Sunday, April 29, 2012

Me and My Mud

Because I don't have enough crafts going on, I have decided to take up pottery.

Okay, okay...that's not true. I have pa-ha-lenty of crafts in my life and an ongoing list of unfinished projects. (It amazes me, in fact, when I actually finish something and get to write about it here.) But there were some very sound reasons for me to take up pottery: 1)  In my opinion, there is always room to learn something new. 2) I love any excuse to put on old gross clothes and get my hands really dirty. 3) I have long held a sneaking suspicion that I have a natural, great talent for ceramics. 4) I acquired a big 'ol pottery book for STC Craft (written by the amazing potter Simon Leach!) and have been attempting to edit the manuscript for the last year and a half having never so much as touched any clay in my life.

It was that last reason, mostly, that caused me to enroll myself in an 8-week course.

Actually, it was perfect kismet! I had just returned from Spain and was face to face, once again, with the unruly pottery manuscript, when I learned that my friend Aimee teaches a pottery class as a "recreational activity" at a local apartment complex just ten blocks away. I signed up immediately and showed up for the first class along with eight other women my mom's age.

Here's the thing: none of us are all that good. We are learning!! Oh, but we have such aspirations. What exactly it is we want to make, I am not sure--do any of us have a shortage of bowls at home? How many uses are there for an unadorned cylinder? Will I actually be able to make a functional mug in just 8 weeks?--these questions are beside the point. All I know is that for three hours every Tuesday, me and these lovely ladies strive for perfection! We also eat quite a bit of chocolate.
Aimee is our inspirational pottery hero. She often reminds us--not in a braggy way, but in a "guys, don't get down on yourself" kind of way--that she has been throwing pots for over half of her life. But still, when we watch her do a demo, it is honest to God like voodoo. How does she get the clay to cone up so fast? Oh, but the sweeping curves on her bowls! And then when she gets out her wood tool and starts trimming away the bottom! It's sort of like an OCD dream-come-true; you could just marvel at the pleasing shape for hours. Just look at her pretty bowl above! could marvel at some of my pleasing shapes. Check out this lovely little cylinder! Sure, the wobbly lip may keep it from becoming a future favorite...sake vessel, but it could certainly hold...jelly beans? Yes, this cylinder would be a great jelly bean holder.
And this bowl would be fantastic! Yes, it's a salsa bowl! Do you see all of my natural talent?

OK, clearly I have a ways to go.
I hate to tell you this, but sadly, neither my jelly bean bowl nor my salsa bowl exist anymore. This is the terrible, wonderful truth about learning pottery: we cut many of our creations in half! It's actually part of the learning process when you're just starting out. When you cut a cross-section down the middle, you learn all sorts of things, like how the floor is really thin or how the walls are super uneven. And then you learn from that and you make better bowls. It also teaches you not to be too precious about your creations. You do not, apparently, need to keep, glaze, and fire every single effed up cylinder that you ever make. (Even though that would be a SUPER fun present for my sister's birthday...hey Erin, here's 90 crappy cylinders!). Aimee, our fearless instructor, is not above cutting any of her perfect bowls in half either, an act which causes a collective cringe amongst me and my classmates.
I think you will all be relieved to know that this last week, however, I got to KEEP one of my crappy cylinders. (We're going to learn how to glaze this week, so I had to keep something to practice with.) Glazing, I suspect, is where the magic happens! Just look at that seafoam green. And that "not very bloody" oxblood. I think I want to do polka dots. I don't even know if that's possible. I just want it.
But if I'm being honest, one of the most thrilling things about the class so far is how filthy you get. If you have ever wanted to dip your arms elbow deep into a trashcan filled with something called "slurry," then you should totally take a pottery class. (Even though Aimee hasn't let me dip my arms into the slurry trashcan yet, I bet she would if I asked.) 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Charms 101

On my birthday last year, I stopped in at a local shop called Brooklyn Charm and decided that I was going to make myself a necklace. Because it was my birthday, I decided that this necklace was going to have lots of MEANING and that it would be all about ME. My hopes and my dreams, represented via talismans, if you will. If you don't know me (or even if you do), you might be interested to know that I'm fairly superstitious. Not in a fear-the-black-cat kind of way, but more in a hold-your-breath-and-make-a-wish-while-driving-through-tunnels kind of way. I am a firm believer in luck, and an even firmer believer that things happen for a reason. I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a soul inside of my teddy bear, and one night, after having dinner with a dear friend last January, I tied the bakery string from the pie we ate around my wrist and decided I would wear it until it fell off. (Unfortunately, it has not yet fallen off and it is not looking so hot, but it always makes me think of my friend!) Similarly, I have a hunch that if you wear a necklace with meaningful charms, the charms are then infused with an intention, and by wearing the necklace, you will then activate that intention and carry it with you.

