Saturday, March 29, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Finale ("Mangiata!")

We ate in Richmond at places researched by our daughter, using Wow.

We had a delightful dinner and ice cream way out in Midlothian at the French Quarter Cafe, owned and run personally by a fantastic Italian gentleman named Tony. I know his name because I ordered, "Tony's favorite" from the menu and inquired who Tony was. The favorite was a grilled sandwich on NY rye, piled high with deli turkey, thin crisp bacon, swiss cheese, onion, mayo, and thick slices of avocado (the sandwich used almost en entire avocado) - it was terrific. On Tony's recommendation for dessert I had a raspberry mocha - his favorite specialty coffee - also wonderful. We had the little cafe (and Tony) almost all to ourselves, and his sweet princely courtesy and lovely voice were worth the trip (and my stopping to ask directions contrary to the rules of my gender). It was like visiting a long lost Italian uncle - like my great aunts, the Albano Sisters.

The other dinner, the first night in Richmond, was at a tiny Italian place, mamma'Zu, known for the surly attitude of the owner and wait staff (don't ask stupid questions), the big blackboard behind the bar (which IS the menu), and the authentic amazing food. We got there in a light rain, and found out they didn't open for 30 more minutes (5:30). It was a Friday night. I sketched the non-descript old brick one-story building that houses the tiny restaurant, trying to keep as far under the eaves across the street as possible, to keep rain off my moleskine. People started lining up well before opening - standing in the rain and eventually blocking part of the street. We got in line, too - figuring we had to, or we wouldn't get a table. My girls squeezed under my big umbrella with me and the boys stayed in the car until the line began to move. The place filled in 5 minutes and had enough people still standing at the bar and outside to fill the entire restaurant again. A wild frenzy of bread and order taking followed, while we and other patrons, shoehorned into tightly packed tables, craned our necks to pick our entres and appetizers from the board. Squid with beans and arugula, pasta fazul, eggplant parmesan, pasta and ricotta, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs (which melted in the mouth), montepulciano d'abruzzo... The food was amazing. We all agreed the whole experience was priceless, and we understood why so many people were content to wait over an hour.

On our way out the last day we had pizza at Bottoms Up - practically under I-95, again (see the overpass in the photo to the left), by the old Main Street Train Station. The wait staff were fun to watch - lots of personalities. Bottoms Up will become a regular stop on our trips back and forth from family in the Northeast.

It wasn't our intention to eat all Italian... but the first night was entres, the second was deli, and the last was pizza - so it wasn't really the same. And these were all places we'll talk about for years, and revisit when we get the chance.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchet

My kids and lovely wife have been gobbling up Terry Pratchet books since before Christmas (they claim Pratchet is a remedy against seasonal depression - like limes against scurvy), and they quote from them the way some people quote from Monty Python. The humor in Pratchet's books is unique, dry, and pokes deep fun at the human condition. So many characters to love, too, from Lu-Tze and his Way, to the witches Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, to the members of the Night Watch. Even Death is lovable and funny, while Pratchet keeps him true to his deadpan character.

Pratchet seems at his very best and funniest in the streets of the all too human city of Ankh-Morpork, and the city's Night Watch might contain his most human characters. Our two oldest children have been trying to get me to read one of the "Watch" books for weeks now, and finally dear wife got the first one, Guards! Guards! on tape for my recent trip to South Carolina. I enjoyed every minute of it. With a deep abiding love of humanity, and a genius for hilarious views of its broken nature, Pratchet spins a wild tale of intrigue, dragons, detection, love, heroics, monarchy and democracy, and the real politics that win out in the end. It's the jolly mercenary baseness of the citizenry of Ankh-Morpork that makes you love them - like Fagan in Oliver. Or, more importantly, the way a certain garden-variety nobility shines forth here and there.

I'm certain my family will lay the other Watch books before me, and I'll relish every page - how can I not want to know what happens next to Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Corporal Nobbs, and Lance-constable Carrot? Who wouldn't want to peer further into the intriguing mind of the Patrician. And these books leave you feeling realistic and forgiving about man's condition, and content with your lot. Not a bad place to end up.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 6 - Maymont

For us, a trip to Richmond is incomplete without a stop at Maymont. The light was clear and beautiful, even if the wind was a bit keen, the morning we visited. In this shot the camera caught the light.

There were only a few things blooming - daffodils, some flowering trees (magnolias, cherries, and a few camellias), and small wild flowers. Maymont's gardens, however, are lovely in form, even if there is little blooming.

The dome in front is in the Italian garden, normally a riot of colors from annuals and perennials, stretched under a beautiful colonnade at the top of the large fountain. The dome in back is the silo on the barn. Even the outbuildings at Maymont are beautiful.

