Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A North Shore Vacation: It's All About the Rocks

We had a little vacation last week; a road trip to Grand Marais, Minnesota, on the north shore of Lake Superior.

My husband, Craig Cox, often says that his primary goal for vacation is to "go and sit on a rock."

Craig at Beaver Bay on Lake Superior in July 2013

But I think throwing rocks is also an important vacation task for him.

I, too, am a fan of rocks. And, for most North Shore visitors I think it's safe to say, it's all about the rocks: stunning lichen-covered rocky cliffs with waves crashing against them and silky smooth beach pebbles that feel luxurious in your hand.

A small cliff on Artists' Point in Grand Marais, Minnesota

The beaches along this side of the big lake are made of pebbles, not sand. Pebbles that have been rubbed smooth over the eons. They are mostly basalt and granite and quartz, with enough agates scattered about to make them an agate-hunter's destination. Some people also find beach glass here—bits of broken glass bottles that have been rubbed smooth over the decades. I love beach glass, but have never found any.

Craig throwing rocks in Grand Marais

We are not agate hunters, however; we are indiscriminate rock gatherers and throwers. Sometimes I even manage to skip a stone across the water's surface, when I get the angle and the spin just so.

We were sitting on the beach near our motel (about eight miles out of Grand Marais) one evening, digging our fingers into the pebbles, showing each other a perfect oval or an exquisitely silky smooth dark stone. I was preoccupied with stacking and arranging them in various configurations, making little ephemeral assemblages.

Sometimes I would find a rough stone and throw it in the lake, saying that it needed a couple of million more years of wear. While we were doing this, a woman came along walking the beach with a plastic bag in her hand, looking down. When she saw us, she asked, "Are you finding any?"

"What? Rocks?" we replied, then realized she meant agates. We confessed that we were not looking for agates,  but then I asked her, since she seemed to be good at finding things among the rocks, if she had found any beach glass. "Not this time," she said, indicating that she has found it here before. She told us that she comes all the way from Texas to look for agates along Superior's North Shore.

The next day, when we were doing much the same thing along the beach in Grand Marais, Craig found a teeny tiny bit of green beach glass. I put it on the top of the tiny cairn I was making and left it there.

Tiny cairn with beach glass on top, on a very large boulder, with a penny for scale

I confess that I did take a few pebbles home. But no agates or beach glass.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nostalgia and Other Uses for a Vintage Book of Recipes

An old book called Tea-Room Recipes caught my attention at an estate sale last winter, and when I looked inside and saw that it was published in 1925 and its authors were from Minnesota, I decided I had to have it.

When I got it home and perused the recipes, I decided that the content wasn't for me and proceeded to take it apart to make it into a hand-bound journal with a coptic stitch binding. I added a few embellishments from a tea packet to give it some color, plus my linocut of a teapot, and a snippet from the book's index.

Then I came across a little column in our local paper in which restaurant critic Rick Nelson was asked, "If you could pick one Minneapolis restaurant from the past that you would like to revisit, what would it be?"

And he replied, "It might be Richards Treat. It closed three years before I was born, so I have no firsthand knowledge of the restaurant. ... It was owned by two remarkable women, Lenore Richards and Nola Treat."

I thought those names sounded familiar, so I looked at the book again and realized that they were its authors.

The Minnesota Historical Society published an article about the women and their eponymous restaurant in the fall of 2007, and a page of comments offers many fond memories of the once-iconic establishment.

Another website, called Restaurant-ing Through History, shows what a charming place it once was (the building was torn down in the 1950s).

And my mother, a dietitian who studied at the University of Minnesota, remembered the restaurant because it was run by two professors of dietetics from the U of M. But she had never actually eaten there.

Now I wondered if I had been too hasty in taking the book apart.

So I looked at some of the recipes again.


People often wax nostalgic about the way something was in the past, like Grandma's cooking or a long-closed restaurant that had been much loved in its day, and it's easy to forget that the generations preceding us were a little too enamored of what was thought at the time to be the modern thing, like using canned vegetables and puréeing everything to mush. And flour. Lots of flour, whether it makes sense to use it or not.

