Sunday, December 10, 2017

My favorite things 50

I got interested in Zuñi fetishes, those tiny carved animals who represent the Prey Gods or guardian animals of the six regions of the earth, in the late 1980s when I took my sons to Los Angeles on a business trip.  My professional organization was holding its convention at Disneyland, in a resort hotel that was adjacent to the park, and it seemed that the boys, in their early teens, could occupy themselves safely while I attended the meetings. 

One day we drove into the city to ooh and aah at the weird people on Venice Beach, and to gape at the La Brea tar pits.  And we went into the next-door museum, where the gift shop was having a big sale on fetishes.  I fell in love, and bought several, and over the years I have gotten many more on visits to the Southwest.  Here are some of them:

Before fetishes became collectible art objects, they were used ceremonially and carried in small pouches by hunters for protection and good luck in hunting.  Thus they were small -- the littlest one in this photo, the donkey in the center front, is only about an inch long.

Each of the fetish animals has a little "prayer bundle" tied around its middle, which it carries for its own protection and good luck.  According to tradition, you're supposed to feed your fetish animals to keep them healthy and happy, by strewing some cornmeal in their case or pouch.  Mine have never been fed but I think they're still happy.  I know I am.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A goat named Kathleen

Just checked my email and was intrigued by a message with the subject line "A goat named Kathleen Loomis."

I have donated to the Heifer Project before, following in the footsteps of my parents who would give a sheep or chickens to poor families in faraway places as Christmas gifts to their grandchildren.  When our grandchild turned six last year, we thought he was old enough to understand the concept of charity, so we donated a goat and had the project send him a personal letter.  (A nice touch -- I got to write the message, and they printed it out with a goat picture and mailed it to him.)

Afterwards, his mom reported back that a few weeks after the letter arrived, he wanted to know when the goat was going to arrive and where they would put it, since the back yard is kind of small.

Oops.  I said maybe we did this too early -- maybe he isn't old enough to understand how this works.

No, she said, he understood and was fine with giving the goat to a poor family, but he thought after they had it for a while it would be nice if he could have it for a while too!

So this year the organization is trying hard to get me to donate again, which I plan to do, but haven't gotten around to it yet.  They have been sending me emails for the last week or so, including this one, which explains "We're expecting newborn baby goats on the Heifer Ranch this spring.  We're going to name our next baby goat after one lucky donor who makes a tax-deductible gift before midnight tomorrow.  Will it be you?"

To be honest, I'm not sure I want a baby goat named after me.  I already have a baby human named after me (well, it's her middle name, but still...) and a goat seems like a step backward.  I wonder whether this is going to turn out to be a successful fundraising approach or not.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Chicago art 3 -- Campeche wax

Ever hear of Campeche wax?  I hadn't either, until I ran into not one but two spectacular works of art in Chicago that use it.  Campeche is the Mexican state just west of Yucatan, and Campeche wax is a very dark beeswax originating there.  Because the wax is sticky, it's used for the substrate of art where you want to adhere a top layer of decorative stuff.

Eduardo Terrazas, 1.1.30, detail below

This large piece, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, was made by covering a board with wax, and fine wool yarn was pressed on in an elaborate pattern that must have taken ages to lay down.  (The piece is dated 1974-2014, and I hope he had time to make other things besides this during that half-a-lifetime.) The slight irregularities in the pattern showcase the artist's hand up close.
Santos Motoaopohua de la Torre de Santiago, The New Awakening, details below

Glass beads were introduced to Mesoamerica by the Europeans in the 1590s and became an important part of jewelry and ritual objects.  This huge work, at the National Museum of Mexican Art, references traditional motifs.  Tiny seed beads are pressed into the Campeche wax on a plywood support, painstakingly arranged so the holes point up (can you imagine how long that takes, and with what tiny tweezers?), although I was happy to see that a few beads escaped, slumped over on their sides and proved that even the most meticulous artisan takes a ten-second vacation every now and then.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Chicago art 2 -- Latin American fiber

I apologize for taking so long to get back to my visit to Chicago several weeks ago.  In mainstream museums I always like to keep an eye out for art made from fiber, and I found lots of interesting examples.  Today's three artists are all Latin American.