The Asian garden is one of the best parts, with wandering paths, stepping stones, small gazebos for sitting, spirit houses and lanterns, and all surrounding a pond with a lovely stand of young cyprus trees on one end.

Koi swim in the pond, some of them almost two feet long. They congregate below the lake gazebo whenever people stop there. Their quiet wavy movement, crossing each other's paths, is hypnotic. I took far too many photos, trying to get the densest and clearest congregation.

Most of the bridges are small, and made of stone or concrete. This one is the largest in the garden, and is the main attraction in the end of the Asian garden away from the pond. It crosses a stream that only runs seasonally, and with the drought it was totally dry.

The house itself is set on the top of the hill, overlooking the James River, a canal for bypassing the rapids, and the railroad which made Maymont's owners some of the richest people in Richmond. On the way up the hill were some of the daffodils blooming.

While the house is imposing, and made of stone, it doesn't seem large enough to contain the thirty three beautiful rooms inside. The landscaping and yard and is simple, but the pieces are well chosen, and the landscaping is primarily done with trees, composed in ways that make it obvious the garden architect could see fifty or more years into the future. That always gives me pleasure - the human mind reaching that way, and the idea made entire, even if years after the artist has left us.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Abstract 16

They say that painters and writers are doomed to repeat certain images. Shapes and forms trapped deep in the soul continue to try to get out. I have this image of light and dark verticals, maybe a bit like a forest of tree trunks, that won't go away, and that comes up when I let my mind and brush take their own course.

The painting is warmer and brighter than this image - cameras seem to "blue" the images a bit, and the color is never as saturated with a point-and-shoot (even our good Olympus) as I'd like. I did help the image along a bit with some software, but it still doesn't do justice to the original. But it gives you an idea - let's you see another shadow of that image inside me.

19 x 19, watercolor and pencil underdrawing, as usual (the largest square I can get on my Arches hot press, stretched).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 5 - The Bridge

A pedestrian bridge hangs under highway 1 and crosses the James River to Belle Isle. We've walked it before; dear wife hates the height, though, and hasn't gone on it the last few times.

Our teens love it. On this trip it was blowing colder, thunderstorms had just roared over Richmond that afternoon, and the air was clear and full of the gold of the last half hour of the sun.

In this shot my oldest son and I are shadowed on one of the huge piers that hold up the northbound side of route 1. I like to think about this oldest national road, most of it on the route of the old post road that connected the capitals of the original colonies. I can't imagine how many pieces of it I've been on over my lifetime - or under, in this case.

The roar of the river, the traffic rushing overhead, the last light, the violent purple and pinks mixed with smoky grays, the camera can't capture the colors or the feeling I have for a cold windy sunset in a strange and exciting place.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 4 - Tiny Beauties

Spring is when I notice the tiny flowers that might get ignored later in the year. After the gloom of winter, with so little color, I am always cheered by the tiniest wild blooms of spring. As much as I love the yellow glow of daffodils, the site of the smallest blooms, shaken in the strong winds of February and March, are the more authentic voice of Spring.

I vowed one year to learn every wild flower species as it opened, and to reach the following winter with a complete litany of names. I tried this several years in a row, actually, but always spun out of control and lost it in the acceleration of April and May. At the beginning it seems manageable, like lifting that baby bull every day while you bottle feed it. But all at once it's too big to get your arms around, much less lift.

Some of the very first are the bright blue, quarter inch blooms of Veronica (photo above, taken outside the Science Museum). There are actually five petals, but two are overlapped, so it appears to be four. Then there are field pansies, violas, and johnny jump-ups, like these tiny specimens found in a crack at the top of Church Hill.

Henbit, Gill over the Ground, Bluets, Chickweed, Bitter Cress, Dandelions, Hepatica, Violets, and Purple Deadnettle are some of the other earliest risers. Probably half of those are actually immigrants from Europe. Then comes the onslaught, with names like Wood Bettony, Catesby's Trillium, Wake Robin, Bastard Toadflax, Carolina Jasmine, Pink Lady Slipper, Trumpet Creeper, Lyre Leaved Sage, Indian's Paintbrush, Mock Strawberry, Cinquefoil, Butter and Eggs, Polygala, Ladies Tresses, Atamasco Lily, Blue Flax, Steeplebush, Multiflora Rose, Deptford Pink, Trailing Arbutus, Grass of Parnassus, Fetter Bush, and on and on. By the time the Queen Anne's Lace is fully open on our roadsides I've lost the race, also in part because the poison ivy is keeping me out of the woods.

But for now, I admire the pluck and delicate beauty of the quiet early bloomers, even as I pull them from our flower beds, smelling the peppery aroma of the cresses, and the sweet green peas fragrance of the chickweeds. The fresh appetizing scents are as welcome after the sterility of winter as the sight of the tiny colorful flowers.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 3 - Stairs

Oldest son and I love stairwells. He likes to go all the way to the top and look down into the well in the center - the deeper and more vertiginous, the better he likes it. I love the patterns.

