Archives for posts with tag: art

Bathroom Fixtures, James Stone

I was just a kid, but the import of the event wasn’t lost on me. My mum was making a special dinner. She’d scrubbed and vacuumed until our home shone. My grandfather, my Dad’s Dad, was coming to visit. There had been tentative outreach, but it would take some doing to melt the nearly two decades of silence between them. My mother was seeing to it that the visit would be seamless, and delicious. This new grandfather was bringing his wife…the woman he’d married immediately after my grandmother divorced him. I didn’t understand it then, but this was “the other woman.”

Still, she’d been with him faithfully for years. My father held no grudge against her; that was my grandmother’s forte. We, all five of us, were dressed and spit-shined. This would be one of those ‘best behavior’ days, more tedious than enjoyable. Only the curiosity of my father suddenly revealing a secret father of his own made it worthwhile. That, and the promise of dessert.

The actual visit is a bit of a whirlwind in my memory. They arrived and there were introductions and small talk. Everyone took seats in the living room, with my mum getting up to check the oven, from time to time. The table was set. It looked like Thanksgiving. The secret grandfather was tall, with the same piercing blue eyes as my Dad, and the same wispy, fine hair. He seemed as entranced with us, as we were with him, his eyes traveling from one tow-headed new grandchild to another. All the promise of five surprise grandchildren! The missus mostly sat quietly, jaw tight and lips pressed together. Perhaps it was a mistake that my mother politely refused her offer of help in the kitchen. Certainly my mum had no intention of reducing this honored guest to scullery help!

Finally, it was ready. My mum sent us all to wash our hands in the bathroom at the end of the hall. When we returned, the new grandmother, asked for directions to the bath, and my mum waved her down the hall. She never actually reached the bathroom–about halfway there, she shrieked like a gored animal, “Arthur!”

We all looked up in shock. Whatever could be the matter?!

“Dear God, Arthur, nudes! Obscenity! And in a house with children!” Her bony arm held outstretched, her finger pointing at the two, small, charcoal, nudes, tastefully framed, that hung at the end of our hall. “I cannot spend another minute under this Godless roof!”

My parents were both slackjawed, unable to comprehend the disaster unravelling before them. The woman turned, sprinted to the front entry and collected her jacket. She was out the front door before my new grandfather even knew what was up. Shaking his head, he apologized, before following his wife out to the car. They sat there, for some minutes, in heated discussion, before he eased the car back down the driveway and away.

Five little towheads, wide-eyed and shocked, lined up at the living room window, looking at the now-empty driveway. My mother quickly gathered up the extra place settings, returning the table to our normal set up for seven. My father quietly announced that, though he was surprised, it was true that some people might not appreciate our tastes in art. He suggested that we all sit down and enjoy the lovely meal that my mother had prepared. We ate mostly in silence. The apple pie was delicious.

Years passed before we visited with them again. She, of course, refused to come to our house. By then, though, the irony of this woman’s objections to nudity wasn’t lost on us.

My parents were always artsy people. I once heard a neighbor describe us as ‘Bohemians’…and I was never sure if it was a compliment. But my father was an amateur woodworker, and my mum became a potter of some artistic note. Their friends included potters and painters, weavers and sculptors. What can I say…it was the sixties. But that scene, halfway down the hall, always stuck in my mind.

Years later, my parents’ best friends, Jim and Irene, invited us to a special dinner. Some people become family, even without blood relations. These people were part of the fiber of our lives. This event was to celebrate the unveiling of his most recent painting. We arrived and while playing with their children, we peeked into the basement, where the easel stood…covered with a sheet. We’d have to wait until after dinner.

After dessert, we all trooped into the basement for the big moment. Jim adjusted the lighting and then, like a matador, dramatically swept the fabric up and away, revealing the canvas. It was a nude–a woman seated in a bathtub. Most importantly to me, breasts visible! Tits! Tits were okay! It was such a relief! If Jim and Irene could have tits in their artwork…we could, too! If there’d been any question left in my mind about the fallout from the unpleasantness in the hall, this erased it, made it all okay.

