Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ides, Goldfinches



[Friday, March 28th, 1am]

We survived the ides of March somehow. (You did too if you're reading this. If you live in a snowy cold horrid dark medieval winterplace, CONGRATULATIONS! It's almost hellebore season!)

A blur of Block Shop. We launched our new collection a few weeks ago, which we've been been SO excited about (we've been working on it since we were in India in June!). We sold out of a few colorways faster than we could have predicted, which is both panic-inducing and thrilling, but we're about to get a new batch in any day. Hopie was in Bagru in January overseeing our first mobile healthcare clinic and eight older members of our co-op family finally just had their cataract surgeries. Block Shop is growing, our co-op is growing, and we have exciting things ahead of us. This puts everything in perspective when I type it out like that, but sometimes I wake up a little blue and as the day wears on I go from general self-worth malaise into an athletic swan-dive of unmollifiable (not a word) anguish. Anxiety! Self-doubt! The Gemini of millennial privilege! Whee! I called my mom when I was feeling bad about myself/the world/the art market/Ukraine/not giving Dolly enough exercise during the March freeze-over and she said "oh HONESTLY, go outside, get some exercise, and then get back to work." She's so tough sometimes! And always, maddeningly, right.

Last night P. and I, exhausted, dragged our bones down to our corner bar for a dinner of their unbelievably satisfying curried sweet potato fries –because we basically stopped cooking this year save for the occasional random jolt of inspiration like these to-DIE-for lemongrass coconut broth mussels– to celebrate the completion of his thesis. It's about water and conflict in Southern Africa. I wish I could be more articulate about it, it's incredible and inspiring and troubling all at the same time, but it's already almost 1am, so instead I will lay out a simple hierarchy of Goldfinches for you:

The Goldfinch (the book) < The Goldfinch (the painting) < a real goddamn goldfinch, which is a miracle of evolution and makes me believe life is worth living even when my mom is unsympathetic about my low-grade seasonal effectiveness disassociation or whatever it's called. I saw one (a goldfinch) at our feeder in Joshua Tree on Sunday, the day I finished that endless snoooooze of a book, and I thought at myself, JESUS CHRIST, go outside, get some exercise, and get back to work. (SEE? Moms! Always getting in their daughters' heads!)



[three days earlier, Joshua Tree]

We blew our tiny Flat Top budget on a number of things, most recently and comprehensively on replacing the 1950's jalousie windows with super-efficient windows that actually open and close, so we're holding off on the Phase Two stuff until I sell some paintings and P. finishes grad school in June and starts work.

We got into a minor disagreement because I sneak-bought $200-worth of plants while P. was on his phone and thought I was "only getting a hose." Which is $200 we really don't have to spend on Non-Essentials. "But it's for the FUTURE," I insisted. "It's an INVESTMENT."

(Do you want to know what they were? Yes you do, because you too are sneaky and love botanizing: mountain aloe, desert spoon, a rare lavender-colored Jerusalem sage, and a dozen artichoke agave pups. Everything else we've planted were free cuttings and pups from local hort friends.)

We compromised (no we didn't. I kept ALL the plants.) and made really excellent margaritas and watched the sun go down over the mesa and schemed about the future.

Outside. Exercise. BACK TO WORK.




[present day, reality, in real life, but also online]

If you're a Block Shop person, you hopefully already know this, but just in case you missed it, use code BLOCKSHOPSPRING on orders of two or more at checkout for a 15% discount. http://www.blockshoptextiles.com/



HAPPY SPRING. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

I Weft My Heart in Harrisville





Hopie and I spent the past two weekends in Harrisville, New Hampshire, at what is best described as adult weaving camp. If you, too, were raised by a mother obsessed with PURITAN SKILL SETS you can imagine how thrilling this was for us (and how much we missed our two other sisters). Like anyone who grew up brainwashed by Tasha Tudor books I've had romantic notions of weaving, but I started researching floor looms in earnest when I was in grad school and exploring linen options for my paintings (I work on a heavy, tight weave linen from India).

So when my friend Charlotte casually asked if I like wanted to go to super-intense adult weaving workshop in New Hampshire with her at the mill her family's been running for five generations, I said DOES A DOLLY HAVE SPOTS.






Harrisville has been spinning virgin wool since 1794 and building looms for home weavers since the fiber art zeitgeist of 1970's; their history is just remarkable. The town is what Yankee dreams are made of.

