A Sunday Afternoon Essay of Sorts…

My daughter and I stopped at the gas station yesterday for some Sunday afternoon treats. As she ran in, I sat in the car idly considering the strip of shaded yard behind the white concrete building. What else do you do waiting in a gas station parking lot but look around? It was a ‘nothing’ sort of space, a narrow fenced grassy stretch spiked with dandelions, stretching their heads toward the April sun. It seemed out of place beside the  industrial asphalt, gas and air pumps; a space used only by relieved station attendants, escaping for a quick, mid shift smoke.

As I continued to stare and wonder about the oddly placed yard, it suddenly transformed, in that strange way where two realities merge into one.  I was transported to my parent’s home on Lanark street in the early 60’s, to about four years old. From the wooden steps of our back door, past the blue rigid sided pool, stretching to the wildest edges of the back fence, my brother and I were monarchs of our childhood kingdom.  The grass there was also spiked with sunny yellow faces and fluffy heads of spent dandelions, poised to send their magic seeds into the wind.  We’d pluck them by their milky stalks, gathering them into bright bouquets, presenting them to our mom. She’d accept each bouquet as a treasured gift, displaying them in kitchen glasses until we’d forgotten about them. Even then, I somehow knew that dandelions were not roses.

I don’t often consider dandelions, except to bemoan their rapid reappearance on my own freshly cut lawn. Why is a dandelion considered a weed, anyways?  Is it a lesser flower than a rose?  A dandelion is magnificent in botanical analysis. Each spiky ‘petal’ of a dandelion is a flower in and of itself, collected into a composite flower head. Upon maturity, each floret transforms into a seed pod becoming part of a blowball. Anchored by wispy filament, the seed pod is able to parachute from the blowball, ensuring colonization of itself.

The milky substance found in the stem of a dandelion is natural latex. In Germany, Continental Tires is currently cultivating dandelion latex, piloting a line a dandelion tires, set to be tested on highways.  And let’s also remember dandelion wine, and that dandelion is an ingredient in root beer (‘root’ beer as in a beverage derived from roots, who knew?) and the dandelion’s edible, medicinal and pharmacological properties.  And that’s only the beginning.  You can deepen this magic via a quick wiki search of  Taraxacum.

***

I’ve been reading220px-Pilgrim-at-Tinker-Creek Annie Dillard’s  ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’  for months.  I’ve been equally absorbed and unable to bear any more ‘beauty tangled in rapture with violence‘ as Dillard recollects her year spent living in Virginia’s Roanocke Valley.  I can only describe Dillard’s writing  as reminiscent of a 1970’s acid trip, the kind where you stare in wonder at the previously undiscovered complexity, beauty and grisly dirtiness of the lines on the your palm of your hand. Tinker Creek explores pond slime and discarded snake skin, the luminescent segments of the back of a grasshopper, the roar of water off the slated mountains, the layers of life hidden in one square foot of soil beneath a sycamore tree,  the rush of time that comes toward us as waves and passes by us as particles. I’m boggled, enraptured then overcome. I read a chapter or so, then hide the book away in a box, attempting to contain the unleashed power of its narrative, wishing I could write  with half the drama and astonishment. But I’m not sure I could even bear to look so deeply at the world, for fear of falling forever down the rabbit hole.

***

I’ve been taking a course in academic writing this semester.  I thought at the beginning, that my general writing experience would translate easily into academic writing. I was woefully wrong. Academic writing is as different from blogging or creative writing as geometry is from free handing simple shapes. I’m out of my element, frustrated by the imposition of form, tradition, genre, lens and protocol. But I’ve been reminded as a result, of the lens from which we approach a question or topic. And how it shapes our investigations and conclusions.

My mother in law visited this weekend. At 84, she’s a still a gale force. Her lens is education, engagement and achievement; values she’s impressed upon  generations of family.  Others I’m close to view life through the evangelical lens, one they believe, encompasses all others.  As for my lens, it’s kaleidoscopic.  Arbitrary bits of inspiration and information collide into each other daily.  I can quite effortlessly weave together gas stations, childhood memories, latex tires, root beer, great books and academic writing courses in eight short paragraphs with no introduction, thesis, supporting evidence or conclusion. This is a rather under appreciated skill, especially in my writing class. 

