Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Illustrations

A week ago today I drove to Winston-Salem with the seven paintings I've completed to illustrate a book. I was meeting the author, who is also the promotional side of our collaboration, for dinner at the West End Cafe (a favorite of our family).

The evening got my attention as downtown Winston came into sight, round a big curve on I-40, and the radio station I was listening to announced that they were going to play the overture to a piece with the name of the lady I was driving to meet. I laughed for half a mile. It was like the previous set of coincidences that led to our accidental first face-to-face meeting, at Ollie's. And it was Ollie's that connected us in the first place.

Dinner was wonderful, with us each sharing our backgrounds - finally getting to know each other more. I'm surprised I noticed the food, but it was too good not to notice (as usual). Then she couldn't wait anymore and asked me to please go get the paintings.

Her reaction was everything I could wish. She had seen photos of them on-line as I finished them, but they are brighter and warmer in real life. She knows so many people, including most of the wait staff and owners of the restaurant, so she invited three of them over to look. As she spoke the lines of the poem, I revealed each painting, and the waitresses' reactions were also gratifying - one even cried, she was so touched. A good sign for the book.

It was also the first time I heard the lines out loud. I've carried them in my head a few at a time, and have meditated on them as I worked out the illustrations, but I'd never read them all at once out loud. I was surprised to realize that. The three stanzas all sounded like the best old nursery rhymes - the ones no one forgets - and it was whole, complete. I was, once more, delighted to be part of this.

So now the paintings are in her hands, as is the rest of the project. Ii took me a little over a year of elapsed time, and I learned and grew as a painter as a result of the work. My partner wrote the poem 15 years ago, and has been looking for an illustrator all that time. It now has to find the right home - it may take a while, but it will happen. It's been such a long while growing it has to finish now.

And besides, it's not every book that can make a waitress cry happy tears.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Great Squid Hunt

I worked on this painting last night, and painted it entirely this morning. It came together so quickly. It was originally going to be something quite different, several months ago, but it wouldn't emerge in that form. So here it is - The Great Squid Hunt. The orange accents are nowhere near so sudden in the original - the camera seems to love orange even more than I do, and magnifies it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Butner Seed Nursery and Beaverdam Waterfowl Impoundment

It may become an annual winter tradition. When it's warm enough, and the sun's angle is high enough to get us some late afternoon gold, we go to the end of Brickhouse Road, in the Falls Lake watershed, north of Durham and east of Bahama (stress on that second long "a" sound - this is the South), and walk the big loop through the Beaverdam Waterfowl Impoundment to Butner Seed Nursery. This year it was Moomin Light, our oldest son, and myself.

This land was supposed to be flooded as part of the Falls Lake Project, and was condemned and put in the control of the Army Corp of Engineers. But the land did not end up flooded (not sure if plans changed, or it was a miscalculation...) and this area is only flooded in part, because of dams, causeways, and beaver activity. The Flat River flows though it, on its way into Falls Lake, and beavers there are burrowers, making their homes up in the banks, rather than in the stick lodges more common in the mountains, or further north. Sometimes, as we walk through, we can hear beavers popping the surface of the water with their flat tails, warning other beavers of danger, just before they make an emergency dive.

The impoundment is amazing for the beauty of the trees, especially some of the huge beeches, and for the open, quiet space. The long gravel roads wind gracefully through the mixed woods and fields, the latter plowed from time to time and planted in separated stripes of corn, millet, sunflowers, or grasses to encourage the wildlife. This area is busier in hunting season, when mourning dove is one of the attractions, but in February it's all but deserted. I've done some solitary night hikes here, but it's kind of spooky, because it's so lonely.

Walking the end of Brickhouse road, with the sun setting to the left, and casting long shadows across gravel and fields, makes a great ending to a afternoon and always makes me feel filled up with quiet, with sky, with sunshine. I feel cleaned out, like a winter house that has opened all the windows to the first fresh breezes of spring.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Albano Sisters

Outside the shower, in our master bath, is a towel with sharks and other sea creatures, a rock from Maine, and a cissus rhombifolia my Great Aunt Jenny gave me the last time we visited her in New York. This is one of the connections I have to a generation of ancestors, my mother's mother and her sisters, born of Sicilian immigrants with the name Albano.

