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Friday, February 29, 2008


A recent good read: Guy Delisle's graphic journal , Pyongyang. The author is a French Canadian cartoon animator who was assigned to travel to North Korea oversee the production of a children's cartoon. The book documents his bizarre experience. Here's a good overview.

Now the NY Philarmonic has been to Pyongyang. There's a short video to watch on the NY Times website. Take a look at it. Then read the book. See what you think.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

From Ougadougou

If you're a crossworder you know about Burkina Faso, and maybe about Ougadougou. Tan Wee Cheng is a travel blogger and country collector who makes Nina look like a stay-at-home. Right now he's on a West African adventure which is, in itself, part of a much longer odyssey that began last October and continues through June. Worth checking out from time to time, the blog is well-organized and easily searchable.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Suddenly everyone is talking about "values". At least that was the subject of today's pastel class. In the art world, values refer to the gray scale. How dark or light is the hue? It's very common, when planning a painting of any kind, to first do a "value sketch", to determine where the darkest darks and lightest lights occur, as well as all the in-betweens. It's said that if you can get the values right the hues will take care of themselves.

So, today's classwork involved making three separate pastel drawings, using only black, white, and gray, on three different backgrounds - also black, white, and gray. Theoretically they should end up looking pretty much the same. On the black paper, the darkest value (the table) would be left alone. Similarly, on the white paper, the lightest areas would be left for the paper to show through. For the gray, we had to choose a "middle value" that would correspond to the paper. Not quite as easy as it sounds, but an excellent exercise.

The instructor couldn't be there, but she left instructions as to how the objects were to be arranged. We'll bring the finished products back next week for her to see and discuss. I have a few finishing touches to add.

Does anyone recognize that square object on the bottom - the one with the concave center? I grew up in a household where both parents were chain smokers; every horizontal surface held one of these giant ashtrays, and they were generally overflowing with ashes and used butts. Even non-smoking households would have ashtrays available for visitors. Ack! What were they thinking?

Speaking of value, I'm a latecomer, but a loyal convert to the "dollar store" phenomenon. Hoping that little tripod will be helpful for photographing my "art", once I figure out a system. And the sandpaper will be used as a "ground" for pastel practice (artists' archival sandpaper is in a realm of its own - too costly to practice on). The knives are for the garden - I'm always needing them for cutting roots, dividing tough perennials, opening bags of mulch.... and I buy those little plastic clips whenever I see them. Who can resist?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Movies again

Movies seen this week:

La Vie en Rose
Finding Neverland
The History Boys
Girl with a Pearl Earring
Margot at the Wedding

I didn't intend it to be so, but they are actually listed in order of my preference, though they're quite different from one another, so it's a little silly to compare.

Marion Cotillard is incredible as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. If you're too young to remember the magical Piaf sound, there are some YouTube clips to watch. Milord was like the theme song of my college years. Update: Wow! She just won the Oscar!

Finding Neverland is about JM Barrie and the writing of Peter Pan. I have no idea how much reality it's based on - maybe none - but it's altogether charming. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet star.

The History Boys is about eight bright, middle-class young men being prepped for admission to Oxford and Cambridge by a pair of teachers with very different points of view about education. The cast came directly from a legitimate theater run and they are all a joy to watch.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring is based on Tracy Chevalier's novel of the same name. It's a fictional story based on the Vermeer painting . Visually it's gorgeous, and that's the main reason to see it. It's like being able to walk around in 17th century Delft - or, for that matter, a Vermeer. The plot is a little thin and Scarlett Johansson moves through the film in a kind of daze - rarely speaking, always looking pale and lovely - like the girl in the painting.

Margot at the Wedding just didn't quite work for me. The actors were all competent - Jack Black was exceptional, in fact. Maybe it was by design, but it seemed very choppy to me; each scene would come to an abrupt end - almost as if the film ran out - then it would be on to something else. I would rarely notice anything like that, so I assume it was intentional. The transportation symbolism (movie starts on a train, ends on a bus) seemed a little heavy-handed (yes these people are all growing, moving on....). Oh well. The director's earlier autobiographical film, The Squid and the Whale, is worth looking for.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Matching funds

No, this isn't going to turn into a political blog. But there's something about this Obama thing that's getting my attention. For the first time in my life I have actually donated MONEY to a political campaign. Just a drop in the bucket, but the pitch was that any donations would be "matched". Thinking that it would be, at the very least, coming from someone with very deep pockets, I entered the info and clicked "send".

The next screen I see is this:

Thank you! Here's Your Match ...
Your donation has been matched by the person below.
Now you can send them a note about why you gave or respond to their message. If you choose, you can reveal your email address to them so that you can continue the conversation.

