Monday, June 19, 2017

Flower power



 Jasmine for the garden

 Florals on a jumper (from Part Two)

Peonies that never opened fully

Essential oils and tea from a local herbalist


Last week, on our way to the midlands to visit friends and family, we stopped at a lovely garden centre for presents and got a jasmine plant for our garden, which is a dream come true for me (if it survives the wild west of Ireland - the very helpful lady there assured us it would and gave us advice on how to plant it). The car journey for the rest of the day was an aromatherapy experience.

Sleeping with the window open and the intoxicating scent filling the bedroom may not happen for a while yet, unless I sleep in the shed, as we put the jasmine beside the door to the shed, where it is sheltered. Between the stock (another strong fragrance), the jasmine and the lavender, our garden is fast becoming a feast for the nose. 

Another favourite, though not as fragrant, are peonies. We have a few in the garden, but the ones in the photos came from a florist. They never opened fully, but I love the tight ball they start out with. 

John got me some essential oils and a specialty tea for clear skin (hint?) from a local herbalist. I had asked for neroli and rosemary, and he kindly added sweet orange oil, so I have been burning a lot of orange-focused blends to sweeten my time in the studio (it badly needs it, as a piece of furniture in there still smells musty from the damp in the last house - John calls it 'the smell of stale ideas' hovering in the studio, and I am determined to conquer it on both levels).


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

In the kitchen | Quark bread and coloured walls



 Kitchen work-in-progress

Bread-making work-in-progress.
Illustration by Heather Gatley in this book, which has nothing to do with the bread and which I feel ambivalent about.


One of the things I wanted to get back into this year was making my own bread. Ideally sourdough, but I haven't started the starter yet. I used to make wholemeal spelt bread all the time and have stocked up on spelt flour, but I wanted to try some new recipes as well.

The other day I had to use up some quark that was past its use-by date. I always pick up quark when I see it in the shop, as it is a German staple, but then I never know what to do with it apart from eating it like yogurt or the two ways our family used it - German cheesecake, and potatoes served with quark whipped up with sparkling water and chopped chives and seasoned with pepper and salt.

A quick search online yielded quark oil dough, which apparently is a well-known substitute for yeast dough. In Ireland you cannot buy fresh yeast in the shop, only from bakeries on request, if they are happy to give it to you, and I prefer not to eat too much food containing yeast and haven't bought any dry yeast in years, so I was interested in how the quark oil dough would turn out.

There are various recipes, all very similar, but I didn't follow any particular one - I used around 180g quark, 4 tablespoons milk, 8 tablespoons oil (rapeseed), 1 egg, 350g flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt to make a braided bread. You can add some sugar and raisins to make it sweet. It was so quick to make - no waiting, unlike with yeast - and came out well, despite my half-a***d kneading and braiding (hence the rustic look). It took only a few minutes to put together, still tasted fresh the following day, and we loved it, so this is where any leftover quark will end up from now on, and it will be great for making pizza. It is fluffy and moist, and I can imagine substituting kefir for the milk (inspired by my sister).

In August it will be two years since we moved into this house, and we still have a lot of work to do. The kitchen is one of two rooms where we left the old floor, and we also kept the kitchen that was there, but painted it (as well as the airing cupboard, on the left in the photo) and took out all the hanging cupboards. It is the only room that has colour on two small areas of wall (everywhere else is some shade of white, pale grey or charcoal, or - half the house - still unpainted). A few weeks ago, with the help of John's brother-in-law, we finally connected a lamp to the cable that was awkwardly sticking out of the corner between the blue wall and ceiling. Usually there is a small armchair in that corner by the stove - currently in the sitting room, as we had visitors and not enough seats -, so it is now a reading corner.

Monday, May 29, 2017

At the table



At home

At my sister's house


I had a week of the three sisters plus husbands and toddlers, cat and donkeys (not to forget a walk with Emilia, the micro pig from the Burren Nature Sanctuary), swimming in the sea and only doing teaching hours and urgent e-mail, followed by meals with my Saturday art class, visitors and neighbours, all a reminder of the truly important things in life. We ate the first salad from our polytunnel and hope to say goodbye to supermarket salad for the rest of the year.

This morning was the start of my summer: a much looser, more self-directed schedule work-wise, which requires discipline amid the freedom. There is a part of me that wants to lock myself in, plough through the work-load and neglect my needs, when I know I will function so much better on good food, exercise and sleep, books and art. From my maternal grandmother I must have inherited the busy-ness, always jumping up to do something, and in combination with my racing thoughts it does not make for a serene life.

Happily I now see my daily yoga as a necessity rather than something to tick off a list. Throughout the day I find myself craving to get into a certain pose or just stretch part of my body in a certain way it has stored in its memory from my yoga practice. I will also switch off early in the evenings and read all the books that have piled up (we have a tiny library in the village, and from my first visit I came away with books on Edvard Munch, a memoir by Graham Greene's partner and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Once I have my current work project finished, I want to paint colourful things from around the house and the garden, calm seascapes as a counterbalance, and do more drawings of my nephews.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Books | Continuity, meaning, value



Furbo beach, 12 May 2017, 8:30am


"With 'a brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos', they could return, whatever the stress and discord of daily life, to that continuously absorbing interior world in which the struggle to record observations of light, colour and form, however agonisingly difficult and intractable, resolves into an enduring happiness. Here, where the artist strives to shape, condense and order thoughts and sensations until they take on a form that communicates, is the promise of continuity as opposed to decay, of meaning as opposed to senselessness, of value as opposed to pain. Vanessa painted, not in order to forget anxiety and pain, but in order to transform them into the permanence of art." (Spalding, Frances: Vanessa Bell. Portrait of the Bloomsbury Artist, Tauris Parke, London 2016, pp.225f.)