Rafael Ferrer, A Flag for the Straits of Magellan, detail below

This work, made in 1972, is an imaginary flag for Puerto Rico, the artist's birthplace, which he envisions not as a U.S. territory but as a faraway independent place.  Hung far up in a dim corner of a dark gallery, the flag was hard to see; the sign said it includes fabric, rawhide, leather, wire, pipe cleaners, rope and various other stuff.  The triangular shape, 3-D surface and midnight colors made it considerably more exotic than your run-of-the-mill flag.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, detail below

Hanging right below the triangular flag is this large unstretched canvas by an Argentinian artist who lives in Guatemala.  Her shtick is to apply the pigment, mixed with glue as a binder, with a machete, and to leave it outside to weather.  I'm not sure exactly how she achieved the distinct raised effect, or even whether we're seeing real shadows or just 2-D differences in value, but I like the subtlety of the patterns.  I wished for more light and a better view (I adjusted the exposure so the detail shot is lighter than in real life).

Arturo Herrera, Behind the House III, details below

What could be simpler -- get some wool felt, cut out some shapes, hang it on the wall.  He may have used a laser cutter because the edges are perfectly finished; very little trace of the artist's hand in this piece.  According to the sign, the shapes are "abstracted from popular culture and children's literature."  That may be an overreach, but the shapes are beautifully drawn and composed, and the slight distance away from the wall allows shadows to punctuate the image.  The kneeling figures are not part of this installation, although they look right at home. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

My favorite things 49

If you've ever been in a Lutheran church service you know that congregational singing is a really big deal.  When I still lived at home the major topic of conversation on the way home from church was occasionally the sermon or the Bible reading, but always the hymns -- I love that one, that one was way too slow, strange wording in the third verse, can't go wrong with a Bach cantata.  Of course I own modern hymnals, but wonderfully, I also own these four old ones.

The big black one was my grandfather's, and my mother appended sticky notes inside with historical commentary. 

The really beat-up green one belonged to my grandmother's sister, and I don't know how it got into my possession.  Both these really old ones had words and music, in German, of course.  The latest of my ancestors to arrive in the U.S. emigrated in the 1880s and I'm sure they spoke English in town, but German at home and in church at least until World War I.   

The two little ones -- with words only, no music -- belonged to my parents, with their respective names stamped in gold on the covers, issued upon their confirmations.  My father's book, given to him in 1927 when he was 14, was in German, his first language, from which I deduce that Holy Cross Church in Saginaw had not.  Or maybe they just had a box of books left over and weren't about to throw out a perfectly good book, even if it was in a language that the kids couldn't read any more; it would build their character.  Meanwhile, my mother's confirmation hymn book, given the following year, was in English. 

By the time I learned to sing hymns, of course, everything was in English, and I know only tiny bit in German.  Stille Nacht, of course, and a few lines of my favorite Advent hymn, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.  Since today is the first Sunday in Advent, here's that hymn from the little green book, in case you want to sing along.

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
aus einer Wurzel zart
Wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse kam die Art,
Und had ein Blümlein bracht
mitten in kalten Winter
wohl zu der halben Nacht.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Hugs in the workplace

I've been out of the workplace for 17 years now so I can't tell you whether innocuous hugging is more or less prevalent than in the previous century.  But I have been annoyed by all the guys who have piteously protested that yes, all those predators were disgusting, but how about all us nice guys who just like to hug?  For instance, a letter to the editor in this morning's New York Times:

"We as a society are exhibiting mass hysteria... The political correctness demanded by current public opinion throws out the baby with the bathwater.  We don't want to go so far as to discourage any hug or embrace to show caring and warmth."

I've been talking about this with my husband and son, and my position is that hugs are so rarely appropriate in the workplace that you can practically count the occasions on your fingers.  For the edification of all you nice guys who just like to hug, here's my easy guide.  You might want to print it up on a little card and keep it in your wallet, just in case you wonder if a hug is OK.

It's OK at your co-worker's retirement party.  OK when your team has just won the election or the million-dollar contract. Probably OK after somebody has shot up or burned down your office and you're all huddled on the sidewalk in dismay.  OK when your co-worker returns from the hospital, or prison, or three years in Ethiopia.  Maybe when your co-worker has just gotten a call that her mother died.  OK on occasion if the two of you are engaged or married (to one another).

But not to say good morning or good night.  Not when the hug initiator is the boss or superior of the hug recipient.  Not when the recipient's work clothes are skimpy or suggestive, or when the recipient is standing on a ladder.  Not when you're the only two people in the room, and especially not if the door is locked.