For example, as you can see in the above spread from the soup chapter of the book (click to get a larger view)—split pea soup that uses only 2 cups of peas for 18 servings and then calls for flour to thicken it, and a cream of spinach soup that starts with a purée of canned spinach.

So, what to do with those pages whose recipes I don't care to use?

I'm sure I'll think of something.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

How wildlife rehab, craft beers, and a hand-bound journal are all connected

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a representative of Duluth-based Wildwoods Wildlife Rehabilitation center to see if I would consider donating an item for their silent auction fundraiser, which is happening this Saturday evening, June 7.

After a quick check to assure myself that it was all legit, I said I'd be happy to send along one of my respite boxes (aka meditation kits/mindfulness boxes, or cool stuff in a box for grown-ups), as requested.

But then I said I thought it would make sense to include some boxed sets of my animal notecards, which have animal facts on the backs. So I offered to include a few of those, too.

And then when she said the event included tastings of craft beers, I said, oh, well, then I should send you a journal made from a craft beer box. I didn't have one from the specific brands she knew they were featuring (mostly because many of our terrific craft beers don't yet have bottling operations, so, no six-packs). But I rummaged through my collection and found a box from Lift Bridge Farm Girl, a Belgian-style pilsner from Lift Bridge Brewing of Stillwater.

I thought it would be appropriate because Duluth has a lift bridge too. Funny thing is, I don't think we've actually tried this beer yet ourselves; I must have pilfered the box from one of our local sources  of beer, wine and other libations—they make the empty six-pack boxes available for people to buy an assortment of single bottles from a variety of craft beers, and sometimes I rummage through the boxes and ask if I can take a few home.

I used the secret Belgian binding, which allowed me to incorporate more of the design by using the black-and-white strip on one side for the spine. (And it is a Belgian-style brew, after all.) I used the other strip and a piece from the bottom, which credits the sources of the photographs, to make tags.  

All the cover pieces are glued to thick fiber board for sturdiness. I cut pieces from a vintage map of Minnesota for the end papers (featuring Duluth, of course).

And I put my trademark library pocket inside the back cover, with a knock-off of a library card inside, providing the details of this journal (how many pages, the materials used, etc.)

As I was packing everything up in a medium Priority Mail box, I decided to toss in a few packs (sets of 18) of my bookplates, which also feature some of my animal drawings.

And all of that is now on its way to Duluth for the event this Saturday. 

Best wishes!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Little Road Trip that Leads to Pottery and a Secret Garden

Yesterday we took a little road trip down along the Mississippi, crossing at Prescott over to Wisconsin and following highway 35 all the way to Alma.

Stopped in Stockholm, Wisconsin, for lunch and to once again admire but not buy the Gaylord Shanilac woodcut prints at Abode Gallery. (One of these days I really am going to buy one!) And the many other pretty things at Abode.

Enjoyed lunch at the Bogus Creek Cafe, where the owner is something of a cheerful bodhisattva, always calm and centered. The food is also very good, and the garden seating is delightful.

Judy in Alma (photo, which I "borrowed" off of Facebook, by Rob Stealcheat)
Then onward to Alma, for the main object of (or excuse for) this trip: to see the newest pottery creations of my longtime friend, Judy Anderson, aka Dragonfly Guild. She is having a one-artist art fair/pottery sale on a little piece of property she and her husband recently bought just north of town.

We actually missed it driving down, but turned around in Alma and headed back north about a mile, and found the sign easy to spot from that direction.

It was great to see her new glazes and designs in "person" (she has posted photos on her Facebook page of the various works in progress).

We bought a couple of mini sauce dishes (for holding chocolates, of course), and sweet little vase, and a demitasse (more or less) mug, which I put to use this morning by brewing a pot of espresso.

Ceramic vessels from Dragonfly Guild, with a tile from Stone Hollow Tile and an espresso pot from, er, *cough*, Target.
And after I finished my coffee, I picked a couple of lilac blossoms hanging over the fence from my neighbor's bush and put them in the little vase.