Let me leave you with a link to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I suppose is the point of this ramble anyways.  If you find something noteworthy in the text, let me know. Perhaps we can discover some dandelions together.

Well hello again,

It’s been a while.  Been busy with a paper on the Goddess Venus, a bit of Spring sprucing and looking ahead to summer.  I have a full summer planned with a Creative Non-fiction Writing class, (travel! memoirs! personal essays!) a Children’s Literature class (Peter Pan! Anne of Green Gables! The Railway Children!) and either an Anthro or Community Arts project class.  Maybe take a real or imaginary journey or two once Spring really settles in. Isn’t Spring just lovely?

…Came the Spring with all its splendor,
All its birds and all its blossoms,
All its flowers and leaves and grasses…

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Pop over and read all of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.  It’s lovely too.

came the spring

Photo Credits:  eiramis.tumblr.com

Of Fairy Tales and French Chateaus…

light drizzle fell over the valley yesterday morning.  I knew it before even looking outside; the welcome scent of wet concrete and earth drifted in through my open window. I have a friend who thinks I’m imagining this scent and mocks me good-naturedly about it. But turns out it’s real, and even has a technical name, ‘Petrichor’.  Who’d have thought? There’s an oil that plants give off during arid periods to delay germination and dry earth and concrete absorb it.  When the rain finally hits, the oils are released into the atmosphere and viola – that scent! Now we know.

The cool day inspired me to pick up a project I’ve had on hold on quite a while.  I’m taking a paper mache class with the lovely (and oh, so patient) paper artist, Laetitia Mieral of Merveilles En Papier from Lyon, France.  Laetitia makes fantastical paper mache chateaus and palaces based on French architecture, storybook inspired characters in royal robes, beautiful paper dresses and other fancies of imagination.

I chanced upon her work on Pinterest and was instantly captivated by the artful fusion of fairy tale and French history. I went on to make my own paper mache castle and frog character which I used as part of my portfolio to get in to art school. Earlier this year, Laetitia launched an online experimental version of the character workshop she hosts in her atelier in Lyon and held a little contest to join in.  I was over the moon to be invited to take part. We’re making a cat, in court costume, which I’m sadly quite behind on.

But better late than never.  Here are a few shots of a lovely afternoon in the garden, painting the watercolour ‘fabric’ that le chat’s gown will be made of. And my first attempt at a paper mache fairy tale castle, with a bandanna’ed, cigar smoking frog perched on the eave.

I’ve been so happily lost in art history world, I’d forgotten just how much fun it is to do creative things.  If you have a chance, hop over and check out Laetitia’s work, it’s so whimsical and enchanting. And if you’re bored today, pop over to my house, I’ll be in garden, lost in dreamland.

Something Sleeps

“Without new experiences, something inside us sleeps.  The sleeper must awaken.” (Frank Herbert)

I can’t recall where I came across Frank Herbert’s resounding observation last week, but it’s hardly left my mind since.  It stirred up a little whirlwind in my thinking, an accounting I suppose, of experiences. It seems rather obvious that new things will enrich our lives and give us a different perspective.  But it’s terribly easy to live one day bumping into the next in comfortable predictability.  I’m by no means a stranger to comfortable predictability.  I took four pounds of Superstore coffee with me to Europe last year to avoid unpredictability in coffee.  As it was, there was plenty of predictable coffee in Europe. 

I’ve been in the process of adding a few new things to life, some classes, an art history tour, a few short trips. In spite of how appealing it sounds (and is, once it gets rolling), initially these new things are kind of frightening.  It took me a year and a half of very part-time studies to finally not withdraw or audit part way through a semester.  I’ve been planning on travelling since I left high school.  But things (some very good things, like five kids) happened along the way and life just got busy. And then suddenly I was 50,  and even that was five years ago!  What the heck happened?