Just remember this, guys: if you want to show caring and warmth, give her a raise.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Etsy and old thread

I don't know much about Etsy, having neither bought nor sold there, but Leigh's comment on my last post seems to ring true.  She wrote: "In some ways, that stack of thread is symbolic of exactly what Etsy has come to be.  Some guy who doesn't know jack about handcrafts trying to exploit the "warm fuzzy handmade" image to make a quick buck..."  If you either buy or sell on Etsy I recommend you read that NYTimes article.

But what I want to talk about is the thread.  Several people left comments on that post about finding old wooden spools and sewing with the thread.  Conventional wisdom holds this to be a no-no, because thread does get old and lose its strength.  If you pull a length of thread off an old wooden spool and give it even a half-hearted yank, it will break.  Obviously that is not a good quality if you are sewing a pair of pants or a hammock, or even a functional quilt that you think will be tugged and folded and occasionally washed. 

But if your thread is only used for things that will not be handled, or only for decorative purposes, who cares if it's weak?  I realized this several years ago when I was sewing a lot of "postage stamp" quilts, where each little bit is densely quilted before they're all sewed together in a grid.  I started  using up my old thread for the quilting, which was great because I needed lots and lots of it and didn't really care what color.

I don't sew the thread off my hundreds of wooden spools because I love to display them with the colors intact, but I certainly use anything on plastic.  Really cheap thread makes a mess as a top thread, because multiple trips through the needle hole pull off a lot of lint, but it works fine in the bobbin.

So if you find yourself with a lot of old thread on hand, whether by inheriting it from your mother's sewing box or because you don't turn over your own stash very quickly, do not feel compelled to throw it out.  Use it!  Except for hammocks and pants.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Form over function

Crabby again.  Yesterday's New York Times had a big story in the business section about Etsy, which is undergoing culture shock after new management took over.  The story was interesting and extensive, but I fixated on the photos they chose to illustrate it.  The online version sticks to photos of the people mentioned in the article, but the print version includes pretty shots of thread, scissors and cones of yarn, meant to put us in the mood of handcrafted stuff.

Well, that's fine, except for the thread.  Take a look at this photogenic display -- seven spools in a cute stack.  Except that four of them are wood!

When's the last time anybody making crafts to sell online used thread off a wooden spool?  Answer: never, because wooden spools went out of circulation before the internet was invented.

And the other three spools also look suspiciously old.  The gray thread appears to be on a styrofoam-like spool, which I seem to remember from the 1990s; the pink and yellow look like Coats & Clark plastic spools from a decade ago, before they switched to a tall, skinny format.

I wonder where the photographer came up with these antiques?  And I wonder why he (yes, it was a he) thought that would be a better way to illustrate modern commerce than the actual products that people use today?  I guess it's part of that stereotype that links sewing with pioneer days, grandma stitching on the treadle machine by the light of the oil lamp.  Yuk.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

My favorite things 48

My mother owned a meat grinder that to my knowledge was never used to grind meat.  I'm not sure why she acquired it, but at some point in my adolescence it got to be used for cranberry-orange relish.  When my sister and I departed home for our own kitchens, we both noted that cranberry-orange relish made with other kitchen implements wasn't quite as good as the official home version.  We tried chopping up the fruit in Cuisinarts, or with knives on cutting boards -- close but no cigar.

I don't know what I did to deserve it, but my mother passed the meat grinder on to me, and for many years I have been able to make perfect cranberry-orange relish.  Obligatory for Thanksgiving and Christmas, welcome for many other festive menus. 

The original box is labeled "Meat grinder" in my mom's handwriting -- twice, because you never know which way you'll fit it in the cupboard.  A bit of research reveals that Rival Manufacturing, founded in 1932, made a whole line of kitchen appliances with similar names:  my Grind-O-Mat, a Juice-O-Mat, Can-O-Mat, Broil-O-Mat, Knife-O-Mat, Shred-O-Mat, Steam-O-Mat and Ice-O-Mat.  (But when they became famous for the Crock Pot, they abandoned this naming strategy -- I guess Pot-O-Mat didn't survive the focus group.)  The company history tells me the grinder was made sometime after the mid-1950s, and the fact that the address on the box has no zip code tells me it was made before 1963, which jibes with my memory of when we started making cranberry-orange relish.