Tom was our teacher; Tom is maybe in his early-sixties, has a grey ponytail, one dangly silver-and-turquoise earring, a steady yoga practice, and an encyclopedic knowledge of weaving and fiber.

Some people have spiritual gurus; forget them– you don't need them if you have TOM.



Hopie and Charlotte and I took the Learning to Weave class; we worked on a four-harness loom with an unlimited supply of Harrisville's famous yarn (which you can now buy from them directly online). Class was eight hours a day, broken up by trips across the street for BLTs and almond cake at the adoooorable Harrisville General Store, where a group of locals played cribbage at the back corner table. My loom neighbor was a sass-dispensing 65-year-old former-Catholic-nun named Lorraine who baked us all quiche and asked God to help her every time she warped and swore in Polish when she missed her floating selvage. God I love Lorraine.

PEAK LIFE EXPERIENCE. 

Now of course I'm searching Craigslist for used looms with visions of Joshua Tree plant-dying + weaving + block printing workshops dancing in my head DOT DOT DOT.

P.S. thank you for all the generous words of wisdom and support about Flat Top Projects! Updates as soon as I come up for air. New Block Shop collection finally launches this Friday!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Flat Top Projects




"You know, you're down in your windowless basement studio making these weird little paintings and you're thinking, HOW AM I ADDING VALUE TO THE WORLD? What's at stake? And then you go and make yourself a sandwich."

My teaching fellowship for the semester is over, but the evening conversations I had with the visiting artist I worked with continue to play out in my head long after I sorted the brushes, razored down the last glass palettes, and flipped the third floor breakers to the beloved concrete cathedral I've had the privilege of working in since September.

--

Books that stayed with me this year:

Speedboat, Renata Adler
Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Derek Jarman's Garden, Derek Jarman

That last one, a journal of poetry, essays, photographs, drawings, and horticultural notes by English filmmaker Derek Jarman, I've read and reread a few times now. Jarman spent his final decade battling AIDS while coaxing a wild coastal garden from a windswept expanse of shingle near a power plant in Dungeness, Kent. The last entry, from 1994, is from the day he died. What I keep thinking about is how more than his films, his writing, his painting, his artistic practice, he was, in the end, most fulfilled when he was working in his garden.




My beloved great-aunt Mame, from her deathbed in Bozeman, made me take detailed notes on how to propagate ferns from spores. I've written about this before. It was our last conversation, about the ferns. Not this is how you stay happily married for fifty years or this is how you balance your career and your family, but first you have to bake the soil at 200 degrees on a cookie sheet for half an hour to sterilize it –and don't think you can skip this step– so that the spores have a safe environment in which to germinate.  She died two years ago this Christmas. Talking about her the other morning with my mom, I realize Mame was giving me life advice when she was talking about growing ferns.

Mame gave me a book on Victorian landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll when I was about twelve, and I attribute my interest in color relationships not to my art education, not to Albers, not to India, but to Jekyll's essay on how and why to plant drifts of daffodils on a hill.

If one is invested in beauty, I mean in a substantive way, then one must have a philosophy on it. Elaine Scarry writes about this elegantly in On Beauty and Being Just. I used to be embarrassed about all this; grad school can really shake the foundation of one's purpose for making art, but, if you are lucky and stubborn, you persist, and aspire to the perfect ecstasy of Jekyll's daffodil drift.

--

Beauty. Purpose. Symmetry. 

I wrote those three words down on the back of a receipt from a Marfa gas station. P. and I had just explored Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum at Chinati. I think it was more a note-to-self than a summary of what I'd just seen.

SO HOW DO WE PROCEED? Like so:


On September 30th (my mom's birthday) P. and I closed on a 1952 cabin on five pristine acres of high desert land at the foot of Flat Top Mesa, about ten miles northwest of Joshua Tree, California. We're calling the place Flat Top.

Having that much space, seeing that far into the horizon, it opens up a lever in my soul. P. and I do best in the desert. My friend Taylor, a philosophy PhD student-turned-horticulturist for a famous museum garden, recalled Emerson when recounting her visit to a historic greenhouse filled with rare orchids: "now I know what Emerson meant by exciting the Over-Soul" is what she said. I've read that essay however many times and still can't really understand what the f*ck he's talking about, but that picture P. shot of me and Dolly out our front door, out on the lip of Pipes Canyon wash? I think that's an Excited Over-Soul, stretched-out baggy-butted mom jeans and all, g*ddamnit.