Of course, the charms that I picked out on that day were a feather (for flight!), a wishbone (for luck!), a heart (for love!), and a hummingbird (for...more flight! Speed? Maybe because it's so pretty? Yes, prettiness!). I was so excited about my birthday intention charm necklace that I didn't stop to realize that just about every other girl in Brooklyn has these very same charms, also wishing for flight! luck! love! prettiness! It was all very personal at the time, you just have to trust me. So I picked out my charms, and I found the corresponding jump-rings, and a nice girl helped me find the right chain, and then she strung them all on the necklace and I walked out the door a new woman. Until I got home and realized that they all just kinda grouped at the center and you couldn't see anything but the feather. But with the other junk behind it, it looked sort of like a feather laying atop a scrap pile. Which was exactly the look I was going for.
I set the necklace aside for months, and then last weekend I went back into Brooklyn Charm and asked what I could do to fix it. Yet another very nice girl in the shop suggested that they could just attach the charms to the chain so they wouldn't slide around, and I thought, well that's a great idea! But they were busy and I didn't feel like waiting, and Robb was coming to meet me for a smoothie (the Girlfriend Getaway smoothie, to be exact) and I thought, well I'll just go home and attach the charms to the chain myself. How hard can it be?

Friends, let me tell you something in no uncertain terms: Jewelry is a pain in the ass. And this coming from a person who has voluntarily made her own candy corn! They make it look so easy in the store, popping those jump-rings on and off the chain like they're just twisting the stem off an apple. And you know what? If I had the appropriate tools, it might have been easy, too, but all I had were a pair of extra large needle-nose pliers and some other type of wrench or something. (I'm bad at tools.)
The first step was to take the charms off of the chain. The heart, which had no jump-ring, slid right off and will be used another day on another necklace. The other charms, however, needed to be surgically removed with pliers. To do this, you first need to hold one side of the tiny jump-ring in one set of pliers, then grab the other side of the jump-ring with the other pliers. Once you've got a grip, you sort of twist them away from each other, creating an opening big enough to pop them off the chain. This part was not so bad. It was getting them back ON the chain--like, attaching the jump-rings to the tiny little chain links--that was a pain in the ass. Those little chain holes are so teeny tiny! And the charm kept sliding off of the ring while I tried to jam it through the tiny chain hole. But eventually (and I'm talking like an hour later, no joke), I finally managed to get them back on the chain.
So you may be wondering (or not, that's okay too) what I mean by love, luck, flight, and prettiness.

Love is maybe the easiest to explain. I could stand to love people more each day. And not just my man,  but also my friends and my family, and every creature I encounter. Even the jerks. Especially the jerks. Without love, I fear my edges will harden, and some days on the subway, they get pretty damn rigid.

Luck is what I like to call it when a thing works out my way. And sometimes, I would even venture to say that luck is a result of good choices. But occasionally I've noticed that luck can even happen when you've made a bad choice...and it's that kind of luck that makes me the most hopeful (it's never too late to make it better; no matter what, you are never beyond the blessings of occasional good fortune.)

Flight is not leaving, and it's not running away. For me, it is the moment when all of the practicing--the sharpening of the mind, the largeness of compassion, the daily practice of trying to become a fuller person--coalesces, becoming something that is more meaningful. It is the moment when the things you have wanted and worked for start to happen and life begins anew. To make a very literal metaphor, I imagine the Wright Brothers in their workshop, knowing that their physics is right, and that it's just a matter of time and patience before their experiments yield positive results. They had already seen the fits and starts, the glimmers of success. When the plane finally left the ground, I'm sure they were ecstatic, but not totally surprised.

The hummingbird, as I said before...well it's just pretty. And if you read this blog often enough, then you know that's fairly important to me, too.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dithering in Brooklyn

I've been in this house for a few years now, and each year, I do a blog post about nothing but spring. Spring spring delicious spring. It feels like very familiar territory. Maybe because that's what this blog is all about. (Or, in my thesis that I haven't written, what I want this blog to be all about.) Bright colors, new life, the happiness of coincidence, the passage of a day. 

Just yesterday I walked to the local Buffalo Exchange to buy some new jeans (yup, ripped the crotch on another pair...what is it with me and my chafey thighs?), and I thought, I'll just bring the camera. You never know what you'll see along the way. And sure enough, there were these purple flowers. A sea of them, in fact, crashing upon my head. To say that they are bursting from the tree would be silly. They are a floral infestation. They are positively frothing. This tree is at its ecstatic zenith. If a tree could have an orgasm, this would be it! May I look at this photo and always remember how lush it feels to stand in the presence of a tree this joyous. 