Oh, about that secret garden. In Alma, there's an establishment called Hotel de Ville, which, besides having rooms for visitors, as you might suppose, also has a little coffee-and-ice cream shop, behind which is their "secret garden," a playful mix of old retaining walls with plantings and sculptures. Definitely worth a peak when you visit Alma.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stormy Monday Flowers

Today has been quite gloomy and dramatic, with rain and thunderstorms going all day long. But I knew it was coming, so I managed to get out in the garden on Sunday, and besides planting beans and cukes and doing a little weeding, I did scavenge a wee bit of pickable flowers for Jane's flowery house party today. Do go feast your eyes, and gather some creative inspiration, from Jane's lush bouquets as well as the others who've joined the fun this month.

This green carafe seemed like just the right size for a modest bouquet of a couple of daffodils, some wild columbine, a twig or two from the dogwood, a couple of branches from the rosa glauca, which has such wonderful foliage, and a few leaves of lady's mantle. (The lovely tile behind it is from local artist Wendy Penta of Stone Hollow Tile, in case you're wondering.)

Our spring flowers have slept in a bit here in Minnesota, and who can blame them after the winter we all endured? Adding to that, my gardens are still in formation, so they wouldn't be all that lush this spring even if everything bloomed on schedule.

We bought the house in the summer of 2010, and the following spring I was delighted to see all the daffodils and muscari everywhere. But, unfortunately, as the house had sat empty for a couple of years, the weeds were thoroughly entangled with the flowers—especially creeping bellflower, and raspberries! We love raspberries, but it is a challenge to keep them contained.

A successfully transplanted muscari. Yay!

So we have done a lot of digging things up and transplanting what we can save as we go about remaking the gardens. I'm afraid there were a lot of daffodils and muscari among the casualties, and I'm making a point to photo-document the beds this spring so I know where to plant more bulbs come fall.

But sometimes we uncovered a delight that we didn't even know we had because it was hidden under the weeds, like this bloodroot (which has finished blooming; this photo is from a couple of weeks ago).

One corner in the front that was the first garden I worked on reclaiming is coming along quite nicely. The tulips that I planted there are more magenta than the pink that this one appears to be (I really must learn how to use this camera better!), and the ground covers of periwinkle and sweet woodruff are really filling in nicely. You almost don't see the mulch at all.

And I'm really delighted that the periwinkle has finally matured enough to bloom this spring.

I think the sweet woodruff will soon follow. Perhaps I'll have enough of those blossoms for May wine  — though I might have to call it June wine this year.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Maps and Puzzles and Mysteries Found on the Street

I'm something of an anti-magpie: I'm attracted to unshiny objects.

Frequently, when I'm out and about on my bicycle, I'll stop to pick up a rusty scrap of metal on the street. I'm attracted to the red-brown patina of the rust, which I think is a very pleasing color, and the texture and shape of the object, as well as the simple fact that it's made of metal—a remnant of a manmade object derived ultimately from a durable natural material. I guess it holds the same allure for me as ancient ruins. They're like micro urban ruins.

Objects found on Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis
And of course I imagine all sorts of artistic possibilities for these objects to become a part of some mixed media assemblage, which I am designing in my mind even as I circle my bike back and stoop to pick up the rusty old thing that caught my eye as I pedaled past.

I also like the ephemeral nature of discarded paper, especially if it has some intriguing text on it—someone's note or list that hints at a story; a mystery that I'll never solve but that will engage my imagination every time I look at it.

Today I was riding through an alley when I spied scattered puzzle pieces on the pavement. I picked up a few and pocketed them, studying them briefly for the purpose of selecting the ones that appealed to me. Most were blue or blue and green, with some geometric elements, and a few had text.

I was imagining how these would look in a collage or perhaps in combination with some rusted metal—and, indeed, I found a few rusty metal bits nearby as I was collecting the puzzle pieces—while also guessing at what the original puzzle image must have been.

Puzzle pieces collected today, along with metal bits found nearby

As I found more of the pieces scattered along the alley, and then a rather large cluster, it became pretty clear that it was a map. Especially when I came across the motherlode, with some of the pieces still connected to each other, and right next to someone's trash can.