Here we have one of the staircases in the Museum of Science in Richmond. I liked the proportions, the ratios, and the lovely silhouettes of stairs and climbers (no one I know).

And here is the view from those stairs, where the beauty of the chairs, and the cool color of them, with the warm shadows around them, struck me.

And then oldest son and I found this four floored stairwell, and had to photograph it several times from below (here) and from above (next photo). Youngest son joined us in racing up and down and looking carefully over the rails.

The color was a feast to me. Such a breathtaking excess of redness. I gorged myself on it as long as I thought my family could wait, then raced to join them in another exhibit.

Finally we there are these lovely brick and concrete stairs on the top of Church Hill, where St. John's stands in the highest spot in Richmond, I think. The views look out over typical Richmond urban residences, and to a distant blue horizon.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 2 - The Other Train Station

One of our favorite things about Richmond is the Main Street Train Station, which you feel you could reach out and touch from the I-95 overpass that curves around the south facing cliff of Richmond's tallest downtown buildings. Until we found out about the Science Museum being a train station, we thought this was the only grand old lady of railroading in Richmond. In this first photo I-95 is passing overhead on the left. Click the image for a larger view - she's worth a closer look.

Here is a photo from the front porch of the station, looking under the I-95 overpass, where a long train trestle, underneath, runs over numerous streets which run east out of downtown. The addition of a long string of parked train cars made this magic for me, and gives the photo scale.

Here is the inside of the station - an upstairs waiting area. The station has had a long and checkered history - but I think Moomin Light will be telling those stories, so I won't do so here.

Our youngest has always loved the station, and it's the first thing he thinks of when we mention Richmond. So after touring St John's Church (where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech) we deliberately drove back into town the half mile or so and parked outside the station. He was surprised and delighted - and so was I. The sky was full of racing clouds, the sunlight flickered rapidly on and off, and the gusty air was electric with the roaring arrival of spring. We explored into every space we could, inside and out.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Richmond Road Trip - Part 1

We spent a few days in Richmond, VA. I've loved Richmond for a long time, due to special memories (another post, perhaps), but what I notice every time I visit is the way North and South overlap there. The Fan district, for instance, has an amazing hybrid of the best of southern urban aesthetics, mixed with the best of northern row house blocks. The city is friendly like the South, but gritty, edgy, direct and stimulating in ways that remind me of the North.

We visited the Science Museum on the second day - a day that started out cloudy and drizzly. The first exhibits were on physics, space, and aeronautics, and were fascinating, but all the noise, crowds, and bright lights in the dark exhibit space made me notice the muted gray natural light coming in the exit doors.

Then I noticed that the exit was not alarmed, or prohibited, and it went down the old access to the tracks. The museum is in a refurbished grand train station, built in 1917. So I called the others over and we went through the doors and down onto the old platforms. Marvelous. Deserted. Windswept and melancholy. Fresh air and wide open space.

Then I saw the huge steam engine off on a siding, and time stopped for me. I love old trains, and can spend hours looking at them.

We wandered all over, and took numerous close-ups of the engine, then visited the other mechanical residents of this quiet enchanted space outside the museum - a trolley and a deep sea sub used in a number of salvage missions (including finding and recovering an unexploded hydrogen bomb!) in the 1960's.

There were a few other things I particularly enjoyed about the morning we spent in the Science Museum - but I'll save those for another post.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

How Did I Get Here?

I am sitting at my art table, where I paint in watercolor, ink, and less frequently in acrylics. On the table is a big blank page, a full sheet of Arches 140 lb hot press, stapled to a piece of plywood, stretched so tightly that the edges curl up and make a sound like a musical tone when I thumb them just right. It's just a white rectangle, and I looked at it this evening and saw so much.

A year ago I was still covering white rectangles as quickly as possible, holding my breath and not looking too closely, getting lines and shapes all over it before the paralysis would hit. The mental snow blindness that started in art school, the great blank art project abyss I fell into many college mornings so I would cut classes and walk the rails out of town, or haunt the poetry stacks of the library. I was grateful, a year ago, to be able to do this mental dive, getting through the fear long enough to get something on the page, where life could return to normal and I could react to what was there - anything already there. For the first time in decades I could paint again, but only after this sprint past the scary blankness.

Now I sit here and see the promise and possibility of the big white surface. I daydream about larger white surfaces - canvases, whole walls. I don't have anything big enough for those surfaces, but I know that if I did I'd have a good time working that large. And I'm dumbfounded this evening to find I can think that way.