It seems that each spring, there is a day that feels like this, when you just know that everything is going to be okay. 80 degrees, a sweet perfume of blossoms, followed by a strawberry banana smoothie called Girlfriend Getaway from a local eatery. (Seriously, it's a very embarrassing smoothie to order: "One Girlfriend Getaway, please!") 
Not ten feet from the ecstatic purple tree was a border of tulips hanging on for dear life, their giant voluptuous petals starting to lean back against the air. Oh, dear sweet sinewy tulips...I wish we were able to grow you in our yard, but alas, we have gremlins that chop off your head before you even bloom.  It was a serious problem last year, but this year its fatal. The gremlin has perfected his system. Thankfully, daffodils are not delicious to the gremlin, and we have lots of those. 
Earlier that day, before the jeans shopping and the Girlfriend Getaway and the insanity of the purple flowers, I worked in our backyard and Camper followed me around, a loyal devotee. I gave him a bath and then made him sit outside. I read Nancy Drew; he chewed on a bone. Later we went for a very wimpy run (my jogging is pretty much his natural walking pace). There were squirrels to chase and old Polish ladies to sniff, so I can only assume he had fun.
Camper also helped me transplant my tomato plants to a bigger cup size (which is not meant to sound like I'm talking about bras, but if I were, I guess you could say that the plants went from an A-cup to a C). There's something about going from that tiny plastic cup to a big old pint-sized plastic cup that just drives my tomato plants wild. Over the next three weeks, they will undergo a massive transformation, from puny little sprogs to robust burly plants. Part of this growth spurt is because, when I transfer them over, I thin them down--my least favorite gardening task. Of the two or three little tomato plants growing in each cup, I have to decide which one looks the strongest, which one has the best chance at survival, and that's the one I get to keep--the rest of the sprogs get yanked. It always feels like such a waste, but I know it's for the greater good. Perspective, Liana! No wimpy tomatoes!

So this is weird. Yesterday, when I was thinning my poor plants, I realized that all of the stems were purple. Are the stems of tomato plants always purple at this phase, I thought? I've been growing tomatoes for four years now, and for the life of me I don't remember purple stems. I took this tangled sprog photo above to share with you all.
And then my inner Martha Stewart stylist said, no, Liana, line them up all pretty. No one wants to see that tangled mess.
Around this time, I looked up from my tomato stem styling long enough to notice that my special mutation daffodil--my dear old friend--had bloomed. Ah yes, my double daffodil, growing beneath the cherry tree. It's become ritual now, me and this daffodil. It's always late to bloom, having two heads to sprout instead of one. I prop its head up with my hand and we say hello to each other. Each year, I look into the heart of this flower and try to see where it starts being a daffodil and where it stops. It has none of that decidedly buttercup shaping. It's not even a classic yellow. It's almost more of a dahlia, but now that's not quite right either, is it. Each year, its genetic memory winters over in the bulb, and it remembers to grow up exactly as odd as it did the last year. A gorgeously strange mutation, like no other in the world. And it's in my backyard. Mine mine mine. I feel very lucky indeed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Flamenco Sketches


We are back, my friends! Back from our travels, our adventures, our eye-opening experiences. Oh, it is always so fascinating to go to another country. Even going to Canada is fascinating (I remember once going over to Windsor and being fascinated by the whole new array of snack ketchup-flavored Ringolos!). But Spain felt somehow even more exotic than Canada, if you can imagine. Especially as we headed south from Barcelona and went down to Andalucia.

To give you a brief and probably inaccurate history lesson*, most of southern Spain was once occupied by the Moors, who were Muslims that came up from Africa (southern Spain is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Morocco, after all). And with thanks to the mighty Pyrenees mountain range that separates Spain from France, much of Spain, especially the south, was sealed off from the rest of Europe for a very long time--including the dark ages. So while the rest of the people in Europe were knocking two rocks together for luck and eating their left foot for sustenance, Spain flourished under Moorish rule, building amazingly grand palaces, and encouraging intellect in the city centers like Cordoba and Granada, with Jews and Muslims and Christians all coming together to share their latest learnings in grand libraries (until the Christians decided to take it all for themselves in the 13th century, which paved the way for that whole crusade thing). But despite the reconquista, a lot of the cultural traditions and the architecture from that time can still be seen today. And because Spaniards were so shut off from the rest of the world for, you know, a few centuries, all sorts of strange traditions were born which are still practiced today. Two of those traditions are bull-fighting and flamenco. And because I am not so big on blood sports, Robb and I decided to go see some flamenco in Sevilla.
The thing is this: flamenco is absolutely a living and breathing traditional art form, and if you walk down certain streets at certain times of night, you can see glimmers of dancing, you can hear the hands clapping, and not-shy voices burst into song. But if you want to see a show--like with the long ruffled dresses and the castanets and the whole nine yards--you have to go to one of the places in your guidebook. Which is how we wound up sitting elbow to elbow next to a tour group from Japan, drinking kool-aid flavored sangria. But the good news is that the performers were phenomenal.