Had someone thrown away the puzzle after assembling it? Or had they almost completed it, only to discover a few pieces missing, and tossed it out in frustration?

I guess it will remain a mystery. But I love both mysteries and puzzles, almost as much as I love rusty old bits of discarded metal.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Soggy Walpurgis Night

image borrowed from Souls of Sweden on Tumblr
Hey, it's Walpurgis Eve; let's light a bonfire! Except, here in Minnesota, all the wood is wet, and so are the fire pits.

If I was really in tune with my northern European roots, I would have planned ahead, I suppose, and covered my wood pile to keep it dry for the occasion. 

Walpurgis Eve, or Walpurgis Night, is a festival celebrated on the eve of May Day with bonfires and community in Sweden (where it's an official holiday), Finland, Germany, Estonia, and other parts of northern Europe. It's considered the true beginning of spring, and many of those bonfires are fueled by the shrub trimmings and other debris of spring garden cleanup (according to How convenient.

Since Minnesota boasts a strong Swedish and German heritage, I'm a little surprised I hadn't heard of this holiday before. Perhaps those New England Protestants who preceded the Swedes here managed to suppress this particular remnant of paganism, which happens to fall exactly six months after Halloween.

Although the occasion is named for an eighth century German abbess, Saint Walpurga, whose feast day is May 1, it holds nothing in common with Christianity other than its name. 

But with more rain in the forecast and temperatures dipping into the 30s again tonight, I think I'll observe the occasion indoors. Perhaps I'll turn up the thermostat.

Monday, April 7, 2014

April Snow Showers and Flowers in the House

April 4, 2014 -- no kidding! There's a garden under there somewhere.
Just last week a long winter's worth of snow was nearly all gone, and then on Friday we got dumped on with six inches of the heavy wet white stuff! But today, as I was out riding my bike and wearing a cotton sweater and no gloves, I noticed that it's all gone, again. Isn't April just a barrel of fun, though?

So I'm delighted that another floriferous blog tour has rolled around courtesy of Flower Jane so I can look longingly at the lovely blossoms plucked from people's gardens, even as I bloomify my home's interior using my frequent excuse that I'm supporting a local independent business, while eyeing my patches of dirt for any sign of emerging life.

I've had this sweet little orchid since early February, when I brought it home from the co-op, and I'm so pleased that it's blossoms are so long lasting. I think it must like this cool spot on the buffet in a north window.

These daffodils, which I bought today, aren't really ready for their closeup yet, but I'm guessing they'll open up and look quite cheery and bright by the weekend, when we're supposed to get another round of slushy snow.

Tres (the big white-and-gray cat in the window) eyes the daffodils.
And orange tulips! What fun! I placed them in a heavy pitcher and set that in a big ceramic bowl, hoping that will be sufficient to keep my three bad kitties from knocking them over.

The daffodils in their little glass tumbler cut from a Carlsberg beer bottle I may need to move to a safer spot, though.

Bad kitty! (This is Phinney, about 9 months old.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Estate Sales as Cabinets of Curiosities

"Nan" -- somebody's great grandmother
I think that one of the biggest reasons I like to go to estate sales is because it's like stepping into a house-sized cabinet of curiosities, somebody's collection of a lifetime, curated room by room by someone who has done their best to arrange another person's worldly possessions in some logical way to accommodate visiting strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, and friends; the curious as well as the bargain hunter and salvager.

And even as we pick and forage like magpies through the objects laid out before us, we, the pickers, are mindful that these things tell a story about someone's life of which we are only privy to disjointed bits and pieces, with no one to weave the narrative thread for us.

So we speculate and wonder, and sometimes converse with each other about the objects and the people they once belonged to.

I'm often fascinated by the interests revealed by the books and magazines someone leaves behind. I remember one house with a preponderance of books on Catholic theology, philosophy, and mythology, along with dozens of paperback mysteries. How interesting it would have been to talk with that person!

Among the things I buy are old pictures, like the one above, for the frames. When I got home with that one, however, I opened the back and found a note tucked between the layers, in handwriting that echoed that of my older relatives, which said:

Belle Louise Gebhart
nee Bailey
"Nan"       great grand mother

I couldn't bring myself to remove the photo after finding that, so I taped the note to the back of the frame and kept it intact. It sits on a shelf just so. A stranger to me; yet I know her name.