To some, this may seem like a small thing. To others, who know me outside cyberspace, this may seem strange - they may be unable to picture me having this kind of hang-up. But the indescribable need to paint or draw, and the inability to start, was a scar on my heart for many years, a blemish made huge by the fact that it seemed like a stupid small problem, something I should just have been able to get over, but couldn't. The white noise would get louder and louder until I was deaf and had to turn away entirely from image making. Studio art classes were the greatest impossible scenario for me - I had to quit (twice) to escape the futility, pain, and embarrassment of trying to tackle my great white whale in public. The whale that seemed plainly no more frightening than a guppy to the other students around me, blissfully painting while I stood looking off into the infinite blank horizon on my easel.

And tonight I realized that I've recently painted a half dozen or so pieces which simply began in my mind and then migrated quietly to the blank pages. I'm stunned that I missed the transition from fear to comfort. I'm sitting here recalling some of the steps and people along that road. The October vacation, over two years ago, when we discussed imaginary worlds and blogging and painting for the first time - a vacation that started me thinking again as a creative person. The used bookstore, home again in Hillsborough on the last day of that same vacation, where the book The Artist's Way practically leaped off the shelf at me (I still do Morning Pages nearly every day). The business woman and artist who encouraged me in my first attempts to paint again, and who invited me to the gathering of artists that became the Hillsborough Gallery of Arts, where I showed my work for the first time, sold my first paintings, and realized I could do this. My family who has bought paintings, encouraged the work, and quietly let me do this - especially my wife and children, who have made room (figuratively and literally) for me to paint. The lady from Winston-Salem who invited me into the project which became seven illustrations for a book, not yet published. The blogs and artists who have inspired me to play and relax, and lose my inner critic more and more often: Shano, Wally Torta, Annie Bissett, Cindy Woods, Megan Foldenauer, many more, and the artists in the Gallery, especially Kerry Nelson and Pat Merriman. The encouragement of friends and neighbors, fellow artists, everyone, really.

I'm stunned. I'm ecstatic. I'm grateful. I'm free.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mistletoe House

Latest in what may become a series of paintings involving trees (like Autumn, which features a Bradford pear). While no tree was the model for this, I sense that this is a red maple.

The painting is called Mistletoe House. Like almost all my square watercolors, it's 19 inches on a side (the largest image I can get on a stretched piece of stock Arches 140 pound hot press). I was trying for a feeling of spring - the wind, the hint of green in the tree limbs, without any actual leaves yet, the softer light, etc.

Click the image for a larger version.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Vanishing Love

Fan-fiction is a special genre of writing where authors are "riffing on someone else's foundation," as a friend of mine describes it. Most of it's done on several boards on the Internet. Many fan-fics are written as opportunities to pair up various characters from movies and TV series. I've read very little of it, myself. It's not that I'm not interested, but a lot of fan fiction is of medium quality (or less), and I'm a slow reader, so finding the good stuff takes me too long.

I also find that reading too much shuts down the part of me that makes images for painting. So I've actually cut most reading and movie watching recently. The results have been good for me - more painting ideas than usual - but I do miss reading.

Recently my friend asked me to look at some of his fan-fiction, written under the pen name Alex Markov, particularly a series he wrote for the characters and world of Pixar's The Incredibles. It's called Vanishing Love.

I was hooked in the first chapter, because he did such a terrific job capturing the characters, the sound of their dialog, and the plot got off the ground in the first few paragraphs (tell me if you think the family discussion in the first chapter, and the circumstances during it, is perfect Incredibles family interaction). I really enjoyed The Incredibles - it's my favorite Pixar film, and they haven't made one I haven't liked. So I was enticed by the opportunity to pick up the story a year or so after the movie ends, with Violet having the emotional upheaval normal for that age, (but nothing like normal when the teen is a super). I limited myself to two chapters per evening, to stretch it out and give the writing a good thoughtful look. It was hard, by the last six or seven chapters, to stick to that limit.

The writing is good throughout and some of the characters get some well deserved additional development (Jack-Jack and Agent Rick Dicker are good examples). By the time I finished this I felt I had actually seen a sequel, and I could recall exactly how some of the scenes looked. Some of the dialog made me laugh loud and long. There are some subtle allusions and references that reward a careful reading. Irony, poetic justice, parental and relationship observations galore, and plenty of Pixar style humor.

While not explicit, there are adult themes, same gender romance, and some strong language in this story. It's not PG, and it might even be pushing it for PG-13. But I liked the transition of the kid movie characters into more grown-up issues, and I think it's very much in the spirit of the original creation.

If you are interested, the author loves to get comments and will write back if you offer your thoughts - especially thoughts to improve the story or the writing. Look for the "submit review" button at the bottom of each chapter. This same author is even more into the Kim Possible series, and explores a whole series of interesting possibilities.