Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Baby Jesus Is Back

Once upon a time, many years ago, maybe thirty years or so, the mother in the family spotted a tiny wooden manger scene in a holiday catalog. The carved figures, none taller than an inch and a half, were brightly painted. "This set would be perfect for my children to play with at Christmas," the mother thought. 

And verily so, she ordered the toy crèche and throughout the children's growing up years the miniature figures became a part of the family's holiday times. The children would set up the manger scene on the kitchen table or under the tree, and, in so doing, the Story was told again and again. 

But the children grew to be adults and one Christmas, in setting the tiny figures out in the kitchen windowsill, the mother noticed that Baby Jesus was missing. "Lost," she thought. "We have lost the baby." Like all mothers, when their children leave home, even though mothers know that children must grow up, the mother felt the loss of the tiny carving for the little creche had found its way to the family's Christmas celebrations.

She knew it was just a representation  of the Christ Child, just a piece of painted wood, yet every Christmas she would take out the little figures and, fingering them and remembering, she would wish that they would somehow or another find the tiny painted figure somewhere in the big empty farmhouse. 

Christmas after Christmas came and the mother became a grandmother. The little toy crèche moved to another house. By now the grown up children talked about how Jesus must have been tossed out with wrapping paper some year. Jesus was probably in a landfill, or worse, incinerated. But maybe, the mother thought, the little wooden piece is stuck in the cracks of the oak flooring in the old farmhouse. 

Finally the mother thought and thought about the Story. Baby Jesus was still in the manger. The problem wasn't that Baby Jesus was gone. The problem was that the tiny painted piece of wood was gone. The mother knew a famous woodcarver and a talented Artist. "Maybe I could ask the Carver and his Wife if they could make a new baby for the very old manger scene," she thought. 

And so she dared to ask the famous Carver if he would gently carve a new Baby Jesus. And she asked, too, if his wife, the Artist, could paint the baby so Mary and Joseph would have their baby back.

And it came to pass that the Carver and the Artist, using their magical talents, created a new manger and in that manger they fashioned a Baby Jesus for the Holy Family. When Christmas time came, they bundled up the little creche with all of its brightly painted figures and packed them safely into a postal box.

The Mother, upon opening the box, carefully pulled out the figures, one by one, until she came to the Baby. Yes, a new Baby, but still the Old Story.

And so the figures returned to the kitchen windowsill where they remind the Mother, when she pauses in a day's work, that Baby Jesus really isn't lost. In fact, Baby Jesus comes back every Christmas, making the Old Story into a New Story, again.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Walk To White Rock

White Rock in the background -- Dec. 26, 2014

A bunch of us walked to White Rock on the day after Christmas. Our walk was a repeat of our hike to White Rock (the rock, out on the Shoal) last year, but this year we had to stay on the shore since there is no ice on White Rock Shoal.

The town of White Rock is one mile south of our lake house and so we walked to White Rock (the town) along M-25 on a cold and sunny day. Here we are on the lookout on the base of the stairs at the roadside park just south of the junction of M-25 and Atwater Road.

Walking on the ice toward White Rock -- Dec. 26, 2013

Lake Huron was so iced over last Christmas that we could walk on the ice out for about a half mile. This year the water levels have been up since the start of the summer and the temperatures have been moderate, so there is no snow and no ice.

What a difference a year can make.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Quilts Day Five: Winter Pines and Sister Quilts

Fifth in a series of five blog posts about Christmas quilts, today's post is about quilt with pine tree blocks. 

During the years that I owned a quilt shop I had to give up the idea of ever finishing many of the quilt projects that I started. Part of the energy of selling quilt fabrics comes from always having something new coming into the shop, and so I had to be moving on to the next best thing, even if that meant putting really cool quilt ideas and projects aside.

I did manage to complete one quilt and that is my "Winter Pines" quilt. The tree blocks in this quilt were cut using a tool called Easy Angle that my mother enjoyed using. I saw how much she enjoyed making pine tree blocks with the tool and sewed some blocks of my own.

Those blocks ended up in this quilt. Several of my friends also made the exact same quilt using the same tool. Their quilts were finished way before my quilt was done. I know that Carol Bain and Gloria Bush are enjoying their winter pine tree quilts year after year, and I consider their pine tree quilts as "sister" quilts to my quilt.