HOWEVER. Are we staring down the double barrel of grad school loans? Have we lost our MINDS to buy a tiny homestead cabin in the middle of the Mojave Desert when our lives are still very much in the Northeast? Obbbviously.

This changes everything.

Which is good.


We've been looking for a way to make Joshua Tree our foothold in the world for almost five years, trawling Zillow and local desert real estate listings almost every day since we left the desert in 2010. We've sent our incredibly patient, knowledgeable desert friends out to gather intel on promising places whenever something popped up on our radar (fyi "some slight smoke damage" is hi-dez for "blew up in a meth lab explosion"). When a tiny poached-salmon-pink homestead cabin with a wall of picture windows came on the market, I couldn't get it out of my head. It had just enough wrong with it –cess pit, no septic, no heat, asbestos shingle, draughty jalousie windows– that the price was already a steal, but still outside our very modest budget. We waited and watched. And waited. And watched. The day the listing price dropped we booked our flights to the desert.

From the moment we saw the tabletop silhouette of Flat Top Mesa we knew the place had to be home. We spent every sunrise and sunset on the property just walking around, watching the light shift, observing the resident quail and coyotes and jackrabbits, talking with the colorful neighbors. The house is tiny –680 square feet– but open, light-filled, and absolutely darling. We bought it from the original family who won the land in a lottery in 1949 as part of the Small Tract Act (a second-coming of the Homestead Act) and built the house a few years later. When we moved in the sheets had been washed and the bed made up, the 50's skillets oiled and retro furniture lovingly arranged to look out over the desert though the big windows.

The energy of the landscape is extraordinary; the outcropping of Flat Top Mesa to the west and the massive chasm of Pipes Canyon wash to the east is a perfect study in positive and negative geological space. Three and a half years after leaving, the homecoming to the desert is soul-level happiness for both of us.

Beauty. Purpose. Symmetry.



The house itself is just off a sand track road in a rural unincorporated neighborhood, and the property sits up on top of a small rise with an uninterrupted 180-degree view of protected BLM land that will never be developed. Time out there is measured in segments between that cherished event, the desert  dog walk: we trot a blissed-out unleashed Dolly down the wash at dawn, late morning, late afternoon, sunset, and moonrise. (We miss Mac terribly out here. He loved the desert. I can't even write about it.) I notice new plants at different times of day as the light shifts, and I'm keeping a running list of flora and fauna. It's thrilling how at this higher elevation the plants are slightly different than they were when we lived in Joshua Tree; up here pencil cholla, rabbitbrush, saltbush, jojoba, and catclaw acacia rule the desert floor.




THE PLAN:

RESIDENCY. P. and I are taking advantage of our last January on an academic schedule together to spend the next month working on the place. We'll use Flat Top as often as we can but otherwise rent it out as a quiet place for people to do the work they need to do. Afford people the time, space, and solitude to make work. An artist's residency of sorts, but not just for artists. Botanists, geologists, architects, writers, composers, water conservationists, horticulturists, seismologists; people who just want a respite in the desert to read the g*ddamn Goldfinch.

DESERT DYE GARDEN. As Hopie and I look to expand Block Shop, we'd like to develop an educational desert dye garden at Flat Top. Experiment with the Indian plants we use for our natural dyes in Bagru, as well as the native plants so vital to the textile and fiber art of the indigenous cultures of the Mojave. We have big plans and limited funds, which is the name of the game in Joshua Tree. Our friends Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock are doing some incredible work in the community here, most recently with their desert nut and fruit orchard a little east of us, which they wrote about in the most recent issue of Wilder Quarterly (read full version here). And as the High Desert Test Sites continue to grow and draw more people to the hi-dez, only more people fall in love with the wild landscape and wild people of the high desert.

WARES-FOR-LODGING TRADE. We also want to do wares-for-lodging trades: are you a weaver, ceramicist, furniture builder, designer, horticulturalist, cabinet-maker and want to trade your skills or wares for a stay in the desert? HIT ME UP. We've had so much fun brainstorming with architect and designer friends who have traded blueprints and plans for a weekend getaway, and want to keep it going.



Hopie called me from India this morning to tell me about the first day of our Block Shop healthcare clinic in Bagru. It was before sunrise here and the light was just beginning to run lavender over Flat Top Mesa as she breathlessly told me how the team of Jaipur doctors and nurses set up shop in our main printing HQ and saw over 150 members of our printing co-op and their families. This picture she posted on Instagram made me tear up. All our incredible customers made this possible. We are so blessed.    
                    Onward.