You have to put it together, making sure that the sharp-edged cutting plate (the one with the big holes, not the small ones, because there are two) faces outward.  You have to put a drop of water on each of the suction cups to hold it firmly to the counter.  It's not as tight as it was in its youth (but then who is?) so it wobbles a bit when you get it working, and drips a bit of orange juice out the bottom.  Cranberries like to bounce out of the chute when you crank it, so you have to hold your hand over the top.

But it makes the perfect relish.   I couldn't do a holiday without it.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Kimono everywhere 2

People made all kinds of different things with the kimono in our challenge project.

Finger puppets, stored on black cones, dressed in kimono scraps:

A kimono-clad doll pendant, mounted on a silk-covered display board when it's not being worn:

Silk scraps incorporated into handmade paper:

Silk used in nuno felting:

More coming...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Kimono everywhere 1

About this time last year, a long-time friend and fiber art pal took a new job and had to clear out decades worth of stuff in the basement to move to Florida.  She asked me if I'd like to inherit a huge pile of vintage Japanese kimono, and of course I said yes.  Many years earlier she had ordered a bale of kimono to sell at quilt and fiber shows and other vendor outlets.  But before everything was sold, she had to give up the business and the kimono went into the basement.

If you've been following the fiber world for a long time, you too may recall those long-ago times when kimono and obis were for sale cheap, in the days when people in Japan were adapting Western dress and were happy to part with old clothes, especially those with stains and tears.  Now they're realizing the value of those vintage garments and the price has gone way up.

When I got the stash, I suggested that my local fiber and textile art group hold a kimono challenge, in which everybody took stuff home and did something useful with it.  All spring and summer we had the bins at every meeting for people to paw through and find stuff to strike their fancies.  And last week we finally had the big reveal.

What a huge variety of results from the same pile of raw material!  I won't be able to show them all in one post, so stay tuned.

Several people made things to wear.  A vest:

A necklace of yoyos:

Infinity scarves:

A purse:

More tomorrow....

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My favorite things 47

In the olden days, toys were from a different planet than they are now.  For one thing, there weren't so many of them, and for another, they weren't made of plastic.  I have only two really old toys, which I suppose belonged to my dad and his brother.  They're small, just two inches tall, and now they live on top of the type case in my living room in a prime display spot.

The three monkeys are made of ceramic, stamped "Made in Japan" on the bottom, which probably means they were produced between 1921 and 1941 -- I suspect closer to 1921 because the boys were little then.  Remarkably they are still bright and unchipped after decades of being played with.

The painted metal dog, made in Germany (appropriate, because he appears to be a German shepherd), has an extra attraction: his head bobs on a spring.

I don't have many things from my parents' childhoods -- a doll quilt from my mother, these two toys from my dad.  So these are special.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Christmas is coming

My longtime faithful readers know that every year I make personalized Christmas ornaments for my family and friends.  Often the task of actually making the ornaments is less onerous than the task for figuring out what to make, because after 40+ years of this project, when every year has to be different from the ones before, it gets harder and harder to come up with new ideas.  But this year I was fortunate to be browsing around in the craft store when I found some raw materials that suggested their own finished product.

This week I got down to business, found all the necessary tools and supplies -- and didn't even have to go to the store to buy anything new -- and started work.

So far, things are proceeding smoothly.  I did have a near-disaster over the weekend, when I reached for a tube of paint and was dismayed to find that it had spurted a leak at its base and there was a huge blob of yellow on the front of my shirt.  I raced to the sink and scrubbed and scrubbed with a vegetable brush, and I think got it all out (haven't run it through the wash yet).  But at least it didn't spring its leak in its previous position, on the carpet.

Many little beads have escaped onto the floor, but one of these days I'll send Isaac down with a flashlight and a little dish and let him retrieve as many as he can.

For several years I've also been making an ornament for one of my blog readers.  If you would like to be in the running this year, just leave a comment on the blog between now and Friday midnight.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

My favorite things 46

Four months after we got married we moved to Germany, and my parents seized upon the opportunity to come visit us the next summer.  It was Mom's first trip to Europe, and Dad's first since he was in the Army in WW2.  In subsequent years they traveled the world but for this first expedition were happy to have a home base, a chauffeured car and personal guides.

The chauffeured car was nothing to write home about: a VW hatchback, only slightly larger than the classic bug.  When all four of us, with our luggage, piled in there was barely room to breathe, but we were all much younger then and soldiered through.  We picked them up from the ship in Bremerhaven and then drove around for a couple of weeks through Northern Germany and Denmark.