I used red quilting thread in the loops that arch through the trees in this quilt. It is entirely hand quilted, by me, and is one of the quilts that links me to my quilting sisters, those many friends who came to the quilt shop and sewed right along with me.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Quilts Day Four: I'm Pining For Christmas

Fourth in a series of five blog posts about Christmas quilts, today's post is about a quilt with wool batting.

This little quilt, finished in 1992, has wool batting from the sheep that we once raised on Graywood Farm. Hand stitching through a wool batt is like stitching through butter; the needle and thread glide effortlessly.

The quilt is a single Irish chain with a pine tree block in the center of each chain. I am thinking that I used cardboard templates to cut the blocks, which would mean that this quilt predates my ability to use a rotary cutter.

It is hand quilted with stitches tracing the outline of each tree and forming a gentle curve in the border fabric. My cutting skills may have been minimal, but I was working toward even hand stitches in my finishing work.

The label on the back of this quilt names the quilt as "I'm Pining For Christmas," a very apt name for a precious little quilt.

Tomorrow's quilt -- a tree block from my Mom and sister quilts.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Quilts Day Three: Star in Star

Third in a series of five blog posts about Christmas quilts, today's post is about a rescued star quilt.

Fifteen or so years ago we were strolling through the Bay City Antiques Mall and I happened to spy a quilt that was red and green and pink. The pink should have been white, but the quilt had apparently been washed, and the red dye had stained the white fabric pink.

"I think I could rescue that quilt," I told Ed as we both handled and looked over what seemed to be an irreversible situation. Susan Fuquay, the designer of yesterday's Simpleworks quilt had just written in her magazine, "American Quit Retailer," about her saga of having the reds run in her first sample of the red and green Simpleworks quilt. She told about "moving the dye" which meant using a surfactant like Synthrapol (think, mild soap) and submersing the quilt time and again until the pink water turned clear.

That Christmas, I found the damaged, pink stained star quilt, the one in the photo above, under the tree with my name on it. "You said you thought you could fix it," Ed said. "Now you can try."

The end result, after about six or eight washings, was this delightful star in star quilt that we enjoy so much every holiday. The pink is gone and I often wonder about the quiltmaker or maybe her child (daughter? son? niece? nephew?) who abandoned this quilt.

Surely there is a story that lies in these stars.

Tomorrow's quilt -- tiny trees and some wool batting.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Quilts Day Two: Simpleworks

Second in a series of  five blog posts about Christmas quilts, today's post features a hand appliqued beauty. 

Here's a quilt that is based on the Baltimore Album quilts made on the East Coast in the 1800's. Called album quilts because each block is different, like a photo album, Baltimores are a genre reserved for quilters who are willing to tackle the hard stuff. Usually consisting of red and green designs on a white or cream background, Baltimore Album blocks are hand appliqued with one block taking anywhere from ten to twenty hours of stitching time.

This album quilt, designed by Susan Fuquay of the Dallas area, is called "Simpleworks" and was one of the many block of the month quilts that were sold at my quilt shop, Pigeon River Mercantile & Wool Co. The Mercantile opened in November of 1992 on Main Street in Pigeon, Michigan, and was a mecca for quilters for almost ten years.

Pat Smith of Cass City, Michigan did the careful applique and piecing work on this sample. I love the sawtooth borders and the subtle gold touches that Susan's design worked into the quilt. This Christmas, Simpleworks is hanging above a console table that is on the backside of the fireplace at our lake house.

The dessert plates are already stacked on the table and Mary Gettel's hand woven basket holds the extra flatware that we use for desserts. I made an old fashioned frozen fruit salad for one of the desserts. Tomorrow I will bake a maple pecan pie for the other dessert that will be served on Christmas Day.

The Simpleworks quilt, stunning as it is displayed this holiday, has its roots in Baltimore, is touched by a Texas designer, and has found its home in Michigan. This Christmas I am displaying this quilt as a reminder of people like Pat Smith whose loving stitches and smiles graced the quilt shop for many years. Customers and friends, their support made The Mercantile a special place and I am grateful for that.

Tomorrow's post -- A quilt found at the Bay City Antiques Mall, and then rescued.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Quilts Day One: Glad Yule

This is the first in a series of five blog posts about some of my Christmas quilts. Each post will feature a bit of story telling about the featured quilt or quilts.