There was a brother, Vinnie, but I never met him. Of the five sisters, the most sunshiny, and second youngest, was Jenny. Always ready to laugh, the gentlest tease in a family always ready with that particular style of teasing I've since learned is indeed from Sicily, she was our favorite of the great aunts. She was in strongest contrast to Antoinette, who was unpredictable, quick to cluck her disapproval, and who pinched our cheeks and clutched us less gently than the others when we gave her the obligatory kiss hello and goodbye. We feared her a little, but Aunt Antoinette was also quick to chuckle, and make jokes. I thought she was the spiciest of the aunts until I met the baby of the family, on that last visit to Aunt Jenny. Aunt Anna was in her sixties, but still had blue black hair, black eyes that sparked, and was wearing jeans that looked sprayed on, and knee length sexy black leather boots. Pure mischief and danger, she took my breath away. This woman stilled looked like she could be the undoing of any number of men. On the other end of the family was the eldest sister, Aunt Mary Ferrara, whom I also never met, but heard a lot about, since she was at the center of the legendary family controversy that split the aunts and caused numerous tales of decades without speaking, refusal to attend funerals, etc. Genuine Sicilian hot headed and cold blooded stubbornness.

But our Nana, the sister I knew best because she was our grandmother, was perhaps the wisest, the quietest of the five. She was a lovely, tiny lady, an amazing gardener and lover of houseplants, having hundreds at various times. She and the other aunts competed and exchanged the Christmas and Easter Cactus with which my mother also has a gift. As many as fifty blooms at once on some plants in the best years. All shades, shapes, sizes, they delighted in sharing bits and pieces of different species and varieties. Rosary vine, spider plants, pothos, philodendrons, wandering jew, Moses in the bulrushes, African violets...

And of these one of my favorites, but I never saw it at my Nana's house, was this cissus. The first time I encountered it at Aunt Jenny's house I was fascinated by the way it set off all my poison ivy alarms. Just being in the same room with it gave me the creeps, since I had some prodigious cases of poison ivy as a kid, some breakout nearly every summer, in fact. I can still detect winter naked poison ivy vines out of the corner of my eye - I get this breathless, "Stand still!" feeling that jerks me up short and makes me look around in panic. So the plant in full leaf exerts the same fascination as a cobra in full hood, weaving in front of my face.

But over the years, and it's been many since Aunt Jenny cut me the little slip that started this plant, and in turn others now at my sister's house, I have stopped feeling the poisonous feeling. Now, instead, I think of the sweet giver, and enjoy the unique orderly lines and relationships of the leaves.

This last weekend, at my Dad's 70th birthday party, my parents confirmed something I've wondered about for years. While the Albano family married Sicilians, and must have been nearly completely of Sicily by the time they emigrated, the name probably means the original bearer came from Albania, a country north of Italy, shrouded in mystery. And this is the way things are in this house - they carry the rich patina of memory and hundreds of associations. It astonishes me sometimes to think that everyone's home may carry similar weight of meaning on nearly every object, but it's invisible to me. It's somehow the essence of our existence that this plant, this family name, these memories, which are so present to me, can be so absent to you, so the photo above brings you no emotions. We are surrounded, and cut off, all at once.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mon Chapeau

"Why are you wearing that weird hat?" asked our neighbor's six year old daughter from our cul de sac.
"Because it's my hat," I replied.

We were heading for a walk around the neighborhood. Deep blue skies, my favorite flat-bottomed "airplane" clouds (in squadrons in all directions), and gusty wind bending the trees made me feel electric. Dust devils twirled leaves like dervishes up the streets. Silence alternated with sudden roaring onslaughts, driving thousands of leaves toward and around us like a stampede. Crows were flung over our heads, tacking strongly in the unpredictable gale, concentrating hard, no playfulness, carefully above tree height. The sun grew more golden every minute as our shadows lengthened on the long walk, and we talked and gestured and laughed and were the pair that make neighbors smile as they drive by; the tall dark bearded guy and the short curvy blond, hair flying, as completely into each other as two teenage lovers.

