence and imperfection, the lines of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry came to mind, "Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years." But I love this poem too much to not quote the whole thing. Just. Can't. Do it. Luckily, I think it's words fit nicely with the wordless poignancy of Hanging Garden.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front  (by Wendell Berry)

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won't compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields. Lie down in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.