My holiday quilt book, "Glad Yule," was published by Graywood Designs in 2007 and remains one of my favorite design collections. The ideas were percolating for quite a few years until they began to take shape as stars and trees and houses and flowers that peppered the table runners and wall quilts in the book. This collection was introduced at International Quilt Market in Salt Lake City in the spring of 2007.

These two designs use an easy five inch tree block that features Thangles, an innovative notion that helps quilters make successful half square triangles. Thangles are an invention of my clever quilting sister, MB Hayes. Making Thangles is a little like eating potato chips -- you can't stop at just one.

The wall quilt, "Starry Yule," has several dozens of Thangles that make up the central tree and the side borders of trees and stars. A smaller size, it ended up just the right size for the limited wall space in an apartment or kitchen or a hallway.

I can't look at these quilts without thinking of Danielle Damen, my able helper and editor, who sewed so many of the samples as the book took shape. Danielle's expertise rescued me in those months of design and layout and editorial work, since it was in those months that my mother, Val Hayes, entered her end-of-life months, and then died in January, just as the book was taking shape.

Quilts can be very communitarian, in that they join you to other people who touch your life as a quilt takes shape. That quilting community certainly surrounded me in the days and months of publishing this book. From a sister's clever thought, to a colleague's careful work, to a mother's final days, and then to the many quilt shops who sold this book, these quilts let me touch, again, those whose lives have made a difference in mine.

Tomorrow -- from Texas to Michigan to Baltimore, the Simpleworks quilt.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Desert Lights

Holiday lights in the desert show a southwestern flair. On my evening walk I photographed the neighbor's saguaros wrapped with tiny blue lights that accented the upright shape of these desert giants. A deep blue river of light flowed across the stone path in their xeriscaped front yard, creating an enchanting scene. 

At another house, unlikely red bows adorned the cactus plants, much like the red bows that I have used as accents on the split rail fence that lines the driveway at our Michigan lake house. 

I'm used to seeing lights reflected in the white snow of the north. In Arizona, the pure dark of the night sets off the many colors with clear holiday cheer. 


Friday, December 19, 2014

Maple Scones

I'm loving the New York Times new approach to categorizing recipes. Today I made the Maple Scones from the NYT cooking app for the second time. This time I really got it right.

The butter was cold and cut into the flour mixture smoothly. The wet ingredients (maple syrup, an egg, some buttermilk) took up into the dry ingredients so that the dough formed and cleaned the bowl easily.

A touch of kneading, some shaping, and the scones were in the oven. They came out golden brown, just like the recipe says. The scones were tender, that kind of melt in your mouth tender.

The house smelled of maple and butter, a great northern scent that takes me back to Wisconsin dairy farms where there would be 20 head of Holsteins milked twice a day, and a woodlot down along the creek where the maples were tapped in early spring.

Maple syrup and butter. Some baking time.

Good food has more than taste; it connects us to the land and to memories.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rainy Tucson

My drive through Saguaro National Park on the west side of Tucson became interesting as winter rains swept across southwest Arizona. Kinney Road and Sandario Road have numerous dips where water washes across the road. Signs caution drivers not to enter the low spots when rains are heavy. 

I avoided the winding road through the pass at Pictured Rocks, choosing to cross the Tucson Mountains at Rattlesnake Pass. This was the last day of art classes for me so now I head back to  Michigan and snowy roads. 

Tucson's wet weather brings snow to the mountains. Tonight's weather report is calling for 6-12 inches of snow on Mt. Lemmon. The skiers will be thrilled to have a white wonderland just before Christmas.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pomegranate & Cobalt

During my visit to Tohono Chul Gardens in Tucson last Thursday, I explored a few more of the garden areas that I had not visited yet. Captivated by the sound and sight of a cobalt pottery fountain at the Moorish Garden, I sat down on a low wall.

Right next to me was a hedge with these large fruits that looked like giant rose hips. With their rounded shape and warm red color, I soon identified them as pomegranates. A little research reveals that the plants, displayed in this garden as a low hedge, are dwarf pomegranates. This one, according to a plant list available on the Tohono Chul website, is Punica granatum "Nana." The fruits were the size of a small apple.

Pomegranates always appeal to me this time of the year. My mother would buy one at Christmas and we would peel it and eat the luscious, ruby seeds. Now, it seems, pomegranates are available for longer times in the stores at holidays.