In Copenhagen we split up, men adjourning for beer while women went shopping.  Mom and I were both enamored of Scandinavian design and we wandered around drooling over all manner of furniture, china, housewares, textiles and glass.  Mindful of the tiny car we had to return home in, we bought a couple of tiny dishes, small enough to fit in your pocket.  But then we came upon a small table, dark wood with an inlaid copper top.  The copper was incised in a shallow bas relief, with an abstract pattern that was at once organic and industrial in feeling.

I fell in love.  But how would I get it home?  We asked the clerk if the legs came off.  No.  We asked the clerk if they could ship it to Germany.  Yes, for three times the cost of the table, which was a non-starter.  We left.  We came back, so I could stroke the copper top again.  Do you suppose the legs really don't come off?  So we turned it over, and guess what?  The legs came off!

So we took the table home, in pieces, held on my lap in the backseat for 1000 kilometers.  It has sat next to my living room chair, whichever chair that might be, for 46 years.  It really could stand to be refinished, at least the wooden part; the copper looks as beautiful as the day it was born.

The moral of the story, of course, is persistence, and/or skepticism: even when the clerk says the legs don't come off, turn it over and look for yourself. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chicago art 1 -- early work

Many artists become famous for some easily recognizable technique, subject or approach -- and when you see their early work, quite different, it's a surprise.  I found several examples in my recent Chicago museum extravaganza.

First, at the Art Institute, Jackson Pollock, before he started flinging paint in spatters.  Here he is one year earlier, with an almost-landscape, almost-still-life.  He was working on the floor rather than vertically, but a long way from his signature style.

Jackson Pollock, The Key, 1946

Also at the Art Institute, Robert Ryman, who went on to explore every conceivable permutation of all-white painting.  Here he was working predominantly in white, but underneath the white, definite colors visible as a background.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962 (detail below)

Finally, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, here's Jeff Koons -- yes, famous for his renderings of himself in flagrante with his porn-star wife, Michael Jackson and his chimp, and highly polished balloon dogs -- in a very different character.  It's a formalist tableau of vacuum cleaners and fluorescent lights in plexi cases (and very hard to photograph; you can either get the camera to see the appliances or the bulbs, but not both).

Jeff Koons, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10-gallon Displaced Tripledecker, 1981-87

And another early Koons, in which he suspended three basketballs in a tank of water with exactly enough sodium chloride added so that the balls float at the same level:

Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Dr. JK Silver Series), 1985  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Chicago architecture 1

We took a walking tour of Chicago architecture that focused on mid-century modernist buildings, including the Daley Plaza of three federal buildings.  In a corner they built an eternal flame, quite unassuming to my eye, considering all the people it commemorates.

It was a cold day.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

My favorite things 45

Although I own plenty of things whose only function in life is to sit there and look beautiful, I love souvenirs that work.  And best of all are free souvenirs that work.

Consider the humble beer mat.  While the customary American beer mat is inscribed with the name of the restaurant or bar, the customary European beer mat, like the customary European beer glass, is inscribed with the name of the beer.  When we lived in Germany in the 1970s we started acquiring beer mats by accident, and some time later I started acquiring them on purpose.  I own several dozens, small piles of them conveniently situated around the house within reach of any place you might ever want to sit down and park your drink. 

Since I've been officially collecting (a much nicer word than stealing, don't you think?) beer mats I have gotten many that are in relatively virgin condition, but the most precious are the ones that have been with us since Germany.

 It's amazing how tough those old mats are -- some of them are kind of beat up, and some have faded a bit, but they keep on trucking.  Some day I may retire them to use as art materials, but for now I'm just as happy to use a vintage mat as a nice new one.  Although I don't remember exactly where and when I grabbed most of them, they bring back fond generalized memories of pleasant hours of leisure and cameraderie.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Handwork in miniature

The Art Institute of Chicago is known for its collection of 68 miniature dioramas depicting rooms from different places and times.  They were made after extensive research into the authentic furniture and architecture styles, and crafted meticulously in the 1930s under the direction of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, a rich benefactor of the museum.

The rooms are done to a scale of one inch to one foot, and situated low in the walls, with a convenient step beneath each one so small visitors can get a good view.

I was intrigued to see that the inhabitant of the New England Bedroom, 1750-1850, was at work on an embroidery in a standing hoop.

It's apparently an allover floral design, only half finished.  And what a bright, sunny, spacious room in which to sit with your needle in front of the fireplace!