I am especially interested in old toys. I don't always buy them, but I like to look at them and wonder about the story behind them. Did they belong to this person's children? Or did they buy them in later years for visiting grandchildren to play with?

If I can find very small toys to include in the little treasure boxes I assemble and sell in my Etsy shop, all the better. So imagine my delight when I came across a box full of small wooden figures, above, none more than an inch and a half tall, with the trees topping out at maybe 3 inches. The picture shows just a sampling of the contents. One man working at this estate sale was clearly pleased I had selected them, glad that someone else recognized their intrinsic value, and speculated that they must be from Europe, for neither of us had seen any like them before.

This person's books made it pretty clear that he must have been an engineer of some sort, for many sturdy hardcovers were about engineering topics. I bought two of the books for the content—one on soil engineering (as an organic gardener, I am a bit of a dirt geek) . . .

An illustration from Soil Engineering, by Merlin Grant Spangler

. . . and another on number theory, which has a wonderful frontispiece.

The other two books I bought, quite honestly, for the covers. They're both about stress analysis, and I couldn't help but think they would make terrific journal covers.

Sometimes, when people learn that I like to go to estate sales, they'll tell me about some shop that sells vintage items, assuming I'll like that just as much. And I do like vintage shops and frequent a few of them in my neighborhood, but they can never replace the experience of visiting estate sales for me. 

For while I appreciate the objects for their intrinsic value, they are transformed in meaning by their migration to a different setting, just as they are changed materially when I use them as raw material, such as using book covers to make a journal. Their story changes when they are removed from their original context. And I like the stories as much as the objects themselves, even though I do not know exactly what those stories are.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Little Pocket Doll Creatures

I like to play around with free-form knitting, making small things that I figure out as I go along. I use wool or wool-mohair blends that will felt in the washing machine, a transformative process that continues to fascinate me.

Until recently my smallest projects all ended up as cat toys, because I didn't have any other use in mind, and I was making them for practice, just to figure a few things out.

Lately I've started making little pocket dolls as small as I can make them, with the intent to make some small enough to go in one of my treasure boxes that I call "Stuff! — an amusement kit for kids," which are the size of an Altoids tin. The boxes each contain a random mix of items, both new and old, and each has an original collage on the lid, which I now make digitally, using scans of my drawings and altered photos. Functional art for kids! I sell them in my Etsy shop, and some of these critters are also showing up there.

A few knit-felted critters, with an egg.
Usually, when you see little animals this size —and smaller— they are made either with needle felting or crochet. I prefer to knit and then felt in the washing machine, and I don't think I can get my critters as small as some of those made by those other methods because the knitting needles kind of get in the way, especially working in the round as I prefer to do. I also am using worsted weight yarn and size 8 needles because I find that is a good combination when knitting things to be felted after. But they still end up pretty small, as you can see when I put them next to an egg for size reference.

I find it takes about 6 or 7 long agitation cycles, using hot water, a low water level, and enough sturdy garments (jeans and towels, usually) to make everything rub together vigorously to get the felting effect needed. I put the small items I want felted into a lingerie bag so they don't get lost amongst the other items or end up getting sucked into the drain. The mesh bag also captures some of the lint to keep it from clogging the drain, though such tiny items as these don't really produce a lot of lint.

I enjoy making them, because they are small and relatively quick to knit, I can use remnants of yarn left over from other projects, and the process of improvising is much more creative and interesting to me than following a pattern. 

I also make adaptations or add embellishments when something doesn't look quite right to me. 

For example, I didn't like how the green creature looked with his plain round head; it seemed incomplete, so I added some yarn to make him a redhead.

Only this guy and the pink gnome with the wooden bead head turned out small enough to fit in one of the little tins I use for my treasure boxes for kids, which you can find in my Etsy shop.

More works-in-progress photos will be showing up on my Arty Didact Facebook page, which you could follow if you like those kinds of behind-the-scenes glimpses.