I went to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this week.  It’s a funny, heartening story of a group of  English retirees who’ve moved to India as long-term guests of a dilapidated but charming hotel.  Cut off from their pasts, they reinvent new lives for themselves in a strange and exotic culture. The San Francisco globe described it as, ” “a rare reminder from movies that the grand emotions are not only for the young and the middle-aged”.

I appreciate the reminder that life can be full and fresh all along the way.  I found a recipe spiked with coriander and cumin that I plan to try tonight.  It’s not exactly moving to the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but I think it captures a bit of the essence of what both the Marigold and Herbert are trying to communicate.  Our worlds become richer with new experience, whether they be flavours, ideas or seeing new places.

Shaking it up a bit is a very good thing, whatever form it takes.

indian dinner 1

 (Moroccan Dinner at San Francisco’s Marrakech Restaurant.  What an awesome shake up that was!)

Midterm Meditations…

Last week I pulled my groin doing relaxation exercises. How utterly lame is that? Besides having kids or breaking my ankle in the kitchen, a pulled groin is about as close to an athletic injury as I’ve come.  This kind of intense, movement limiting pain has a big effect on my ability to stay balanced.  How in the world do people with chronic pain do it? Pretty sure I’d be addicted to pain killers and mood stabilizers before long.

This week is midterms at school.  This is the first year I’ve been a full-time student and I thought I was managing pretty well, in spite of things.  But after limping to drawing class on my screaming pulled groin, struggling to get the nude’s head proportional to her body, comparing myself ruthlessly against far younger, far more talented students and my prof’s head disappearing into the aura of an ocular migraine, I had a little midterm meltdown.  So I ditched class and sat in my car, seat reclined, feet out the open window with my mascara running down my cheeks. Ahh, student life.

And yet here I am this morning, fueled by coffee and irrationality,  forgetting all that. Instead I’m thinking about adding another two classes and plotting how in the world I can get to art school in Florence.  Every morning my Facebook feed taunts me with classes abroad in fresco painting, conservation & restoration, writing.  I’m imagining myself young and untouched by life, an art & history student at a Florentine school housed in an ancient palazzo, years stretching boundlessly ahead.  Sigh.  Why is so hard to be settled where we are?  Why am I stalled studying Ancient Greece when I want to be studying the Renaissance? Why is it so damn hard to get head size right?  Where is my mood stabilizer?!

This is probably the point to remember to breathe… 2,3,4.  Let me share my pain and leave you with this picture of the Palazzo dei Cartelloni, the building that houses the SACI art school in Florence. We can cry together.

saci 2
Palazzo dei Cartelloni, SACI, Florence, Italy (ps – that’s a bust of Galileo crowning the entrance way)

Leonardo’s Wings

I’ve been trying to settle into an ancient history paper this weekend, but my brain keeps taking off on me.  Across my living room, the Mona Lisa, the Vitruvian Man and The Lady of the Dishevelled Hair are all vying for my attention.  Seems I’m on a bit of a Leonardo kick.  Over the past couple years, I’ve been taking art history courses spanning from prehistory to the twenty-first century.  I’ve been running back and forth along that timeline ever since.  Every time I think ‘the Renaissance is definitely my fave!’, I get swept up in compelling stories of yet another century, another country or continent.  Maybe there’s no such thing as settling on a favourite point of history.

A few days ago I returned to the Renaissance and watched a fascinating dramatized documentary, ‘Inside the Mind of Leonardo.’   What a mind. Painter of the immortal Mona Lisa and The Last Supper,  inventor, architect, physicist, geologist, civil and military engineer, botanist, anatomist, map maker, musician. I’m awestruck by the genius of the original Renaissance man.  Wouldn’t it be incredible to poke around in the diary of someone like that?