I enjoyed this book about Vanessa Bell immensely, and once you get over the dreadful snobbery (an even bigger problem with Bell's sister Virginia Woolf, whose writing I adore), you get to 'like' Vanessa, a complex and at times intimidating person - not that liking the subject is a prerequisite for enjoying a biography. Spalding recreates Vanessa's and Bloomsbury's world so vividly, and her writing about painting is achingly insightful.

While she experienced quite a lot of hardship and finances were not always as free-flowing as it seems, it can be tempting to yearn for the lifestyle that allowed Bell and Duncan Grant to paint all day, travel widely, with lengthy stays in France, and shut themselves off from the demands of society. 

I am struggling to arrange for one week of painting (or more likely drawing) with no interruptions, but it seems almost impossible in our day and age, and I don't even have children. On Inis Meáin recently I could picture an island stay with no technology, so who knows. 

And I have to remember that I am extremely lucky with my circumstances - I can create pockets of time at home working in my studio, and more of time management is choice than I have allowed for - I can choose when to let e-mail distract me, for example.

Next on my list is another art book by another Frances, Seeing Ourselves by Frances Borzello, a book about self-portraits by women artists. My sister gave me one of her books a few years ago, and I want to read my way through all of her publications.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Things that work | Silk and lace






I get overwhelmed by too much choice and too many decisions to be made, which explains why I can be found skirting the deli counter nervously (and possibly walking away hungry) and why our house will be all-white on the outside when the external wall insulation is completed.

While I doubt I will ever resort to a 'uniform' that eliminates the need for deliberations on what to wear - I love clothes too much for that level of minimalism - shopping leaves me frazzled, so finding well-made things that work and knowing that in the future I won't have to wander around countless shops before emerging with the item I need simplifies things.

I prefer my clothes to be made from natural fabrics*, and one of my favourite materials is silk. Currently about half of my underwear consists of silk and lace sets from this range. I don't care that it is a celebrity line; it is beautifully designed and the sets are extremely comfortable and light, so suitable for everyday wear. They are machine-washable, and they last. I am sure there are various other silk options online, but I can buy these locally, which is a bonus, and the old-school department store assistants are always so lovely and chatty.


 *though I have a few polyester pieces that are years old but still look like new, so I don't rule it out


Friday, April 28, 2017

Springtime of the year



 Apple blossoms in the garden

A better world - my sister asked for a scene like this


The cherry blossoms have come and nearly gone and now the apple trees are in full bloom. This is always such a beautiful and sad time, and this year in particular.

The right music can be so cathartic, so today I spent nearly all day painting with two new-to-me songs on repeat.*

I must have been living under a rock not to have come across these before. John played me John Spillane's 'The Dance of the Cherry Trees' last night (it took him three years to play me one of his favourite songs), and we tried to find a word to describe the sentiment in that heartbreaking  'well done' line (all I could come up with was 'bittersweet', but it is so much more). It just destroys you.

The other song was one of those late-night car radio discoveries that are always heightened by the atmosphere of the night, but judging by the amount of views on Youtube the world has been aware of this song for quite some time: 'Emmylou' by First Aid Kit. (also, Emmylou Harris listening to 'Emmylou', and a cover of 'America' with Paul Simon in the audience).

* and last night was treated to this passionate violinist in concert, playing Gubaidulina (also previously unknown to me) - such a tour de force

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading | Art as Therapy










De Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John: Art as Therapy, Phaidon, London 2013


This book was published a few years ago, but I only bought it last month and am enjoying it immensely. You've got to love a book on the purpose of art that has The Tiger Who Came to Tea as one of its examples.

De Botton and Armstrong highlight the ability of art to rebalance and to restore our frail, incomplete selves, and this book is a call for a radical rethink about how museums and galleries present art to the public, focusing on the psychological, therapeutic function of art. When de Botton applied this thinking to an actual museum, he was ridiculed for it, but I have a soft spot for his work and his empathy and don't agree with the majority of the criticism levelled against him. I admit to being a bit wary after all the hype, both positive and negative, but I was positively surprised.

The part of me that worries at times about being so obsessed with tidying was reassured to find Ben Nicholson's abstract piece used as an example of a work of art that embodies the 'pleasure of organising things' (p.54), showing a kinship with 'quiet domestic tasks' and similar acts of 'happy concentration', which should be taken more seriously. Likewise, a beautiful Chardin honours and celebrates the ordinary and 'recognises the worth of a modest moment' (p.56), thus encouraging us to be kinder towards ourselves and enabling us to make the best of what we have. 

There are so many instances of recognition when reading this book, and the works discussed include several of my favourite pieces (Las Meninas!). It even takes in interior decoration, suggesting that rather than showing off, our concern with what we place in our homes involves 'a far more interesting and human process', using objects 'to communicate our identities to the world', as in, '[this] crockery [...] is like my deepest self' (p.43). The writers are aware of how exaggerated this might seem, but there is so much truth and humanity in these observations, and they are able to articulate and distill feelings we all have and voice our non-verbal, often visceral responses to visual art.

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Brain Pickings has an excellent article about the book.