Happy New Year from the desert. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Nous Etions Deux



1. Diwali Dolly. Dog as muse. 

2. Artists I'm Thrilled Are Included in the Whitney Biennial:

Etel Adnan (worth spending some time explorating her site; she's an inspiration)
Alma Allen (Joshua Tree represents! Congrats, Alma and Nancy!)
Full list here

3. Block Shop massive inventory explosion extravaganzoid coming (very!) soon. Sneak peeks on our Instagram. Above, my painting/natural dye block print we're tentatively calling Monarch.

4. Have a good weekend. Here's some French surfer psychedelia: La Femme's Nous Etions Deux.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Davy's Grey





When I was little Mame had an African grey parrot named Kato who hated us children with the zeal of a terrorist, and accompanied Mame everywhere she went, perched on her shoulder. The effect was of a querulous Athene noctua, the Little Owl of Athena, Mame's very verbal daemon. Kato knew some Latin names of flowers (Mame was a well-known horticulturist) and nuzzled her cheek tenderly as she read the paper every morning. He also embarked on theatrical nervous breakdowns when the sole object of his avian affection hosted dinner parties for other humans, during which he'd pull out his feathers and scream expletives at the guests. But Kato adored Mame, and Mame –for his devotion and ability to sing with her in French– loved Kato.

In Mame's greenhouse: slipper orchid varieties from Borneo, massive ferns she'd propagated from spores at Planting Fields, grafted heirloom roses, cascading garlands of winter jasmine. Here and there between the terracotta pots my sisters and I would on occasion find Kato's evil molted feathers. They looked like pigeon feathers, nothing remarkable (I'm in the studio right now and realize they were the exact color of Old Holland Davy's grey oil paint).

And yet somewhere in a shoebox of girlhood wampum stashed under my bed at the farm is a collection of Kato feathers, tied up with a piece of garden twine from Mame's greenhouse. I think I kept them all these years because under my surface-level repugnance toward him, I admired Kato for his deep devotion to Mame (in this way Kato and I had something in common). The grey feathers of the dead parrot who loved my dead great-aunt.

It's a way to hold on to her.



Last week after class I took Maggie to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see the Titian, ogle the chrysanthemum display, sit in front of the canary in the reading room and wait for him to warble.

PAINTINGS. PLANTS. BIRDS.

It's no wonder why the Gardner is my favorite museum.

I miss Mame often, sometimes so deeply and suddenly a sluice of tears fills my eyelids before I can locate the trigger. One morning last spring in New York the Dutch parrot tulips spilled from every bodega on 2nd Avenue and I fled to tulipless 1st Ave to gather myself before rushing to a studio visit with a famous painter who turned out to be a lecherous faux-spiritualist with halitosis. After he left (thank GOD) I went out and bought myself two dozen tulips on the way to the F train and smiled the whole way home.

The lesson there has something to do with embracing your grief. Also, oral hygiene.




In my experience one passes some invisible threshold around the age of thirty and no longer cares about impressing people in general but wishes to dote emphatically on the people one loves and trusts. I suppose it's just people growing up. I see this happening all around me in my circle of friends.

P. and I are spending our last morsel of expendable income flying to the desert for his 30th birthday later this week after I finish my last class, and I can't wait to celebrate together with our friends in our favorite place on earth. P. and I have been working on a big project that will allow us to spend more time out there, and I can't wait to share more soon.

One last thing. My wonderful friend Kelly made a downloadable calendar featuring successfully adopted cats and dogs, and a clematis-crowned Dolly is Miss November. You can read about Kelly's project here, and download the sweet calendar here. All proceeds go to the Human Society.

HAPPY NOVEMBER, SCORPIOS!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Cassandra in Franconia





Cambridge in the fall.
People in practical footwear, fleeces.

On nights like tonight the air is sharp with the scent of leaf litter, and I think about my grandfather and how he loved to smoke his pipe while walking his collies on New England evenings like this. Little puffs of smoke from the pipe, big puffs of collie by his side.




For Reading: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. Published in 1962. I've been on a big female writers of the 60's kick. There's a lot of very fast driving across great swaths of California highway in these books. And smoking and drinking and anxiety, which is not what we need right now, but it's what we WANT, goddamnit! See under Didion, JoanAdler, Renata.