Decades later, as an adult who’d married, moved away, divorced, re-married and returned, my mother and I visited Irene. It’s a pleasure when someone has been in your sphere so long that they are a well-loved fixture in your life. Jim had since passed away, as had my Dad. But our families are inextricably interwoven. After dinner, Irene announced that she had a housewarming gift for Rick and I, for the home we were building. She left the room and returned with a painting, its back to me. And then, much like its first unveiling, four decades earlier, she dramatically flipped the painting and revealed…that very same painting of the woman in the tub.

She could never have known how much that particular painting had always meant to me. I was shocked…that she could offer me this painting, this special image, that was so deeply imbedded in our joined family history. I love it. It hangs in my bedroom, where I see it, and appreciate it and its history, every day.

Despite having tried, verbally to explain this and thank her–I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to convey how, in my mind, this painting accomplished a great healing for me. After all, without this confirmation, I might have gone through my entire life, wondering just what was meant by “Bohemian.”

To Irene, with eternal gratitude.


Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.


The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)


A.V. Walters

Skov painting

After almost a decade of owning it, I finally cleaned a painting today. I haven’t done that in a while, but once you learn the technique, you’ve got it. The painting needed cleaning the whole time but I was afraid. Sometimes you buy a painting, liking the muted hues you see, only to clean it and find it garish, or not just right anymore. I wish I’d taken a “before” picture. This painting has a lot of pinks in the sky and I was concerned that, cleaned, they’d overtake the canvas. I needn’t have worried. Even ninety years ago, the artist had more sense than that.

If you read The Emma Caites Way, you’ll see that art restoration is actually a part of my background. It’s an interesting way to learn more about art. I’m taken with the plein air paintings of the Arts & Crafts period. I like how the artist, on the fly, can suggest light and space with a few deft strokes, or even just a well-informed line or a perfectly placed splash of color.

Generally cleaning a painting brightens it and more clearly reveals the artist’s original intent. It removes accumulated oils, dirt and smoke residue, helping to protect the canvas over the long haul. In the process you become almost intimate with the work. You have to work within the artist’s original brush strokes, gently wiping clean the grooves left by the bristles in his brush. If you work the surface too hard—or scrub—you can damage the original paint. The work is painstaking. When you’re satisfied that you’ve done as much as you can (or as much as the canvas will endure) you protect it with a thin layer of conservation varnish. By the time you finish, you really know the painting.

This Danish painting is from 1923, apparently painted in Tuscany—I don’t think there are olive trees in Denmark. The artist, Marius Skov, is a “listed” Danish artist, meaning that he was recognized in his time. The cleaning lifted nearly a century of grime and funk from his canvas. It’s brighter and clearer than I would have guessed. Indeed there’s a roadway (or maybe a river) in the foreground that I never saw before. It’s a surprise.

With a good cleaning, you expect to see more features in the bright areas. What surprises me is how much new detail is revealed in the shadows. The trees in the center, once just a blob of dark green, now reveal new colors and brushstrokes that weren’t visible before. And now the countryside is dotted with neighboring villas and farm buildings, previously lost in the haze. Even the distant hills undulate in new distinct shades of blue and purple.

Once, years ago, I cleaned a painting of a waterfall and pond, and found that it’d been partially painted over–a figure, a man fly-fishing, had been painted out, covered with bushes and shrubs to convert the painting to an elegant and simple landscape. Some research on the artist showed that his specialty was paintings of fishermen. The part of the painting that made it the most valuable as an example of this artist’s work had been obscured. Worse yet, the owner of the painting had liked it as a landscape and was disappointed by the appearance of this new interloper. I was torn–how was I to be faithful to the intent of the original artist and satisfy the owner?

It makes me think about writing. It’s easy to move the plot along “in the light,” to reveal the obvious. It’s another thing entirely to look into the dark parts of the story and to reveal the texture that informs how things go wrong. It might be enough to let your readers know that a character has done something vile, or selfish. Yet, the story is more telling if we can see the brushstrokes in that life that consummate in that act. I need to remember to look hard at both the light and the dark in my writing. (And the painting turned out okay, too.)