Your contribution has been matched by: Jenny N

A message to you from the person who matched your contribution:

This is the first time I've ever given to any political campaign. But unlike any time before, I am inspired to be a part of this campaign and I believe we can change the face of politics by showing the world that we as individuals can make a difference in the national political scene. Unfortunately money is still needed to reach voters, so I believe it is important to support Barack Obama with our own little bit, rather than having him take money from special interest groups and political action committees. Thank you for contributing.

OK, I sent Jenny a note, but opted not to continue the conversation (there was a box to check for that). But then (OK, immediately), I get a thank you email from the campaign that says, in part:

It's going to be difficult to bring in enough new donors to hit our goal by March 4. Make an even bigger difference by inspiring someone new to join our campaign.
Make a promise to match someone's first-time donation now:
https://donate.barackobama.com/promise There's also a space to send a form letter to ten "friends"....

I'm new to this, so maybe it's just business as usual. But it seems like one smart campaign strategy to me.

Here's the thing, commenters: I've never been a member of one party or another. I register as a Democrat because around here it's the only primary that makes any sense to vote in. Overall, I'm more right-leaning than left.

But I do believe in a two party system. I think we need liberals to inspire us, to remind us that some of us are "more equal than others" the way things stand, and lead us in new directions. I think we need conservatives to ask Wait! Who's going to pay for all this stuff? And to remind us that private enterprise very often (usually!) offers better solutions to problems than government programs. I'm not very concerned with anybody's "platform" or campaign promises because I believe that it's not the president who ultimately decides anything about policy. It's all about those checks and balances. I see the president as a manager, or administrator on the very highest level.

I think that what we need more than ever right now is a smart, charismatic leader who appeals to Americans across a broad spectrum, and who can inspire the world (people and leaders) to respect us in a way that's been lost. It seems to me that Obama might be able to do this. Maybe I see a little of Lincoln in him?! There's still a long time til November. Will be interesting to see how things evolve.

This interview with David Remnick (from November, 2006, before he was a candidate) is worth reading or listening to (both options available at the link).

Monday, February 18, 2008

History lessons

I've been so caught up with the charms of the P******y thing (hoping to forestall further comments from the enthusiastic management) that once I finished Life of Pi (what is there to say about a lifeboat with a 450-lb Bengal tiger aboard that hasn't already been said?) I just grabbed whatever was available from the library display. I didn't stop to consider the timeliness factor in picking 1776 (David McCullough's history of that fateful year) and Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Lincoln's presidency).

I had read John Adams when it first appeared several years ago, and knew of McCullough's wonderful ability to bring history to life. And Goodwin's memoir Wait Til Next Year is one of my all-time favorite books. So my expectations were high.

These books aren't just timely because it happens to be President's Day. They're timely in that they use perfectly chosen detail to remind us and help us understand exactly why these two presidents were truly great. And what they were up against. We think times are tough? Just imagine the stresses of living in 1776, or in 1860. (Or read/listen to the books if you're fuzzy about the particulars.) I found it impossible, as I listened, not to think carefully about the personal qualities and strength of character one might hope to find in a presidential candidate today.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I never stop trying to "save time" by attempting to do two or more things at once. Most of the time it just doesn't work. I used to play bridge on line, and I found I couldn't even listen to music at the same time; it interfered with my concentration. I'm pretty sure it's a right brain/left brain thing.

I nearly always have a book with me when I'm alone at a restaurant or cafe or diner or whatever. But once the food comes it's pretty hard to eat and read at the same time; there are physical limitations, for one thing. But these new Playaway devices (see post of a few days ago) are a perfect solution to this. Here I am about to dig into an unneeded dessert. Can you tell I'm also "reading a book"?
After lunch I went to a poetry reading. I found that it was perfectly possible to sketch my fellow listeners (as well as the poets themselves) without losing track of what was being said or read. I suppose I've always known that. (The poets: Rosanna Warren, Karl Kirchwey, and Robert Hahn. Excellent in every way.)
The next REAL test will be: Can I listen to an audio book while drawing or painting in the "studio" (new name for "basement")? I'm hopeful that the answer will be YES.

Friday, February 15, 2008


My plan was to go to the city today and hit a museum or two. Then the phone rang. There was a desperate need for a bridge substitute ("the whole day will be spoiled if you don't come"). So, feeling grumpy and manipulated, I capitulated. In truth, I had a perfectly good time and a tasty lunch (of the country club sort) and a chance to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a while.