About 30 minutes into the show, I went to jot down a thought I kept having about symmetry in my journal (more on that later), and then for some reason, I started sketching what I saw on stage. Robb and I kind of giggled at my line drawings and so I handed the book and the pen over to him.
When I looked over at what he drew, I almost snorted sangria out of my nose. His rendering of this poor, lovely singer on stage looked not unlike the Crypt Keeper. 

He handed the book back to me.
Now, in my professional art training (i.e., one semester of basic drawing skills at community college 15 years ago), I really grew to like the type of sketching where you look at the object, not at your hands, and you just let the pen move as your brain is seeing it. What you wind up with on paper is never ever actually what you are seeing, but you do manage to achieve all sorts of curves and expressions that actually do match the object--much better, in fact, than if you tried to drawn them exactly. And sometimes you wind up drawing something that looks like what a drunk Picasso at age 9 might have produced. (I like to imagine that the woman's right breast, above, is not sagging, but has "movement.")
Robb's style is much more precise (see isn't this fun?). See how this man's guitar is in proportion to his limbs? Well done! I was also very impressed by how he captured the player's man-bun on top of his head.
My guitar player, however, was a little less proportional. Why he needed to have such a large head and such tiny legs, I am not quite sure. But he makes a nice match for Robb's passionate, twirling senorita.
And I finished with this drawing, knowing when it was time to leave well enough alone. I looked down after I finished her skirt and thought, well now that's actually kind of elegant. And then I put the pen away and enjoyed the rest of the show.

It was such a strange thing for us to do...go to a live performance and sketch throughout. But I must say, it was actually an amazing way to appreciate what was happening on stage. I find that if I just keep my eyes on the stage during performances, I sometimes start to tune out...all of those hand-claps and the heels clacking a million miles a minute, it all starts to sound the same if you aren't careful. But somehow having a pen in hand occupies a corner of your brain that allows you to really hear, to really appreciate the shape, the movement, the curves, the flow.

OK, but really, why did Robb and I start sketching during a flamenco performance? 

I think that, perhaps, we were inspired by our surroundings. What I will remember most from this trip is that there was art everywhere. Or what I call art. Which reminds me, this is what I wanted to say about symmetry. As humans, we can't get enough of it. Our eyes love geometry and repeated shapes. But where true artistry seems to come into play is when the symmetry is flourished. A flamenco dancer's even micro-stomps are not just a series of even beats--they are accented by half-time hand claps, and the rest of the space is filled in by the finger picks of the acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, on the walls of the Alhambra, ancient plaster walls were stamped over and over and over again with a swirling floral design, leaving an impression that is still there 600 years later. Stand back and it seems random. Look close, and you can see where the design begins and ends. As long as we can detect the steady pulse, it is no longer chaos and we can follow the path of the artist. We can understand the creation, and sometimes even the person behind the creation. And that is what I learned about art in Spain.

And because I firmly believe in the practice of showing, not just telling, here are some photos of some of the prettiest examples of artistic symmetry I saw in Spain.
Tiles on the walls of the Alhambra, a Moorish Palace built in the 13th century.

Plaster relief in the Alhambra, created using molds.

Original flooring in the Alhambra. (BTW, on these very floors, Columbus asked Isabel and Ferdinand for a little cash to go to the New World.)

Star shapes cut from the ceiling. Highly impractical, but very beautiful.

A newer palace at the Alhambra, it wraps around in a perfect donut.

Lovely scalloped ceilings in the Mezquita of Cordoba.

More scallops in the Mezquita.

Newly planted olive trees, as far as the eye can see.

And perhaps my favorite artwork of all--this sketch on a blackboard at a bar, just some person with chalk making the most perfect matador and bull I could ever imagine. Oh, to be so gifted...

*Note that everything I stated in this blog post has been learned from museum pamphlets, B&B hosts, and Rick Steves. No facts have been cross-referenced or closely researched, which is to say that nothing here should be used for book reports or when trying to "make a point" at a party.