Actually, if you go to the Pinocoteca Ambrosiano and the Bramante Sacristy in Milan, you can.  That’s where a portion of the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo’s diary is housed.  Of course, you’d have to learn to read Italian backwards and probably get some sort of security clearance to see it all.  But part of the collection of writings and drawings are on public display.  While you’re there, you can also see the white gloves that Napoleon wore at the Battle of Waterloo. History is such a magnificent goose chase, isn’t it?  From ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars in just three paragraphs.

ambrosiano
The Bramante Sacristy

But back to Leonardo.  How do you even begin to consider his artistic, scientific, philosophical and engineering innovations without filling a library?  Or at the very least, writing a paper?  I won’t subject you to that, but can I ramble a bit about wings? Leonardo’s wings specifically.  Until last week, I didn’t know that twenty-first century flight traces its beginnings to fifteenth century Europe.  I missed acquiring this apparently common piece of knowledge as a kid, which makes it all the more exciting to discover now.

Leonardo was perhaps the first European to envision the aerodynamics of modern flight. It became a lifelong preoccupation, though his efforts wouldn’t be realized for another four centuries. As a youth in Florence, nature was the foundation for Leonardo’s ideas, including flight. He examined birds, bats and insects;  analyzing and sketching their internal anatomy.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study
Leonardo Da Vinci, Wing Study

I was briefly put off, imagining young Leonardo killing and dissecting living things in his experimentation.  But this apparently isn’t true.  Historians seem to agree on Leonardo’s refusal to consume animals and his recognition of the cruelty of mistreating them. This wasn’t at all common practice at the time.  Here’s some interesting info on Leonardo’s vegetarianism. Strange, I’m considering this myself now also, not something I was expecting to address via art history.

Fifteenth century Europe didn’t look favourably on Leonardo’s investigations into flight. The church viewed much of science as magic, a pursuit that could get you hung or beheaded for heresy. Galileo, Leonardo’s contemporary, spent the last ten years of his life on house arrest for his views on heliocentrism, a view Leonardo supported also.  But I’m off on another chase into the Copernican Revolution. How can anyone study history without getting hopelessly side tracked?

My point in this meandering reflection, is that advancement of flight wasn’t based on the wings of birds, but rather on the wings of bats.  The above left illustration is a bat wing, which later was implemented in the design of the glider, which eventually led to modern flight.  I spent quite a while perusing this here.   I’m not sure why this all strikes me as so significant, other than that I hadn’t considered it before.  I didn’t know last January when I traveled to Europe, that I was figuratively flying on Leonardo’s wings.

As I was saying, art history is taking me to many uncharted places.  I’ve lost roughly thirty-six hours to this pleasant diversion and my ancient history paper is still waiting. But before I try to focus on that, let me leave you with this picture of Napoleon’s white gloves.  I’m sure before long, they’ll be wrapping their white fingertips around my shifting attentions also.

napoleon's gloves

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A most excellent bag…

I don’t get all that excited about new shoes,  new clothes or even new cars – but this eighteen dollar, 50 percent off, art supply bag from Michaels has me over the moon.  With all it’s secret storage cubbies, pouches, and most importantly, it’s ‘grab your stuff and go’ lidless top, [!] I’m basking in a little slice of consumer heaven…

Just looooving this ‘back to school’ at 53 thing.

a most excellent bad

Another week’s whizzed by…

summer 2013 a.jpg

This is pretty much what my life looks like at the moment. There are some obvious perks of course; the sunny deck, Italian lavender, good coffee, new pens, the freedom to study – but it’s been a daunting challenge to cover six hundred years of art and history in six weeks, with almost no study skills, a ten minute attention span and high personal expectations.

Back here, I got some sage advice [which I smugly overlooked] about why not to do a condensed summer online art history course. Turns out it was bang on. In hindsight, this kind of journey might be better savoured over twelve weeks in a real, rather than virtual classroom. I’m only slightly stressed by the five assignments, eight quizzes, essay and final exam within the next two and a half weeks. This student life isn’t quite what I imagined.

But that being said, having breakfasted, lunched and dinner-ed with Brunelleschi, Borromini, Bernini and Bonaparte yesterday, today I’ll be coffee-ing with the Impressionists. I guess it could be worse.

Happy Weekend all, wherever your journeys take you.

All in how we see it…

I was planning an exuberant post today about how viewing even boring, mundane things, you know, like math and history, through the right lens can become magical and transporting.  I’ve learned these past weeks to appreciate the geometry of architecture and composition  and have been intrigued with historical politics as examined through the art perspective.