But the good part was this: I was home by four, and realized that I had plenty of time to make the 4:30 train to the city. Plus, Friday night (I remembered) is free night at the MOMA (courtesy of Target, which is a very nice thing). I'd heard it could be a zoo, but - why not see for myself?
True, there was a crowd, but it wasn't a problem. My main objective was to see the special Lucian Freud exhibition, and it was just as spectacular as I'd hoped. There is an excellent on-line version (at the link) as well, but seeing things in the flesh is always even better.
And did I mention that the subway guy asked for my ID when I requested my senior fare? When I reached for the Medicare card he said never mind - but it made my day!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Movies I've Missed

I've watched a few movies recently, in my usual scattershot way. I saw "Away from Her" (Julie Christie brilliantly plays Alzheimer's victim), and a few from the past: "Million Dollar Baby" (hadn't thought I'd like it based on subject matter, but of course I was wrong about that), "Brokeback Mountain" (Anne Hathaway was an unexpected pleasure), "The Color Purple" (Whoopi Goldberg's movie debut, nominated for 11 Oscars - how did I ever miss that one?), and "Praire Home Companion" (wonderful in every way; brilliant acting, directing, and the music! - worth seeing on DVD to get all the "extras", such as the complete musical numbers that you only hear Altmanesque parts of in the actual movie).

Anyhow, I looked up The Color Purple to see why it hadn't won the best picture award in 1985. Well, it was up against "Out of Africa" (the winner), "Prizzi's Honor", "Witness", and "The Kiss of the Spider Woman", all of which I DID see at the time. Tough choice for the voters that year.

But this led me to scrolling down the lists of other nominees by year, here, and most likely elsewhere as well. I thought I was reasonably movie-literate (is there a better term?), but I was amazed to discover how many great films I must have missed over the years. Since it's so easy for me to get pretty much anything through the library, I'm making a plan RIGHT NOW to work through this troubling gap in a systemmatic way. I'll start with the "best picture" group, realizing that there are going to be plenty in some of the other groups ("best actress", etc) that will be worth tracking down as well. Even at one movie a week I can work through fifty in a year. Will that bring me up to speed?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tamarind and blood oranges

I felt like trying some new recipes, and H&D (daughter and son-in-law) were willing guinea pigs. The main event was a Vietnamese ground lamb dish - small, thin, highly spiced burgers grilled at the last minute and served over a salad of watercress, cilantro, mint, basil, and scallions. We had basmati rice alongside. The dressing, a delicious, thick and unusual tamarind vinaigrette, pulled the whole thing together. The hardest part was finding the tamarind paste, which I just KNEW I had somewhere or other and finally found, in among the extracts (vanilla, etc) - as good a place as any, if only I'd remembered.

The recipe was from Cindy Pawlcyn's newest cookbook, Big Small Plates and you can find it by following the link, then choosing "search inside" and using "tamarind" as your search term. Now that I get the idea I think I might try other versions. I'm sure, for example, that the meat could be chicken, beef, or even pork. And the salad could include thin cucumber half moons and shredded carrots as additions or substitutions. The tamarind vinaigrette is a 2-second cinch to make, once you find the tamarind paste.

I also made a blood orange sorbet from David Lebovitz . The blood oranges I found at Whole Foods were thicker skinned and a little less juicy than I expected for the weight, but the color was spectacular, and it was a nice lead-in to the family favorite cake - Mocha Torte - a coffee sponge with coffee infused whipped cream filling and topping. Yes, there was a birthday being celebrated.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


I've mentioned from time to time that I enjoy listening to audiobooks. I often have one playing in the car. The limitation, of course, is that you have to have access to some kind of player. And you can't, as far as I know, easily transfer a CD or MP3 book to an iPod, for example. Well maybe you can - but it's an extra step that I've never tried to figure out. Especially since I don't even have an iPod.

Our library has just started buying audio books in this new self-contained format called "Playaway". I had to buy the earpod thing for $2 (after experimenting with a little giveaway headset from an airplane that didn't seem to work), but otherwise, that's it. Book and player combined in one tiny lightweight package. I'm giving the system a trial run with Life of Pi.

So far, I'm liking it! There's something about the way the sound goes straight into your head, as compared to traveling through "air" from a speaker - even ones as nearby as the ones in the car - that increases concentration. I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect it's something that iPod users already know about.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Witch hazel

Yesterday I happened to be in Nutley - there was a new lunch place to try - so I took a minute to check out the spectacular gardens that I wrote about last summer (I think you can search on "Nutley" here to find them if you feel like it). The real test of a garden comes in the winter. That's when you see its structure - its bones. But what's that blooming by the front door? Even green thumbs like these can't get forsythia to bloom in February? Can they?

But of course. It's not forsythia. It's witch hazel! Why does nobody else grow this? Hint: it's because it's not blooming during the times when ordinary people are apt to be cruising the garden centers. Note to self: get some!

And what about those euonymus topiaries in the top picture. That wouldn't be so hard to do. In fact I have a couple on the back plateau that are just about the right size to be candidates for haircuts like this. Should I try it?