I like to use the seeds in winter salads with dark greens, toasted pecans, fresh chunks of navel orange, shards of Romano cheese, and my classic Maple Mustard Vinaigrette. Mmmm, gardens and good food just seem to go together, don't they.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Graywood Barn in March

The solar panels on Graywood Farm's restored barn give off a glow in this March 2014 look at the barn. The supports that now hold the south walls and keep the barn sturdy look like flying buttresses. They're definitely a bow toward the power of architecture and cement.

This barn has never had any paint on it. In this photo it looks kind of brown and ochre and taupe, but when you drive by, it lives up to the name of the farm, "Graywood Farm."

Our family is proud to have been able to restore this barn, since so many of the vintage barns in our part of Michigan have been demolished. One of these holidays there will be lighted up stars on the barn. Maybe next year that can happen.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Artwork: Aloe in Black & White

"Sharon, can you give me some tips for doing scratch board?" I pulled a chair up next to my table partner at art class and listened while she gave me tips on how to get started with this new technique. 

You start with a piece of lightweight board that is coated with white clay and black India ink. Then you sketch or trace a drawing or photo onto the board and, using a pointed tool or the top of an exacto knife, you scratch in lines so as to make the drawing come to life. 

So for several days, working a few minutes at a time, I have been scratching away at an aloe outline that I traced using a photo. The spikey stems with spines are emerging from the black surface. I know that some of the white is too white already and I know that there is no reversing all of that white. But I'm not concerned about that because this is a learning process and a first attempt at scratchboard's contrasty look.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holiday Greenhouse

Poinsettias, so characteristic of Christmas, stand in ordered rows in the Tohono Chul greenhouse this month. Their crowns of bright red dominate the benches that are home to cactus plants and succulents, all typical of the desert.

Just behind the poinsettia parade are the Christmas cactii.  Red, pink, peach, white. The colors are commanding and it is hard for someone like me, who loves these harbingers of the holiday, to walk away without buying a single plant.

Out in the courtyard there are scads of pepper plants. Edible and tiny, these little gems finally remind me that I'm in the desert Southwest and it is almost Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Slow Guy

With one eye slightly open, this desert tortoise has the look of, "Gee, will the holidays ever get here?" as he peers out from under a rock at the Desert Museum near Tucson. Hoping to get a better photo of him,  I have visited his tortoise enclosure several times this fall, but this slow guy is an elusive creature.

Maybe I will try again this weekend when the weather is supposed to turn quite cool and rainy. He might be waiting for a change in the weather.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Subtle Desert Colors

The colors of the desert circulate around subtlety. The greens are grayed and lean toward blue, sometimes. The grays are are somewhat blue, yet have touches of brown.

When mixing colors for desert watercolors, you move from bright, pure colors to their complements, those that are more teal and taupe and gray.

One of my charts takes phthalo blue and combines it with yellow ochre and raw sienna. As the two colors mix, first a big puddle of one with a touch of the other, the color dips toward the desert.

An agave plant in a pot, photographed against a stucco wall, has those tones. I can see the blues and the browns as I ask myself the question, "What colors could I use to create this plant in watercolor?"

It's that subtlety that I am learning to see as I take out paints and find a palette that works.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Avra Valley Sunset

There's a new 24 hour McDonalds north of here. You turn off at the Marana exit on Interstate 10 to get there.

I was hungry for a Big Mac so I headed out there tonight. The sun sets so very early in December, but to the west, back behind the mountains, the sun was still doing its thing.

This photo is the result. That tiny bright dot almost directly above one mountain peak is an airplane headed into the Marana airport. Smeary and blurred, yet vibrant, the evening desert colors were incredible.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Detroit Symphony Live

My laptop was up and going by 8:45 am Arizona time so I could join the audience for the Detroit Symphony's live concert. Titled "Pictures at an Exhibition," the broadcast featured three works by Russian composers, the last of which was Mussorgsky's symphonic poem, "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Befuddled by the modernity of the first work which was composed just eleven years ago, I busied myself doing some house chores. The Prokofiev piano concerto that came second was more standard in nature but still characteristically Russian.

By the time the symphony started the first measures of Ravel's arrangement of Pictures, I could sense that the audience was ready for the more familiar. 

The DSO did not disappoint. Originally written for piano, "Pictures" as adapted by Ravel contains rich brass, eloquent winds, and ringing percussion. There are gentle moments as well as stirring, lusciously full orchestral strains. 