In my weird hat. The hat I've had since my teens, when I bought it because, as a four year old, I thought all artists wore red berets. And with my dear heart, the love of my life, who will walk around with me in my weird hat.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Darwin's Radio - Greg Bear

My most recent listen, thanks again to my dear wife looking out for things to while away my long drives to more southerly states, was Greg Bear's science fiction novel, Darwin's Radio. This is a powerful, complex story, full of fascinating biology, genetics, politics, romance, evolution theory, native Americans, dreaming, the working of scientific revolution, and more. The story is written on a sweeping scale, but always through the experiences of unique and believable characters, and in vivid detail. Over and over again events unfold inevitably and collide thrillingly, only to once again move to another combination. The dialog is good, too - especially read aloud. And the science is made accessible, but never preachy or pedantic.

I've read (and own) other Greg Bear books, Eon, Moving Mars, Blood Music, The Forge of God, and none have disappointed. The stories are complex, the concepts interesting and plausible, the conclusions satisfying. To me Greg Bear is up there with Niven and Pournelle, Herbert, Le Guin, and Brin for their compelling use of science and larger than human events, while still bringing us real people and realistic reactions. These people know not only story telling and science; they know us.

I understand there is a sequel, Darwin's Children which I intend to find and read as soon as possible. But if you intend to read Darwin's Radio, don't read anything about the sequel - the blurb contains spoilers for the first book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Country French

For my Dad's 70th birthday party, a family pot-luck gathering, I made chicken and baked bread. Both came out well, but one of the two loaves (one baked into a "7" and the other into a "0"), the country French, got the most compliments, and Moomin Light asked that I bake it again.

So the next day I got out the bread machine cookbook where I had found it. I thought to myself, "Well this isn't really my bread recipe - I just got it from this book." I prefer to make up my own breads.

Then I looked at the recipe and remembered all that I'd changed... I altered two quantities (bumped both up) and then I TOTALLY changed the way it gets baked. I did let the bread machine do the mixing, kneading, and proofing (perfect gadget for that) - but then I took out the finished dough before it could bake and experimented with it. I had heard that the chewy crusted rough French breads I love in restaurants (like Parizade in Durham) were made with water spray and multiple oven temperatures. After doing some more Internet research I decided how I wanted to adjust things and got the results I'd been after for years.

By the time I got done writing my changes on this recipe, I felt better. There's nothing wrong with following a recipe - but I'm itchy until I've fiddled with things to understand the way they work, and to make the end result more my own.

The loaf pictured above (standing on end to keep it from drying out) was about 18 inches long, and two thirds of it vanished in one lunch. I dipped most of my share in olive oil with basil and pepper, and two more thin slices were around a chicken salad I tossed together from the leftover chicken. No recipe for the salad - but I can't discuss that here, because family reads this and they're in denial about some of the ingredients of my best sandwich spreads (chicken or egg).

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Winter Dreams

This painting had been growing in my mind since we got the comforter out for the winter. Sleeping under it, the light of the moon through the windows and trees outside, the dreams - all have contributed. Click for a larger image. You can also see this painting and others on my art website.

The photo shows more contrast between the black trees/window-slats and the blue background. In the painting the sky is darker and the black doesn't stand out so much (cameras love black). So the original is more integrated.

It's us in the bed - but...

They're not portraits - and my dear lovely girl puts all that long blond hair in a braid for safe keeping while she sleeps. And the painting is not about us, though that's how I started my thinking. It was originally our dreams - but now I'm not so sure. The cats seem to have taken over, and the painting is certainly about them, their dreams. Certainly cats having fun in the snow would have to be a dream.

Our cats are not allowed upstairs at all, much less on the bed - and they're ginger tabbies (the paper lanterns have the only gingers in this painting - the rest are all solid colors, mostly black).

We would never put the bed against a big bay window - we'd arrange the entire room to be able to look out all of it, not cover any up with furniture. We do have four windows in our bedroom, we had them add extra when they built it, but the only bay is in the living room.

I never sleep on my stomach.

Other things about this painting:

It contains 19 cats (if you include the Chinese character for cat on the Japanese paper lantern - I probably should have used Japanese characters, but I like the Chinese in this case).

The small lantern with Mount Fuji is the only non-cat lantern subject, and it's by way of an apology of sorts for the "oops" above, and homage to the print makers and lantern makers who inspired some of this image.

The steeple is inspired by several different steeples, plus the onion domes so common in the Hundertwasser paintings I've been ogling before bed just about every night for the last two months.