Except, I’ve reverted to the hate side of my bipolar relationship with my course after yesterday’s mid term. Today I never want to hear of another dead artist, pope or king again.   And here I was all set for a new profession as an art historian.

So for a change of pace – isn’t this an amazing picture of the sandstone in the Arizona Desert? It almost looks like someone’s taken a paintbrush to it, doesn’t it?

The  hematite, ilmenite, feldspar, amphibole and mica casting striated, multi-toned,  pink and coral  water coloured brush strokes in atmospheric perspective along the diagonal tranversal line reaching to the foreshortened stone a the front of the composition…

This could almost get me in interested in geology.

sandstone arizona desert

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Golden Discovery…

I’ve been waking these past mornings with visions of Raphael’s School of Athens, Leonardo’s Last Supper and Vitruvian Man and Michelangelo’s David and The Sistine Chapel.  As many pre dawn risers have been opening their browsers for the early news,  I’ve been logging in for the latest updates on the High Renaissance.  To say I’m enamoured with Quattrocento Italy would be an understatement.  (0h, how I love that word, quattrocento – just saying it makes me feel like a renaissance woman…)

...what studying an art history course is NOT...
…what studying an art history course is NOT…

This is kind of ironic since a mere ten days into Art History 102,  I plunged into despair and withdrew, overwhelmed with deadlines, grading and the kind of intellectual competition (my own ) I’d completely forgotten existed.

It’s strange, isn’t it, how our visions of things don’t necessarily line up with how things are. I’d been imagining studying art history being like sipping wine with an art appreciation group while gazing upon the Italian coast.  But instead found myself  transposing reams of historical information onto index cards, struggling to remember it all.  And before I knew it, I’d developed a highly suspicious imaginary tumour under my left arm.  Ahh, such are the risks of returning to school…

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I’ve been thinking that following the art school dream ought to be an easy thing.   Well, at least easier than not following it.  Because surely the universe will assist and applaud a heroic quest for self fulfillment, right.  And surely because we’re doing something positive and worthwhile, our more rational self will shut down and shut up our sabotaging irrational self, right.  Wrong.  You know that saying, ‘wherever I go, there I am’,  well so it is.

Anyways to make a long story shorter, after a week of doubt, panic, surviving cancer, a lot of peanut m and m’s and changing my student status three times – I’m back with the program and loving it.

Change, even good change, is challenging.  Just this past week has meant exchanging an idealistic perspective for a real one, letting go a little of  performance expectations, pushing past self-imposed limitations and fears and reconciling with structure and learning curves.  Returning to school teaches things well beyond curriculum.

But there’s a kind of brilliance you find on the other side of yourself.  My world has literally been thrown open (once again) with ideas I’d never have discovered had I withdrawn.  Like how before Brunelleschi, the mathematics of perspective was left behind in ancient Rome and Greece. Or how it took a monk of questionable practice to shift the painted art of religion from solemn and unnatural to approachable, beautiful, colourful and playful.  Or lovely new lyrical words, like contropposto, chiaroscuro, ariccio, quattrocento… 

And larger themes, like how religion and humanism have always pushed and shoved one another for influence.  And how art and architecture have reflected that ongoing struggle.

Everything we see holds pieces of the stories, lives and thinking from hundreds, thousands of years ago – one thought building upon another.   It’s a vastly different way of looking at the world for me.  That Palladian window over there on the neighbor’s house – now I understand it beyond being just a design shape.  Now I see behind it the architect Palladio, acting and reacting within the shifting culture of the fifteenth century.  And how Palladio’s innovations were rooted back in ancient Rome and Greece.  In fact, the entire explosion of thought, architecture, art, science, and math of the  Renaissance roots back to the ancient thinking of philosophy and humanism.

Which leads me to ponder the dark ages, and the influence of the church… but that’s another rabbit hole.  And I have a midterm to prepare for.   Returning to school, in spite of a bit of a rocky start, is one of the finest things I’ve ever done.  Seriously, if you’re thinking of it, just do it.  It’s full of golden discovery.

...sweet, sweet discovery...
…sweet, sweet discovery…