For Anticipating: Donna Tartt's new book, The Goldfinch. Read the glowing NYT review here.

For Listening: this cover of Fleetwood Mac's Gypsy. Over and over again.

For Drinking: Redemption High-Rye Bourbon. We bought a bottle of this stuff on a whim at a random liquor store-cum-mechanic's in Gowanus after we moved all our stuff into storage in August, and it's unbelievable. It has the spiciness of rye and the sweet finish of bourbon. For a good cold-weather cocktail, I like mine on the rocks with a splash of sparkling apple cider and a twist of lemon.

For Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Himself: Robert Redford's new film, All Is Lost. Can't wait to see this.




Thank you for all the thoughtful comments on my last post. You are kindred spirits. And excellent book recommenders. Have a weekendly weekend!



iPhone pictures from a weekend trip to Franconia, New Hampshire. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Violence, Vanity, Wilderness





My friend Ginger sent me a recording of the Mojave Desert at dawn, and I've been listening to it when I can't listen to NPR anymore, and sometimes instead of NPR altogether. I shut the doors and windows to block out the traffic of Mass Ave and crank up the volume on the stereo and close my eyes.

A friend of a friend was executed in the Westgate Mall in the Nairobi shootings. She was a malaria and HIV/AIDS specialist. Her partner was an architect designing a new HIV treatment center in Uganda. She was two weeks away from having their baby. They were in Nairobi to have the baby. They were in the mall to have lunch.

HOW DO YOU PROCESS THIS INFORMATION, these facts.

.

I am waiting in line in the coffee shop reading the New York Times this morning. I am looking for updates on Nairobi, which is no longer front page news. It is absurd: the violence, my cortado. How does one balance the weight of the world with the frivolities of one's little day? Where does painting figure into all this and how could it possibly matter? (It matters.) P. and I discuss this at length, and when we are too tired about it all I turn on the recording of the desert.

[Listen here.]

The comfort of old friends in the wilderness: howling coyotes, a pair of great horned owls, uppity cactus wrens, a covey of Gambel's quail, a despotic hummingbird buzzing the microphone at 2:20. I talk and write about how the physical landscape of Joshua Tree fundamentally shifted my perception of light and space, but now I realize I've been narrow in my argument; the aural landscape is just as profound. (I feel guilty for finding comfort in this, guilty in general.)






A last-minute Sunday evening swim at Walden Pond with P. and Hopie. The water is cold and clear, and I think of my favorite Hopkins poem when a school of dappled sunfish crowd my legs, then disperse in a flash of silver. We stop by Thoreau's cabin on the way to the parking lot, shivering and giddy, and notice the first maples are starting to turn.

On the way home we detour to an excellent nursery my mother-in-law's been telling me about. It's closing time and I pick up a blue star fern because it reminds me of Maureen's recent paintings.






At the register the woman named CAROL –one R, one L; a no-nonsense embodiment of Yankee thrift– remarks on the resplendent fern. "That's a good specimen," she says as she nests it carefully in the cardboard box between my new euphorbia and rhipsalis, and I feel stupid pride at having picked out a good one, and am in a great mood all the way home over my fern. When we get home I accidentally gouge myself as I arrange the new cacti on the windowsill. Where should we put the fern I'm about to ask P. but he's on the phone about Nairobi and I wipe the blood off my finger and go boil water for tea instead.

I fall asleep with the Mojave recording on repeat. P. gently loosens my iPhone from my clutch when he comes to bed, puts it on the bedside table, pulls the covers up around us. The next morning I do some online digging around to verify Hopie's claim about Thoreau's mom doing his laundry (the Internet says: affirmative). And then I come upon this, from Thoreau's journal from August 30th, 1856:

“It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves.”

I think that's why Joshua Tree is such a transformative place for so many people: it is a wilderness that includes ourselves.

In the meantime I am slowly, excruciatingly, trying to set up my studio in Cambridge and make decent paintings, believe in them, remind myself they matter somehow. I call my mom to wish her a happy birthday. We talk about Nairobi, we talk about how territorial hummingbirds are, we talk about her bumper crop of dahlias that I planted when I was working on my thesis last spring. I make a big round gesture with my arm the way my great aunt did when she was trying to make a point about a lot of things at once and couldn't quite find the words.


iPhone pictures from a Labor Day Weekend trip to visit our old home and friends in Joshua Tree, California.