Life Drawing

A young woman in my neighborhood (Z: it's the See's old house!) has converted her garage into an art studio where she offers classes and other art events. Twice a month there's a life drawing session - no instruction - just everyone chips in to pay the model. I haven't done this in forty years (a class at Washington University when we lived in St Louis and G was a baby). Last night was my first time - but I'll be making it a regular thing. There's nothing like drawing the human figure to sharpen the eye and train the hand.

Not fishing for praise here, but I know that if I don't post them you'll ask. The first one, the pastel, was the longest pose - thirty minutes. I stuck to the 3 primary colors plus white for this one.
This was done in charcoal. I think it was five minutes.

And this was the last pose of the day, ten minutes in pencil. In addition there were a dozen or so 2-minute poses done in conte crayon. It's going to be an excellent supplement to the pastel class.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ashcan Wednesday

I am always waiting til the last minute for things. I knew I had to see the "Ashcan Artists" exhibit at the NY Historical Society and there wasn't much time left; it's closing this weekend.

I enjoyed it immensely. These artists are so accessible - all painting during the first two decades of the twentieth century. I guess I've made it clear in other posts that that's one of my favorite historical periods. Because the focus of the exhibit was on the social history - the parks, sporting events, cafes, bars, theaters, amusement parks and other public gathering places - there were, in addition to the paintings, artifacts such as menus, souvenir programs -even some early Edison film clips. There was a particularly charming one called "Rube and Mandy at Coney Island"; you can see how it would lead up to Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.

But I was really there for the paintings, many of which were familiar but many more of which were NOT (lots from private collections and tiny, out of the way museums). I've been reading Robert Henri's brilliant book, still used in art schools, "The Art Spirit". He was the mentor and guiding force behind all of the others (Sloane, Shinn, Glackens, Bellows, etc) . He also taught Hopper, who came into his own a little later. In the book he talks about the importance of organizing the space into "four or five" large, differentiated planes of different values. It's extraordinary to see how these pictures, many of which involve large crowd scenes, do exactly that. Here's a simple example from Shinn:

You can see how the dark backs of the heads of the audience define the foreground, the light figures of the performers make up the middle ground, and the intermediate tones of the scenery make up the background. The tiny lit face and score in the center remind us that there's an orchestra in there too. Again and again we're learning (I'm talking about the pastel class now) how it's all about VALUES - get them right, and the colors will fall into place. I'm learning, I'm learning! I did a bunch of thumbnail sketches of these paintings (no photos allowed) to help drive it home.

Even though I spent most of my time on this one exhibit, there was the whole REST of the place to see too. I hadn't been there in years. The NYHS is famous for having all the 400+ original Audubon watercolors for Birds of America, acquired in 1863 for the then astronomical price of $4000 (they would have gone to the British Museum otherwise). Only a few at a time can be displayed because of light issues.

There was a powerful exhibit of 9/11 photographs that I refused to let myself get too sucked into - I really didn't want to relive those awful days.

There was also a large exhibit related to a spectacular visit that Lafayette paid to the US in 1824-5. He was given a hero's welcome as he traveled to 24 states over the course of 13 months - went as far west as New Orleans and St Louis. I hadn't known that much about Lafayette and probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to see this, but I'm very glad that I didn't miss it. One of the best parts (I should have photographed it but I wasn't sure whether it was allowed) was an enormous privately owned "basket carriage" that was used to transport Lafayette from one town to the next over nearly non-existent roads while in Vermont - at the astonishing speed of 9 miles per hour!

And then there was the whole permanent collection, - huge clumps of like-minded objects - chairs, buttons, tools, plaster casts, glass - you name it, it's there. Some of the storage areas were visible (through glass) so you could get a sense of what the rest of the "iceberg" was all about.

By the time I left it was dark out (only 5:30) but I decided to take a few minutes to stroll over to Broadway. I love the Upper West side, and rarely go there. The main thing that would attract tourists is the Museum of Natural History, but you can get there straight from the subway without even going above ground. So the rest of the area has a residential feel that I love. My main indulgence for the day was a tiny and outrageously expensive marrons glace gelato from GROM - a trendy place I'd heard of but not visited before. All in all, a good day.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Folded Page Art

This was made by an "elderly lady". It's all in the folding. There's a video here that shows how. Other cool stuff too.

Better Late...

than never? While I was working on the previous post I found a bunch of Xmas photos that had never seen the light of day. Seeing them brings back lots of happy memories.

Finding a leaf in February

Tomorrow's pastel class assignment: find a leaf, and draw it, using only the three primary colors. Bring the drawing, along with the leaf, to class.

A leaf? But there is snow on the ground.... Well, I'll take a look...

Who knew there was so much going on outside on such a gray day?

Off to work now...


I'm not at all pleased with these, but I'll let you have a peek anyhow. Remember, this is an exercise in COLOR mixing. It's not easy to get every kind of green from just those 3 primaries.