The live stream of the DSO is a feather in the cap of a city that is overly criticized these days. Detroit and all of Michigan can be proud of the orchestra. And for all the criticism that we aim at technology, concerts like this are yet another argument for universal broadband access.

Just like watching a football game on TV, watching a concert is not the same as being there, but live streaming of a concert brings the joy of music right home. That's pretty cool.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Little By Little

Little by little, I am seeing progress in the artwork that I am doing.

The three pen and ink illustrations in this photo are sourced from one drawing of an agave plant located just outside the Baldwin Education Building at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. The first drawing, the one in the middle, was done for a session of the Pen & Ink I class that Rick Wheeler taught last spring. The other two drawings, also done for that class, are versions of the original. All three are done with Pigma Micron pens and ink wash that is applied with a brush.

The top board, my sampling substrate, takes the black and white art into the color realm. I enlarged the agave drawing and am working on the color and line for another version of the original, this one to be done with pen and ink outline with watercolor. I had to learn how to mask out the main subject matter so that I could sponge the background before the ink work begins.

All of that is done -- the sponging, the inking, the planning, the color choices. Next I will do the fine tuned inking of the drawing and then, finally, I will mix watercolors and take a brush to the work.

I have learned so much. I had this idea that an artist just takes paint and brush and goes to it. Well, it doesn't work that way. I have had to learn about colors, about mixing, about line, about composition. I learn something new every time I get out a pencil or a brush. I learn as I watch my fellow students and see their work develop.

None of this happens overnight, yet I can sense that something wonderfully original and creative is emerging. It's happening little by little, but it is coming.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Clouds and Mountains

One of the joys of taking art classes at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum's Art Institute is that I get to drive through Saguaro National Park West. The Desert Museum is just south of the national park which is absolutely peppered with the giant iconic saguaro cacti.

This photo was taken just off Kinney Road near the Red Rock Visitors Center quite late in the day. Layers of clouds formed rolls for as far as the eye could see. Kitt Peak and the distant mountains tower over the Avra Valley.

The image has been artistically altered via my digital darkroom called Photoshop. I like the blue and navy and gray and taupe in this rendition of clouds and mountains.

Rain in the Desert

While out golfing this afternoon I took this photo of raindrops on the windshield of a golf cart. The clouds had been heavy all day but the rain just would not start.

Finally, on the back nine, there were a few minutes of rain, just enough to see the rounded patterns of drops on the cart paths and these few on the windshield. Sometimes, here in the desert the rain struggles to reach the ground, but today it finally made it. Even the scent of the air changed as moisture freshened the atmosphere.

Tucson hasn't had rain for over a month and a really good rain would feel good. It is hard to imagine how dry California and other drought areas must be. I just know that even these few drops felt good as today there finally was rain in the desert.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Drive Up Mt. Lemmon

Ed and I drove up Mt. Lemmon, the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the east side of Tucson last Friday. A curving, scenic highway ascends the mountain from the northeast side of Tucson and leads to the town of Summerhaven, almost on the top of the mountain, and to the ski area and observatory at the top.

I still have not been able to conquer my fear of heights and find that even riding in a car can be tough for me, so the ascent was a bit hairy. Coming down, I was fine and would do the drive again in a heartbeat. The scenery is breath taking. From the base of the mountain to the top you pass through several climate zones, the same as if you drove from Arizona to Calgary.

We packed a picnic lunch which we ate off the tailgate of the car at a pullout where we could see for miles. Thimble Rock, in the distance, seemed aptly named.

From Windy Point the view to the west was extraordinary. Much of the Tucson basin is visible to the south and west. We easily picked out the Santa Rita Mountains toward Tubac and the Tucson Mountains to the west. Kitt Peak loomed in the distance.

I decided that if I had been this climber, I might have had a helmet on. He looked so confidant and comfortable while hanging on the side of the rocks.

Late in the day, coming down the mountain, with the sun set, the glow of the horizon was etched with the mountain ridges in the distance. As it got darker, we met a lot of cars going up the mountains, no doubt weekend residents of Summerhaven.

There are many places to pull over and admire the beauty. The highway is in excellent condition and there are places to eat in Summerhaven.

Mt. Lemmon is a part of the Coronado National Forest, so there are campgrounds and hiking trails, too. It's a beautiful drive, one not to be missed when visiting Tucson.