The cats playing in the street (leaping from the doorway) have appeared before (in mirror image) in Solar Power.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Road Trip Part 2 - Down East

From Wake Forest we headed east on route 98, which eventually ends into 64. We managed to keep coming back to 64 over and over, no matter what, all afternoon.

We had a picnic in Rocky Mount, which I had never visited before, in a public works park. Lots of seagulls. Somehow road trips need water and seagulls, so that worked for me. We saw a pair of coots at the water's edge, making a very strange sound. There was also a species of duck I haven't seen before. I should look them up.

We also spent some time down along the Tar River, and watching skate-boarders at a special section for them, with ramps, half pipe, grinding rails, etc. That was interesting. It reminded me of my brother learning to skate board back in 1978 with the young guys across the street (after we moved to Raleigh). They had built their own half pipe with plywood, and spent hours and hours riding it.

We continued east for a ways, but soon realized it was time to turn back. We took 43 south, through the open Eastern NC countryside that I did not properly appreciate while I lived there (in Greenville, at ECU for art). The light is unique, probably because of the reflective quality of all the silicon in the soil, and all the large cleared fields for cotton, tobacco (much less of that now) and soybeans.

It was a good day, and I enjoyed the stringless feeling. About 240 miles in all, so about 6 hours of car time, all of it to good music provided by either Moomin Light, my daughter, and one mixed CD of mine.

A much better researched and carefully crafted post on Rocky Mount and our road trip is at Moomin Light.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Road Trip Part 1 - Wake Forest

We took a road trip, going east. We decided to take route 98 and spend some time in Wake Forest at the start. We hadn't been there in years, and nearly all the downtown stores have changed, but the charm of the town is the same. All three of our kids enjoyed the stop.

The steeple in the photo here is Binkley Chapel, on the Baptist seminary, which used to be Wake Forest College, before Richard Joshua Reynolds endowed the college to move to Winston-Salem. The chapel at Wake Forest University is named Wait Chapel, which is another name from the town of Wake Forest - the main hall on the old campus used to be Wait Hall, and the main street near the campus is Wait Avenue. I always think of these two churches as being the same place, one with more money. They seem to share something of the same spirit, though, regardless of differences in size, materials, and the 100 miles between them.

We spent the most time in the Olde English Tea Room, a charming, quirky shop that seems a regular event among local ladies, and was busy upstairs where the tea is served. We spent most of our time browsing the downstairs, which is something of a gift store and antique mall. Vintage clothes and purses got lots of ooos and aahs from our daughter. The musty air eventually drove all of us out, though, and left us with brief headaches or sore throats.

We also drove through the old historic district, with the lovely houses and the double avenue with trees down the center. These are two of the largest homes in that section. The Corner Ice Cream Shop (where we've gotten ice cream for nearly twenty years) was closed and being renovated.

Then we headed east on 98, with no definite destination. I love this kind of trip, with the look of roads and intersections, or the names of places on the way, luring us on to who knows what.

MoominLight has more on this trip, the changes in Wake Forest, and the Tea Room in her post, here. She divides the road trip differently, and gets to further destinations in her post; I'll give my impressions of those other places in later posts. We seem to be mostly picking different photos.

Friday, February 1, 2008


I try to keep flowers in our wall sconces during the winter. It helps all of us with the seasonal depression. The livingroom, where these were hung, helps with the yellow walls, the seven windows on two walls, and the valences made from a French Provence cloth. The pattern is in French ultramarine (it appears a lot in my paintings, as well) with yellow grape leaves in a random pattern. The cloth print (which you can barely see in the corners of this photo) is called Muscadet.

The wine by that name is golden, and sometimes tastes to me like bottled sunshine. The first one I ever tried was in a French cafe in Charleston - Gaulart et Maliclet. It's our favorite indoor spot in Charlseton - good food, fascinating narrow space with French atmosphere, delicious escargots... All five of us love it (though only two of us - myself and oldest son - savor the snails). If you go, try a Rendezvous Tray. It's authentically Provence, and comes with a French wine of the cafe's choosing. The first one we ever had, nearly twenty five years ago, came with a Bergerac. For two lovers of Cyrano, that was magic.

(Gaulart et Malicalet serve their escargots without the shell. Much more relaxed to eat them that way. If you've never tried them, and you like garlic butter and other mollusks, like oysters, you would probably enjoy them.)